IS No Weaker Than a Year Ago 07/31 06:16
WASHINGTON (AP) -- After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000
extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker
than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American
intelligence agencies have concluded.
The military campaign has prevented Iraq's collapse and put the Islamic
State under increasing pressure in northern Syria, particularly squeezing its
self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. But intelligence analysts see the overall
situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded
extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as
the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other
countries, including Libya, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.
The assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others
appear to contradict the optimistic line taken by the Obama administration's
special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, who told a forum in Aspen, Colorado,
last week that "ISIS is losing" in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was
described by officials who would not be named because they were not authorized
to discuss it publicly.
"We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," a defense official
said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group's total strength at
between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August when the airstrikes
The Islamic State's staying power also raises questions about the
administration's approach to the threat that the group poses to the U.S. and
its allies. Although officials do not believe it is planning complex attacks on
the West from its territory, the group's call to Western Muslims to kill at
home has become a serious problem, FBI Director James Comey and other officials
Yet under the Obama administration's campaign of bombing and training, which
prohibits American troops from accompanying fighters into combat or directing
air strikes from the ground, it could take a decade to drive the Islamic State
from its safe havens, analysts say. The administration is adamant that it will
commit no U.S. ground troops to the fight despite calls from some in Congress
to do so.
The U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian and Kurdish allies on the ground have
made some inroads. The Islamic State has lost 9.4 percent of its territory in
the first six months of 2015, according to an analysis by the conflict
monitoring group IHS. And the military campaign has arrested the sense of
momentum and inevitability created by the group's stunning advances last year,
leaving the combination of Sunni religious extremists and former Saddam Hussein
loyalists unable to grow its forces or continue its surge.
"In Raqqa, they are being slowly strangled," said an activist who fled Raqqa
earlier this year and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relatives and
friends who remain there. "There is no longer a feeling that Raqqa is a safe
haven for the group."
A Delta Force raid in Syria that killed Islamic State financier Abu Sayyaf
in May also has resulted in a well of intelligence about the group's structure
and finances, U.S. officials say. His wife, held in Iraq, has been cooperating
Syrian Kurdish fighters and their allies have wrested most of the northern
Syria border from the Islamic State group. In June, the U.S.-backed alliance
captured the border town of Tal Abyad, which for more than a year had been the
militants' most vital direct supply route from Turkey. The Kurds also took the
town of Ein Issa, a hub for IS movements and supply lines only 35 miles north
As a result, the militants have had to take a more circuitous smuggling path
through a stretch of about 60 miles they still control along the Turkish
border. A plan announced this week for a U.S.-Turkish "safe zone" envisages
driving the Islamic State group out of those areas as well, using Syrian rebels
backed by airstrikes.
In Raqqa, U.S. coalition bombs pound the group's positions and target its
leaders with increasing regularity. The militants' movements have been hampered
by strikes against bridges, and some fighters are sending their families away
to safer ground.
In early July, a wave of strikes in 24 hours destroyed 18 overpasses and a
number of roads used by the group in and around Raqqa.
Reflecting IS unease, the group has taken exceptional measures against
residents of Raqqa the past two weeks, activists say. It has moved to shut down
private Internet access for residents, arrested suspected spies and set up
security cameras in the streets. Patrols by its "morals police" have decreased
because fighters are needed on the front lines, the activists say.
But American intelligence officials and other experts say that in the big
picture, the Islamic State is hanging tough.
"The pressure on Raqqa is significant, and it's an important thing to watch,
but looking at the overall picture, ISIS is mostly in the same place," said
Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at Institute for the Study of War,
a Washington think tank. "Overall ISIS still retains the ability to plan and
execute phased conventional military campaigns and terrorist attacks."
In Iraq, the Islamic State's seizure of the strategically important
provincial capital of Ramadi has so far stood. Although U.S. officials have
said it is crucial that the government in Baghdad win back disaffected Sunnis,
there is little sign of that happening. American-led efforts to train Syrian
rebels to fight the Islamic State have produced a grand total of 60 vetted
The group has adjusted its tactics to thwart a U.S. bombing campaign that
tries to avoid civilian casualties, officials say. Fighters no longer move
around in easily targeted armored columns; they embed themselves among women
and children, and they communicate through couriers to thwart eavesdropping and
geolocation, the defense official said.
Oil continues to be a major revenue source. By one estimate, the Islamic
State is clearing $500 million per year from oil sales, said Daniel Glaser,
assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. That's
on top of as much as $1 billion in cash the group seized from banks in its
Although the U.S. has been bombing oil infrastructure, the militants have
been adept at rebuilding oil refining, drilling and trading capacity, the
defense official said.
"ISIL has plenty of money," Glaser said last week, more than enough to meet
a payroll he estimated at a high of $360 million a year.
Glaser said the U.S. was gradually squeezing the group's finances through
sanctions, military strikes and other means, but he acknowledged it would take
Ahmad al-Ahmad, a Syrian journalist in Hama province who heads an opposition
media outfit called Syrian Press Center, said he did not expect recent setbacks
to seriously alter the group's fortunes.
"IS moves with a very intelligent strategy which its fighters call the
lizard strategy," he said. "They emerge in one place, then they disappear and
pop up in another place."