The fortunes and tactics of ISIL changed throughout the course of 2015. Whilst 2014 was a year of rapid and consecutive military successes and territorial gains for ISIL in north and western Iraq and eastern Syria, and a year when the organisation’s barbarity and sadism became openly visible to the world, the year of 2015 was a period of both decline and transformation for ISIL’s pseudo-state.
An increased response by Obama and his western allies in conjunction with Iraqi forces and Shi’a militias gradually eroded ISIL’s foothold in the north and west of Iraq. Although this response was arguably ill-weighted and hampered by setbacks, it changed the course of ISIL’s advance.
Loss of Territory and a Change of Tactics
2015 saw ISIL’s battered forces lose control of Sinjar, a former Yazidi city now lying desolate and still uninhabited, and the Syrian city of Kobane; both to Kurdish forces. The strategically located city of Tikrit was finally recaptured on April 12 by Iraqi forces after a month-long process of rooting out ISIL insurgents. Ramadi, a city strategically located on the Euphrates river in central Iraq, was lost during an ISIL attack in May. However, after a bitter struggle Ramadi was recaptured on December 28 in a coordinated campaign led by Iraqi security forces, and directly aided by American aerial support and military specialists on the ground.
In 2015, ISIL received more attention for its activities abroad than those occurring in its own territory. As ISIL’s pretensions to statehood in Iraq and Syria were gradually eroded, the group simultaneously made territorial gains elsewhere. ISIL also regressed to the tactics of its forefather, Al-Qaeda, in opting for an increased use of terror abroad in order to compensate for its increasing loss of political hegemony in Iraq and Syria.
The focus changed from targeting the ‘near’ enemy, to instead targeting the ‘distant’ enemy; particularly those involved in the allied effort to fight ISIL. Whilst continuing to inflict terror on its own citizens, slaughtering accused informants and spies without trial, and murdering captured journalists and soldiers, the group spread its terror around the world, attacking targets throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
2015: Creating an International Network
Despite the precariousness of ISIL’s fortunes in Iraq and Syria and the waning of its political power, the group attracted the allegiance of Islamist jihadi groups throughout the world, extending its reach throughout the African and Asian continents. Boko Haram, a jihadi group chiefly based in Nigeria but also operating in Niger, Cameroon and Chad, declared formal and unconditional allegiance to ISIL on the March 7. A similar declaration was made by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), operating in northern Afghanistan, on the March 13. ISIL ‘provinces’ were established by militants in Afghanistan (called the Khorasan Province), led by the militant Hafiz Saeed Khan; although Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have prevented ISIL from establishing itself in the region. Islamist groups based in the Caucasus region in southern Russia declared allegiance to ISIL, subsequently creating the ‘Caucasus Province’, chiefly based in Chechnya and Dagestan.
ISIL also continued to consolidate its hold on terrorist and jihadi groups that had pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in late 2014 or in January 2015, including groups operating in Egypt’s Sinai region, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
The current civil wars in Libya and Yemen were the perfect environment for ISIL to expand its operations and attract new militants. Whilst ISIL militants are still effectively contained by Al-Qaeda and Houthi rebels in Yemen, the ISIL-backed militias in Libya captured and controlled extensive territory in the countryside around Sabha, Sirte, Benghazi and Tripoli during the past year. Throughout 2015 ISIL quickly built up the strength of its Libyan-based militant groups.
ISIL however experienced setbacks in its attempt to establish its hegemony throughout the Muslim world. ISIL’s expanding influence in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula brought it into direct competition with Al-Qaeda for financing and recruits, and the loyalty of militias, and led to bloody conflicts between the two terrorist organisations throughout 2015 in both Yemen and Libya.
Despite the gradual erosion of ISIL’s hegemony in Iraq and Syria and the group’s faltering support amongst many of its original Sunni supporters, ISIL has transformed itself into an international organisation with a wide-reaching network. This network, whilst being loosely-knitted and not featuring the coherent chains of command typical of military forces, nevertheless resembles the size of Al-Qaeda in the years after 9/11.
Spreading ‘Terror’ abroad
The gradual and bloody decline of ISIL as a political force in Syria and Iraq and its emergence in new theatres of war, was largely overshadowed in 2015 by ISIL-led or inspired terrorist attacks on civilian targets. ISIL’s change of focus from the ‘near’ enemy to the ‘distant’ enemy did not hamper its bloodthirsty lust for grisly executions and violence, or its proclivity for recording and using these murders for propaganda purposes, but nevertheless led to an increase in its usage of ‘terrorism’ as a political and ideological tool.
France was targeted infamously on the November 13, 2015 in a coordinated attack by ISIL terrorists on the Bataclan theatre, the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, and a number of cafes and restaurants. The horrific attack left 130 dead, and 368 injured or wounded, and a nation in trauma. The November attacks were France’s deadliest since the end of the Second World War, and Europe’s worst since the 2004 Madrid attacks.
France had also been targeted earlier in the year by Islamist extremists. A manager of a French gas factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier was brutally murdered, and several others injured, by a lone ISIL-allied terrorist on the June 26. The Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked on the January 7, and a kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes was attacked the next day leading to further casualties; however the latter two attacks have been claimed by both ISIL and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
ISIL militants operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula downed Metrojet Flight 9268 on the October 31, flying from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport to Saint Petersburg, with a bomb hidden under a passenger’s seat. Despite strenuous denials by the Egyptian government, both Russian and US officials have confirmed ISIL’s direct role in the terrorist attack which killed 224, including 219 Russians. ISIL’s Sinai based militants, formerly known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, are believed to have been responsible for the attack.
ISIL’s brand of sadism has regrettably led to imitation by sympathisers, including a mass-shooting in San Bernardino, in southern California, on the December 2 by a married couple. Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 and injured 22 before fleeing, and later being killed in a shootout with police.
Despite the barbarity of ISIL’s attacks against westerners, 2015 saw the Middle East experience the worst of the group’s excesses. In Kuwait City a Shi’a mosque was targeted by a suicide bomber on the June 26, killing 27 and injuring 227. Houthi affiliated Shi’a Muslims were targeted in a multiple suicide-bombing attack on the al-Badr and al-Hashoosh mosques in Sana’a in Yemen, leading to 142 deaths and 351 wounded. A day before the Paris attacks Lebanon was attacked by two suicide bombers in Bourj el-Barajneh, a suburb in south Beirut, leaving 43 dead and according to reports as many as 240 wounded.
Turkey was targeted by ISIL, with suicide-bombers detonating their charges outside Ankara Central station in the midst of a peaceful rally organised by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and other political and trade union groups. The attacks left 102 killed and over 400 injured or wounded. Additional suicide attacks by ISIL militants in the Arabian Peninsula, Tunisia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and against civilians in Syria, also led to extensive casualties.
ISIL in 2015
In 2015 ISIL expanded its operations around the world, through an increased presence in the Libyan and Yemen civil wars, an increased role in destabilising Afghanistan and Egypt’s Sinai region, but also through spreading its own brand of terrorism. Terrorist attacks planned by ISIL, and others planned and undertaken by ISIL sympathisers, inflicted heavy casualties on four different continents. Whilst the war progressed in Iraq and Syria, gradually turning in favour of Iraqi, Kurdish and the international coalition forces, ISIL transformed itself into a worldwide network. The war to defeat ISIL is no longer limited to Syria and Iraq, but involves rooting out its financiers, sleeper agents, and militants wherever they have established roots.
Image source: The Foothill Dragon Press