In a background briefing Thursday afternoon for journalists, a panel of five U.S. intelligence officials summed up their assessment of an organization that has shown a remarkable durability because it is “patient,” “well-organized,” opportunistic” and “flexible.” Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group has rebounded from about 1,500 fighters in 2010 to well over 10,000 today — becoming a global jihadist organization that communicates in many languages.
“We don't assess this as something that will collapse on its own,” said one of the officials. “But with pressure and alternatives [that might draw away its Sunni supporters] it could collapse over time.” The intelligence experts cautioned that counterterrorist tools, such as drone strikes and other air attacks, wouldn't be sufficient “to defeat it, rather than just ratchet it back.”
The briefers were skeptical that Baghdadi can be deterred from attacking America by the threat of pulverizing attacks. “We assess that the group sees conflict with the U.S. as inevitable,” said one official. Although the group is now preoccupied by its battles in Iraq and Syria, another official noted a chilling Internet statement several months ago: “America, we have not turned our gaze away from you.”
The briefing was a rare example of intelligence officials sharing information about a problem that policymakers are still debating. The officials skirted direct policy questions but not their context. Asked, for example, whether the Islamic State can be contained if its bases in Syria aren't bombed, one official said that such cross-border safe havens have been “a perennial challenge” in fighting insurgencies since 1945.
The portrait of Baghdadi and his Islamic State was chilling. Under its original name, al-Qaida in Iraq, the group ferociously battled U.S. forces. Most of its leading fighters were imprisoned by U.S. occupation troops, but incarceration was a school for jihad and they emerged tougher, better connected and more dedicated.
Baghdadi's fighters began to evolve from al-Qaida's traditional terrorist tactics to actually holding ground, as in their self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. An early sign came in Syria, where the group's suicide bombers would seize government facilities and hold them for a few hours before detonating their vests.
Baghdadi styles himself as the true successor to Osama bin Laden, although he has defied bin Laden's warnings against declaring a caliphate too quickly. Because of his deviations, Baghdadi's group was expelled in April by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Islamic State has begun to peel away some violent jihadists, including nine members of core al-Qaida, and some members of the North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Maghreb. The leadership of the potent, Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has mostly stayed loyal to Zawahiri.
The Islamic State seems younger, quicker and more nimble with social media than was the old al-Qaida. The officials noted heavy use of Twitter, for example, with accounts not just in Arabic and English but in German, Indonesian, Russian and other languages. The reach is boosted by several thousand foreign fighters from Europe, America and Asia who have moved through the group's camps, mostly across the Turkish border into Syria.
“Some of them are going home, with or without orders, to start cells,” an official warned.
Al-Qaida's weakness in the past was partly that it burned so hot that it made enemies where it tried to take root. But Baghdadi's group “has learned lessons from the past,” an official said, and isn't so alienating to other Muslims. “If they take over a town, they let locals run it,” rather than pushing them around needlessly.
A “vulnerability” for the Islamic State, the official said, is that it may be overextended. He noted that the group is “fighting on so many fronts” and is “clearly outnumbered.” If its forces were pounded by U.S.-backed Iraqi and regional forces, then Sunni supporters might “begin peeling away.”
My takeaway from this unusual briefing was that the Obama administration needs a broad strategy that gradually degrades this group back to its earlier size. That won't be quick or easy: Baghdadi has benefited from all the failures of rival Muslim and secular revolutionaries in the Arab Spring. The Islamic State won't implode because of its own mistakes. It will have to be fought, patiently and subtly.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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