In a February 2018 speech, President Donald Trump announced that the “ISIS Caliphate has been decimated.” The question is therefore, how defeated is ISIS (also called Islamic State, and Daesh in the Middle East)? It is true that the so-called Caliphate has shrunk from territories in Iraq and Syria the size of the United States state of Iowa to a tiny sliver of land in eastern Syria, in a pocket of land around the village of Baghouz. Yet, while the ISIS Caliphate may have been a cruel fantasy for those under its control, the core of its beliefs is dangerous, and they still hold an appeal for many Muslims. The use of terror against “infidels” as well as fellow Muslims has not been abandoned though, by the loss of territory.
The Caliphate idea resonated with many young Muslims, especially in the West. European government, while making multiculturalism the raison d’étre of their respective states, failed to integrate Muslim immigrants into their society. Alienated and unemployed, many young Muslims sought out their identity in the glories of Islamic history. Syria and Iraq were the centers of the two original Sunni Arab Caliphates, the Umayyad in Damascus, and the Abbasid in Baghdad. Although ISIS controlled large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, Damascus and Baghdad were not part of it, and Raqqa, the capital of ISIS, did not exactly recall Islamic glory.
In August 2014, the territorial acquisitions of the Islamic State (IS), however extensive, did not constitute a state. Kathy Gilsinan wrote in the Atlantic, “The oft-cited definition articulated by Max Weber in the early 20th Century, a modern state requires monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its territory. Tarek Masoud of Harvard’s Kennedy School, voiced skepticism on whether ISIS meets the threshold. Just because ISIS calls itself a state doesn’t mean it is one. Weber had something more in mind than a bunch of psychos in Toyota HiLuxes.”
ISIS land ambitions might have been defeated. Terrorism however, cannot be eliminated in today’s climate, it can only be contained. In Iraq, ISIS has regrouped since the Baghdad government declared its triumph over the group in December 2017. The same may very well happen in Syria, albeit, the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are much more determined about finishing off the terror group, and it is supported by the U.S.
Michael Knight, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed out that “ISIS (Islamic State) did not disappear in Iraq. In the first 10 months of 2018, Islamic State (IS) mounted 1,271 attacks of which 762 were explosive events, including 135 attempted mass casualty attacks, and 270 effective roadside bombings. As important, IS attempted to overrun 120 Iraqi security force checkpoints or outposts and executed 148 precise killings of specially targeted individuals such as village mukhtars, tribal heads, district council members, or security force leaders.”
According to Brandon Wallace and Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington based Institute for the Study of War, “ISIS is waging an effective campaign to establish durable support zones while raising funds and rebuilding command-and-control over its remnant forces. On the current trajectory, ISIS could regain enough strength to mount insurgency that once again threatens to overmatch local security forces in both Iraq and Syria.”
Bruce Hoffman, Director of Georgetown University Center for Security Studies, testifying before the Congressional House Armed Services Committee (February 14, 2017), suggested that ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had already instructed potential foreign fighters who were unable to travel to the Caliphate to instead emigrate to other wilayets (where ISIS branches are located). This suggests that these other branches could develop their own external operational capabilities independent of the parent organization and present a significant future threat.
A partial count of recent ISIS atrocities included a February 2015 attack on a Copenhagen, Denmark Synagogue. It killed 2 and wounded 5. In November 2015, Paris was the ISIS target, which killed 130 people and wounded 368. March 2016 witnessed an ISIS attack on Brussels Belgium Airport and subway, killing 32 people and wounding 340. In June 2016, ISIS attacked the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul that killed 45 and wounded 239. July 2016 saw two devastating attacks. In Baghdad, Iraq, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb that killed at least 300 and injured another 200, and in Nice, France a crowd celebrating Bastille Day was rammed by an ISIS devotee killing 86, and wounding 434. A New York Times headline on June 16, 2016 read, “ISIS committed genocide against Yazidis in Iraq and Syria.” In May of 2017, the Manchester (England) Arena was the scene of an ISIS bombing that killed 22 and injured 59. In October, New York City was the target of an ISIS man using a flatbed truck, ramming bikers, with 8 killed and 12 wounded. In December 2018, ISIS struck in Strasbourg, France, killing 5 and injuring 11.
The ostensible reason that gave rise to ISIS was the removal of the Sunni-Muslim ruling elites under dictator Saddam Hussein, and the U.S. imposition of democracy and majority rule. The Shiite takeover of the Iraqi government, and the subsequent disenfranchising of Sunnis by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014) gave further impetus to the growth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which then turned into ISIS. In addition, the hasty withdrawal by the previous U.S. administration from Iraq in 2011 left a vacuum that enabled Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to transform to an even more deadly ISIS. The U.S. vacillation over Syria under the Obama administration allowed ISIS to make inroads there. While the U.S. has had a military presence in Afghanistan for close to two decades, the U.S. was unable to achieve the total defeat of Al-Qaeda. Similarly, the U.S. surge in Iraq, reduced Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s capacity but did not defeat it.
Although it is significant that 74 member-states have signed on to form a coalition to defeat ISIS, it is not enough to permanently end the terror group’s existence. ISIS will continue to pose a threat to both western homelands and values, while it morphs from a territorial based “state” to a decentralized jihadi terrorist group, with multiple centers. It might, at the same time merge with Al-Qaeda and thus acquire additional assets. In the final analysis, it is the jihadist ideology that must be eradicated. As long as terrorist organizations such as ISIS believe that they are doing G-d’s work by killing infidels, and able to attract disaffected Muslims to fill their ranks, the ISIS menace will continue. The Muslim world needs to address this terrorist cancerous virus in its midst.