'We'll Be Back' Islamic State Losses Could Fuel Sectarian Warfare
Islamic State has been losing significant swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in recent months. When it goes, though, the group leaves behind deadly booby traps -- and the makings of sectarian warfare.
Death is always just three water bottles away. They are the small ones, 0.5 liters (1 pint), and some of them are half empty while on others, the seal hasn't yet been broken. They can be found standing in front of doors, courtyard gates and wall openings: silent warnings set out by Shiite militia fighters to alert of the presence of mines. "Don't take another step," say the otherwise quiet fighters who don't let you out of sight for even a second. "Hell is lying in wait beyond."
The bottles can be found along devastated stretches of road in front of the few undamaged buildings remaining in the town of Bashir, which was liberated at the beginning of May from Islamic State fighters. Those intact structures, though, are more dangerous than all the others.
"Everything is mined, every house, yard, door handle and light switch," says the spokesperson of the Shiite militia that is still -- weeks after taking Bashir -- sticking to secure pathways through the town. "We didn't lose a single fighter during our last assault. But we lost four immediately afterwards when they went to search houses to see if there were still fighters from Daesh (Eds. note: the Arabic abbreviation of Islamic State) hiding inside."
By the time IS troops rolled into Bashir on June 17, 2014, almost all of the 5,000 (Shiite) residents had fled hours before. For almost two years, IS fighters lived here and transformed the place into a fortress, digging tunnels and mining all of the houses but for the two dozen they used themselves. It took more than a year to reconquer Bashir and the offensive was ultimately successful in large part due to the US jets that bombed IS positions.
The situation has been similar, though on a larger scale, in Fallujah, where Iraqi forces have spent weeks driving their way into the city in a push to liberate it from Islamic State. With much of the work now completed, including the retaking of a large hospital that had been used by IS militants as a headquarters and bomb-making factory, the humanitarian situation remains tense. In addition to booby traps throughout the city, tens of thousands of civilians have fled Fallujah in recent weeks and providing them with food and shelter has proven challenging.
From a purely military perspective, Islamic State is on the retreat everywhere in Iraq, in parts of Syria and even in Libya, where troops from Misrata recently attacked the Islamic State bastion of Sirte with discrete support from the US. Coalition air strikes have limited IS mobility and robbed the terror group of the majority of revenues from the oil fields it has conquered. With the closure of the Turkish border to Syria, it has likewise become much more difficult for foreign fighters to join IS. And troops supported by the West and Iran are on the advance everywhere. In Iraq, IS has lost around 45 percent of the territory it once controlled, according to an estimate by the US Defense Department, while in Syria it has lost up to 20 percent.
On the map, the "Caliphate" is shrinking. But on the ground, the danger is growing that Fallujah and other Sunni cities will become the objects of Shiite revenge once they are liberated. Indeed, Washington has opted not to provide air support to operations in which Shiite militias are participating. In response, the Shiites have begun sending Iraqi army or Kurdish units ahead and rolling in behind them.
The storming of Fallujah has likewise taken on the characteristics of sectarian warfare, with Shiite militias having written the name of Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite preacher executed in Saudi Arabia, on the shells they fire. And in a video message, the leader of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade encouraged his fighters to "eradicate the cancerous growth of Fallujah to cleanse Iraq. There are no patriots there, no believers."
The city is cut off, and food, water and medical supplies cannot be brought in. "A kilogram of rice now costs $48," one of those trapped inside recently reported in a rare phone call. "Daesh has erected roadblocks everywhere along with ambushes to prevent people from fleeing."
Several thousand have been able to flee nonetheless, many of them leaving on foot at night through irrigation canals, or even by swimming across the Euphrates River in recent days. Since Friday -- the day the Iraqi government announced the city's liberation -- the number of civilians who have been able to get out has increased dramatically as the reconquering of the city has proceeded, with the International Organization for Migration estimating that over 80,000 have left Fallujah since fighting began in May, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
In the early stages of the attack, IS preachers had made clear that the city would not be given up without a fight, saying "we will remain and you will remain. If we are attacked, we will die together!" In recent days, IS has done its best to live up to the promise, with Iraqi troops struggling to clear the city center of Islamic State militants. On Saturday, an IS sniper shot and wounded a government soldier on camera as he and others were showing off a liberated section of the city.
Reports over the weekend indicate that pockets of fierce IS resistance remain in Fallujah, making it clear that the militant Islamists are following a similar pattern of defense seen in the cities that have been wrested from IS control since 2014. Whether in the Kurdish enclave of Kobani in Syria, the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar, the towns of Tikrit, Ramadi and Baiji or smaller towns like Bashir in Iraq -- they were all reduced to ruins. Furthermore, IS digs tunnels underneath the cities it occupies. Even in Bashir, liberators found underground pathways, most of them designed to connect fighting positions. One, though, extended hundreds of meters in the direction of Mosul. "It was big enough for a car," said a military spokesperson. Likewise, streets, bridges and houses are mined long before impending attacks. If ground troops approach, IS snipers are often the only ones that stay behind in the city center, shooting at advancing soldiers without coming out into the open themselves. At the same time, suicide bombers drive trucks sheathed in steel plates and loaded with several tons of explosives into opposing positions.
In Baiji, home to an oil refinery, Shiite militia fighters complained last summer that they kept losing men over the course of several weeks without ever having laid eyes on an Islamic State sniper. And among Kurdish fighters, the story has been circulating of two bomb disposal experts who, after hours of searching through a house, thought that they had found all of the explosives hidden behind doors, in the television, on windows and in cabinets. Exhausted, they sat down on a couple of foam cushions -- which then exploded.
IS began early on manufacturing mines in industrial quantities. Using intermediaries, the group imported kilometers of fuses and thousands of tons of explosive material from India and other countries to Turkey. From there, the supplies are brought across the border and fed into a decentralized network for the production of booby traps. The explosives factories are near the front lines so as to keep supply lines short.
The degree to which IS booby traps a town also reveals how highly it values a place. In Bashir or Sinjar -- "cities of infidels" -- almost every house was transformed into a deadly pitfall. In Mosul, witnesses say, human-sized oxygen tanks were filled with explosives and buried under entry roads. But hometowns of senior IS leaders, like Hawijah, located southwest of Kirkuk, and Tal Afar west of Mosul, have apparently not been booby trapped at all.
The fact that IS is continuing to lose territory despite it all has led to growing paranoia inside its shrinking empire. It is difficult to gather information from within Islamic State and every source puts his life in danger. As a rule, telephones and email are avoided, with details smuggled out using messengers -- and it takes days for questions to be answered. "Daesh members treat everyone they find with a telephone as a spy," one informant writes. He lists the execution methods that await people like him: "Being thrown from the highest roof; being shot to death; being thrown into a vat of acid."
"Strange things are happening here," he says in reference to Islamic State's worsening shortage of cash. Early on, IS paid its fighters the equivalent of $400 per month, but that dropped initially to $150 and now all the way down to just $10. "Now, you can pay money to absolve yourself of almost any infraction except spying," the source says. "Those who are too poor are ordered to the front to dig tunnels. Smokers in particular can buy themselves out of punishment at $3.50 per cigarette. Cigarettes have become 16 times more expensive, and Daesh controls their smuggling."
'We Have a Plan!'
"The mood is ominous," says another source, speaking of Mosul. "Every day, Daesh preachers can be heard over the loudspeakers and they are totally open. 'We know you hate us! It is your fault that we have lost so many cities! You have betrayed us, because even though we came to support you against the Shiites, you don't want to fight with us.' Secretly," the informant continues, "some IS men have admitted that no new fighters are signing up any more, neither in Syria nor in Iraq. That has disconcerted them."
During Friday sermons, the source says, preachers admit that IS leadership believes it will lose even that territory it still controls. "But then," the informant says, "comes their most important point: 'We will be back, stronger than ever! And we have a plan to do so!' But they never say what it is."
Islamic State has experience with defeat followed by triumphant return. At the end of the last decade, the group was defeated once before and went dormant for a period, keeping a low profile in Mosul. It only began expanding again in 2012, taking advantage of the chaotic situation in northern Syria. That, in fact, is the group's official motto: "Survive and expand."
The strategy pursued by IS leadership can be summarized just as clearly: They purposefully stoke the hatred of their enemies. In mid-May, IS commanders used horrific attacks in Baghdad, primarily against Shiite neighborhoods, to provoke the attack on Fallujah, even though they will not be able to hold the city, isolated as it is from core IS territory. And they don't allow their own constituency to leave the city.
Their goal is not the apocalypse, but total sectarian warfare: They want Sunnis to be hated, persecuted and murdered so that they have no other choice but to turn to Islamic State as their protector.
Turned Away at Gunpoint
It has already become impossible to ignore the hatred felt by Shiites in Iraq. Reconquered Sunni cities and territories are largely empty of people, their residents expelled -- along with thousands who have been arrested and disappeared. Satellite images show that in and near Tikrit, hundreds of houses were blown up after Islamic State was driven away in April 2015.
Even the Baiji refinery, which survived the fighting in the region largely unscathed, was dismantled by militants over the course of several weeks. Smaller parts and generators ended up on the black market while other elements were transported to Iran. A delegation from the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, which had traveled to Baiji to inspect the refinery's condition following the fighting, was turned away at gunpoint.
Shiite militias in Bashir, meanwhile, have begun speaking of the protective hand of Allah that protects them from the shells of IS, which is dug in just a few kilometers away. A cleric wanders through the ruined city proclaiming: "The liberation of Bashir has opened the pages of the Koran ... the scent of paradise has arrived" -- though the only discernible scent is that coming from the decomposing corpses that haven't yet been recovered from the rubble.
Only the commander, a Shiite from Bashir, looks wearily at the remains of his city. "We have it back, but as what? A deadly pile of rubble where no one can live," he says with a hoarse voice. "I have seen a lot: booby-trapped refrigerators, Korans, doors, sofas. But there was a new one this time around: They even booby trapped the water faucets."