Three years after several hundred Islamic State fighters swept into northern Iraq, captured the country’s second largest city, and forced thousands of Iraqi soldiers to retreat in fear for their lives, the extremist organization that shocked the entire world with its barbarity is now close to being wiped out. After nine months of the most anguished urban fighting since the Second World War—fighting that a top US Air Force general described as “like Stalingrad, but…ten times worse“—Iraqi counterterrorism units, special forces, regular army troops, and federal police declared the crown jewel of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate liberated on July 9. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi was so eager to declare ISIS’s caliphate over that he celebrated a week in advance. A Reuters correspondent witnessed Iraqi soldiers celebrating on the banks of the Tigris on the eastern side of the city, even as their colleagues were still in the thick of the war going room-to-room to kill the remaining 100 ISIS militants surrounded in the last few buildings.
Prime minister Abadi may have been ready to brag about victory, and president Donald Trump is undoubtedly anticipating the time when he can address the American people and bask in the glory of being the US commander-in-chief who oversaw the caliphate’s destruction. But a note of caution is in order; the Iraqi people, the US-led military coalition, and the international community as a whole should settle down and understand that just because Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s state building project is largely over doesn’t mean that the group is totally annihilated. As lieutenant general Michael Nagata, a senior Army special operations officer and a director at the National Counterterrorism Center told a West Point journal last month, “We have to conclude that we do not yet fully appreciate the scale or strength” of ISIS’s operational capability.
What the general means, of course, is not that the Islamic State will recoup all of the territory it lost over the last two years. While that’s always a possibility—it should be remembered that ISIS wouldn’t have had such success as a force if its Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq forefathers didn’t spend years patiently lying low in the desert, replenishing its fighting strength—the chances of another ISIS-led blitzkrieg into Ramadi or Mosul in the near future is exceedingly slim. Far more likely is the ISIS brand surviving in some way, shape, or form, with its fighters in Iraq and Syria reverting back to a traditional terrorist organization, while at the same time continuing to leverage its technological prowess to inspire terrorist attacks in the West. The use of encrypted communications will be that much more important for the group to entice the thousands of disillusioned and border-line extremists to keep up the struggle. None of that will change when Mosul is back in the Iraqi government’s control.
This prediction isn’t pulled out of thin air. Counterterrorism analysts have been projecting this for months, largely because ISIS commanders, preachers, and foot soldiers have made their intentions clear. In fact, Baghdadi’s legion have been planning for the time when its terrorism writ would be eliminated ever since the United States and its coalition partners began bombing ISIS territory. And indeed in a strange way, ISIS has been operating as if its caliphate has already been wiped off the map; foot soldiers have been conditioned to carry on the battle regardless of how much ground the group administers.
Before he was killed in a coalition airstrike last year, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani—Baghdadi’s former military lieutenant and top spokesman—spent years calling for supporters of the caliphate to take matters into their own hands and conduct attacks on their own initiative. In Sept. 2014, al-Adnani delivered a sermon in which he incited violence against western countries involved in the anti-ISIS coalition. The weapon used, the target attacked, the time of the day, and the venue didn’t matter as long as an operation was attempted. In May 2016, with the Islamic State’s territory contracting, its financial resources depleting, and its flow of foreign fighters tapped out due to attrition on the battlefield, improved intelligence cooperation, and better border policing, al-Adnani implored any able-bodied Muslim in Europe or the US to stay in place and attack rather than make the journey to Syria and risk getting arrested. “The smallest action you do in their heartland,” Adnani argued ”is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us.”
That call, in addition to the easy accessibility of modern technology, has clearly had an impact. Indeed, despite ISIS’s borders shrinking to patches of desert and some medium-sized villages along the Euphrates, ISIS-inspired terrorist plots have continued to happen in Western Europe with far more regularity than European governments would want (the United Kingdom experienced three terrorist attacks in a span of two months this year). The number of cases of self-radicalized individuals conducting an attack or killing based on ISIS’s encouragement is almost too high to count.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who drove a truck into a crowd of civilians during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice last year, was one such case. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel never stepped foot in Syria or Iraq, nor did he ever meet a member of ISIS face-to-face as far as we know. But he nevertheless was inspired to plow over pedestrians on behalf of the caliphate and what it represented. Omar Mateen, the young man who shot up a gay night club in Orlando in June 2016—the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11—had no direct connection to the Islamic State or any other jihadist group. While the perpetrator of the Berlin Christmas market attack last December would eventually claim allegiance to ISIS and turned out to be a known extremist to German intelligence, he spent the previous five years in Europe bouncing between Italy and Germany. Needless to say, those countries are far away from the caliphate or any jihadist battlefield.
All of these attacks, in other words, occurred despite the terrorists having no first-hand experience with life in the caliphate whatsoever. They were either disgruntled misfits alienated from the societies in which they lived, working in dead-end jobs with no future prospects, spent time in prison for drug dealing of violence crime, or suffered from some kind of psychological disorder. These types of characters would have been shunned by Osama bin Laden during his heyday, but they are precisely the people that ISIS actively searches for.
Individuals like Mateen, Syed Rizwan Farooq, and Elton Simpson are not only susceptible, but already live in a Western society highly vulnerable to assaults on soft-targets. These incidents, some successful and others foiled, also prove that terrorist groups no longer need a safe territorial jurisdiction to plan an attack, acquire funds, and train the recruits before a terrorist act is perpetrated—according to a report from George Washington’s Program on Extremism, only 18% of the terrorist attacks in Europe and the US that occurred between June 2014 and June 2017 were carried out by a foreign fighter. The conclusion of all of this is clear: dispatching terrorists to Western countries from Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal areas is increasingly the old way of doing business. ISIS has shown time and again that all jihadist groups need today is a decent presence on social media. Inciting a person to drive a car into a crowd, kill a police officer with a knife, or mow down club goers with a semi-automatic weapon are techniques are now just as effective in instilling chaos as crashing airplanes into buildings or bombing a mass transit system in London.
ISIS and many other Islamist extremists have discovered that holding ground in Mosul, Raqqa, or Afghanistan in not a requirement to inspiring acts of violence. All you need is a laptop, an internet connection, and someone crazy enough to pull the trigger or strap explosives around his waist.
Just as Al-Qaeda survived after losing its terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan, the Islamic State will continue to be a household name even after government forces and anti-ISIS militias have taken Mosul, and look to capture Raqqa. Baghdadi won’t have his caliphate anymore. But he and whoever takes his place won’t need one to remain a relevant jihadist force.