BERLIN — According to the ISIS terror group's five-year plan, the entire northern half of Africa, and large parts of Europe and Asia, should be conquered by 2019. Then comes the rest of the world. It's a ludicrous plan, but it nevertheless remains a firm foundation of ISIS ideology.
"Conquer, stay, expand" is the slogan of the Stone Age Islamists.
It's time to restore Muslim honor, says ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. "With Allah's permission, Muslims will once again be the masters of the world and kings of the earth."
But at the moment it doesn't look as if Allah has any intention of making Mr. Baghdadi master of the world.
Since Aug. 8 and Sept. 23, respectively, ISIS in Iraq and Syria have been repeatedly bombed. The militia has lost at least 1,000 men and seven leaders, among them some who were very close to Baghdadi. What's more, several hundred vehicles were destroyed, as were innumerable artillery positions, weapons depots and other military installations belonging to the group.
"Of course, ISIS has been weakened," says Iraqi Salafist expert Hisham al-Hashimi in Bagdad. "The destruction aside, they've lost their freedom of movement. They can only use small vehicles to get around. What's more, they have to limit communication to an extreme minimum in order not to be located."
Hashimi believes it's just a question of time before the terror groups collapses. "Since the U.S. bombed the oil fields they controlled, they've been losing a million dollars a day."
Bye-bye oil revenues
According to a United Nations report, ISIS had been raking in between 682,000 and 1,328,000 euros per day. Oil exports were one of their chief sources of revenue. In the future, tanker trucks traveling out of jihadist areas to neighboring countries will be confiscated. But the worst blow for the Islamist oil business was losing the battle of Baiji.
That city of 60,000 residents is the largest Iraqi location to have been won back from ISIS. It is the site of Iraq's most important oil refinery. If Baghdadi's men had gotten a firm grip on that, they would have become real players on the commodities market. But as things stand, they have to keep on flogging unrefined oil via shadowy channels.
No less under pressure are the Islamists in the autonomous northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan. They've lost several locations there. Since last week, the Kurdish Peshmerga troops have launched a major new offensive around Sadia and Kirkuk.
And Kobani? ISIS sent thousands of fighters to battle for the Syrian-Kurdish city on the border with Turkey. The world awaited their defeat breathlessly, but that was weeks ago.
"But now they are withdrawing," says Ismet Sheik Hassan, the self-appointed minister of defense for the autonomous region of Kobani. "They held nearly half the city. Now it's probably some 10% to 20%." ISIS troops soon will have been chased out of the city proper. "Their morale is very low because they're constantly walking into traps." The extremists are a permanent target for American fighter planes.
"For ISIS, Kobani is a bitter defeat," says the defense minister. "It has a symbolic effect on everybody fighting the terrorists." ISIS, he says, has lost its mystique. "Most of them aren't even good fighters," Hassan claims. "Only a few of the leaders understand the trade. The rest are a bunch of chickens." The Kurdish fighters ought to know. For over a year, they have repelling ISIS attacks aimed at conquering the north of the country.
The image of an unbeatable ISIS militia was the result of the group's successful blitzkrieg in Iraq. They made it all the way to the outskirts of Baghdad. It looked as if the Islamic militia would be unstoppable. It became the region's specter, almost a force of nature whose brutal power could not be quelled.
But what really happened? The invasion of the extremists was anything but a military master coup. They succeeded only when their opponents gave up. In Mosul and other cities, soldiers from the Iraqi army ran from action. Even the Kurdish Peshmerga troops legged it. They called it "tactical withdrawal," but they left the Christian city of Qaraqosh and Sinjar, home mainly to Yazidi Kurds, open to massacres, a wave of refugees, and the enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women.
Delusions of grandeur
But the situation has changed. In Iraq, Shia militias trained by Iran are at the front. The Peshmerga have weapons from Germany and other Western countries whose experts are also helping them with strategy. And then there are the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes, which have had fatal results for ISIS troops.
"ISIS wanted to present itself as the power that could confront the West," says Aiman al-Tamimi from the American think tank Forum Middle East. "That was the core of their image." Baghdadi promised across-the-board victory, but there can be no talk of that now. "At the end of the day, this religious ideology leads to delusions of grandeur," Tamimi says.
U.S. bombings of an ISIS-controlled oil refinery in Syria — Photo: U.S. military
But the jihad specialist doesn't believe ISIS is going away anytime soon. "To use a historical analogy, the case of ISIS could slowly play out like the breakdown of Nazi Germany," Tamimi explains. There are parallels in the aggressive expansion policies of both ISIS and the Nazis. "In terms of time frame," Tamimi continues, "with ISIS we are today about where the Allies stood in 1941." Which is to say, the beginning of the end.
But is it a full four years until the ISIS extremists break down? We don't have to wait that long. If Syrian and Iraqi Kurds get the heavy weaponry they have long been clamoring for, they could further undermine the weakened militia. The Western coalition would also have to use the full capacity of their air forces. That would be a way to get rid of them faster. Which is not to say that Iraq and Syria would then become jihadist-free zones.
Scattered ISIS members would be welcomed with open arms by similar militias, namely Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, the two al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. The other hardcore boys who still believe in ISIS ideology could join one of the groups in Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen that recently took an oath of allegiance to Baghdadi.
But the golden show in the spotlight of the world is now over. New ISIS followers make up splinter groups that are very far from playing an important role. There can no longer be any talk of an international network that creates chaos in North Africa and the Gulf States. The only people who want to do that are ISIS propaganda strategists. They are former masters of disseminating messages that generate fear.