Now facing terminal defeat on the conventional battleground in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State (ISIS) is now positioning itself for a post-Caliphate world. There are two notable observations as to why I predict this: firstly, we saw some recent large car bombings in Damascus, and secondly: the behind-enemy-lines sleeper cell Qaryatayn offensive. This in my opinion was a sign of things to come, as ISIS changes its stripes and prepares to morph into an underground force. So while we may celebrate the impending fall of ISIS as a conventional force, it may still be a little premature to expect the group to completely vanish into the night, and hence we must prepare psychologically for more carnage, which will likely be waged with guerilla i.e. surprise tactics, deep behind enemy lines.
This is a typical guerrilla tactic of terror. I fear after ISIS is defeated on the conventional battle-ground, it will revert to sowing carnage with terrorist attacks in down-town Syrian and Iraqi cities and roads, in an effort to damage the national psyche and sow fear. Groups like ISIS attract criminally-minded people, and they thrive on chaos, fear, hate and violence, like a virus thrives off a host. Without chaos, fear, hate and violence, their entire premise, existence and sense of identity vanishes. Resorting to car bombs and IED attacks will keep their ghost alive and give them a reason to exist.
Perhaps the realisation by ISIS that falling easily now to Iraqi and Syrian troops ‘mopping up’ comes at the benefit of preserving sleeper cell forces that could strike later on. We saw the sudden Qaryatayn offensive that emerged well behind-enemy lines and deep in supposedly liberated Syrian territory. This could be understood in several ways. Firstly, over years of Caliphate rule, ISIS has managed to establish a strong presence in certain towns more than others. This of course depends on the local population and their sense of disaffection, as well as the amount ISIS invested in propaganda, fear, money and the building of bonds with local families. These will be the remnants of ISIS sympathisers and hot-spots that will welcome the subversive activities of these sleeper cells. Remnants only until they realise theirs is a truly lost cause, but this may still take a while. Alot of these ISIS ‘sleeper cells’ could be local civilians who have taken up arms with the group rather than foreigners, who tend to be the die-hards fighting till death.
The swift mopping up taking place in Iraq also raises my suspicions. The Hawija pocket for example, was until recently a huge area occupied by ISIS, and supposedly ‘cleansed’ of ISIS within weeks of an Iraqi offensive. Now, I do actually hope all of them have been liquidated on the battleground, however, I remain suspicious about the pace of operations here. Perhaps many ISIS fighters have simply blended away into civilian clothes and allowed the Iraqis to liberate areas with relative ease, giving them a false sense of confidence at wiping out the few remaining die-hards willing to fight to the death, while the bulk of the more dangerous elements go into hiding, bide their time, re-group and plan sleeper cell offensives. It would be done easier in areas with strong ISIS sympathies generated during the era of the Caliphate – areas of Sunni disaffection. This of course is very possible and must not be discounted. Only time will tell.
And who will step in to fund and support these sleeper cells? There could be many possible sources, not excluding the CIA covert black budget, Mossad, the Saudis etc…after having lost the Syrian regime change war, these States could continue propping up asymmetric ISIS terrorism as a way to exact revenge on Syria, for their loss. ISIS afterall, was always a State-sponsored terrorist proxy to counteract Iran, Russia and Syria, ever since they caught the attention of States who have a long history and penchant for supporting head-choppers for ulterior gain.