Mosul’s fall won’t stop Islamic State spreading fear
Iraqi officials have declared that the Islamic State’s caliphate is finished. After months of urban warfare and US air strikes, Iraqi forces said they are on the verge of expelling the militants from their last holdouts in Mosul.
“Their fictitious state has fallen,” an Iraqi general told state TV after troops captured a symbolically important mosque in Mosul’s old city. In Syria, US-backed rebels are moving quickly through the eastern city of Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate.
With the imminent fall of the last two urban centres under ISIS’s control in Syria and Iraq, the group has lost much of its territory. ISIS militants on June 21 destroyed the historic Grand Mosque of al-Nuri, where three years ago, as ISIS swept across northern Iraq, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate.
The ruined mosque’s capture by Iraqi forces is the most public symbol of the caliphate’s fall but it does not mean the end of ISIS or its reign of violence.
The severe loss of territory in Syria and Iraq means that routes for foreign jihadists to reach the self-declared caliphate have contracted but the group still has the capability to attract recruits, secure weapons, raise funds through theft and extortion and dispatch sympathisers to carry out attacks abroad.
As it gets weaker on the ground, ISIS has less to lose by unleashing attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. The jihadist group has quickly claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks on civilians in Europe, especially in Britain and France.
ISIS has adjusted to the imminent loss of its physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq and to the potential loss of its top leaders. In June, Russian officials said they believed they had killed Baghdadi in an air strike that targeted a gathering of senior jihadists outside Raqqa. The claim has not been confirmed and Baghdadi was erroneously reported killed in the past. However, continued fighting and new attacks underscore that the group must have contingency plans in place to deal with the loss of its senior leadership.
Indeed, it is clear that ISIS is adopting the methods of a leaderless jihad, a strategy that al-Qaeda tried. For more than a year, ISIS has inspired lone-wolf attackers to act in its name, especially in the West. These radicalised individuals are heeding the call of ISIS leaders to use whatever methods they have at their disposal — trucks, cars, knives and axes — to carry out attacks that amplify the group’s reach.
These attacks allow ISIS’s leaders to create an illusion of strength to make up for their battlefield losses. They also signal that the group would revert to its roots as a jihadist insurgency, bent on large- and small-scale attacks that instil fear but do little to help the militants keep control of territory in Syria and Iraq.
That is not to say the loss of territory has not weakened the group and caused some of its operations to fail. On June 19, a 31-year-old man rammed into a French police van on the Champs-Élysées in Paris with an improvised car bomb. The explosives failed to detonate and the assailant was killed. A day later, a Moroccan national tried to set off a suitcase bomb packed with nails and gas canisters inside the central train station in Brussels. Security forces killed the man.
During Ramadan in 2016, ISIS urged its sympathisers to carry out bombings, mass shootings and stabbings across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The group called for a similar campaign during Ramadan this year but there were far fewer successful attacks.
Despite the amateurish nature of some recent attempts, cadres of militants who trained and fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria have returned to Europe and are able to train and radicalise others. By relying on lone-wolf attacks by individuals who are self-radicalised — and, in some cases, mentally unstable — ISIS projects a greater reach than it actually has and it can continue to spread fear, even as its caliphate crumbles.