The Islamic State has been defeated. With the loss of Raqqa, Syria, to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Islamic State is no longer a state in any meaningful sense. It maintains pockets of control in Iraq and Syria, and some of its militants will transform into shadowy insurgents to continue the fight, but for now ISIS’s ability to hold large swathes of territory and threaten major cities is over.
That does not mean, however, that ISIS is finished as a threat.
In fact, the Islamic State’s reversion from de facto governing body to destabilizing guerrilla ideology could lead the group to refocus on 9/11-style external terror attack planning. Some recent, ominous reporting reflects just such a shift.
Paradoxically, ISIS’s deteriorating position on the ground in Iraq and Syria may accelerate its terrorist operations abroad. It is now a jihadist movement in the midst of a rout, and its leaders know they must change this narrative of defeat or risk losing relevance among their supporters around the world.
For the so-called Islamic State to maintain the mantle of the most violent, dangerous Islamic extremist movement, there is no more effective strategy than a catastrophic terrorist strike against America or a close ally.
ISIS is most likely to turn to its external operations wing to pull off such a devastating response. A shadowy, elite force of hardened jihadists, called the “Emni,” has reportedly been responsible for horrific attacks in European cities, including Paris and Brussels already. They have been adapting their tradecraft to the increased security measures meant to thwart their continued passage into Europe.
And the pipeline of these returning “foreign fighters” to western countries has been open for years. Even if very few make it out of Syria now, ISIS has jihadist cells sprinkled in among civilian population centers in the West, as well as other locations around the globe, ready to strike.
Apart from the infiltration of operatives into Europe, ISIS can also call upon its affiliates around the world to focus their efforts on a mass casualty terror plot. jihadist groups in the Sinai, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and the Caucasus region, among others, have all pledged fealty to the Islamic State.
The recent ambush and murder of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger came at the hands of a group that has recently branded itself “ISIS in the Greater Sahara” (ISGS). There is no shortage of radicalized Islamic entities that ISIS can position as the next launch pad for major external terror operations.
There is also an elevated threat of ISIS sympathizers acting on their own to conduct a large-scale terrorist attack in retaliation for recent losses in Iraq and Syria. Some terrorists who were merely ideologically aligned with ISIS have already managed, using firearms or vehicles, to kill large numbers of civilians without direction or material support from the Islamic State.
Similar fanatics could now see that small-scale, easy to conduct attacks will be insufficient to distract from ISIS’s battlefield defeats. If every ISIS supporting radical in the west decides that stabbings and homemade bombings must be replaced with the much more difficult — but higher impact — task of weaponizing hijacked planes, it may just be a matter of time before one of them pulls off another mass casualty terror nightmare on U.S. soil.
Despite all of the chatter and threat reporting about ISIS intentions, this has been a crucial week in fight against radical Islamic terrorism. ISIS, the largest terrorist standing army since the Taliban ran Afghanistan, is collapsing. The myth of the Islamic State’s invincibility has been shattered. The American people should take a moment to reflect on and appreciate the successes of our military against this menace, and express gratitude to our allies.
But the victory against ISIS remains incomplete. As long as its ideology remains potent enough to turn adherents into vicious killers, the possibility of a history changing terrorist strike will endure.
Buck Sexton is a political commentator, national security analyst and host of the nationally syndicated radio program, “Buck Sexton with America Now.” He is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center, appears frequently on Fox News Channel and CNN and has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Follow Buck on Twitter @BuckSexton.