Is ISIS unstoppable?

The Islamic State is shifting tactics, and not just on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The group is reverting to insurgency tactics it relied on before June 2014, when it took over Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and declared the formation of a caliphate. This operational change has been on plain display in recent weeks: Hundreds of civilians were killed in a spate of suicide attacks attributed to the Islamic State in Turkey, Iraq, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. In Baghdad last week, more than 280 civilians were killed when a car bomb exploded outside a shopping mall.

Some people have suggested that this is a sign of the group’s desperation and weakness. In fact, it demonstrates its strength and long-term survival skills. The Islamic State has known for years that it would suffer setbacks and have to find ways to adapt. In “The Management of Savagery,” a foundational text for the Islamic State’s ideology and strategy published in 2004, the author pointed out that in the 12th century, Muslims defeated the Crusaders with “small bands” and “separate, disparate organizations.” The group has not forgotten that message…

The Islamic State has long been prepared for changing conditions. When I met a man using the name Abu Adnan in November 2014 in the town of Urfa, Turkey, near the border with Syria, he told me that he was part of the Islamic State’s intelligence apparatus and was in charge of setting up sleeper cells and spy networks in Turkey.

“Our enemies are clever and determined,” he told me. “What we can do is to make sure the body of the state is strong, so that it can heal no matter how far they weaken it. So even if they destroy us in one area, you can be sure we’re still there. We don’t have to be exposed and visible.” Men like Abu Adnan have been responsible for planning suicide operations in Turkey and beyond.