Hassan Hassan writes: For the first time since U.S.-led coalition operations began two years ago, almost all of the group’s vital strongholds in Syria, Iraq, and Libya have come under serious pressure. In a recent statement, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, even alluded to the fact that followers should be prepared for losses, from Sirte to Mosul.
But while the group’s performance has hit an all-time low, its appeal does not seem to have diminished. CIA Director John Brennan recognizes this fact: “Despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 16, using another term for the Islamic State. “[A]s the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”
Brennan also confirmed that the CIA had found no “direct link” between Omar Mateen, the gunman in Orlando, and the Islamic State. This is no surprise, as Mateen does not seem to fit familiar patterns of dogmatic support for the group. In the space of three years, he had supported Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. His profile suggests that he belongs in the category of sympathizers who are only superficially influenced by the organization’s ideology, but who nonetheless can be inspired to carry out attacks in its name.
Such sympathizers are not driven by the Islamic State’s military successes, such as the takeover of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The group built its narrative around Sunni victimization, an idea that both predates its establishment of a caliphate and continues to exert a strong pull on many in the Middle East. The Islamic State has also tapped into the rampant political stagnation and popular grievances to gain popular support beyond the number of people who actually joined its ranks.
Consider, for example, the ongoing offensives against the Islamic State in Fallujah, Raqqa, and Manbij. While Washington insists the onslaughts include forces that represent the Sunni Arab communities that dominate the three cities, the prominence of Iranian-backed sectarian militias and Kurdish groups has triggered outrage in groups that are otherwise hostile to the Islamic State.
Two examples stand out. As the People’s Protection Units advanced on Raqqa, the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently warned that civilians in the city were drifting toward the Islamic State due to their hatred for the Kurdish group. Meanwhile, Arabic media like al-Arabiya and al-Hayat — which last year described the offensive on the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit as a “liberation” — called the war on Fallujah a sectarian conflict, led by Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani.
Many observers throughout the region see Washington turning its back on Sunni civilians in order to cozy up to Tehran and Moscow. Reports in Arabic media have accused the United States of deliberately backing a sectarian war against Sunnis. This narrative invokes old patterns that could again help the Islamic State convert territorial losses into legitimacy among certain segments of the Sunni world. [Continue reading…]