How ISIS Falls: A Jihadi Autopsy

Header photo of Peshmerga replacing the ISIS banner with the flag of Kurdistan. Taken near Mosul.

After the raw shock and horror had sunk in, there’s one thing that stuck in my mind after the attacks in Paris:

This was a stunning admission of weakness.

On the surface, it might look anything but. ISIS managed to inflict an episode of harrowing carnage in one of Europe’s proudest cities. From the human tragedy to the apocalyptic chorus of sirens and terrified news reporters that followed in its wake, the last angle many people would be tempted to view this attack from would be in terms of tactical weakness. But in very telling ways, what happened in Paris abided by some of ISIS’ most stubborn pathologies and revealed deep truths about the organization that bode ill for its endurance in the Middle East.

What occurred in Paris was not a surgical, utilitarian attack. It appeared designed to inflict human damage in the most public, indiscriminate way possible. This wasn’t an instance of industrial sabotage or targeted assassination against an irreplaceable figurehead. Nothing that could in any way cripple the capacities of a designated enemy. It was, plain and simple, shock and gore in a highly visible milieu that was calculated to attract unified media focus.

ISIS may be underqualified at warfare, but they are nothing if not attentive to image and the need to make themselves appear fearsome. ISIS lost the city of Sinjar in a humiliating defeat against Kurdish forces hours before they attacked Paris, which was merely a coincidence of timing. A coincidence, however, that was only able to occur because ISIS is such a brittle fighting force that a battlefield defeat preemptive to their planned attack was relatively likely. As I mentioned in a prior article, embarrassing defeat has been an ongoing pattern for them throughout the latter half of 2015. ISIS’ major asset has always been media savvy and the illusion of strength, and it’s something they persistently turn to whenever they’re suffering military setback. It’s often employed as a deliberate attempt to manipulate attention away from on-the-ground reality in the Middle East and force broadcasting outlets to fixate on ISIS' latest act of dumb brutality.

The civilian massacre in Paris was an extension of this pathology. It was a close-to-home iteration of the sadistic PR videos they record in the Middle East - the ones with staged murders and histrionic threats of violence. It’s also no coincidence that it occurred after a summer during which ISIS suffered both territorial loss and grueling battlefield fatalities.

The sequential attacks in Paris and Beirut read like an admission of organizational anxiety. It’s the move of an insurgency that is crumbling and self-destructing as a geographic presence - a desperate attempt to seem frightening after the world has turned from fearing them to laughing at them. ISIS’ statements in the aftermath appear to simmer with a tantrum-like, almost childish rage over not being perceived as sufficiently menacing. The ISIS press release that accompanied the Paris massacre revealed as much, with the transcript declaiming, “The smell of death will never leave their noses… this attack is the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn."

The message is, in short, “we're scary, damnit!” Trying to inflict dread is often the core purpose of terrorism. And ISIS followed this definition very closely, attempting to amplify the fear of future incidents by stating the attacks heralded an overbearing, perpetual threat. Viewed from a certain angle, this level of desperate agitation is so transparent it's bordering on self-satire.

The Paris and Beirut attacks also seem to point to a shift in priorities - since ISIS cannot succeed as a military power, they’re doubling down on the old terror mainstay of targeting the innocent. As much as I hesitate to use this phrasing, attacks against unarmed civilians are very easy to carry out with some degree of “success”. Destroying a power grid or assassinating an important leader are much more refined and tactically precise kinds of operations. They requires talent and intelligence, whereas a spasm of violence against the defenseless is the exact kind of thing even an untrained moron can execute with some degree of competence. And ISIS has been desperately attempting to milk the aftermath of the massacre ever since, ranting all over the place about how a similar attack could be inflicted on England or specific cities in the United States. ISIS even promised at the end of November to successfully carry out terror attacks against a laundry list of 60 countries - including South Korea and Mexico, of all places. It was a boast so adolescent and fantastical that it skips over the possibility of sounding intimidating and goes straight to being ridiculous. I'm reminded of how an ISIS spokesman proclaimed "Let the nightmare for Japan begin!" after the beheading of war reporter Kenji Goto, something that didn't exactly come to fruition. It’s possible what happened in Paris was the most lethal incident ISIS could reliably carry out, and the gloating aftermath seems to indicate they’ve unloaded the best of their ammunition.

If an organization wants to protect the success of its future operations, it painstakingly avoids suspicion. Hezbollah, who have a reputation as notoriously skilled terror operatives, carried out a string of attacks against American personnel in Beirut during the 1980's that were effective because not only was there absolutely no forewarning they’d strike, but also because it wasn’t immediately obvious that Hezbollah had orchestrated the assaults in the first place. Lots of difficult sleuthing managed to tie the incidents to Hezbollah's shadowy mastermind, but there was no open gloating or arm-waving pronouncements in the aftermath. The plots were executed in operational silence and unleashed with complete unpredictability.

This all helps clarify that what ISIS is attempting to instill as a foremost objective is a vague, generalized sense of fear. Hezbollah had a distinct tactical objective when they bombed the CIA station in Beirut and kidnapped the highest ranking local CIA official - dismantling their perceived enemy. Hezbollah even tortured the station chief for information after his capture, which he likely surrendered because all his previously unrevealed sources started abruptly disappearing across Lebanon. This is how you conduct effective, surgical operations. Per usual, ISIS is behaving in ways that are reckless, noisy, and scattershot, and designed to severely over-inflate perceptions of their menace and power. It’s trademark behavior on their part and perfectly aligned with the organization’s general operating pathologies. Little efficacy, high theatricality.

The reason ISIS threatened to attack Washington, DC in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is foremost because they wanted the American public to believe an attack was inevitable. Al-Qaeda, who took a chapter from Hezbollah’s book on the school of quiet operations, made no open noise about wanting to bomb the World Trade Center on 9/11 - and even then the CIA had awareness of their plans for up to four months prior. In light of this, ISIS shrieking about an attack on DC has practically guaranteed they’re not going to be able to effectively conduct a terror plot. The important part is that ISIS made the American (and British, and German) public feel at least somewhat uneasy - a sort of force multiplier that has a psychic impact on an infinitely greater number of people than their actual operations could ever inflict in terms of physical harm.

And even by ISIS’ knuckle-dragging standards, the attacks in Paris were partially bungled. ISIS’ various spokesmen were yelling all over social media, in the words of one particularly melodramatic fellow, that the massacre in France was so successful it represented a “miracle”. Except it wasn’t, not even close. The bomber who was supposed to find his way into the Stade de France and detonate himself surrounded by hundreds of people (including President Francois Hollande) was turned away by everyday stadium security and forced to take the consolation prize of blowing himself up outside the venue, probably disappointed with his very subpar martyrdom. In the midst of the shock and horror, it’s easy to miss this moment of blatant incompetence. That style of dark, slapstick comedy is not uncommon in terrorist circles - these are the sort of antics that inspired the excellent British jihadi farce Four Lions. The young men who act as disposable pawns in these kinds of plots aren't exactly the Muslim world’s best and brightest. The smarter ones among their cadre are generally less intent on pre-packaged martyrdom and more inclined toward climbing the jihadi corporate ladder - becoming recruiters, strategists, and commanders. The jihadi rank-and-file who embark on suicide missions or spree attacks are often dumb as rocks and can act like morons during crucial moments.

The recruits who sign up for attacks in Europe also tend to fall under the umbrella category of “homegrown radicals” - young men swayed to the cause of radical jihadism despite little or no travel outside the West. In the case of the Paris attacks, the perpetrators were an idiot’s gallery of Belgian and French nationals. Kids who match this profile are generally losers and screwups who gravitate to terror groups for middling reasons, and try to jump at the earliest opportunity to get on board with any local plot. Many of these attacks are preemptively foiled, others are <a href=" target="_blank">bungled in the execution, and a rare few actually do some damage. But in terms of genuine destructive scope, they’re never that impactful. A national army can unleash high-powered ballistics or use air power to level entire cities. Terror cells can murder local civilians, but their ability to do serious structural damage compared to an army is negligible. So they instead focus, inevitably, on the targets an organization with such limited capacities can reliably hit - the innocent and defenseless. And in a dark, perverse sense, this works for their aims. The murder of civilians shocks and enrages. Terrorism, in its tactical application, is often the act of a far less powerful entity using shock and fear in an attempt to level the playing field against a designated target of much greater strength. The attacks in Paris seemed to represent the most damage ISIS could do in one fell swoop. If France wished to, they could flatten Raqqa in a day.

And this cuts to the truth of it all - though unspeakably tragic, the murder of civilians in no way represents an existential threat to the nation of France. The consequences of fear are often far more powerful and resounding than the human damage inflicted. If leveraged correctly, panic can be exploited to make your target behave in self-destructive ways. Fear is what caused many of the ill-prepared Shia recruits in the Iraqi National Army to flee their posts at Mosul before ISIS even fired a shot. On the other hand, it didn’t work on the Kurds in northern Syria when ISIS attempted to siege Kobane. Refusing to flinch or stand down, the Kurds outsmarted and outfought ISIS until the jihadis were forced to cut their already sizable losses and crawl away bruised and humiliated after four months of failing to take the city.

Functionally speaking, terror militias behave far more like scavengers than predators. It’s been reported that many of ISIS’ commanders abide by a tract called the Management of Savagery, a guide penned by an Al-Qaeda strategist that outlines how to foment the ideal conditions for the expansion of a jihadi militia. The pamphlet recommends, among other things, that militants focus on exploiting local instability for tactical leverage. The implicit admission behind this is that unstable situations are the only circumstances under which a terror militia like ISIS can effectively function. It reveals a lesser focus on developing strong martial doctrine and skilled infantry, and more on exacerbating the fragile situations in which you send your forces to operate. As I’d noted previously, many of ISIS’ foot soldiers are military amateurs and untrained war tourists - which makes them exceptionally weak in prolonged combat.

The fragility and extreme power vacuum that emerged in Sunni-dominant central Syria and western Iraq during the civil wars represented a perfect scavenging opportunity, as did the various towns on the fringes of Kurdish territory. ISIS fanned out into terrain that was unprepared or poorly defended, allowing them to accumulate easy gains throughout 2014. Except the situation has turned radically since then, with the Kurds and other local players fixated on ISIS’ presence and galvanized against them.

To take a recent example, when well-prepared Kurdish forces moved to reclaim Sinjar last month (a city ISIS had captured in August 2014), the jihadis barely put up a fight. ISIS’ resistance to the Kurdish assault lasted all of two days, with Kurdish forces basically walking into Sinjar in the wake of a mass retreat. Similar to a hyena, ISIS sprinted as fast as they could in the other direction when a more powerful entity closed in. It was an act of very simple calculus on ISIS’ part - they knew good and well they’d be decimated further if they attempted to stage a prolonged fight against the organized Kurdish advance. So they cut their losses and fled, leaving little more than explosive traps and a few snipers behind. The recapture of Sinjar was, in its own way, a delayed and bitter visitation of justice. ISIS found themselves cut down and humiliated not only by Kurdish soldiers, but also by Yazidi battalions made up of the very people they attempted to exterminate in 2014.

Yazidi YBS Fighters

*Yazidi guerrillas inside Sinjar* [Credit - Flickr Creative Commons]

ISIS’ retreat in Sinjar was an active demonstration of their standing capacities, and an unflattering one at that. What happened in Sinjar was a sort of martial retraction, which has become ISIS boilerplate in recent months. The jihadis spread out as far as they could across the open terrain in Syria and Iraq when the ground situation was at its most brittle in 2014. Now that their enemies are bearing down on them, ISIS is shrinking into itself. They also put up pretty flimsy resistance when the Kurds moved in on Tal Abyad back in June 2015 - which was a crucial transport route along the Turkish border. The Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq have made a consistent policy of hamstringing ISIS’ supply lines, a shrewd tactical measure that has withered ISIS around the edges and forced them to abandon their outer holdings. The jihadis have failed to recapture these key points, focusing instead on improvising new supply lines within their increasingly restricted territory. It was reported they attempted to do so almost immediately after the liberation of Sinjar by cobbling together a new transport route along the Syria-Iraq border, a response so quick it suggests ISIS may have at least partially anticipated their inability to hold the city.

The newly formed multi-ethnic (Kurdish, Arab, Armenian, Turkmen) Syrian Democratic Forces had also liberated the Syrian town of al-Hawl just days before the recapture of Sinjar - yet another humiliating defeat that, coupled with the taking of Sinjar, cut the roads between Raqqa and Mosul. ISIS effectively lost the ability to transport goods and soldiers between their two largest cities, which was a crippling loss in terms of both territory management and garrison reinforcement.

There’s one thing that crossed my mind in early 2015 when I began examining the particularities of ISIS as a group and the various aspects of their governance and military campaigns - this entire experiment isn’t sustainable. None of it is. By the time early 2015 rolled around ISIS was effectively doing a tap dance atop a field of landmines, unaware that everything they stood upon was going to blow up in their face. ISIS blindly sowed the seeds of its own destruction throughout 2014, and the unintelligent nature of their operating procedures seemed to foment a collection of factors that will incrementally damage the organization.

ISIS’ brief moment of eminence in 2014 represented the most brutal consequences of the Iraqi/Syrian civil wars reaching a critical mass. We're now in the midst of a complex deceleration period, where the parabola of violence and anarchy will begin to slope downward. The Kurds have retaken territory and thrashed them on enough fronts that ISIS has retracted deeper into the Sunni heartland. ISIS being as spread apart as they were last year was only feasible during a time of instability and non-preparedness on the part of their opponents. What we saw throughout 2014 was a mass paroxysm of violence, and now the martial clockwork is resetting itself in an almost procedural way - with various other players capturing and fortifying terrain rationally allowed by their military and political reach. The decline seems already in motion, and the ensuing steps will be defined increasingly by geopolitical tension over anarchic carnage. The spasmodic brutality that preceded this point was not a sustainable holding pattern as much as it was the most ugly, extreme consequence of regional destabilization at an inflamed apex.

Hints of the possible next phase for ISIS can be portended through examining their emergence. What we’re witnessing right now is ISIS’ slow decline occurring in reverse to its rise, with the various elements that allowed ISIS to achieve some level of prominence unwinding themselves. ISIS managed to accumulate manpower bulk not from centralized recruitment as is typical of cohesive nationalist forces like the Kurdish YPG/J and Peshmerga, but from a sort of improvised cobbling together of previously disaffiliated factions. Both Syria and Iraq were long overrun with Sunni sectarian militias - some of them sizable cadres and others little more than neighborhood gangs. All that ISIS did was spread amoeba-like throughout the Levant absorbing other Sunni extremist groups they didn’t choose to kill outright. As ISIS increased its geographic and military reach, more factions began gathering under their amorphous banner. ISIS even brought much of Saddam Hussein's former army into the fold - a simple case of situational allegiance taking a more concrete form. ISIS occasionally partnered with Baath Party veterans in skirmishes against Shia forces, with the jihadis eventually subsuming the Saddam loyalists altogether as the insurgency wore on.

These mergers weren’t always successful, either. ISIS demanded that the Al-Nusra front, another jihadi faction they’d fought beside in Syria, submit themselves to ISIS’ leadership back in 2013. Sensitive egos and power squabbles prevailed in the end, with al-Nusra effectively telling ISIS to shove off. The two groups have been openly antagonistic ever since.

Flag of the Al-Nusra Front

*Flag of the Al-Nusra Front.* [Credit - Wikimedia Commons]

Which is kind of funny, when you look at it. Both al-Nusra and ISIS are former branches of al-Qaeda, with ISIS having fully severed itself from the parent organization in early 2014 and al-Nusra potentially looking to do the same. Jihadi groups are extremely fractious by nature, and are prone to rapid, almost chaotic shifts in command structure and allegiance. This makes them rather flexible, even evasive at times, but it also makes them brittle and weak against more cohesive forces. The same factors that render terror organizations difficult to eradicate as skulking opportunists are the same things that make them godawful at long-term military strategy.

Even the capture of Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital and largest Syrian city, was a result of opportunism and slow creep. As an excellent report from The New Yorker notes, ISIS managed to claim Raqqa not by storming the gates, but by setting up camp nearby and slowly accumulating numbers - biding their time until the situation became fragile enough to exploit. As local rebels from the Free Syrian Army (or FSA) got caught in outside skirmishes and peeled away from the city, ISIS moved in fighters and heavy armaments from Iraq and converged upon Raqqa in the midst of its newfound weakness, taking the city piece by piece until the local FSA had scattered or defected to ISIS by early 2014. And many of these defections weren’t voluntary either, as the remaining FSA soldiers were given the choice to join ISIS or face execution. Once ISIS had wrangled full control of Raqqa, they immediately launched a massive, pre-planned propaganda campaign in the hopes of drawing a new wave of foreign recruits. This sort of jihadi propaganda theater has been a huge priority for ISIS overall, with certain reports indicating that ISIS goes to painstaking lengths when staging their videos, agonizing over pre-written scripts even in the midst of battle while doing multiple takes and reading from cue cards. The unintended effect of these revelations is that it makes ISIS look less a mysterious, unstoppable band of jihadis and more like a bunch of squabbling drama queens hypersensitive public image.

Yet ISIS seems to be aware that even their hold on Raqqa might not be long for this world, and reports have rolled in that the group is preemptively fortifying their satellite city of Sirte, Libya in case the surrounding factions close in on Raqqa. This serves as a pretty direct signal that the group fears its foothold in Syria is waning, a signal that’s as blatant as the desperate fear-stoking they’ve attempted in the wake of the Paris attacks. As if to cut their losses yet again, the group is apparently encouraging foreign recruits to travel to Libya in lieu of Syria - a borderline morbid admission of probable death and failure in the upper Levant. And ISIS’ typical pathologies are being replicated in Sirte, with the group attempting to impose a media blackout on the city and set up corrupt, ISIS-run courts. As various reports have noted, Libya would prove an ideal climate for ISIS largely because the country lacks a functioning central government and is in a state of deep civil disarray.

ISIS’ routing their recruits to Libya is the principle of terrorist dispersion in action. It represents an attempt to control potential fragmentation by redirecting manpower and resources to a region that’s now more vulnerable than Syria. It also abides by the pattern of weakness detection and scavenging that allowed ISIS to first grab territory in the Levant. ISIS’ original incursion into Libya came through their capture of the city of Derna back in October 2014, a holdout that was slowly overtaken by ISIS recruits who’d been skulking on the margins until the local defenses had become weak enough to overpower.

Another phenomenon that has emerged with increasing clarity is ISIS’ extreme incompetence at basic governance and territory management. Not only are civilian populations apparently enraged at the disrespect for local customs, procedures, and clan hierarchies, but starvation and deprivation of basic resources appears to be endemic throughout ISIS-held territory as well. It’s also been reported that local Arab women have been forced into “marrying” ISIS fighters, proving that the group's sexual brutality extends even to the Sunni populations they’d ostensibly want to court. Beyond this, reports from Libya indicate the group is already making a farce of basic urban upkeep.

As I’d outlined in a prior article, there’s mounting evidence that ISIS is fragmenting under the weight of internal dysfunction, but reports since then indicate this pattern is even more severe than first thought. Intelligence gathered on ISIS’ activities in Mosul paint a bleak picture of scarcity, internal mismanagement, and pointless brutality. The organization reportedly executed 133 civilians last month on an assortment of dubious charges. Even the acquisition of food and resources is in a state of lethal disarray. 25 children starved to death in Mosul last month, while 212 civilians allegedly sold their kidneys in a desperate bid to raise money. These reports corroborate similar incidents from other areas under ISIS holding - sudden poverty and lack of resources is apparently a problem even in ISIS’ ostensible stronghold at Raqqa. This level of managerial incompetence seems to be impacting ISIS’ fighters as well. Militants who have fled ISIS territory in Iraq and surrendered to nearby Kurdish Peshmerga have cited fear of starvation as one of their main reasons for defecting.

Beyond this, the surrender and desertion rates among ISIS recruits are heavy and only becoming more pronounced with time. It’s become such a problem that the jihadis have set up a standalone police force whose sole purpose is to capture and detain potential deserters . The group’s capacity for troop cohesion is similarly dismal, with ISIS recruits prone to breaking formation and retreating in the midst of firefights.

There’s also strong evidence that resistance against ISIS has become increasingly fierce throughout their occupied territories. Not only are protests growing more open and fearless, but locals seem to have an especially deep contempt for ISIS’ brutal and self-serving rule. It’s reached the point where this is being expressed through overt violence - there have been two recorded incidents of locals tracking down and shooting ISIS-appointed judges since the start of November. Beyond their military failures against Kurdish forces, ISIS seems to be hopelessly inept at the basics of statehood and governance.

From a broader perspective, indiscriminately antagonizing everyone around you is an awful idea in both tactical and diplomatic terms. It's why even morally bankrupt despots like Bashar al-Assad make sure to keep powerful states like Russia on their side. If you examine everything in retrospect, almost all of ISIS' tactical moves - ranging from their failed siege on Kobane to their provoking hostility from countries that are otherwise mutually antagonistic - have represented astoundingly bad planning. Intelligent militias generally have the foresight to exploit preexisting diplomatic fractures to their advantage, if only to diminish their number of possible opponents. But it takes a magnificently stupid organization to somehow provoke both NATO and the Iran-Russia axis at the same time, especially if you're a mid-sized guerrilla faction with no national claim.

ISIS' behavior as a military presence has consistently been reckless, indiscriminate, and fundamentally dumb. It shows none of the cold, patient calculus displayed by more resilient insurgent groups. If you want to survive, it's terrible policy to persecute a typically pacifist minority group like the Yazidis. There's not a single sane faction who'd want to openly ally with that style of degenerate cruelty. But that’s been ISIS’ trademark since day one - be self-destructively brutal in the most attention-seeking way possible. As the Syrian conflict grinds on, ISIS has won the simultaneous honor of being one of the world's most evil and most incompetent insurgent groups.

All of this - from the territorial retraction in Syria to the mounting aggression from outside forces - seems to foreshadow a gradual period of dispersal and disintegration for ISIS in the Levant. Following the scavenger principle inherent in their operating procedures, ISIS will probably continue to hedge against the loss of manpower and resources in Syria by fleeing outright or redirecting some of their attention to the less challenging theater in Libya. ISIS could well exist in some form throughout the foreseeable future, but only as a fractious collection of terror cells and isolated holdouts.

As the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces have cut closer to ISIS’ core holdings along the Euphrates, local tribal leaders have blatantly asked ISIS to cut and run so as to avoid potential civilian casualties. It’s always these misleadingly subtle incidents that are the most resounding indicators of failure. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if ISIS were to eventually retreat into the more remote parts of Syria and Iraq’s Sunni hinterlands, and possibly attempt sporadic “reprisal” attacks against local and foreign targets they deem enemies. Considering the severe fragility of their military infrastructure, this would likely represent their most reliable means of discharging aggression - no matter how unimpactful they’d be outside of temporary acts of intimidation.

Kurdish YPG gunners

*Kurdish YPG overlooking a post in northern Syria.* [Credit - Flickr Creative Commons]

There remains one particular wild card in this situation - Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. Erdogan’s status as an enabler and even de facto ally of ISIS is rather uncontroversial at this point. Certain elements from Erdogan’s inner circle have expressed moments of weird sympathy for ISIS, with his acting PM Ahmet Davutoglu once claiming that ISIS was not a definitive terrorist organization as much as an aggrieved group who have suffered “discontent, anger, and discrimination”. Which is a rather novel way of describing militants who behave like sadistic, rapist swine.

Much of Turkey’s ISIS enabling has emerged in the areas of logistical and economic support - effectively leveraging them as a proxy army against the Kurds. Turkish opposition leader Ali Ediboglu claimed in November that ISIS had raised over $800 million thus far in 2015 by funneling oil into his country’s black market. However, there have also been whispers that Turkish intelligence has directly aided the flow of ISIS recruits across the border into Syria. One of the ongoing sources of tension between Putin and Turkey is how effective Russian airstrikes have been at crippling ISIS’ oil productivity. A recent analysis suggested ISIS was once earning $3 million a day from smuggling oil, a number that has apparently halved since Moscow’s bombing campaign began.

However long ISIS manages to persist in a concrete way in Syria depends largely on whether or not Turkey’s enabling can be cut off at the root. Diplomatic cohesion against ISIS will be a particularly thorny issue going forward, once again proving that disarray in any form remains the jihadi group’s most powerful asset.

ISIS’ end will likely come less from an abrupt, climactic downfall and more from a slow and humiliating stumble toward oblivion. The group could fracture down the middle, with the prolonged tensions between jihadi hardliners and former Saddam loyalists potentially ending in organizational rupture. ISIS' dismal morale and ongoing martial failure could only exacerbate problems with defections and surrenders, a phenomenon that’s accelerated in the latter half of 2015. If these frustrations increasingly turn inward, it wouldn’t be surprising if segments of ISIS’ command structure were to pull away from the organization as a whole. Actively hedging against death and loss can happen on a fractional basis as easily as they can on an cohesive one.

And this process will not be easy. The diplomatic sideshow will undoubtedly be messy and contentious. The maneuvering on behalf of Bashar al-Assad will be as cynical and morally deranged as it always is, and NATO’s squabbles with Russia will remain costly and noisome. The Syrian and Iraqi civil war’s toll on the civilian population has already been harrowing, and the burden of repairing infrastructure will be matched by the herculean task of diminishing sectarian hostility. Throughout all this, local forces will have to contend with ISIS even as it slowly disintegrates. Considering ISIS is a rapacious insurgency without a recognized state claim, there won’t be any signing of peace treaties or diplomatic negotiations. But even if the timeline is prolonged and hazy, ISIS will crumble, leaving the human toll to be attended in its wake.

So mourn the fallen, especially the brave young Kurdish soldiers who died before their time and the reporters who were killed trying to capture the reality of life in Syria. Provide solace and comfort to the living, especially the Arabs terrorized under ISIS’ rule and the generation of horrifically abused Yazidi women left behind. And, of course, grieve those murdered during the attacks in Paris and Beirut.

But as ISIS continues to fall and their forces decimated, look at them with the mockery and hostile ridicule they’ve deserved since the beginning. Maybe this is dark of me, but laugh at them if you’d like. Appreciate the morbid comedy of some drooling ISIS recruit who figured his tenure would be marked by conquest and sex slaves randomly taking a sniper round through the gut from a young Kurdish woman. There is a bitter style of humor in watching humanity’s worst arrogance get pierced through (in this case, quite literally) by the uncaring vagaries of fate. The universe and all its composite parts don’t care how much of a badass you fantasized yourself to be when you left Brussels.

And let the ignominious fall of ISIS serve as a cold forewarning to any upstart jihadis tempted to manifest their degenerate conquest dreams into some kind of martial reality. The world can be a senseless, unjust place, but the fate of extreme evil often arcs toward oblivion. Ask any of the Nazi officers who died thrashing on a rope after Nuremberg. The human collective has little tolerance for something as virulent as ISIS’ brand of conquering jihadism, and a rampaging virus of that scope will inevitably invite its own destruction. So go ahead and remember ISIS, but remember them in the opposite rendering in which they imagined themselves - a group beaten down by the very people they tried to overtake, a failed militia cast mercilessly into the furnace of history. The world will keep spinning, and ISIS will be rendered a despised anecdote of humanity’s worst. The land will heal itself, slowly and painstakingly, enduring as humanity always has even in the face of overbearing darkness.

Header photo taken from <a href=""">Flickr Creative Commons.

Adam Patterson can be reached by email at "" or on Twitter @AdamPattersonDC.