FPI Bulletin: The Growing Global Threat from ISIS

August 3, 2016

President Obama will visit the Pentagon tomorrow for an update on the war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). Following the Orlando attack in June, the President insisted, “We are making significant progress…ISIL is under more pressure than ever before.” Yet two days later, CIA Director John Brennan told Congress that “our efforts have not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach.”  A recent wave of attacks in Western Europe—including the murder of more than 80 victims in Nice—has validated Brennan’s warning. After tomorrow’s briefing, President Obama should give a candid assessment of the war to the American people and acknowledge that progress against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has not diminished the network’s global terrorist reach.

Terror Threat Undiminished

The Obama administration has consistently downplayed the significance of ISIS-linked terrorist attacks by portraying them as a side effect of progress in Iraq and Syria. For instance, Secretary of State John Kerry said after the tragedy in Nice that the attacks in Europe represent “the desperate actions of an enemy that sees the noose closing around them.”

However, the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community clearly disagree with the administration’s optimism.  After Orlando, CIA Director John Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee that, “Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach. The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly.”

Nicholas Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was even more emphatic in his rejection of the belief that attacks in Europe are just an echo of setbacks for ISIS in the Mideast. Last month Rasmussen testified, “[W]e do not judge that that there is a direct link between the group’s current battlefield status in Iraq and Syria and the group’s capacity to operate as a terrorist organization with global capabilities.”

A new report from the House Homeland Security Committee finds that ISIS attacks in the West have inflicted 875 casualties through July of this year, already exceeding last year’s total of 720 killed and wounded. The report also finds that the success rate of attacks is growing, along with the frequency of direct support from foreign operatives.

The independence of the terrorist threat from the situation in Iraq and Syria reflects the Islamic State’s long-standing efforts to expand far beyond its home territory.  The network has established a series of affiliates across the world, in Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sinai, Nigeria, Algeria, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan-Pakistan.  These branches, Brennan said, are becoming increasingly interconnected, and “can help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria.”  Furthermore, top ISIS leaders in Syria remain focused on facilitating attacks across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. According to a New York Times investigation, the responsibility for arranging and supporting attacks belongs to “a multilevel secret service under the overall command of the Islamic State’s most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.”

These eight affiliates are supported by as many as 40,000 foreign fighters who have traveled to Iraq and Syria over the past five years—twice as many as the number of jihadists who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union during the 1980s. An end to the fighting in Iraq and Syria, even if it were on favorable terms, might have the unintended effect of worsening the threat to the United States and Europe.  FBI Director James Comey warned on July 27 that if the situation in Syria were resolved, that would create a flood of foreign fighters returning to Europe and elsewhere to wreak havoc. “At some point there is going to be a terrorist diaspora out of Syria like we’ve never seen before,” Comey said. Rather than prematurely claiming success, President Obama should inform the American public that the threat of the Islamic State will likely endure for many years.

Progress in Iraq and Syria

With American support, local forces in Iraq and Syria have reclaimed a substantial amount of territory from the so-called caliphate. Brett McGurk, President Obama’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, told the Senate in June that “ISIL has not had a major battlefield victory in over a year. It has lost 47 percent of its territory in Iraq, and 20 percent in Syria.”  McGurk noted that nearly the entire Turkey-Syria border, including key terrain and border crossing points, is no longer controlled by ISIS, resulting in a diminishing flow of foreign fighters to bolster the group.  Overall, ISIS’ forces in Iraq and Syria are believed to have been reduced to 18,000-22,000 fighters, down from as many as 33,000 in 2014, while 100 mid-to-senior level leaders in the organization have been killed in recent months, including two key aides of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Likewise, McGurk notes, the United States has curtailed the Islamic State’s revenue liberating cities and ending the taxation of their captive inhabitants.  The U.S.-led coalition has also conducted more than 120 strikes against ISIS’ oil infrastructure and cash storage centers.  This success, McGurk says, “has created a virtuous cycle: terrorist fighters are not paid, their supplies run low, they have less will to fight, and they are more easily defeated.”

This is all good news, but the administration’s constant emphasis on territorial gains as a measure of success may be misleading. From a military perspective, not all terrain has equal value. In Iraq, the Islamic State still controls Mosul, the country’s second largest city, along with nearby terrain along the Tigris River. While Vice President Biden once promised that Mosul would fall by the end of this year, General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cautioned, “This is incredibly difficult and complex. This is a million people in a complex urban terrain with a determined enemy who has had a long time to prepare. This is going to be a tough fight.” Above all, Iraqi troops may not be ready for so ambitious an operation.

Furthermore, the control of terrain by U.S. partners in Iraq does not mean that its population is safe from ISIS. Indeed, Iraqis are under increasing danger as the U.S.-led campaign continues.  Last month, a single truck bomb in Baghdad claimed more than 300 lives.  According to the official ISIS news outlet, the group is now conducting some 80-100 suicide attacks per month in Iraq and Syria, compared to only 50-60 in November 2015.

A New Insurgency Ahead?

While the destruction of the caliphate would represent a major setback for ISIS, the group seems to be preparing for a drawn out insurgency, rather than one final battle. As the New York Times reported last week, ISIS fighters in Iraq “have blended back into the largely Sunni civilian populations there, and are biding their time to conduct future terrorist attacks.” Even if the city of Mosul were to be liberated from ISIS soon, senior US officials warn that “will not be sufficient to stave off a lethal insurgency.” In many instances, when U.S.-led forces advanced against ISIS positions, “the Islamic State chose to withdraw rather than fight to the death — a sign of control, military calculation, and intent to preserve force for future operations,” write Jessica Lewis McFate and Christopher Kozak from the Institute for the Study of War

A similar situation is occurring in Libya, site of an ISIS stronghold that has come under attack by militias under the command of the Libyan unity government. While a Pentagon spokesman has described these operations as “spectacularly successful”, Emily Estelle of the American Enterprise Institute forecasts that this progress will prove to be “ephemeral”. Estelle writes that ISIS began preparing to withdraw from its coastal stronghold as early as April, and is already carving out a new safe haven in southwestern Libya.  From this position in Libya’s desert outskirts, the network could continue to destabilize Libya, or focus its efforts instead against Tunisia


President Obama should have moved swiftly and decisively to defeat the Islamic State once he decided, in the summer of 2014, to confront it on the battlefield. Instead, Obama committed insufficient forces to the fight, then increased them only incrementally when the shortfalls became apparent. The result is that the Islamic State is now a worldwide terrorist network that can direct or inspire attacks across the globe.

Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, described this situation in stark terms last month when he said, “the array of terrorist actors around the globe is broader, wider, and deeper than it has been at any time since [September 11, 2001]….It is fair to say that we face more threats originating in more places and involving more individuals than we have at any time in the past 15 years.” This is an indictment of President Obama’s leadership that will not be possible to correct in his remaining six months in office. However, if his successor recognizes that the destruction of ISIS will require a concerted and continuous global effort over many years, he or she can lay the foundation for victory. 

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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