The Islamic State has lost substantial control of territory and people since 2014 in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Nigeria—and is on a path to collapse as a self-proclaimed state, according to data compiled in a new RAND report. Still, the Islamic State continues to conduct and inspire attacks around the world in an effort to exact revenge on its enemies, coerce the withdrawal of foreign forces and bait foreign governments into overreacting. These attacks may even increase once the group loses its core caliphate.
According to data compiled and analyzed by RAND, the Islamic State controlled more than 100,000 square kilometers of territory containing about 11 million people at its peak in late 2014, mostly in Iraq and Syria. However, the U.S.-led campaign against the terrorist group gained momentum in 2016 and 2017, resulting in a combined 57 percent loss of territory and a 73 percent decline in populations living under Islamic State control as of early 2017.
In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State controlled approximately 45,377 square kilometers and roughly 2.5 million people by early 2017, according to estimates in the report. These numbers represented a 57 percent decline in territory in the two countries combined, as well as a 56 percent decline in the number of people under Islamic State control in Syria and an 83 percent decline in Iraq from fall 2014 levels.
In Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria, the Islamic State controlled a combined 7,323 square kilometers and 497,420 people by early 2017. These estimates represent a 65 percent decline in the combined territory controlled in those countries. In terms of people under Islamic State control, the estimates represent a 75 percent drop in Nigeria, a nearly 100 percent drop in Libya and an 87 percent drop in Afghanistan from initial levels.
“The Islamic State's territorial losses indicate that it is evolving from an insurgent group to a clandestine organization that directs and inspires wide-ranging terrorist attacks,” said Seth Jones, the lead author on the report and director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization. “Despite its recent challenges, the Islamic State still seeks to expand its power and influence, including through social media and the Internet.”
The group's global footprint consists of eight formal provinces outside of Iraq and Syria, more than a dozen informal provinces, and tens of thousands of inspired individuals across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America. The Islamic State's strategy is pan-Islamic expansion across multiple continents.
“Fully eliminating the threat posed by the Islamic State will require continued American leadership for years to come,” said James Dobbins, one of the authors of the report, senior fellow and Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security at RAND. “Unless local authorities can secure and administer territory liberated from Islamic State control, the group will reemerge. This means that state building must be an important component of any effort to permanently eradicate this threat.”
RAND researchers examine four possible strategies for dealing with IS: disengagement, containment, rollback “light” (with a reliance on local forces backed by U.S. special operations forces, CIA and other intelligence assets, and airpower) and rollback “heavy” (adding the employment of American conventional forces in ground combat).
The authors conclude that the U.S. should pursue a light rollback strategy. They suggest several steps to accelerate the anti-Islamic State campaign, including modestly reinforcing the American military presence in Syria, intensifying efforts to address political grievances that underlie local support for the group in Iraq and elsewhere, devolving authority to initiate strikes against Islamic State targets to field commanders, increasing U.S. military posture in Africa and tightening restrictions on the Islamic State's internet access.
Other authors of the report, “Rolling Back the Islamic State,” are Daniel Byman, Christopher Chivvis, Ben Connable, Jeffrey Martini, Eric Robinson and Nathan Chandler.
This research was sponsored by a private foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD). NSRD conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.