December 9, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Growing Body Count
The long-term effort to defeat the so-called Islamic State requires a multi-faceted approach, with major emphasis on improving local governance and countering violent extremist propaganda, among a number of other challenges. Included in the list of objectives necessary to defeat the Islamic State is a cold reality: that most of the group’s committed fighters will need to be killed or detained on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Without achieving this objective, it will be highly difficult for Iraq or Syria to reach the level of stability necessary to ensure the group does not persist. The difficulty in determining how many fighters make up the Islamic State’s ranks—as well as how many have been killed—has been a consistent issue since the announcement of the self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014.
While estimates can be valuable intelligence tools, such numbers should always be viewed with a degree of skepticism; between fluctuating foreign fighter flows and volunteer or conscripted local fighters, gauging the true strength of the Islamic State at any given time is an inexact science. This difficulty can be seen in the various coalition estimates of enemy strength and enemy killed since 2014. In one of the original public estimates of the Islamic State’s fighting strength after it took Mosul in June 2014, the group was believed to have approximately 20,000 total fighters in Iraq and Syria combined. A U.S. estimate in December 2015 reported that approximately 25,000 fighters had been killed, and that perhaps another 25,000 remained. The latter estimate was an indication that the original June 2014 estimate had been low, but also that the group that was recouping substantial losses through local and foreign recruits. While most of the Western media attention was focused on the numbers of foreign fighters filling the ranks of the Islamic State, it was the group's sizable local support—both willing and unwilling—that really added to the overall number of fighters.
A December 8, 2016 report in Reuters quoted an anonymous U.S. defense official stating that the U.S. estimated it had killed as many as 50,000 Islamic State fighters to date. That this estimate is over 200% more than the original 2014 estimate of the group’s total strength does not mean it is wrong; it means the group was likely larger than initially believed, and had been able to replenish its ranks even as its territorial gains turned to losses. Currently—in both Iraq and Syria—the Islamic State is under the greatest level of military pressure it has faced. The group’s foreign fighter flow has been cut down to manageable levels and is no longer capable of replacing even a percentage of those fighters being killed on the battlefield. The challenge now is to protect as many of the civilians trapped or coerced by the Islamic State as possible, while killing as many of the group’s fighters as possible—a truly daunting task. Yet, as challenging as the present task may be, the real difficulty will lie in turning the increasing Islamic State body count into lasting, meaningful success.
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