Despite a concerted effort by a coalition of dozens of countries to cripple the Islamic State terror group, the militants continue to operate beneath a shroud of secrecy and maintain a hold on key territory in Iraq and Syria.
The terror group is still entrenched in Raqqa, Syria, the group’s de-facto capital. And in May they seized Ramadi, a key Sunni city in Iraq. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) has been dented by coalition air strikes, but it’s still far from being wiped off the map.
Part of this hinges on ISIS leadership’s ability to evade the forces that are trying to defeat the group. As the German weekly Der Spiegel reported earlier this year, many top ISIS leaders come from former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. These officials bring military and intelligence experience with them.
And they might be aided by something else, as well — The New York Times reported this week that ISIS has “studied revelations from Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, about how the United States gathers information on militants.”
Snowden is currently living in Russia to avoid US espionage charges. He leaked more than a million classified government documents in 2013.
ISIS has reportedly used some of this information to inform its operations, as the group’s communications rely on couriers and encrypted channels that Western analysts can’t crack, according to anonymous officials who spoke with the Times. It’s unclear which specific reports ISIS might have studied. Other terror groups, including al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, have frustrated US intelligence analysts in the past with similar techniques like couriers and encryption.
Even with the information militants might have gained from leaked government documents, ISIS’ security procedures haven’t always worked. ISIS relies heavily on social media for spreading its violent message and recruiting foreigners into its ranks, and last month the US Air Force struck an ISIS headquarters location after an intelligence team geo-located the building based on a social-media post from an ISIS militant. ISIS has now reportedly banned Internet access for most residents who live in Raqqa.
Much of ISIS’ paranoia and security methods likely comes from the former officials in the Hussein regime — Der Spiegel noted that ISIS has modified Saddam’s “omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren’t being spied on.”
They’re also structuring the group’s leadership in a way that helps ensure long-term survival.
Though the “caliph” of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the group’s public face and top religious leader, ISIS has reportedly been allowing others to run operations behind the scenes to make sure that the group won’t collapse if a couple of key people are taken out by air strikes, according to the Times.
Officials close to Baghdadi and regional commanders who are responsible for certain sections of ISIS’ territory have reportedly been given more authority — they receive general guidelines from the top, but ultimately have autonomy to run their own operations, sources told the Times.
From the Times:
In delegating authority, Mr. Baghdadi has drawn lessons from the fates of other militant groups, including that of a branch in Yemen called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose leaders have been whittled away by repeated American drone strikes over the years, said a Western diplomat who monitors the group.
‘ISIS has learned from that and has formed a structure that can survive the losses of leaders by giving midlevel commanders a degree of autonomy,’ the diplomat said. In that structure, the overall operation would not be immediately affected if Mr. Baghdadi were wounded or killed, he said.
Baghdadi might have already been wounded in a coalition air strike earlier this year, but this hasn’t been confirmed. The Iraqi Defence Ministry reported that Baghdadi’s second-in-command was also hit in a separate strike, but that hasn’t been confirmed, either.
In any case, ISIS is probably here to stay for a while. The Times also reported this week that the group is using terror as a tool to govern and control the territory it has seized. ISIS is handing out ID cards to residents, establishing consumer-protection bureaus and police forces, running schools, and mediating local disputes.
ISIS also campaigns to gain popular support from the residents of its territories.
Though many Westerners associate Islamic State propaganda with violence and beheadings, the terror group also likes to showcase its deceptively “softer” side to those within its territory in the Middle East. One propaganda video recently highlighted by Vocativ shows residents of Mosul, Iraq enjoying a mall and amusement park near the city.
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