Within matter of days, a self-appointed ISIS “lone wolf” Omar Mateen, with no actual links to home office ISIS has created mayhem in Orlando, Florida, with his killing of 49 people in a gay club, and the Iraq army has pushed ISIS troops out of most of the important city of Fallujah.
Maybe it is an exaggeration to say that ISIS is on the run its bailiwicks of Iraq and Syria, but it is certainly taking very bad hits. Two years after sweeping through Northern Iraq and capturing the oil city of Mosul in 2014, they are now on the defensive. ISIS has lost nearly half of the Iraqi Territory it held. (i.e. an area about half that of the UK). It has lost much of its oil infrastructure. It suffered lots of casualties. In Syria, it is fighting on two contradictory fronts -- the regime in Damascus, supported by Iran and Russia and against the non-Islamist rebels supported by the US and the Arab States.
Meanwhile, the flow of foreign fighters on which it has depended is slowing up and large numbers are returning home. Funding is drying up.
This indeed why Mateen -- the lone wolf -- is so important to ISIS. ISIS spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani has asked its sympathisers to stay where they are. “The smallest action you do in the heart of [your] land is better and more enduring to us than what you would do if you were with us.”
Is this a switch in tactics? We do not know yet. What we do know is that ISIS is more resilient, better organized, far more brutal and sadistic than Al Qaeda is. Neither has it been dependent on one leader as Al Qaeda was with Osama Bin Laden. (Its inspirer, the brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006. Moreover, since 9/11, intelligence services in the US and Europe have worked hard to track down planted terrorists with a great deal of success. Yes, there have been horrendous bombings in London, Madrid, Paris and Brussels as well as the Boston Marathon, San Berdino and now Orlando but compared with the other statistics like deaths from falling off ladders or the deaths caused by American right wing fanatics they have been small beer.
President Barack Obama and his European colleagues have decided not to put boots on the ground to defeat ISIS, as President George W. Bush did counter productively in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda. (Al Qaeda was bolstered by this invasion as was ISIS in Iraq, following the US invasion). Air power has been deployed by the US, the UK, France and Russia against ISIS but it only has a modest impact. They are letting Iraq and the Kurds do the hard fighting on the ground.
Besides the mayhem wrought in Iraq, ISIS, somewhat paradoxically, has turned its guns on the Syrian regime, even as it cooperates with it. Syria for sometime was a logistics hub for ISIS as President Bashar al-Assad sought to make life more difficult for the American occupiers of Iraq. Syrian links with ISIS continue. ISIS has even sold it oil. The Machiavellian Syrian leadership believes -- despite the threat to themselves by facilitating some ISIS activities, they are slowly but surely persuading the West that Syria is facing Islamic terrorism and thus Syria should be supported.
Another confusing fact is that ISIS is Sunni (albeit Sunnis that have terrified ordinary Sunnis living in Iraq). This has pushed the Shi’ite leadership in both Syria (for all its Machiavellianism) and Iran to be bitterly opposed to it. In this war against ISIS Syria (the Alawi leadership in Damascus is an offshoot of Shi’ism) and Iran (Shi’ite) are de facto allies of the US. All this manoeuvring has confused many of ISIS’s supporters. It’s not helped by the fact that many of its activists and fighters are theologically illiterate.
Despite its setbacks this year, the ISIS is still quite strong. When in 2014, it took Mosul and captured massive volume of equipment, including Abrams tanks. On the other hand, its troop levels compare poorly with the combined number of moderate Syrian Opposition forces plus Iraq and it continues to alienate those it conquers. Its savage punishments including sanctioned rape do not win friends, even though it builds clinics and schools.
ISIS is alienating Muslims all over the world even as it attracts some support from the young in parts of the Third World. Its attacks on Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have not helped its reputation.
One can say that at the moment ISIS is “contained” and that the US and its allies know that it can’t be defeated except at a price they are not prepared to pay. Instability in the Middle East will continue as far ahead as one can see. So will lone wolves.