London- It is now only a matter of time until ISIS loses its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, analysts, military and government officials repeatedly say.
US-backed Syrian rebel forces are advancing to retake ISIS’ self-declared capital of Raqqa and only a few kilometers remain to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
Yet, the optimism of wresting key territory from ISIS’ grandiose “caliphate” also carries a warning: This will not mark the end of the group that has reshaped the Middle East since 2014.
“ISIS is now drawing its last breath. But they have sleeper cells in Baghdad and other areas in Iraq, so caution remains necessary,” former Iraqi army officer, Brigadier Safaa al-Obeidi, tells German News Agency dpa.
While Iraqi forces are currently “in an excellent position” to defeat the group in Mosul and other strongholds in Iraq, Obeidi expects the militants to seek more “media successes through attacks targeting civilian communities.”
Losing the stranglehold it has had in Iraq and Syria will only reshape the group, which has worked on expanding its presence outside the two countries.
“It is the end of the group in its current form, but it will not disappear,” says Abeer Saady, a researcher in radical jihadi groups and media at Dortmund University in Germany.
“I doubt that they will try to take over new land. Instead, losing the ground is pushing them to change the form of their existence,” Saady says.
Seizing territory was the principle on which ISIS was established. It had a cabinet, governors and councils. But to keep functioning, it is expected to untie itself from this doctrine.
A shift in the group’s strategy means two things: Expansion outside Syria and Iraq as well as embracing the concept of being a stateless state.
It has long been working on the first goal.
ISIS’ Khorasan branch, the offshoot covering Pakistan and Afghanistan, was established in January 2015 in war-torn Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.
In the Philippines, pro-ISIS militants have launched several attacks in recent months.
Previously, it established its presence in several Middle Eastern countries, most prominently Egypt and Libya.
The second goal is to abandon the idea of controlling more ground and instead launch “revenge attacks.”
“To do this, they have intensified their calls on social media to target followers, especially for lone wolves,” Saady says.
Evidence from some attacks since last year showed that the perpetrators were working alone. They were inspired, but not necessarily directed, by ISIS militants.
Saady says the group’s messages via social media and online networks to loyalists and sympathizers encourage incidents such as stabbings and attacks with vehicles that have been increasingly carried out in European countries.
Last week, the group blew up Mosul’s Great Mosque, also known as al-Nuri, a move that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described as “a formal declaration of their defeat.”
The 12th-century mosque was where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only appearance in July 2014, days after the “caliphate” was declared in an audio message. His sermon from the mosque’s pulpit has been seen as the official declaration of the “caliphate.”
“What I would say is Baghdadi, alive or otherwise, is increasingly a remote figure. A great many of his loyal lieutenants have been killed,” said Major General Rupert Jones, deputy commander of strategy and support with the US-led coalition, commenting on Russian claims of having killed Baghdadi.
Jones believe that Baghdadi’s followers right now do not feel they “are being particularly led,” but rather feel “deserted, isolated.”
Saady disagrees. She expects more radical movements to rise from within the group and take over its leadership, while maintaining a similar communication strategy: Address the youth.
“These movements will actually blame the defeat of the group on its leadership’s attachment with ground,” says Saady, and adds that “then they will work on ‘correcting the path’ of the group but carry on trying to recruit young people everywhere.”