Yesterday’s terrorist activity in Spain and ISIS’ thus far unsubstantiated public claim that the attackers were “soldiers of the Islamic State” has once again thrust the group to the forefront of the world’s attention—a place ISIS has occupied for years now. Indeed, in the summer of 2014, I was asked during a congressional hearing whether the Islamic State (also called ISIS), which had recently seized Mosul and was threatening Erbil, could capture Baghdad. Then deputy director of national intelligence, I replied that the intelligence community did not think such a takeover was plausible given what we knew about ISIS’ personnel strength and the overwhelming Iraqi military and Shia militia presence in the city. I’m not certain my answer persuaded anyone; the anxiety about ISIS’ rapid battlefield gains, newfound ability to mass forces and strike at vulnerable locations, and acquisition of vast military hardware from retreating Iraqi soldiers was palpable.
As it turned out, ISIS was able to detonate hundreds of car and truck bombs inside Baghdad in the following years, but never posed a serious threat to the city. But the question I was asked perfectly captured the deep fear that ISIS generated in Iraq and the deep pessimism about the Iraqi government’s ability (even with U.S. military help) to defeat it.
The perception of ISIS as a military juggernaut has changed dramatically since then thanks to the progress against the group achieved through the work of two U.S. administrations; the United States’ military, diplomatic, and intelligence services; and a coalition of external partners, particularly the Iraqi military and Kurdish security forces.
Compared to its peak territorial influence in August 2014, ISIS no longer operates in more than two-thirds of the populated territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, and the group will likely lose its stronghold and symbolic capital in Raqqah before year’s end. At the same time, ISIS’ revenue base has been decimated, thousands of its fighters have been killed, and the
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