Next stop, Raqqa: The Islamic State after Mosul

Next stop, Raqqa: The Islamic State after Mosul

Celebrations ensued as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally declared victory over Islamic State (IS) in Mosul on Monday 10 July 2017. However, invites for the IS farewell party are far from the printers. What does the fall of Mosul really mean for the future of IS and what should we be thinking about moving ahead?

The battle of Mosul is largely over as IS-held territory continues to diminish – recent figures published by IHS Markit’s Conflict Monitor estimate a 60% reduction in IS territory across Syria and Iraq. Within this territory, there are several key flashpoints where winners and losers are yet to be decided, of which the most significant is Raqqa, IS’ de facto capital. Below are three points to watch in the months ahead.

What is the talk of a shift to insurgency?

It appears that IS is adjusting its tactics in Syria and Iraq due to territorial losses. The terror group is escalating their engagement in urban guerrilla warfare tactics to assist in moving to a new phase of warfare. This phase is characterised by the resistance of the multinational coalition forces, the weakening of state, the fuelling of sectarian tensions and sustaining the groups physical life span. The mobilisation of these tactics will challenge coalition offensives and the tactics employed by such forces as they seek to liberate IS strongholds and maintain relative security in areas already liberated.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the US General leading the coalition forces noted last week, ‘they’ll try to hide with the population. Their cells will get smaller. Instead of companies and platoons, they’ll go to squads and cells… They’ll disperse. They’ll be smaller. They’ll be more covert’.

Ultimately, IS is preparing for a long journey ahead. The spike in commentary surrounding IS’s new phase of insurgency highlights the endurance of a nebulous terror group that will continue to ignite terror as it wrestles with opposition forces. The Sinai Peninsula, the Philippines and Nigeria are home to insurgencies driven by IS affiliate groups which continue to challenge the ‘host’ nations and regional and global security apparatuses. There are further cases akin to these.

Kurdish SDF forces advance in the countryside north of Raqqa.

Is IS’s ideological utopia shattered?

The supposed apocalyptic battle at Dabiq against enemy crusaders is a fading prophetic symbol of victory, as another IS stronghold has fallen. But although IS is not fading into the history books anytime soon, the psychological and theological forbearance of the group will be tested and further aggravated by financial woes and a depleting pool of manpower.

The claim of a caliphate as a geographical apparatus and theological form challenges the legitimacy of the IS narrative as a bastion of jihadi statehood. Rita Katz, co-founder of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Intelligence Group asserts that the group continues to work on the ‘persistent narratives of its gradual defeat by characterising its current situation as a heroic, action movie-esque last stand…The soldiers of the Caliphate continue to record epics until they achieve one of the two good ends, either victory or martyrdom’.

This reality of victory or martyrdom will continue to play out in the global theatre of terror, as a war continuing to wage in the West as effective propaganda remains critical to the IS brand.  IS’ continued dissemination of media, such as lists of attractive targets, advice on modus operandi, and the framing and messaging of IS as an entity continue to circulate through social media.  The success attached to these strategies is evidenced all too often around the globe and highlight the power attached to IS’s mandate, albeit with or without a jihadi state.

Global fragmentation

IS’ territorial decline also poses serious questions regarding the group’s supporters. While IS loyalists span the globe, trained and battle-hardened militants are now journeying home, exploiting porous borders and joining pockets of IS affiliates elsewhere. The dilemma attached to this unavoidable and forecasted issue is dual-faceted.

First, how are states going to mitigate the threat posed by these returning fighters to recruit, train, radicalise and/or facilitate or perpetrate terror attacks? Second, how will this test a state’s counter terrorism infrastructure?

Recent IS-linked attacks in Western Europe highlight the fact that while the terrorist group may lose territory in Syria and Iraq, it maintains capabilities elsewhere in the world. The need to guard against these sort of low-capability, high-visibility attacks reminds us that this battle is far from won. While attention shifts to Raqqa, a military defeat there will not signal the end of IS, but instead may be the start of a new phase in its continued evolution.

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