Deadly terrorist attacks in four countries over the last week have stoked fear and anguish in the hearts of civilized people everywhere. But don’t let brutality obscure reality: Much as they want us to think otherwise, the Islamic State is losing.
By any measure — shrinking territory in Iraq and Syria; loss of hundreds of millions of dollars; the group’s execution of hundreds of disaffected foreign fighters who tried to desert; the drop in social media posts glorifying their atrocities — the extremists who vowed to establish a Muslim caliphate are failing to do so. The men who became overnight anti-celebrities two years ago, when they overran Iraqi cities, beheaded hostages, took sex slaves, targeted minorities for genocide, and drew alienated youth and petty criminals from around the world to their vision of building a medieval, apocalyptic state, are now trying to move the goalposts and redefine success. We can’t let them.
The latest assaults — apparently directed, enabled, or inspired by the Islamic State — are an effort to dominate television news, deflect attention from losses, and attract donations and recruits to compensate. It’s not the last gasp of a dying group, but neither is it proof of new strength. It’s a continuation of relatively cheap and easy, horrific and headline-grabbing terror attacks — in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Beirut, to name a few — since a military campaign began eroding Islamic State territory last year. But in targeting Muslim nations for the latest attacks — Iraq, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia — in which most of the more than 300 civilians slaughtered were celebrating the end of the holiest month in Islam, the extremists have overreached. Attacking Medina, the burial place of the prophet Mohammed, may ultimately trigger their own undoing, eradicating any lingering sympathy for their dystopian caliphate.
Far from tamping down the resolve of the 66-nation coalition against the Islamic State, the attacks are spurring leaders of affected nations to find new ways to counter violent extremism, share intelligence, and cut down terrorist networks. Rather than dividing Muslim countries from Western allies, the attacks are likely to further unite them.
The Islamic State has been expelled from half the populated territory it controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of its territory in Syria. At its peak, the group was raking in an estimated $2 million a day from oil sales, extortion, taxation, looting, and smuggling. Oil exports are down by one-third, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in cash storehouses have been blown up by airstrikes, and tax revenue has dried up by as much as half, US officials tell me. In the group’s “capital” of Raqqa, Syria, it has slashed fighters’ pay by half.
For the embattled insurgent group, holding territory is now hard. Unfortunately, inflicting casualties and fear almost anywhere is easy; buying a weapon or making a bomb and taking it to a crowded mall doesn’t take much money or coordination. The United States and its allies need to get the balance right between military action and counter-radicalization to break up cells and deter potential extremists around the world. A third essential pillar is internal political reform in places like Iraq and Syria. Until effective, legitimate leaders and institutions replace the Islamic State, its appeal will endure. US officials tell me the military campaign will show substantial progress within six months, but there’s no easy win in the battle for hearts and minds.
Now the big risk is overreaction, which is what extremists want. It was, after all, the US-led invasion and destabilization of Iraq that unleashed a cascade of events that gave rise to the Al Qaeda affiliate that morphed into the Islamic State.
The message for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — whoever becomes president — is don’t overblow the threat or use disproportionate force. The military campaign appears to be working; it doesn’t need a surge of American ground forces. Coupled with heightened security and intelligence cooperation, better de-radicalization efforts, and support for serious political and economic reforms in the Middle East, it will be harder for extremists to take root. Don’t expect their ideology to disappear, but don’t give them more credit than they deserve.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington-based columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.