As the long-advertised campaign to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State begins, governments around the world need to start implementing tighter security controls. If the coalition succeeds in freeing Mosul from the tyranny of the Islamic State, it is highly likely that the group will lash out in a Western country in order to remain a relevant force in the media.
The battle for Mosul is a military endeavor that forces Islamic State to commit a great deal of its resources and its finest fighters. This is an extraordinary burden on the group and one which may cause them to lose their foothold in Iraq. While Islamic State has no doubt learned over the past two years that holding territory is extremely difficult, they have also learned that conducting or inspiring terrorist attacks abroad is relatively easy.
Recent losses on the battlefield have been followed by increasingly frequent and vicious terrorist attacks abroad. A report by HIS Conflict Monitor estimates that Islamic State has shrunk by about 16 percent in the first nine months of 2016. During that span there have been ten different terrorist attacks in European countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, and Turkey. Some of these attacks were directly carried out by Islamic State operatives while others were merely inspired by Islamic State’s calls to strike at Western countries. These are in addition to the Islamic State-inspired mass shooting in Orlando that left 49 people dead and 53 wounded in June 2016, as well as the numerous bombings around the MENA region in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.
As battlefield losses mount, terrorist attacks in Western countries have given the Islamic State an opportunity to stay relevant in the media narrative. CIA Director John Brennan stated in June 2016 that “as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”
This brings us to the current situation in Mosul. By most accounts this is going to be a long and brutal fight for the city. Coalition forces are still miles away from the city but there are already reports of bobby traps and IEDs lining the roads in. Warnings of Islamic State using human shields and crude chemical weapons have garnered international headlines. While Islamic State may have a tremendous amount of resources committed to this battle, they have come to realize that carrying out or inspiring foreign terrorist attacks is not so resource intensive. If they feel that they are losing ground in Mosul, or that the fall of the city is imminent, I expect them to put forth a massive effort to coordinate international terrorist attacks in Western countries.
Terrorism is a weapon of the weak, used by people who feel the need to gain attention through acts shocking to the general public. Time and time again, Islamic State has proven that when it is reeling from recent battlefield losses, it turns to terrorist acts in order to reassert its dominance in the media. It is a desperate tactic from a group that is far outmatched on the battlefield by superior weapons and numbers, but it is a deadly tactic nonetheless. It is also a very successful tactic in regards to shocking the public and letting the world know that they are still a force to be feared no matter where you live.
The battle for Mosul will take weeks, maybe months, before any real progress is made against Islamic State. The coalition fighting on the ground faces a long and arduous road to get to the heart of the city. Once they reach it they can expect brutal urban combat with an entrenched enemy. During this time, Islamic State will have to commit more and more of its resources to holding the city, which is its prize territory in Iraq. If at any point, the Islamic State begins to feel that they are losing the battle, expect a strong effort to launch or inspire terrorist attacks abroad. The security apparatuses in the most at risk countries such as France, Germany, Turkey and the United States have to be ready for any possible signs of attack on their soil.