Terror group down but still dangerous: Analysts

PARIS • Terrorist group ISIS has been eroded by international efforts to crush it, but its ability to mount devastating attacks on the West remains very real, defence and security experts say.

As France prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Paris attacks by the group on Nov 13, analysts say military defeats in its Middle East strongholds will almost certainly not make Western targets any safer from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"Depriving ISIS of control over population centres and sanctuary to raise funds and train fighters, and breaking it up ... matters," said Mr Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "Defeating it in any practical sense, however, will not begin to deal with the lasting threat," he added.

It was in June 2014 that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi proclaimed the creation of a caliphate and urged Muslims who shared the group's vision to join them. Thousands of foreigners answered his call, among them several French and Belgian men who would go on to slaughter 130 people in Paris.

The bloodshed in Paris contributed to strengthening the resolve of the West to fight ISIS.

A year on, Iraqi forces backed by the air power of the United States and other countries including France are locked in fierce fighting to retake Iraq's second city of Mosul from the terrorist group. On Sunday, a US-backed Kurdish and Arab force said it had begun an assault on the city of Raqqa, ISIS' stronghold in Syria. These efforts have led to a sharp fall in the number of foreigners making the trek to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon says the figure is now just 200 a month, from 2,000 a month in early 2015.

Tighter controls on the Turkish border - the main gateway to Syria - and improved surveillance by European intelligence have helped stem the flow of foreign recruits.

The military onslaught on ISIS has also slowed the production of the slick, blood-drenched propaganda which has played a prominent role in attracting recruits. The number of articles or videos posted online by the group's official media outlets dropped from 700 items in August 2015 to 200 a year later, according to a report by the Combating Terrorism Centre at the elite US West Point military academy.

The author of the report, Mr Daniel Milton, said while ISIS' main selling point was the creation of its self-proclaimed caliphate, it was now "struggling to maintain the appearance of a functioning state".

But most experts agree that crushing ISIS' hopes of establishing the caliphate will not diminish its ability to launch attacks against the West. In the minds of supporters, the appeal of ISIS has not dissipated with its territorial losses. It is possible that the group's losses in Mosul and elsewhere "could lead to an increase in external support, and a corresponding increase in the threat of terrorism around the world", the US-based Soufan security analysis group said recently.

While ISIS may now find it harder to launch complex operations like the Paris attacks, the West fears a rise in attacks by individuals who are merely inspired by the group.

"We are probably in a phase with fewer spectacular operations but more individual acts, with inspiration coming through from the Internet," said Mr Didier Le Bret, France's national intelligence coordinator until September this year.

Another growing threat is the return of foreign fighters to their countries of origin as ISIS' territory shrinks. The challenge would be "to separate those that have terrorist ambitions from the returnees who just want to get on with regular lives, and perhaps be helpful, in the sense that they can counter the ISIS message", said American journalist Joby Warrick, who won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his book, Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Terror group down but still dangerous: Analysts'. Print Edition | Subscribe