Photo by thierry ehrmann on Flickr.
At the height of its power, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controlled territory the size of the United Kingdom, subjecting 8 million people to a reign of feudal terror in the process.
At the time of writing, ISIS’s so-called caliphate now currently encompasses no more than the small Syrian village of Baghouz. In other words, it has lost 99% of its land mass. Nevertheless, whilst its territorial ruin is imminent, the destruction of ISIS is far from over. In fact, the UN’s most recent estimation situates ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria numbering as much as 30,000, a particularly striking statistic considering at their prime, ISIS totalled 33,000 in 2015.
ISIS still presents a clear and present threat. Despite the loss of its caliphate, it is naïve to suggest ISIS will simply now fade into nothingness. It will endeavour to inflict further terrible brutality and viciousness in the future. If this is to be prevented and its potent ideology is to be struck from the world, it is important for one to ask how, and why ISIS continues to endure.
Primarily, ISIS has adapted to its changing reality. Its loss of territory has forced the Islamists to resort to asymmetric warfare and guerrilla tactics, since it no longer holds the ability to launch conventional strategies of conflict. For example, ISIS have constructed a complex network of tunnels and caves in northern Iraq, while increased reports of militant activity, including night raids and IED’s (Improvised explosive devices) have been reported in the provinces of Salahuddin, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Sulaimania.
Indeed, strong indications suggest ISIS may develop into a global network of terror cells. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) states at least 7,366 foreign fighters have returned home. More specifically, by June 2018, 1,765 had returned to western Europe, 3,906 to the Middle East and North Africa, and 338 to Central Asia. In other words, it is now far harder to determine where exactly these foreign fighters are, when compared to the days of ISIS controlled territory it was fairly certain they were located in Iraq or Syria. This is now not the case. Whilst the ruin of ISIS territory is an obvious victory, further efforts must be made to ensure its militants do not threaten the lives of others in their homelands.
More specifically, ISIS combatant Mounsef al-Mkhaya confessed the group is currently morphing into a ‘sleeper cell’ organisation. While his knowledge of this fact maybe doubtful considering his minor position within ISIS coupled with his motive to return home to Italy, the above factors suggest his statement needs to be treated with caution. This paired with Kurdish Intelligence reports affirming ISIS ‘tactically’ rather than ‘strategically’ retreated from their previously held Iraqi settlements of Hawija and Ba’aj suggests ISIS is preparing to battle for its caliphate an alternative way.
Additionally, ISIS still has a plentiful supply of global support. In Nigeria, the notorious Islamist group Boko Haram pledged loyalty to its Syrian-Iraqi counterparts in 2015. The group still remains active to this day, kidnapping the locals of poor villages, and launching suicide bombers, some of which are children who forced into this role. The UN estimates that the conflict with Boko Haram has displaced 2.4 million while 7 million are at risk of starvation.
Evidently, ISIS has travelled across continents, spreading its dangerous and extreme ideology in its wake.
The Islamic State has also had a similar effect in the Philippines. Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, when addressing the New York Times stated that ‘ISIS is the most complicated, evolving problem for the Philippines today’. Islamist militants have not only been responsible for the viscous battle over the city of Malawi in 2017 but have also claimed ownership of the recent January suicide bombing of Jolo Islands Catholic Cathedral, claiming 23 lives. Unfortunately, the Islamic State is simply more than a collection of territories in the Middle East.
ISIS plainly has a global reach which will not dissipate any time soon. While this may be the case, tragically, the preconditions which allowed ISIS to rise in the first place are still present in Iraq and Syria.
Bitterness still remains strong between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq particularly. This resentment between the two sects is what drives Sunni’s into the hands of ISIS. The Shia dominated Popular Mobilisation Force reportedly have refused to leave ISIS liberated Christian and Sunni regions. Instead, they have appointed themselves as the local authority and have supposedly been terrorising local populations. The Kurdish Security Council have further stressed Shi’ite militias, which may or may not be affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Front, have carried out similar acts of harassment roughly 100 times a month. This is something which has gravely troubled the US led anti-ISIS coalition deputy commander British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, whom expressed concern over said societal fractures which allowed ISIS to rise in the first place.
A future without ISIS looks depressingly unlikely.
Lebanese political analyst Assad Bechara stressed that if the US withdraws its forces from Iraq and Syria, as President Trump intends to do so, the vacuum it will leave will enable the space for militant factions to materialise, including the Islamic State. Similarly, the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS have pressed paralleled concerns, reiterating that if the US withdraws, terrorist organisation will likely make a comeback. The Pentagon and State Department concluded that ISIS could resurge within 6-12 months if ‘sustained pressure’ was not maintained. What’s more the US and its allies have only trained 20% of the 40,000 local soldiers supposedly needed to prevent an ISIS resurgence in the Middle East according to Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.
The paramount issue in regard to ISIS is that it is no longer a physical entity. As a consequence, it is a lot harder to target. ISIS has now become an idea, and an idea cannot be wiped out through airstrikes or down the barrel of a gun. In an ever-interconnected world an idea can travel across borders and permeate minds with ease.
President John F. Kennedy eloquently stated ‘a man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.’ If the international community is not careful ISIS will endure, developing the ability to once again spread hatred, death and tragedy.