It seems like it should go without saying for a faction like ISIS, whose actual history encompasses many years when they held no territory at all, but the number of ISIS fighters “vanishing” from cities and towns before they fall to government forces does not mark the end of the jihadist movement.
Rather, ISIS fighters are “melting into the desert” right now and planning to fight another day, and potentially many other days. Long a guerilla group that did a lot of their best fighting in desert ambushes, ISIS is preparing to go back to its old tactics.
And while the territory losses may mark a very visible “defeat” for ISIS, compared to a group whose territory once spanned most of Syria and about half of Iraq, it doesn’t necessarily mean a big shift in their capacity to carry out attacks in either country, or elsewhere in the world.
Indeed, a more diffuse ISIS without so many cities to rule and defend might be able to commit even more of its remaining fighters to conducting attacks around the region. Though US officials have insisted they are confident ISIS fighters won’t survive the fighting in the city, the group’s size has often been underestimated, and they have shown the ability to adapt to changing environments.
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