After a string of losses in 2017, what will happen to ISIS? And how should the world combat the Jihadist group? We check in with counter-terrorism expert Doug Munroe to find out.
What do we get right and wrong about ISIS?
For many, ISIS has become synonymous with terror, with pilots burned alive, men beheaded on video, women abducted into slavery, and attacks on civilians from Brussels to Baghdad. When we see that kind of violence, we simply label it terrorism, which influences our approach. With ISIS, this was a mistake. To be sure, ISIS commits acts of terror, but it also behaves very much like a classic guerrilla force. It has territorial ambitions and wants to create a state. The signs were there from the start: in its early propaganda videos, ISIS could be seen bulldozing the border signs that divide Syria from Iraq.
2017 was not a good year for ISIS, whose aim is to establish a global caliphate based on extremist Islamist ideology. By November, it had been defeated in Syria and Iraq. Canada and the US played important roles, launching air strikes and arming the Iraqi forces that led the battle. But we may have had more success earlier if we had done a better job understanding ISIS. We’re always running one year behind, because we miscalculate what they’re about and what they’re going to do next. We suddenly found ourselves confronting a well-organized, hostile state-like entity that had already made serious inroads, which made for a tougher and more drawn-out fight.
Do the defeats of 2017 mean we’ve seen the end of ISIS?
No. If we act like the problem has been taken care of because we denied them territory, that will be another mistake. Part of what makes ISIS so dangerous is that its commanders have a high degree of military skill, developed over a decade of warfare. They likely foresaw that they would lose territory and knew they could not withstand a ground assault backed by the firepower of the US-led air forces in Iraq and Syria, and the Russian air force in Syria. The leader, al-Baghdadi, is still alive. And ISIS is pushing into countries where the opposition is weaker than in Iraq and Syria and that are plagued by chaos, such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya.
It’s also important to distinguish between local military capability and global symbolic power. ISIS’s ability to field large numbers of organized fighters, acquire or manufacture weapons, hold territory, and engage in sustained combat is clearly diminishing. The global symbolic power of its black flag and rhetoric is not necessarily affected, however, and since some propaganda, recruitment, training and logistics require less infrastructure, its capacity to inspire—and provide material support to—affiliates around the world is likely to endure. It may even be slightly enhanced as foreign fighters return to their home countries, which could be anywhere from France and Germany to Algeria and Lebanon. Complex attacks like the ones we saw in Paris in 2015 may diminish as ISIS tries to keep a lower profile to avoid detection. Lone-wolf attacks, which by definition don’t need coordination, are likely to be less deadly but harder to predict.
What is the best strategy now?
The main challenge is the larger political and social turmoil from which such violence emerges. Recapturing the city of Mosul took a major effort on the part of the Iraqi army, but restoring functional, inclusive and legitimate governance will be a bigger problem. Sustained effort to deny ISIS safe havens from which to operate needs to be backed by a long-term effort to build stable states in those places.
In terms of terror attacks, the question now is how to deal with ISIS fighters who are returning from Iraq and Syria. Some of these individuals need help, some need to be closely watched, some could be very useful sources of intelligence—and some will be in all three categories. Governments must continue to invest in counterterrorism machinery, but it’s also essential to keep the risk of terrorism in perspective. In the US, far more people are killed and injured by non-terrorist gunfire. I like to say that if the first casualty of war is the truth, the first casualty of terrorism is perspective.