The eradication of Daesh in Syria and Iraq nears an end. The organization, which claimed to have formed a “caliphate” in 2014 by seizing large chunks of territory in both countries, has lost control of more than 80 percent of its lands since then.
Nowadays, Daesh militants exert control over the Nineveh, al-Anbar and Saladin provinces alone, which accounts for roughly 5 percent of Iraq. Over the next days, Iraqi forces are expected to remove Daesh from the town of al-Qaim as well. Likewise, the group faces defeat in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, which constitutes roughly 10 percent of all the Syrian territory. In other words, the final battle against Daesh terrorists will be fought at the border of Syria and Iraq around the Euphrates River.
Experts, however, agree that the group’s loss of territory does not necessarily mark the end of its activities. As such, the question remains as to what lays ahead for Daesh, which has lost practically all of its territory, a large number of fighters and at least 120 senior leaders.
Making significant progress in the fight against Daesh, Ankara must now watch out for the terrorist group’s next-generation attacks such as vehicles plowing through crowds and using sleeper cells
Needless to say, we cannot expect that territorial losses will eliminate the influence of radical Khariji-Salafi ideology on Daesh militants. We know for a fact that the current anti-Daesh discourse cannot even persuade Daesh terrorists who have been captured and imprisoned. Until the problem of marginalization among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria is tackled head-on, extremism will continue to find an audience.
Moreover, it remains difficult to stop virtual communities from radicalizing sympathizers. As such, the remaining militants are expected to go underground in town centers across Iraq and Syria to form sleeper cells. The alternative scenario is that they will set up safe houses in desert areas and across national borders.
Moving forward, Daesh is expected to focus on suicide attacks, car bombs, ambushes and assassinations. But the ultimately more serious question is what will happen to some 5,600 foreign terrorist fighters who are believed to have already returned to their native countries.Going forward, some of the foreign fighters will presumably travel to new fronts, such as the Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria. However, the most recent terror attack in New York and a foiled Daesh attack at a shopping mall in Istanbul should serve as a reminder that the whole world must remain alert.
Having been open to influence by various intelligence services since its establishment, Daesh will remain capable of carrying out proxy attacks in the future. It is safe to assume that the group will perpetrate next-generation terror attacks, such as vehicles plowing through crowds, by using sleeper cells.
Likewise, Turkey, which made significant progress in the fight against Daesh by taking major steps over the past two years, including Operation Euphrates Shield, must prepare itself for the new Daesh. Not all Daesh militants in Iraq and Syria have been killed. Some of them were allowed to escape. In particular, Daesh terrorists who were granted safe passage by the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militants and peshmerga forces will presumably try to enter Turkey in an effort to go back home.
Despite the serious measures taken, the Turkish-Syrian border hasn’t been completely sealed. And it is a well-known fact that some militants have been hiding among illegal immigrants trying to make their way to Gaziantep and Şanlıurfa from PKK/YPG-controlled cantons. The proper coordination of the security forces will be of vital importance in the face of Daesh’s efforts to localize and form sleeper cells. Likewise, it is crucial for urban analyses to be made in due time.
The detention of at least 283 people over the past two weeks as Daesh suspects indicates that the Turkish authorities are on high alert. At the end of the day, even if Daesh were to lose all of its territories, intelligence sharing will remain essential.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on November 9, 2017.