Yesterday, Kurdish forces launched a decisive offensive in the northeast part of the Iraqi city of Mosul, capital of the Islamic State. It was here that two years ago the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of the macabre caliphate that would soon spread across swaths of Iraq and a quarter of Syrian territory, taking advantage of the power vacuum in a country bloodied by civil war. The operation by Kurdish peshmerga fighters has been supported by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition and all signs are that the Islamic State group is close to losing control of the city, a development that would have a devastating symbolic effect on the largest terrorist group in history.
The offensive coincides with the accelerated destruction of the caliphate, both in Iraq and in Syria. According to the Pentagon, in recent months 40 percent to 45 percent of the Iraqi territory, and 20 percent of the Syrian territory that the group once controlled has been wrested from its grasp. However, in spite of the clear setback suffered by the jihadis, it would be foolish to underestimate the group’s lethal capacities. Quite the opposite; experts warn that the Islamic State group will now increase international attacks in an attempt to counteract any decline in its followers’ morale caused by the loss of territory in the caliphate.
With this in mind, July was an especially dramatic month: the Islamic State group killed at least 300 people in a wave of attacks in various countries — Turkey, Bangladesh, Yemen and Libya, among others — as part of the group’s strategy of internationalization with which it has garnered such enormous media attention. On top of this we can add attacks carried out not by cells directly controlled by the caliphate or its affiliated networks but by “lone wolves,” many of whom are “express jihadis” radicalized with extreme speed. Examples of such attacks have been the recent acts of barbarism that have shaken France, Belgium and Germany. The attack in Nice left 84 people dead and, by way of using a truck as an instrument of death, a tactic previously seen only in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, signaled a tactical change on European soil. Although these lone wolves act out of loyalty to the Islamic State group, the reality is they are not members of any terrorist network, a fact that greatly complicates the intelligence services’ task of detecting and preventing such attacks. Given this, police and intelligence sharing in the European Union and infiltrating the group on social networks is more important than ever. Now is no time to lower our guard – Europe must remain on red alert.
The successful ground campaign against the Islamic State group has seen some magnificent results, not only for successive local populations liberated from the caliphate’s oppression, but also in the global fight against terrorism. The group’s retreat translates into a substantial drop in the number of combatants and the amount of money at its disposal. According to the U.S., one year ago the group boasted 33,000 armed insurgents; this has today been reduced to 18,000 to 20,000. In terms of financing, the Islamic State group’s income streams from both donations and the sale of oil have been greatly reduced. Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria aside, the Islamic State group now does not control a single large city and the significant loss of people under its control has created a large hole in the taxation system that it had imposed. The group has also lost access to many of the oil-rich areas of Iraq that it controlled a year ago and, although it retains an income from the regional black market in oil, the oil market is becoming a more and more complicated means of generating income owing to attacks from the international coalition that have successfully deprived the group of access to strategic points.
This aside, it is not all good news. As previously stated, intelligence services detect an increased risk of international attacks. Experts also agree that the Islamic State group’s position of ideological dominance within radical Sunni Islam remains virtually untouched. The loss of physical territory has not yet affected the group’s ability to build alliances with other terrorist groups in widening areas of the world, from North Africa to the Far East, areas where the concern provoked by groups professing loyalty to the Islamic State group is becoming ever stronger. This remains the greatest challenge faced by the West, and rising to it will be far from simple. There is, however, a little more room for optimism than there was one year ago.