Why you should care
Because it’s still rich, sadistic and hungry.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
There’s a sliver of good news about the Islamic State. That may come as a surprise, given its recent killing sprees in Brussels and Paris, and its claimed attacks in California. Yet, the anti-IS coalition has finally begun to dent the group’s capabilities, including its territory, resources and recruits.
I’ve consistently argued that the IS is strong, growing and poses a greater threat than al-Qaida ever did in at least five ways, from the size of its coffers to its social media savvy. It’s fair to say that in some areas, the IS is starting to hurt; in others, its menace is not much reduced. And we must be clear: The brutal, would-be caliphate is far from defeated, and there’s no question that it can still cause enormous harm, exploit the continuing turmoil in Iraq and Syria, and strike targets in the region and beyond.
At its zenith in 2014–15, the IS held more territory than al-Qaida ever did; it controlled or influenced about one-third of Iraq and Syria. Since then, Iraqi Army and Syrian rebel counterattacks have enjoyed more success, helped by the odd combination of American, Russian and Iranian assistance. Territorial estimates seesaw, but the IS today appears to have lost close to 40 percent of its land in Iraq and about 20 percent in Syria.
Before rejoicing, let’s not forget that the IS is still deeply embedded in the two major cities of Raqqa, Syria (its nominal capital), and Mosul in Iraq. The long-promised liberation of the latter is likely to be further postponed by the political paralysis afflicting Baghdad.
The IS has fielded a glossy narrative that sucked in legions of disaffected youth, but with a diminished “caliphate” it appears to have lost some of its pull. During much of 2014 and 2015, when the IS conquests were coming fast and furious, about 1,000 recruits were reportedly pouring into its ranks every month. The organization was plausibly able to claim that it was building a real state, and its slick propaganda painted life there as welcoming and full of opportunities.
But new 2016 public opinion surveys of Arab youth show that narrative is starting to go stale. About 80 percent of Arab youth reject the IS, compared with 60 percent in earlier surveys, and an overwhelming majority see the IS as the principal cause of trouble in the Middle East. Meanwhile, recruitment rates may be starting to sputter, down to as few as 200 per month, according to the Pentagon.
Unlike al-Qaida, which was often scrounging for money, the IS became the richest terrorist group in history. It did so by nabbing oil refineries and approximately 80 bank branches in its conquered territory, by ransomed kidnappings and through taxes extracted from its “subjects.”
Compared with its predecessors, the IS is still wealthy. But one estimate suggests that its income has fallen by about a third — from around $80 million per month to just over $50 million — thanks to coalition bombing of oil facilities and money storage sites and the declining price of oil. Fifty million dollars may sound like a lot, but the new governing responsibilities of the IS require more. One former member reports that the group has had to cut salaries for its troops by half.
Various studies show that the IS has recruited as many as 4,500 Westerners, and on this score it is as dangerous as ever — perhaps even more so, because its strains elsewhere could spur more external attacks such as the ones in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino. No previous terrorist group has had such ease of access to Western targets and with such a fixation on “soft” targets — theaters, markets, offices. Count on the IS, wounded and on the defensive, to lash out even more violently.
5. SOCIAL MEDIA
Here too the IS retains an enormous advantage, especially compared with what the VHS-era al-Qaida had to work with. Whereas al-Qaida resorted to smuggling out the occasional videotape, the IS moves with agility — and deep encryption on the Internet — to reach potential recruits and to plan attacks.
White House officials and the Pentagon say that the U.S. is starting to deploy cyberweapons against the IS, but this appears to be only a beginning. So while the IS can be squeezed on the ground it physically occupies, the Internet remains a virtual environment in which it can hope to endure and continue launching operations — yet another reason why this is certain to be a long and difficult fight.
The IS retains at least two other closely related advantages.
First, its strategy has long envisioned operating in three concentrically expanding arenas: the Syria-Iraq nexus, the broader Middle East–North Africa complex and globally beyond that. It is acting on that strategy, pushing many of its operatives out to its North Africa hub in Libya, where its estimated 4,000 to 6,000 fighters are double what it had there last year. More broadly, the IS now has branches or loose affiliates in more than 40 countries, giving it “defense in depth.”
Second, by virtue of the chaos and “ungoverned” space in Libya, parts of North Africa and much of the Middle East, the IS has the largest safe haven that any terrorist group has ever had. Safe haven is the key element for plotting, training and launching terrorist operations.
In some respects, the IS is back on its heels. But blunting its murderous campaigns will require relentless offensive action across a broad front by the anti-IS coalition.