President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address spent a couple of paragraphs discussing the terrorist threat to the American homeland. Faced with heightened fear of terrorism after the San Bernardino attack, he felt obliged to say what is obvious: that while Islamic State and Al Qaeda operatives “can do a lot of damage” to civilians and property, “they do not threaten our national existence.” He’s right. Americans (including presidential candidates) should heed his words.
But how powerful is Islamic State really? Is it still expanding? Will its territorial conquest in Syria and Iraq be a permanent fact of international relations in the Middle East? Is ISIS still convincing jihadists around the world that an Islamic caliphate is at hand and that every believer has a duty to join up?
The facts suggest ISIS is on the decline and that the trend is accelerating. Geopolitically, it’s lost a lot of territory and more is imminent. Important resources—military, financial and personnel—have been destroyed. The initial excitement and credibility of the caliphate ideology must be losing force, although this is hard to measure and the various terrorist attacks in different countries might suggest otherwise. Yet it stands to reason that like any movement based on fanatical enthusiasm, the longer ISIS is stymied and in fact losing ground, the less convincing are its claims to be the vanguard of a new world. It’s also true, however, that Islamic State has accumulated pledges of allegiance by individuals and organizations in many countries, though not many recently. This apparent spread of Islamic State’s reach is not what it seems to be; it’s not substantive, strategic or contiguous. Sporadic terrorist attacks continue across the Greater Middle East, Europe and one in the U.S. at San Bernardino. But their frequency and intensity (and whether ISIS actually organizes them) are far from what most people once thought would happen. No war is won by terrorism alone.
Evidence continues to accumulate that Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is being dismantled, gradually but implacably. If and when it collapses, ISIS will become a kind of enhanced Al Qaeda 2.0, meaning a transnational terrorist network but no longer a Great Jihad whose durable caliphate will restore Islam’s supposed power, dignity and world influence according to jihadist delusion.
Here are some indices of ISIS decline (several cited in Obama’s State of the Union address). A large number of high-level ISIS military commanders, political and financial operatives and thousands of fighters have been eliminated from the battlefield over the past few years. However many foreign fighters flocked to Syria and Iraq (36,000 is an often-cited estimate), given the thousands killed, disabled or defected, ISIS today may number no more than the 20-30,000 initial total estimate. (Given its lack of significant military activity in recent months the number could be even lower.) Islamic State has lost control of a several cities (Tikrit, Sinjar, Baiji, Ramadi) as well as oil and refining resources. Its main suicide truck-bomb building facility was destroyed a few months ago and newly-arrived anti-tank missiles to the Kurdish Peshmerga had stopped them anyway. Significant numbers of weapons and ammunition depots have been blown up. Its international finance has been squeezed (plus a big depot of millions of dollars was destroyed a few days ago). In Raqqa and surrounding towns, underground tunnels and warehouses were bombed. Remaining town and urban areas are protected by a certain number of fighters as well as IEDs and booby-trapped buildings. This (and worries about civilian casualties) are pure defense, it just makes things more difficult for attacking coalition forces.
In significant battlefield trends, in the loss of Sinjar and Ramadi in the past two months, ISIS didn’t even try to reinforce its fighters holding out. Instead, it tried a surprise attack against coalition forces encircling Mosul, which was handily defeated in a single day, unheard-of success. ISIS has had no significant military victories in six months.
ISIS leaders are surely much more pessimistic about its future than are most American commentators. As Ramadi was falling, al-Baghdadi sent out a long message on exhorting his fighters and warning the U.S.-led coalition. It was a feeble explanation of defeats. “(Y)our state continues to do well,” he said, even though (it has had to abandon) many of the areas it had conquered.” Allah, he said, is testing the Believers.
Let’s look at the evidence contrary to the above. How significant are terrorist acts abroad, and how meaningful are declarations of fealty from foreign organizations? What about the successful terrorist attacks abroad? Paris, San Bernardino, Istanbul and others. What about the Libya branch ISIS is trying to set up? It’s unlikely that much substantive connection exists across international territories between Islamic State and affiliates abroad. Individuals no doubt go back and forth but, at least so far, by no stretch of the imagination is ISIS now a single, organized global terrorist network. The San Bernardino attack—that traumatized Americans and, amazingly, upended the presidential campaign of the most powerful country on the planet—was the work of two young people deciding the date and methods on their own. Casualties, while awful, were modest on the scale of terrorist massacres. ISIS plans to establish a new base in Sirte, Libya, is not an expansion but a retreat from its core, a kind of government-in-exile of the caliphate that has little chance of returning to power.
It’s highly unlikely that ISIS will be able to reverse its dire strategic situation. ISIS has a fate, not a destiny. The end will come either with a bang or a whimper. External defeats and internal violence among themselves could end fade gradually or the whole operation could collapse in a rout with leaders and fighters running for the exits.
History teaches that revolutions devour their children, even the top leaders. Baghdadi may be caught or he may finish like Robespierre, the French Revolution’s choirmaster of the Great Terror, who died on the guillotine at the hands of his former comrades.