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Kerry says ISIS is 'on the run.' Is it really?

Secretary of State John Kerry said a spate of IS attacks around the world are a sign of desperation. 

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    US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures while speaking to the media during his and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov news conference July 15, 2016. Mr. Kerry said Sunday the Islamic State group is "on the run."
    Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
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As the self-declared Islamic State (IS) has carried out or inspired attacks in Nice, in Istanbul, and in Orlando, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday they show the militant group is “on the run.”

These attacks “are the desperate actions of an enemy that sees the noose closing around them,” said Mr. Kerry, in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “People are acting out in various places. But they are not growing in their ability to do things. They are shrinking.”

Kerry’s interview with Mr. Tapper, in which the host challenged Kerry’s logic, raises questions about what a victory against IS would be. Is it a defeat of its territorial claims of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria? Or is it an end to terrorist attacks it executes or inspires in Iraq, western Asia, Europe, and the United States?

“We tend to have a static view of what IS is,” Shiraz Maher, deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalism (ICSR) at King’s College London, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson “If you are a Parisian drinking in the Marais, it’s a terrorist group that guns you down when you are socializing with friends on a Friday night. If you are another Syria rebel … it’s an aggressive and annoying insurgency that is acting against your interests. And if you are in Raqqa [IS headquarter city in Syria], it’s a proto-state.”

“The idea that it should be one or the other is wrong,” added Mr. Maher. “It’s a kaleidoscopic movement that can be all of these things at the same time.”

Kerry, on Sunday, referred to the group’s large territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. He said the territory IS once laid claim to in the two countries has decreased 40 to 45 percent.

One of IS’s key losses, in the eyes of Iraqi forces, the United States, and their allies, is Fallujah. Once a stronghold for IS, the city was recaptured by Iraqi forces that on June 26 declared it "completely liberated." Iraqis and Americans hope to capitalize on this momentum, as well as other recent gains, to retake Mosul, Iraq, the largest city IS holds. Iraqi forces seized an airfield 40 miles outside Mosul July 11, and President Obama announced the day after he will send 560 more troops there to support an Iraqi attack on the city.  

But as IS has lost territory in its self-declared caliphate, it has increased the frequency and carnage of attacks it has claimed responsibility for in the Muslim and western worlds. In the past two weeks, IS has claimed responsibility for the attack in Nice that killed at least 84, for the triple suicide attack at the Istanbul airport that killed 41, and the suicide truck bombing in Baghdad that killed 215, the deadliest single bombing in the Iraqi city in years.

Referencing the attacks in Orlando, Nice, and Istanbul, CNN’s Tapper objected to Kerry’s view that IS is “on the run.”

“I'm not sure that it looks that way to the public,” said Tapper. “In just the last few weeks, we have seen a series of ISIS-inspired attacks.”

Kerry, in response, said there is a difference between them encouraging violence and their territorial claims.   

"If people are inspired, they are inspired," said Kerry. "But ISIL, which is based in Iraq and Syria, is under huge pressure, and that's a fact…If you're saying that one person standing up one day and killing people is an example of ISIS moving in Iraq and Syria, I think you're dead wrong.”

Kerry’s argument is out of sync with a warning by some intelligence officials in Washington that IS will carry out more attacks around the world, in particular on so-called soft targets such as airports and shopping areas.

"It's not a sign of weakness or desperation. They are adapting in a different way," the official told CNN recently.

Others in Washington agree, according to Aaron Stein, an analyst at the Atlantic Council.

“On the operation side there’s no illusion that they’re on the backfoot,” Mr. Stein told the Monitor’s Peterson. “So the planning for ISIS 2.0 is this exact question: What does ISIS turn into when it’s defeated territorially in these two places?”

“We’ve already seen this movie,” said Stein. He noted how al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to IS, was largely defeated by US surge troops and Sunni “awakening” allies less than a decade ago. “It doesn’t take much to reconstitute themselves,” he said.

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