"[W]e are perhaps 25 percent of the way toward neutralizing the worst threats ISIS poses," John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, writes in a recent commentary for The Cipher Brief, a global security news website. But, he cautions, "the remaining 75 percent will be harder."
McLaughlin, a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., notes that the anti-ISIS coalition—led by the United States and made up of allies including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, among others—has meaningfully diminished the terror group's influence and territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is also weakened, he adds, by its declining popularity among young people, decreased social media activity, and attacks on the organization's wealth.
However, McLaughlin notes, the group's problems "are offset by considerable remaining strengths"—chief among them its organizational structure and geographic orientation.
"With a presence of some sort in about 40 countries and formal affiliates in nine of them (Egypt and Libya the most advanced), loss of land in Iraq and Syria does not deprive ISIS of territorial options for plotting, training, and launching terrorist attacks," McLaughlin writes. "In fact, the combination of chaos in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the weakness of so many Middle Eastern and African governments give terrorists more 'ungoverned' space to exploit than has existed in the last couple decades."
By recruiting tens of thousands of fighters from Europe, Russia, the U.S., Africa, and Asia, ISIS retains "the enormous advantage" of having access to targets around the world, McLaughlin says. Many countries, he adds, are overwhelmed by the task of monitoring potential ISIS threats.
Even with a loss of territory, ISIS stands to remain a viable threat for the foreseeable future, McLaughlin concludes:
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Given its clearly defined structure, its global affiliates, and its skill at using social media, the likely outcome of ISIS' defeat in its Syrian/Iraqi heartland is its declaration of a dispersed Caliphate with branches in several countries, augmented by a sort of "virtual caliphate" through it's ubiquitous online presence. The latter will benefit from its skillful ISIS use of end-to-end encryption and the so-called "dark web"—that huge part of the internet that lies below and out-of-reach for the most commonly used search engines.
If we really are 25 percent of the way toward neutralizing the group, such ISIS advantages are among the reasons that the last 75 percent of the battle will be harder. For the last two years, we have known where many of them are. The possession and need to manage territory has made much of their activity visible and exposed them to conventional weaponry and air power. Once they are geographically dispersed and burrowed still more deeply into the web, conventional power will be less relevant. Even more than today, this will become a job for intelligence and special operations.