As the campaigns to wrest the Islamic State from the territory it held in Iraq and Syria near completion, new conflicts may arise if old political arrangements prevail, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The political conditions in the Middle East that gave rise to ISIS — the sectarian and ethnic conflicts around the region and the collapse of Arab governments and economies — will surely engender a son of ISIS. And even a deeply wounded ISIS can continue to inspire attacks in the West, notes Peter Bergen, the author of United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.
“Islamic State is not finished,” said Aaron Zelin, who studies jihadi movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “IS [Islamic State, or Isis] has a plan, and that is to wait out their enemies locally in order to gain time to rebuild their networks while at the same time provide inspiration to followers outside to keep fighting their enemies farther away,’” he told The New York Times.
Diplomats and ordinary Iraqis warn that unless the underlying grievances that Islamic State has been able to exploit are addressed—weak, corrupt governance and sectarianism—Islamic State will eventually re-emerge, The Wall Street Journal adds:
Most expect the group will try to make a comeback in Iraq by exploiting the Sunni Muslim minority’s longstanding grievances with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Islamic State adheres to a radical version of Sunni Islam.
“The group’s financial empire has been systematically dismantled by the U.S.-led coalition, exacting a heavy toll on its ability to pay the salaries of its fighters and the costs of providing minimal services, even basic food, to the inhabitants under its rule,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “ISIS’s aura of invincibility and legitimacy, resulting from its earlier military success, appears to be shattered beyond repair,” he said.
As it attempts to regroup, the Islamic State could benefit from the power vacuum created in its absence, says Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. To defeat the Islamic State, someone must develop good governance in its former territories in Iraq and Syria to persuade locals to help uproot the group—an unlikely task that has no credible volunteers, he writes for Lawfare.
“This is a very strong group which has a lot of sympathizers, its ideas are embedded and it has networks. It has a lot to draw on even as it loses its physical territory,” adds Byman, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
IS has lost nearly all the territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq.. [and] as it gradually disintegrates, theological splits have also emerged within the organization, including the rise of a faction that blames its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for the setbacks, The Washington Post reports.
“I worry that al-Qaida has taken advantage of the past three or four years to very quietly rebuild while ISIS has preoccupied our attention,” said Bruce Hoffman, head of Georgetown University’s security studies program and author of “Inside Terrorism.”
“This is in al-Qaida’s DNA, to either absorb, wait out or forcibly deal with any of their rivals so that they’re the last man standing.” The growth of the Levant Liberation Committee in the past year “has really astonished me,” he added.
Al Qaeda, whose appeal to young fighters had been largely eclipsed by the tech-savvy new caliphate of the Islamic State, is vying for a comeback, The NY Times adds.
“The reason that the I.S. gained a big following quickly was that it appealed to the hotheads, those looking for instant gratification,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who monitors terrorist groups. “That caliphate model is all gone, but Al Qaeda remains.”
While al-Qaeda may yet regain the mantle of worldwide jihad, it could also come under increasing threat in its bastion in northwestern Syria, as the forces arrayed against IS shift their focus to a new potentially worldwide threat, observers suggest.
“The honeymoon period for al-Qaeda, in which the so-called Islamic State absorbed most of the counterterrorism focus while al-Qaeda’s affiliates grew stronger, is coming to an end,” according to an analysis by the Soufan Group security consultancy.
“It now appears Zawahiri is seeking to consolidate the terror network and return the group to its heyday as the vanguard of a global movement,” it added. That could place the militants in the crosshairs of the international coalition.
But U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon warned that even with the caliphate in shambles, the virulent ideology and fanaticism that spurred Islamic State’s meteoric rise in the Middle East remains, The Washington Times reports.
“Even after the defeat, the military defeat of ISIS there’s still going to be work to be done,” he said. “ISIS will be defeated militarily, but we know that there still is going to be the ideology and the continued insurgent activity as they devolve into that.”
“Both al Qaeda and ISIS are a creature of fragile and broken state institutions,” said Gerges. “Although the caliphate in Iraq and Syria will be forced to surrender the major cities and towns it controls, the movement will persist as long as Sunni communities feel excluded from the existing order and have no stake in the future.”
The experience of the last eight years shows that an effective counterterrorism strategy must do more than inflict military defeat, say analysts Saskia Brechenmacher and Steven Feldstein. It should minimize civilian casualties and avoid playing into extremist groups’ recruitment strategies, they write for The National Interest:
It needs to mobilize effective and professional local forces that can hold territory liberated from terrorist groups, and help legitimate governance structures to take root. This will require sustained political efforts to broker durable political settlements in conflict zones where terrorists take safe haven and exploit sectarian divisions. And a successful strategy must mobilize international partners, especially from Muslim-majority countries, to confront common threats—while using U.S. leverage to push for greater accountability and compliance with international human-rights standards.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, a counterterrorism expert and research fellow at the Middle East Forum, predicts the ideological appeal of the group will remain strong, the WSJ adds:
In 2015, Washington made a big push to get Middle East allies to address radical ideology at home, believing that a military solution alone cannot defeat groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State. But those regional allies have been slow to make changes.
“There will always be those who are ideologically committed to the Islamic State regardless of whether it controls territory,” said Mr. Tamimi. “To an extent, its draw is larger than holding territory.”
Isis may be on the run for now. But its precursor in Iraq, AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq), was in far worse shape in 2008 than Isis is today, The FT notes:
It took just three years of muddle-headed policy on the part of Baghdad to alienate the Sunni population and set the scene for AQI to re-emerge in its far more dangerous Isis guise. Unless there is a plan soon for how to administer recaptured Syrian territory in a way that is inclusive to the Sunni Arabs, the same will surely happen again. And unless the US and its allies begin thinking more strategically, Isis losses will soon become the Damascus regime’s and its Iranian patrons’ gains.