The War on the Islamic State: Discouraging Numbers

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

The Islamic State (ISIS) is losing ground in Iraq and Nigeria, the terror group continues to make up its losses by recruiting foreign fighters, gaining ground in Syria and establishing international affiliates.

On March 3, the Pentagon estimated that it killed 8,500 Islamic State members in total since August when the campaign began. That's a kill rate of roughly 1,200 per month. To put that in the proper perspective, the size of the Islamic State must be determined.

The CIA's official estimate of the Islamic State's total number of fighters (itself an undefined term) in September was between 20,000 to 31,500. This would mean that the Islamic State lost between 27% and 43% of its strength—if the estimate is accurate and if ISIS isn't recruiting more fighters. And that's where the numbers don't tell the whole story.


The Size of ISIS Forces

Firstly, it must be recognized that the U.S. intelligence community has a history of underestimating the Islamic State’s strength. By President Obama's own admission, U.S. intelligence didn't see the Islamic State’s offensive into Iraq coming. In June 2014, the CIA estimated that the Islamic State had only 4,000 fighters. Only three months later, we were given the current numbers that have not been revised since.

Some of that increase may be attribute to increased recruitment and arrival of foreign fighters, but the CIA's estimate increased by 500% to 800% over just three months, raising the question if the CIA is yet again underestimating the Islamic State’s numbers.

In August, a month prior to the revised estimate, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamic State had 50,000 fighters in Syria alone, after recruiting 6,000 new fighters (including 1,000 foreigners) in July. A security expert in Iraq put the total number at around 100,000.

In November, Kurdish President Barzani's chief of staff gave a figure of 200,000. Terrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross looked at the conflicting estimates and the land mass controlled by the Islamic State and concluded that the U.S. estimates are "clearly unrealistic." He determined that the 100,000 figure is most credible.

Part of the differing numbers is due to the definition of "fighter." Gartenstein-Ross writes that the Kurdish estimate included all the Islamic State’s security forces, such as those being trained, logisticians and those who enforce rule within the caliphate. This broader definition pushes the number closer to 200,000.

And, this number does not appear to include Islamic State members who serve in non-combat functions like infrastructure management. It may also not include allied armed groups like the forces under the command of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former leader in Saddam Hussein's regime who was killed in April.

The U.S. government is probably either honestly underestimating Islamic State's strength or using a narrow definition of "fighter" to deflate the number or both.


ISIS' Growth Rate

The kill rate of 1,200 Islamic State "fighters" per month can only be judged if we know the rate of replacement.

In late February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the number of foreign fighters within the Islamic State grew from 16,000 during the fall of 2014 to 20,000 in February 2015. That's an increase of 4,000 over roughly five months or an average increase of 800 per month, but Clapper suggested this may be due to our intelligence community detecting more rather than an actual numerical increase.

Various sources suggest that is wishful thinking.

The Washington Post reported a flow of 5,000 foreign fighters between October and late January, citing the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. That's a rate of 1,250 per month. In February, the Daily Beast reported that the flow of foreign fighters was nearly equal to the number of overall Islamic State deaths reported by the U.S.

If you consider the Islamic State recruiting within Iraq and Syria, then their manpower is probably increasing despite the campaign. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, bluntly told the outlet after a briefing, "The numbers are not moving in our favor."

And it's only getting worse. In February, National Counter Terrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen said the flow of foreign fighters has increased by 25% since November, including a 70% increase in Western fighters.

"The rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented. It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years," he said.

The Islamic State’s losses since then have not discouraged foreigners from coming in. According to the Daily Beast, nothing has changed. The likelihood of death is actually incentive to these recruits. In fact, the End Times prophecies cited by the Islamic State predict heavy casualties and desertions.  

In sum, the U.S. numbers indicate the coalition is killing 1,200 ISIS "fighters" per month, but they are replenished by 800 to 1,250 foreign fighters per month and an unknown number of new Syrian and Iraqi recruits. Plus, the significance of the U.S. numbers is exaggerated by the government's likely underestimation of the Islamic State’s strength and low-balling with its narrow definition of "fighter."

The picture gets bleaker when you look at the broader picture. Progress in shrinking the Islamic State is exaggerated when the definition of that caliphate is narrowed to only Iraq and Syria.

Islamic State Territory

The Islamic State has suffered about a one-fourth reduction in the territory it controls in Iraq, according to the statements of the U.S. government in mid-April. However, the group is gaining in Syria, holding steady in Libya and growing elsewhere.

The Islamic State’s latest loss in Iraq is Tikrit, but Tikrit as a city lacks strategic significance. The real prize is Mosul, which is 10 times bigger. The Islamic State is still making headway in the Anbar Province and is on the verge of completely control the country's largest oil refinery at Baiji. This comes after Iraqi forces pushed back the Islamic State there in August.

In addition, the Islamic State’s absorption of Boko Haram in Nigeria is a major boost, although the Nigerian government has begun a major offensive against it. The group controls up to 20% of the country and has between 6,000 and 15,000 fighters. Amnesty International believes the number is "likely to be much higher" than the latter figure.

In Libya, the spiritual leader of the Ansar al-Sharia group responsible for the 2012 attack in Benghazi announced his allegiance to the Islamic State. The group has expanded its “caliphate” in Libya's north and includes major cities like Sirte and Derna. The Islamic State is reported to have 800 fighters in Derna alone. The Libyan Foreign Minister says 5,000 foreign jihadists are now in the country.

The Islamic State has also developed an affiliate in the Gaza Strip that is now attacking Hamas, has declared a caliphate in Yemen and has set up training camps in Afghanistan where its fighters are competing with the Taliban. Its affiliate in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is still alive and kicking, as well.

In Syria, the Islamic State has captured more territory in the northwestern areas of the Homs Province. A major dilemma faces the West in that the Islamic State’s loss is usually Al-Qaeda's gain through its affiliate there, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Al-Nusra moved right in after the Islamic State was pushed back from the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in the southern Damascus area. Al-Nusra has made major gains by capturing Idlib, critical trade routes, defeating rival "moderate" rebels and seizing land south of Damascus.  It is now attacking the Islamic State in the western part of Qalamoun.

The U.S. is making progress in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and that success must be broadcasted in order to blunt the group's ideological momentum. But witting or unwitting exaggeration of that progress only helps the enemy.

Boasts about gains in Iraq won't erase the headlines about the group’s growth in other countries. Minimizing their numbers doesn't undermine its projection of strength; it increases it by making its performance appear more impressive.

We can and should celebrate the territorial gains in Iraq but the flow of foreign fighters and the Islamic State’s international expansion is making up for its losses.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.

Subscribe to our newsletter

By entering your email, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

Be ahead of the curve and get Clarion Project's news and opinion straight to your inbox