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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 
began.

   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 
say.

   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 
with interrogators.

   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 
of Raqqa.

   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 
fighters.

   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 
territory.

   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 
time.

   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."


(KA)


 
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