Experts: Islamic State 'death spiral' most dangerous part of fight for U.S. coalition

By James LaPorta  |  Oct. 17, 2017 at 5:16 PM
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Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Experts on the Middle East, terrorism and the Islamic State say that while the terrorist organization is in a "death spiral," the U.S.-led coalition battling the group is likely entering its most dangerous phase.

The early signs of victory are beginning to circulate as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, drive IS out of its proclaimed capital of Raqqa, Syria.

IS fighters were contained Tuesday in a stadium complex in the city as they attempt to make a last stand effort in a battle campaign the SDF began in June with air support from the U.S.-led coalition and the Russian government.

"They are getting desperate," chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White told reporters last week. "Civilians are running toward the Iraqi security forces and Syrian Democratic Forces because they know they are the good guys."

President Donald Trump is in lock step with Pentagon officials as they signal the beginning of the end for IS as the terrorist organization attempts to shift gears into a new defensive strategy aimed at survival.

Dr. Daniel S. Masters, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lecturer on national security policy, Middle Eastern political systems and terrorism, told UPI the U.S.-led coalition is entering the most dangerous phase in the downfall of any terrorist organization.

Masters said the coalition, along with militias fighting on the ground in Syria and Iraq, are going to experience difficulties restoring order as IS fractions begin to decentralize.

"As those fractions split, some will moderate and try to reintegrate into a normal political process, and others are going to feel they just were not violent enough," Masters said.

Masters said IS leadership will try to retrench in Syria, where interference from world superpowers gives IS fighters space to regroup under the cover of nation-state politics.

Given the substantial losses of manpower and resources, however, Masters said a resurgence of IS in Syria is unlikely.

The battle of Raqqa comes more than two months since the bloody, nine-month campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraq, from IS militants.

A thriving city at the turn of the 21st century, Mosul encompassed one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse populations in Iraq, with a rapidly growing citizenry amid universities and renowned medical colleges. Now, the city lies in ruins, shifting from a war to a humanitarian crisis.

Save the Children said Monday about 400,000 children were still displaced from the fighting in Mosul, more than a year after the launch of a military offensive to recapture the city.

"Large parts of Mosul have been reduced to rubble -- schools, homes, hospitals, roads, playgrounds and parks," Ana Locsin, Iraq Country Director for Save the Children, said in a statement. "I've spoken to dozens of children haunted by their experiences, left with psychological scars that'll take years to heal.

"Just because the fighting in Mosul has stopped doesn't mean the humanitarian needs aren't great. If anything, children need our help now more than ever -- those that are still displaced and those that are returning to see what's left of their homes."

Several other experts told UPI they fear Yemen will be the main area of interest as IS attempts to regroup and exert influence. Geographically, Yemen is a strategic location, bordering Saudi Arabia, and the entry point to the Red Sea.

Access to the horn of Africa could allow IS militants to regroup with factions in North Africa or with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, though the organizations differ on ideological strategies and grievances. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida, broke ties with IS in 2014.

IS militants from Iraq and Syria could also find refuge with Boko Haram in Niger or Chad. Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are also likely destinations as al-Shabab continues to wage war on multiple governments.

"People have to keep in mind that these are organizations. They have a political goal they are are trying to pursue, but they also have an organizational goal to survive and remain relevant," Masters told UPI. "So the organization, in an an effort to try and survive from collapse, will ultimately try to escalate attacks in a way that they probably would not normally -- it's desperation.

"The common vernacular is what we call the death spiral, but basically it's an unwinding of the campaign... they are wrapped around the organizational survival right now because of their political goal failures," Masters said. "So they are going to try and find ways that give the appearance that they are more active, more impressive and capable than they really are because that gives them resources to ideally achieve the political goals they have established."

Evidence of the Islamic State attempting to give off the appearance of influence and capabilities can be seen in the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Fifty-eight people were killed and hundreds injured as lone gunman Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old retiree, carried out the attack. IS claimed responsibility in the wake of the shooting; however, the FBI dismissed the claims, as there was no evidence connecting Paddock to any international terrorist group.

Masters said 40 to 50 percent of terrorist attacks have no attribution at all.

"Nobody claims responsibility for those attacks, so what this does is create a space for opportunistic groups like ISIS to claim responsibility for the attack," as the organization becomes more desperate from losing strongholds and influence.

"Studying the Middle-East is like watching medieval Europe," Masters said. "Pre-renaissance Europe with the constant changing of boundaries and governments -- we are in the modern dark ages -- it's Game of Thrones without the good acting."

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