ISIS under pressure in Syria and Iraq – are we any safer?

ISIS under pressure in Syria and Iraq – are we any safer?

Recent terrorist attacks by ISIS operatives and supporters indicate a shift from territorial expansion to targeted attacks. What do recent territorial setbacks for ISIS mean for security in target nations, and which steps should businesses take to address the risk of terrorist attacks?

The recapture of Fallujah on June 26th marks one of several recent setbacks for ISIS in recent months. The U.S. State Department estimates that ISIS has lost 47 percent of the territory it previously held in Iraq, including key cities such as Ramadi, Tikrit, ad Sinjar.  The U.S. State Department also estimates that the group has lost 20 to 30 percent of the territory in Syria. The Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL has assessed that ISIS currently has between 18,000 to 22,000 foreign fighters, down from an estimated 33,000 foreign fighters in mid-2014. These are indications that the flow of foreign fighters has decreased, and ISIS is having difficulties replacing battlefield losses. What does this decline mean? Is the world any safer?

ISIS territory map

Source: BBC


Shift in communication shows ISIS under pressure

The messages and stated intentions in recent weeks and months are central to understanding what these territorial losses mean for ISIS. A comparison of the group’s propaganda over the past two years suggests a shift in tone and rhetoric. Spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani recently stressed that the losses of strategic cities, such as Raqqa and Mosul, does not mean the end for ISIS.  In May 2016, al-Adnani called on supporters worldwide to carry out lone wolf attacks on civilians during the month of Ramadan, with an emphasis on Europe and the United States.

Dabiq, the English speaking ISIS magazine, has also called for retaliatory attacks in response to U.S.-led coalition attacks in Syria and Iraq. This rhetoric is different compared to earlier propaganda from 2014 and 2015, when emphasis lay on the importance of capturing and holding territory in Iraq and Syria and of establishing the Caliphate.

Terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Orlando by ISIS operatives and supporters indicate that it is resorting to this type of strategy to compensate for territorial losses. Retribution in the form of attacks on soft targets and civilians is an attempt by ISIS leadership to convince its passive and active supporters, as well as its enemies, that the group is resilient and has the resolve to continue the fight despite current setbacks. Terrorist attacks can also restore perceived prestige and credibility to ISIS leadership.

ISIS Paris attacks

Mourning people captured during civil service in remembrance of November 2015 Paris attacks victims. Place de la Republique, Paris.

Continued territorial losses for ISIS does not equal its immediate demise, or the world becoming a safer place any time soon. ISIS is showing signs of evolving from a terrorist state with its own territory and state structure to a terrorist organisation. As Operation Inherent Resolve or the U.S. military intervention against ISIS continues, terrorist attacks against civilian targets within U.S. coalition partner countries are likely to escalate in the weeks and months ahead.

EU offers suitable operating environment for ISIS terrorists

Europe will likely remain a key target; particularly, France, United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey. European countries have been the primary locations of terrorist attacks in the past eight months. The tactics, techniques and procedures of ISIS operatives appear to have been more sophisticated than attacks in the United States. This is no coincidence. The European Union provides a fertile operating environment for international terrorists. The reduction of borders and the free movement of people, goods, technology, and financial transactions can mask terrorist activities and make it easier for terrorists to operate in larger teams undetected.

EU’s difficulties with sharing intelligence between Member States due to linguistic differences, national interests, and slow bureaucratic structures sets the stage for intelligence failures.  In addition to intelligence lapses, ISIS can also take advantage of possible support networks inside European countries, which can provide safe houses and local area knowledge.

Data provided by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College and the Soufan Group shows that ISIS has recruited a large number of foreign fighters from northern Europe, which indicates that ISIS enjoys support within Europe. Lastly, the relatively close distance between the EU and the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq enables ISIS to send trained operatives and bomb making experts to European countries.

Businesses are unlikely to be directly targeted

The most recent ISIS tactics, techniques, and procedures indicate a preference for soft targets, or public venues with low security barriers and large congregations of civilians, which guarantees operational success. These targets can include cafes, sporting events, hotels, airport terminals, restaurants, shopping malls, theatres, and/or nightclubs. Nonetheless, businesses in the vicinity of a terrorist attack will most likely suffer indirect consequences.

Businesses located near a terrorist incident will likely experience disruption due to road closures, vehicle checkpoints, evacuations, public transportation suspensions, and closed airports, particularly if security measures or a state of emergency are in place for a longer period of time.

Businesses should maintain continuity plans in the event of a terrorist attack. Multinational corporations with occasional travellers, facilities, and assets overseas should, for example, implement safety check-in procedures that make it easier to account for personnel should a terrorist attack occur.

Businesses may also utilise social media accounts or a dark website to communicate security updates and instructions to employees and the press. Employees should also be aware of evacuation and invacuation procedures and training scenarios involving shelter-in-place and active shooters.

About Author

Hans Mathias Moeller

Hans Mathias Moeller is a Senior Analyst with a cyber intelligence company in Washington, DC. He specializes in supporting multinational corporations and executives with security risk management solutions and investigations. He earned two Master's Degrees in International Security Studies and Terrorism Studies from the University of St Andrews. His areas of expertise are security and technology-related topics, with a focus on North America, Europe, and North Africa.