WASHINGTON — Cities in Iraq and Syria that have been liberated from Islamic State control still suffer a great deal of violence at the hands of the extremist group, but the attacks may be ISIS' reaction to its weakening foothold in the region, according to a report Thursday by the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center.
The report monitored 16 cities, from their date of liberation until April 2017, and used self-reported data from ISIS, which only reported death tolls in 30 percent of its 1,468 attacks. The group claimed just under 2,600 deaths, about 8.6 per attack. According to the CTC report, if that average were applied to the remaining 70 percent of attacks, the death toll would be greater than 12,000.
Among the 16 cities surveyed, the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq, has the highest number of post-liberation attacks, averaging around 130 a month. According to Ilan Goldenberg, director the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, Mosul may be suffering more because it is a major symbol for ISIS. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now believed to be dead, declared the caliphate there and its fall to ISIS was a huge victory for the group.
Mosul is split by the Tigris River, which flows north to south. ISIS still controls the western half of the city, allowing the militants to use indirect fire, like rockets, in attacks on the eastern side. It would be a major symbolic defeat for the group to lose the western area.
"When Mosul fell, that was the news that rocked the world," Goldenberg said. "Once [ISIS] has lost Mosul and Raqqa, there’ll still be a lot of fighting to do, but the narrative will be, ‘This is inevitable.’"
Despite all the coverage that suicide bombings receive, most Islamic State military action now happens at a distance. More than 82 percent of its attacks on freed areas avoid direct confrontation.
"Thus, although the group maintains the infrastructure to carry out operations in territories that
have been liberated, it seems particularly focused on avoiding (or, at the very least, not carrying
out) operations that will further deplete the group’s strength in these areas," the West Point report said. "This strategy seems well suited to increasing the group’s ability to remain on the battlefield and not waste its strength."
In Goldenberg’s mind, firing from afar is a "last gasp effort." But beyond stopping violence in freed cities, political problems remain after order is restored.
"In many areas, you still have forces that are not indigenous to the local area and don’t really have legitimacy amongst the local population," Goldenberg said.
Daniel Milton and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, authors of the West Point report, note that in Manbij, Syria, U.S. forces had to prevent fighting between Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkish government forces. The variety of actors converging on Mosul to drive out ISIS could pose similar problems, not only there, but in other cities as well.