Lessons from Nice: Syria not the end of the road in battle against ISIS

Even as the Islamic State loses its hold over its physical 'caliphate', its supporters abroad are being prepared for a long battle. Defeat in Syria may just be the beginning of the end.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lay flowers at the French Embassy in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 15, 2016, to pay condolences to victims of the terror attack in Nice. The two discussed efforts to end the war in Syria, one of the Islamic State's strongholds.

Within hours of the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, French President François Hollande was pledging to ramp up France’s role in the war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Soon after, Secretary of State John Kerry, in Moscow after having marked Bastille Day with French officials in Paris, called Syria – home to the Islamic State – the “incubator” of the recent horrendous attacks like the one in Nice Thursday. He pledged a redoubled effort to defeat IS and end the war in Syria.

But with IS now advising its followers around the world to stay home and wreak havoc on the “infidels” they live among – rather than traveling to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad – is Syria still the key to ending IS’s expanding global appeal?

Would crushing IS in Syria (and routing it from Mosul, the group’s last major holding in Iraq) bring to an end the attacks that in recent months have spiked in Europe which have also struck places as far-flung as Orlando, San Bernardino, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh?

A cyber-caliphate

Defeating IS in Syria and Iraq will be critical to ending the group’s global allure, experts in Islamist extremism say. But IS is now also a kind of cyber-caliphate as much as it is the physical one now crumbling under US-led pressure in Syria and Iraq. To that extent, the group and its sophisticated array of online magazines and Twitter feeds is likely to continue inspiring mass atrocities like the one in Nice for some time after its physical headquarters are destroyed.

“Destroying ISIS, the caliphate, and its ideology will start its defeat, but it will only be the beginning of the end,” says Fawaz Gerges, an expert in Islamist extremist movements at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of “ISIS: A History.”

“ISIS has reached and inspired so many thousands through its external activities and outreach,” he says, “that the attacks in its name won’t end the day after its defeat.”

Moreover, Dr. Gerges warns that the next 12 months are likely to witness many more devastating attacks like the one in Nice as the “lone wolves” IS has inspired take up the group’s mounting online admonitions to strike the caliphate’s foes from where they live.

Of course IS needs a secure physical site from which to direct some attacks and to inspire others. That means counter-ISIS efforts will have to be multi-faceted and incorporate both blunt force and more ephemeral efforts like counter-messaging campaigns, others say.

“A lot of the terrorism we’re seeing has some connective tissues to it, and some of it connects back to Syria and Iraq and to a physical presence for planning some of these attacks or for disseminating a message,” says Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. “But we’re also seeing the [IS] inspired attacks that are more loosely connected [to that physical site] and which will require redoubled counter-radicalization efforts,” he adds. “The reality is you need to deal with them all.”

Assad's role

Indeed, Mr. Levitt says US and other Western leaders must not lose sight of the role Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to play in feeding radical Islamist activity in the region and globally through his continuing war on Syria’s Sunni population.

“A lot of the terrorism is driven not only by the so-called caliphate but also by the disillusionment and frustration that no one is doing anything about Assad,” he says. “As long as the US continues in this direction of ‘Forget Assad for now, let’s go after the terrorist groups,’ we’ll lose ground in dealing with that piece of the terrorism threat.”

IS appears to be preparing its followers for the day it no longer has its caliphate, the territory it controls and rules over with its harsh version of Islamic law.

In recent communications issued over its various social media platforms, IS appears to be responding to its loss of territory and the mounting difficulties would-be foreign fighters are encountering to reach Syria and Iraq.

Western intelligence officials say the group is already sending operatives out of Syria to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya, perhaps to try to establish or solidify new bases of operation. Gerges says that perhaps even more devastating to the group than the loss of its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, will be the fall of Mosul, since it is in the group’s birthplace of Iraq.

But that loss of physical territory won’t occur for 8 to 12 months, Gerges predicts, during which time he says the group will do what it can to “lash out” at what it calls the “crusaders” attacking its self-declared state.

Countering the jihadist narrative

Of course breaking up the ISIS caliphate will be a key step in eventually ending the group’s sophisticated social media presence – and thus its ability to “inspire” disparate followers and lone-wolf attackers. But undermining the group’s appeal will be among the toughest challenges of the anti-IS campaign, others say.

“The cyber piece is particularly difficult, and Western nations are not well-equipped to deal with it,” says Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) with security and foreign policy experience at the White House and the Pentagon. “We have not succeeded in delivering an effective counter narrative – we’re finding out it’s very difficult to deal with the cyber aspect of this.”

Gerges sees echoes of the Orlando attack last month by the American-born son of Afghan immigrants in Thursday’s Nice attack. He and others caution that we don’t yet know what motivated the Nice attacker to drive a large truck into Bastille Day revelers, killing at least 84. But he says the method used – a vehicle as a ramming rod – has figured among the means of attack suggested online by IS for years.

Both the Orlando and Nice attackers appear to have been troubled men wrestling with identity issues and personal crises. The Orlando attacker, Omar Mateen, declared allegiance to IS even as he was carrying out his attack on a gay club – one he was known to have frequented. The Nice attacker was said to be enraged by a recent divorce, was not known to be particularly religious, but was said to engage in behaviors that would run counter to the strict moral code IS espouses.

“How do you get to the mindset of a French-Tunisian man who drives a truck for a job and lives quietly in an apartment in Nice?” Gerges says. “The defeat of ISIS would begin the process of putting an end to the homegrown terrorists and lone wolves, but it doesn’t end the inspiration right away.”

Addressing grievances

Ms. Smith at CNAS says developing an effective counter narrative to ISIS will be difficult in part because the jihadist message is easily accessible, while countering it will involve addressing deep-seated grievances, like racism and discrimination, that societies are in no mood to address.

“It’s hard to prevent a disenfranchised young individual from opening a laptop, finding these groups, and getting sucked into the narrative,” she says. “It’s all the more difficult because it will involve addressing long-term challenges, like integration, that are short-term political liabilities at a time of rising anti-immigration rhetoric.”

Levitt at the Washington Institute says a recent trip to France demonstrated to him that the French – who are dealing with thousands of returning fighters in addition to those totally off the radar like the Nice attacker – are taking some crucial steps at home in addition to taking the fight to IS.

“They’re especially focused on how to deal with online radicalization, and they’re trying to get a handle on the problem of the Europe-wide trafficking in arms,” he says. “They have a lot going on, but like everybody else, they are playing catch-up.”

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