Over the course of 2017, the Islamic State (or ISIS) suffered defeat after devastating defeat at the hands of the United States and its allies, culminating in the seizure last October of the group’s declared capital of Raqqa, Syria. As of today, the group controls no major population center in either Iraq or Syria. Yet this does not mean that ISIS no longer poses a significant danger. With the end of the physical caliphate, ISIS’ tactics are evolving. It is more and more likely to avoid major battlefield engagements and instead resort to terrorist attacks in the Middle East, other conflict zones, and the West. U.S. policy needs to change quickly to meet the evolving threat, both in terms of its operations in the region and of its counterterrorism priorities at home.
In order to remain militarily relevant, ISIS increasingly prefers to conduct isolated suicide attacks and hit-and-run operations. In early January, the group’s official media wing published a list celebrating nearly 800 such attacks in 2017, including ones against the Iraqi military (nearly 500), Kurdish forces in Syria (136), and the Assad regime and its allies (120), as well as a few dozen against moderate opposition groups in Syria. Although many of these attacks occurred during operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa, it’s clear that ISIS leaders view this type of strike as the group’s best battlefield option for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the early January ISIS drone attack on Russian military facilities in Syria is another concrete example of the group’s desire to inflict as much pain as possible on its enemies while avoiding large-scale direct military engagement. Even ISIS itself recognizes that the days of seizing and holding cities are behind it.