Monday, November 23, 2015


There have been a lot of odd responses to the Paris attacks. One of them is the idea that because ISIS perpetrated that attack, that means the group is somehow "winning". Unlike a group like normal terrorist group (like al-Qaeda) the Islamic State gets its legitimacy from being a state. That is, controlling territory and governing it with what it deems to be the correct version of Islamic law. Whether ISIS can attack targets in the West and whether it can hold the ground it controls in Iraq and Syria are two completely separate questions. Attacking a bunch of unarmed people does not take that much technical prowess or even competence. Defending the lands it controls is both central to ISIS's identity and a real test of whether the group can be said to be winning.

By that measure, ISIS is clearly losing because it is losing territory. On the same day of the Paris attack, ISIS lost Sinjar, Sinjar is important because it sits on the main transit point between the Islamic State's territory in Iraq and its territory in Syria. By taking Sinjar, the Kurds are cutting the links between Mosul (the largest city controlled by ISIS) and Raqqa (its capital). Meanwhile, a different group of Kurds are recapturing territory in Northeast Syria and are now at the gates of Raqqa. At the same time, Assad's forces are pushing back ISIS in West-Central Syria. ISIS is losing ground in the West, Center, and North of its de facto state. It is also having financial trouble, which is only going to get worse if the West continues to target its oil infrastructure.

The Islamic State's biggest problem has always been that almost everyone hates them. None of the surrounding countries in the region support ISIS, and they have managed to piss off the important countries from outside the region as well. The only thing they have going for them is that they are good at recruiting disaffected violence-prone youth from around the world. Well, okay, the other thing they have going for them is their enemies in the region don't like each other, so they are more concerned with their differences with each other than their common enemy in the Islamic State. Although that benefit to ISIS erodes a bit every time ISIS does some new brutal attack (e.g. the Paris attack got Russia and France working together and even got Russia to focus more of its fire against ISIS, as opposed to other anti-Assad groups)

As I have said before, I don't think that the Islamic State is viable in the long term, or even the medium term. Terrorist attacks attract more attention and make it seem like the group is powerful. Really it is just a symptom of desperation. As their territory shrinks, the Islamic State is leaning more and more on foreign recruitment. The way that ISIS can boost foreign recruitment is to do high profile attacks. The way to do high profile attacks is to attack places that the media areas about. Which means more attacks against the West to make the group seem competent and scary. The very things that make it seem big and powerful are symptoms of its weakened position.