Trouble in the ranks of Isis militants

February 24, 2015 12:23 am

As the Islamic State (Isis) group tries to expand and take root
across the , signs of tension and power struggles are
emerging among the ranks of its foreign fighters.
The extremists
remain a formidable force, and the group’s hold on about a third of
and remains firm. But it appears to be on the defensive in
for the first time since it swept through the territory last year and is
suffering from months of US-led coalition airstrikes and the myriad
factions fighting it on the ground.

Isis militants patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah. File photo / AP
“They are struggling with new
challenges that did not exist before,” said Lina Khatib, director of
the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Kurdish forces dealt
the Islamic State its heaviest setback by driving it from the border
town of Kobani in northern Syria last month. Since then, those forces
have joined with moderate Syrian rebels to take back about 215 villages
in the same area, according to Kurdish commanders and activists,
including the Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights.

The gains have strained supply lines between the Islamic State
group’s westernmost strongholds in Aleppo province from its core
territory in eastern Syria. The Kurdish-rebel forces are now expected to
take the fight to some of those strongholds, particularly the large
towns of Minbij and Jarablus, as well as Tal Abyad, a border crossing
with Turkey that is a major avenue for commerce for the extremists.
Around
the town of al-Bab, one of the IS group’s westernmost strongholds, the
extremists are making tactical withdrawals. Residents have noted a
thinner militant presence in al-Bab.
The militants are also
finding themselves bogged down in costly battles with the government
forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The extremist group,
also known as Isis or Isil, has been stuck in fierce fighting with the
Syrian army near the Deir el-Zour air base, the last major Syrian
military stronghold in the eastern province. Isis launched an
unsuccessful attack to seize the base last month, and it continues to
try.
It is too early to call the shifts a turning point, but they
represent the slow grind of the international campaign against the
Islamic State group, which long seemed unconquerable as it seized
territory stretching from outside the city of Aleppo in northern Syria’s
at one end to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad at the
other.
In Iraq, the combination of coalition airstrikes, Kurdish
forces, Shiite militias and Iraqi troops have pushed Isis back around
the edges, but the militants succeeded this week in taking new territory
for the first time in months. They also raised new alarms with the
presence of their affiliate in Libya.
But it was in the Syrian
town of Kobani that the Islamic State suffered its worst single loss –
more than 1000 militants killed – and much of its heavy weaponry and
vehicles destroyed. The January defeat followed five months of fighting
by mostly Kurdish ground forces and coalition airstrikes that left about
70 percent of the town in ruins and sent tens of thousands of its
residents fleeing over the nearby border into Turkey.
After the loss of Kobani, signs of fissures within Isis have emerged.
Bari
Abdellatif, a resident of al-Bab who also has fled to Turkey, said
friction between Chechen and Uzbek militants recently led to clashes
between the two that ended only with the intervention of Omar
al-Shishani, a prominent Chechen Isis commander. At least two senior
figures were killed because of the internal strife, he said.
“The
prolonged battle for Kobani caused a lot of tensions – fighters accused
each other of treachery and eventually turned on each other,”
Abdellatif said.
Several other activists confirmed recent clashes between factions from different national backgrounds within IS.
Last
month, a senior official with the group’s Hisba, or vice police, was
found beheaded in Deir el-Zour province. A cigarette was stuffed in his
mouth, apparently trying to show he was killed for smoking, which is
banned by Isis, but there are suspicions the official – an Egyptian –
was killed by the extremists who suspected him of spying.
An
activist based in the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, said
foreign fighters bicker over administrative and financial issues.
Several militants have been killed on suspicion of spying or trying to
defect.
“Daesh tries to portray itself as one thing, but beneath
the surface there’s a lot of dirt,” the activist said, using the Arabic
acronym for the group and speaking on condition of anonymity out of
concern for his security.
Earlier this month, the extremists
dismissed one of the group’s religious officials in Aleppo province and
referred him to a religious court after he objected to the immolation of
a captured Jordanian air force pilot, the Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights said.
“IS is now beginning to struggle to keep its own
forces coherent – and this is separate from all the external factors
that are impacting it negatively,” Khatib said.
She said the new
troubles have a lot to do with the fact that Isis in Syria is operating
in the context of a civil war where people become greedy and refuse to
cede power to others.
“Even Isis is not immune from the warlord
phenomenon that takes place in the context of civil war and is being
witnessed in Syria today,” she said.
In Raqqa, stepped-up coalition airstrikes in response to the Jordanian pilot’s killing has shaken the group, activists say.
An
anti-Isis media collective called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently
said the extremists have been forcing residents to donate blood after
dozens of fighters were seriously wounded. It also reported that the
group recently imposed a nighttime curfew and put up nighttime
roadblocks to curb desertions by members trying to reach Turkey.
While
foreigners from around the globe have joined Isis, many disillusioned
new recruits have left or are trying to leave, finding life to be very
different and more violent than they had expected.
The
Observatory says the militant group has killed more than 120 of its own
members in the past six months, most of them foreign fighters hoping to
return home.
“When we take all these little puzzle pieces
together and we assemble our mosaic, it’s very clear that they’re having
issues. … I believe that they are hurting,” said Scott Stewart, vice
president of Tactical Analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and
advisory firm.
Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic
Council, said it has become more difficult for IS to make substantial
territorial progress, but the group still does not face any significant
challenge to its rule in its strongholds.
“Isis continues to build support among tribal groups, and attract fighters defecting from other insurgent groups,” he said.

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