Most people believe that the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) is defeated and understandably so given the media’s portrayal of their recent loses. The Islamic State no longer holds any of its major bases, has lost vast amounts of the territory it held, is bringing in substantially less cash flow, and it is widely accepted that their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed. All of this leads to the assumption of a resounding defeat of the organization. This was only a military defeat though and the ideology will continue to exist and perpetrate the society bringing on the next phase of their assault.
In the early stages of the organization we saw massive social media activity, massive territorial gains, international recognition and spread, and vast resources and revenue streams from all around the globe. Since then, the concerted effort by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State has had many successes. They have seen military defeat at the hands of the US Coalition, Kurdish fighters, the Iraqi government forces, Syrian government forces, Syrian rebels, and Russian forces among many others. Their territorial holdings are a fraction of what they once were. They have also seen a severe lose in leadership and revenue streams. Economic strikes against the Islamic State have been highly effective from targeting oil wells under their control, criminal syndicates supporting their efforts, or freezing financial assets linked to the organization and their supporters. Now that they are weakened, they will be forced to evolve into a more versatile and discreet threat.
Islamic terrorist organizations thrive based on their media portrayal and the fear they can instill in their targets. This is why the Islamic State will continue to claim responsibility for any attack that remotely has their MO. That being said we are not likely to see a large attack, such as 9/11 anytime soon. These attacks are not only logistically and operationally difficult to accomplish, they also bring out massive force to combat the organization on all fronts. We will continue to see smaller attacks around the globe using the tools available to them. Most of these attacks will be conducted by remotely-radicalized supporters, meaning residents and citizens of the nations they attack that were radicalized online or through association with like-minded groups.
Terrorist organizations are difficult to defeat in large part due to their organizational structure. Most terror groups, including the Islamic State, are a collection of loosely connected individuals and cells that receive support and guidance from the centralized head, but are largely independent. The majority of terrorist operatives conducting attacks inside Western nations will have never trained in a training camp. These operatives have had limited contact, usually only online, with other members and their support consists of disseminated training material (videos, manuals, etc.) guidance in choosing targets, and, in very few cases, minor levels of funding. Most of these terrorists are “homegrown” and will have never spoken with a member of the organization and are conducting attacks in the name of the Islamic State using training material and propaganda spread online, freely available. This will continue to be the trend and they will continue to use weaponry and attacks that are targeted to bring on political strife (using an “assault rifle” in an attack on a gay club in the United States, using vehicles to target high pedestrian areas, and bombing soft-targets like shopping malls and tourist locations).
One of the largest changes we will see in the next phase in the change in funding of the group. A large portion of the Islamic State’s funding was through black market oil sales at the peak of the organization. With aerial strikes targeting their controlled well sites and their massive lose of territorial holdings this funding has all, but dried up. There has never been a significant portion of their funding coming from individual donors and sponsors due to the high risk associated with financial support of a terrorist organization. There will continue to be state sponsorship and support from regimes such as Iran and North Korea as well as corrupted official support from regimes across Africa and the Maghreb region. We will see a rise in the amount of their funding that comes from openly illicit activities. Most of their funding will come from sources like opioid production and distribution, human, weapons, and drug trafficking, kidnapping and ransom, false charities, and the blood diamonds of Africa.
While the Islamic State has been defeated militarily, this does not mean we have seen the end of the organization. In the upcoming months the Islamic State will show it self to be operationally functional due to its individual and cell-based structure. There will likely be a rise in attacks in Western countries as the organization struggles to maintain its relevance in the media. We will also see a subtle shift from a primarily violent political movement to a more politically motivated criminal syndicate in a significant amount of their operational areas. This shift will likely cause splinter factions within the Islamic State, the rise of more criminal enterprises, and potentially more radical sects forming in the organization vying for control, especially in the absence of an accepted head of the organization.