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The Islamic State group is not finished – yet Open in fullscreen

Stasa Salacanin

The Islamic State group is not finished – yet

Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group last year [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 April, 2018

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Analysis: The 'caliphate' may be destroyed, but that doesn't mean IS has vanished. Many predict the organisation will regroup and strike again. Question is, how and where, writes Stasa Salacanin.
After the Islamic State (IS) ceased to exist as a territorial entity, the whole world wonders about the group's future. The "caliphate" may be destroyed, but that doesn't mean the Islamic State group has vanished. Predictions about its future moves vary greatly, but there is a shared belief that this extremist organisation will regroup and strike again. The only question is how and where.

A lot of IS fighters are returning to their countries of origin, with at least some determined to carry on the fight from there. Many suggest that the group will increase its activities through its franchises, sending a message that it has not been destroyed even if it has lost its self-proclaimed state.

Read also: Islamic State families struggle with life after the 'caliphate'

While the core military force of IS was made up of Syrian and Iraqi citizens, an estimated 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries, had joined the organisation over the last few years.

According to a report by Soufan Center, at least 5,600 of them, from 33 different countries, have returned home, including some 20 to 30 percent of fighters from Europe.  Foreign returnees pose a daunting challenge since they are likely to stage lone-wolf attacks which are extremely difficult to detect.

Since the loop around the self-proclaimed caliphate started to tighten, IS began to shift its resources abroad in order to create and strengthen its branches and franchises. There are about eight different IS branches in some 18 countries throughout the world. IS has made inroads to North Africa, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and South East Asia, where some terrorist groups have adopted IS tactics, ideology, and organisational structure.

Since the loop around the self-proclaimed caliphate started to tighten, the Islamic State group began to shift its resources abroad in order to create and strengthen its branches and franchises

Islamic State's global expansion

Islamic State’s franchises have already proved to be a dangerous and destabilising force in the territories they operate in. But although these franchises have been appearing all over the globe, including exotic destinations such as Philippines, in the island of Mindanao, Central Africa or Myanmar, it is doubtful whether they can repeat the previous success in creating a vast territorial entity, as they are strongly constrained. 

The lack of robust logistical infrastructure that includes weapons, safe houses and wider local support, as well as geographical remoteness and isolation in the case of the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo currently prevent these two areas becoming a next extremist core hub, although the developments in this states should be watched closely in the future.

Colin Clark, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, believes the most likely scenario is the group re-emerging right in Iraq and Syria where it initially grew. Most of the reasons for the group’s emergence, namely, the Syrian civil war and Sunni Arab disenfranchisement, are still relevant. Indeed, a large Sunni population oppressed by civil war and Shia domination, combined with poverty and uncertain future, makes a fertile ground for extremist expansion.

Milo Comerford, an analyst and research innovation officer in the Co-Existence team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, adds that while even small pockets of support for Salafi-jihadism remain, so remains a very real threat of resurgence. The rise of the Islamic State group itself should be a cautionary tale.

"The resilience of its predecessor organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was underestimated by the international community after its apparent defeat in 2006, allowing it to morph and consolidate into the force that swept into Mosul and Raqqa almost a decade later,” he told The New Arab.

The resilience of its predecessor organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was underestimated by the international community after its apparent defeat in 2006, allowing it to morph and consolidate into the force that swept into Mosul and Raqqa almost a decade later

Monitoring Afghanistan and Pakistan

Although it is difficult to predict which of IS affiliates and franchises will become the most prominent following the group’s loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, Seamus Hughes, the Deputy Director of the Programme on Extremism at George Washington University and former US Senate HomeSec Committee Senior Counterterrorism Adviser and US Gov Internal Policy Officer, points out that the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province in Afghanistan appears to be an early front-runner as it utilises geopolitical instability and the stalemate between the government and the Taliban to leverage influence in areas that do not fall under the control of either.

According to Comerford, the group has claimed a foothold in Afghanistan and Pakistan, comprised largely of "extremists disillusioned with the Taliban." 

John Rugarber, former US Army Captain with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan and analyst at Encyclopaedia Geopolitica, recalls that in 2015, IS appeared to take advantage of the instability within the Afghan Taliban, following the announcement of Mullah Omar's death to insert itself into the conflict. Regardless, the Taliban leadership have made it very clear that they did not want IS involved in their conflict with the United States.

However, he thinks that Islamic State group's presence in Afghanistan exists not because they have found a lasting ideological footprint in the region; rather, they exist because of the internal struggles among the various groups competing for control in Afghanistan. 

Besides Khorasan Province, new groups have emerged in the region. Simon Schofield, a Senior Fellow at the Human Security Centre, says that a further franchise has opened – Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK), which is aiming to compete with the established Islamist terror outfits there, like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT).

IS appeared to take advantage of the instability within the Afghan Taliban, following the announcement of Mullah Omar's death to insert itself into the conflict. Regardless, the Taliban leadership have made it very clear that they did not want IS involved in their conflict with the United States

In Kashmir, Rugarber explains, IS seems to have been able to exploit the conflict between India and Pakistan over control of the region and recast the conflict in terms of a clash between the mostly Islamic Pakistanis and the Hindu Indians. This certainly makes an already volatile situation worse and if Islamabad thinks they can control IS or use them as possible cannon-fodder against Indian troops, then they clearly have not talked to the Sunnis of western Iraq who also thought they could control IS after welcoming them. 

Rugarber thinks that Islamabad will tolerate the presence of IS as long as it is in their interest to do so, and then will eliminate them when they have outlived their usefulness. But such tactics may prove fatal, due to a risk of potential blowback into Pakistan. If such scenario comes true, Pakistan may be accused of association with Islamist extremists or allowing unchecked chaos to develop. Schofield fears that either way, this can lead to a downward spiral that brings India and Pakistan back towards the brink of major conflict.  

'Atomisation' of the Islamic State group

The expansion of IS in various parts of the Muslim world, according to Rugarber, clearly shows that we will see the extremist group appearing everywhere they can exploit a conflict on religious grounds in the defence of Sunni Islam, but their overt presence will likely remain temporary as there are very few combatant forces that will support their extreme tactics. 

But can IS repeat its former success in Syria and Iraq when it occupied vast areas and founded the “caliphate.”

Rugarber makes a clear distinction between IS’ potentials for territorial expansion like in the case of former “caliphate” and expansion of their ideology.

“If the definition of the foothold is limited to gaining and maintaining territory, it seems unlikely that IS tactics and methods will allow them to do so unmolested for long periods of time. But if the definition is along ideological grounds, then IS will continue to have success on that front because the issues of poor governance, lack of social mobility, and angst over past wrongdoings still exist.”

It also remains to be seen to what extent IS core leadership will manage to navigate, coordinate and guide these new groups. In the past three years IS has suffered devastating loses. US Army General Raymond Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, cited estimates that the group has lost some 60,000 to 70,000 fighters

Of the 79 senior leaders originally identified, only 10 remain. Of the founding members only Baghdadi remains. As such, Schofield added, it is not clear that there is a command and control function left of Islamic State to coordinate.

However, Comerford recalls the case of al-Qaeda saying that the resilience, and indeed resurgence, of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama Bin Laden demonstrates that the success of extremist movements is not simply tied to specific personalities and ideologues. Therefore, “defeating IS and its warped worldview will require going beyond simply targeting the group’s leadership.”

As the group's own spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in a 2016 speech: “Do you think… that victory is achieved by killing one leader or another?”

Indeed, there does not seem to be a concerted grand strategy or command-and-control mechanism. Rugarber observes that each group has its own interests and if those interests do not coincide with Baghdadi's wishes, there is little the latter can do about it.  

The resilience and indeed resurgence of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama Bin Laden demonstrates that the success of extremist movements is not simply tied to specific personalities and ideologues. Therefore, defeating IS and its warped worldview will require going beyond simply targeting the group’s leadership

David Kilcullen, who devised the "disaggregation" strategy against the Islamic State group, has called the next phase of IS the "atomisation" phase. Islamic State has set out its ideological and tactical stalls – it wants to create pockets of Islamist rule across the world and use the "ink blot" strategy to eventually impose a New Caliphate on the whole world.

The means to do this are constant terror attacks to destroy the grey zone where Muslims and non-Muslims can coexist, undermine trust in governments and draw them into armed conflicts where they can be bled (as the Mujahedeen did with the Soviets), eventually collapse them and replace them with theocrats.

So, while the group’s leaders may provide ideological backing and facilitative support to its worldwide affiliates, as they move into new spaces, IS will likely adapt to local circumstances.

Hughes explains that IS affiliates take cues from the group’s central leadership, but their own leaders are generally natives of the countries that they operate in and have unique political aims and general agendas.

“Therefore, it may not be reasonable to expect that IS’ affiliates in Afghanistan, the Philippines, or West Africa will behave in the exact same way as their parent organisation in Syria or Iraq, or even like each other,” he added. 

In other words, “there is to be little in the way of coordination between Islamic State branches, they will share little but ideology and branding,” Schofield noted. 

Read also: Islamic State rape survivors in Iraq are like 'living corpses'

Necessity of follow-up 

Defeating the physical caliphate is only the first chapter in a battle against IS. But any military victory over the group is completely in vain if it is not followed up by economic and political reconstruction of states where IS and its branches emerged.  

Substantial improvement of conditions that fuelled the foundation and growth of IS should, therefore, be the main task of the international community. Unfortunately, the West has a rather poor record in follow-up efforts, as we can hardly find any successful example of post-war reconstruction in recent history. Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan have all become failed states after Western military interventions, infested with corruption, ethnic and religious conflicts and terrorism. 

Unfortunately, the West has a rather poor record in follow-up efforts, as we can hardly find any successful example of post-war reconstruction in recent history

According to Schofield it is unclear what will emerge in the ruins of post-Islamic State Iraq and Syria, but it is obvious that without engagement from liberal, rights-respecting, democratic actors, and without resources committed, that whatever does re-emerge is unlikely to be good for the people that have to, or choose to, live there, whether it is a return to tribal warlords, Baathist strongmen, or religious fundamentalist control. 

As Schofield notes, Afghanistan and Iraq have made incredible progress in areas like education, infrastructure, and attempting to build a robust civil society, but these grand projects did not spring up overnight anywhere else in the world. It is therefore unfair to expect them to do so in Iraq and Afghanistan, and anywhere else recovering from a society-rending conflict – instead they need long-term commitment, engagement, and resources.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.

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