Route of truck used in the Nice terror attack, July 14, 2016. Map courtesy Wikipedia
For the first time since the Islamic State (IS) announced its worldwide caliphate on June 30, 2014, it appears that the tide is finally starting to turn against it. The pattern of its terrorist attacks in Europe and North America however suggest that it is already developing a new strategy to attack the west even if it becomes stateless.
Over the course of the past year IS has lost between 1/3 and 1/4 of its territory. Iraqi forces consisting of the regular Iraqi Army and various Shite militias have taken back Tikrit, Ramadi and Falluja and largely regained control of the major urban centers in Anbar province; the heart of Iraq's Sunni Triangle.
Further north, Iraqi and Kurdish forces are tightening the noose around Mosul. Iraqi forces have captured the Qayyarah West Airfield (formerly FOB Endurance) a major air base just 50 miles south of Mosul. The base is expected to serve as a logistics hub and forward air base for the final drive on Mosul. Additionally, a large pocket stretching from Baiji to Hawijah has been cut-off from Mosul. It appears that IS militants in that area are abandoning their positions.
In Syria, The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast and the Syrian army in the southwest are both slowly advancing on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.
The notable progress notwithstanding, the Islamic State is still a long way from being defeated. It is likely that the anticipated sieges of both Raqqa and Mosul will stretch well into 2017 and it is conceivable even longer. Nor is a victory by any means certain. The political consensus among the various Shite factions in Iraq remains fragile. So too does the relationship between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. Iranian interference in Baghdad remains a wild card.
The situation in Syria isn't much better. The Free Syrian Army is on the verge of losing its position in Aleppo to the, Russian supported, Syrian Army while the continuing hostility of Turkish President Erdogan's government to Syria's and Turkey's Kurdish population further complicates the U.S.'s attempts to build an effective anti-ISIS coalition. How the attempted coup in Turkey may affect Erdogan's commitment to fight Islamic State is anyone's guess?
Already however there are growing signs of how Islamic State will adapt should it lose control of all or a significant portion of its core territory. First, it has been steadily expanding its footprint in Europe. There is no question that it's organization there is substantially larger than it was in 2014. European intelligence agencies believe that there may be between 1,000 and 2,000 jihadists in Europe with battlefield experience under IS. IS claims that it has infiltrated over 5,000 militants into Europe and that it has "dozens of cells" spread throughout the continent. One intelligence agency estimate puts IS's European strength at about 20,000 jihadists and committed supporters
Secondly, it is expanding its involvement in criminal activities in Europe. There have been consistent reports, for example, that Islamic State is becoming heavily involved in the smuggling of marijuana from the Balkans into western Europe. The skill set required to run a subversive organization is not that different that the one needed to run a criminal enterprise. The smuggling networks that are used to bring in armaments and militants can be just as easily be used to traffic in drugs and illegal immigrants.
Thirdly it is steadily switching from offensive military operations where it was directly attacking Iraqi and Syrian military forces, as it did in 2014 and 2015, in favor of a combination of a scorched earth defensive posture and aggressive insurgency tactics. In Iraq, where this strategy is most obvious, it has fought a long dragged out, street by street, urban campaign in the Sunni dominated cities that it held. Its intent has been to slow the Iraqi advance as long as possible while inflicting the maximum amount of damage to both the Iraqi attacking forces and to the cities it was defending.
The result is that in defeat it is leaving behind an urban wasteland that will require billions of dollars to rehabilitate. Dollars which the Baghdad government does not have and which it will move reluctantly to spend rebuilding Sunni areas. In the process, even in defeat, Islamic State is laying the groundwork for more Sunni-Shia confrontation in Iraq and creating an environment where it will continue to find support within Iraq's Sunni community.
Finally, Islamic State has returned to the campaign of indiscriminate urban violence that characterized its strategy from 2003- to 2007 and it is steadily expanding a semblance of that campaign into Europe. So far the European campaign has relied on a combination of small, 5 to 10 militants, groups armed with automatic weapons and rudimentary improvised explosive devices (IED) and "lone wolves" which have been responding to Islamic State's exhortations of violence against western nations, to attack soft targets.
Moreover, unlike its terrorist attacks in Iraq, where there was often a second, immediate follow up attack against first responders, its attacks in Europe have not yet shown this degree of sophistication. Although there is so evidence that the Brussels attackers were planning something similar. A two tiered attack, one designed to kill both soft civilian targets and then first responders, take more coordination and a greater degree of planning than Islamic State has been able to organize in Europe. As its capabilities grow however, such "two tiered-attacks" against both civilians and first responders will appear.
What would a defeat of the Islamic State look like? It won't be like any previous war. There will not be an "instrument of surrender" duly executed by the representatives of a vanquished foe. There will not be a surrender ceremony like the one on the USS Missouri or a rail car in Compiegne or their 21st century Middle Eastern equivalents. There will be no peace conference, or armistice negotiations, no victory parades.
The fact is that there will be little to mark the defeat of the Islamic State because even if we retake all of the territory that IS currently controls we will never really be sure that we have won. Instead Islamic State will simply morph into something else as it adapts to being a stateless organization; a government without a country.
In this sense, the terrorist attack that took place in Nice on July 14th is symptomatic both of what the Islamic State is evolving into and what it may become if it is ever stripped of its territorial domains.
For a militant jihadist organization like Islamic State the control of physical territory is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, control of a territory affords opportunities to exploit resources, from antiquities to oil to other valuables. It affords opportunities to levy taxes, and to control social life, from schools to mosques to courts, to an unprecedented degree. It also garners the prestige of being a sovereign nation, albeit one that no other nation chooses to recognize or deal diplomatically with.
On the other hand, for IS controlling a nation state is also an immense disadvantage. First it calls for administrative skills that jihadist organizations typically don't possess. Running a country means that you are responsible for the provisioning of basic services. That means you need to run power plants and sewage treatment facilities. It means water needs to come out of the faucet and busses need to show up on time. It means food and fuel and medicine need to be secured and made available.
Moreover, controlling a state also means that you have to defend it. Jihadist organizations rarely have the kind of defensive capabilities that are needed to combat the offensive arsenal of a modern military, much less that of a superpower. You can kill a lot of people with a truck bomb, but it's hard to take out an F-16 in the same way, not unless you can drive your truck bomb next to it on the tarmac.
Going forward Islamic State doesn't really need to control a nation state and if fact would be better off without it even if it means temporarily shelving its narrative of establishing a worldwide caliphate. It might earn less money without controlling territory, but it would also have a lot fewer administrative demands it would have to finance. Moreover, as it expands into more lucrative criminal activities it can more than make up for the financial opportunities it loses when it is evicted.
The loss of its territorial domain would be a blow to Islamic State's prestige, but even that would hardly be an insurmountable one. At this point, the Islamic State "brand" has been established. It is known and recognized worldwide and it has more than three dozen franchises around the globe. It's sophisticated use of social media to build that brand has been nothing short of cutting edge. Like any brand, it needs to continue to defend and expand it, but it's brand is less dependent on controlling physical territory today than it was in 2014.
The attack in Nice is symptomatic of how Islamic State is expanding its insurgency into Europe and it offers some important lessons. First, the attacker was a lone wolf. It does not appear that he had any direct links to the Islamic State. He was not a former jihadist militant. He was not recruited by IS nor does it seem that he was aided in any way. Encouraging such attacks is a key aspect of IS's social media campaigns. In these situations, intelligence is almost non-existent. There is little planning, travel or chatter to tip off security personnel of a possible attack
Secondly, it does not seem that the attacker was a particularly devout Muslim or one that was particularly committed to jihadism. Rather, it seems he was a maladjusted, dysfunctional, petty criminal who found in radical jihadism a justification for his actions. In other words, this is not a case of a Muslim that was radicalized as much as a case of a radical that was Islamized.
When the Soviet Union collapsed western pundits were quick to proclaim the "end of ideology." Secular, democratic, capitalism had won and authoritarian, militaristic communism had lost. But the anti-western ideology that rejects the basic tenants of modern 21st century society, secularism, democracy, equality and capitalism, didn't go away. It simply morphed into something else and found a new ideological framework in which to express itself.
It's tempting to see the spread of Islamic jihadism as simply the most current chapter in a Christian-Islamic rivalry that has dominated Europe and the Middle East for more than a millennium. Except the enemy of jihadist fundamentalists is not Christendom, its western society. The enemy is the values that define modern, 21st century life--democracy, equality, free markets, and secularism.
In the 1970s and 80s the rejection of western society and its values by terrorist groups like Direct Action, or Baader Meinhof often expressed itself in radical leftist and Marxist terminology. Today, the modern expression of "anti-westernism" is increasingly finding expression and justification in the fundamentalist jihadist critique of western society.
Just as in Nice, the backgrounds of many of the jihadists implicated in the half dozen terrorist attacks that have occurred in Europe in the last 18 months suggest that we are dealing not with Muslims who have been radicalized but with criminals and malcontents who have been Islamized. As Islamic State expands its criminal activities and penetrates deeper into Europe's criminal underworld it will find itself with ready access to precisely this kind of person.
Thirdly, terrorism is not just about guns. A truck in the hands of one man killed almost as many people in Nice as nine heavily armed gun men did in Paris. Nor was this the first time that a vehicle was used as a weapon. In late 2015 IS called on its followers to use vehicles in precisely this way. Nice was at least the fourth such incidence in the last six months. There is no shortage of modern conveniences which can be used as a weapon of violence.
What happened in Nice, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Orlando or in San Bernardino is a growing indication of how Islamic State and other jihadist organizations will fight their war with western society in the future. The good news is that Islamic State is steadily being rolled back and that in the next several years it may be completely shorn of its territorial holdings. The bad news is that shorn of those holdings the Islamic State may be an even more formidable opponent, one against which the offensive arsenal of modern nations will be far less applicable while their ability to kill the innocent will be no less diminished.