NOTE: this piece was written and submitted for publication on July 13, 2017; however, too much time has passed since it was submitted and too many publications have said things that are too similar for this to be published as it normally would. Now, it is published here, so that it is not simply lost and stranded within email inboxes.
This ancient city has now been reclaimed by Iraqi forces -- with Western help -- and returned to its people from the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). With a notably triumphant Iraqi government and highly visible celebrations of this destruction-laden military success, it may appear that ISIS is heading toward serious and permanent defeat. However, assuming this battlefield achievement is as important as it first appears would be wildly dangerous.
ISIS is an intriguing fusion of concepts, principles, strategies, and tactics, as it is simultaneously a terror organization, an insurgency (both local and global), an ideological/theological movement, and a self-proclaimed traditional state. Much of the present analysis seems to be focused on the fall of Mosul as a loss of territory, presuming that such defeats mean the same for ISIS as they would for traditional states. However, due to the multi-faceted nature of the organization, a loss of territory represents no ultimate defeat or failure.
At present, ISIS holds territory -- in the exclusive, sovereign-territory sense -- primarily in Syria and, on a lesser scale, in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. The emphasis of the Iraqi government remains on fully routing ISIS from all Iraqi territory it still holds, while the primary external focus is now shifting toward removing the group from its various Syrian strongholds. The former is far easier than the latter, particularly given the complexities of operations within Syria, but the primary strategic military objectives are remain clear.
Despite this clarity, underlying facts and principles of the developing situation seem to have been forgotten, particularly in terms of what truly defeating ISIS will require.
First, and foremost, the reclamation of Mosul has demonstrated -- along with the wanton destruction in Syria, by all parties -- that physically removing ISIS from cities will require massive, coordinated efforts that produce few positive outcomes. Although the territory may no longer formally be held by this terror group, it has been destroyed in the process, which can now be identified as part of a demonstrated pattern. It should be assumed that all territory in Iraq and Syria reclaimed from ISIS will be a defeated, deflated, and deconstructed shell of its former self.
Second, it must be understood that -- as a group that began and, in many ways, remains an insurgency within the states it partially occupies, at present -- the loss of territory for ISIS simply means it will transition from self-declared sovereignty back to an insurgency. While the terror group may no longer control or operate this reclaimed territory, ISIS can -- and likely will -- continue its operations. When freed of the domestic, logistic, and bureaucratic burdens of statehood, these fighters can continue fighting in an urban environment, just as they have: in the shadows, without uniforms, and intermixed with the civilian population. The lack of a visible presence does not, and will not, equate to a true lack of presence.
Third, ISIS has long since bifurcated its interests, splitting its efforts in Iraq, Syria, and Libya from its global inspiration and execution operations. As such, it is highly unlikely that their global operations will be affected by their loss of physical territory: with a few simple pieces of software, an internet connection, and a willing audience, the terror attacks throughout the world can easily continue, by virtue of the virtual. Even if ISIS loses the ability to train, equip, and deploy fighters to regions beyond their current theatre of actual operations, their ability to inspire attacks will remain. In fact, such global operations may even increase, as the group’s primary focus shifts from the defense of territory to attacking the territory and people of other states.
Fourth, although ISIS is currently the preeminent terror organization and the general point of focus, it will not be so forever. As with al Qaeda before it, ISIS will eventually be reborn or replaced, leading to yet another struggle with yet another group that developed while attentions were focused elsewhere. The key to decreasing global terrorism -- particularly the small-scale attacks easily deployed in any city worldwide -- is preventing the growth of large-scale terror organizations. Such an effort is not predicated upon preventing their acquisition of territory, although this remains important, but, rather, preventing the spread of related ideologies: if the thoughts and ideas of a group cannot inspire others, then they have no followers to direct. As always, this remains a difficult and fraught endeavour -- one still being explored in its relative infancy -- but it is of the utmost importance.
Fifth, and finally, the war against ISIS, its allies, and its successors is not strictly a military campaign. It is -- in summary -- a global counter-terror, socio-political, cyber, ideological, theological, economic, and psychological operation on a global scale. Without the pursuit of such a multi-faceted, multi-domain strategy that seeks to prevent and mitigate terrorism -- in all its forms and from all sources of inspiration -- this fight will continue far beyond the fall of Mosul, Raqqa, or the Islamic State itself.
As battlefield operations against ISIS continue to minimize its territory and restrict movements, there must be an expectation that its fighters and operators will simply fade into the background of the local populations. It would be exceedingly unexpected if the retaking of physical territory would prove to be the end of such an ideological and shapeshifting organization; therefore, all efforts must be attuned to these facts, in order to prevent further future disaster. So as to avoid the appearance, in hindsight, of negligence or recklessness, aspects of the anti-ISIS campaign that exist off-battlefield must not be ignored.