So long as radical Islamic ideology is prevalent, terrorism will exist in some iteration or another
Mission accomplished, according to both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their wars on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, respectively.
Abadi revealed over the weekend that government forces have assumed complete control over the entire border region with Syria, overcoming the last pockets of resistance the terror group was putting up in the country; this, following ISIS’ recent defeat in Rawa and, more notably, the fall of its second city of Mosul in July. Previously, the Islamic State also controlled the Iraqi cities of Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah, among others.
Across the frontier, Russian- and Iranian-backed fighters loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad likewise declared victory after recapturing ISIS’ last urban stronghold of Albu Kamal, which, in turn, followed the retaking of Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate.
On a surprise visit to Syria on Monday, Putin ordered Russian forces to start withdrawing, saying that Moscow and Damascus had achieved their ostensible goal of destroying the terror group. Notably, Putin made clear that Russia would maintain “on a permanent basis” both its Hmeymim air base located in Latakia Province as well as its naval facility at Tartus.
The U.S., which militarily supported the predominantly Kurdish forces that liberated Raqqa and which has maintained troops in Iraq since 2003, congratulated Baghdad on freeing millions of people from ISIS’ “brutal” reign while warning, however, that this “does not mean the fight against terrorism or even against [the Islamic State] in Iraq is over.”
The same might be said for Syria, where Islamic State fighters are believed to have fled to remote desert areas, while others have taken refuge on the other side of the border with Turkey.
Indeed, the latest incarnation of ISIS—which at its peak ruled over some 40,000 square miles in the Middle East—developed as an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq, which was decimated during the 2007-2009 American troop surge. Only in 2010, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed ISI’s new leader, did the organization begin to regroup and ultimately, backed by the recruitment of top military brass from Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist regime, morph into the force that rampaged across the region in 2014.
The ISI, moreover, had its origins in Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which gained prominence in Iraq by perpetrating attacks on U.S. troops in the aftermath of the American invasion. After swearing allegiance to Osama bin Laden a year later in 2004, Zarqawi changed the group’s name to Tanẓim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, commonly known as Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI). In 2006, AQI joined with several smaller Iraqi Sunni groups under an umbrella organization called the Mujahideen Shura Council, which eventually grew into ISI.
In other words, Washington’s cautious response suggests that it has learned from historical precedent: namely, that terrorist groups are resilient and ever-evolving. So long as the radical Islamist ideology that fuels their existence and development remains prevalent—especially in war-torn, impoverished regions—there is a strong likelihood that future manifestations of ISIS will emerge.
According to Avi Melamed, the Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, “ISIS will continue to exist through its ideology and influence on other groups or affiliates and individuals. The recent attack on the mosque in Egypt’s [Sinai Peninsula] was an example of this.
“There are many organizations originating from the same womb of salafi-jihadism,” he elaborated to The Media Line. “There are some that are even more hardline than ISIS, if you can believe it. Overall, though, if we are speaking of a potential Islamic State 2.0, it is unlikely there will be anything enormously different about it. Unfortunately, there is no lack of extremists.”
Adam Hoffman, a Research Associate at The Forum for Regional Thinking and The Middle East Network Analysis Desk at Israel’s Moshe Dayan Center, agrees that ISIS—and its philosophy—will remain a significant danger. “The Islamic State has already been transforming over the past few months, especially following its loss in the Mosul battle. It is steadily reverting back into an insurgency and has already released videos saying it will resume the tactics of its former leader Zarqawi.
“Even now,” he continued “we are seeing an increase in low-intensity actions, such as car bombings and the use of snipers, with the goal of destabilizing the Iraqi government and prevent it from achieving any ultimate triumph.”
In this respect, Hoffman believes that claims of victory over ISIS, while understandable given the sacrifices made to inflict significant setbacks on the terror group, are somewhat premature in light of the future challenges it poses. “ISIS has been an insurgency for years,” he explained, “and has in various forms conducted guerilla activity in Iraq for more than a decade. So while it is no longer a territorial entity, it views its ability wreak havoc over the long-term.”
Despite these reservations, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State—comprising some 70 nations—has been extremely successful. While credit is deservedly being shared, many analysts attribute the rapid and far-reaching accomplishments to a renewed commitment to fighting terrorism by U.S. President Donald Trump, which has been accompanied by operational changes on the battlefield.
During the 2016 election campaign, the Republican candidate repeatedly vowed to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out ISIS.” Upon assuming office, President Trump did just that while discarding his predecessor’s rules of engagement—which critics say hamstrung the military—by instead allowing generals, as opposed to bureaucrats in Washington, to make real-time decisions on the ground.
By most accounts, the White House has given a relatively free hand to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who in May praised the fact that the army was no longer being hampered by “decision cycles” or the purported micromanagement by former president Barack Obama.
Nevertheless, coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon recently stressed that “ISIS is very adaptive…[and] we are already seeing smaller cells take more of an insurgent guerrilla type approach as opposed to an Islamic army or conventional type force. So we have got to be prepared for that.”
Indeed, there is genuine concern that ISIS will be able to reconstitute itself in places such as Libya, Afghanistan and the Sinai Peninsula. From there, it is possible that large-scale attacks could be planned and directed toward U.S.-backed forces in the region, in addition to the targeting of Western capitals.
This prospect is heightened by the ongoing regional instability, with no end in sight, which ISIS has become adept at manipulating to its advantage. In this respect, many of the conditions that in the first place permitted the terror group to flourish still exist.
“Resentment among local Sunni populations was one of the factors that gave rise to ISIS,” Melamed stressed to The Media Line. “So the growing Shiite presence of Iran in both Iraq and Syria is something that could further fuel extremism and translate into the birth of other jihadist groups.” For his part, Hoffman explained to The Media Line that “ISIS’ die-hard supporters are still in the game and thus it is still in the [terrorism] business.
While ISIS’ country has come and gone, millions of people will continue to be drawn into its unofficial ranks, as was the case with Qai’ida before it and various lesser embodiments of the ideology before that. For at the root of the jihad’s appeal is a belief system that most contend is not going away any time soon.
In fact, this radicalism increasingly appears to be taking hold across the West, as evidenced by the constant incidence of terror attacks in cities like London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels, Orlando, San Bernardino, New York et al. Should the trend continue and, eventually, reach a critical mass, a caliphate in the Middle East might become irrelevant as the ISIS-inspired war is fought from the heart of the western world.