The War Continues: ISIS Searching for New Land

In his first State of the Union address in January 2018, President Donald Trump declared ISIS militarily defeated and reminded the Congress of his 2017 pledge to work with America's allies to extinguish ISIS from the face of the Earth.  He declared that "one year later, I'm proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and Syria."  Indeed, since President Trump took office, ISIS has lost around 21,400 square miles, or 96%, of its territory.

Tremendous progress in fighting ISIS was made in May, when a Coalition strike that was a part of Operation Roundup, which began on May 1 to accelerate the defeat of ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and Iraq-Syria border region, killed ISIS leader Abu Khattab al-Iraqi, who oversaw revenue generation through the illicit sale of oil and gas.  Overall, during the last two years, ISIS oil revenue was slashed by more than 90%.

Moreover, Operation Roundup recently resumed in mid-August to gain ground and remove terrorists from the battlefield through offensive operations coupled with precision coalition strike support, Department of Defense officials said.

Going underground

Despite these unseen advancements, the recent U.N. and U.S. intelligence agencies' reports, released in mid-August, indicate that there are up to 31,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria that remain in mostly desert territory on the border between the two countries.

This number is truly alarming, as it is close to a previous estimate of the group's peak.  The new estimate also contradicts earlier ones from the Pentagon and the U.S.-led coalition, which indicated a steady decline from 30,000-40,000 fighters to about 1,000 at the end of 2017.  Now they claim that ISIS has roughly 30 times that.

There is an explanation for these confusing estimates and trends.

In 2015, ISIS started thorough preparation for its underground existence and activities.  The group has vast experience.  One may recall that in the 1990s, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein created extensive resource bases for his military forces specifically for underground operations.  A significant part of these bases survived the massive disturbances after Hussein's execution and American intervention.  These bases constituted a resource foundation for the Supreme Command of Jihad and Liberation, led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri in Iraq, and were inherited through it by ISIS. 

It is also possible that the seasoned strategist al-Duri still coordinates the activity of the Iraqi forces of ISIS.

Furthermore, during clashes with the Iraqi and Syrian armies, ISIS captured a significant number of weapons and military equipment.  These include 2,300 Hummers, 40 M1A1 tanks, 52 American-made M198 Howitzers ($500,000 each), and 7,400 machine guns.  During the war, ISIS seized major parts of the strategic reserves of its adversaries in both countries.  Most importantly, it was able to organize quasi-state structures and institutions that governed the captured territories and even generated significant revenue from oil trade, agriculture, taxation and extortion, sales of antiques and historic artifacts, and drug trade.  The lion's share of this money was "invested" in backup countries, such as Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, the Egyptian Sinai, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.  ISIS is also actively exploring Asian expansion, as indicated by the recent terrorist attacks in Indonesia and Indian Kashmir.    

It is natural that ISIS is focusing on Muslim regions that are already unstable, where it already has underground cells and, most importantly, a social base of potential followers and fighters.  Despite the lack of significant territorial control in any of the aforementioned countries, a majority of the local radical Islamic groups have sworn allegiance to the caliphate and thus gained an "official status."  Thus, any terrorist act conducted by them is spun online as a "new combat operation of ISIS," which aims to create the impression of its ubiquity.     

Wherever ISIS tries to expand its presence, it starts with the creation of a resource base.  In Afghanistan, for example, it strives to control opium transportation corridors.

Additionally, ISIS has changed its propaganda campaign since 2017.  Perceiving defeat in Iraq and Syria, it declared a "period of challenges" sent by Allah to distinguish the true followers of the caliphate from those who joined it to take advantage of the "holy war."

Conclusions

All in all, the numbers provided by U.N. and U.S. intelligence may be close to reality, as ISIS possesses enough resources to support this number.  ISIS also has proven experience in irregular partisan activity.

The last time ISIS was stripped of its territory, it spent about six years surviving in the desert to emerge again with the Arab Spring in Syria, when the country was weakened by the domestic political crisis.  ISIS now seems to be using similar tactics in Afghanistan, expecting the Taliban to overthrow the government.

The ISIS coalition must look into the root of the problem to eliminate ISIS.  What are the reasons that make people embrace radical terrorist ideology?  Obviously, the problem is highly complex, and there are no simple solutions.  But overall, terrorism starts with unresolved social and religious issues of vital importance to specific people.  There are hurt core values that potential terrorists try to restore and protect, often by physical annihilation of perceived offenders.

It is clear that the preservation of the current political system and conservation of the existing situation in war-ravaged countries without the comprehensive reconstruction of the destroyed economic infrastructure and without a shift of a political paradigm of the local elites will continue to breed terrorists.

Last but not least, the defeat of ISIS will require a deterrent presence of the Coalition's military not to repeat the same mistake that Obama did, when the premature U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 helped give al-Qaeda the space and time it needed to restore its strength.  President Obama also vacillated over Syria, allowing ISIS to conquer and thrive.

The Trump administration deserves credit for accelerating the downfall of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq.  However, the war is not over yet.  The threat has transformed and will continue to transform.  As Robert Simcox put it, "[w]hile the loss of the 'Caliphate' damages the ISIS brand, it maintains sufficient cachet to inspire attacks abroad.  ISIS also has options for alternative safe havens that could allow it to recover.  Even outside physical domains, ISIS has access to electronic spaces where it can continue recruitment efforts."

The military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies will be at the forefront of the work ahead.  Considering ISIS's ability to sustain and promote itself as a legitimate government in areas where it retains a presence, the United States must help promote responsible and representative governance.

Fighting international terrorism is not an easy task, but many battles are won already.  The U.S.-led coalition has all the necessary assets and resources to win this war if it sets its strategy and tactics correctly and follows through.

In his first State of the Union address in January 2018, President Donald Trump declared ISIS militarily defeated and reminded the Congress of his 2017 pledge to work with America's allies to extinguish ISIS from the face of the Earth.  He declared that "one year later, I'm proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and Syria."  Indeed, since President Trump took office, ISIS has lost around 21,400 square miles, or 96%, of its territory.

Tremendous progress in fighting ISIS was made in May, when a Coalition strike that was a part of Operation Roundup, which began on May 1 to accelerate the defeat of ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and Iraq-Syria border region, killed ISIS leader Abu Khattab al-Iraqi, who oversaw revenue generation through the illicit sale of oil and gas.  Overall, during the last two years, ISIS oil revenue was slashed by more than 90%.

Moreover, Operation Roundup recently resumed in mid-August to gain ground and remove terrorists from the battlefield through offensive operations coupled with precision coalition strike support, Department of Defense officials said.

Going underground

Despite these unseen advancements, the recent U.N. and U.S. intelligence agencies' reports, released in mid-August, indicate that there are up to 31,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria that remain in mostly desert territory on the border between the two countries.

This number is truly alarming, as it is close to a previous estimate of the group's peak.  The new estimate also contradicts earlier ones from the Pentagon and the U.S.-led coalition, which indicated a steady decline from 30,000-40,000 fighters to about 1,000 at the end of 2017.  Now they claim that ISIS has roughly 30 times that.

There is an explanation for these confusing estimates and trends.

In 2015, ISIS started thorough preparation for its underground existence and activities.  The group has vast experience.  One may recall that in the 1990s, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein created extensive resource bases for his military forces specifically for underground operations.  A significant part of these bases survived the massive disturbances after Hussein's execution and American intervention.  These bases constituted a resource foundation for the Supreme Command of Jihad and Liberation, led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri in Iraq, and were inherited through it by ISIS. 

It is also possible that the seasoned strategist al-Duri still coordinates the activity of the Iraqi forces of ISIS.

Furthermore, during clashes with the Iraqi and Syrian armies, ISIS captured a significant number of weapons and military equipment.  These include 2,300 Hummers, 40 M1A1 tanks, 52 American-made M198 Howitzers ($500,000 each), and 7,400 machine guns.  During the war, ISIS seized major parts of the strategic reserves of its adversaries in both countries.  Most importantly, it was able to organize quasi-state structures and institutions that governed the captured territories and even generated significant revenue from oil trade, agriculture, taxation and extortion, sales of antiques and historic artifacts, and drug trade.  The lion's share of this money was "invested" in backup countries, such as Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, the Egyptian Sinai, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.  ISIS is also actively exploring Asian expansion, as indicated by the recent terrorist attacks in Indonesia and Indian Kashmir.    

It is natural that ISIS is focusing on Muslim regions that are already unstable, where it already has underground cells and, most importantly, a social base of potential followers and fighters.  Despite the lack of significant territorial control in any of the aforementioned countries, a majority of the local radical Islamic groups have sworn allegiance to the caliphate and thus gained an "official status."  Thus, any terrorist act conducted by them is spun online as a "new combat operation of ISIS," which aims to create the impression of its ubiquity.     

Wherever ISIS tries to expand its presence, it starts with the creation of a resource base.  In Afghanistan, for example, it strives to control opium transportation corridors.

Additionally, ISIS has changed its propaganda campaign since 2017.  Perceiving defeat in Iraq and Syria, it declared a "period of challenges" sent by Allah to distinguish the true followers of the caliphate from those who joined it to take advantage of the "holy war."

Conclusions

All in all, the numbers provided by U.N. and U.S. intelligence may be close to reality, as ISIS possesses enough resources to support this number.  ISIS also has proven experience in irregular partisan activity.

The last time ISIS was stripped of its territory, it spent about six years surviving in the desert to emerge again with the Arab Spring in Syria, when the country was weakened by the domestic political crisis.  ISIS now seems to be using similar tactics in Afghanistan, expecting the Taliban to overthrow the government.

The ISIS coalition must look into the root of the problem to eliminate ISIS.  What are the reasons that make people embrace radical terrorist ideology?  Obviously, the problem is highly complex, and there are no simple solutions.  But overall, terrorism starts with unresolved social and religious issues of vital importance to specific people.  There are hurt core values that potential terrorists try to restore and protect, often by physical annihilation of perceived offenders.

It is clear that the preservation of the current political system and conservation of the existing situation in war-ravaged countries without the comprehensive reconstruction of the destroyed economic infrastructure and without a shift of a political paradigm of the local elites will continue to breed terrorists.

Last but not least, the defeat of ISIS will require a deterrent presence of the Coalition's military not to repeat the same mistake that Obama did, when the premature U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 helped give al-Qaeda the space and time it needed to restore its strength.  President Obama also vacillated over Syria, allowing ISIS to conquer and thrive.

The Trump administration deserves credit for accelerating the downfall of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq.  However, the war is not over yet.  The threat has transformed and will continue to transform.  As Robert Simcox put it, "[w]hile the loss of the 'Caliphate' damages the ISIS brand, it maintains sufficient cachet to inspire attacks abroad.  ISIS also has options for alternative safe havens that could allow it to recover.  Even outside physical domains, ISIS has access to electronic spaces where it can continue recruitment efforts."

The military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies will be at the forefront of the work ahead.  Considering ISIS's ability to sustain and promote itself as a legitimate government in areas where it retains a presence, the United States must help promote responsible and representative governance.

Fighting international terrorism is not an easy task, but many battles are won already.  The U.S.-led coalition has all the necessary assets and resources to win this war if it sets its strategy and tactics correctly and follows through.