World·Analysis

New ISIS threats and boasts show caliphate in 'decline'

ISIS's recent threats against the West are meant to divert their followers, as well as the international community, from the reality that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is actually losing territory.

Recent video suggests jihadists carry out 9/11-style attack in U.S.

In late March, Iraq's prime minister announced that the country's army, aided by allies, had retaken the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State. Here, Shi'ite paramilitary fighters brandish the captured flag of ISIS. (Reuters)

Nearly a year after establishing a controversial caliphate in the Middle East, ISIS continues to inflame the international community, recently threatening to carry out a second 9/11 and boasting about demolishing pre-Islamic antiquities in Iraq.

But analysts say these provocations are meant to divert their followers, as well as Western nations, from the reality that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is actually losing territory.

On the surface, "they're still appearing to deliver a success" to jihadists worldwide, says Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

"So the story isn't about them losing ground in Iraq, the story is 'ISIS destroys historic sites.' Or 'Now ISIS threatens the U.S.' — meanwhile, they're getting turned back" from cities they conquered last summer, he says.

In recent months, coalition forces have ousted ISIS militants from cities such as Kobani, Syria and Tikrit, Iraq.

"If they capture headlines, you get the sense that they're growing their caliphate, but at the moment, they're not growing their caliphate," says Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University with an expertise in the Middle East.

Social media mastery

In the year or so that it has been on the international radar, the Sunni jihadist group has demonstrated a flair for gaining media attention, especially through a series of beheading videos.

Earlier this week, ISIS posted a video online imploring jihadists to hit the U.S. with a 9/11-style attack, promoting it on social media with the hashtag #WeWillBurnUSAgain.

On Sunday, a video emerged that appeared to show ISIS militants hammering and blowing up parts of the ancient Iraqi Assyrian city of Nimrud, which contains sites dating back to the 13th century BC.

Last month, a video emerged that appeared to show members of ISIS destroying artifacts in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, near Mosul, Iraq. (Associated Press)

The group's aggression online and on the ground has provoked a concerted response from a coalition of forces that includes the Iraqi army, Kurdish fighters, Shia paramilitaries and tribal groups, as well as outside militaries from countries such as the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Although incendiary, ISIS's recent incitements come in light of a series of military setbacks. In January, a coalition led by Kurdish forces dislodged jihadi fighters from Kobani, a city in northern Syria.

Then, at the end of March, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that Iraqi troops, working with Shia militias, had ousted ISIS from the city of Tikrit, although some reports suggest ISIS might still have a presence there.

In recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that Kurdish fighters have been advancing on the city of Ain Issa, which is less than 60 kilometres from Raqqa, the capital of ISIS's caliphate.

There has also been talk for months now that a coalition comprising the Iraqi army, Shia paramilitaries and Kurds — along with tactical support from the U.S. — is gearing up to try to retake the northern city of Mosul, which ISIS conquered with much fanfare last summer.

"For ISIS, the challenge is that their brand has grown because of a sense of momentum — if you wanted to be a jihadist, you were going to join ISIS," says Brynen. "But it does pose certain problems for them if they are seen to be on the defensive."

'Indicators of decline'

Watts says that in addition to these tactical setbacks, there are "indicators of decline" within the caliphate.

He says that among the signs of stress are reports that ISIS is clamping down on spies, killing defectors and instituting forced conscription to replenish its fighting forces.

There are also reports of disease outbreaks, which Watts says are a sign of poor health care and governance.

Given all these internal pressures, it's unlikely that ISIS would have the wherewithal to carry out external attacks, says Loch Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia and the author of Seven Sins of American Foreign Policy.

"ISIS seems to have its hands quite full right now."

The nature of ISIS's recent threats actually speaks to the group's limitations, says Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas.

He says that if a militant group has the ability to conduct a strike, it's not going to foreshadow it online, "they're just going to do it."

"It's when they can't do it themselves that they need to ask others for help."

'An unprecedented run'

The greater likelihood is that the threats will inspire jihadists around the world to take up the cause. This has been part of ISIS's strategy for some time, says Stewart, and the group has seen "an unprecedented return on those requests so far."

He cites the examples of the October 2014 attacks in Quebec and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa by so-called "lone wolf" operators who appeared to be galvanized by ISIS.

He also says that in the last three weeks, there has been "a pretty substantial rash of arrests" in the U.S. of jihadists wanting either to travel to Syria or carry out domestic attacks.

That includes the arrest of two women in Queens, N.Y., and a pair of men who had supposedly planned to set off a bomb at Fort Riley, Kan.

While ISIS may be feeling pressure to defend its territorial gains in the Middle East, the possibility of attacks from foreign jihadists will continue to enhance perceptions of the group's reach.

"It's going to be persistent," Stewart says.

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