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ISIS’s defeat in Iraq and Syria makes attacks like in New York inevitable

The attack in New York is born out of weakness, not strength — and we need to react as such.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The attack on Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal Monday morning injured at least four people, though none appeared to be life-threatening, as well as the suspect, 27-year-old Brooklynite Akayed Ullah. Ullah was inspired by ISIS, according to preliminary evidence uncovered by the NYPD.

ISIS encourages attacks like Monday’s — low-level, crude, perpetrated without any input from ISIS’s high command — in its propaganda. They are supposed to be signs of the group’s power and global reach, signs that no one is safe from the Islamic State.

But the New York attack isn’t proof of the Islamic State’s strength. It’s a sign of its growing weakness.

The Islamic State’s biggest claim to fame — its territorial empire in Iraq and Syria, or “caliphate” — has all but collapsed thanks to a US-led military campaign. In October, its self-proclaimed capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa fell to Kurdish forces; in early December, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that ISIS’ territory in Iraq had been fully retaken, declaring victory in his country’s war on the group. ISIS now has no choice but to give up its dreams of controlling an actual state and instead redouble its efforts to plan and inspire terrorist attacks around the globe.

This means carrying out attacks it planned centrally, like the November 2015 attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris that killed 130, as well as encouraging supporters to launch attacks on their own volition, like last month’s car attack in New York that killed eight.

So long as the ISIS brand continues to hold some appeal for disaffected young men around the world, then, you can expect to see a regular drumbeat of attacks — both in the United States and, to a greater degree, in Europe. ISIS’s online recruiters will be working overtime to make it seem as if the loss of its empire isn’t as significant as it is.

The only question is whether the attacks give the group the propaganda wins they want — or, more precisely, whether Western media and governments help hand it to them.

How ISIS’s decline leads to more terror

Three years ago, ISIS controlled a swath of territory roughly the size of Great Britain. It controlled several major population centers in both Iraq and Syria, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Raqqa, which ISIS used to administer the broader empire.

This territory gave ISIS tremendous resources. It recruited both volunteers and conscripts, extorted ordinary citizens, and plundered oil reserves and ancient artifacts to fill its coffers. Perhaps most notably, it gave ISIS a powerful veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of radicals. The goal of all jihadist groups, including both ISIS and al-Qaeda, is to establish a caliphate governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. ISIS claimed to have actually done so. The caliphate became its calling card, the single best resource for growing its power.

"When they declared the caliphate, their legitimacy came to rest on the continuing viability of their state," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me in an interview.

Today, the territory is all but gone — and with it, ISIS’s most valuable resources. According to a June 2017 estimate by IHS Markit, a defense analysis firm, ISIS has lost 60 percent of its territory and a whopping 80 percent of its revenue since January 2015. It no longer controls a single major population center; the loss of both Mosul and Raqqa to US-backed local forces earlier this year was particularly devastating.

“The Islamic State’s remaining caliphate is likely to break up before the end of the year, reducing its governance project to a string of isolated urban areas that will eventually be retaken over the course of 2018,” Columb Strack, a senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit, said in a press release announcing their findings. “Three years after the ‘Caliphate’ was declared, it is evident that the group’s governance project has failed.”

ISIS propaganda and strategy have changed markedly as a result. As military defeat became inevitable, the group quietly shifted from encouraging Western recruits to travel to Syria toward telling them instead to attack targets at home. The July 2016 edition of Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language propaganda magazine, encouraged recruits to “wage jihād by himself with the resources available to him (knives, guns, explosives, etc.).”

The logic here, according to terrorism experts, is very clear: ISIS needed to recover from the caliphate’s wreckage.

“The Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand,” writes Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Successful attacks attract investors.”

The goal of international attacks, centrally directed and inspired ones alike, is to show potential recruits and funders that ISIS still remains deadly and relevant despite the loss of territory. And as ISIS’s territory continues to decline, they are likely to keep happening and perhaps even escalate.

“We have to expect that as the capital of the caliphate has now fallen, there are going to be increasing efforts to show that they remain dangerous and lethal,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Washington Post after an FBI briefing on last month’s New York attack.

But experts say that the effect of these attacks — their ability to successfully communicate strength to ISIS’s target audience — depends on the reaction of the West.

If President Trump overreacts by singling out Muslims for discriminatory policies, or if there are a wave of anti-Muslim hate crimes across the US, ISIS will have new fuel for its narrative that the West and Islam are incompatible.

A more measured response, experts say, is more likely to defuse ISIS’s strength in the long term than any crackdown. The group’s new strategy can be more effectively countered by continuing to quietly roll back the group’s territorial holdings and using normal law enforcement mechanisms to arrest its sympathizers than by harsh new immigration policies and civil liberty restrictions.

"They have a terrible brand. So part of what we need to do is simply avoid making mistakes that will let them present themselves as a defender of Muslims,” Gartenstein-Ross told me. “We need to make sure Muslims continue to overwhelmingly reject ISIS."

Time is not on ISIS’s side.

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