Is ISIS preparing for 'Plan B' as losses mount?

With the possibility that ISIS is in the throes of near defeat, according to some analysts, attention is shifting to what might happen after that.

Iraqi forces have now set their sights on retaking Fallujah

Iraqi soldiers raise an Iraqi flag on the ruins of a building near the provincial council headquarters in Ramadi during the offensive that freed the city from nearly a year of rule by ISIS. (Osama Sami/Associated Press)

With recruitment down, its finances squeezed and having lost considerable ground, ISIS just may be in the throes of near defeat, according to some analysts. 

But whether the Islamic State is on its last legs or is still capable of waging an indefinite campaign, attention is now being focussed on just what happens on the so-called "day after."

"The West should have no illusion that the Islamic State will simply slump into defeat," wrote Brian Michael Jenkins and Colin Clarke, both of the Rand Corporation, which specializes in insurgency and transnational terrorism.

"Instead, it must focus on thwarting the group's Plan B."

That the group has formulated such a contingency plan is still a subject of speculation, and expert opinions differ on how close it is to actual defeat.

"After maybe years of really stunning success, I think the Islamic State has run into trouble," said Austin Long, assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a former adviser to the multinational force in Iraq.

A member of Iraqi security forces takes his position with his weapon in Fallujah, Iraq, May 31, 2016. (Reuters)

The group has suffered some pretty stunning losses, as Iraqi forces have recaptured formerly ISIS-held territory such as Ramadi and the town of Hit. Now the Iraqi forces have their sights set on retaking Fallujah, the first major Iraqi city that fell to the group in 2014.

Recruitment for ISIS may not have dried up, but it's certainly down, Long said. Fighter strength in some locations is now estimated in the hundreds, when previously it was in the thousands. Some of this is a result of other countries cracking down on their own citizens attempting to join.

Revenue sources have come under pressure and there has been a concerted effort to reduce its ability to sell oil. Meanwhile, the aerial bombardment by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has also taken its toll.

"The bottom line is, I think they're weaker," said Long. "I think you're seeing them contract, I don't think the group is in danger of complete collapse."

Wayne White, who worked for several decades as an Iraq analyst for the U.S. government, is more optimistic that ISIS could soon be defeated and believes the anti-ISIS forces have made "astounding gains" and that the group's string of losses and ceding of territory shows how it's being chipped away on various fronts. 

"Even when it was doing well, I could see they had a strategic military problem. Its very conquests had laid down the seed to its ultimate demise or severe losses of territory ... because of the vast perimeter that it had to defend.

'Some pretty severe defeats'

"I would not have been this optimistic just two or three months ago but we have seen them suffer some pretty severe defeats since the late winter and early spring period."

White credits some of that success to the involvement of the Iraqi Shia militias, which are more effective than the regular army, in part, because of their hatred of Sunni Arabs.

But their involvement, he said, comes with its own problems and raises serious questions about the aftermath of an ISIS defeat and whether the occupying troops might commit their own atrocities.

"We've seen them clear out villages of ISIS and then proclaim the villages and towns now Shia," White said. "This is a real concern. Right now they are fighting in areas that are purely Sunni Arab and far from Shia areas but there's still a concern about the looting, the mistreatment, the beating of prisoners and this kind of misbehaviour."

The 'day after'

"When people think of the day after, people often talk in grand terms about when ISIS is totally eliminated. Even before that, you have the issue of as they are eliminated what is going on in these areas."

And with defeat, says White, comes more incentive for ISIS to exfiltrate the fight elsewhere or to pull off more large-scale attacks.

Long agreed that ISIS may not be viewed in favourable terms in some of these occupied areas, but it could be seen as the lesser of two evils if the Iraqi government comes and, essentially, conducts ethnic cleansing.

An Iraqi helicopter flies over a soldier in Husaybah, in Anbar province on July 22, 2015. Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribal fighters launched an offensive to dislodge Islamic State militants and secure a supply route in Anbar province, police and tribal sources said. (Reuters)

And having lost large swaths of territory, ISIS could switch back to being a guerrilla force that hides in the wilderness and launches opportunistic attacks, Long said. He also questioned whether forces will do what's necessary to ensure the group is totally destroyed.

"My fear is no," he said.

With a lack of co-ordination among some of the fighting groups, and with the Islamic State still controlling some key territory, Clarke sees less potential for an imminent end to ISIS, saying he doesn't think "we're anywhere near to defeating this group."

'Long, drawn out'

"I think this is going to be a long, drawn out, very bloody conflict with fits and starts," he said.

In their written piece, Jenkins and Clarke said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, will never surrender, meaning that when conventional defeat does come, it could go underground or its leadership could flee to a place like Libya.

But it may also try to escalate, they wrote, or launch a campaign of "terrorism" in Baghdad, consider a major assault on Mecca or Riyadh or commit a Brussels-style of attack.

They would launch such actions "just to prove to their followers that they are a force to be reckoned with," Clarke said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters