The Islamic State continues to expand its deadly global reach, organizing coordinated attacks on major European cities and inspiring copycat rampages in places like San Bernardino, Calif.
But at home — in its putative state across Iraq and Syria — ISIS is in retreat, beset on all sides by advancing enemies. A year from now, there may be no Islamic State in Iraq or Syria, and nowhere to fly the fearsome black flag.
Defeat in the Middle East could mean the end of ISIS, or perhaps just the beginning of a new, more dangerous phase. It depends on what happens to the group’s global operations. Will they wither, or metastasize?
Is ISIS really in retreat?
But ISIS has been steadily losing ground for over a year. In January, US military officials estimated that ISIS had lost about 40 percent of its territory in Iraq, and 20 percent in Syria. Since then, the losses have continued mounting.
The map below shows the full picture. Large swaths of red reflect onetime ISIS strongholds now wrenched from militants’ hands. And even the green patch of “territorial gains” gives a false sense of the group’s strength. In the two weeks since this map was made, a successful counterassault by Syrian government forces has reclaimed this area around Palmyra.
To make matters worse for ISIS, the group also seems to be running out of money. For a while, the militants were able to finance their operations through a kind of ponzi scheme, continually plundering new towns to pay fighters and maintain services. But in retreat there is no plunder. And the revenue from taxation and oil sales doesn’t seem to suffice, judging from the fact that ISIS has cut military pay by half, despite the urgent need for fighters.
Who’s forcing ISIS back?
Different groups on different fronts. Among the Islamic State’s advancing enemies you find Kurds to the north and east, Iraqi forces from the south, and Syrian government forces from the west — not to mention US-led coalition attacks from the skies.
For a while, having a host of fractured enemies seemed like an advantage for ISIS, which could stand unified against an array of weakly coordinated attacks.
But over time, the push from all sides has proved too much. And in its desperation, ISIS fights alone, having alienated nearby states with its radical pledge to overthrow regional regimes and build a new caliphate.
Even President Bashar Assad of Syria — who once accepted an opportunistic partnership (including oil purchases) — has benefitted enough from Russia’s intervention that he can now include ISIS in his sights.
Will ISIS lose its state?
That seems to be the way things are going, but a host of hurdles remains. Perhaps the highest of them involves this difficult question: Who will keep the territory that ISIS is losing?
So long as the militants’ enemies were chipping against the edges of a collapsing state, they didn’t have to worry much about coordination. But as these groups push toward the heart of ISIS territory, they’re going to find themselves approaching one another — like the allied forces pinching Germany at the end of the second World War.
Without better organization and a clear plan for post-ISIS governance, the demise of ISIS could flare into new fighting, as various factions compete for control.
Consider the fight for the militants’ capital city in Raqaa, Syria. Assad looks poised to play a crucial role, which puts the United States in a difficult spot. President Obama has long insisted on Assad’s ouster. But how could the United States deny him control over Raqaa, if he helps liberate the city?
And if not Assad, then who? Kurdish fighters have been pivotal across northern Syria, but Kurdish control in that area would infuriate Turkey, which considers the lead Kurdish fighters to be terrorists.
Similar issues complicate the battle for the militants’ Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, where Kurds, Iraqi state forces, and Iraqi militias all have legitimate claims.
Without a state, can ISIS still terrorize?
Losing its place on the map may simply be too great a blow for an organization premised on state-building, one whose very name implies the existence of a corresponding state.
Ideologically, too, defeat on the ground may give the lie to the Islamic State’s claim to be building a modern Muslim empire.
Battlefield losses could make room for some new terrorist organization, some group that can capture the radical fighters and leaders who drove the Islamic State’s early gains and who may struggle to reintegrate into a post-ISIS world.
Alternatively, ISIS could adapt.
Some experts argue that this adaptation has already begun, and that the attacks on Paris and Belgium are a sign of the group’s flailing state.
Where once ISIS devoted its resources to capturing territory in the Middle East, now it has given up that quest and started lashing out with distant attacks. And tragically, ISIS has found willing allies among the residents of Europe and the United States. Not many perhaps, but enough.
Even a stateless ISIS might be able to find a relatively secure hiding spot — like Al Qaeda found in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. And from there it could continue exploiting pockets of anger, alienation, and murderous hatred around the world to strike at perceived enemies and sow further terror.
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