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Author Examines ISIS: Its Strength And Strategy

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An explosion in Baghdad yesterday left at least 151 people dead, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. That attack came just days after an attack at a cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and deadly bombings at Istanbul's international airport.

The attacks in Baghdad and Bangladesh appeared to be the work of the Islamic State. To help us understand what this says about ISIS strength and strategy, we reached Fawaz Gerges, author of the book "ISIS: A History." Welcome to the program.

FAWAZ GERGES: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, we seem to be presented with two conflicting situations here. On the one hand, we've witnessed this wave of attacks, and on the other hand, we have seen the Islamic State lose ground in Syria and Iraq. Is this group stronger or weaker today than it was a year ago?

GERGES: I think we need to acknowledge a simple fact. ISIS has capacity. It has resilience and also it has the ability to convince many young men worldwide to basically carry out attacks in the interest of its ideological project. But the bigger point we need to keep in mind is that ISIS is waging a battle for its own existence. It's a fight about preserving the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

And, yes, it's losing. It's losing big times in Iraq. But this does not mean we are witnessing the beginning of the end because as we have seen in Orlando, in Bangladesh, in Istanbul and now in Baghdad, it has organizational depth and skills.

And, more importantly, it has a potent ideology that appeals to its small segmented young men and women from different backgrounds, and this is what makes this fight very complex and very bloody, indeed, as we have seen in the past 20 days or so.

MONTAGNE: But what does this mean? Is ISIS at some sort of a turning point or - of course, it hasn't lost all of its ground. It still has its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, also Mosul, Iraq. So what is happening here? Is it a shift or is it a broadening of the mission or what?

GERGES: I think what we need to understand is that the strategic fundamental goal of ISIS is to preserve its Islamic State in the al-Raqqa, Syria. And the fact is it's losing. I would say that ISIS has lost more than 40 percent of its Islamic State in Iraq, about 30 percent of its Islamic State in Syria, more than 20,000 fighters. So what ISIS is trying to do is to make this particular fight as costly as possible for the Iraqis, for the Syrians, for the Turks, for the Americans. It's throwing everything that it has.

And at the same time, we are seeing a broadening of the fight from focusing on the near enemy in Syria and Iraq to basically carrying out attacks worldwide. ISIS is trying to make Ramadan, the holy months in Islam into carnage by telling the Turks, by telling the Americans, by telling the Iraqis, look, you're winning, but we're going to make this particular fight very devastating in human lives and also in psychological perspective because think all of us are talking about ISIS and how this particular fight has exacted a heavy toll on the international community.

More than a 1,200 people have been killed outside of Iraq and Syria in this past year. I take it that the next 12 months are going to be as bloody if not more so than the past year because ISIS as it loses in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is trying to divert attention from its losses. And basically these attacks are really force multiplies - they divert attention from its big losses in both Iraq and Syria.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

GERGES: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics. He's also the author of the book "ISIS: A History." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.