On June 26th, jihadists carried out terror attacks on 3 continents.
In Tunisia, gunmen killed 39 people at a beach resort in Sousse, a coastal city south of Tunis. In Kuwait, a suicide bombing at a Shi’ite mosque killed 27. In France, a jihadist sympathizer beheaded a man at a factory in Lyon. And in Kobane, a strategic city along the Syrian-Turkish, ISIS fighters killed a reported 146 civilians, going on what was described as a “killing rampage” in a place they failed to take in a protracted siege in late 2014.
ISIS has taken responsibility for the attacks in Kuwait and Sousse, and it’s at least possible that the attack in France was the work of a sympathizer (the killer had reportedly been on a terrorist watch list since 2006). ISIS now has the frightening capability to inspire or even execute attacks across a vast geographic area — attacks that killed over 200 people in the space of a single day.
ISIS’s apparent success in pulling off external attacks stands in contrast to its weakening position in Syria.
This week, ISIS faced one of its greatest military challenges since the group proclaimed a caliphate following the seizure of Mosul and much of western Iraq and eastern Syria last summer: According to an intelligence brief from The Soufan Group, ISIS is experiencing losses around its “capital” of Raqqa, representing both an operational and symbolic setback for the group.
Although ISIS has continued to expand and hold territory in Iraq, the militants have come under increasing pressure in Syria, where ISIS has lost territory in a number of key battles. Most notably, Kurdish YPG forces have ISIS recent defeats at the towns of Tal Abyad and Ayn Issa.
ISIS once hoped to cut off Syrian Kurdish regions from one another by holding these towns near the Turkish border. Now, the Kurds have foreclosed on that strategy, beating back the jihadists’ momentum and even moving into some of ISIS’s most important territory.
“With the most recent YPG moves against the town of Ayn Issa, the Islamic State is facing perhaps its most serious symbolic and meaningful threat since it declared itself a caliphate almost
one year ago,” The Soufan Group notes, “Its capital, Raqqa, the center of the group’s authority and image, is under threat.”
By seizing and securing Ayn Issa, the YPG, in conjunction with US-led coalition airstrikes, have embedded themselves only 31 miles away from ISIS’ de facto capital. The YPG also seized the Syrian military base Liwa-93 from ISIS in the surrounding region. The rapid advance of the Kurdish forces, which ISIS nearly overwhelmed during a crucial battle in the border city of Kobane last summer, has dealt a blow to the militant group, which promoted itself through a doctrine of “remaining and expanding” on multiple simultaneous battlefronts.
Following the YPG’s gains, ISIS forces began digging trenches around Raqqa in an attempt to fortify their capital, Reuters reports. ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani also addressed the losses in a Ramadan audio broadcast stating that “God never gave the mujahideen a promise of victory every time.”
Although the Kurds do not have immediate plans to attack ISIS in Raqqa, the seizure of territory around the city could deal a significant blow to the militant organisation. Tal Abyad, located by the Turkish border, functioned as a key smuggling point through which fighters and supplies could reach the jihadists.
With its opponents taking control of the territory north of Raqqa, ISIS could experience significant logistical disruptions — and face the crisis of enemy forces advancing closer to the heart of the group’s power.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Edgar Vasquez, a spokesperson for the US State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, said that “should anti-ISIL forces continue to hold the city, there is the potential for a significant disruption of ISIL’s flow of foreign fighters, illicit goods, and other illegal activity from Turkey into northern Syria and Iraq.”
This wasn’t ISIS’s only recent setback, either. In Libya, local Islamist militias flushed ISIS fighters out of the their strongholds in Derna, a city where the group had established a partial foothold.
But the carnage in Tunisia, Kuwait, Kobane, and France raises the distressing reality that ISIS’s ability to carry out attacks isn’t necessarily tied to the health of its Caliphate project. Despite the centrality of state-building and territorial control to ISIS’s strategy and appeal, if the Caliphate is diminished or even defeated, the terrorist group and some semblance of its international network will likely endure.
There is already one notable contemporary precedent for a jihadist group’s external capabilities improving even in spite of territorial losses and the killing of key leadership. Al Shabaab’s deadliest attacks, like the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in 2013, and the killing of 147 students at a university in eastern Kenya in April, took place after the al Qaeda-allied Somalia-based group lost control over crucial territory in Somalia, including over Mogadishu, the capital.
Shabaab retained its ability to attack inside Somalia and neighbouring countries through a strategic retreat to the country’s hinterlands, a focus on civilian soft targets, and the cultivation of a corps of foreign operatives. ISIS may see some of its territory threatened, but it has enough left to carve out a vast operational safe-haven. It has legions of foreign recruits, including as many as 3,000 from Tunisia alone. And it has a proven willingness to attack anywhere and everywhere — as the attacks on June 26th demonstrated, mosques, beaches, factories, and urban areas aren’t immune.
ISIS’s success in pulling off deadly, large-scale, semi-simultaneous killings outside of its “caliphate” even in a time of apparent battlefield setbacks suggests the group will remain dangerous long after it loses much of its core territory.
ISIS is larger, better-funded, and more ideologically resonant than al Shabaab. And if it can keep up its foreign attacks in spite of battlefield losses, the June 26th assault could be a chilling glimpse into the group’s future strategy and nature.
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