Since last year, ISIS has lost over 90% of its territory in Syria and Iraq, with the Iraqi government announcing an end to the war against Islamic State in December 2017. ISIS has lost multiple military battles as the US-led coalition liberated Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS control over the previous months. However, as ISIS continues to lose in conventional military engagements, the leadership of ISIS is transitioning from a focus on holding territory to fomenting terrorism and conducting hit and run operations. Over time, ISIS is becoming less of a regional insurgency, and more of a global terror operation.
ISIS as an organization for the past few years has been reliant on recruitment within the populations of Iraq and Syria in locations where the governmental authorities did not have much control or influence. ISIS used this vacuum of power to mobilize an army to capture major cities in the region such as Raqqa and Mosul. US airstrikes and local security forces in the region have reversed most of the gains ISIS had which is why ISIS is shifting tactics. According to US military officials, ISIS is capable of adapting and changing its tactics in response to new strategic challenges. The January drone attack on Russian military facilities in Syria by ISIS fighters showcased the new strategy of inflicting as much pain as possible on the group’s enemies while now avoiding conventional engagements due to its devastated pool of manpower.
Over the previous months, ISIS has adapted to the losses it has incurred in fighting the Kurds, Iraqi, and other forces. ISIS, with less than 10,000 loyalists and only 3,000 committed fighters left, has focused on utilizing tactics that perpetrate less concentrated and more dispersed violence. Increasingly, the group is using suicide attacks to inflict casualties on the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces. In January, the group admitted to organizing nearly 800 attacks in 2017.
ISIS is also reviving a tactic used in its organizational past: assassinations. Back when ISIS used to be Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it utilized assassinations against Iraqi police officers. Now after suffering major casualties in its fighting ranks, ISIS is now targeting and assassinating multiple Iraqi security personnel. In June, ISIS killed 8 high profile security officials. These assassinations serve as a force multiplier for a group that is suffering from depleted ranks and cannot undertake more manpower-intensive operations.
In addition to ISIS utilizing more terror tactics after losing control of its conquered territory, the leadership of ISIS is transitioning from a localized strategy focused on consolidating its base of operations in Syria and Iraq to a global strategy of isolated terror cells in multiple different countries. In Kabul, terrorists affiliated with ISIS have launched suicide bombings that have killed dozens. In Egypt, ISIS is waging more attacks on government forces, primarily in the Sinai Peninsula. Last year a car bomb claimed by ISIS killed 18 Egyptian policemen as part of a broader terror campaign against the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
ISIS is also pursuing a more global propaganda campaign to recruit followers for conducting attacks in their own countries. This showcases that as the US and other groups extend their momentum in attacking the last remaining pockets of ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq, the ISIS presence around the world will surely continue to increase.
The United States, as well as the broader international community, have dealt with the threat of ISIS with a counter-insurgency strategy. As ISIS shifts its focus away from contesting territory, it is becoming a more global terror network. Addressing the threat of ISIS as a terror group rather than as an insurgency requires a different strategy and a different set of tools to undermine ISIS cells and block their new terror tactics. The changing nature of ISIS requires a changing nature of the anti-ISIS strategy used by the United States.
Photo credit Tasnim News, Creative Commons