With Iraqi forces fighting their way into the Iraqi city of Fallujah, Chris Bond looks at whether the tide is slowly turning in the war against the so-called Islamic State group.
Over the past 12 months a series of horrific atrocities carried out in the name of so-called Islamic State (IS) or Daesh have created fear and outrage around the world.
In June last year, a gunman killed 38 holidaymakers – including 30 Britons – in the beach attack at the popular Tunisian resort of Sousse. Then came the massacre in Paris last November that left 130 people dead, which was followed in March by the attacks at Brussels airport and the Maelbeek metro station that claimed another 32 innocent lives.
Many people had felt that Daesh, or IS, and its veil of evil was confined to the Middle East, only for these assumptions to be swept away when these merciless acts of violence occurred on their doorstep.
There were even warnings last year from the Chancellor George Osborne who said that Daesh militants were trying to develop the ability to launch deadly cyber attacks against Britain by targeting hospitals or air traffic control systems.
For the past three years IS has brought fear and persecution to religious and ethnic minority groups caught up in its murderous path and become a byword for terror. But following a series of counterattacks and a concerted US-led air offensive there is a feeling that the tide may be turning.
In December, Ramadi became the latest city to be liberated from the clutches of the jihadists by the Iraqi military. IS suffered another blow recently after more than 22,000 files showing the contact details of militants who signed up to join the group were leaked to the western media by a disillusioned former member.
Now, the Iraqi Army is embroiled in a fierce battle with militants as it attempts to storm Fallujah, a key Islamic State stronghold 30 miles west of Baghdad. The city has been in IS hands since 2014 and if they can be forced out it will be seen as both a strategic and symbolic victory.
Dr Lars Berger, Associate Professor in International Security at the University of Leeds, says any weakening of IS is good news for those suffering at their hands, but claims the underlying question of why the terror group gained traction in the first place has to be addressed if it is to be defeated in the long run.
“If you look at Fallujah you have to remember this isn’t the first time it has been liberated. It’s happened before with Saddam Hussein and then al-Qaida and the fact we are seeing another attempt to liberate it suggests there is a wider problem.”
Dr Berger says Sunni Arabs in both Iraq and Syria feel they have been shunned by the political system and until this fundamental issue is resolved then radical Islamist groups like IS will continue to attract new recruits.
“You can win battles on the ground but this will not solve the problem unless you address the political problems that made people turn to them in the first place.”
This is the crucial challenge facing Iraq and Syria and indeed other parts of the Middle East. “It’s about having an inclusive political structure so that Sunni Arabs feel they have a voice,” he says.
“The attraction of IS to a small minority of people rested in its claim to have re-established a caliphate, this was crucial in recruiting supporters. It will be interesting to see what happens to IS if they suffer one defeat after another, because this would cut into its narrative of having set up a genuine state, rather than just being the apocalyptic vision of a few hardline radicals.”
Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, says one of the key reasons why Islamic State forces are on the back foot is the increasing ferocity of the US-led air strikes.
“The air war is far more intensive and the Pentagon reckons it has killed in the region of 28,000 Islamic State soldiers, with the number of air strikes heading towards the 20,000 mark. This has definitely had a corroding effect on IS in Iraq, but not so much in Syria where IS has actually made some gains.”
Prof Rogers says the recapture of places like Tikrit and Ramadi are an indication that in Iraq, at least, its sphere of influence appears to be shrinking.
However, he’s quick to point out that this doesn’t mean the terror organisation is facing its imminent demise. He believes that IS will probably lose control of Fallujah but says it is likely to take “many weeks or even months, rather than days,” before they are forced out.
Where they have retreated – such as from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and Kobane, the Turkish border town which Kurdish forces regained control of last summer – they have left behind buildings and communities in tatters.
Crucially, they’re still able to carry out suicide bombings, as they did across Iraq at the weekend killing at least 24 people, which adds to the sense of fear and mistrust. “They have been very effective in targeting Shia communities and the Abadi-led Iraqi government hasn’t been able to reach out to the Sunnis,” says Prof Rogers.
“During the Iraq War Fallujah was one of the biggest problems for the Americans and it’s significant that the IS militants now defending the city are mostly from Fallujah itself.”
The vexed question of how to defeat and then eradicate IS forces is inextricably entwined with the wider political complexities of the Middle East. “The Iraqi government is only doing this (attacking IS strongholds) with huge support from Iran and this has been going down like a lead balloon with Saudi Arabia,” says Prof Rogers.
“Islamic State are being hard pressed in Iraq, they’ve lost some towns and they are being pushed back. But even if they are forced underground they will resurface in three or four years time, because they still have a lot of support not just there but in other places in the Middle East.”
There are fears that the terror group will shift its emphasis from here to North Africa and countries such as Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. It’s something Prof Rogers says is already happening.
“There’s around 5,000 to 6,000 para-militaries operating in Libya and there’s going to be a war there, there’s little doubt about that. Whether it will mean boots on the ground is another matter but there are already Special Forces in the country now.”
Prof Rogers says there has been a significant change of tactics by the IS leadership which has seen them move away from just wanting to create a Caliphate in the Middle East.
“Unlike their previous policy they have now decided to operate overseas. In the early 2000’s al-Qaida was trying to set off bombs all over the place in Madrid, Casablanca and London. But IS originally wanted a geographical caliphate and that’s now changed.”
He points to the horrific attack on British holidaymakers at Sousse last summer and the subsequent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. These not only shocked people around the world but they were also a bloody reminder that IS militants remain a threat, one that is capable of striking at the very heart of Europe and the people who live there.
“The aim is clear cut,” says Prof Rogers. “In places like Tunisia and Egypt they want to damage the economy and build up more recruits. With the attacks on Belgium, and particularly France, they want to stir up as much anti-Muslim bigotry as they can because they want more Muslims to feel marginalised.”
The war against terrorist groups like IS will not end in the foreseeable future, and even if the Iraqi forces succeed in driving the jihadists out of Fallujah it is just one step on a long road. “I don’t think that the war against IS is won overall and it would be very dangerous to think it is.”