THE Islamic State is facing growing dissension among its rank-and-file fighters, and struggling to govern towns and villages it has seized, but the militant Sunni group is still managing to launch attacks and expand its ideological reach outside of Iraq and Syria, senior US officials said.
In the seven months since allied warplanes began bombing select Islamic State targets, the Sunni militancy, while marginally weaker, has held its own, senior defence and intelligence officials said.
Even after the Islamic State lost much of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, following more than a week of fierce fighting, Pentagon officials warned that it would be as difficult for Iraqi forces to hold the city as it was to liberate it. The Islamic State fighters were, in the meantime, mounting one of the fiercest assaults in months in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
But tensions have become apparent inside the Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIL and Daesh. Troubles stem from new military and financial pressures, and the growing pains of a largely decentralised organisation trying to hold together what it views as a nascent state while integrating foreign fighters with Iraqi and Syrian militants.
The tensions were described in interviews with a Syrian fighter who recently defected from the group and an Islamic State recruiter who still works with the group, but is critical of some of its practices. The troubles were consistent with accounts from residents of areas that the Islamic State controls, and from interviews with numerous Syrian activists who oppose both the Islamic State and the Syrian government. Those activists have recently fled from those areas, but maintain extensive contacts.
There are reports of dozens of executions and imprisonment of Islamic State fighters trying to flee the group. There are strains in fighting on multiple fronts, with some fighters being deployed to battles that, they complain, are not strategically important. There are complaints about living conditions, disputes over money and allegations that commanders have left with looted cash.
And there is growing anecdotal evidence that some members of the group – particularly locals who may have joined out of opportunism or a sense it was the best way to survive – have been repulsed by its extreme violence.
“I still feel sick,” Abu Khadija, the Syrian defector, said after witnessing what he said were the beheadings of 38 Kurdish and Alawite war prisoners by Islamic State fighters in Yaroubiyeh, a Syrian town on the Iraqi border. Abu Khadija asked to be identified only by his nickname for his safety.
Despite such accounts, General Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of US Central Command, said the battle against the Islamic State is nowhere near won. Although Austin told the US House Armed Services Committee last week that airstrikes have killed more than 8,500 militants, eliminated the group’s primary source of oil revenue and damaged the ability of its leaders to command its troops, Pentagon and counter-terrorism officials said the militant group is increasingly dangerous through new affiliates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and Libya. Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group in Nigeria, became the latest to swear allegiance.
The self-declared caliphate has lost only about 20 per cent of the territory it seized in Iraq to Kurdish peshmerga troops who have been supported by the US, the Iraqi government and Iran, a senior defence official said. The main areas it has lost – most of Tikrit, territory southwest of Baghdad, some of the areas to the north of the Iraqi capital and the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria – have been the focus of the allied air campaign.
“Other than that, we’re basically looking at what we had before,” said Jessica Lewis McFate, research director with the Institute for the Study of War. “Their numbers are reduced, but their foreign fighter flows are still robust.”
Obama administration officials also said they faced major challenges in countering the Islamic State’s propaganda machine, which pumps out as many as 90,000 Twitter messages and other social media communications every day, and is attracting about 1,000 foreign fighters a month from across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the US.
“ISIL is well-armed and well-financed,” John Brennan, the CIA director, said in a speech on Friday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “ISIL will not be rolled back overnight.”
Despite the air superiority the US coalition commands above Iraq, in January hundreds of Islamic State gunmen mobilised an attack on Kirkuk, the oil-rich Kurdish city that thus far has been protected by peshmerga forces. Militants temporarily seized an abandoned hotel that local police had used as headquarters. Suicide bombers detonated explosives to keep Kurdish forces at bay, and militants took over an area southwest of Kirkuk.
Although the Kirkuk attack was ultimately unsuccessful, the group still has control of the largest territory ever held by a terrorist group, Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, told a Senate committee last month. “This safe haven provides ISIL with the time and space they need to train fighters and plan operations.”
Abu Khadija, the defector who witnessed the 38 beheadings, said he was trying to get into Turkey, despite knowing that Islamic State militants might kill him if they caught him. He said he could not forget the beheadings.
“I can’t eat. I feel I want to throw up. I hate myself,” he said, adding that the executioners had argued over who would wield the knives and finally settled the issue by lottery. “Honestly, I will never do it. I can kill a man in battle, but I can’t cut a human being’s head with a knife or a sword.”