ISIS Attacks in Syria Illustrate the Dangers of a Weakened Terrorist Group

Although the reign of the Islamic State appears to be waning, the organization still manages to lash out with violent attacks.  One such case came earlier last week when Islamic State fighters carried out joint attacks on Wednesday in the southern Syrian province of Sweida.  The area is predominantly inhabited by members of the Druze sect of Islam.  Their beliefs blend elements from Christianity, Hinduism, as well as other philosophies which the Islamic State, who follows an extreme form of Sunni Islam, deems to be heresy.

The assault began in the early hours of the morning.  Around four o’clock local time, cadres of Islamic State militants carried out assaults using small arms in villages and towns within Sweida province.  Kareem Shaheen of The Guardian reports that they went from house to house killing families while often leaving a single survivor “as a witness to their brutality.”  As the attacks progressed, local villagers took up arms quickly forming makeshift militias to confront the terrorists.

Meanwhile, in Sweida city, several suicide bombers detonated their explosives at the center of a market as well as at the heart of the city.  In total the combined attacks killed approximately 216 people and wounded another 100 to 150.

Another recent attack has taken place in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in which armed attackers set off explosives and then carried out an assault against a midwife training center.  Three people were killed after a six hour gunfight ended the conflict.  A recent update from Reuters stated that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in Afghanistan explaining that two armed gunmen carried out the assault.  The group has also claimed responsibility for other attacks in the area recently.

The Islamic State peaked in 2015 when it controlled an overwhelming and unprecedented amount of territory across both Syria and Iraq.  Since then, the group has continued to face setbacks losing land, resources, and momentum.  In just the last year they have lost a considerable amount of their already diminishing control over the land and its valuable resources, relegating their remaining members to small slivers of territory scattered across Syria.  While the Islamic State has certainly lost a large majority of its territory since the height of the organization’s reign, the lethality and nature of this attack shows that the group is still dangerous and capable of carrying out such assaults on civilians and soft targets.

In an article published by the Brookings Institution, Daniel Byman explains the nature of the threat that a waning ISIS poses.  He explains that the loss of territory severely deprives the Islamic State of vital resources and the ability to recruit new members as well as inhibit the group from engaging in direct and conventional warfare throughout Syria and neighboring countries.  As a result, ISIS faces serious roadblocks to establishing the Islamic State it seeks to build.  However, Byman illustrates that to keep its objectives alive the Islamic State “will require high-profile actions.”  This means carrying out more violent attacks in the organization’s immediate vicinity and inspiring similar terrorist attacks abroad in places it cannot currently reach.

Fawaz Gerges, a prominent scholar and pundit in international relations and current professor at the London School of Economics, explains the motivation and rationality behind the attacks in Sweida.  In a recent article written by Eliza Mackintosh and published by CNN Gerges explains “the aim is to inflict as much damage as it is to terrorize.  Even though it has been militarily defeated on the battlefield, lost its physical caliphate, it still has a few thousand combatants spread worldwide who can carry out spectacular, bloody attacks.”

The Islamic State is certainly in a state of operational weakness.  However, these recent attacks illustrate that the group is not entirely defeated and until it totally and completely capitulates it must be watched with a wary eye.