When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-appointed “caliph” of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, looks around him, just eleven months after his initial grab for large swathes of Iraq and Syria, he can’t see any serious force willing or able to block the further expansion of his dominions. This impression is confirmed by the commanders, many of them former Iraqi generals, of the ISIS fronts spread over four continents, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Egypt.
Al Baghdadi makes sure to check with those commanders about any immediate or long-term threats in view from adversaries with the strength and firepower to fight off his next offensives. His strategy is based on a simple rule of thumb: When faced with a superior military force, the Islamist army retreats from a face-to-face showdown to a safe place outside enemy reach. Counter-offensives are ordered only when important ISIS domains are under threat, or when a risky battle – even if lost – does not impinge on the Islamic State’s overall goals.
This strategic reckoning played out Monday, July 6 when Islamist forces were called out to recapture the key town of Ain Issa from Kurdish fighters, because it was just 50 km north of the ISIS Syrian stronghold at Raqqa, which Kurdish and Syrian rebel forces had captured two weeks earlier. They were preparing to march from there on Raqqa itself. Al Baghdadi decided to fight in order to nip this threat in the bud. But two days later, on Wednesday, July 8, the stubborn Kurdish fighters had regained Ain Issa.
ISIS highlights adversary’s impotence in Baiji battle
Another example was the battle for Iraq’s biggest oil refinery town of Baiji, over which ISIS and Iraqi troops backed by Iranian and Shiite fighters have been fighting for almost a year.
Overnight, on July 5, Islamic State suicide bombers and fighters attacked the town center, forcing the Iraqi army and pro-Iranian allies to pull back.
Baiji is important to Al Baghdadi for three reasons:
The town is the hub of the oil pipeline network running from southern Iraq (Basra) via Kirkuk to Turkey and Syria.
It is also a central highway hub between Baghdad and Mosul, ISIS’s Iraqi “capital.”
And thirdly, the ISIS leader seized on an opportunity for demonstrating the impotence of the Iraqi army and Shiite militias for dislodging Islamist forces from vantage points around this important city – albeit under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers and backed by American air strikes.
The ISIS commander no doubt drew further encouragement from US President Barack Obama’s adage: “Ideologies are not beaten by guns. They are defeated with better ideas.”
Obama then added: “If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole.”
US aircraft drop only 35% of their ordnance on ISIS in Iraq
Since Al-Baghdadi like most non-Americans is not familiar with the game, he no doubt asked one of the American jihadis around him to explain what the US President was driving at.
(A Whack-a-Mole machine is a waist-high cabinet with five holes in the top, each containing a single plastic mole and the machinery for moving it up and down. When the game starts, the moles pop up at random. It is played with a large soft black mallet for hitting the moles back into their holes.)
Needless to say, the ISIS leader did not feel particularly threatened by Obama’s analogy or deterred from carrying on with his plans.
Indeed it led him to three useful inferences:
1. So long as Obama is president, no American troops will be sent out to fight ISIS.
2. The black mallet hitting the moles on the head illustrated US air strikes against ISIS, which Al-Baghdadi’s fighters have long learned to evade and render harmless for interfering with their movements.
That the Americans understood this emerged from an admission in Washington Tuesday, July 7, by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey that US aircraft are coming back from most combat missions in Iraq without dropping any bombs.
In a briefing to the Senate Armed Services committee, the general explained that during a similar period in the Afghanistan conflict in 2012, the number of aircraft that returned with their ordnance because there were no targets available on the ground was 83 percent. "It's 65 percent in Iraq right now."
Al Qaeda ideology supplanted by the more radical ISIS jihadism
3. As for the “better ideas” for fighting the ideologies spreading across the Muslim world like wild fire, even Al Qaeda’s accredited leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri is passé on the Islamist scene, and Abu Mohammed Al-Julani, commander of Al Qaeda’s Syrian Nusra Front – the only Muslim force willing to vie with ISIS – is challenged by some of his owns officers. They are telling him that they find ISIS ideology more persuasive than that of classical Al Qaeda.
As for the Iraqi army, after the fall of the important Iraqi town of Ramadi on May 24, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter commented: “What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.”
The Islamic State had already discovered this and redoubled its momentum.
Washington, Cairo, Jerusalem and other Mid East capitals are reluctant to admit that the professional Iraqi military officers who swung the Ramadi victory have taken charge of the latest ISIS campaign in Sinai. It is they who are orchestrating and scripting the massive offensive launched on Egyptian army positions in northern Sinai this month by the Islamic State’s affiliate Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, aided by Bedouin forces,.
The Egyptians have opted to fight a defensive war, focusing on retaining control of the main highways branching out of North Sinai to the Suez Canal and Cairo – even at the cost of the Islamists overrunning large areas of the peninsula.
New Israeli Commando Brigade, but no offensive in sight against ISIS
It must be said that not a single military force is to be found in the vast North African expanse opposite southern Europe, whether Algeria, Tunisia Libya, which is willing to brave Al-Baghdadi and his jihadi army. ISIS is therefore forging ahead virtually unopposed for terrorist attacks from time to time on European targets and strikes against strategic infrastructure in the places marked out for conquest..
The ISIS chief may have found food for thought in the July 6 announcement by Israel’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott that the IDF had established a new Commando Brigade, bringing together four elite units under a single roof, in readiness for the need to face the Islamic State.
There was no hint in the Israeli general’s words of any Israel intention to go on the offensive against the jihadist terrorists. Abu-Baghdadi therefore has nothing to worry about for now.