Will ISIS scatter after the battle for Mosul?
Now that the battle for Mosul has begun, it is important to know where ISIS fighters will go next
Now that the battle for Mosul has begun – in the wake of the battles of Sinjar, Beiji, Ramadi and Fallujah – it is important to know where Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters will go next. With Raqqa already being softened up for an urban operation that will most likely start after the New Year, ISIS is well on its way to morphing into a much wider linear movement while staying true to its perverted vision.
There are between 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul. The terror outfit prepared Mosul well for this urban battle and has left behind a force to conduct hit and run tactics including suicide attacks and bombings. It is important to note that retaking Mosul is not going to crush the dreams of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and end the myth of the so-called caliphate. There are more battles to come that fits their revolting discourse.
The Battle for Mosul will affect ISIS fighters in key ways. First, after an aggressive and deadly defense of Mosul, ISIS supporters are likely to melt away into the background and await to see what happens next with Iraqi stabilization operations.
ISIS is likely to launch an assertive suicide campaign in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities and perhaps attacking infrastructure. Shiites will be targeted out of sectarian hatred. In Mosul’s future, it is likely that ISIS will strike constabulary forces and police training sites once the city is brought fully under control.
Second, ISIS fighters are going to migrate. ISIS fighters are now heading to Syria and eventually are going to protect Raqqa. An influx of fighters from Mosul in to Hasaka is a signal of the ISIS flow westward. This migration into Syria is going to swell Raqqa with fighters that will make that urban battle long and deadly.
After an aggressive and deadly defense of Mosul, ISIS supporters are likely to melt away into the background and await to see what happens next with Iraqi stabilization operationsDr. Theodore Karasik
ISIS’s ability to provide for these fighters may be in question given the degrading capabilities of ISIS’s social services. ISIS fighters are going to end up returning to their homelands with the blessing of the so-called Caliphate leadership.
Third, ISIS authorities are distributing fighters to specific locations to boost ISIS breeding grounds. According to a GCC official, ISIS’s enabler networks are now focusing on building its nimble organization by tapping into trans-regional and local criminal networks across a number of continents in order to spread out across a number of continents with Levantine-based, hardened fighters. ISIS, like seeds, is to scatter from Africa to East Asia to boost embryonic “states” even if only a cyber-presence.
To be sure, ungovernable areas in major urban areas – where we have already seen terrorist incubators grow across continents – are a major drawl for ISIS fighters to launch and build new networks to keep their movement active.
ISIS adherents are spreading out across several continents notably Southeast Asia specifically Malaysia. Shoved out of their own areas of governance in the Levant, they will flee to many other countries in order to create more chaos. With ISIS adherents able to move about, it seems, with relative ease, there has yet to be a fix to this illicit transit system outwards from the emerging battle zones.
ISIS’s ideology still matters despite setbacks. Although ISIS’s discourse surrounding Dabiq as the final battle proved false, there are other aspects of ISIS ideology that remain, notably intact.
ISIS attacks across the world are likely to occur with frequency with the fall of Dabiq and the battle for Mosul and mounting pressure on Raaqa. To boot, these ISIS fighters may target countries that are moving against this sect such as Kazakhstan. Attacks against the West and Russia are not to be discounted as these fighters either return home or spread their violent tradecraft.
It is important to note that the spread of ISIS across continents is likely to collide with the resurgence of al-Qaeda beyond the Levant. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Shabaab are all making themselves heard through violent attacks and challenging ISIS’s ability to hold on to territory such as in Libya.
Al-Qaeda Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is just getting started with small scale assassinations in countries for example in Bangladesh where ISIS also reportedly has a presence. Countries where the two groups are competing may become incubators of new, more dangerous multi-polar militants who are beholden to building their so-called Caliphate.
Overall, the battle for Mosul is a small part of the ongoing, ugly but necessary process to rid Iraq of ISIS. This event is not going to end the Levant’s suffering. ISIS’s control, though shrinking, is transporting itself across half the globe. Its spirit is difficult if not impossible to crush among its fighters and closest followers. The battle of Mosul will not break the ISIS urge to kill.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik