The territorial influence of the so-called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has significantly dwindled since August 2014, when the US-led international coalition launched its military intervention to finish off the group. In December 2018, US president Donald Trump announced the defeat of ISIS and his decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. The announcement was adamantly opposed by the majority of the international community and even some in the US administration, claiming that it would almost inevitably lead to the reemergence of the ISIS or similar terrorist groups, therefore creating a similar chaotic situation that existed in Iraq after the American withdrawal in 2011. Whether or not this is the case, there are a couple of questions which need answers regarding the setbacks of ISIS and the possibility of its return.
To critically tackle these concerns, one should not only take into consideration the political reality that manifested itself in the geographical defeat of ISIS, but also the feasibility of adaption strategies that could be used by the group to survive the new situation on the ground. The international coalition conducted almost 34,000 airstrikes between August 2014 and January 2019. According to the coalition’s press, ISIS now exists in only one percent of all the territories that it once controlled over the last five years. These facts, however, do not really mean that ISIS has been defeated and such claims are likely driven by a political agenda or made out of ignorance of the operational aspects of radical jihadist groups, or both.
In May 2016 - a couple of months before he was killed - Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the former spokesperson of ISIS, released an audio message discussing recent developments in ISIS’s war against its enemies and particularly the United States. With his usual confrontational tone, al-Adnani reminded the US of its “fake victory and forced withdrawal from Iraq” more than ten years after its invasion. He also pointed out that ISIS flourished during the US militarily presence, while the latter suffered massive losses. More importantly, al-Adnani posed two questions: “Do you (the US) think that you have won the war against the Islamic State when you killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Bin Laden or … etc … do you think that you will win the war if you kill Abu Omar al-Shishani or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi or …. ?”, and “Do you think that you have defeated us when we lost territories or cities such as Raqqa or Mosul?”. According to him, defeat means losing the will and the desire to fight. However, the reasons behind the rampant radicalisation, which helped the rise of ISIS, still exist now exactly like before. The war in Syria and Iraq has provided fertile soil for radicalisation. Many people in the region are still socially and politically deprived, with no hope for reconstruction plans to enhance living conditions, While ISIS still offers a transnational identity for some foreign fighters from the west.
Al-Adnani’s message might seem optimistic and ambitious regarding the potential comeback of ISIS, if it was not for this line in which al-Adnani reminds the world that ISIS managed to survive in the desert during the American presence in Iraq. Therefore, losing control over some cities, according to him, has never been and cannot be perceived as a defeat for ISIS. Operationally speaking, the group has managed to diversify its strategies. Moving from what ISIS call the war of tamkin, or empowerment, and imposing control over territories, to a hit and run guerrilla war. This strategy, which was mainly adopted by Al-Qaeda (AQ) after 9/11 due to tight security conditions and the war on terror, shifts operational decision-making from a traditional, bureaucratic, and centralized command to another that is more flexible and decentralised.
Retreat to the desert, less centralized decision-making and finding fertile communities for recruitment seem to be the main themes of this juncture in ISIS’s story. According to Hisham al-Hashimi, a research fellow at the Defense and Counter-Terrorism Programme at the Centre of Making Policy for International and Strategic Studies, ISIS’s establishment went through a fixed cycle of three phases: creation, preparation, and empowerment. Al-Hashimi argues that since 2016, when ISIS’s territorial dominance or empowerment phase started to crumble, the group has swiftly moved back to its first “creation” phase. ISIS today is looking for local incubators where it can create new cells. Additionally, a great significance is given to what are known as ‘sleeper cells’, which consist of ISIS affiliated locals who manage to hide their affiliation, waiting for more “convenient” conditions to operate. “Those able to lay low and mask their identity will be the backbone of ISIS’s insurgency in the coming years”, says ISIS expert Hassan Hassan.
While ISIS’s retreat to the desert and territorial losses have dispossessed the group of its essential financial resources, such as the oil fields in Syria and Iraq, as well as the taxation which was imposed on civilians under its zone of influence, the group’s spending has also considerably decreased since it has been relieved from its financial burden of providing social services to civilians living under its territories. As a result, ISIS has resorted to private finance and started to reallocate its spending on small operational fighting groups like sleeper cells, which need less funding to conduct terrorist attacks. Another point of strength ISIS possesses is the deep and complex security structure, according to expert on Jihadi movements Hassan Abu Haniya, who emphasized ISIS’s capability to adapt with different political realities. With less spending, more accurate operations, and the capacity to cope with new circumstances, ISIS odds of survival have accordingly risen.
By shifting gears from centralised decision-making with territorial control to more flexible and more secretive and cautious operational activities, ISIS is still effectively capable of carrying out terrorist attacks not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in the West. In his interview with Al-Jazeera, al-Hashimi confirmed that Iraqi security forces have obtained information from ISIS’s top managerial level regarding their intentions and planning for revenge on countries which participated in the international coalition to fight them.
In addition to suicide bombing in countries with fragile security circumstances, ISIS still has the capacity to create small cells in Western countries, as well as coordinate ‘lone wolf’ attacks. This is a terrorist attack which is committed by an individual, who is driven by an ideology or belief without any organisational ties. The danger of such attacks comes from the difficulty to proactively detect it, as the attacker is usually not affiliated with any group and gets no help from any organisation such as ISIS or AQ (for example, the attacks at the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, the Paris Knife attack in 2018, and many others). These kinds of attacks reflect ISIS’s flexibility in dealing with new realities, and tells a lot about counter-terrorism plans which sometimes deal with the symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem.
While ISIS has lost control over almost all of its territories there are many reasons behind its emergence and the conditions in which ISIS flourished, and found support, are still there. ISIS is an idea which requires more then a geographical defeat. War-torn countries with political, social, and religious grievances, ineffective and repressive governance, combined with the destruction of major cities and the absence of concrete plans for reconstruction, suggest no immediate end to ISIS and its lookalikes.
Orwa Ajjoub is an affiliated researcher at the center for Middle Eastern Studies in Lund university. In 2018, Orwa graduated from the same institution where he defended his Master’s thesis which looks at the theological aspect of the split between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in 2013. Although his interest has been mainly focused on Salafi-Jihadi groups in the Middle East, Orwa wrote some articles about the Syrian society during the war and particularly about Syrian LGBTQ in Europe. His work was published on different media websites such as Syria Deeply, Huffington Post and World Policy. During the last two years, Orwa has participated in two academic conferences where he discussed al-Qaeda presence in Syria. In addition to writing journalistic articles, Orwa is currently working on an academic report discussing the future menace of the Islamic state and other Salafi-Jihadi groups such al-Qaeda.
 The lone wolf strategy was popularized by white supremacists in 1990s and later theorized by the prominent Jihadi ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri.