ISIS has been defeated in Iraq and Syria. The so-called caliphate declared in 2014, which was once the size of Great Britain, is no more. Its de facto capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, were captured after long and bloody sieges in the second half of 2017. However, the terrorist group can regroup and reemerge to catch everybody by surprise, a report, published in The Independent, revealed Sunday.
But ISIS was always more than a murderous cult. What made it so dangerous at the height of its fortunes was that its commanders also possessed a high degree of military skill, developed in a decade of ferocious warfare.
ISIS commanders will have foreseen that they would lose control of their territory and knew that they could not withstand ground assault backed by the massive firepower of the US-led coalition of air forces in Iraq and Syria as well as the Russian air force in Syria.
They will have considered the option of reverting to guerrilla war in which surprise attacks and ambushes are supplemented by terrorist atrocities targeting civilians to demonstrate strength and spread terror.
Could ISIS reemerge again? People in Baghdad are pleased that ISIS has been defeated on the battlefield, but wary of celebrating victory too early and nervous that ISIS may not be quite as dead as its leaders claim.
The caliphate may have been destroyed but the caliph, Mohammed Baqr al-Baghdadi, is still alive. After the loss of Mosul, ISIS did not make a last stand in any of its remaining strongholds such as Tal Afar and Hawaija; likewise in Syria after the fall of Raqqa, it did not fight to the last man in Deir Ezzor, acting as if it was determined to preserve some of its combat strength.
But a second resurrection by ISIS will be much more difficult than the first because local, regional and international forces will not want to be caught napping a second time. It has lost the advantage of surprise; its adversaries will see it coming and take precautions.
An alternative option for ISIS is to send it commanders and terrorists to other countries where the opposition is weaker than in Iraq and Syria. This has been happening in Yemen, Afghanistan, Sinai, Libya and other countries.
Western diplomats say that ISIS terrorists from Iraq have been identified on the anti-Houthi side in southern Yemen. There are certainly opportunities for ISIS in these places where they can take advantage of chaos, civil war, weak or non-existent states.
ISIS and al-Qaeda type of organizations still have some advantages: they are militarized cults with a core of believers who will fight to the death. But it is in the nature of cults that they treat everybody who is not a believer in their cause as an enemy and this means they have many enemies.
This was a main reason for the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria: they had no allies at home.
The best hope for ISIS and al-Qaeda is that their triumphant enemies will overplay their hands and persecute Sunni communities. Power did not mellow ISIS but made it even more blood-thirsty and oppressive to all beliefs but its own. ISIS is dying but it could kill a lot more people in its death throes.