Updated: Mar 7
Islamic State’s last stronghold, Raqqa, has fallen. But the world’s attention must now focus on what it or other Islamist groups will plot next
For a group with such spectacular ambitions, Islamic State’s last stand took place in surroundings of almost shocking banality: a hospital and sports stadium in Raqqa, the Syrian town that was the political capital of its self-styled caliphate.
After weeks of street-to-street battles and bombing, these final strongholds fell to Kurdish fighters last week. More than three years after Isis surged to global infamy with a stunning campaign of conquest, the end came with a whimper, not a bang.
“Once purported as fierce, now pathetic and a lost cause,” Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for coalition forces tweeted. Such triumphant claims have become familiar since the 9/11 attacks. I heard them in Afghanistan in 2002, but US troops are still engaged in the fight against the Taliban. I heard them in Iraq in 2003, 2004, and then year after year until the US pulled out in 2011.
The skepticism with which any talk of “victory” is greeted by analysts and reporters is familiar, too. Many expert observers counselled prudence rather than celebration last week: Raqqa may have fallen, but if Isis is down, it is far from out.
Yet when we recall Isis at the height of its powers, the scale of its decline is impressive. By mid-2014 the group controlled a taxable population of some seven or eight million, oilfields and refineries, vast grain stores, lucrative smuggling routes and vast stockpiles of arms and ammunition, as well as entire parks of powerful modern military hardware. Its economic capital was Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Isis was the most powerful, wealthiest, best-equipped jihadi force ever seen.
Its success sent shock waves throughout the Islamic world. What al-Qaida, founded by Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 1988, had talked about doing decades or centuries in the future, an upstart breakaway faction had done in months.
Its blitzkrieg campaign and the refounding of an Islamic caliphate – announced from the pulpit of a 950-year-old mosque in Mosul in a speech by its leader, Ibrahim Awwad, the 46-year-old former Islamic law student better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – easily eclipsed the 9/11 attacks as Islamist extremists’ most spectacular achievement.
In 2014 and 2015, I interviewed young men, and some women, who had found the call of Isis irresistible. They came from Belgium and the Maldives, both thousands of miles from the Levant. A few returned to their homelands to proselytize or, in Europe, to carry out some of the most infamous terrorist attacks ever.
ISIS inspired others who had not traveled to execute their own attacks, too. From Bangladesh to Florida, hundreds died in a new wave of terrorist acts. A dozen or so Isis “provinces” were established, from West Africa to eastern Asia.
Yet this vast and ambitious project has been reduced to rubble. As many as 60,000 Isis fighters have died since 2014, according to senior US military officials. The leadership has shrunk to a rump – although al-Baghdadi survives.
The administration is no more. The training camps are gone. The flow of propaganda so instrumental in prompting attacks such as those in the UK this year has ceased. One recent analysis noted that, after the fall of Mosul in July 2017, the Isis distribution of governance-related media, which long constituted the bulk of its propaganda output, dropped by two-thirds. In mid-September it ended entirely.
If the defeat of ISIS did not come easily, three inherent weaknesses of its project always made it likely in the long term.
First, ISIS needed continual conquest to succeed: victory was a clear sign that the group was doing God’s work.
Expansion also meant new recruits to replace combat casualties, arms and ammunition to acquire, archaeological treasures to sell, property to loot, food to distribute and new communities and resources, such as oil wells and refineries, to exploit.
But once it had occupied its Sunni-dominated heartlands, further expansion was unlikely. If it was easy to sweep aside a border of a shattered state such as Syria, the frontiers of stronger states such as Turkey, Israel and Jordan proved resistant. There was no way even Isis, a Sunni Arab Muslim force, was going to fight its way deep into Shia-dominated central and southern Iraq.
Second, the violent intolerance of dissent and brutality by Isis towards the communities under its authority sapped support. One reason for the rapid expansion of ISIS was that Sunni tribal leaders and other power brokers in Iraq and Syria could see significant advantages in accepting the group’s authority. Its rule brought relative security, a rude form of justice, and defense against perceived Shia and regime oppression. And assent to Isis takeover also ensured, or at least made more likely, their own survival.
In 2015, with a weakened ISIS unable to offer anything other than violence, the defections started and rapidly snowballed. A collective yearning to restore the military, political and technological superiority over the west enjoyed by Islamic powers a millennium ago – or the conviction that the end times are near – proved insufficient to convince communities to fight and die for the ISIS cause.
At the very end, the hospital and stadium in Raqqa were defended by foreign ISIS fighters. Any remaining Syrian militants had surrendered days before.
Third, ISIS took on the west. This was a conscious decision, hard-wired into the movement, and not taken in self-defense as some have suggested. The first terrorist attackers were dispatched by ISIS to Europe in early 2014, before the US-led coalition began airstrikes.
The combination of western firepower and funding for local forces has repeatedly proved a potent one in Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, Mali and elsewhere. Outright victory against jihadis is difficult to achieve, but militant organisations targeted by the west are usually forced at the very least to abandon territorial gains, particularly urban centers.
It is clear that any victory over ISIS is partial. The recent military offensive has not been accompanied by a parallel political effort. There are still deep wells of resentment and fear among Iraqi Sunnis, and the Syrian civil war grinds on.
ISIS will now return to the vicious and effective insurgency it ran before the spectacular campaigns of 2014. The project of constructing an Islamic state has been defeated, but the organization has not.
Yet there is still cause for optimism. The three key challenges that undermined the ISIS state-building project also face every other militant group, and always will. Neither veteran jihadis such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, who leads al-Qaida, nor younger hotheads have found a way to overcome them.
Al-Zawahiri now advises a “softly, softly” approach to win hearts and minds locally, which appears to have paid dividends in Syria, and encourages tactical withdrawal from territory such as that seized in Yemen by his group’s affiliate there, rather than bloody final battles.
But if al-Qaida or any other group seized a swath of the Middle East and attempted to govern it as ISIS did, it would face the same outcome: bloody and expensive failure. If they don’t seize territory, they must rely on spectacular terrorism to mobilize and radicalize the world’s Muslims, a long-term strategy which has had some results, but is of patchy efficacy.
ISIS can still do very great harm to Iraq, Syria and the broader region. But can it do similar harm to the west?
The group poses a threat to people in the UK, US, Europe and elsewhere through affiliated groups, the fighters it dispatches to wreak havoc, and those it inspires. The threat from all of these will change dramatically now that the caliphate is no more.
The effect on the “provinces” established over the past three years will vary. Some currently affiliated groups have long been more influenced by what is happening in their immediate environment than thousands of miles away. Their active commitment to “global jihad”, and thus attacks on western targets, will now diminish still further. This is heartening.
Nor is there much chance that an ISIS “province” could become a substitute base for the caliphate. Iraq and Syria have unique historic and religious significance that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
The suggestion that the Philippines could be the seat of the caliphate is risible. Then there are the foreign fighters. History – particularly the exodus of extremists from Afghanistan in the early 1990s and then again in 2002 – suggests that those from across the Islamic world will have a very powerful impact.
But so far the much feared wave of violence perpetrated by ISIS veterans returning from the Middle East has not occurred. The UK has suffered several attacks in rapid succession, but these did not involve men who had been to Syria or Iraq. Andrew Parker, director general of MI5, warned last week of a “dramatic upshift” in Islamist terrorism in part because of the potential return of 850 Britons who had traveled to Isis territory and had not been killed. But he admitted that a large influx had not yet materialized.
This leaves the possibility that ISIS can inspire people in coming months and years to commit atrocities in the way it has done in the recent past.
The UK law-enforcement and security community has been debating this question for a year or more. Some believe that ISIS can exist as a “virtual caliphate”, sustained by online propaganda, which would exert the same pull on recruits in the west as before.
But this is to misunderstand the appeal of the group in London, Birmingham, Paris, Antwerp or Berlin. Many recruits from the UK, Belgium or France were young men of immigrant background with records for petty, and sometimes serious, crime and a superficial knowledge of the faith they professed to follow.
ISIS offered everything a street gang does – adventure, status, even financial and sexual opportunity – but with the bonus of redemption from past sins and resolution of a complex identity crisis. A weakened ISIS, stripped of its territories, is no longer “the biggest … baddest gang around”, as one former Belgian ISIS recruit described the group to me two years ago, and so the attraction is no longer there.
There have been four big waves of Islamist militancy over the past 50 years. The first two – in the late 1970s and early 80s, and then in the early 90s – remained largely limited to the Muslim world. The third and the fourth – from the mid-90s through to 2010, and from then until now – have combined great violence in Muslim-majority countries with a series of spectacular attacks in the west.
All four have followed a similar trajectory: a slow, unnoticed period of growth, a spectacular event bringing the new threat to public attention, a phase of brutal struggle, then retreat.
One reason we often miss the first phase of a growing threat is that we are focused on the last phase of a threat that is declining.
We should bear this in mind as we contemplate the smoking ruins of Raqqa’s hospital and sports stadium. But a victory is a victory, and there are few reasons for cheer these days. So let us celebrate the defeat of Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate – and keep a wary eye out for the next fight.