The topic of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has faded from the eyes of the public and the media in recent months. What was once the richest and most well equipped terrorist organization in the world is now holding on to thin ropes. It is losing territory, most notably its capital, Raqqa, and its fighters are retreating. By the start of 2018, and according to the Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies the Islamic State only has four percent of the territory it once claimed as its own, with recent statistics in a Military.com OP-ED assessment even putting the number at one percent. Coalition and ground forces have targeted its leadership at a frenetic pace, won critical battles, and caused financial struggles for the state. From Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Libya, militant groups once loyal to Al Baghdadi find themselves at a dilemma; they must decide whether to fight what seems to be a losing battle or to break away while the chance is still available.
With that said, many find it hard to believe that just a few years ago, the Islamic State controlled several major cities in Iraq and Syria. By 2014, the group controlled a population of some seven or eight million civilians. By capturing swaths of territory from Iraq and Syria such as Manbij, Raqqa, Tikrit, and Mosul, the organization found itself capable of generating taxable revenues and utilizing oilfields and refineries. To finance further their operations, ISIS used lucrative smuggling routes and black markets, along with well-funded kidnapping operations, to accumulate vast stockpiles of arms and ammunition. With the Iraq army on the run by mid-2014, an array of powerful modern military hardware became available to them.
However, as it took the world by surprise through seizing power gaps from the failing Iraqi project and the Syrian war, the organization began to overestimate its reach. Despite its fearsome behavior, sheer discipline, and access to riches, the Islamic State was still relatively weaker compared to its neighbors. Additionally, when the world began taking notice to its belligerent activities, the Islamic State found itself surrounded by enemies from all sides. Moreover, in a Foreign Policy article by Dr. Stephen Walt, the organization’s radical ideologies and barbaric practices deprived them of the needed support from the Muslim community, and through inefficient strategy, the Islamic State was able to unite the United States, Russia, and much of the Middle East against a common enemy: itself. For these reasons, among others, territory loss and a harsh fall from grace were inevitable.
Given its rapid decline, many in the international world wonder what will become of the organization and whether or not the organization is fighting a lost cause. Will it change frontlines and go somewhere more vulnerable and volatile? Despite the optimistic notions that the Islamic State is at its end, it is premature to claim that our fight against them is over. If anything, the engagements will become more sporadic. In the upcoming months and years, it is likely that the organization will shift from nation-state building to committing attacks using underground networks and terrorist cells. With this transition and shift in strategy, there is no direct link between battlefield losses and the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and conduct operations. Regardless of their major setbacks, NBC reports that about 10,000 supporters remain in Iraq and Syria, which is more than enough to wage insurgencies that disrupt politics, foster sectarianism, and generate xenophobia in foreign governments. With that said, Chris Meserole from the Brookings Institute suggests that the world will have to prepare for either resurgent Al Qaeda, a virulent Islamic State insurgency, or both.
To maintain relevance in the eyes of its supporters from disenfranchised in the Sunni community, the Islamic State has made the transition to go underground. This means that battlefield engagements will become less frequent, as terrorist tactics similar to the ones seen in Europe in 2015 will become more common. The Middle East and Europe will be the most heavily targeted, and attacks will come in forms of suicide attacks and hit and run. In January, Foreign Affairs reported that in 2017, the Islamic State’s media wing published a list celebrating 800 of such attacks, whose targets ranged from Iraqi and Kurdish military outposts to Assad forces and its allies.
The attacks are not just restricted to these regions. In July, CBS reported a suicide attack in Northern Afghanistan killed 20 people, including a Taliban commander. In December 2017, a BBC article covered two attacks in Egypt in the Helwan district, where perpetrators targeted Coptic Christians and claimed nine lives.
Although these attacks’ objectives initially centered on claiming lost territories, it is clear that ISIS military strategists view these kinds of attacks as the most optimal. By engaging in attacks that are sporadic in nature, cost-efficient, and in many numbers, the organization allows itself to inflict maximum casualties, avoid large scale battles, position itself as the defender of the faith, and attack religious groups near and far. For now, the days of conquest and nation-building are over.
The Islamic State underwent significant changes in its lifetime, but these changes were not linear. Since its genesis in 2003 under Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the organization experienced many structural reformations. In a Foreign Affairs titled “ISIS Could Rise Again”, Political scientists Dr. Patrick Johnston and Benjamin Bahney discuss how ISIS started as an underground movement and ascended to a guerrilla insurgency, later transitioning into a proto-state and then to state-like with a Caliphate.
Despite these shifts, the basic goals of antagonizing the Shiite-Sunni divide, and of broadening the conflict enough for the mass to see the Islamic State as a force of salvation, have remained the same. Similar to what happened in the late 2000’s and before 2014, the organization now conducts attacks in order to provoke nations like Iraq to crack down on the Sunni population. The Washington Post reports that Seven months after the Iraqi government declared victory against them, the Islamic State crept back to central Iraq where kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings raise fears and instability.
Moreover, the ideologies that helped propel the organization, covered in The Atlantic’s “What ISIS Really Wants”, remain widespread and easily accessible. CNN reported that before Mohammad Al Adnani, Former Head speaker and Senior Leader of the Islamic State, was killed in 2016, he claimed that should there be losses in Mosul and Raqqa, the organization would endure. To the effect of the conflict at that time, he commented, “defeat is losing the will and the desire to fight”. His words linger in the minds of many policymakers, as ISIS-affiliated media accounts, productions, and journals continue to churn out propaganda videos and reports. It is imperative to counter the narrative that inspires recruits and lone wolves to carry out attacks in the name of the Islamic State.
In light of the transpiring events, scholars and experts in Counter Terrorism discuss ways of which the organization will continue to launch operations and fund itself amidst grandeur losses. Political Scientists Dr. Colin Clarke and Dr. Chad Serena view ISIS as a highly adaptive organization in midst of a transitional phase. In their article published by the National Interest, Dr. Clarke and Dr. Serena talk of the group going underground, with concerns over the possible use of virtual currencies and new online platforms to fund and propagate future attacks in Europe and the United States.
In a Brooking Institute article, Dr. Daniel Byman envisions a reversal to Al Qaeda roots where similar to what was mentioned earlier, the Islamic State would focus more than ever on the far enemy and engage in sporadic attacks through established networks. He also relates to the political and geographical atmospheres in terms of how they will simply accelerate the divide between communities and the revival of the Islamic State. He specifically discusses how President Trump administration’s actions may impede the struggle against Jihadism, citing examples such as the Muslim Ban and siding with the Saudi perspective of the Middle East.
A bigger question looms over the foreign ISIS fighters that moved from different parts of the world to join the cause. In a July 2017 testimony published by the RAND Corporation and presented by Dr. Clarke before the Committee on Homeland Security Task Force on Denying Entry into the United States, he coins the term “Terrorist Diaspora” which describes the foreign fighters who traveled from more than 80 countries to support ISIS. While the degree of support varies from passive support to Salafi Jihadist insurgencies, Dr. Clarke is concerned mostly about the foreign fighters tasked to either return to their homelands into terrorist cells or participate in other civil wars.
From there, he recites the unprecedented number of fighters in Iraq and Syria and entertains the thought of ISIS as a clandestine organization. He also discusses how the “end” of ISIS is simply a new beginning for the Islamic State, an opportunity for new splinter groups to form, and a revival of Al Qaeda networks, as they will most definitely refill their ranks with former ISIS combatants. The testimony also hints at the advancements in communications and the extent to which terrorist networks can remain both undetected and active in Europe and the US.
In an effort to get better insight on the supposed collapse of the Islamic State and the trajectories that both the organization and world are taking, the Envoy reached out to Dr. Bryan Price, the former director of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) in West Point and current executive director of the Seton Hall Leadership Institute. With decades of experience backing up each of his words, Dr. Price offers an invaluable insight into the present issues.
When asked about whether or not the organization’s change in strategy is temporary, Dr. Price responded by saying that the shift is a testament to the group’s ability to adapt. Furthermore, aside from the fact that the group’s size should give the international community pause before declaring victory just yet, ISIS has been active in many parts of the so-called caliphate, such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Southeast Asia.
When it comes to the conditions in the Middle East and the atmosphere around the world, Dr. Price reminds us that they are ripe for ISIS’ survival and al Qaeda’s revival, as the latter remained somewhat on the sidelines in an effort to revitalize its networks and avoid counterterrorism pressure from the United States. In his words, he said that fighters will continue to take up the groups’ violent causes since “the socio-political conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – corrupt and incompetent governments that were unable to provide disenfranchised Sunnis in the region with basic services and good governance – have remained unchanged.”
In response to the thought of foreign fighters coming back to their homelands as new cells, Dr. Price offers a remedy that is simple yet enriching. He recommends a policy that advocates improved vetting for those coming into our country, working with allies and partner countries to increase their abilities to do the same, and avoiding unhelpful rhetoric that may alienate an entire region or spawn new jihadist groups. To counter domestic violent extremism, which Dr. Price importantly mentions is the source of most Jihadi attacks in the United States, he sees the importance in forging bonds between local law enforcement and leaders in at-risk communities. Through trust, competence and open communication, local law enforcement and community leaders can cooperate to root out potential dangers and handle sensitive issues in the at-risk communities.
In summary, the collapse of the geographical entity that is the Islamic state will simply encompass another chapter in its history. Forcing the group to go underground amidst economic and military pressures will only shift their modus operandi and introduce a retreat to asymmetrical warfare. Victory can only be assured through Syrians and Iraqis. Still, foreign actors can accelerate the group’s downfall through building Iraqi Law enforcement and intelligence systems capable of foiling terrorist plots and ending insurgencies. In addition, attempts to disrupt network communications across the internet can play a major part in hindering ISIS command centers. On an international scale, the United States will need to sit down and discuss long-term plans with actors like Russia, Turkey, and Iran on future endeavors and operations in Syria and beyond. Such approaches are necessary but not enough, and policymakers across the world will have to congregate in future sessions to plan matters out.
As we proceed to the second half of 2018, there is much to celebrate in terms of the coalition’s progress against the resurging tide of the Islamic State. As history shows, we are in the steps of a new evolution in the organization’s cycle. Therefore, it would be in the United States’ and the World’s interests to concisely map out the group’s next evolutionary step, expose weakness points, and form policies that constrict the Islamic State’s ideological reach, online operations, and threat to vulnerable governments and societies in the Middle East, Europe, and beyond.