From the gunning down of patrons in a trendy Dhaka cafe to the Baghdad bombings at the bustling height of excitement and preparation for the Eid holiday, ISIL has shown its ability to viciously project terror and bloodshed outside its territory. But while these attacks are truly horrific, the most strategically and symbolically important attack was that of Monday, July 4, when militants with likely links to the so-called Islamic State attacked the holy city of Medina. This attack is a turning point with strong implications, a point of evolution in the tactics of the group that will necessitate pause and reevaluation of the coalition’s strategy.
As the group’s name suggests, the Islamic State’s claim to authority has been intrinsically rooted in its ability to hold territory and administer government services. Kaveh Waddell at The Atlantic points out that the group, unlike other terrorist organisations before it, models itself loosely on the concept of the nation-state, “complete with a military, a police force, and public-works projects.” While this style seems to have paid off, it was ultimately a Devil’s bargain.
Both 2014 and 2015 saw wildfire growth of territory under ISIL administration and control, lending credibility to the group’s viability as a state-style actor. Every square mile of territory wrested from control of the Iraqi government proved another example of how powerful the group was. However, Iraqi forces, American airpower, Kurdish peshmerga, and even some Iranian-backed brigades have been showing ISIS the flipside of the coin over the past few months. Through Operation Inherent Resolve, ISIL has seen troop concentrations, equipment, financial centers, and oil infrastructure under increasing attack, effectively reducing their ability to make a convincing argument that they are the sole power broker within their borders. As a result, we see a stark shift in tactics, from acquiring territory and the legitimacy innate in governance to lashing out against innocents, sowing the seeds of terror.
While the past few weeks have plastered international news feeds with massive casualties from bombings, Monday’s attack on the holy city of Medina is exemplary. The scale of its importance comes not from the amount of innocent lives snatched away or by the macabre drama of the aftermath, but for the symbolism of the attack. Backed into a corner and facing a crisis of legitimacy, ISIL has resorted to attacking one of the holiest places of the Islamic faith, which it claims to lead. While the group has criticised the Saudi regime as unfit to keep watch over the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, it has underscored its precarious position at home by viciously striking out abroad.
This shift in tactics should not be misread as a swan song, however. Unfortunately for the coalition, the fact that insurgency is hard to stop is well documented in the not yet dusty history books of the 21st century. Following the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001, the group shifted its focus from governing to waging a patient and protracted war against the American forces and the Karzai government. As most Americans are painfully aware, the Taliban continued to be a thorn in side of ISAF backed Kabul for more than a decade. Even now in 2016, President Obama has decided to keep a retainer of 8,400 troops on to continue working alongside Afghan forces. This lesson of history should be a warning of why ISIL will continue to be a threat, even if Iraqi tanks roll through Raqqa by the end of the year.
The attacks on Medina and Baghdad illustrate a shift in the group’s tactics, and as a result, the coalition must question its resolve to follow the road to its bitter end. Even if ISIL is defeated on the battlefield, it is very likely to have the capacity to continue to strike and deal heavy damage anywhere in the world. With this in mind, are Americans willing to engage in another protracted generational counter insurgency campaign? Following the morasses of Iraq and Afghanistan, a positive answer will be shaky at best. The move from warfighting to counterinsurgency is one that American forces and their allies have made before, but is it one they really wish to make again?