US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that “more than 10,000” Islamic State fighters and commanders have been killed since the air campaign in Iraq began in August 2014 and subsequently in Syria in September 2014. If true, US intelligence estimates on the strength of the Islamic State are grossly underestimated. From Reuters:
Speaking after the coalition met in Paris, he said there had been a great deal of progress in the fight against Islamic State but that the group remained resilient and capable of taking the initiative.
“We have seen a lot of losses within Daesh since the start of this campaign, more than 10,000,” Blinken said on France Inter radio, using a mildly derogatory term for Islamic State. “It will end up having an impact.”
In September 2014, the CIA estimated that the Islamic State had somewhere between 20,000 to 31,500 fighters within its ranks. If Blinken’s estimate of the number of Islamic State fighters killed in the last nine months is accurate, then the Islamic State’s ranks, based on the number of fighters estimated by the CIA in September 2014, has been degraded by between one-third and one-half.
And yet, since September 2014, the Islamic State has gained ground in Syria and lost ground in some areas in Iraq while gaining in others. Overall, the Islamic State’s footprint in Iraq and Syria has increased since September 2014.
It has been obvious for some time that the CIA’s September 2014 analysis of the Islamic State’s numbers was a gross underestimate (In June 2014, when the Islamic State was storming throughout northern and central Iraq, the CIA put the Islamic State’s numbers at merely 10,000).
Last September, I noted that the Islamic State had to have more than 50,000 fighters in its ranks, and I was being conservative. This is the reason why:
Keep in mind that the Islamic State is actively fighting against two governments, as well as Hezbollah, the Peshmerga, the PKK/YPG, Iraqi militias, the Awakening, Syrian tribes, the Free Syrian Army, the Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic Front, and other groups, and now the US military, in an area the size of a large American state, with millions of people living there. There is no way the Islamic State could simultaneously fight on multiple fronts against numerous enemies with just several thousand fighters.
The exact number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria is not known, as the group doesn’t advertise it. But what is clear is that it is able to recruit and/or conscript from the local populations that it controls, and it is integrating large numbers of foreign fighters from all over the world. At the moment, given its recent successes, the Islamic State appears to be able to replace its battlefield losses.