In Retreat in Syria, Iraq and Libya, ISIS May Look to Expand Its Global Reach

As the Islamic State loses ground to coalition and government forces, experts warn that the group is liable to step up its efforts to carry out attacks worldwide.

A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces walks by an Islamic State fighters' weapons factory in Fallujah, Iraq, June 23, 2016.
Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate may be shrinking in size and in power as a result of both external and internal factors, but that is unlikely to spell the end of the organization.

As local and coalition forces take pride in weakening the Islamic State and eating away at its territory, there is growing concern in the West over the knock-on effect beyond the region.

“Our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” said CIA Director John Brennan, speaking at an open hearing of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on June 16.

“As the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda,” Brennan said, using an alternative abbreviation for the Islamic State group.

He warned of the organization’s ability to carry out terrorist attacks worldwide, as in the recent attacks in Paris and in Brussels, as well as to inspire sympathizers with no direct links to the group, as in the attack this month in Orlando.

As if these reminders of the group’s global reach were not enough, last week the Belgian police received an anti-terror alert, warning that a group of Islamic State fighters recently left Syria with the aim of carrying out attacks in France and Belgium.

Coalition and Iraqi government forces have dealt setbacks to the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and also in Libya, where they have a stronghold in Sirte, although this week the organization’s fighters in all three countries have shown fierce resistance.

In Raqqa, the militants’ self-styled capital in Syria, they rolled back incremental gains by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad. In Fallujah, one of the Islamic State’s last remaining strongholds in Iraq, government and coalition officials disagreed over the extent of the territory in the city still held by the organization’s fighters. Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is the group’s last remaining urban holdout.

But even if the Islamic State were to lose Mosul and Raqqa, the organization’s ideological legitimacy and influence transcends the makeshift borders of its caliphate.

“Will we lose if you control Mosul, Raqqa and other cities that were previously controlled by us? No, because defeat is only the loss of the wish and will to fight,” Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani declared in May, echoing the group’s slogan, “Remaining and Expanding.”

But while Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks could be on the rise, as the Orlando attack suggested, the will to fight inside the disintegrating caliphate is dwindling, by some accounts, and fewer foreigners are coming to fight in its ranks.

“The morale ... is plummeting. We’re seeing them execute their own fighters on the battlefield. We’re seeing them unable to move fighters around the battlefield. And we’re seeing the recruits fall off precipitously,” said the U.S. envoy for the coalition, Brett McGurk.

The killing of one senior or mid-level leader once every three days has also affected their military capabilities, with fewer skilled fighters on the ground – about 100 leaders have been killed in the last few months alone.

“Their leaders are not nearly as confident. They’re not nearly as capable,” said McGurk.

They have lost some 50 percent of their terrain in Iraq and over 20 percent in Syria, their military has been degraded and the loss of much of their Syria-Turkey smuggling route means fewer arms are getting through. The road connections between Raqqa and Mosul have also been cut off, largely restricting their ability to move convoys and arms.

But, more significantly perhaps, the Islamic State appears to be losing much of the same civilian following that allowed their pseudo state to flourish in the first place.

“We have seen reflections in both open-source and classified reporting that there are reductions in the amount of support for ISIS in the held populations,” military spokesperson for the Coalition Col. Christopher Garver told Haaretz, using another abbreviation for the group.

An example, said Garver, has been the increase in graffiti denouncing the Islamic State and welcoming anti-ISIS forces.

Omar, a young man who recently escaped Mosul recalled the widespread unemployment, meager salaries and mounting pressure to take up arms. He is just one of thousands of civilians who have risked their lives over the past year to find safety beyond the territory held by the Islamic State.

When Mosul fell to the Islamic State in June 2014, the mass of civilians that fled the city was seemingly in agreement about one thing, at least: They were not running from the Islamic State.

The terrified multitudes were escaping a counterattack to retake the city by what they had long considered their number one oppressor: the Iraqi government, then led by Nouri al-Maliki.

“We are not afraid of ISIS, they don’t hurt people, we are afraid of the [government] airstrikes,” said one tired man who had fled with his family of 11.

Two years on, the militants are no longer seen as saviors of the Sunni community.

According to the coalition, there is evidence that the Islamic State has been trying to recruit more local fighters, including children. “This seems an indicator that we are having an effect of slowing the number of foreign fighters reaching the ISIL units at the end of the trail,” said Garver.

The dwindling number of foreign fighters is another telltale sign of the changing nature of the group.

Two years ago a monthly salary of $1,000 and free accommodation, food and transport drew many foreigners to Iraq and Syria. Even the wives and children were provided with a stipend of $50 and $25, respectively.

Today a financial strain partly caused by the coalition’s bombing of the oil facilities captured by the group has seen foreign fighters’ monthly salaries reduced to $400 and the number of foreigners decrease by about 10,000 individuals.

Diplomatic sources were recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal confirming that there has been an increase in Western Islamic State members reaching out to their respective governments asking for help in getting home.

While some foreign fighters have deserted, others have traveled to Libya, where chaos has created the perfect breeding ground for violent extremists.

“ISIS may ultimately use its safe haven within Libya to plan and launch attacks on nearby Europe, as it has already done with its safe havens in Iraq and Syria,” according to a report by the Institute of the Study of War.

Looking back to June 2014, what truly set Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization apart from conventional terrorist groups was the success of its self-styled caliphate.

But what has the Islamic State become? “A militia that operates like a complex gang,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute. “ISIS will survive in some form, but the dream of a state is over.”

With reporting from news agencies.