Progress never comes without cost

It’s never a good idea to extrapolate a trend from just a couple of data points, but the downing of Kogalymavia Flight 9832 a couple of weeks ago and the Paris attack on Friday (assuming that ISIS was behind both) may illustrate a shift in ISIS’s tactics away from insurgent warfare and toward international terrorism. If so, that’s a sign that the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is actually making progress, but it also means that everybody may be in for some rocky times ahead.

I’m tempted to add Thursday’s Beirut bombing to this list, but Beirut is too similar to other probing attacks ISIS has made in its near abroad (in Turkey, for example) in the past to really represent a change. Those kinds of attacks are meant to destabilize places that are already shaky in the hopes of creating the right conditions for an ISIS cell to take root there, and (at least in Turkey) in the hopes of keeping its actual and potential enemies (in that case, Turks and Kurds) at each others’ throats instead of at ISIS’s.

Barack Obama has been getting a lot of flak for saying on Thursday that ISIS is “contained,” and it’s fair to say that he misspoke, at least. What he meant, I think, was that ISIS has been prevented from expanding the territory under its control in Syria and Iraq, which is true; in fact, ISIS has lost about 25% of the Syrian-Iraqi territory it controlled at its highest water mark to date. In just the past week or so, they’ve lost two important areas, with Sinjar now in Kurdish hands and Aleppo’s Kweires Airbase back in Bashar al-Assad’s hands. At the same time, “contained” was probably the wrong word, since ISIS has been expanding outside of that Syria-Iraq core–in Sinai, the Caucasus, Libya (although there’s some good news there), Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Yemen, to name a few places. None of those satellites apart from the one in Sinai (which was not created whole-cloth, but rather when an already seasoned group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has shown much capacity for mayhem yet, but they do exist.

But the point is that ISIS is having a tough time holding on to its core in the face of whatever combination of coalition/Russian airpower and Syrian/Iranian/Kurdish/Shiʿa militia ground forces it’s been facing. So that may (again, we’re basing this off of two incidents, so it’s problematic to try to assert a trend) be causing ISIS to change its tactics and embrace the kind of far abroad terrorism (I’m counting the bombing of a plane in the Sinai as “far abroad” because it was a Russian plane, carrying Russians, on the way back to Russia) that it hasn’t really done in any organized way before this.

There are a couple of reasons why it would do this. First, obviously, these attacks are directed at nations that were already attacking ISIS. The group is trying to change the calculus for Moscow and Paris (and David Cameron is claiming that they’ve been trying to hit the UK as well), to use asymmetric means to attach a cost to their military actions in Syria. Second, it’s about finding new ways to appear victorious in the absence of any major military victories in the Syria-Iraq theater (which ISIS hasn’t had since it took Ramadi in May). As a result of its military setbacks, ISIS is at grave risk of losing its biggest asset, its recruiting mojo, ironically also thanks in part to all those satellite groups it’s been developing. Here’s natsec analyst Clint Watt:

The Islamic State propelled its recruitment and resourcing over the past three years by sustaining the initiative, growing its state through battlefield successes and acquisitions. But the group has now peaked: It is losing territory, many of its fighters are dying in battle, defections from their ranks continue to increase, recruitment flows are slower and smaller, and new regional Islamic State affiliates in countries like Libya and Egypt now provide a range of options for potential recruits to join a group locally rather than travel to Syria.

So ISIS has chosen to lash out in a couple of very high-profile foreign attacks in response to setbacks at home. This is not terribly unsurprising, because it’s not unprecedented. Watt again:

Al Shabaab’s violent path in Somalia over the past few years is instructive of what we currently see with the Islamic State. By 2010, al Shabaab had reached its peak before a containment strategy slowly shrunk its harshly enforced sharia state and pushed it out of key urban strongholds. As the group retracted, its strategy and operations shifted from conventional fighting and insurgency to terrorist attacks, first in Somali cities like Mogadishu before expanding regionally throughout the group’s support network and support base in the Horn of Africa. Today, al Shabaab holds a fraction of the territory it once dominated, but continues to launch fierce terrorist attacks against soft targets. The lesson is this: If an extremist group that has seized territory starts to lose it, it will be highly incentivized to turn to terrorist operations that allow for maximizing effects at a lower cost.

As Will McCants says here, there’s another possible explanation, which is that ISIS has been trying to pull off attacks like these all along and only just managed to do it. That seems less likely to me. ISIS’s explicit focus since its formation has been on fighting in the Syria-Iraq core and building the “caliphate” there. They’ve been trying to get followers to come in to that core (those who couldn’t have been encouraged to attack targets locally but not with direct support from ISIS), not go out to strike distant targets outside of it. If that’s changed, it’s because events in the core caused it to change. Yes, they’ve been threatening to smuggle fighters into Europe among all those Syrian refugees, but that’s rhetoric. It’s meant to increase European fears and maybe drive those refugees out of Europe and back to Syria (where they might wind up, in desperation, joining up with ISIS), while simultaneously heightening the contradictions that ISIS asserts between “Islam” and “the West,” and thereby chipping away at the grayzone.

If ISIS’s tactics have shifted, that probably means trouble ahead in the West, and that’s in part because of how we now know ISIS works. Friday’s operation was very sophisticated and obviously well-planned, but its sophistication was in the way it coordinated a series of pretty simple attacks. This was no 9/11, which took months of planning, flight lessons, test runs, etc. This was a Mumbai, where the biggest logistical feats involved getting people into the country and putting them in place, but then those people were simply turned loose on very soft targets to do as much damage as possible.

There are ways to limit the risk of a 9/11-style attack; you see some, amid a lot of other things that are mostly security theater, every time you fly somewhere. How do you really stop a suicide bomber? How do you stop somebody from doing a drive-by on a restaurant, or shooting up a nightclub? Hell, we can’t even stop mass shootings by lone wolves with obvious mental health issues, let alone by trained fighters with serious resources behind them. Great intelligence, on people coming into your country and on potential home-grown threats, is the key, and even then it’s a numbers game; stop 99 attacks in 100 and you’re still going to suffer one attack too many. And a future of more attacks on soft targets is devastating even to contemplate.

The good news, such as it may be, is that this isn’t a sustainable winning formula for ISIS so much as it’s a wounded animal lashing out. Brookings’ Dan Byman explains some of the reasons why ISIS “might regret” shifting its focus:

An immediate problem is command and control. Having a global network requires global communications, and that exposes militants to counterterrorism. Already, U.S. and allied forces regularly kill ISIS leaders, so this is a considerable risk. The alternative is to give local operatives more freedom of action, but that leads to two problems. First, they’re more likely to mess up, since they can’t ask the mother ship for help. Second, they’re more likely to pick the wrong targets—civilians instead of soldiers, children instead of adults, and so on. Al Qaeda found that when it could not control its affiliates, they often engaged in brutal savagery that turned off many Muslims. ISIS seems to embrace brutality far more than al Qaeda did, so this may be less of a concern for its leaders. Still, the risk of alienating potential supporters is always there.

The other problem, as Byman writes, is that ISIS is probably underestimating the will of the nations it’s attacking, much as al-Qaeda did with the US before 9/11. France is already escalating its air campaign in Syria, not backing down, and the rationale for imposing costs on an enemy assumes that the enemy will eventually back down, not ramp up. And what happens to ISIS if NATO invokes Article 5, the collective self-defense clause, in its charter over these attacks, and suddenly Turkey has to engage in the fight against ISIS for real, and not for show? Those crucial supply lines ISIS has across Syria’s northern border could start to really dry up. Meanwhile, French police are doing everything they can to root out any other domestic threats before they go active.

The other, even more serious, risk for ISIS is that attacks like this are going to push all those disparate nations with disparate goals with respect to the Syrian civil war to put aside their differences and push harder for an end to that conflict. We’re already seeing that too, as Saturday’s second round of talks in Vienna made what at least superficially looks like major progress toward establishing a ceasefire, holding talks between rebels and the Assad regime, and putting a political transition in place for Syria. An end to the civil war in Syria is about the worst thing that could happen to ISIS, maybe short of the miraculous imposition of a stable, competent government in Baghdad.

The bottom line is that ISIS isn’t nearly powerful enough to provoke nations like France and Russia and expect to survive in anything that looks like its current form. If they doubt that, they should try checking with the Taliban government in Kabul, or asking their old pal Ayman al-Zawahiri, if they can find him. They may provoke a response that’s so overwhelming and so sloppy that it actually does long-term harm to the bigger fight against extremism, and they may survive by going underground and becoming a pure terrorist network, but they won’t survive as an Islamic State like this. Which is a good thing for everybody else, even if it means we’re in for some challenging times ahead.

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