CAIRO — It is now only a matter of time until the Islamic State militia loses its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, analysts, military and government officials repeatedly say.
U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces are advancing to retake Islamic State’s self-declared capital of al-Raqqa and only a few kilometers remain to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
Yet, the optimism of wresting key territory from Islamic State’s grandiose “caliphate” also carries a warning: This will not mark the end of the group that has reshaped the Middle East since 2014.
“Daesh is now drawing its last breath. But they have sleeper cells in Baghdad and other areas in Iraq, so caution remains necessary,” says former Iraqi army officer, Brigadier Safaa al-Obeidi, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
While Iraqi forces are currently “in an excellent position” to defeat the group in Mosul and other strongholds in Iraq, al-Obeidi expects the militants to seek more “media successes through attacks targeting civilian communities.”
Al-Obeidi is referring to attacks that the group uses in its propaganda machine to keep itself in the spotlight and attract ever more followers.
Losing the stranglehold it has had in Iraq and Syria will only reshape the group, which has worked on expanding its presence outside the two countries.
“It is the end of the group in its current form, but it will not disappear,” says Abeer Saady, a researcher in radical jihadi groups and media at Dortmund University in Germany.
“I doubt that they will try to take over new land. Instead, losing the ground is pushing them to change the form of their existence,” Saady says.
Seizing territory was the principle on which Islamic State was established. It had a cabinet, governors and councils. But to keep functioning, it is expected to untie itself from this doctrine.
A shift in the group’s strategy means two things: Expansion outside Syria and Iraq as well as embracing the concept of being a stateless state.
It has long been working on the first goal.
Islamic State’s Khorasan branch, the offshoot covering Pakistan and Afghanistan, was established in January 2015 in war-torn Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.
In the Philippines, pro-Islamic State militants have launched several attacks in recent months.
Previously, it established its presence in several Middle Eastern countries, most prominently Egypt and Libya.
The second goal is to abandon the idea of controlling more ground and instead launch “revenge attacks.”
“To do this, they have intensified their calls on social media to target followers, especially for lone wolves,” Saady says.
Evidence from some attacks since last year showed that the perpetrators were working alone. They were inspired, but not necessarily directed, by Islamic State fighters.
Saady says the group’s messages via social media and online networks to loyalists and sympathizers encourage incidents such as stabbings and attacks with vehicles that have been increasingly carried out in European countries.
In Berlin, a man drove his truck into a crowded Christmas market killing 12 people in December. Another mowed a lorry through crowds in the French coastal city of Nice last July, leaving 86 dead and more than 200 injured.
In March, a man used his vehicle to run over pedestrians along the side of London’s Westminster Bridge before fatally stabbing a police officer at the gate of the nearby parliament.