ISIS is Hurt But Its End Is Not In Sight

John McLaughlin
Former Acting Director, CIA

This is a good moment to assess the state of ISIS – its strengths and weaknesses – given that America is heading into a bruising presidential campaign during which all sorts of claims will be made about the ISIS challenge. Looking at all that has occurred since the group’s 2014 advances in Syria and Iraq, it’s fair to say that coalition actions have weakened ISIS in some key respects.  At the same time, ISIS retains strengths that keep it very dangerous and give it greater global reach than any other terrorist group. 

It’s impossible to quantify our progress, but without wanting to appear overly precise – and recognizing that experts will differ widely on this — I would venture the guesstimate that we are perhaps 25 percent of the way toward neutralizing the worst threats ISIS poses.  But the remaining 75 percent will be harder, for reasons spelled out below.

In what ways has the anti-ISIS coalition hurt the group?

First, the territory ISIS has lost in Iraq and Syria has continued to mount.  Until recently most estimates have put it in the range of 40 percent in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria.  Now a new report by the IHS research group adds another 12 percent to this. Related to this, Iraqi forces with coalition support seem finally focused on retaking Mosul, under ISIS occupation for two years.  Although an assault is probably still weeks away, they recently captured a key nearby airbase as a jumping off point. Meanwhile in Syria, rebels are striving to create logistical chokepoints around the ISIS capital of Raqqa.

This is important because territorial losses tarnish the ISIS image of invulnerability and their claim to have a “caliphate” where their followers can congregate.

Related to this is a second weakening of the group – its declining appeal among Middle Eastern youth, who in recent surveys are said to reject ISIS by 80 percent, compared to 60 percent a year ago. This may help account for what the U.S. military claims is a reduced recruitment rate – down from about 1000 per month a year ago to the low hundreds.

Third, Coalition attacks have also deprived ISIS of some its considerable wealth – once judged to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars – but not enough is known to confidently estimate the damage. We do know that they have cut salaries for their fighters, for example, but on balance, ISIS probably remains the wealthiest non-state-sponsored terrorist group in history.

Fourth, although the rich social media environment remains an ISIS advantage al Qaeda did not have in its heyday, ISIS Twitter feeds have reportedly fallen about 45 percent compared to two years ago; Twitter has been a primary tool for early stage cultivation of ISIS recruits.

These ISIS problems are offset by considerable remaining strengths.

First among them is a well-conceived structure and geographic orientation that gives ISIS what real countries call “strategic depth.”  ISIS has long had a strategy that envisions and confidently plans for expansion beyond its core territory in Iraq and Syria.

With a presence of some sort in about 40 countries and formal affiliates in nine of them (Egypt and Libya the most advanced), loss of land in Iraq and Syria does not deprive ISIS of territorial options for plotting, training, and launching terrorist attacks.  In fact, the combination of chaos in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the weakness of so many Middle Eastern and African governments give terrorists more “ungoverned” space to exploit than has existed in the last couple decades.

This said, ISIS is now under serious pressure in its largest and most advanced affiliate, Libya, as Libyan militia groups continue to squeeze the group in its coastal stronghold at Sirte. But with so much of Libya’s territory in dispute among competing Libyan factions, ISIS is unlikely to be driven out of the country.

Second, ISIS still possesses the enormous advantage of access to targets outside its home region via the more than 25,000 fighters who in recent years made their way to Syria to join the group from Europe, Russia, the U.S., Africa, and Asia – many of whom are already filtering back to their homelands. This exceeds anything that al Qaeda ever dreamed of in terms of a cadre with knowledge of target countries and travel documentation to support infiltration.

Detecting movement of these fighters and the accumulation of cells in target countries will be an enormous challenge for security and intelligence services that in many countries are simply overwhelmed by the problem’s magnitude.

Given its clearly defined structure, its global affiliates, and its skill at using social media, the likely outcome of ISIS’ defeat in its Syrian/Iraqi heartland is its declaration of a dispersed Caliphate with branches in several countries, augmented by a sort of “virtual caliphate” through it’s ubiquitous online presence.  The latter will benefit from its skillful ISIS use of end-to-end encryption and the so-called “dark web” – that huge part of the internet that lies below and out-of-reach for the most commonly used search engines.

If we really are 25 percent of the way toward neutralizing the group, such ISIS advantages are among the reasons that the last 75 percent of the battle will be harder.  For the last two years, we have known where many of them are. The possession and need to manage territory has made much of their activity visible and exposed them to conventional weaponry and air power.  Once they are geographically dispersed and burrowed still more deeply into the web, conventional power will be less relevant.  Even more than today, this will become a job for intelligence and special operations.

Moreover, unless the coalition mounts robust, post-conflict stability operations – something we have not done well in the past, witness Libya – ISIS, after losing its urban strongholds, will simply fade into the countryside, work at destabilizing regional states, and plot their return.

Adding all this up, it may be too much to invoke Churchill’s famous WW II remark about being “only at the end of the beginning” of a fight – but it is clear that we are facing a long and nasty struggle to rid the world of this scourge. 

The Author is John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  He served as the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000-2004 and Acting Director of the CIA in 2004.

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