The state of ISIS: shrinking territory, expanding reach

ISIS's ambition for an Islamic caliphate has suffered significant setbacks in Iraq and Syria, but analysts warn that a spate of attacks, from Britain to Iran to the Philippines, shows the jihadist group is hardly defeated.

Tasnim News Agency/Reuters
Members of the Iranian civil defense run to the site of an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, on June 7, 2017.

Manchester. Nigeria. Baghdad. Kabul. London Bridge. Tehran. And Marawi, in the Philippines, among many other targets…

The news headlines about recent bloody attacks conducted by the so-called Islamic State, or inspired by it, give the impression that the ISIS brand of global jihad is ever-expanding and still dynamic.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when ISIS traditionally ramps up such high-profile attacks, is a little more than half over, and has demonstrated the jihadists’ continued global reach.

But two other datelines tell a much different story: of an inescapable, two-year decline in ISIS’s aspirations for its self-declared territorial state. Today ISIS fighters are clinging to their last toeholds in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, where the jihadists declared an Islamic caliphate in June 2014. And last week US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces launched the much-anticipated offensive against the caliphate’s self-declared capital in Raqqa, in northern Syria.

So what is the overriding trend with ISIS, which is seeking to transform its failing promise of utopian Islamic rule into a prime motivator of attacks worldwide, with weapons sometimes as simple as kitchen knives?

Analysts warn that shrinking territory does not translate into defeat for ISIS, much less victory over it.

“ISIS is at the same time a solid, a liquid, and a gas, and can move between these forms as and when it needs to,” says Shiraz Maher, deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London.

“The idea that ISIS is coming to the end, that this is the beginning of the end, is completely incorrect.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Where is ISIS rising?

In a bid to ensure its own relevance, even as its physical state disintegrates, ISIS has launched attacks far afield. In Manchester, England, a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a concert May 22. And on June 3 in London, three men killed eight people in a brief rampage with a van and knives.

In Afghanistan, a small ISIS threat to the central government has long been dismissed as marginal, compared with that posed by the Taliban. But its increasing presence was felt May 31 when a truck bomb ripped through the center of Kabul, killing more than 150.

In the Philippines, a long history of Muslim opposition to the predominantly Christian government has morphed into a potent ISIS cell. For three weeks now, Philippine soldiers have battled ISIS fighters holding between 500 to 1,000 civilians hostage in the city of Marawi. Scores of US Special Forces troops are officially confirmed to be aiding the fight.

The fight in the Philippines highlights a challenge that opponents of ISIS face around the world, analysts say: even physical elimination of the jihadists is not enough. 

Airstrikes and martial law “will not get at the roots of radicalization: poor governance, a dysfunctional legal system, and endemic poverty” in the Philippines, writes Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, Indonesia, in The New York Times. “Too often strong-arm tactics only breed more fighters – and fighters with a desire for revenge.”

Where is ISIS falling?

Virtually gone are polished ISIS propaganda videos that portrayed an Islamic paradise, replete with the “justice” of ceremonial beheadings and the cage burnings of “infidel” enemies. Those videos once energized Islamist recruits to flood into Syria and Iraq from around the world, but have now dwindled as ISIS focuses on war – and on a different future.

A recent ICSR analysis found that ISIS portrayals of utopian life in mid-2015 accounted for 53 percent of propaganda output, while war-related material was 39 percent. By February this year – as Iraqi forces began the fight for western Mosul – fully 80 percent was devoted to war, and just 14 percent was utopia-themed.

“In spite of its terrorist infamy abroad, the Islamic State is suffering at home,” noted Charlie Winter of ICSR in the March analysis. “As its territorial clout, leadership, and manpower depleted over the course of 2016 and early 2017, [ISIS] was forced to recalibrate the strategic parameters of its propaganda narrative.”

ISIS has been preparing its followers for territorial erosion, casting it as a normal, centuries-old historical fluctuation.

The latest issue of the ISIS online magazine, Rumiyah (Rome), said losses would only prompt ISIS into “rekindling the flames of war,” and vowed to “recapture every inch of territory” and expand.

Significantly, even as ISIS loses ground in Mosul, it pulled off a suicide attack in the Iraqi city of Karbala, site of a holy Shiite shrine, killing 30 people on June 9.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Where are ISIS’s newest conquests?

Long on the ISIS to-do list has been a strike against Iran, to avenge Iran’s anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria. On June 7, ISIS attackers killed 17 people with strikes against two key symbols of the Islamic Republic: the parliament in Tehran, and the mausoleum of Iran’s 1979 revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The six attackers were Iranian citizens armed with assault rifles, grenades, and suicide vests, who officials say had fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The direct ISIS link was clear: The group claimed responsibility even as the killing spree unfolded, gave updates, and even posted video filmed by the attackers while the stand-off continued.

The ISIS presence was no surprise to Iran, whose officials in 2015 claimed to have captured ISIS cells and thwarted bomb plots on a weekly basis. Officials say 45 “terrorist cells” were dismantled in the 12 months up to March 2017, and 25 more were dismantled in just the 2-1/2 months since then.

“Terrorists fumbling with firecrackers won’t impact [the] Iranian nation’s willpower,” tweeted the official account of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran on Monday claimed to have killed the leader of the ISIS cell behind the attack in a cross-border raid, and four other suspects the day before, inside Iran.

What are ISIS’s biggest challenges?

The breadth and scale of the ISIS surge of attacks abroad allows the jihadist franchise to project continued relevance, even without its unique state.

But even as ISIS shrivels in Iraq and Syria, the chaos it thrived on and tapped into for local support – especially in Sunni regions of Iraq – is likely to continue. Analysts warn that sectarian, ethnic, and tribal differences are likely to flare anew in the post-caliphate world.

“There are really deep-seated social issues here, that will continue to give longevity to groups like ISIS,” says Mr. Maher of ICSR, author of “Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea.”

ISIS propaganda about the Iraqi forces recapturing Mosul, for example, played on local fears of Shiite militias and their brutality.

“People are so worried, and ISIS has really exploited that and capitalized on that,” says Maher. “It’s good for ISIS when there is social instability and tension in these countries. And Iraq is a million miles away from being a cohesive, stable society right now.”

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