Not the New Normal: Paris Attacks Illustrate ISIS’ Evolving Strategy
By Hannah Kupsky
Photograph of ISIS soldiers courtesy of Huffington Post
“I hate to say that I feel numb to this. That this has become the new normal.” My friend’s comments about the tragic Paris attacks over coffee late Saturday afternoon, initially left me shocked. Her remarks were not intended to diminish the importance of the lives lost during the recent assault on Paris. However, her comments illustrated that the threat from ISIS extremism has become all too commonplace as it hits closer to home. With the group losing territory in its heartland it would be easy to assume that we are slowly but surely pushing ISIS out of operation. However, the Paris attacks and Egyptian plane bombing clearly show the group’s changing methodology. ISIS strategy has evolved to emphasize a more globally-focused chaos instead of territorial gains.
We may have previously seen the Islamic State as a regional threat, whose primary aim was to hold territory within the borders of the Middle East. In fact, the grip that ISIS once claimed on areas of Levant has seen major setbacks. For example, in northern Iraq Kurdish forces gained control of the strategic Highway 47. The road linked two ISIS strongholds, and its loss has strangled the group for resources and jeopardized its oil trade. Such successes have partly been due to a US-led bombing coalition, The Pentagon has estimated that the American campaign has helped recapture a third of ISIS controlled territory. The US-backed Kurdish forces have proven very adept at pushing ISIS back towards its de facto capital in Raqqa. Raqqa also saw a recent French air attack hit several key ISIS facilities. While US efforts have not succeeded in overwhelming all of ISIS territory they have fragmented its control, leaving its strongholds of Mosul, Anbar and Raqqa severed from each other. What we can take from this is that overall, ISIS’ dominance over territory in Iraq and Syria has weakened.
Another ISIS weakness comes from its loss of revenue-generating oil fields. ISIS previously reaped an estimated $40 million a month from hijacked oil fields, which supplied funding for weaponry and military efforts. However many of these oil fields have been in jeopardy for the group. Bombing campaigns combined with ground efforts have threated their control. Perhaps the most notable of these lost oilfields was the Baji refinery located strategically in Iraq’s Anbar province. After almost of year of a bloody struggle over the refinery Iraqi forces backed by Shi’a militias finally reclaimed Baiji in October. Iraqi control of Baiji will allow them to control more of their own oil infrastructure while also effectively crippling a large source of ISIS revenue. This loss of territory and revenue is particularly troubling for ISIS as opposed to other insurgency groups. Since ISIS has declared itself a state, loss of physical gains proves particularly harmful to their image.
While It would appear easy to take encouragement in these reports of ISIS setbacks, it is perhaps more realistic to see this as an adaptation on the part of the group. ISIS has shifted past ambitions of controlling vast areas of territory and now looks towards more global goals. The organization’s recent attacks highlight not only the desire to proliferate death in the west but also a marked improvement in the organizational and logistical capabilities of the group. It appears that this loss in territory has almost coincided with an uptick in the groups operations overseas. ISIS is by its very nature extremely adaptable to change and this new global focus appears to be its latest manifestation of its adaptable personality. Major General Thamir Ismail, a commander of SWAT forces in Anbar, recently told the Washington Post, that ISIS “attacked Paris in order to keep up the morale of their fighters and distract from their losses in Syria and Iraq. I expect when we liberate Ramadi, there will be more attacks in the west.” While Ismail is optimistic about the continued repression of ISIS in Syria and Iraq he agrees that such obstacles will only expand the group’s presence in Europe and beyond.
It is now becoming increasingly difficult to assess whether our campaign against ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq is effectively working. On the one hand, Western operations have reduced the group’s physical territory. However, ISIS has deftly adapted to shift its focus abroad. A strategy to defeat ISIS for the long term will likely need the support of otherwise hostile international players. Great Power antagonists like America and Russia will need to collaborate to defeat the threat. Likewise, participation from regional rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia would both prove crucial to an anti-ISIS coalition. Building such a diverse array of partners against ISIS illustrates the inherent difficulties in opposing the group. What has become clear is that this is a different ISIS that we are dealing with and will not be an easy fix. Attacks against the west are likely to become more drastic and more common as ISIS continues to feel the squeeze in its home territory.