At his press conference with Vladimir Putin last month, President Trump boasted that the “eradication of ISIS” is “98 percent, 99 percent” complete. Those numbers are basically correct, in terms of the amount of territory the Islamic State group currently controls in Syria—just a tiny sliver and no major cities—compared to its peak in 2015. But while it’s a good thing that 10 million Iraqis and Syrians are no longer living under the genocidal “caliphate,” ISIS today may be stronger and more dangerous than generally assumed.
Two recent reports, one from the U.S. government and one from the United Nations, estimated that ISIS may currently have as many as 30,000 fighters on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, reports Liz Sly of the Washington Post. Yes, that’s a significant decline from estimates at the group’s peak—around 100,000—but about three times greater than recent U.S. military estimates of the group’s current strength. According to the U.N. report, ISIS has recently “rallied” in Syria, thanks in part to a period in which U.S.-backed Kurdish forces pulled troops off the front lines to push back against a military incursion by Turkey. While it no longer controls much territory, the group’s governing bureaucracy remains “intact.”
As was widely predicted after the fall of Raqqa, ISIS has gone underground, acting more like a traditional terrorist group than a proto-state. It’s no longer prosecuting people for stealing chickens, but it’s still capable of carrying out horrific acts of violence, including the string of raids and bombings that killed more than 200 people across southern Syria on July 25. And despite Iraq’s president declaring “final victory” against ISIS late last year, that country has also seen a recent upsurge of small-scale attacks.
Recent events have served as a reminder that international ISIS affiliates remain dangerous too. A bombing blamed on the group killed dozens of people, mainly university students, in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan, yesterday. The Islamic State also took responsibility for the killing of four cyclists, two of them American, in Tajikistan last month.
But while reports of the demise of ISIS may have been exaggerated, some of the more pessimistic predictions about the group’s future have also not come to pass. Many observers, including myself, worried that as the group transitioned away from governing territory, and as foreign fighters returned from the battlefield to their home countries, there could be an uptick in ISIS attacks globally. That has yet to happen. For one thing, there hasn’t been a major flow out of the Middle East—only about a dozen have returned to the U.S., most of them quickly arrested. And there certainly hasn’t been a wave of terrorist violence. As the Post’s Adam Taylor noted this week, 2018 is on course to be the fourth consecutive year that the number of terrorist attacks around the world—from all groups, not just ISIS—dropped. And despite the atrocious incidents noted above, the level of terrorist violence is declining overall in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia as well.
As for ISIS itself, the number of attacks carried out by the group fell 10 percent and fatalities dropped 40 percent, according to data from the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism program.
What’s becoming clear is that despite the losses it’s suffered over the last four years or so, ISIS today is organizationally stronger than we might have hoped, but still less deadly than we might have feared.
What’s still less clear is whether that decline in the group’s violence is a long-term trend or just a lull before another resurgence.