The War Against ISIS Has Just Begun

Photo: AP

Nearly three years ago, the Islamic State (ISIS) catapulted to the top of the news worldwide after the group seized vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, used Mosul’s revered Great Mosque of al-Nuri to announce the creation of an Islamic caliphate, executed tens of thousands of civilians, and committed genocide against Iraq’s ethnic Yazidi minority.

Today, though the fight against ISIS remains a top priority for the Trump Administration, the organization’s days in the limelight appear to be declining as U.S. and coalition forces deal it critical losses on the battlefield.

In fact, ISIS may lose its two main strongholds – Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria – before summer turns to fall.

Earlier this week, Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, told the Associated Press that the campaign to retake Mosul, controlled by ISIS since June 2014, was in its “final stages.”

“The enemy is on the brink of total defeat in Mosul,” U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, the spokesman for U.S.-led anti-ISIS mission known as Operation Inherent Resolve, announced during a news conference in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Ousting ISIS from its de facto capital of Raqqa may not be too far behind. Last month, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, said that he hoped the assault on Raqqa would be “underway by this summer” and would be surprised if it continued into next year.

Townsend also stated that he had “no clue” where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding, but if he were in Mosul, then “we have got him trapped.”

Territorial losses have weakened ISIS’ international prestige and have shrunk the number of foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the group. At the peak of its international recruiting efforts, an estimated 40,000 individuals from more than 120 countries were fighting on behalf of ISIS.

“ISIS pushed the idea that it was a ‘winner’ in its propaganda, and now even its own propaganda admits that it is losing,” Daniel Byman, Senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told The Cipher Brief. “As a result, it is less attractive to many potential recruits and funders.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Michael W.S. Ryan of the Jamestown Foundation anticipates that ISIS won’t vanish but instead morph into an insurgent group that will continue to threaten regional stability.

“We must consider ISIS, or perhaps its replacement, as a permanent terrorist threat in Syria and Iraq, unless sectarian divisions can be healed and its apocalyptic brand of Jihadi Salafist ideology is thoroughly discredited,” Ryan told The Cipher Brief.

ISIS also maintains a sizeable network of foreign fighters who have returned to their homelands and may seek to carry out local attacks in ISIS’ name. The next frontier in the battle against ISIS could shift to the West as the organization tries to demonstrate its strength and resolve by doubling down on its operations in Europe and the U.S.

“Even as ISIS loses territory and its insurgency is eventually defeated in both Iraq and Syria, it will still be able to pose a formidable challenge to international security,” writes Colin Clarke, counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corporation.

“ISIS will retain the ability to successfully conduct major terrorist attacks in Europe, perhaps on the scale of the March 2016 Brussels attack, as well as the ability to commit less sophisticated terrorist attacks with regular frequency, as evidenced by the steady occurrence of lower-level plots and attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe,” Clarke continues.

ISIS-inspired attacks carried out by “lone wolves” or small bands of homegrown violent extremists continue to represent the primary terrorist threat for the U.S. and its allies. While individuals who pledge allegiance to ISIS are not necessarily sold on the group’s jihadist ideology, ISIS’ message attracts people from a multitude of backgrounds who feel disenfranchised and seek a sense of belonging.

“Here in the United States, homegrown extremists present the most immediate unpredictable threat that we face,” remarked Nicholas Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, during a speech earlier this month at the Center for New American Security. “Today, many homegrown violent extremists gravitate towards the violence and adventure of fighting rather than absorbing the nuances of jihadist ideology as a rationale for violence.”

In many ways, while the battles against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa may soon reach their conclusions, the war against the terrorist organization has really just begun. Law enforcement bodies, intelligence services, and national security establishments must remain vigilant to prevent terrorist acts from occurring on their soil.

Ultimately, according to Rasmussen, triumphing over ISIS on the battlefield is “necessary but insufficient in the process of eliminating the ISIS threat.”

“One doesn’t have to look very far or very hard to see how the ISIS threat is manifesting itself in almost every Western nation,” he stated. “The global reach of ISIS is largely intact despite the extremely effective work that has been done to degrade ISIS in its caliphate.”

Bennett Seftel is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.