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Tracking Islamic State

Monday 24 July 2017

A member of the Iranian security forces reacts during a pause in the response to the Islamic State attack on the Iranian parliament.

It finally happened. The Islamic State (IS) extremist group struck Iran -- and did so with sadistic aplomb. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

It finally happened.

The Islamic State (IS) extremist group struck Iran -- and did so with sadistic aplomb. If terrorism is theater, then IS on June 7 directed an award-winning performance of the most grotesque kind in the country’s capital, Tehran.

The attack was striking both in terms of location and method. Attackers struck both the national parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- two of the state’s most symbolic sites.

Even more strikingly, IS, the most media-savvy terror organization in modern history, appears to have live-streamed the attacks. Video uploaded by the attackers as they went shooting from room to room in the parliament appeared on the group’s media outlet, the Aamaq news agency. The video lasts for just under 30 seconds and shows one of the gunman near the body of a presumed victim while a voice on the video praises God and says in Arabic: "Do you think we will leave? We will remain, God willing."

It is estimated that 12 people died (11 in parliament and one at the mausoleum), while six attackers were killed. At the parliament, Iranian security forces engaged in an hourslong shoot-out with the militants inside -- killing all five there. One was killed at the mausoleum. But it is important to remember that killing and wounding is only ever a secondary aim of terrorism. Its primary concern is, as its name implies, to terrorize. Terror attacks are designed to puff up the organization responsible, making it look bigger and more important than it actually is. This is a goal for terror groups at the best of times, but for IS -- which will soon lose Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and is now facing a major assault on its major urban stronghold in Syria, Raqqa -- the need to remain in the public consciousness is greater than ever.

By gaining access to the Iranian parliament (though nowhere near the actual debating chamber), it has done exactly that. It is a crime of the utmost brazenness and brutality.

And while this is the first time that IS has struck Iran, the group has been trying to do just that for some time now – most recently in a March video in which an IS fighter speaking Persian urged Iranian Sunnis to target Iran.

In reality, the only surprise is that the attacks did not happen sooner. Iran, a Shi'a power, has been waging war in both Iraq and Syria against Sunni Arab forces. In Iraq, the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias have fought against IS, as well as committing atrocities against Sunni civilians in towns they have "liberated" from the group. In Syria, meanwhile, Tehran is devoted to propping up its ally, the Alawite (a branch of Shi’a Islam) President Bashar al-Assad, and has contributed to the widespread massacre of Sunnis in the process.

As Rashad Ali, senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, observes, "Iran has been engaging in both propping up the Syrian and Iraqi regimes and also vying for control of post-IS territory through both their own military activities and their proxies in the Iraqi regime and Tehran’s various militia groups. The resultant anger among a large population of Sunnis has had many manifestations in Iraq, and it was inevitable that it would have the same impact on many aggrieved Sunnis who perceive Iran to be at the center of a conspiracy against Sunnis in the region, especially given the growing power of the Shi’a crescent (the line of contiguous Shi’a or strong Shi’a-minority states across the Middle East) and the repeated massacres of Sunnis at Shi’a or Assadist hands."

He continues: "This is at the root of this attack. Despite the pragmatic and cynical cooperation between the Assad regime, [Islamic State], Al-Qaeda, and Iran, I don’t believe, as many in the region are suggesting, that this was a false-flag operation cooked up between them. But Sunni grievances have allowed such theories to gain traction."

As ever, it is impossible to escape sectarianism in the Middle East. Just hours after the attack, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) released a statement accusing Saudi Arabia and the United States of being behind the attacks: "This terrorist action, coming one week after the meeting of the president of the United States with the leader of one of the region's reactionary governments (Saudi Arabia) ... shows they are involved in this savage action," it said in a statement.

IS vowed that there would be more attacks on Iran and has, at any rate, achieved a major goal: It has once more pushed itself to the forefront of global consciousness. Even State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert weighed in on the attacks, saying that the United States was sending thoughts and prayers to the Iranian people and that "the depravity of terrorism has no place in a peaceful, civilized world."

As yet another IS atrocity hits the news, as yet more people are killed and maimed, the group continues to exist on a media supply of oxygen, even as it is slowly asphyxiated on the ground in the Middle East. IS has made a clear choice: It will not give up. It will not, as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas so aptly put it, "go gentle into that good night." Instead, inverting his paean to life, IS, which worships only death, will -- until its last breath -- "rage, rage against the dying of the light."

And the world -- from London to Tehran -- will continue to suffer.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Iraqi troops fire artillery toward Islamic State positions in western Mosul on March 11.

Protecting the lives of their soldiers is obviously of paramount importance, but the military battle against IS on the ground in Mosul will only eventually yield one winner. The issue is then what comes next. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

The coalition battling to take the Iraqi city of Mosul from the extremist group Islamic State (IS) is closing in. Earlier this year, coalition forces captured eastern Mosul (the city is bisected by the Euphrates River) and are now squeezing the city's western half.

According to Brett McGurk, the U.S. State Department's special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, the Islamic State group is trapped.

"Just last night, the Ninth Iraqi Army Division, up near Badush, just northwest of Mosul, cut off the last road out of Mosul," he said last week. "Any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they're going to die there, because they're trapped. So we are very committed to not just defeating them in Mosul, but making sure these guys cannot escape."

Progress has been slow, but with good reason. As James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter magazine notes: "The coalition is being very cautious. IS is throwing suicide bombers, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs, in essence car bombs), snipers, and booby traps at the advancing soldiers. As a result, progress is slow -- which is smart, because IS's military defeat is all but certain and each coalition death is just fodder for their propaganda and a major hit to coalition morale. Second, there is also a balance between quickly freeing civilians and avoiding heavy fighting which might kill civilians. ... The reality is that IS is an invader, the civilians are human shields, but IS must be defeated and must not be allowed to spread."

In truth, the coalition forces need to be cautious for a third, perhaps even greater, reason. Protecting the lives of their soldiers is obviously of paramount importance, but the military battle against IS on the ground in Mosul will only eventually yield one winner. The issue is then what comes next -- and for this Miller is prescient when he talks about the need to avoid heavy civilian casualties.

Safeguarding civilian life is considered a necessary guiding moral principle for any army, let alone one that seeks to battle an enemy it rightly decries as a barbaric death cult. IS must be defeated, but it must be defeated by a force that refutes its detestable practices. Righteousness must be a strategy of war. This conflict is as much moral as it is military.

But this issue is complicated in the case of the Mosul offensive. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) fly Shi'ite flags freely from their armored vehicles -- the image of Ali, a key figure in Shi'ism, is ubiquitous on the ground. To make matters worse, alongside the ISF fight the highly sectarian, Iran-linked Shi'ite militias, which have on previous occasions massacred Sunni populations in towns they have "liberated" from IS. High civilian casualties must be avoided at all cost to prevent Mosul's majority Sunni population from following in the footsteps of so many other Sunni Iraqis in the face of Shi'ite persecution and flocking to the black flag.

Once IS is driven out of Mosul, it will need soldiers more than ever. The best way to drive a steady supply of new recruits into the arms of IS would be to take the city with utter disregard for human -- specifically Sunni -- life. If that happens, the coalition forces will have simultaneously defeated IS in Mosul but put it on "life support" as it retreats into the desert.

Once it does retreat into the desert, however, all pretense that it is still a state will evaporate. As Miller observes: "Islamic State put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the 'dawla,' their physical territory. It was their main propaganda recruiting tool. Now the caliphate, the physical 'state,' is doomed to fall ... but they've proven that they can slow down the advancing coalition in major cities. After Mosul, the coalition will have to push west into Syria, and I would expect them to get similarly bogged down in major cities and towns in Syria: Al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zour, and, of course, their capital city, Raqqa."

Nonetheless, IS is in serious trouble: surrounded, cut off from foreign recruits, and in a propaganda retreat. The halcyon days of 2014 and early 2015 -- when it seemed an unstoppable force and drew thousands to its ranks every month -- are long gone.

IS will lose its physical caliphate but -- critically -- the group will not disappear along with it. Rather, its fighters will melt into the desert and continue to fight from there. Like a butterfly regressing back into a caterpillar, the group will regress from fighting like a standing quasi-state army to fighting like the terror group it has always been. And it will not stop. Salafi-Jihadism is as strong as ever -- as the continuing success of the Taliban and numerous Al-Qaeda franchises shows.

Alongside military power must come soft power; alongside guns must come words. Coalition forces must push a powerful message -- a counternarrative to IS's narrative of Sunni victimhood and of Shi'ite and Western perfidy. For this, it is crucial that Middle Eastern forces take the lead in the battle against it; that it is Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds, not British, Turkish, and American forces that are the primary actors in its downfall.

Those who created IS were defeated before, in Iraq, but they came back -- in a more dangerous and sophisticated form -- because they were able to successfully create a narrative that spoke to many Iraqis and Syrians. It held that foreign and sectarian forces were responsible for all their misfortunes; that, once more, those seeking to exploit the region for their own gain had invaded the Middle East. This mistake must not be repeated.

As Miller concludes: "Sectarianism and the narrative that the United States is fighting a war against Islam, or at least against Sunni Islam, are the most important enemies to defeat. And they can't be killed with bombs."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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