by Khalil F. Osman
Tell-tale signs that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Da’ish) terrorist group is on the wane are everywhere. For over a year now, the terrorist group has suffered a spate of serious battlefield reversals that have significantly shrunk the territory that its so-called ‘caliphate’ had controlled in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, a series of steady battlefield gains has enabled the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to roll back ISIS fighters from large swathes of territory they had captured after the Syrian uprising, including, most recently, the longtime ISIS stronghold of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria.
Syrian and allied forces are currently encircling another ISIS stronghold, al-Mayadin, southeast of Deir al-Zour. At the same time, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of a hodgepodge of predominantly Kurdish as well as Arab and Christian Assyrian and Syriac militias, has wrested significant territorial assets from the grip of ISIS, including, as of the time of writing, some 90 percent of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-styled ‘caliphate.’ Across the border in Iraq, Iraqi security forces have evicted ISIS fighters from a string of key areas, including Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tallafar, and most recently Hawijah in southern Kirkuk.
True, ISIS continues to maintain limited offensive capabilities as evidenced by its recent counter-offensive on Syrian government and allied forces along a wide stretch of territory between Tadmur and Deir al-Zour, which is codenamed “Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani’s Incursion” (Ghazwat Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani).
But in none of these counter-attacks has the embattled terrorist group been able to retake significant lost ground from the adversaries arrayed against it. Weakened and in retreat, ISIS seems headed to a series of final showdowns in the remaining territories it continues to tenaciously cling to. ISIS militants are likely to retain control of pockets in the rugged Himrin mountainous range, which stretches across the northern provinces of Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Kirkuk, and in desert hideouts in eastern Syria and western Iraq. From the latter two regions, ISIS could engage in a blend of low-intensity guerrilla-style attacks against government forces, including ambushes, hit-and-run raids, and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, and terrorist attacks against civilians, including assassinations and mass-casualty car bombs.
But the crumbling of the proto-state structure ISIS built following its blitzkrieg-like sweep across northern Iraq in June 2014 is not likely to write the epitaph of the extremist group. ISIS might be defeated and on the run, but it is not likely to be completely wiped out anytime soon. Much like its progenitor Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS is adaptive and likely to survive in a reincarnated form of its diabolical terrorist character that could usher in a new phase of blood-soaked jihadist brutality.
The emerging strategy of ISIS seems to be two-pronged, combining elements of decentralization and reverting to its insurgent-terrorist roots. Battlefield reversals are likely to force ISIS to decentralize its operations. Even at the height of its power in 2015, ISIS had encouraged supporters who could not make their way to Iraq or Syria to join existing franchises in other locations. The economy of force considerations would prompt ISIS to move resources to branches in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. ISIS is likely to take a particular interest in bolstering its branch in Yemen due to the country’s strategic location at the border of Saudi Arabia and the entrance to the Red Sea, as well as its proximity to the Horn of Africa. The group is also likely to accelerate its attempts to metastasize to other parts of the world, seeking to establish toe- and footholds in areas such as Southeast Asia, as happened in the Marawi city in the southern Philippines, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
A defeated ISIS on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq is likely to move away from hybrid warfare methods that combine elements of conventional and irregular warfare which it took to unprecedented new heights as it gained combat experience in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s sophisticated style of hybrid warfare was developed and honed by ex-military and intelligence personnel of the former Ba’ath Party regime of Saddam Hussein. They joined the group during the US-led coalition’s occupation of Iraq and utilized a mix of terrorist, insurgent, urban guerrilla and conventional tactics. In Syria and Iraq, and to a certain extent in other countries where it has established sizeable franchises, ISIS fighters are likely to regroup in small clandestine cells to carry out a mix of classic insurgent and terrorist tactics. Local ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria are likely to hide among internally displaced people (IDP) and melt back into the civilian population to set up sleeper cells that would plan and carry out attacks. This is a trend that has increasingly been seen in Iraq, where attacks in the form of assassination, suicide, sniper and improvised explosive devices continue to inflict human toll almost on a daily basis.
In moving away from hybrid warfare, a decentralized ISIS is also likely to concentrate on spectacular terrorist attacks, especially against targets in the West. That would require dedication of more resources and energy to organizing small underground cells that hunker down and strike at selected targets. It would also require the intensified use of encrypted messaging services by ISIS terrorists to communicate securely, plan and direct attacks. Moreover, ISIS is likely to search for ways to bolster its underground logistic presence in countries close to Europe, such as Turkey and Libya, which can be used to infiltrate terrorists and funnel resources into European countries.
Moreover, expect to hear more exhortations by ISIS for its followers to carry out terrorist acts, including lone-wolf vehicle and knife attacks, in its name in the West. The recent recording released by ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi– his first audio recording in nearly a year – is a harbinger of things to come in this regard. In his 46-minute message, Baghdadi urged supporters to carry out jihadi attacks worldwide, claiming that “America, Europe, and Russia are living in a state of terror in their countries, fearing the strikes of the mujahedin,” according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online activity of jihadist groups.
Baghdadi’s braggadocio is certainly born in part out of a desire to exorcise the humiliations of his group’s recent battlefield reversals and redeem the jihadist-Salafist group’s quashed luster of invincibility. But it is also a calculated move to ensure that a more dispersed ISIS would translate into stepped up terrorist attacks worldwide.
Dr. Khalil F. Osman is a political scientist specialized in international affairs and Middle East politics. He is the author, most recently, of Sectarianism in Iraq: The Making of State and Nation Since 1920.