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Described as Defeated, Islamic State Punches Back With Guerrilla Tactics

For three years, terrorists controlled a huge stretch of territory in Iraq and Syria. They ran their own state, collecting tens of millions of dollars in taxes and using the proceeds to fix potholes, issue birth certificates, finance attacks and recruit followers from around the world.

All but 1 percent of that territory is now gone, which has prompted the White House to describe the Islamic State as “wiped out,” “absolutely obliterated” and “in its final throes.” But to suggest that ISIS was defeated, as President Trump did when he announced plans to pull out American troops from Syria, is to ignore the lessons of recent history.

The group has been declared vanquished before, only to prove politicians wrong and to rise stronger than before.

The attack last week by a suicide bomber outside a shawarma restaurant in the Syrian city of Manbij, which killed at least 15 people including four Americans, is one example of how the group still remains a serious, violent threat.

“People make the mistake of thinking that when you lose territory, it’s linear — that they will continue to lose,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of the center’s recent study assessing ISIS’ troop strength.

“When you lose territory, smart groups shift to guerrilla strategy and tactics, including targeted assassinations, ambushes, raids, bombings,” he added. “That is how you wear the enemy down.”

Mr. Trump’s declaration that ISIS has been defeated is the second time the group has been described this way.

A decade ago, the group then known as the Islamic State of Iraq had been pummeled so hard that officials estimated it was down to its last 700 fighters. Over one 90-day period, American forces arrested or killed 34 of the group’s top 42 leaders.

“We now have no place where we can stand for even a quarter of an hour,” the emir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, is said to have told his deputies, according to the group’s own account of the period before the American troop withdrawal from Iraq was completed in 2011.

But after that withdrawal, the group rapidly rebuilt itself, and just four years later succeeded in seizing a territory the size of Britain.

Recent estimates indicate that the Islamic State has more than 20 to 30 times the fighters it had the last time it was left for dead.

Although many of its leaders have been killed, the group’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and several of his top deputies, are believed to be alive.

But the crumbling of the state has made it difficult to recruit and only a trickle of new members are believed to still be heading to the region from overseas, down from the thousands that were crossing into their territory before.

Meanwhile, attacks have dropped in certain critical locations, like Iraq. That doesn’t mean the group doesn’t remain lethal there. In 2018 in the months after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS, the group carried out over 1,200 attacks just in Iraq, according to one data set.

Also, the group’s acolytes continue to kill around the world, including last month in one of Europe’s Christmas markets, in Strasbourg, France, where a gunman who had left a pledge of allegiance to ISIS on a USB stick killed five people, and on a trail in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, where a group of men who also had recorded a pledge killed two Scandinavian tourists.

It is in that context that analysts are viewing the deadly attack last Wednesday on American forces in Manbij.

With its tiled walls, shiny tables and tasty shawarma sandwiches, the Palace of Princes restaurant had become a favorite haunt of the 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria. They would pop in to pick up takeout orders before heading back on patrol. Other times they parked their armored cars in front and sat at a table.

The soldiers seemed to have made little effort to hide their presence or vary their routine to make it harder for enemies to track them.

In a newsletter ISIS released shortly after the attack, the group quoted a member of its “emni,” or intelligence and security branch, based inside Manbij, who explained that the militant group had regularly tried to hit American forces in rural Manbij. Their efforts failed until last week.

In the article, the ISIS operative explained the surveillance the group had used, saying American forces were positioned at three small bases on the outskirts of Manbij. He said United States troops moved regularly among these bases in convoys of five to 10 armored cars, escorted by guard vehicles belonging to an American-backed Kurdish militia.

While it is impossible to verify the claims made in the ISIS newsletter — and the Pentagon has released no further details on the attack — the surveillance described in the article is consistent with what is known about how the group is carrying out its insurgency.

He explained that American soldiers entered the city in convoys of Land Cruisers, but rarely appeared outside their armored cars, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist content.

“To conduct an attack like this means that ISIS was conducting intelligence and reconnaissance on the movement of U.S. soldiers and had someone pre-positioned in the city so that once they got info on timing and location they could get someone on the site pretty fast,” said Mr. Jones of the strategic and international studies group. “That means that in Manbij, they have a cell structure.”

Mr. Jones said strikes like the one on the American troops require militants to carry out intelligence, build the bomb, transport the bomb and deploy a suicide bomber.

“It shows they have a clandestine network,” he said.

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