ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) at one time had a population of 10 million people within its power of influence. Their power stretched across two countries in Iraq and Syria contained major towns and cities, oil fields, factories and dams, and was roughly the size of Britain. But now ISIS has lost more than 99 percent of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Its territory has now shrunk to a tiny pocket in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province, with its fighters holed up in the village of Baghouz Al-Fawqani, near the Iraqi border. There is a growing perception among the people that these are the end of days for the Islamic State but many analysts and even US intelligence community warns that the group could still be a long-term threat. While its physical contours are to disappear, the extremist group still has thousands of fighters in its ranks in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State forces have largely disappeared from towns and villages in the conflict zone instead of confronting the advancing Iraqi and Syrian forces. Even no significant top leader of ISIS has been captured or killed in recent offensives, which could mean that ISIS strategists have left the contested areas and are preparing for next phase of conflict.
ISIS roots in insurgency could be traced to the time of US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 with its leaders waging an insurgency campaign against coalition forces in Iraq. Even with the fewer resources at disposal now IS will be a deadly insurgent group as it takes much less resources to carry out attacks rather than defending a territory.
Daesh has been planning for a long-term insurgent campaign for at least couple of years now especially after losing Mosul. After the fall of Mosul, the group has adopted calculated strategy of withdrawing to conserve manpower and pivot away from holding territory to pursuing an all-out insurgency in coming years. The reality is that after losing Mosul, its most sizeable and symbolic territorial possession, the Islamic State has not fought to the last man and last bullet to maintain control of any other population centre. Even more surprising was its retreat in areas long believed to be its strategic base, the borderlands of Iraq and Syria and the Euphrates river valley, where it had experience about fighting or operating in for around a decade now and where it remerged powerfully in 2014. The group has shifted its base to desert and rural areas; rural and desert-based insurgency is no less important than urban warfare to deplete its enemies, recruit members, and lay the groundwork for a comeback.
The group has already stepped up hit-and-run attacks in towns it had lost. This tactic diverged from the group’s tendency at the height of its expansion in 2014 to engage in conventional attacks, including attacks via convoys and heavy artillery barrage. The new tactics tend to involve small units attacking from behind enemy lines or through hasty raids. Reverting back to the old insurgency and terror tactics enabled the Islamic State to penetrate otherwise well-secured areas. Previous attempts to attack them through conventional fighting units had failed, even while the group was at the zenith of its power. This hit-and-run strategy also serves another useful purpose – that nothing is out of reach for them, even if their ability to control territory plummets. It should be noted that ISIS is an adaptive and determined enemy in its new avatar from an organization with a fixed headquarters to a clandestine terror network dispersed throughout the region and the globe, which is going to prove deadlier. The result of this transition can be that the ISIS-perpetrated violence should be far less concentrated and more dispersed which will be hard to detect and control.
Part of the revised ISIS strategy is likely to include a rejuvenated focus on planning and conducting outrageous attacks in the West in order to remain militarily relevant and to inspire its followers globally. To adequately plan for the next phase of the conflict, it is critical that the coalition forces fighting against ISIS understand the variety of potential tactics undertaken by the group. This is the need of the hour that a new strategy to counter ISIS should be formulated rather than hasty announcement of group defeat. For fighting highly adaptive adversaries like ISIS new approach should have a different mix of tools including military, intelligence, diplomatic, social and economic.
Moreover, ISIS toxic ideology can still affect an entire generation, therefore next campaign against ISIS should also focus on ideologically eradicating it. An ideological defeat is a much tougher task because anti-extremism campaigns requires patience and resilience but these measures offer long term solution as they tackle the root causes of the radical ideologies. The allies have to understand that ideological defeat of ISIS is as important as its military defeat, and only one phase of war is over while the next one may be about to come.