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Islamic State takes body blows in Iraq while affiliates grow elsewhere

U.N relief workers with blue helmets and vests stand next of residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, while they stand in line to receive aid food distributed by UNRWA, on the southern edge of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria. On April. 1, 2015, Islamic State militants infiltrated the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the Syrian capital marking the deepest foray yet by the extremist group into Damascus, seat of President Bashar Assad's power, Syrian opposition activists and Palestinian officials said.

UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY

By OREN DORELL | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 22, 2015

Even as the Islamic State group takes body blows in Iraq from a U.S.-led coalition, the extremist group's arms are extending elsewhere around the world.

Aided by slick propaganda videos, the group, headquartered in Syria, has attracted affiliates in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and Afghanistan — plus recruits and lone-wolf terror plotters from Western locales as far apart as Minneapolis, France and Australia.

Its signature theatrical brutality was on display in a video released Sunday that showed executions by beheadings and shootings of dozens of Christian and other captives by affiliates in Libya. In the videos, killers wore khaki fatigues, while the Christian beheading victims wore orange jumpsuits and the shooting victims wore black.

Color coordinated outfits, choreography and editing for such Internet films are some of the tools the Islamic State provides affiliates to attract followers across the region, says William McCants, a terrorism analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The group uses the videos "to send a message to potential adversaries and to scare citizens in areas they're hoping to conquer," McCants said. "They're also trying to attract people, a calling card for other rough men that would be interested in joining a group that celebrates that kind of violence."

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is recovering from life-threatening injuries sustained last month during an allied bombing attack, according to a report Tuesday in The Guardian of London. But the group's coordinated fighting shows it can operate without him.

While the group may be losing territory in Iraq, it has expanded operations in Syria, where a civil war continues into a fifth year. And it has offered military and governance expertise to Islamic militant groups that control territory in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Libya, says counterterrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

Other affiliates in Afghanistan and Yemen — Sunni Muslim groups — have been pushing to provoke sectarian clashes and Western intervention by targeting Shiite Muslims and Christians, Gambhir said.

"ISIS wants a global caliphate," Gambhir said, using one of the group's acronymns. "Last summer ISIS demonstrated its military capability, and since then we've seen their willingness to engage in guerrilla warfare and terrorism as well. They've established a global strategy including affiliates."

Islamic State is a descendant of al-Qaida in Iraq, which was nearly destroyed by U.S. forces allied with Iraqi Sunni tribes that al-Qaida had alienated during the U.S. occupation that ended in 2011.

It jumped to prominence last summer, when it took back control of huge swaths of western Iraq with assistance from Sunni tribes after spending a couple years growing its operation in Syria during that country's civil war.

Now a U.S.-led coalition is pounding Islamic State targets in Iraq with airstrikes while Iraqi forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias have retaken several cities from the group. The latest, Tikrit, was retaken by Iraqi forces in early April.

The fight in Iraq is far from over, and ISIL continues to gain ground in Syria, where it will be harder for Western forces to attack because airstrikes would help the current Syrian government, which the United States opposes, and harm U.S.-backed rebels, Gambhir said.

Other places where the Islamic State's influence is spreading:

  • Yemen. Islamic State operators launched attacks in March on Shiite mosques in the cities of Sanaa and Sadaa, killing 130 people.
  • Afghanistan. Islamic State militants seized a bus loaded with 31 Shiite civilians in February, the largest incident in a trend of recent attacks on Shiites in the country. The captives are still being held.
  • Australia. Authorities arrested five teens on Saturday in a suspected Islamic State-inspired plot against police officers, the latest case of Islamic State threats to the nation.
  • Minneapolis, U.S. prosecutors on Monday announced the arrest of six Somali Americans on terrorism charges. They are accused of elaborate attempts to travel to Syria and join Islamic State.

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