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Islamic State Terrorist Group’s Forces falling apart? Iraqi and Kurdish Commanders See Cracks in Jihadist Discipline

Some extremists are withdrawing from the fight unilaterally, not under orders from their superiors to do so

Iraqi special forces soldiers move on foot through an alley on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 4, 2016. Heavy fighting erupted in the eastern neighborhoods of Mosul Friday as Iraqi special forces launched an assault deeper into the urban areas of the city and swung round to attack Islamic State militants from a second entry point to the northeast. VOA

Bashiqa (Iraq), November 6, 2016: While there are no signs that the Islamic State group’s forces are falling apart in northern Iraq under the pressure of the offensive on Mosul, the militants’ last major urban stronghold in Iraq, commanders of both Kurdish and Iraqi military units have told VOA they see cracks emerging in jihadist discipline, indicating the resolve of some militants is weakening.

The picture is not totally uniform, according to the commanders in charge of the Iraqi-Kurdish assault. Some extremists are withdrawing from the fight unilaterally, they say, not under orders from their superiors to do so. This contrasts with other jihadist withdrawals that are clearly tactical.

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“It often depends on the determination of the local IS emir,” says Kurdish General Nuraddin Tatarkhan, who commands the seventh peshmerga division, which has encircled the town of Bashiqa, 24 kilometers from Mosul.

“It really depends, also, on individual fighters,” Tatarkhan said. There is no widespread panic among jihadists, he adds, but suggests their resistance will crumble in the face of the much larger forces ranged against them.

Men are held by Iraqi national security agents, to be interrogated at a checkpoint, as oil fields burn in Qayyarah, south of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 5, 2016. VOA
Men are held by Iraqi national security agents, to be interrogated at a checkpoint, as oil fields burn in Qayyarah, south of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 5, 2016. VOA

Militants’ staged withdrawals

Iraqi and Kurdish commanders have noticed a pattern developing across all fronts in northern Iraq: The first village on a front line is the hardest to recapture from the jihadists, with the second succumbing more easily.

That was seen last week in Mosul when IS resistance was fierce for four days in the eastern district of Gogjali, the first neighborhood inside the city limits overrun by soldiers from Iraq’s elite Golden Division. Then Friday Iraqi soldiers forced their way into the adjacent district of Samaha much more quickly than they had expected, encountering lighter resistance than they had faced all week in Gogjali.

This pattern is being dictated by top IS commanders, the top ranks of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces believe. They add, though, that other Islamic State withdrawals appear to be the result of decisions taken by local emirs or, in some cases, by individual fighters from small units where discipline has collapsed. IS resolve seems to deteriorate more quickly when no foreign members of the terror group are present.

Fierce resistance from Chechens, Kazakhs

“Resistance is much fiercer when there are Chechens, Kazakhs or Central Asians” present among the fighters, Tatarkhan says.

FILE - This image taken from a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who released a new message late Wednesday, encouraging his followers to keep up the fight for the city of Mosul. VOA
FILE – This image taken from a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who released a new message late Wednesday, encouraging his followers to keep up the fight for the city of Mosul. VOA

Islamic State’s leader and self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke nearly a yearlong silence last week with a 31-minute audio recording urging his forces to remain firm in the face of the three-week-long offensive on Mosul, the city where he announced to the world that his caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq had been established.

“Know that the value of staying on your land with honor is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame,” Baghdadi said. “This war is yours. Turn the dark night of the infidels into day, destroy their homes and make rivers of their blood.”

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The audio recording prompted some Western analysts to speculate that Baghdadi might be trying to stave off his forces’ collapse. U.S. officials say they see no evidence of panic among the jihadists, but the picture on the ground appears more mixed and confused.

Displaced Iraqis, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, meet their relatives in Khazir Refugee Camp, east of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 5, 2016. VOA
Displaced Iraqis, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, meet their relatives in Khazir Refugee Camp, east of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 5, 2016. VOA

Civilians tell of their escape

Displaced civilians have confirmed to VOA that not all IS fighters are standing their ground, or appear to be in a rush to embrace “martyrdom” on the battlefield.

“Only two Daesh fighters remained in the village. They said to us, ‘You can go,’ and everyone ran,” 33-year-old Khaleel said.

Civilians in his village, Abu Jerbua, did not hesitate, Khaleel said. They seized the moment and dashed toward government lines as fast as they could.

In an interview later in the packed Khazir Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he and his family have found refuge, Khaleel described conditions in his village just before he left: “There were heavy airstrikes and a lot of militants were killed. Others just fled.”

“Most of the militants were Iraqis, with some Syrians,” he said. “The Iraqis were not from our area, they were strangers from Anbar [province], mainly.”

Casualties from airstrikes

Abu Jerbua, just south of Bashiqa, had a population of about 500 people before fighting began, but there have been civilian casualties.

“Two whole families died when their houses collapsed on them after being hit in the airstrikes,” Khaleel said.

As for Mosul itself, there are a lot of foreign, non-Iraqi fighters there, he added, “I have seen them with my own eyes.”

His wife gave birth in a hospital in Mosul a few months ago, Khaleel said, and there was a foreign woman who he thinks was European in the neighboring bed, also giving birth.

In contrast to the flight by IS militants from Abu Jerbua, extremists in other villages appear to be much more disciplined and organized, rounding up men and boys and herding them to Mosul.

But in the village of Qaryat Bir Hallan, 20 kilometers east of Mosul, Sarheed, a villager, says he “saw fear in the faces of Daesh fighters.”

The Mosul offensive. VOA
The Mosul offensive. VOA

Militants panicked under fire

Sitting in a tent in the Khazir camp with his family as a sandstorm darkened the sky outside, the 42-year-old school janitor said he tried to keep his teenage sons in their home at all times during the past two years, out of fear that IS would try to recruit them as “cubs of the caliphate.”

“When the offensive started, the militants in our village were afraid,” Sarheed said. “On the second day there was a lot of disorder and they seemed to be panicking, running all over the place.”

As Sarheed described the chaos, his 61-year-old father, an Iraqi army combat veteran from the Iran-Iraq war who lost his leg in 2006, raised his hands to heaven.

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Elsewhere on the front lines, Iraqi and peshmerga fighters say they are encountering total commitment from the IS militants.

“We have not captured any Daesh fighters,” said one peshmerga commander. “How can you capture militants who want to die? Many of them have suicide vests on.”

Even when a neighborhood or village is seized from IS, Iraqi and peshmerga forces are often surprised by militants infiltrating back in, especially at night, to launch hit-and-run attacks.

IS militants evaded government forces and sneaked back into Qayyarah to mount just such a raid; 13 of the extremists were killed, the Iraqis said. (VOA)

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We Will make you Zero To Hero: This is how Jihadist ISIS Lures Western potential Recruits

The Chicago Project on Security and Threats has concluded that ISIS often targets Western recruits with heroic outcomes

ISIS actively Lures Recruits from the West for its Jihadi Agenda
FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in Raqqa, north Syria, June 30, 2014. VOA

Beyond the slick, Hollywood-style cinematics, the Islamic State is targeting Western recruits with videos suggesting they, too, can be heroes like Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard.

That’s the conclusion of The Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which analyzed some 1,400 videos released by IS between 2013 and 2016. Researchers who watched and catalogued them all said there is more to the recruitment effort than just sophisticated videography, and it’s not necessarily all about Islam.

Instead, Robert Pape, who directs the security center, said the extremist group is targeting Westerners — especially recent Muslim converts — with videos that follow, nearly step-by-step, a screenwriter’s standard blueprint for heroic storytelling.

ISIS targets Western recruits with Hollywood style heroism
Islamic State is recruiting Westerns by using Hollywood-style cinematics, like that seen in the story of “Wonder Woman,” in which a character learns his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero. VOA

“It’s the heroic screenplay journey, the same thing that’s in Wonder Woman, where you have someone who is learning his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero,” Pape said.

Heroic storytelling

The project at the University of Chicago separately has assembled a database of people who have been indicted in the United States for activities related to IS. Thirty-six percent were recent converts to Islam and did not come from established Muslim communities, according to the project. Eighty-three percent watched IS videos, the project said.

Bruce Willis in movie Die Hard 4.0
FILE – U.S. actor Bruce Willis poses for the photographers during a photo call for his new movie “Die Hard 4.0” in Berlin, Germany, June 18, 2007. VOA

The group’s success in using heroic storytelling is prompting copycats, Pape said. The research shows al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate has been mimicking IS’ heroic narrative approach in its own recruitment films. “We have a pattern that’s emerging,” Pape said.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials aren’t sure the approach is all that new. They say IS has been using any method that works to recruit Westerners. Other terrorism researchers think IS’ message is still firmly rooted in religious extremism.

Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks messaging by militant groups, agrees that IS makes strong, visual appeals resembling Hollywood movies and video games, making its media operation more successful than al-Qaida’s. And IS videos can attract hero wannabes, she said.

“However, these features of IS media are only assets to a core message it uses to recruit,” Katz said. “At the foundation of IS recruitment propaganda is not so much the promise to be a Hollywood-esque hero, but a religious hero. There is a big difference between the two.”

Promise of martyrdom

When a fighter sits in front of a camera and calls for attacks, Katz said, he will likely frame it as revenge for Muslims killed or oppressed somewhere in the world. The message is designed to depict any terror attack in that nation as justified and allow the attacker to die as a martyr, she said.

The promise of religious martyrdom is powerful to anybody regardless of whether they are rich or poor, happy or unhappy, steeped in religion or not at all, she said.

Pape said he knows he’s challenging conventional wisdom when he says Westerners are being coaxed to join IS ranks not because of religious beliefs, but because of the group’s message of personal empowerment and Western concepts of individualism.

How else can one explain Western attackers’ loose connections to Islam, or their scarce knowledge of IS’s strict, conservative Sharia law, he asked. IS is embracing, not rejecting, Western culture and ideals, to mobilize Americans, he said.

“This is a journey like Clint Eastwood,” Pape said, recalling Eastwood’s 1970s performance in High Plains Drifter about a stranger who doles out justice in a corrupt mining town. “When Clint Eastwood goes in to save the town, he’s not doing it because he loves them. He even has contempt for the people he’s saving. He’s saving it because he’s superior,” Pape said.

“That’s Bruce Willis in Die Hard. That’s Wonder Woman. … Hollywood has figured out that’s what puts hundreds of millions in theater seats,” Pape said. “IS has figured out that’s how to get Westerners.”

12-step guide

Pape said the narrative in the recruitment videos targeting westerners closely tracks Chris Vogler’s 12-step guide titled “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.” The book is based on a narrative identified by scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama and other storytelling.

Step No. 1 in Vogler’s guide is portraying a character in his “ordinary world.”

An example is a March 25, 2016, video released by al-Qaida’s Syria branch about a young British man with roots in the Indian community. It starts: “Let us tell you the story of a real man … Abu Basir, as we knew him, came from central London. He was a graduate of law and a teacher by profession.”

Vogler’s ninth step is about how the hero survives death, emerging from battle to begin a transformation, sometimes with a prize.

In the al-Qaida video, the Brit runs through sniper fire in battle. He then lays down his weapon and picks up a pen to start his new vocation blogging and posting Twitter messages for the cause.

‘Zero to hero’

Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it doesn’t surprise him that IS would capitalize on what he dubs the “zero to hero” strategy because the organization is very pragmatic and accepts recruits regardless of their commitment to Islamic extremism.

Heroic aspirations are only one reason for joining the ranks of IS, he said. Criminals also seek the cover of IS to commit crimes. Others sign up because they want to belong to something.

“I’ve never seen a case of radicalization that was 100 percent one way or the other,” Levitt said. (VOA)