Since the beginning of the United States’ Operation Inherent Resolve in June 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has suffered major territorial losses. According to statistics released by the Department of Defense in November 2016, a combination of ground offensives and air strikes reduced ISIS-controlled territory by approximately 60% in Iraq and about 28% in Syria. For ISIS, an organization whose identity is intimately tied to territorial control, these losses signal a dramatic setback.
This loss of territory, however, is far from ISIS’s death knell. While denying ISIS sanctuary in the Levant will deal a severe blow to the organization’s self-sustaining financial model and limit militants’ ability to plot complex attacks, ISIS’s ideology and transnational terrorist network will survive the disintegration of the so-called caliphate. ISIS has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to evolve in the face of new challenges, and the loss of territory is unlikely to be an exception. Further, in May 2016 late ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released a statement calling on militants to be undeterred by the caliphate’s loss of territory, proclaiming “true defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight.”
If recent history serves as a guide, the elimination of the caliphate is likely to usher in a new stage in ISIS’s evolution. The trajectory of al-Qaeda over the previous three decades underscores just how resilient and adaptable terrorist groups can be when the organization’s survival is at stake. Thus, as ISIS continues losing territory in Syria and Iraq, the organization will likely mimic al-Qadea’s (AQ) transformation, shifting from an insurgent organization to a traditional terrorist group, establishing new sanctuaries, and embracing pragmatic collaboration with ideologically-dissimilar jihadist organizations.
In order to survive territorial losses in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will necessarily transform from a territorially driven insurgent organization to an ‘underground’ terrorist organization. Since announcing the establishment of the so-called caliphate in June 2014, ISIS has operated more like a pseudo-state than a terrorist organization, possessing vast military capabilities and thousands of fighters, providing goods and services to the civilians under its control, and largely funding itself. Absent a safe haven, however, militants operating among the local population risk capture and death. In this respect, AQ’s transformation following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan is instructive: without Taliban protection AQ could no longer live and operate openly with impunity, forcing the organization underground and, in later years, leading to the development of a transnational terrorist network with its base online. Much has been written about ISIS’s adept use of social media technology, with some claiming ISIS controls “both physical and digital territory.” The existence of this “virtual caliphate” leaves ISIS better positioned to weather the loss of its sanctuary than AQ was in 2001.
As ISIS loses control of its sanctuary in Raqqa, Syria—the organization’s de facto capital—leaders will seek to establish new safe havens abroad. Formal ISIS affiliates in Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan—all of which hold territory—could serve as new bases of operations for displaced leaders, providing the infrastructure and sanctuary necessary to direct a global terrorist organization. This too is a familiar pattern: in 1991, facing pressure from the Pakistani government, AQ moved its safe haven from Pakistan to Sudan. Granted, AQ was still in its nascent stages at this point and Osama bin Laden was in Saudi Arabia when he made the decision to relocate. However, AQ survived a second and decidedly more significant move in 1996, and conducted a series of major terrorist attacks against U.S. targets in the following years.
Over the previous three years, much has been made of ISIS’s unwillingness to work with other groups in Syria—jihadist or otherwise. But, following the caliphate’s collapse, ISIS leaders are likely to more readily collaborate with ideologically-dissimilar jihadist groups and local forces to both ensure the organization’s survival and advance its goals. Without territory, maintaining local jihadist groups, tribes, and governments’ goodwill will be essential to ISIS’s security and ability to fundraise, recruit, and plot attacks. Allying with local entities is a tried and true AQ strategy, most recently deployed with the announcement that Syrian AQ affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra was changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Sold as a formal split from AQ, the rebranding was nothing more than a “nominal decoupling” aiming to unify Islamist efforts in Syria and bolster AQ’s position in the conflict.
If history is any guide, the elimination of ISIS’s sanctuary in Syria and Iraq will not defeat the organization. Rather, as Operation Inherent Resolve continues, military commanders and counterterrorism officials should begin planning for the next stage of the fight.