Wednesday August 29, 2018
Islamic State group chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addresses worshippers at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in a screen grab taken from an IS propaganda video on July 5, 2014
Four years after announcing its cross-border "caliphate" in Iraq and
Syria, a stinging string of defeats has pushed the Islamic State
jihadist group to reorganise and change strategy to survive.
Having lost all urban centres under its control in Iraq and pinned
down to its last desert holdouts in Syria, IS has changed its
administrative structure and shifted its focus away from operating the
state-like apparatus it once ran.
IS will have to find "a new way of doing things, especially to
recruit after heavy losses", an Iraqi security official, who asked to
remain anonymous, told AFP.
At its peak, the self-proclaimed caliphate included 35 "wilaya"
(provinces) mostly set within a swathe of territory spanning either side
of the border between Syria and Iraq.
But following major military defeats -- including the jihadists' loss
of their de facto capitals of Raqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq -- IS
propaganda outlets now only mention six "wilaya".
Former IS provinces like Mosul, Raqa and Kirkuk -- an oil-rich province in Iraq -- no longer exist.
Instead, the term "wilaya" is now used to refer to large chunks of
territory like Iraq and Syria, along with Somalia, East Asia, Tajikistan
and the Egyptian Sinai.
- Reshuffle -
The administrative reshuffle marks a clear switch from 2014, when IS
leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi boasted of having erased the "imperialist"
design that divided the Middle East.
The proclamation was made with great fanfare as jihadists drove
bulldozers across the Syrian-Iraqi border, symbolically destroying one
of the frontiers drawn up by colonial powers as they carved out the
modern Middle East from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War
After years battling IS, Iraqi troops are now redeployed along most
of the border with Syria, across which jihadists and weapons have long
On the Syrian side, separate offensives by forces loyal to Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad and a US-backed coalition have pushed IS
jihadists out of most of the territory they once controlled.
"The change proves Daesh's weakness and the loss of much of its
leadership," the security official told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for
IS's restructure "shows its central command lacks confidence in its
wilaya commanders in Iraq and that it is reducing their powers to one
(central) leadership", the official said.
Iraqi authorities regularly announce the arrest or death of IS
leaders and relatives of Baghdadi, such as his son, who was killed in
Syria in July by Russian missiles.
Baghdadi himself was thought to have been killed several times, and
the US has offered up a $25 million (21.5 million euro) reward for
information leading to his capture or death.
- 'Crisis management' -
In a purported new audio message released on Wednesday to mark the
Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, Baghdadi called on his followers to "not
give up the jihad against their enemy".
"Baghdadi's speech was one of consolation and condolence," said Hisham al-Hashemi, an expert on radical Islamist groups.
It was an "acknowledgement of defeat... but (Baghdadi) urged those remaining to persevere", he said.
The security official said that after losing ground in Iraq and
Syria, "IS leadership is now focused on a global vision" modelled on
Its cross-border state now destroyed, IS is instead likely to focus
on spreading shock and terror around the world through dramatic attacks.
In a first, Baghdadi used his 55-minute recording to call for attacks
in the West, saying an operation there would be "worth a thousand" at
Much of the address was reminiscent of approaches long used by Al-Qaeda, according to Hashemi.
In it, the IS leader scorns the US, blasts Shiite Iran, and calls on
Sunni Muslims in Iraq to denounce the Shiite-dominated paramilitary
units of the Hashed al-Shaabi.
Tore Hamming, a jihadist specialist at the European University
Institute, said Baghdadi's speech falls into the same category as his
last three -- "crisis management".