In June ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) went public about its plans to abandon its efforts to conquer and hold territory and resort to a dispersed organization with small groups organizing and carrying out attacks wherever they could. This is the traditional tactic of guerilla warfare; fall back, weaken the enemy and rebuild your territorial goals later. This is what is going on now and why there are more “lone wolf” attacks carried out worldwide. These are encouraged by relentless ISIL activity on the Internet. But since June there has been less organized pro-ISIL Internet activity, apparently because over a year of intelligence gathering (electronic, aerial and on the ground) led to several smart bomb attacks that killed many of the key ISIL Internet and propaganda experts who were operating in ISIL controlled parts of Syria and Iraq. ISIL Internet capabilities were further crippled by hacking (some of it unauthorized efforts by non-government groups) and exposing ISIL Internet activities to sustained exposure and shut down for violating Terms of Service or local laws.
ISIL was also having problems with support from Moslem communities. Despite an effort by ISIL leaders to get members to concentrate attacks on non-Moslems or security forces too many potential ISIL supporters were being killed and their deaths publicized in mass media seen by most Moslems. This led to a decline in support from Moslems in general and especially the Sunni conservatives who provide most of the new recruits and financial support. By mid-2016 ISIL had a growing cash and manpower shortage that made it impossible to support running, or even defending, a physical “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and parts of Iraq.
Since mid-2014 most ISIL controlled territory has been in eastern Syria and western Iraq (Anbar province) and those areas are under constant air and ground attack. Both these areas have a largely Sunni Arab population but are also mostly desert or semi-desert. Most of the population is concentrated in or near towns and cities along the few rivers. Aside from Mosul in northwest Iraq, ISIL has not been able to take and hold large cities. Mosul is expected to fall before the end of 2016. Maps depicting just population controlled by ISIL show this control extending along rivers and main roads in the midst of large, thinly populated, areas that are either controlled by no one or held by people unfriendly to ISIL. Most people in ISIL occupied towns and cities are hostile to their rulers and want to flee but ISIL has made that increasingly difficult because the urban areas they controlled were becoming depopulated. The anti-ISIL alliance is working, in that ISIL is losing territory (nearly half of what it had in Iraq and over 20 percent in Syria). Other losses are harder to measure. Intelligence (collected from electronic monitoring, aerial surveillance and deserter and prisoner interrogation) indicate that ISIL has lost more than half its revenue sources (mostly in 2016) and personnel losses are so heavy (nearly 30,000 dead and deserted since mid-2014) that they have not got enough fighters to defend and hold all areas where they are under attack. Currently ISIL has about 20,000 armed members, most in Syria and Iraq. That’s down from peak strength (in late 2014) of over 30,000.
With the recent loss of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Iraq and Manbij in Syria ISIL is now desperately trying to retain control over some of the roads crossing the border. Without control of those roads ISIL cannot quickly move anything between Iraq and Syria. Mosul is basically cut off from the outside world and Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria and the ISIL “capital” is also being surrounded. Losing control of so many roads means it is easier to concentrate a very large force against ISIL defenders in a town or military base and quickly defeat the defenders no matter how fanatic they are.
Earlier in 2016 ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi gave senior subordinates detailed orders to abandon certain areas in Iraq because the locals had become too hostile to ISIL and to move heavy artillery and some other major weapons from Mosul to the Syrian border. Then there are orders to prepare for the possibility that ISIL headquarters may have to move to Libya or go mobile. By mid-July ISIL had suffered some major defeats in Libya and its main base there (the coastal city of Sirte) is largely lost. In Syria rebels and government forces are closing in on the current ISIL capital Raqqa, in western Syria. ISIL leaders are giving more media attention to claims that lone wolf terror attacks in the West are part of the new ISIL plan to remain relevant without an actual “Islamic State” that currently exists in eastern Syria (centered on Raqqa) and western Iraq (now centered on Mosul). Both of these cities are likely to be liberated from ISIL control by late 2016 or early 2017.
After that ISIL will fight on and even if it is destroyed the ideas behind it survive wherever there is a large Moslem population. This inherent intolerance and encouragement of violence against “unbelievers” has been a problem for over a thousand years.