When strangled, an animal fights wildly, kicking and screaming to avoid death, hoping to create a window of opportunity through which to survive. Today, in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State gasps for air. A year ago, it prospered from battlefield conquests, the imposition of a Sharia state, and social media promotion; but loyalty within the ranks now frays as success wanes. In recent months, the Islamic State has suffered territorial losses to Kurdish forces, the loss of top commanders, seen a rise in defections, killed internal spies, and even suffered an Edward Snowden-type data dump of human resources files.
Recent European attacks, viewed from afar, might imply that the Islamic State is stronger than ever, but it’s the reverse: The group desperately needs to show signs of success to shore up its ranks and inspire international popular support. And since those wins are harder to come by in Syria and Iraq, they have started looking elsewhere. From Paris to Istanbul to Brussels, the Islamic State has decidedly moved to Europe, where they are terrorists without borders.
In doing so, the Islamic State has followed the way of a predecessor that also implemented harsh violence in the pursuit of a state ruled by Islam — Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Similar to Shabaab’s decline in recent years in Somalia, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has begun its transition from a more conventional force seeking terrain to a regional and international terrorist menace seeking a new home for survival. As Shabaab lost ground to an international coalition, it shifted to suicide operations and shock attacks against soft targets in Mogadishu, perpetrating regional terror attacks through a network of foreign fighters and affiliates in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
The Islamic State now follows a similar track, but the stakes already have proven far higher. Unlike the much smaller Shabaab, the Islamic State’s terrorism possibilities and potential targets for achieving success prove almost limitless. Would-be caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sits atop the largest, most diverse, and highly trained network of foreign fighters in terrorism history. More than a dozen Islamic State affiliates on four continents reinforce this network of trained and experienced veterans.