On September 10, 2014, US President Barack Obama unveiled his long-awaited strategy for countering the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh. “Our objective is clear,” Obama noted, “We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” Two years later, following the horrifying attacks in Nice, France, in which an aspiring ISIS militant rammed a cargo truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds more, President Obama reiterated: “We will not be deterred. We will not relent… [W]e are going to destroy this vile terrorist organization.”
By most accounts the US strategy seems to be working. From a high point in early 2015, in which ISIS consolidated large swaths of Iraq and Syria under its so-called caliphate, ISIS territory has shrunk dramatically (see figure 1). In the past months, the group has retreated from the Iraqi cities of Ramadi, Tikrit, Abu Ghraib, and Falluja. An allied offensive against its last major urban stronghold in and around the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, began in October 2016. And in Syria, ISIS lost control over Kobane, Manbij, Palmyra, and a strategic trading and smuggling corridor linking northern Syria and Turkey. Allied operations against Raqqa, ISIS’s Syrian capital, are expected to begin in the coming months. And further afield, ISIS has been largely pushed out of the coastal city of Sirte, Libya, its most prominent enclave outside Syria and Iraq.
ISIS’s territorial defeat is an absolute necessity. But the caliphate’s collapse will create new counterterrorism challenges in the months and years to come. One challenge stands out: ISIS foreign fighters and recruits, uprooted from their caliphate, may be especially motivated and prepared to spread mayhem abroad.
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