This week has revealed what might become the baseline trend for future attacks by the so-called Islamic State, both in proximity to its sphere of control and beyond. Terrorist attacks in Baghdad and Istanbul provide a glimpse of what might become the group’s pattern for the foreseeable future. Given how large the Islamic State has become, and the number of people acting on its orders or inspired to act in its name, the most realistic scenario is one of persistent small-scale attacks, interrupted by periodical large ones.
Long gone are the fears of the Islamic State storming Baghdad, though it certainly retains the ability to conduct military advances and countermoves—albeit not in a sustained fashion like in the summer of 2014. The group continues to fight in pockets of Ramadi but has lost its grasp over the area. What it retains is a large number of followers, more than adequate weaponry, and a long history of terror attacks from which to draw upon.
As the Islamic State’s territory in Iraq comes under increasing pressure, the group will slowly and painfully shed its proto-state façade and revert to its origins as a terrorist insurgency. The January 11 suicide attack against the al-Jawhara shopping center in Baghdad, which killed at least 18 people, falls within the group’s original modus operandi before it proclaimed itself a ‘caliphate.’ Attacking soft targets in primarily Shi’a neighborhoods was one of the group’s hallmarks when it was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group has not lost its founder’s obsession with igniting a sectarian war against the Shi’a, and as the group is squeezed in Mosul and elsewhere, it will redouble efforts to strike in Baghdad.
In relative terms, the Islamic State is in far better shape than it was during its terrorist heyday in 2006-2009. Assessments of the group as weakened use the summer of 2014 as a baseline—an understandable but misleading benchmark as it relates to the group’s terrorist capabilities. As the Islamic State loses control of urban areas in Iraq, its members will still roam the countryside as an extremely powerful terrorist insurgency. Not enough progress has been made against the underlying accelerants of extremism in Iraq—utter mistrust of the central government, persistent sectarianism, lack of effective and restrained security—to reduce the group much further in the medium term. It is a low bar of success to get the Islamic State back to where it was in 2012, but it is likely the most achievable goal for now.
In Europe and elsewhere, the group will continue to seek out soft targets, primarily tourist destinations. Turkey, given its shared border with Syria, is particularly vulnerable to the style of attack seen in Istanbul on January 12. Even with a secured border (which is not really possible in the best of circumstances), the large numbers of Islamic State fighters and sympathizers would be overwhelming for any security or intelligence service. The suicide bombing in the heart of Istanbul’s still thriving tourist industry—which killed at least ten people, nine of whom were German tourists—is an all-too-replicable attack. Such attacks do not require much planning, communication, or skill—outside of assembling the explosive vest.
Given how much time the Islamic State has had to administer explosives training in Raqqa, Mosul, and elsewhere, the group is likely not running low on bombmakers or suicide mission volunteers. The chaos on Europe’s southern borders, involving a combination of overwhelming numbers of refugees, inadequate screening processes, and untold numbers of false travel documents, is a security challenge of the highest order. Again, the size of the group, both in terms of members and supporters, ensures that there will be more attacks in Europe and elsewhere. The threat emanating from the Islamic State is not existential, but it will be persistent.