Turning Aleppo and U.S. credibility to dust, the Assad-Putin-Khamenei axis rumbles on. And ISIS is a prime benefactor of the killing. In cleansing eastern Syria of its Sunni population in order to carve out an Alawite stronghold, Assad and his allies are pushing Sunnis toward ISIS. It’s true that ISIS’s manpower, resources, and territory are under pressure, but the group is far from weak. The toughest challenges are not yet behind us.
For a start, learning from former officers of Saddam Hussein’s regime, ISIS has carefully developed its long-term combat capabilities. It has moved key officers throughout Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and it has shown a greater willingness to cede ground that it knows it cannot hold. Yet where it does hold power, ISIS continues to impose a vicious tyranny. Consider a few stories from the last week.
On Monday, reports suggest that ISIS forces in Mosul executed a police officer and his son after holding them prisoner for a period of months. As with most Iraqi security-force prisoners, the two men were probably brutally tortured. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg in Iraq’s northern city. Facing a looming attack by Iraqi and coalition forces, ISIS forces in Mosul are increasingly brutal in their treatment of civilians.
How about another day in the life of the Caliphate?
On Tuesday, ISIS released a new 19-minute video. In it, propagandists promise to purge the world of Shia Muslims and all who do not yield to their totalitarian vision. Accused pro-U.S. rebels are shown on screen and derided for what ISIS claims was their failure in battle. Forced to wear orange jumpsuits, the prisoners are then marched into the desert and beheaded by ISIS fighters in black overalls. Their heads are then placed on spikes. While this video is ISIS propaganda 101 (another recent video involved a human slaughterhouse), it deserves our attention nonetheless. That’s because each video crystalizes ISIS’s brutality and evidences the necessity of utterly crushing them. We must not become numb to the horror.
But that’s not all. Also this week, ISIS circulated a new magazine edition encouraging sympathizers to stab and murder Western civilians. Blending Koranic verses with guidance from extremist clerics, the magazine tries to justify murder by prospective lone wolves. The lone-wolf focus shows that even as ISIS faces battlefield losses, it has no intention of yielding the fight. On the contrary, while ISIS’s capital city, Raqqah, is important, the group sees its ultimate capital as non-territorial in nature. Aiming for global fear or fealty, ISIS seeks to raise its capital in the hearts of all humanity.
Still, there is one area where ISIS remains an exceptionally urgent threat. And that’s the threat posed by its foreign operations units. There are three heads to this hydra. First, there are the inspired losers in the vein of Orlando attacker Omar Mateen. Each time one of them carries out a successful attack, others are inspired to carry out their own attacks. The violence is thus self-replicating, and, as the Nice atrocity proved, the means of mass murder are many. This makes detecting lone-wolf attackers very challenging.
The second challenge is that of locating and tracking ISIS operations managers who guide inspired jihadist to take deadly action. Pointing to the ISIS-inspired murder of Father Hamel in a small-town church in France, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, recently explained that these managers use encrypted apps to help plotters evade detection and carry out atrocities. At this level, the planning and operational sides of a terrorist cell need never meet. Instead, their collaboration is made possible via simple use of apps. According to de Kerchove, ISIS plotters in Europe are focused on vehicles loaded with improvised explosives. He also fears that ISIS might provide online directions for building crude chemical weapons. There is a record here. As I’ve noted before, ISIS obsesses over WMDs. And in June 2007, two al-Qaeda terrorists attempted to detonate three improvised car bombs in the U.K. Fortunately, the only casualty was one of the attackers, who accidentally burned himself to death.
Third and most serious however, are the ISIS sleeper cells infiltrating Europe to carry out Paris-style spectacular attacks. In Germany this year, at least two such cells have been dismantled, but European intelligence officials believe that more cells remain at large. These cells are exceptionally patient, while also being the most ideologically fanatical, well-equipped, best supported logistically, and skilled at evading detection.
All of this should lead us to a simple conclusion. While we are grateful that ISIS is under pressure in its Caliphate, we must reject the temptation to celebrate victory prematurely. ISIS remains strong. Unless we definitively defeat them, ISIS will repeat the actions of its precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, after 2011: rise from the ashes and spread chaos throughout the world.