The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Michael W.S. Ryan, Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, to discuss ISIS’ recent battlefield losses, the group’s current level of influence, and what to expect from ISIS in coming months.
The Cipher Brief: Today, ISIS controls significantly less territory than it did two years ago, is losing ground in and around key cities such as Mosul and Raqqa, and is recruiting fewer foreign fighters. What is your assessment of the group’s overall strength and influence in Syria and Iraq?
Michael Ryan: By all measures, ISIS is weaker now than before the United States ramped up its military and intelligence campaign against the group. But ISIS, like al Qaeda, still operates within the strategic wrapper of classic guerrilla warfare. At its strongest, ISIS was able to field semi-conventional forces, substituting suicide bombers in armored trucks for close air support. Losing territory means losing this level of effectiveness.
However, losing territory translates into moving down the strategic ladder to terrorism and perhaps light guerrilla warfare, which can pose a serious threat to isolated units and urban settings like Mosul and Baghdad. Even if local forces can identify and destroy terrorist networks, individuals will continue to plan. 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.
TCB: Due to the efforts of social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to shut down pro-ISIS accounts, coupled with ISIS’ transfer of its social media accounts to encrypted platforms such as Telegram, it appears that ISIS has lost some momentum on the recruitment front. What is your assessment of ISIS’ current ability to recruit via the Internet?
MR: The efforts by social media companies are helpful in degrading ISIS’ ability to recruit replacements for their losses. However, ISIS operatives have proven very flexible and innovative with modern technology. The group is still able to inspire and even guide terrorist attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. The United States has had some reported success using cyber-war operations against ISIS. Over time, this capability should receive even more emphasis and support.
TCB: What is the likelihood of an ISIS-al Qaeda reconciliation, and what are some of the factors that could lead to such a merger?
MR: A change of leadership at the core of both organizations might provide the circumstances in which the groups would merge. A more likely scenario, if ISIS is destroyed or severely degraded, would be the migration of ISIS fighters and operatives to al Qaeda or some new group that might claim to be merely a local movement. Al Qaeda views local jihad and global jihad as a dialectical pair that feed one another, while it tries to convince the rest of us that local jihadist groups are merely a product of local tyrants and not a threat to others. This problem of identity is the reason why it is important for the United States and its allies to continue to watch al Qaeda and its affiliates closely and take action to thwart their plans.
TCB: How much of a threat are ISIS-directed attacks in Europe and the U.S. conducted by foreign fighters who have returned to their home countries? How can we best prepare to deal with such a threat?
MR: ISIS and a variety of Jihadi-Salafist groups already operate in Europe. They do not need returning foreign fighters to mount attacks. However, we are seeing that the most devastating attacks tend to be directed and even supported by al Qaeda and ISIS outside European territory.
The best way for the U.S. and its allies to deal with this threat is to aggressively collect and share information. Local police need information they can act on as well. The lessons we learned from 9/11 are still valid. There is no substitute for good police work; criminal networks and jihadist networks tend to overlap especially in smuggling people and weapons.
In the United States the situation is not as dire. However, we need to avoid complacency after ISIS is destroyed and al Qaeda is out of the everyday news. Jihadists may take years to plan major attacks, and small terror cells can avoid detection before they go operational. There is no substitute for good relations between police and communities based on mutual respect.
TCB: Once the fight for Mosul is completed, how can the U.S. help ensure that an ISIS 2.0 will not arise and that the city does not fall back to becoming a center for ISIS?
MR: ISIS will still have several strong nodes in Iraq after Mosul is recovered, so the national military problem will not end for some time. Iraq will continue to need U.S. military and intelligence assistance for the indefinite future. Retaking Mosul in reality will begin only after ISIS cadres are captured or killed.
Despite our important role, we must recognize that only Iraqis can prevent ISIS networks from returning to Mosul. More importantly, only Iraqis can rebuild their nation. The government will need to regain residents’ confidence by helping them begin to recover what they have lost. Ordinary Iraqis in former ISIS territory will need jobs and help with rebuilding infrastructure.
We can help the Iraqis with technical support and advice, but we do not have the ability to solve their internal political problems. For example, the process of identifying clandestine jihadists will be a delicate process. If done harshly or indiscriminately, it will surely backfire. We can cooperate with the Iraqi government politically and diplomatically to work toward a national reconciliation, but we cannot force it. We can advise them on the roles of NGOs in a healthy polity and offer help. In addition, we can offer police training and continue to work with their military to achieve and maintain best practices.
TCB: A large part of ISIS’ allure stems from its appeal to a wide range of disenfranchised individuals. How can we more effectively counter ISIS leaders’ narrative?
MR: Their narrative depends on their identification of their extremist ideologies with Islam. Both ISIS and al Qaeda promote the view that the United States and its allies are at war with Islam. They never say that we are at war with ISIS or al Qaeda.
By our actions more than our words, we can go a long way to disprove this narrative. In the United States, we should rely on Muslim communities to help counter the ISIS or al Qaeda narrative. The best counter to the theme that the United States is at war with Islam is the existence of thriving Muslim communities that are free to practice their religion and educate their children, and are fully integrated into the American economy. We need to provide a narrative of action, not mere words. Government narratives can only go so far and are often counterproductive. One speech delivered by Khizr Khan – the father of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War – on the U.S. Constitution that goes viral on social media and news reports is worth more than million-dollar government programs.
In Europe the problem is more difficult, but the issues are the same. Governments can help, however, by enabling research on radicalization processes and promoting outreach to communities with information and other forms of support, especially in public-private partnerships. Many of these programs are in place in the United States. We need to share best practices with our allies and partners and learn from their experiences. Finally, we need to recognize that this is not a short-term issue, and there are no instant or easy answers.
TCB: Can we really defeat the threat posed by groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda? What would it take for them to become obsolete like the West German Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang?
MR: ISIS and al Qaeda are not like Baader-Meinhof. The Greater Middle East is in the throes of multiple crises from bad government and failed economies. ISIS and al Qaeda have developed the ability to appeal to coreligionists for sympathy and direct support, albeit on false pretenses.
As I have indicated, the jihadist threat will be with us at some level for a long time. The psychic and physical scars from multiple wars will take time to heal. Additionally, the lack of water in a number of countries has destroyed local agriculture and local economies without any alternatives emerging from the chaos. The displacement of populations because of drought and war has created a pool of people who may join or support jihadist groups simply to survive. Some children have known nothing but war. Violent sectarianism is at a high point in the central lands of the Middle East. American efforts can degrade the jihadist movement, but until we help create viable alternatives to the jihadist narrative of victimhood, the international jihadist movement will continue to exist at some level.