WASHINGTON – Since exploding onto the world stage as a conquering force in Iraq a year ago, the Islamic State has expanded its reach across the Middle East despite a U.S.-led bombing campaign that has killed thousands of militants and destroyed tons of their equipment.
Monday, Egypt launched an airstrike against Islamic State targets in neighboring Libya after the terrorist group posted a video of militants beheading a group of Egyptian Christians.
This month, U.S. forces killed a former Taliban leader in southern Afghanistan who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State weeks earlier. The Pentagon said the group’s presence in Afghanistan was nascent but demonstrated its global aspirations.
Signs of the Islamic State have emerged throughout the Middle East. Some extremists in the Sinai, where militants battle the Egyptian government, have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. Groups affiliated with the militant organization have popped up in Algeria and Tunisia.
The beheadings and burnings that have shocked the West and rallied some Middle Eastern governments to oppose the Islamic extremists have appealed to young Muslims willing to fight the West or what they perceive as corrupt Arab governments.
“The perception is that (the Islamic State) is the closest thing jihadists have to success,” said Colin Clarke, an analyst at Rand.
The group’s model for expansion is simple. It makes no effort to impose central control over far-flung affiliates.That allows the Islamic State to take credit for expansion and gives affiliates the clout that comes with their ties to a jihadist group on the rise, said Matthew Levitt, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It’s a function of its decentralized model,” Levitt said. “You don’t need organized battalions or a full-fledged insurgency to carry out a series of beheadings.”
The U.S.-led bombing campaign, which began last summer, blunted the group’s expansion in Iraq but did little to stop its ability to spread influence and draw recruits across the region.
Coalition aircraft have struck more than 4,800 targets in Syria and Iraq over the past six months, destroying vehicles, tanks, fighting positions and training camps, according to U.S. Central Command. The Pentagon said the strikes have weakened the group’s leadership structure.
Defeating the organization in Iraq and Syria will require a ground force, not just air attacks, analysts and military officials acknowledge.
“Air power is not something that takes and holds ground,” said Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. “Control is about a man on the ground with a gun.”
The White House has said it will not deploy conventional combat troops to Iraq or Syria but will use local forces in the region to counter the threat.
The Pentagon, which has sent advisers to Iraq, said it is retraining and equipping Iraq’s security forces and building a moderate opposition in Syria capable of taking on the Islamic State. U.S. advisers will help train Syrian opposition forces outside the country.
Pentagon officials have declined to say when Iraq’s security forces will be capable of retaking cities, such as Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. “Our focus right now is on building up their combat power,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. “That’s going well.”
The training of moderate opposition forces in Syria has not begun, but the Pentagon is establishing training sites and preparing to recruit the force.
The Islamic State’s offensive into Iraq marked a meteoric rise for the organization, which emerged in Syria in 2013 after splitting from al-Qaeda.
Last January, the organization seized towns and cities in Anbar province, a Sunni region in western Iraq, shocking Iraq’s government and Washington policymakers equally. In June, the group expanded into Mosul and other parts of Iraq, imposing a strict form of Islamic law and brutal tactics on the towns and cities it controls.
It demonstrated global aspirations, eclipsing al-Qaeda as the world’s leading jihadist organization. “At the end of the day, success is sexy,” Clarke said.
Military officials and analysts say defeating them will take time and the key will be the battlefields of Iraq and Syria – despite the militants’ growing presence elsewhere.
“Groups are wanting to sign on to (the Islamic State) because they are demonstrating success,” Levitt said. “As the coalition begins to push them back in Iraq, and perhaps someday in Syria, their appeal is going to diminish.”
Credit: Jim Michaels, USA TODAY February 16, 2015