It’s on the attack and on the defensive at the same time.
Days after the Islamic State was flushed from the Iraqi city of Fallujah, arguably the group’s highest-profile defeat in months, its fighters unleashed a barrage of bloodshed and carnage in a series of devastating terrorist attacks from Bangladesh to Baghdad that culminated in a massive suicide bombing in the Iraqi capital that left over 200 dead.
The Islamic State and its affiliates and sympathizers carried out the spectacular strikes over the past week after the Pentagon declared that the group had not notched any significant combat victories in over a year. The juxtaposition is sparking a fierce debate over whether the jihadi group is adapting and gaining strength or lashing out because it knows it is losing.
The wave of violence began June 29 when several gunmen believed to be from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, detonated several bombs and opened fire on passengers arriving at Istanbul Ataturk Airport. The attack, two days after the U.S.-backed Iraqi military and militias claimed victory over the Islamic State in Fallujah, ended with 36 dead and over 140 wounded.
On Friday, the Islamic State claimed credit after five gunmen stormed a Dhaka, Bangladesh, restaurant that is popular with foreigners and 20 people were killed in the ensuing hostage standoff.
Two days later, a massive car bomb shredded several city blocks crowded with civilians in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Karada, killing over 200 people and injuring hundreds more.
The Karada bombing Sunday was the deadliest to hit the Iraqi capital since the campaign to push the Islamic State from the country began in earnest nearly two years ago.
The Islamic State lashed out again Monday by setting off a series of suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia, including one targeting the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah.
The victory in Fallujah should have represented a high-water mark for the U.S. coalition, which has left only Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria as the group’s main bastions in the Middle East.
Instead, the group resorted to the horrific tactics it used when it was just al Qaeda’s cell in Iraq. This time, it took the terrorism to an international level, shaking the confidence of leaders and populations in the region.
“In the first year of its so-called caliphate, [the Islamic State’s] aggressive expansion appears to have passed its zenith [with] many indicators that the group’s decline has already begun,” said Clint Watts, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
A month before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Fallujah campaign began in earnest, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued a call for the group’s fighters, allies and sympathizers to carry out attacks worldwide. He made the statement after a string of on-the-ground reverses in Islamic State strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State “will likely endure for quite some time, wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East and likely spawning future waves of extremism around the world” regardless of how much territory it may or may not hold, Mr. Watts wrote in an op-ed in World Politics Review.
The most recent wave of terrorist attacks has left the White House and the Pentagon in the unenviable position of explaining why body counts continue to rise even as the Islamic State appears to be on the ropes against the U.S.-backed coalition.
“As we’ve said from the start, we will not eliminate ISIL’s ability to carry out terrorist attacks. It is a reality that they retain a lethal capability, but that’s not going to deter us from trying to do everything we can to try and reduce that capability,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Tuesday.
Reducing the Islamic State’s capabilities to execute such attacks will be the at the top of the agenda for a coalition meeting this month in Washington.
Mr. Cook declined to comment on specifics of the meeting except to say that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would be spearheading the talks. He did indicate it was unlikely that the meeting would result in any major change in strategy. Taking away the Islamic State’s territorial base, U.S. officials say, is the quickest and most effective way to undercut its ability to carry out terrorist strikes around the world.
“We think that the sooner that [the Islamic State] can be eliminated from territory in Iraq and Syria, the less likely it is that something like what happened in Baghdad can happen again,” Mr. Cook said. “It does not remove the threat entirely, as we’ve seen, but we do think taking the fight to them is the best way to try and achieve that ultimate goal.”
U.S. and coalition commanders were not surprised by the latest violence to hit the Middle East, Mr. Cook said, but he did note the attacks were tied directly to the group’s combat defeats.
“The sheer numbers of the attacks recently would suggest that ISIL is looking to carry out these kind of attacks at the same time that it is losing territory, losing leadership, losing its finances, losing its messaging capabilities in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
The Defense Department estimates that Islamic State fighters have lost roughly 45 percent — or 9,600 square miles — of the Iraqi territory they seized as they steamrolled their way across the border with Syria in 2014.
In Syria, the group has lost 20 percent of the territory it once held. Losses in Ramadi, Hit, Rutba and now Fallujah have shaken the Islamic State’s aura, causing it to hemorrhage fighters, funding and territory, U.S. officials say.
U.S. commanders were slow to recognize the group’s gradual regression back to the terrorist tactics employed by Abu Musab Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq during the darkest days of the U.S. occupation.
Such attacks targeting Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad in May were first seen as uncoordinated lashing-out by Islamic State fighters in the wake of their losses in Ramadi and Anbar province.
But the frequency and lethality of those attacks prompted the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to launch the Fallujah operation against the insistence of U.S. advisers, who maintain Iraq’s focus should be on retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been under Islamic State control since 2014.
Mr. al-Abadi and others say recapturing Fallujah, roughly 40 miles west of Baghdad, would improve security in the capital, but the Sunday bombing quickly dispelled that notion. That again put the al-Abadi government in the position of possibly having to choose between reinforcing Baghdad or continuing to pour men and weapons into the Mosul campaign.
The al-Abadi government suffered another blow Tuesday when Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, who was largely responsible for security in Baghdad, submitted his resignation. Mr. al-Ghabban told reporters that the government failed to get the various organizations charged with securing the capital to operate according to a “unified plan.”
The government has come under heavy criticism for its failure to provide security in Baghdad, and Mr. al-Abadi was chased away from the bomb site hours after the attack by a crowd that hurled shoes and rocks and called him a thief.
The Obama administration is not entertaining any notions to put more U.S. troops on the ground to keep Iraqi forces focused on Mosul while addressing the rising Islamic State threat in Baghdad.
“We’re constantly looking at capabilities, needs that might be present or might be needed going forward in terms of delivering ISIL that defeat,” Mr. Cook said. “But I’m not aware of any change in that plan at this point as a result of what’s happened.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.