BEIRUT — Nearly defeated on the battlefields of its would-be caliphate, analysts say the Islamic State group has reverted to what it was before its spectacular conquests in 2014 — a shadowy insurgent network that targets civilian populations with guerrilla-style attacks and exploits state weaknesses to incite sectarian strife.
In Iraq and Syria, hardly a week goes by without the group staging an attack on a town or village, keeping its opponents on edge even as it fights U.S.-backed forces advancing on the last remaining slice of territory under its control near the countries’ shared border.
Hisham al-Hashimi, an IS expert who advises the Iraqi government, said the group now operates like it did in 2010, before its rise in Iraq, which culminated four years later with the militants seizing one of Iraq’s biggest cities, Mosul, and also claiming the city of Raqqa in Syria and declaring an Islamic caliphate across large areas of both countries.
Al-Hashimi said the world’s most dangerous insurgent group is trying to prove that despite losing its territorial hold, “it still has long arms to strike.”
While it fends off attacks on its remaining pockets in Syria, a recent surge in false claims of responsibility for attacks also signals that the group is struggling to stay relevant after losing its proto-state and its dominance on the international news agenda. The main figures behind the group’s once sleek propaganda machine have mostly been killed. Raqqa fell a year ago this month, and the group has lost all but 2 per cent of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria.
There are concerns, however, that while IS may never be able to recreate the kind of territorial hold it once had, it is trying to latch on to new territory.
One of the group’s deadliest attacks since the collapse of the supposed caliphate came in late July, when dozens of masked IS fighters stormed the southern city of Sweida and nearby villages inhabited by members of Syria’s Druze minority, gunning down more than 200 people and kidnapping about 30, mostly women and children.
The ambush shook the community, which had stayed on the sidelines of Syria’s seven-year civil war and took many by surprise, raising fears that as the militants are on the retreat, they will try to regroup in remote pockets of territory like this once quiet corner of the country.
Last month, IS fighters stormed the northern Iraqi village of Gharib, killing …read more