By Jean Marc Mojon ,AFP
BAGHDAD — Looking at the Islamic State’s (IS) string of military conquests in northern Iraq over the past week, one could think the jihadists outnumber their opponents 10 to 1. After routing government forces in an onslaught launched on June 9, it has managed to hold Iraq’s second city Mosul and gone on the offensive again last week, repeatedly ousting the much-celebrated Kurdish Peshmerga on various fronts. But the jihadist group remains a relatively small force and its strength lies not in numbers. Here are five reasons identified by military experts for its military successes:
Newly Acquired Weapons The Islamic State has made use of the military equipment it seized from its defeated enemies, including tanks, humvees, missiles and other heavy weaponry. The amount of hardware, often U.S.-made, the Iraqi army left behind in its spectacular retreat when the jihadists launched their offensive two months ago has transformed IS’ capabilities.
Syria Experience IS has long had a foothold in Iraq — that’s even where the group’s first incarnation was born in 2004 — but it became what it is today by fighting in neighboring Syria. “Three years of fighting in Syria has provided unparalleled training and learning opportunities for IS,” the U.S.-based intelligence consultancy Soufan Group said in a recent brief. They have been fighting the Syrian regime and rival rebel groups since 2011, seem to have no fear of death and have adopted very aggressive tactics.
Well-chosen Battles IS has picked its battles with great acumen, focusing on Sunni areas where support can be found, key infrastructure or poorly defended sites and by avoiding unnecessary losses to maintain momentum and internal unity. “They’ve moved a considerable distance over the past few days but these were very sparsely populated areas and there was very little in the way of defense forces,” said John Drake of the AKE Group security company. “When an opponent is already waning, IS are very good at letting people run away, but against those who really dig their heels in, they haven’t cracked many nuts,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Effective Propaganda IS has used the fear factor to conquer entire towns unopposed. It has posted grisly pictures of beheadings and mutilated bodies, to recruit radicalized youths but also to scare its opponents.
The jihadists project “an illusion of almost superhuman villainy,” said the Soufan Group’s Patrick Skinner.
“PR and intimidation is an important tactic for IS,” said Drake. “Whether or not they can use all the weapons they seize, they’re going to take pictures and use them for propaganda.”
Weak Opponents Possibly the single biggest factor making the jihadists look strong is the weakness of its opponents.
“The Peshmerga are relatively good by Iraqi standards but they are really light infantry fighters. Those who had experience fighting Saddam Hussein are gone and have been replaced by younger men,” said Cordesman, a former U.S. defense official. “IS has revealed depressing insufficiencies in its opponents, starting with the truly awful performance of the well-equipped Iraqi Army,” the Soufan Group brief said.