Before attackers apparently aligned with the terrorist group ISIS hit Paris with simultaneous bombing and shooting attacks, the organisation had suffered a number of setbacks throughout the week.
US President Barack Obama has been criticised for saying that ISIS (also known as the Islamic State and ISIL) had been “contained” one day before terrorists launched a massive, coordinated attack on a western country.
“We have contained them,” Obama told ABC News in an interview that aired Thursday. “I don’t think they’re gaining strength.”
At the time, Obama noted a trend — that ISIS is being hit hard in the Middle East, where its core base of support lies.
Earlier this week, the US announced an airstrike had likely killed “Jihadi John,” a British citizen who had fled Europe to join ISIS and became a prominent fixture in the group’s propaganda videos as he beheaded hostages and delivered chilling messages in English.
The US is “reasonably certain” the airstrike killed the brutal executioner in Raqqa, Syria, which ISIS considers the de-facto “capital” of its territory.
For the US “to carry out such precise attack … in the heartland of ISIS is going to make them very, very nervous,” Will McCants, an expert on jihadism and author of the recent book, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” told Business Insider on Friday.
“What we know from Al Qaeda documents is that these kind of drone strikes on prominent personalities in areas where they thought they were secure made the senior leaders of Al Qaeda extremely nervous and much more cautious about moving around,” McCants added. “And you would anticipate the same thing would happen with Islamic State leaders.”
Also this week, ground forces backed by US airstrikes cut off one of ISIS’ most important supply routes in Iraq and retook the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, where ISIS terrorists kidnapped and enslaved thousands of women from the Yazidi minority to use as sex slaves for militants.
The news of the Sinjar success in particular has been “completely drowned out” by the Paris attacks, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.
“It’s going to be significant in Iraq and Syria. … Losing Sinjar basically cuts the ‘caliphate’ in two,” Ross said, referring to ISIS’s territory in the Middle East, which it brands as an Islamic utopia.
“Even though they’re carrying out a spectacular attack in the West, that doesn’t change the fact that they lost this major territorial holding.”
The White House has been using a similar argument to defend Obama’s comments about ISIS being “contained.”
“The president was referring very specifically to the question of ISIL’s geographic expansion in Iraq and Syria,” White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“They had been on the march in both Iraq and Syria for some time. But starting a year ago, we were able to halt that expansion.”
McCants predicted that ISIS would attempt to take territory elsewhere to make up for the Sinjar loss. A major theme of ISIS propaganda is that the group is “remaining and expanding,” so losing territory is significant for them in that it not only shrinks the size of their caliphate, but it could also make supporters doubt the group’s message.
“People have been drawn to ISIS not especially because of the charisma of its spokespeople but because they have been so successful in taking land,” McCants said.
“The advance against ISIS by its enemies had been stalled for months, so we will see how ISIS responds. … It often tries to retake territory elsewhere in order to offset its losses.”
And it remains to be seen how ISIS will deal with the setbacks it’s seen on the home-front.
“The bottom line is that with them losing ground, they’re going to have to deal with that militarily in an on-the-ground basis,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “This is not going to mask things in Iraq and Syria.”
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