A New Year's report card for ISIS

The World
Iraqi soldiers gather during a battle with ISIS militants, north of Mosul, Iraq, December 30, 2016.

Iraqi soldiers gather during a battle with ISIS militants, north of Mosul, Iraq, December 30, 2016.

Khalid al Mousily/Reuters

ISIS starts the new year under pressure. But it still appears to have the means to lash out, claiming responsibility for terror attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad over New Year’s weekend.

A gunman, apparently acting alone, killed at least 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub, in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

A series of car bombs struck the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, since New Year’s Eve. The worst one killed at least 35 people, on Monday.

The attacks are claimed by ISIS as responses to military pressure from Iraq and Turkey.

Iraqi forces are trying to push into Mosul, in northern Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkish ground troops are attacking the small but strategically important city of al-Bab, in northern Syria. The Russian air force is providing air support for the Turks in al-Bab.

ISIS burst onto the scene as a territorial power in eastern Syria in 2013, then stormed into Mosul in June 2014, inflicting a staggering defeat on the Iraqi army. The group then proclaimed a new Islamic caliphate and began calling itself the Islamic State.

It’s significant that ISIS claimed responsibility for the New Year's Istanbul attack, according to Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times who specializes in covering ISIS and al-Qaeda.

"We know they have done numerous other attacks [in Turkey] that have also resulted in mass casualties," says Callimachi, "most importantly perhaps the Istanbul airport bombing last summer. But this is the first time that they have claimed an attack of this nature."

Callimachi says this signals a major shift in relations between ISIS and Turkey. Turkey once patronized Syrian rebel groups, including ISIS, providing direct and indirect aid and safe routes for foreign fighters to enter Syria. But relations have soured as Turkey tightened up the border. ISIS responded with terror attacks, which have only hardened Turkish hostility.  

Turkish troops entered Syria last August. Their main goal appears to have been occupying territory to counter the growth of Kurdish separatists, but the incursion also brought them into direct conflict with ISIS.

The switch in Turkish policy leaves ISIS with almost no friends at a time when they’re coming under intense military and financial pressure.

"Of course the territory has shrunk," says Callimachi. "Another way to measure it is the number of fighters they have. The US recently declared that since 2014, they have killed 50,000 ISIS fighters. And yet despite all of those deaths, we still see that the group is holding strong in Mosul."

"ISIS is under pressure," she adds. "I would caution us not to make too much of that. I just came back from the areas north of Mosul, and more than two months into that advance, Iraqi troops are basically just hunkered down at the eastern edges of the city really unable to go forward. They have faced significant casualties. ISIS has proved to be a much more venomous and difficult enemy than I think perhaps they expected."

"That’s not to minimize what the West has done," says Callimachi, highlighting the destruction of the ISIS stronghold in Libya, and territorial losses elsewhere in Iraq. "But I think the fight ahead is a long one, and we see that despite these efforts, despite the numerous casualties that ISIS has suffered, they are still very much able to hit outside of their territory."

"Another way to measure it is the extent of their digital caliphate, the extent of their caliphate online," she says. "Yes, we’ve seen somewhat of a pullback in their propaganda, but they’re still very much there."  

"The thing that’s difficult about this group is that we’re fighting not just people, we’re also fighting an idea, and that idea is very potent," she says, "and it’s not clear how you kill an idea."

More immediately, President-elect Donald Trump will face two challenges when he comes into office. “One is how to deal with Turkey,” says Callimachi. “Turkey has pushed back very hard against America’s alliance with the Kurds.”

She says the second question is whether the new administration will consider it necessary to send troops on the ground to help the Iraqis take back Mosul.