ISIS Turning to Mass Casualty Attacks, Expanding Network Amid Territorial Losses

Terror group lost 12 percent of ‘caliphate’ in 2016, but experts say attacks show strength

Civilians and security forces gather at the scene of a suicide car bombing in Baghdad, Iraq / AP
July 12, 2016

The Islamic State’s territorial losses in Iraq and Syria have been hailed by the Obama administration as evidence that the terror group is failing, but experts predict that the group will continue to instigate large-scale attacks in the Middle East and westward.

According to a report from IHS Jane’s 360 released on Sunday, the terror group’s so-called "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria shrunk by 12 percent during the first six months of 2016 and is now roughly the same size as Ireland or the state of West Virginia. ISIS will increasingly turn toward mass-casualty attacks, the report suggested, to compensate for territorial losses in Iraq and Syria and demonstrate its influence.

The new assessment came one day before Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the deployment of 560 more U.S. troops to Iraq, where Iraqi security forces backed by U.S airstrikes retook Fallujah from ISIS control at the end of June after a month-long offensive. Over the weekend, Iraqi forces took control of Al-Qayyarah air base, located about 50 miles south of Mosul.

"With the retaking of Qayyarah West airfield, the Iraqi Security Forces have once again demonstrated a serious will to fight," Carter said Monday. "I congratulate them on their recent successes and reaffirm that the United States, along with our coalition partners, will continue to do all we can to support Iraq’s effort to serve ISIL a lasting defeat."

But eroding ISIS’ holdings in Iraq and Syria has not necessarily dealt a blow to the terror group’s influence elsewhere in the world.

"People are trying to spin this into a narrative of ISIS on the run … which I think is deeply misleading," Thomas Donnelly, the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said to the Washington Free Beacon.

ISIS’ recent territorial losses have been accompanied by a series of mass-casualty attacks in various parts of the globe that evidence shows were either inspired or committed by the terror group. These include high-profile assaults in Dhaka, Istanbul, Orlando, and Brussels.

"I think ISIS had many of these large-scale attacks in mind from the very beginning," James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said to the Free Beacon. "The administration is spinning the narrative that these attacks show desperation, and I don’t think they necessarily show desperation. I think ISIS is just following through on its long-held beliefs."

"ISIS will continue to lash out as long as it has the means to do so and as long as it is able to incite attacks by stray dogs," Phillips continued. "And I think it would do that if it were winning or losing in Iraq or Syria."

ISIS also made gains in Libya last year and established a branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan called the Khorasan Province. Even with ISIS’ loss of 14 percent of its caliphate territory in 2015, the State Department still assessed the group as the largest global terrorist threat in a comprehensive report on terrorism released last month.

"The larger spread of ISIS certainly has more to do with its past success than whatever current problems it has," Donnelly said. "They continue to be on the rise in places like Afghanistan, where you would think it would be harder for them to ‘break into the market’" given the presence of the Taliban and, to a lesser extent, al Qaeda.

Officials have recognized that ISIS has amassed global reach despite U.S. military pressure. After ISIS sympathizer Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12, CIA Director John Brennan acknowledged that the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in the Middle East has not reduced the group’s "terrorism capability and global reach."

"The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses on territory, manpower, and money for its terrorism capacity to decline significantly," Brennan said during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Moreover, the group’s foreign branches and global networks could help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria."

In addition to coalition airstrikes, the U.S. military strategy against ISIS has hinged on training, arming, and advising local fighters to weaken the terror group’s holdings and eventually capture Mosul and Raqqa, its respective de facto capitals in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. forces that will be newly deployed to Iraq are meant to provide additional support to Iraqi forces, whose efforts have been hampered by desertions and other challenges, as they push to reclaim Mosul.

"Mosul is going to be much harder to take than Fallujah, and that took a long time," Phillips observed.

The Pentagon’s program to train moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight ISIS has been largely viewed as a failure. The administration abandoned its initial $500 million training program last fall, replacing it with a substantially less ambitious plan that has reportedly yielded less than 100 trained Syrian fighters.

The administration’s strategy against ISIS has been widely panned as too limited. A working group at the Center for a New American Security released a report in June outlining the shortcomings of the administration’s approach to defeating ISIS and recommending an expansion of U.S. military operations in the region.

"The approach has not been as successful as it must be. It relies too heavily on ground forces that are predominantly Kurdish and Shia, and has not yet built sufficient Sunni forces to retake and, more importantly, hold ISIS territory," the report, which was informed by discussions with former military leaders and government officials, stated. "U.S. military support has also been limited in a number of unnecessary ways. A lack of embedded combat advisors supporting partners on the front lines, hesitation to deploy more troops, and inadequate delegation of authority have all slowed progress."

Phillips faulted the administration for ruling out combat operations against ISIS from the very beginning and placing restrictions on airstrikes and special operators advising and assisting local forces. He also said that the administration "handicapped" the mission in Syria by insisting that U.S.-trained opposition forces would only fight ISIS and not the Assad regime, which has enjoyed military support from Russia and Iran.