The Islamic State lost its last foothold in Syria on Saturday after years of fighting. But the terrorist group remains a serious, violent threat.
Many of its top leaders are still alive. And it continues to carry out attacks, including one in January that killed 15 people, including four Americans, outside a shawarma restaurant in the city of Manbij, Syria. After a period of relative calm early last year, the United States-led coalition has ramped up strikes against ISIS in Syria since August.
By nearly every metric, the Islamic State is at its lowest point in the almost five years since it declared its caliphate. The group controls no territory in Iraq and Syria, attacks are down and the number of foreign fighters it continues to recruit is a fraction of what it was at its height. But analysts who have studied ISIS since its rise in Iraq more than 15 years ago point out that the group is far more powerful today than it was when American forces pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
ISIS has adapted to its losses, returning to the guerilla tactics it used in the past, like targeted assassinations, bombings, ambushes and raids. The group still has tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to United States Army General Joseph Votel. Territory that has been liberated remains insecure, as sleeper cells take root. Since last summer the group has carried out at least 250 attacks outside its controlled territories in Syria.
The shift toward hit-and-run tactics, which rely on methodical surveillance and clandestine networks to deliver targeted attacks like the one in Manbij, has allowed the group to remain effective in Syria despite its loss of territory.
“They realized you don’t have to mount 6,000 attacks per month. You just have to kill the right 50 people each month,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The group’s acolytes continue to carry out attacks beyond the Middle East, claiming responsibility for a Roman Catholic church bombing in the Philippines on Jan. 27 that killed at least 20 people. Since 2017, ISIS and its followers have carried out attacks in at least 25 countries.
The top map shows ISIS offensive movements against military forces and attacks against civilians. Sources: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (maps of ISIS attacks); Global Terrorism Database, University of Maryland (maps of ISIS attacks); Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve and Airwars (US-led Coalition strikes)