Thinking Clearly About ISIS
AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Thinking Clearly About ISIS
AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Story Stream
recent articles

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on July 20, Maj. John Spencer wrote:

“The battle for Mosul represents the future of warfare -- and it wasn’t pretty … A rag-tag army of a few thousand Islamic State fighters managed to hold the city for months against some 100,000 U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces.”

The numbers are important: a few thousand. The description as well: “rag-tag,” that is, motley, disorganized, crude.

In its glory period in 2014-15, ISIS seized Mosul along with all the U.S. military equipment there, including heavy weapons, as well as millions of dollars from the city’s central bank.

Today the so-called Islamic State is losing all over Iraq and, even if more slowly, in Syria as well. It’s a good time to think about how accurately ISIS was understood.

Here’s a primer of end-of-days questions about Islamic State military forces and occupation governments:

The numbers:  How many fighters total does Islamic State still have in the field? Are local groupings still in contact with each other, or is ISIS fatally fragmented?

New recruits. Foreign fighters arriving in Syria each month in 2016 had dropped to the low hundreds at most, no longer adding up to the thousands seen in the previous years. A Washington Post estimate held that 30,000-40,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries had arrived over two years. But the American commander, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, said that 35,000-45,000 fighters overall had been killed. Many others fled the battlefield, either back to civilian life or to their home countries as sleeper cells. Many of the original Iraqi and Syrian fighters were also killed.

What’s the result? A rough guess is that there are perhaps 10,000 ISIS fighters still in the field, scattered across Iraq and Syria. Some number, perhaps a few dozen, are killed each week. Perhaps more.       

Mosul. How many fighters held Mosul? Perhaps 6,000, holding a city that at the beginning had a population of as many as 2 million people. ISIS control of Mosul was in effect the largest hostage operation in history.

How many fighters are left in Raqqa? A few thousand, it seems. Many others have fled along with a substantial number of leaders and their families, according to the New York Times. The eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour is Islamic State’s last bastion.

Yet Maj. Spencer’s point remains as a warning about the future of war: A few hundred or thousand fighters can hold off an army in urban combat for a substantial time, if only because they are using innocent civilians as shields.

Do remaining ISIS fighters feel demoralized, abandoned? No doubt. They still fight to the death, but for personal honor in relation to jihad rather than for the caliphate. Perhaps the dream of paradise, once the Islamic State’s most formidable weapon, still has some luster.

The leader. Is so-called caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi still alive? Russia and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say he’s probably dead. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that he thought Baghdadi is still alive. Does it any longer matter very much? It’s doubtful Baghdadi’s demise would be the factor that leads to the organization’s operational collapse.  

Ammunition. What about an asset as banal as ammunition. Are ISIS forces running out of ammunition? Re-supply? Where do they get their ammunition now?

What about the famous “swaths” of territory ISIS once controlled? Do they retain that control with at most a few thousand fighters and limited weapons and logistical equipment? Large armies couldn’t control such territories in the past.

What is the meaning of “control” anyway?

A top U.S. official said at a recent closed meeting that in U.S. military vocabulary, control means an area in which ISIS forces “can move freely and return to secure bases.” Is this really control? If control means an empty territory in which not just ISIS but any military force can circulate freely, these swaths of ISIS-controlled territory are really just empty space. And since much of Iraq and Syria is uninhabited desert, what’s the point of controlling it anyway?

Where ISIS still holds villages along the two rivers, how many fighters are in each? Five, 10, a hundred? Not very many in any case. Significant attacking forces will kill or otherwise dislodge them with dispatch. Islamic State fighters are sitting ducks waiting to be killed.

Control of waterways is essential to Iraqi and Syrian life. A look at the original ISIS assault shows a well-conceived strategy. Control of the Tabqa Dam above Raqqa was a critical threat if, as seemed plausible, Islamic State fanatics might destroy it to create a flood. This threat also protected the top leadership and high-value ISIS captives kept there. In Iraq, Islamic State took control of much of the Euphrates by capturing villages on the riverbanks.

Chain of command. Does any broad chain of command still exist at the strategic level? Hardly likely. Is ISIS cunningly “re-orienting” its strategy from territory to guerrilla warfare as some commentators believe? Hardly convincing. With the Islamic State in tatters, terrorist attacks are a matter of doing what its fighters still can do -- carry out pointless massacre.  

The future of ISIS is one permanently on the run. Remaining commanders and fighters are going to ground in desert areas to reorganize some new guerrilla force, perhaps with a new name, perhaps merged with other forces, such as al-Qaeda offshoots. They did it successfully once before.

But an ISIS resurgence cannot be camouflaged -- the element of surprise is gone. In Iraq the group will be run down by experienced Iraqi security forces, and in Syria by a collection of anti-ISIS groups including the Assad government, however much these groups are also fighting each other.

Al-Qaeda will also be on the run despite its “long game” strategy of gradually taking over communities from within.

Governments will not be surprised again nor will they permit ungoverned areas to form -- these are in nobody’s interest. Russia’s first goal in Syria, President Vladimir Putin has said many times, was to prevent another Libya near its borders. Iraqi and Syrian patchwork governments will be active. Equally or more important is that outside states will be vigilant -- Russia but also the United States, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and the Arab Sunni states.   

Islamic State, the murderous blip-on-the-screen caliphate, is going down. Almost certainly this will terminate territorial jihad in core Middle East countries for the foreseeable future.  

But what about other areas? Guerrilla and urban terrorist jihadis will persist in various countries such as the Philippines, Nigeria, the Sinai in Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Some will claim to be ISIS affiliates fighting to re-establish a caliphate, but their most important motives will be local struggles for power and money.  

Lone-wolf attacks will continue in Europe and the United States, but without strategic or even tactical significance. These are massacres, not politics. Enough experience has accumulated showing that public opinion is terrorized for a moment but life goes on the next day. (Statistically in the United States there have been only two serious terrorist attacks in the past several years, in San Bernardino and Orlando, involving a total of three individuals.) Nevertheless, counterterrorism remains a vital task of Western governments.        

Thinking clearly about the future of ISIS, military analyst Anthony Cordesman says, “We are months away at most from the point at which ISIS ceases to be the focus of Iraqi security and stability.”

What about killing the ideology? Eradicating the idea of violent jihad to create an international Muslim power?

Jihad and the caliphate are, like any religious or political movement, ideas. Bad ideas degenerate sooner or later, like communism, or they are destroyed, like the Third Reich. Sometimes they simply burn themselves out: chattel slavery is a good example, or Alexander the Great’s idea of universal empire.

The Islamic State’s fanatical agenda is just the most recent version of an ancient, homicidal fantasy.