What a Ramadan it’s been. Orlando: 49 dead. Istanbul: 44 dead. Dhaka: 22 dead. Baghdad: 220 dead. Various locations around Saudi Arabia: 7 dead.
All of these attacks have been linked to the Islamic State, although its degree of involvement has varied. The Orlando shooter seems to have been radicalized from afar whereas the attackers in Istanbul are said to be an ISIS cell from Syria. Orlando aside, all of these attacks have involved more than one assailant; the degree of coordination and discipline has been frightening, leading some to talk of “wolf packs” rather than “lone wolfs.”
In all cases save Dhaka and Orlando, most of the dead appear to be fellow Muslims. In Dhaka, the terrorists were said to have killed only the hostages who could not recite Koranic verses. By contrast, in Baghdad—the worst of these attacks and the worst terrorist attack ever in Baghdad—all of the victims were undoubtedly Muslims, who were celebrating their nightly release from Ramadan’s restrictions.
A common refrain from analysts has been that these attacks are made in response to the territorial losses that ISIS has recently suffered. The terror group is said to have lost 47 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria. Accordingly, analysts (and U.S. government officials) suggest, ISIS is trying show it is still relevant by expanding operations abroad outside its core “caliphate.” That may well be the case. Or it may be that ISIS has been planning a campaign of terrorist attacks abroad all along and would have carried them out whether it was losing ground or not. We simply don’t know enough to offer a definitive answer.
The fact remains that, even in its currently weakened condition, ISIS is the most potent terrorist group on earth—indeed, perhaps the strongest in history. U.S. intelligence officials estimate that its oil revenues have been slashed in half, but it still generates $150 million a year.
As for its manpower, the New York Times reported: “The Islamic State’s ranks in Iraq and Syria have fallen to between 18,000 and 22,000, from a peak of about 33,000 combatants last year, American officials say. But another 20,000 or so militants rally under the Islamic State banner in at least eight affiliates, including in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. By comparison, Al Qaeda at its peak had a couple of thousand fighters.”
In short, don’t write off ISIS quite yet. It has the potential to wreak havoc for years to come, in whatever form it takes. Obviously it would be greatly advantageous to destroy its physical control of territory in Iraq and Syria—this is what makes possible its huge stream of income (which comes from “taxation” of the people under its control and various criminal rackets, as well as oil production) and provides it with space to train and indoctrinate recruits. It also contributes to the aura of success that has been such a big part of its allure to would-be terrorists around the world.
But while destroying the caliphate will undoubtedly diminish the ISIS threat, it probably won’t eliminate that threat. Like al-Qaeda, of which it was once an affiliate, ISIS shows a dismaying ability to adapt to adversity—witness how it was able to resurrect itself after the defeats it suffered in Iraq in 2007-2008 when it was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The fact that President Obama has been slow-rolling the campaign against ISIS—it is two years since the “caliphate” was restored—has given it time to set up a world-wide terror network that will not be easily uprooted. ISIS’s continuing ability to carry out or inspire terrorist attacks around the globe makes a mockery of the president’s claim that it has been “contained.” One Internet wit posted a map on Twitter with a circle drawn around much of the world, labeling this as the area in which ISIS is contained. That’s about right: a deadly pathogen has been set loose upon the world, and it will not easily be eradicated.
If there is any silver lining in ISIS’s worldwide offensive, it is that it may well unite even more countries in the battle against it. In particular, Turkey has the potential to do considerable damage to ISIS if it is aggravated enough. In the past year, the Turkish government has already taken steps to crack down on ISIS, which is what probably provoked the Istanbul airport attack and preceding attacks. Now, let us hope, the Turks redouble their efforts.
But even if the ISIS threat is eventually diminished, other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda wait in the wings. Indeed, the greatest beneficiaries of the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria may be other Sunni and Shiite terrorist organizations that are eager to rush into the vacuum. The only way to prevent this is to foster working governments in Syria and Iraq that can control their own territory but there is scant hope of that anytime soon. It remains a long, long war—and there is no light at the end of this tunnel.