ISIL Loses Territory, But Threat Remains

By Leah Cerilli

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced on March 23 that it had eliminated the last remnants of ISIL territory. The SDF, a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by the United States, France, and Britain, said it fully liberated the town of Baghouz from ISIL control. Baghouz was the last territorial claim retained by ISIL. The announcement marks the demise of the ISIL caliphate from western Syria and eastern Iraq, officially declared in the summer of 2014. The principal goal of the caliphate is to consolidate control of territory in the region, which ISIL has now lost a significant portion of. Although this is a major blow to the terrorist organization, the loss of territorial control does not mean the end of ISIL itself.

The gradual loss of territory since the summer of 2017 has prompted ISIL to shift operational gears. ISIL has been increasingly relying on suicide bombers, guerrilla attacks, and sleeper cell networks to carry out operations. The lack of declared sections of territory makes it more difficult to monitor and track fighters as they split up and go underground.

ISIL is growing its presence internationally using these more traditional, low-level terrorism methods. ISIL networks and affiliates remain operational in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Inland Libya’s vast ungoverned territory remains an appealing haven for fighters. Foreign Islamic State fighters who have returned to their home countries also pose a significant concern - it is estimated that 1,200 extremists have returned to Europe alone. ISIL’s ideology can still inspire lone wolves and smaller, loosely connected cells to carry out attacks.

Additionally, many ISIL fighters who fled liberating forces are at large within Iraq and Syria. Iraqi counterterrorism and intelligence officials have estimated that about 5,000 to 6,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Iraq and Syria. This number does not include sleeper cells or sympathizers assisting operations. A February 2019 estimate by the United Nations is substantially higher; the American Special Envoy for Syria claimed that there are 15,000 to 20,000 armed Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.

The loss of territory also represents a significant change in ISIL’s finances. The group previously relied on territorial control to extract oil wealth and tax citizens living under its rule. ISIL has accumulated wealth, in addition to developing fairly sophisticated and difficult-to-track financial networks hidden in both former territory and abroad. This acquired wealth can still be used to fund operations, although ISIL will have to seek new ways to replenish funds now that they are not profiting off of occupying territory.

Although territorial control has been lost, ISIL’s ideology, fighters, and resources remain in play. Poverty and sectarian unrest remain as catalysts for recruitment, worsened by years of insurgency and fighting. The loss of territory will likely force ISIL to further adjust its strategies, rather than fizzle out and disappear.