July 13, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The Islamic State of 2018
• The recapture of Mosul by Iraqi security forces was a significant military and symbolic victory.
• With the loss of Raqqa expected relatively soon, the Islamic State’s proto-state will finally be toppled, but it will remain an insurgent-terror group capable of great chaos in Syria and Iraq.
• There will likely be continued external attacks—mostly by supporters, but some by cells—as people continue to act in the group’s name.
• The next year could see a spate of plots and attacks that will require a continuation of the current high pace of counterterrorism operations across the EU and UK.
The enormity of the challenges facing Iraq as it seeks to build upon the victory in Mosul has given way to a distinctly cautious sense of optimism for the country. The biggest success against the so-called Islamic State since it took Mosul in June 2014 has prompted an abundance of warnings that the threat posed by the terrorist group will endure long after its territory is retaken. This reaction is understandable, given the destruction of Mosul—and much of Iraq—both in terms of its infrastructure and, more importantly, its social fabric. The inability of the Iraqi government to provide or encourage effective governance invites concern over variations of a theme seen repeatedly for years in Iraq; ineffective, corrupt, and even oppressive governance sparks local pockets of conflict which then metastasize to the benefit of terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda. The consistency with which this cycle is repeated in Iraq should temper any optimistic post-Mosul expectations. While a staggering level of support will be required to begin rebuilding Mosul, focus must now be turned to the multi-year effort to restore the city’s social fabric and make life sustainable for the city’s residents.
While losing Mosul does not spell the total demise of the Islamic State, the loss is a categorical defeat for the group and a critical victory for those now liberated from life under its brutal rule. The rise of a powerful, proto-state terrorist group in Iraq and Syria was built on years of underlying political dysfunction; it will take many years to reverse those trends and the damage done. While losing Mosul was the Iraqi government’s biggest failure, retaking it is among its biggest successes, regardless of how hard it will be to sustain the victory.
Retaking Raqqa is far more complicated in that it is unclear—and contentious at every level—exactly who will be ‘retaking’ the city and its surrounding areas. The Syrian conflict is now so convoluted that toppling the Islamic State from the capital of its crumbling ‘caliphate’ is only one part of the much-larger battle to contain the conflict. Still, Syria’s future depends, in part, on the Islamic State being pushed out of its key territories. Losing Raqqa, as with Mosul, will be a crushing and undeniable loss for the group.
Lost in the discussion of future challenges is the fact that while retaking Mosul was very costly for the Iraqi security forces, it was likely a catastrophic blow for the Islamic State, with a high number of its fighters killed or captured. Raqqa will be the same. In particular, the group’s cadre of foreign fighters—among the most destructive members of the group—will likely be nearly wiped out. Those who survive will have little to fight for as their dream of a terrorist proto-state continues to crumble. Body counts are a poor metric to determine victory against an insurgency, but that does not mean they’re meaningless. The killing of a large number of hard-core Islamic State fighters is a good and important step in the overall battle against the group.
How the loss of Mosul—and soon, Raqqa—will affect the group’s ability to conduct external attacks remains to be seen. The group has already demonstrated its ability to send fighters into Europe to plot and conduct attacks in cities like Paris and Brussels. The group’s ability to plan and execute external attacks will not end with the fall of Mosul, but the loss of its primary base of operations, in tandem with the increased pace of counterterrorism operations in the EU and UK, will greatly diminish its external capabilities. Another question is how many people will continue to be inspired to kill in the group’s name. That threat will likely persist—and may even increase in the near term—as the group continues to draw followers, even as its territory collapses.
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