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ISIS 2.0 All Set to Go

The ISIS caliphate once had 10 million people within its borders. It stretched across two countries, Iraq and Syria, and contained major towns and cities, oil fields, factories, and dams and was roughly the size of Great Britain. Today ISIS has lost more than 99 percent of its territory it once held in Syria and Iraq which has now shrunk to a tiny pocket in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, with its fighters holed up in the village of Baghouz Al-Fawqani, near the Iraqi border. There is a perception growing among the people that these are the last days of the Islamic State but many analysts and even the US intelligence community warns that the group will still be a long-term threat.

While the physical caliphate is about to be extinguished, the extremist group still has thousands of fighters in its ranks in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State forces have largely melted away from towns and villages in the conflict zone rather than confront advancing Iraqi and Syrian forces. No significant leader of ISIS has been captured or killed in recent offensives which means that the ISIS top leaders and strategists have left the contested areas and are preparing for the next phase of war.

ISIS roots have been insurgent since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its leaders are waging an insurgency campaign against coalition forces in Iraq. Even with the fewer resources at their disposal, ISIS will be a deadly insurgent group as it takes fewer resources to carry out terrorist/insurgent attacks rather than defending a territory. Daesh was planning for a long-term insurgent campaign for at least a couple of years, especially after losing Mosul. After the fall of Mosul, the group adopted the calculated strategy of withdrawing to conserve manpower and pivot away from holding territory to pursuing an all-out insurgency in the future. The reality is that since losing Mosul, its most sizeable and symbolic territorial possession, the Islamic State, has not fought to the last man and last bullet to maintain control of any other population centre. Even more surprising was its retreat in areas long believed to be its strategic base, the borderlands of Iraq and Syria and the Euphrates river valley, where it had experience fighting or operating for around a decade now and where it re-emerged powerfully in 2014. The group has shifted its base to desert and rural areas, as the Islamic State, rural- and desert-based insurgency is no less important than urban warfare to deplete its enemies, recruit members, and lay the groundwork for a comeback.

The group has already stepped up hit-and-run attacks in towns it had lost. This tactic diverged from the group’s tendency at the height of its expansion in 2014 to engage in conventional attacks, including attacks via convoys and heavy artillery barrage. The new tactics are intended to involve small units attacking from behind enemy lines or through hasty raids. Reverting back to the old insurgency and terror tactics enabled the Islamic State to penetrate otherwise well-secured areas. Previous attempts to attack them through conventional fighting units had failed, even while the group was at the height of its power. These hit-and-run attacks also serve another very useful purpose that demonstrate that nothing is out of reach, even as their ability to control territory plummets. It should be noted that ISIS is an adaptive and determined enemy. Its new avatar is a clandestine terrorist network dispersed throughout the region and the globe which will be deadlier. The result of this transition will be that ISIS violence will be far less concentrated and more dispersed which will be hard to detect and control.

Part of the revised ISIS strategy will likely include a rejuvenated focus on planning and conducting spectacular attacks in the West in order to remain militarily relevant and to inspire its followers globally. To adequately plan for the next phase of the war, it is critical that the coalition forces fighting against ISIS understand the variety of potential tactics undertaken by the group. A new strategy to counter ISIS should be formulated rather than a hasty announcement that the group has been defeated. Fighting highly adaptive adversaries like ISIS requires a new approach should have a different mix of tools including military, intelligence, diplomatic, social and economic. Moreover, the ISIS toxic ideology can still affect an entire generation so the next campaign against ISIS should also focus on ideologically eradicating it. An ideological defeat is a much tougher task because anti-extremism campaigns require patience and resilience but these measures offer long term solutions as they tackle the root causes of radical ideologies. The United States and its allies have to understand that ideological defeat of ISIS is as important as its military defeat and only one phase of the war is over and the next one is about to come.