Policymakers must prepare for new ISIS threats in the future
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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is both a product and cause of regional instability throughout the Middle East, but its effects are felt well outside of ISIS' physical domain. After Monday’s attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, President Trump called those behind the incident “evil losers” and urged all countries to unite in fighting terrorism.

While the Trump administration has repeatedly vowed to destroy ISIS, it is unlikely that ISIS can be entirely eradicated.

But it can, and will, be physically defeated.

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ISIS has already lost two-thirds of the territory it once held in Iraq and a third of its Syrian territory. While the exact timeline and cost for physically defeating ISIS is unclear, it is reasonable to assume that ISIS will lose control of its “caliphate” during the next two years. While taking away ISIS’ territory is certainly an accomplishment, this does not guarantee stability in Iraq and Syria, nor will it prevent the rise of future jihadi organizations.

 

Policymakers must prepare for two future threats: ISIS’ post-caliphate evolution and the groups that will inevitably follow ISIS and perhaps pose greater threats to regional and global security.

Even without territory, ISIS will likely maintain its expansive online presence. Its propaganda machines will continue to spin its activities and losses in ways favorable to the group. Its loss of territory will cause some supporters to lose interest, but since its formation, ISIS has painted territorial losses as a fulfillment of prophecies.

For zealots, territory is no longer as important as continuing to fight, and defeats are simply tests to determine who is a true believer. Losing ground in Syria and Iraq may even inspire more lone wolf attacks in Europe and the United States as the group and its supporters seek to demonstrate their resolve and capabilities.

Even after ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, its “provinces” hold territory in Libya, Nigeria and Afghanistan, among other places, and will likely adopt guerrilla/insurgency tactics in the Middle East.

ISIS’ retreat from Mosul demonstrates its ease in making the transition from conventional to guerrilla force. When unsuspecting Iraqis returned home, they reported finding light switches and refrigerator doors booby-trapped with explosives, as well as landmines hidden under children’s toys in the streets. ISIS as an insurgency will prove a challenging fight, as the West’s experiences in past counterinsurgencies demonstrate.

Other groups also inspired by radical visions of Islam will inevitably follow ISIS. Indeed, many already exist in Syria and Iraq. Others will emerge in the power vacuum left behind as ISIS continues to retreat. Many of these groups govern portions of Syria and Iraq with less brutality than ISIS, but their existence nonetheless represents a considerable threat to Iraq and Syria as cohesive states and peaceful civil societies. These groups hold territory of their own and have learned from ISIS’ failures in its relations with local populations as well as ISIS’ successes online. Just as al Qaeda served as a mold for ISIS, so too will ISIS serve as a model for future groups to come.

One such group, originally called Al-Nusra Front, served as al Qaeda’s arm in Syria until July 2016, when it was released from its bonds of allegiance. The group changed names and orientations, and in January 2017 merged with four other groups operating in the region to create Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant. Like ISIS, this group quickly developed its own media outlets and even its own media agency, Ebaa Agency, whose Arabic Telegram Channel already has over 22,000 followers.

ISIS (and its successors) are learning organizations: highly adaptable, nimble and digitally sophisticated. ISIS has pushed boundaries in its use of social media, but in the face of concerted opposition, it will eventually fail to maintain its grip on a large territory and population.

Once ISIS is gone, there are countless groups waiting in the wings to take over. These groups adapt and evolve, gaining followers and traction while the world watches ISIS. It is imperative that the United States and local allies learn how to respond to ISIS’ presence in the physical and cyber domains now. If we cannot learn to outpace ISIS, we will not be ready for the group that surpasses it.

Andrew Byers is a visiting assistant professor of history at Duke University who has served as an intelligence and counterterrorism analyst. Tara Mooney is a counter-violent-extremism analyst and co-founder of Talon Intelligence. Byers and Mooney are the co-founders of the Counter Extremism Network.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.