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As ISIS 'Caliphate' Shrinks, New Tactics Pose Threats

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

ISIS continues to lose more and more of the territory that it once controlled in Syria and Iraq. The physical space of the so-called caliphate is shrinking fast. But at the same time, ISIS has stepped up its policy of violence, of sending suicide bombers into places like a crowded market in Baghdad. We don't yet know, of course, what motivated the truck driver in France on Thursday night. Some say ISIS is returning to targeting civilians because it cannot win on the battlefield. Joining me in the studio is Hassan Hassan, who has a bit of a contrarian view on the subject. He is a fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East policy and co-author of "ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror." Thank you very much for coming in.

HASSAN HASSAN: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So how much territory has ISIS actually lost?

HASSAN: Since 2014, they lost 50 percent of their territory in Iraq and 20 percent of their territory in Syria.

WERTHEIMER: But you suggest that ISIS expected or at least prepared for these kinds of setbacks.

HASSAN: Indeed, I think that this is an organization that is profoundly adaptive, that it's capable of adapting to whatever their enemies are throwing at it.

WERTHEIMER: So right now, is ISIS a greater threat as a guerrilla army or as a battlefield fighting group do you think?

HASSAN: It's certainly becoming more of a threat. In 2014, they wanted to take the fight to their enemies in a conventional way. They advanced towards Baghdad and towards the Kurdish areas and so on and so forth. Now, since November, we've noticed this trend of, like, basically a surge in the number of ISIS attacks, suicide operations, in Iraq in Syria. Before November, for example, they carried out between 50 and 60 suicide operations per month while now they are carrying from 80 to 100 operations per month.

WERTHEIMER: But what about the - what about the idea of the caliphate, which has attracted so many young people to ISIS? Without the capacity to fight as an army, to take and hold territory, how do they hold on to that that idea? How do they draw people in?

HASSAN: We have to remember that this organization is not going to die just because the idea of a caliphate has been demolished. This is what the Americans have been doing in Iraq and Syria, kind of trying to destroy this idea and defeat it because they believe that once you destroy the idea of the caliphate and make it not a feasible idea, then a lot of the people who joined the organization in 2014 would start leaving it. And that's exactly what's actually happening today, that many of the people who join ISIS in 2014 have been leaving the organization.

The other trend that I've been noticing is that we have seen other demographics joining the organization for other reasons than the reasons that drove people to join ISIS in 2014. This is a dangerous thing because the international coalition against ISIS is not doing a great job in addressing the ideas behind this organization. And I think that there's a dangerous narrative in media and within policy circles that ISIS has been losing ground and therefore is in decline. That is a mistake.

WERTHEIMER: So is it going to be possible to stem the flow of young men who are willing to die for ISIS? Can it be done?

HASSAN: The surest way basically to undermine this organization is to make it clear that this is an organization, an extremist organization, that - whose victims are fellow Muslims. They're being slaughtered by this organization. It's not a war between the West and the East. If there's one thing that sums up what this organization is about, it's an organization that waged war against fellow Muslims.

WERTHEIMER: Hassan Hassan is co-author of "ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror." Thank you very much for coming over.

HASSAN: My pleasure, thanks.

WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, we'll have more on ISIS and its claim that it inspired this week's terrorist attack in France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.