Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.
By all accounts, the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is virtually over -- save for a few mopping-up operations. In December 2017, the Iraqi government declared that, after almost four years of fighting, ISIS had been defeated and no longer controlled any Iraqi towns.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the same declaration and announced that some Russian troops will soon be withdrawn from Syria, although it does not appear that any withdrawal has yet occurred.
U.S. President Donald Trump has also announced, on several occasions, that he will soon withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops and special operations forces from Syria, although the Pentagon continues to claim that there is no specific timetable for a withdrawal.
The War Against the Islamic State
According to the Pentagon, ISIS has been expelled from 99 percent of the territory it controlled in June 2014. As of June 2018, ISIS controlled a small triangle of territory south of Deir ez-Zor and to the west of the Euphrates Valley; a pocket in Iraq west of Al Hadar; and a third pocket east of Al Suwar, along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
In addition, much of its senior leadership, including many of its most experienced field commanders, have been killed or captured, although its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large. His death has been announced on several occasions, most recently by Russian military forces but, in the absence of any confirmation, he is presumed to still be alive.
According to unconfirmed reports, the Pentagon has been given six additional months, possibly longer, to finish final operations against ISIS in eastern Syria. It's estimated that the ISIS militants in the two remaining pockets number several hundred fighters. With little prospect of escape, they are expected to fight tenaciously.
In the meantime, over the month of May, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) renewed their offensive against ISIS militants along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Called Operation Roundup, the operation is designed to capture or kill jihadist fighters in the ISIS pocket that abuts into territory controlled by the SDF in eastern Syria.
At the same time, Iraqi forces have moved in to seal off the Iraqi border area, and Iraqi air forces have launched attacks across a 30-mile front along the Iraq border. French special forces have also been deployed to support the SDF.
The offensive occurred while Turkish military forces and Kurdish militia were at a standoff over Turkish plans to take control of the town of Manbij and while Turkish military units, supported by various affiliated militia units, were taking control of the Kurdish-controlled canton, or district, of Afrin.
The transfer of some Kurdish fighters to Afrin led to a temporary suspension in the SDF's campaign against the Islamic State.
Notwithstanding the above progress, however, Islamic State forces retook some territory in May that had been previously seized by Syrian military forces around the city of Deir ez-Zor. Four Russian soldiers and 43 insurgents were reported killed as a result of those attacks.
There were conflicting reports on the scope of the casualties, however. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights placed the death toll at 76 Syrian Army troops and 25 ISIS militants.
The international coalition against the Islamic State has also made significant progress in shutting down ISIS' propaganda machine. Although these operations are conducted by civilian police forces rather than the military, they are an important component in the continuing war against ISIS.
In April, a joint U.S.-EU law enforcement operation conducted by police forces from the U.S., U.K., Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Romania took down a range of Islamic State media outlets and the servers they use to distribute their propaganda across the internet.
Among the targets were Amaq, the ISIS media outlet used to broadcast confirmation of attacks, as well as other media channels such as Bayan radio, and the Halumu and Nashir news services. The operation also resulted in identifying domain registrars and domain names used by ISIS as well as the administrators behind its media outlets.
The operation, the third such strike against the Islamic State's internet presence, was the most extensive so far. Notwithstanding its success, however, ISIS has shown a remarkable resiliency and, in the past, has succeeded in restoring its web presence. The cyber war against the Islamic State is as relentless and as long term as the ground war against its militants.
Sitrep: Islamic State
As anticipated by many analysts, the rollback of the territory under its control has not destroyed the Islamic State, but simply caused it to revert back to its roots as an insurgency.
Unlike 2014, however, when its attacks were almost entirely in Iraq and Syria, it is now demonstrating a broad, though usually low-level, attack capability that spans virtually the entire globe.
In May, ISIS militants were implicated in a series of three bombings of Christian churches in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city. The attacks were a family affair by Dita and Puji Kuswanti and their four children, aged 9 to 18. The attacks, which killed 13 people, were the deadliest since the Bali car bombings that killed 23 people in 2005.
ISIS took credit for the attack, although it is believed the attackers were actually part of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). JAD is led by Aman Abdurrahman, a vocal proponent of ISIS in Indonesia.
The next day, another family, this time of five people, carried out an attack against a police security checkpoint in Surabaya. Four police officers and six civilians were injured. Four of the five bombers were killed; the fifth, an 8-year-old child, survived the bombing but was injured.
In Libya, ISIS militants staged an attack against the offices of Libya's Electoral Commission in Tripoli, killing at least 13 people. The Islamic State was also suspected in a car bomb attack in Alexandria against Gen. Mostafa al-Nimr, the city's head of security. The attack killed two Egyptian policemen.
Elsewhere, Islamic State militants attacked a voter registration center in central Kabul that killed approximately six dozen Afghanis and several western journalists. The attack occurred within the city's heavily protected ring of steel, where many government offices and foreign embassies are located.
The broad reach of Islamic State was also underscored by the arrest in Brazil of eleven ISIS supporters charged with attempting to organize a jihadist cell, as well as arrests in Australia, South Africa and London.
This pattern of random, small-scale, localized attacks has increasingly become the norm for the Islamic State. These attacks are carried out by militants who have been radicalized by either ISIS or another jihadist organization without any direct support or direction from the leadership of Islamic State. It is not clear to what extent ISIS even has knowledge of these attacks before they are carried out.
When ISIS first declared the establishment of its caliphate, dozens of jihadist movements rushed to affiliate themselves with it and declare their allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many were formally recognized as "provinces" of the Islamic State regardless of how much physical territory they actually controlled.
Significantly, none of these organizations has renounced its ties to the Islamic State, even as ISIS' territorial reach has been largely rolled back. Moreover, a revitalized al-Qaida has steadily been building out its international network. It has heavily promoted Osama bin-Laden's son, Hamza bin-Laden, as his successor and positioned itself to absorb ISIS supporters into its own ranks.
ISIS has not mounted a significant military operation since the attack on the southern Philippine city of Marawi, on the island of Mindanao, a year ago. The siege, which lasted several months, was carried out by the Maute Group, an ISIS-affiliated jihadist organization.
Maute is a separate organization from the Moro Liberation Front, a jihadist group that has been fighting with the Philippine government for decades and has also voiced support for the Islamic State.
The siege left the center of the city of 50,000 inhabitants largely destroyed and displaced about one-quarter of the town's population. About 1,000 civilians were killed. Even now, a year after the siege was lifted, residents have not been allowed to return home except to retrieve personal possessions.
Concurrently, ISIS has moved aggressively to make up its lost revenues by expanding into the international narcotics trade. ISIS militants have been implicated in the smuggling of marijuana and hashish from the Balkans into Europe.
They are also believed to be challenging the Taliban's control over the Afghan heroin trade, and there are reports they may also be involved in the smuggling of South American cocaine, via West Africa, across the Sahara into Europe.
Every major international jihadist organization is now involved with the illegal narcotics trade and is developing broad links to criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking. This union of terrorism and narcotics, so-called narco-terrorism, is an unprecedented development and one of the defining features of international terrorism in the 21st century.
The Future of Jihadism
There are two key operational texts that explain the jihadist mindset and have underscored the international jihadist movement. Both remain deadly relevant, and both emphasize that jihadism is a long-term struggle against the United States and its allies.
The al-Qaida operational text for jihadists is titled Management of Savagery. The text lays out a strategy of creating or capitalizing on regions of chaos or savagery where political and administrative controls have broken down to establish al-Qaida branches.
Those branches would join together to proclaim a worldwide caliphate that would be triggered by the collapse of the Saudi monarchy and al-Qaida gaining control of the Islamic world's religious capital of Mecca.
It calls for continuing the jihadist struggle against the West, while biding patience until the time is ripe for the establishment of a new caliphate. While violence by militants continues to be encouraged, the group has avoided large, high-profile attacks like the one on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, recognizing that such attacks will only trigger an escalation in the American effort to eradicate the organization.
In al-Qaida's analysis, the Islamic State's declaration of a caliphate was premature as the West had not been weakened sufficiently to permit a caliphate being established and defended from attacks by the U.S. and its allies.
From al-Qaida's perspective, the "regions of savagery" have exploded significantly since the attack in September 2001. At that time, the group was limited to Afghanistan and Somalia. Today, they have been joined by Iraq, Syria, Libya, northern Nigeria, Yemen, and a broad band of sub-Saharan Africa from Mauritania to Somalia. In addition, significant political vacuums have emerged in certain regions of countries like the Philippines, Tunisia and Indonesia.
The ISIS text, called the Fiqh al-Dima or The Jurisprudence of Blood, is a Salafist-inspired work that lays out both the purported Quranic justification of the Islamic State's actions as well as a practical "how-to manual" for jihadists. Termed the jihadist bible, the text is intended to validate the horrific acts perpetrated by ISIS militants, from beheading to the taking of slaves.
The manual openly advocates the "indiscriminate killing of warring infidels" and beseeches its supporters to "kill them, fight them by every means that may snatch away their souls, drive their spirits from their bodies, cleanse the earth from their filth and removing their scourge from mankind, whatever the means may be."
The text was used to indoctrinate and radicalize the 5,000 to 10,000 western Muslims that joined the Islamic State and continues to serve as the basis of ISIS' recruitment and indoctrination. Its call for random, indiscriminate acts of violence has become the pattern of ISIS-inspired attacks around the world.
The fight against the Islamic State is far from over. At the very least, the cyber war to take down its digital presence will continue unabated, ebbing and flowing as each successive attempt by ISIS to re-establish its digital caliphate is taken down by Western police agencies.
While the role of military forces fighting ISIS will likely diminish in the next six to nine months, special operations forces will continue to be involved in supporting anti-Jihadist groups around the world.
The continued growth of ISIS-affiliated militants in Afghanistan may at some point result in a broader U.S. role in fighting ISIS there. It is likely that large-scale, localized attacks, like the siege of Marawi last year, will continue to crop up.
In the meantime, ISIS-inspired, low-level, ad hoc attacks against civilians will continue. Such attacks are difficult to anticipate or prevent. Moreover, they will continue regardless of what happens to ISIS.
They are destined to be an ongoing feature of modern life.
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