In the past few months, ISIS has been defeated - in the military sense - on numerous occasions and in numerous locations. They’ve lost the ability to seize and hold Mosul, Raqqa and Marawi. Their membership numbers have declined, their finances have dwindled, and their propaganda machine has stalled. What was once a global terror brand has now become meme fodder. As Stratfor’s Emily Hawthorne recently noted, they’ve transitioned, “from a strong, conventional fighting force to … an insurgent militant force”. Arguably, the timing of this transition was less about strategy and more about survival, but it remains lethal. Have we actually won? What comes next? If the past fifteen years of conflict have taught us anything, it is that an insurgency is far more difficult to militarily address than a threat that chose to seize and hold ground.
There are four challenges associated with this defeat. Baghdadi - allegedly - remains alive and well. ISIS members, and in particular the large number of foreigners who flocked to the false Caliphate, who weren’t killed or captured in the past few major battles remain unaccounted for. ISIS devotees, globally, continue to evolve from problematic jihadis to increasingly coordinated insurgent networks. Additionally, domestic security agencies are working near capacity to prevent the next edged-weapon or vehicle attack, considered to be the most likely method to be used by ISIS in its ‘low tech terror’ campaign.
Individually, these four challenges are manageable. It is likely militaries will continue to pursue the kill/capture of Baghdadi and his close adherents. It is likely intelligence agencies will continue to work collaboratively to better identify the tactics, techniques and procedures used by fighters to cross borders either undetected or unreported. It is likely pockets of terrorist support will remain a joint targeting focus, especially given the success of ISIS in exploiting power vacuums in fragile States. It is also likely the ratio of terrorism disruption to terrorist success will increase as agencies continue to refine their risk matrices and thresholds.
Collectively, however, these challenges represent the new normal: perpetual and protracted trans-regional conflicts requiring combined security forces effort beyond 2017. As Marawi showed, the threat has the ability to coalesce and emerge rapidly to exploit existing fractures and political weaknesses. The ‘defeated’ ISIS has retained its leader; survived multiple kinetic engagements; and established numerous safe havens. In its wake are terabytes of propaganda, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, extensive destruction of critical infrastructure and a seed of doubt in the public mind that every incident involving a vehicle and a crowd is ISIS-related. They’ve transitioned to an insurgent campaign focused on survival, re-generation of strike capabilities and avoidance of detection from US-led opposition forces. This will likely lead to the movement metastasizing beyond the Levant and into emerging theatres such as Africa and South-East Asia. This is as much a survival mechanism as it is part of a broader plan to franchise the movement beyond the current conflict zone.
As a result, those responsible for national security are at a critical decision point. Has ISIS been defeated to such an extent that host nation security forces can independently prevent their resurgence? Or, has ISIS’ defeat in Iraq and Syria provided a temporary reprieve, allowing additional time for support nations to engage in foreign internal defense to build the capacity of host nations? On the one hand, the foreign fight has concluded and we can refocus our priorities on returning foreign fighters and domestic terrorism; on the other hand, we have another round or two to go, requiring an additional investment of blood and treasure in both foreign and domestic arenas. At this decision point, the challenge is how to avoid the mistakes of past conflicts in considering them resolved either too soon or too late. The apparent commitment fatigue we’ve witnessed regarding the war in Afghanistan requires avoidance. This can only be accomplished through clearly articulated end states and strategic communications explaining the nature of generational commitment to conflict. It is here that historical precedents such as combating the IRA will assist - either commit long-term blood and treasure to addressing this problem at it source, or deal with periodic terrorist attacks at home and abroad.
Regardless of the decision, the stakes are high. A miscalculation in ISIS’s ability to regenerate, or in the host nation’s capability to contain them, could mean the past several years of fighting had limited effect. Moreover, failure to assess the likelihood of ISIS either coexisting or cooperating with existing insurgent militant forces, perhaps using a Jabhat al-Nusra model, to ensure longevity could prove fatal. Political fatigue is possible, as is waning public support, meaning a second - or third - round against ISIS may be unpalatable, if not unaffordable. A current coalition of military forces is already working on this problem set, as the recent meeting of more than 70 Chiefs of Defense in Washington DC shows. Ensuring the range of other Government agencies not only adopt, but also commit to, this trans-regional approach may be the key to defeating ISIS in the long-term.