What Happens After ISIS Goes Underground

An Iraqi soldier provides security during urban warfare training. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

Eradicating the Islamic State's dominant presence in the Middle East will merely push the caliphate further into the dark corners of the cyber world.

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continues to suffer defeats on the battlefield, it may be moving into terrain that is relatively nascent and somewhat unfamiliar to Western counterinsurgents—cyberspace.

Analysts have expressed concern that ISIS may turn to virtual currencies to fund future attacks. These currencies can be used as part of an effort to mask the organization’s illicit transactions while enabling it to support attacks in areas outside of its control. And the organization has a history of broadly using cyberspace and technology in innovative ways.

ISIS is attempting to develop its own social-media architecture to help its members avoid security crackdowns on communications exchanged and content posted by the group, according to Europol, Europe’s police agency. An expanded social-media presence would also enable ISIS to continue to encourage attacks abroad as the group retrenches, but perhaps with greater frequency.

ISIS is losing territory and struggling financially. Its fighters are fleeing, and its leadership is being targeted at a frenetic pace. Throughout the Arab and Islamic world, ISIS had been losing support through 2016—given the group’s military losses, that trend has likely continued in the past year. And in what appears to be a rather desperate attempt to continue fighting, the organization is increasingly relying on elderly militants to conduct suicide attacks.

Despite such adversity, it is highly likely that ISIS will not be defeated in the coming months and years. Even where ISIS is displaced or temporarily dislodged from physical territory, disenfranchised Sunni Arab populations will probably continue sympathizing with the group’s objective to establish a caliphate. Those not ideologically disposed to ISIS still perceive it a more suitable protector of Sunni interests than either the Syrian or Iraqi governments.

ISIS is essentially transitioning to the next phase of its life cycle, moving underground and online as it weathers the current onslaught from American forces supporting a patchwork of anti-ISIS forces arrayed against it in both Iraq and Syria.

Taking away territory from ISIS is a temporary stopgap that will merely push the group toward more clandestine activity in the near term, as Craig Whiteside, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and other terrorism experts have repeatedly noted. In conjunction, the group will probably shift the locus of its activities to other enclaves where it continues to hold power and can remain capable of resupplying its organization with weapons and other materiel. And, the organization will undoubtedly redouble its efforts and presence in cyberspace, where for years it has enjoyed relative sanctuary in the conduct of offensive and support operations.

How else might ISIS seek to regain momentum once its caliphate is gone?

One concern is that a successful attack on American soil could invite a prompt military response, further galvanizing ISIS and its supporters and making it seem both more powerful and relevant than it actually is. The recent attack in Manchester, England demonstrates ISIS’ reach—it retains a remarkable capability to inspire or direct attacks abroad, including in the West.