President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address spent a couple of paragraphs discussing the terrorist threat to the American homeland. In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, he felt obliged to say what is obvious: that while the Islamic State group “can do a lot of damage” to civilians and property in the United States, “they do not threaten our national existence.” On the other hand, new terrorist attacks would surely disrupt American life.
How powerful is the Islamic State really? Is it still expanding? Will its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq endure? Will its government territory become a permanent fact of international life? Is its jihadist ideology still as convincing as it once was? Here’s an evaluation of the situation.
The Islamic State/ISIS should be seen as a combination of two phenomena. For clarity, let’s use the acronym ISIS to refer to the jihadist movement in general, and Islamic State for the territorial so-called caliphate it holds in Syria and Iraq. Evidence is accumulating in Iraq and Syria that the Islamic State is losing, being pushed back and progressively dismantled. Its defeat is slow and painstaking, but it is also unmistakable. On the other hand, beyond Syria and Iraq, ISIS remains a grave terrorist threat that may well be multiplying.
Geopolitically, the Islamic State has lost a lot of its conquered territory – about 40 percent in Iraq, and approaching half that in Syria. It will surely shrink further in the coming months. Important resources – military, financial, and personnel – have been destroyed. The early excitement for and credibility of the caliphate ideology must be wavering among many ISIS fighters and potential recruits – although this is hard to measure. We know that life inside caliphate territory today is anything but a glorious advent. Terrorist attacks abroad might suggest global enthusiasm remains strong. Yet it stands to reason that, like any movement based on fanatical enthusiasm, the longer ISIS is stymied and the more senseless violence it commits, the less convincing are its claims to be the vanguard of a new world. The number of foreign fighters arriving in Syria may be decreasing, even as terrorist recruits in foreign affiliates may be increasing.
Jihadist organizations in perhaps 20 countries – though not many recently – have pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But this apparent spread of the Islamic State’s reach is not what it seems to be; it’s not militarily substantive, strategically reinforcing, or contiguous territory. Terrorist attacks seem to have increased across the Greater Middle East and within Europe in addition to the attack in the United States, at San Bernardino. But their frequency and intensity (and whether ISIS actually organizes them) are far from what most people once expected. No war is won by terrorism alone, and the menace posed by the Islamic State is different if ISIS is basically a loose terrorist network.
The future of ISIS
Evidence is accumulating that the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is headed for extinction. It’s being beaten back and dismantled, gradually but implacably, in spite of advances here or there. Finished as a geopolitical army, bent on territorial expansion and religious totalitarianism, ISIS will morph into a kind of al-Qaeda 2.0, meaning a transnational terrorist network more extensive, elaborate, and dangerous than al-Qaeda (excepting 9/11), but no longer a semi-state power threatening to convulse the entire Middle East.
ISIS as Al Qaeda 2.0 might establish new local territorial entities in outlying areas, for example the current effort to set up shop in Libya. But any such set-up will be under constant attack, unlikely to survive over time. The big outside powers have seen that failed states and ungoverned areas in the Greater Middle East pose an unacceptable risk to their own vital interests. Consequently, they are moving to freeze civil wars and to impose order over territory, Syria being the first instance.
Here are some other indices of ISIS decline. Drone strikes and other operations have killed many high-level ISIS military commanders and thousands of fighters. Total foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS over the past few years may total about 36,000. However, given the thousands killed, disabled or defected, ISIS today may number no more than its 20,000-30,000 initial core. Given its lack of significant military activity in recent months, the number of remaining ISIS fighters could be even smaller.
In addition, the Islamic State has now been ousted from several cities and big towns it had taken (Tikrit, Sinjar, Baiji, and Ramadi). Oil extraction and refining and shipping resources, especially the key Baiji complex, have been taken back or destroyed. Its main suicide truck-bomb building facility was destroyed a few months ago; MILAN guided anti-tank missiles (furnished to the Kurdish Peshmerga by Germany) were already stopping them anyway. Significant stashes of weapons and ammunition depots have been blown up. Its international finance has been squeezed in several ways. (Reports indicate a depot containing millions of dollars in cash was bombed last week.) Coalition air strikes In Raqqa and surrounding towns have destroyed underground tunnels and warehouses. All this means effective intelligence is increasing.
Of course, remaining ISIS-controlled urban areas such as Fallujah must be riddled with improvised explosive devices, booby-trapped buildings, and other weapons, as was Ramadi. And the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest after Baghdad, will present a much more complicated battleground than even Ramadi. But in all these situations, ISIS is fighting on defense, not attacking. If coalition forces, both through airstrikes and Iraqi, Kurdish, and Iranian land forces, were not so concerned about limiting civilian casualties, the Islamic State could be destroyed in a few months’ time. As it is, ISIS’s lack of humanitarian concerns just makes the going slower and rougher.
In terms of significant battlefield trends, a turning point has been reached. In losing Sinjar and Ramadi over the past two months, ISIS leaders didn’t even try to reinforce their holdout fighters. These were just abandoned, with impassioned messages reminding them of the jihadist code: There are only “two good ends, victory or martyrdom,” i.e. a battlefield death. In fact, when a group of fighters ignored the code and fled back to Mosul, they were rounded up in a public square and burned to death.
While Ramadi was being lost, instead of trying to reinforce its forces there, a surprise attack against coalition forces encircling Mosul was attempted, hoping to break a Kurdish/Iraqi siege on three sides of the city that is the Islamic State’s main conquest in Iraq. ISIS came with the usual onslaught of suicide bomb vehicles and staggered attacks, but this time it didn’t work. ISIS was thrown back by the Peshmerga in a single day.
Overall, ISIS has notched no significant military victories in six months. Several days ago, a typically barbaric attack was launched on the Syrian city and province of Deir al-Zour to complete a takeover. Perhaps 200 to 300 Syrian government soldiers, militiamen, and civilians were killed, and several hundred civilian hostages have been taken. The significance of this “victory” remains to be seen, but is unlikely to change the overall battlefield trend. An unexpected development is the fact that Deir al-Zour generated so little attention abroad, where the media focused on the Iran nuclear agreement and the release of American hostages. ISIS savagery is, to put it another way, no longer as shocking as it once was.
The path to vanquishing the caliphate
Nevertheless, Deir al-Zour points to another battlefield trend, that is, the difference between Syria and Iraq. In Iraq the battlefield has been simplified. It’s no longer a chaos of competing military forces, but increasingly everyone else against the Islamic State. Sectarian rancor and ambitions are being muted in order to crush ISIS. News reports suggest that thousands of Sunni tribal fighters, with the Shia-led Baghdad government’s support, are finally integrating with the Shia-led Popular Mobilization Forces.
Syria, by contrast, remains a battlefield chaos of several competing forces: Assad regime forces; insurgent militias (including the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra Front) that fight each other as well as Assad; Kurds that fight Turkey as well as the Islamic State; and the Islamic State itself. Coordinated coalition airstrikes by American, Russian, French, and British planes indicate agreement by outside powers that the Syrian civil war must stop. No side can win militarily, and destroying ISIS removes a complicating factor because so long as ISIS remains on the territory, it would hold hostage any Syrian cease-fire.
The difference between Syria and Iraq shows the way to defeating and dismantling the Islamic State. ISIS’s strategy, the so-called management of savagery, is to create chaos and then manipulate that chaos to its own advantage. Opposing military forces and civilians would be terrorized by barbaric fighting methods. Governments would be delegitimized because they couldn’t protect their people. ISIS would become a protector of local populations after first brutalizing them unmercifully. Indeed, all this played out in conquered territory, but ISIS is now being rooted out, albeit more in Iraq than is yet seen in Syria.
The need for a sober appraisal
American media ought to present a more realistic picture than the sensationalized news it offers up, inflating ISIS successes and in the process demoralizing the American people. ISIS leaders surely are more pessimistic about its prospects than is American cable television. As Ramadi was falling, for example, al-Baghdadi sent out an audio message exhorting his fighters that “your state continues to do well,” despite having lost “many of the areas it had conquered.” Allah, he said, is testing the Believers, who will likely have to suffer more defeats before the final victory. This is an old story told by leaderships whose enterprise is going down.
But what about ISIS abroad? And what about the 20-odd declarations of fealty from foreign terrorist organizations? What about the Libya stronghold ISIS is trying to set up? Doesn’t this show ISIS is going global successfully, threatening chaos even in Europe and the United States?
These attacks are spectacular, but they are not signs that ISIS threatens to seize power in key countries. They are brutal harassment of peoples and governments as well as morale builders for global Islamist militants. But with the possible exception of local conquests within failed states, ISIS will not be able to reproduce what it achieved in Syria and Iraq.
It’s also unlikely that much substantive military and political connections exist between the Islamic State and any affiliates abroad. By no stretch of the imagination is ISIS now a single, organized global terrorist network, as is indicated by the usual media explanation that ISIS has either “organized or inspired” militants abroad. The San Bernardino attack that terrorized Americans and, amazingly, upended the presidential campaign of the most powerful country on the planet, is a good example. It involved two people, a young married couple, in effect a tiny sleeper cell, deciding the target, date, and methods on their own. Casualties, while awful, were modest on the scale of terrorist massacres.
As for Libya, ISIS’s hopes to establish a new base in Sirte are not an expansion, but a retreat from its headquarters in Raqqa, which the leadership sees it may soon lose. If the ungoverned situation in Libya permits ISIS to succeed (it may well be prevented), the result would be a kind of government-in-exile whose “country” no longer exists.
Seen in broad perspective, the Islamic State has a fate, not a destiny. By this I mean that it is fated to follow into oblivion previous totalitarian operations, such as the Nazi Third Reich, for whom total war is the essence of existence. ISIS is not very likely to revolutionize world history. The difference is that ISIS will have been stopped at a much earlier point.
Its demise will happen either with a bang or a whimper, either by total defeat or disintegration from within after a period of containment. In either case it could be a rout at the end, with leaders either seeking “martyrdom,” killing each other, or running for the exits.