Two critical battles are being fought against ISIS this week: the first, in Syria by a combined force of Turkish military and so-called Turkish-backed Free Syrian rebels to seize back from ISIS towns and villages in northern Syria; the second, in Iraq to liberate over one million inhabitants in Mosul from ISIS tyranny.
The Symbolism of Dabiq's Fall
Of the two battles, this weekend's recapture of the small Syrian village of Dabiq is extraordinarily significant. Dabiq's loss represents a mighty symbolic blow against ISIS among its fanatical following - and actually may have more consequence against ISIS than the inevitable fall of the much more strategic Mosul (not to diminish the importance of Mosul's fall from ISIS control by any means).
Although a small village at the foot of a small hill on Syria's northern plains about 9 miles from the Turkish border, Dabiq figures prominently in ISIS's wretched apocalyptic Islamic propaganda: that the Prophet Mohammed foretold before he died in 632 A.D. that a monumental battle would take place on the plains of Dabiq between a Muslim army and infidel crusaders (according to ISIS propaganda this infidel army would be led by the crusader Americans). The Muslim army would prevail, then, fast forward, liberate Constantinople from the "Romans" (aka infidels). According to the prophecy, what is supposed to follow this victory in Dabiq and modern day Turkey is the appearance and final defeat of the Islamic version of the Antichrist, called the Dajjal, at the hands of (the Islamic) Jesus. I kid you not!
The self-proclaimed caliph (successor to Mohammed) ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preached from the ramparts of Mosul after its seizure that the forces of Islam would prevail over the latter day crusaders and trigger Mohammed's end of days' Dabiq prophecy.
Consequently, Dabiq's recapture drives a big, rusty nail into ISIS's coffin and inevitably will undermine al-Baghdadi's hold over ISIS. ISIS control over Dabiq was a big selling point of its vaunted caliphate, and al-Baghdadi based the Islamic State's entire propaganda machine on the prophecy of a titanic showdown between his forces and infidel crusaders on the plains of Dabiq. History teaches us that self-anointed messiahs who brutally attempt and fail to foment apocalyptic Armageddon's are often betrayed by their own. Such, I predict, will be the fate of al-Baghdadi, who is now presiding over the disintegration of the territory of the Islamic State, and, in the Islamic State's own parlance, less territory means less amr - authority in Arabic. He is a hunted man, and the fall of Dabiq and Mosul will render him a fugitive from justice and vengeance.
The irony that it was a Muslim force, rather than an infidel army of crusaders, that conquered Dabiq from ISIS constitutes a double-blow to ISIS popular legitimacy. Upon learning that his expeditionary force operation nicknamed "Operation Euphrates Shield" inside Syria swept remnants of a spent ISIS force from the fields of Dabiq Turkish President Erdogan proclaimed: "The Daesh (ISIS) myth of their great battle of Dabiq is finished!"
The Battle for Mosul
By all authoritative military predictions, the battle for Mosul - the Islamic State's self-proclaimed Iraqi capital -- will be a prolonged and bloody affair.
Since its fall to IS forces in 2014, ISIS has prepared for this day of reckoning. If the battle for Fallujah is any indicator, the combined "coalition" forces face Kamikaze-like resistance from the estimated 10,000 ISIS terrorists holed up inside Mosul. The city is ringed with high-explosive booby traps, car and suicide bombs are at the ready, ISIS operatives have shaved their beards to escape capture and terrorize advancing forces by mingling with fleeing civilians. ISIS has also dug a sophisticated maze of tunnels filled with explosives and oil and has even ringed the city with moats of burning oil to thwart coalition forces.
A careful read of ISIS social media channels indicates that as the battle for Mosul proceeds, ISIS is determined to launch suicide attacks in Iraq - particularly against the 3000 U.S. military personnel stationed near Mosul who are advising the Iraqi military campaign. ISIS also intends to launch bloody suicide and car bombings inside Baghdad, as well as trigger sleeper cells in Europe to commit terrorist acts in France, in particular. The intent from these diversionary acts of terror is to "keep the faith" among its most die-hard believers, and to show the world that the defeat of ISIS forces in Dabiq and Mosul do not portend the end of ISIS.
In this assertion, ISIS is unfortunately correct. When Mosul falls, how will this impact the future of ISIS?
As the core of the ISIS geographic state shrinks in Iraq and Syria, ISIS will not be a completely spent terrorist force. ISIS has "mini-caliphates" strewn across the Middle East: in Syria, in the Sinai Peninsula (Wiliyat Sinai), Libya, Yemen, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Turkey, Algeria (Jund al-Khilafa), Tunisia, Libya, and in the remote regions of the western Sahara, including Nigeria, Mali, and Chad. Its Syrian capital of Raqqa is under episodic siege, but the U.S. and its allies are still far from developing a planned offensive to liberate it. Al Qaeda franchises have pledged allegiance to ISIS, as well. There are simply not enough Sunni Arab boots on the ground available in Syria's overlapping wars in and around Raqqa to launch a successful offensive -- yet. The Turks are not particularly interested in its recapture, and neither are Kurdish Syrian forces - who have no interest fighting for non-Kurdish territory in Syria.
Make no mistake about it, as long as Raqqa remains in ISIS hands, it provides ISIS with a symbolic capital from which to launch terror and command its mini-caliphate franchise cells. Its liberation is an imperative to decaying ISIS, and, Raqqa is only 45 kilometers from Dabiq. Dabiq cannot be permitted to be recaptured by ISIS at any cost because that will reinvigorate attractiveness of ISIS to a next generation of converts.
Intelligence estimates suggest that ISIS still has approximately 5,000 hard-core militants in these mini-caliphates. Coalition forces have so far succeeded to drive the largest mini-caliphate in Libya into a severely shrunken redoubt, but such is not the case elsewhere. ISIS continues to wreak havoc in Afghanistan, Somalia, and in the Sinai (just a day ago ISIS fighters killed scores of Egyptian military personnel. It only takes a determined band of several hundred ISIS fighters on the lamb to create havoc and instability.
As ISIS' spent forces devolve from territorial conquerors to global terrorists, it has a lot of firepower left. Since 2011, ISIS has claimed credit for over 143 attacks in 29 countries, which killed almost 3,000 persons. Both European and American intelligence officials openly assert that ISIS poses the greatest terrorist threat to them - greater than the remaining cells of al Qaeda strewn about in Pakistan, Yemen, and North Africa.
Sources in British counter-terrorism operations stated in recent days that as the battle for Mosul uproots almost 1 million civilians, several thousand ISIS fighters will attempt to mingle with the refugees - one-fifth of ISIS total fighters - 3,700 - are residents or nationals of Europe, including 1,200 from France alone. How to conduct the requisite "extreme vetting" of fleeing Mosul inhabitants will be one of the most crucial counter-intelligence tests for the offensive. Unfortunately, it is more likely than not that many ISIS fighters will escape the dragnet and make their way back to Turkish safe-houses and then back to Europe, and they have well-prepared themselves for this flight.
We know that a group of Islamic State accomplices based in Syria have trained Mosul-based fighters to mask their cell phone accounts with encrypted accounts to camouflage their identities and purported travel routes. The tools of choice: the encrypted WhatsApp and Telegram apps, and two years of hard-core terrorist training and means to evade capture. In other words, the cockroaches will be fleeing their hideout in Mosul and the danger to the west from Mosul's liberation cannot be taken lightly.
Between the underground terrorist railroad to Europe, the incessant whac-a-mole against mini-caliphates, and ISIS's ability to stash cash in safe houses in the Middle East and in Europe, the next president confronts a menu of unpalatable choices to develop an effective, comprehensive strategy to actually lead a global coalition to take down ISIS physically. It requires us to acknowledge that the ideological cancer fueling ISIS is still not in remission for the foreseeable future.
The rise of ISIS is a predictable consequence of the eternal fault-line plaguing the Sunni-Shiite divide, and the new era of Arab wars plaguing the Middle East. A multi-tiered international approach to decay ISIS further is certainly feasible, but is will take concerted American leadership to galvanize more Arab boots on the ground, ramp up anti-ISIS social media interdiction and on-line cyberwarfare, and deny "charitable" funding from stubborn Saudi, Qatari, and Kuwaiti donors (too often with the connivance of their governments) who evade financial sanctions.
What good is it to liberate Mosul and Raqqa if ISIS is still able to use social media to radicalize and recruit? I ask that of companies like Google's YouTube every day, which refuses to voluntarily cooperate in a campaign to de-radicalize its content. Stamping out the remaining mini-caliphates is Job#1 for an Arab coalition, not American soldiers. We can lead, but it is their fight, after all.
The fall of Mosul is just one more chapter on a long, dangerous road to eradicating ISIS as a persistent threat to our homeland. We have begun fighting to seize Normandy, but the Elbe River is a long way off, with danger lurking at every bend.