On Wednesday, April 29th, 2015, a photocopy of a printed statement allegedly distributed by the Aleppo Center of Preaching and Mosques of the Islamic State (IS) began circulating online on unofficial Twitter accounts of IS members/supporters (click for original or translation document). Dated Monday, April 27th, 2015, this statement was issued under the authority of the Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and called for the emirs and fighters within IS’s Syrian provinces to volunteer to fight in the ongoing battles in Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn provinces in Iraq. While we have not seen a similar statement posted online from other Syrian provinces, the opening sentence of this statement made clear that it was intended for all Syrian provinces under IS control, not just Aleppo.
While the fact that the IS is seeking reinforcements to send to the frontlines in Iraq is not surprising, this statement has several noteworthy features, including a brief view into how the Caliph is thinking about the way forward as he prosecutes a multiple-front war and how he interacts with local leaders in regards to troop mobilizations and deployments.
The first potential take away from the statement is that it included an injunction for those who wanted to volunteer to report within 48 hours. The short temporal expiration date on this order suggests a certain urgency in the request. Given the time it will take to organize and deploy fighters, this suggests that IS sees the next several weeks in both Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn as critical.
But a quick response was not the only thing the Caliph wanted. The statement also contains a call for a specific type of fighter: suicide bombers and soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves in assaults/battles (suicide fighters). The “single-use” nature of these forces potentially suggests that a shortage of such fighters exists in Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn or that IS is preparing for a counteroffensive. And what is more, the call clearly wants those who are the best of the best: “religiously dedicated, patient ones, and war experts who don’t look back, fight and don’t lay down their weapons until they get killed or God grants them victory.” The statement conveys not just a need for fighters, but a need for the best and most committed fighters.
And there already appears to have been some response to this kind of call in the recent past. Almost three weeks ago, on April 11, 2015, a video surfaced from Al-Raqqah that showed a group of individuals dressed in combat fatigues pledging allegiance to the Caliph. The pledge itself was relatively similar to a previous pledge, except that it included a general pledge to the death, with the fighters stating “There is no return after today.” The video then proceeds to show the fighters allegedly traveling from Al-Raqqah to Salāh ad Dīn.
Additionally, there is an important corollary from this latest statement to the Caliph’s view of the current fight and the value he places on Iraq relative to Syria. If he is willing to call for the best of the best out of Syria and push them to Iraq, what does this mean about the value he places on Iraq relative to Syria? What is more, how do the local leaders feel about this call? It seems unlikely that governors in Aleppo and Raqqa enthusiastically send their best fighters away, never to return. It is certainly plausible that the Caliph feels that his governors in Syria can bear sending away some of their troops to Iraq, but the dynamic nature of the conflict both in Iraq and Syria is forcing the Caliph into a delicate balancing act regarding which front of the conflict is more important and how to avoid alienating local leadership.
Another point worth noting is the fact that although Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn are mentioned together in the statement, this does not suggest that they are considered of similar importance to IS. The fighting in Salāh ad Dīn has been intense (particularly around and inside the Baji oil refinery), but is most likely viewed as a stalling action by IS to prevent / prepare for an eventual campaign against Mosul. Al-Anbar, on the other hand, with its large Sunni population and critical geographic location, is a territory that is essential to the IS’s strategy in Iraq.
Finally, there is a curious matter within the statement that asks for volunteers among already existing IS forces to go fight in Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn. The Caliph presumably has the authority to order such individuals, who have already joined the military side of the IS, to mobilize and deploy. In thinking about why the statement is asking for volunteers, there are two important sub-points.
First, it may be that the Caliph is less sure of his control over individuals and events in Syria. It is possible that he is concerned about undermining his own leadership by giving an order that may not be obeyed by emirs and fighters in Syria. Nevertheless, there is a pressing need for additional fighters, so the compromise approach appears to be asking for volunteers rather than ordering them.
Second, the statement specifically says that volunteers are to report to the local office of “Preaching and Mosques.” This creates a mechanism for the local governor (wali) to exercise oversight over the process of sending fighters from Aleppo to Iraq. Again, presumably the Caliph does not need to defer to local leaders on this issue, but such deference provides insight into the calculations of the Caliph in managing local issues with the broader needs of his “state”…a classic governance challenge.
Some of these inferences are reinforced by the IS’s own self-reported attack data over the past week. IS has been conducting a daily news rollup of military activities within its Caliphate using the Al-Bayan radio station. Of course, one should accept those numbers cautiously as they are self-reported.
With that understanding, from April 21 – April 29, there were a total of 229 news items detailed in Al-Bayan daily reports. Over 28% of these (64 in total) reported on military activities in Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn. When one considers that the reports contained news from approximately 14 provinces during this period of time, the fact that such a high number came from two provinces alone is telling.
This number of attacks greatly increases if one takes three other areas bordering Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn provinces into account: Diyala, Northern Baghdad, and al-Janub (south of Baghdad and north of Wasit and Babil provinces). This number certainly stands in contrast to the 35 (15%) news items coming out of Syrian provinces of the IS. While there are still important developments going on in Syria, IS sees the battles in Iraq as critical.
To support the idea that particular types of fighters are seen as valuable to the campaigns in Al-Anbar and Salāh ad Dīn, consider the fact that of the 8 suicide bombings claimed by the IS in the Al-Bayan reports over the past week, all 8 occurred in Al-Anbar (7) and Salāh ad Dīn (1).
The past several weeks of conflict in Iraq have been characterized by advances and setbacks for both sides. In response, both IS and the Iraqi government have been adjusting their strategy and forces as needed. However, while the responses of the Iraqi government have been subject to public scrutiny, the responses of IS have not been transparent. In that sense, this statement, taken together with the video showing the death pledge by fighters moving from Al-Raqqah to Iraq, sheds light on the current and future challenges of IS.
Muhammad al-`Ubaydi is a research assistant at the Combating Terrorism Center and monitors Arabic jihadist websites.
Daniel Milton is an Assistant Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Muhammad and Daniel would like to thank Nelly Lahoud, Bryan Price, and Krissy Hummel for their insights and assistance in preparing this piece.
The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.