With ISIS Finally On Edge of Defeat, Christians in Middle East Fear Terrorists Will Simply Blend into Society

The Islamic State has lost most of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria. It lost the city of Mosul, above, in July. (Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times)

The Islamic State has lost most of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria. It lost the city of Mosul, above, in July. (Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times)

Its de facto capital is falling. Its territory has shriveled from the size of Portugal to a handful of outposts. Its surviving leaders are on the run.

But rather than declare the Islamic State and its virulent ideology conquered, many Western and Arab counterterrorism officials are bracing for a new, lethal incarnation of the jihadi group.

The organization has a proven track record as an insurgency able to withstand major military onslaughts, while still recruiting adherents around the world ready to kill in its name.

Islamic State leaders signaled more than a year ago that they had drawn up contingency plans to revert to their roots as a guerrilla force after the loss of their territory in Iraq and Syria. Nor does the group need to govern cities to inspire so-called lone wolf terrorist attacks abroad, a strategy it has already adopted to devastating effect in Manchester, England, and Orlando, Fla.

“Islamic State is not finished,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, who studies jihadi movements at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I.S. has a plan, and that is to wait out their enemies locally in order to gain time to rebuild their networks while at the same time provide inspiration to followers outside to keep fighting their enemies farther away.’”

Even with the news on Tuesday that American-backed forces said they had captured Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self-declared caliphate, European counterterrorism officials were worrying about sleeper cells that may have been sent out well before the battlefield losses mounted.

In Iraq, where the group that became the Islamic State took root, security officials are bracing for future waves of suicide attacks against civilians. And even if governments are able to head off organized plots like the Paris attacks of 2015, officials around the globe concede that they have almost no way of stopping lone wolf assaults inspired or enabled by Islamic State propaganda that lives online.

“It is clear that we are contending with an intense U.K. terrorist threat from Islamist extremists,” Andrew Parker, the director of Britain’s MI5 intelligence service, said in a speech on Tuesday. “That threat is multidimensional, evolving rapidly, and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.”

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SOURCE: MARGARET COKER, ERIC SCHMITT and RUKMINI CALLIMACHI 
The New York Times

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