On May 21st, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani stated in a much hyped message that the much heralded Islamic State “does not fight to keep territory.” Initially one might be tempted to say that this sort of statement undermines the movement’s own message, strategy and heralds the beginning of the end. The Iraqi Army and Iranian backed Shi’ite militias are poised to take Fallujah in preparations for their eventual assault on Mosul and YPG forces in northern Syria, aided by U.S. Special Forces, have started the Raqqa Campaign. Kurdish militias in Syria are also attempting to take the town of Manbij in Northern Syria. But things are not always what they appear to be. In the case of the perpetual ‘War on Terror,’ victory and defeat are not so easily distinguishable. The return of ISIS to the status of an insurgency should be a positive sign of progress against the group, but conditions as they exist in Syria, Iraq and other countries, are heralding an evolutionary change in ISIS that makes the group more dangerous than before. The loss of territory has given defense officials and the Obama Administration a false sense of victory and security, as the Islamic State continues to wield violence as a tool that divides and destroys communal social cohesion. Here are just four reasons why the loss of territory and the reversion to a status of insurgency should not be seen as the beginning of the end for ISIS:
1. The change in tactic is not new.
The idea of using mostly asymmetric warfare in areas where the Islamic State has little to no control is a key characteristic of the group and was instrumental in the group’s rise in Syria and Iraq. It is true that “outer ops” decreased during the time period when Islamic State was declared, but this was because ISIS was advancing rapidly and the front line was constantly on the move. The use of suicide bombings, specifically their use in discriminant sectarian violence is the group’s calling card going back to when it was Al-Qaeda in Iraq. If the group is somehow pushed out of its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, it will simply slip back into the desert, as al-Adnani made clear in his statement. ISIS is running low on funding, manpower and is not ultimately able to hold onto its territorial conquests. It will therefore continue to try to rip Syria and Iraq apart along sectarian lines in order to generate support for itself and geostrategic space, despite its hated rule. The suicide bombing attacks in Brussels, Paris, Sahel al-Ghab and Shi’ite parts of Iraq, are all designed to generate or exacerbate sectarian hatreds.
2. Reverting to Insurgency makes ISIS more dangerous in the short term.
For a movement seeking to garner violent reactions from its potential followers and instill fear in its opponents, the loss of territory will create an animal backed into a corner scenario, where ISIS will seek to carry out or inspire vicious attacks on vulnerable populations. As he did last year, al-Adnani requested ISIS sympathizers from around the world commit acts of terror during the month of Ramadan. A key factor in the necessity of inspiring and carrying out terror attacks like those we’ve seen in Europe, is to not only give the appearance that the group is still dangerous, despite its territorial losses, but it sends a message to both friend and foe that ISIS is not going to be defeated so easily.
3. ISIS Affiliates continuing to gain traction around the World.
The anti-ISIS coalition of the U.S., Kurdish militias, the Iraqi Security Forces and other Shi’ite militias, are focused in destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, the problem with the Islamic State as a movement is that it’s tentacles have spread to several parts of the globe. Although, its organizations in Libya, West Africa, Yemen and Asia are much weaker and hold significantly less territory, their continued existence means that Islamic State persists. ISIS in Libya for instance continues to expand and conquer territory along with establishing its order. It’s strategically located in the center of the country, in strongholds of the former regime (sound familiar), in cities like Sirte. This allows the group to attack both government and anti-government forces in Libya, in the East and West of the country, allowing it to weaken both sides while it consolidates territory in central Libya.
In the Philippines, elements of the Abu Sayyaf Group have been defecting to Islamic State since 2015 and have been increasingly involved in clashes with government forces throughout 2016. The group’s strongholds are in the Southern Philippines Sulu archipelago and has steadily been growing as the existence of ISIS has drawn to it a greater number of followers in the region. It also executed Canadian citizen John Ridsdel in April. Whether the ultimate destruction of ISIS in Syria/Iraq will lead to shrinking in size of these groups, only time will tell, but for now the Islamic State idea and movement will continue to grow.
4. The Conditions which created ISIS are still present.
Al-Adnani also stated that if his organization is pushed out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, it will return to the desert, reconstitute itself and wait for an opportunity to reemerge. If this is the case, ISIS will not have to wait long, because the only thing that has threatened ISIS thus far is military pressure: the campaign against it has not included political and social reforms. Instead, civilians in Fallujah have been killed and fired upon as they flee the city. As Kurdish forces have advanced through northern Syria, there have been reports of expulsions of the Arab residents. As a result, ISIS’ enemies are playing into the extremist narrative that Sunni Muslims are under assault. Although the number of foreign fighters traveling to Islamic State territories has dwindled, if the grievances of the local populations are not addressed, we will simply see yet another conflict emerge from the ashes of ISIS.