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Iraq's Victory In Mosul Raises Questions About The Future Of ISIS

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Iraq's victory over ISIS in Mosul is a big deal, but it does not mean the end of ISIS. The group still holds territory. It launches attacks around the world. And it has a robust presence online. To talk more about the future of ISIS we are joined by Bruce Hoffman. He's a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. Welcome.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Thank you.

MCEVERS: So how big of a loss is Mosul for ISIS?

HOFFMAN: Symbolically it's a significant loss because only about a year ago ISIS styled an axis extending from Sirte in Libya across North Africa, through Raqqa and the Levant to Mosul. And within a year it's now lost two of the three legs of that access. So symbolically it's important.

MCEVERS: Obviously not every ISIS fighter was killed in Mosul. What do you think happened to those who survived?

HOFFMAN: I think ISIS has had a conscious plan precisely for this eventuality. And the plan was in essence to live to fight another day, to revert back to its fundamental DNA, which was, after all, as a terrorist cum insurgent group, not a proto-state exercising sovereignty.

MCEVERS: Right.

HOFFMAN: And it's done that in a number of different ways. It's abandoned largely its headquarters in Raqqa and relocated to Mayadin and other places in Syria. And taking a page from al-Qaida's playbook from a decade ago, ISIS has similarly developed a series of branches throughout North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia that it will rely upon to ensure the movement's longevity.

MCEVERS: It does hold some territory in Iraq, though, right? And talk about that a little bit.

HOFFMAN: The fall of Mosul, I think, is the first step. ISIS still is in possession of Tal Afar, even though that's largely surrounded by Shia paramilitary forces. It holds Hawija and largely most of the western part of Anbar province. So it's by no means been eviscerated from Iraq.

MCEVERS: And what does that mean for it? I mean, being able to hold some territory is important still. It must be.

HOFFMAN: Well, it stays - it stays in the news. It perpetuates the image of an Islamic state, of a caliphate. And I think most significantly, it creates the opportunities for revenge. In other words, that even in its defeat in Mosul and elsewhere it is able to summon a new generation of followers who are motivated not just by the supposed paradise or jihadi utopia that ISIS was building in western Iraq, but to fight and to lay down their lives, to regain what has been lost, what has been taken away from them.

MCEVERS: The group, of course, has directed and inspired attacks outside of the region in Europe and other parts of the West. Do you think we'll be seeing more of those now that things are changing for them on the ground?

HOFFMAN: One of the most disturbing aspects of ISIS' preparations for what I would argue its eventual loss of territory has been the cultivation of a fairly robust external operations arm that has really been built over the past three or four years even before the caliphate or the Islamic State was declared. And this network certainly exists in Europe and elsewhere - in South Asia, North Africa as well.

And what's critical is already, last September, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, called upon his followers not to come to the Levant in Iraq to fight, but instead to migrate to the branches and to strengthen the branches so that precisely the branches could continue the struggle. And tragically, the bombing at a concert in Manchester at the end of May was a manifestation, I would argue, of the success of that strategy because, of course, ISIS' Libya branch - Libyan branch is believed to have played a significant role in facilitating that attack.

MCEVERS: Bruce Hoffman, director of Security Studies at Georgetown University. Thank you very much.

HOFFMAN: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DECEPTIKON'S "WAY OF THE SAMURAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.