Has ISIS been defeated?
Faisal Khan asks: what next for the Islamic State following the loss of its Caliphate?
In February, Donald Trump triumphantly claimed that ISIS had been ‘100% defeated’ in Syria.
While the President may have said this, at least in part, for political effect in some quarters, it created a false sense of security – which was to be dramatically shattered only weeks later.
As people celebrated mass on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, a wave of well-coordinated attacks targeted churches and tourist hotels killing approximately 250 people. The violence represented one of the deadliest singular terrorist attacks since 9/11.
ISIS still represents a very potent and dangerous threat, both locally and globally as the Sri Lankan attack suggests.
Although a local Islamist group, National Thoweeth Jama’ath, was most likely responsible, it was soon established that the attackers were linked to ISIS and that ISIS had played a pivotal role in the carnage. The Islamic State’s role was reinforced days later when a video appeared of its leader Abu Baker Al Baghdadi explaining that the attacks in Sri Lanka were ‘revenge’ for the loss of Baghouz in Syria – the Islamic State’s final physical stronghold.
So, what do events in Sri Lanka tell us about ISIS’s strategy after the loss of its Caliphate?
After the Caliphate
Terrorism expert Max Abrahms, author of ‘Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History, told Byline Times that, while ISIS does indeed still represent a threat, it has nevertheless been weakened – particularly when compared to the likes of Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda. He argues that ISIS has lost its Caliphate and now operates as a ‘virtual Caliphate’; seeking to inspire attacks outside of its former strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
For Abrahms, it has become “increasingly difficult to see where ISIS starts and ends”. For example, the ringleader of the Sri Lanka attacks had links to ISIS, but had not undergone special training as a member.
ISIS has been compelled to change and, going forward, it will likely link-up with ideologically sympathetic militant groups – particularly in countries with weak government control like Afghanistan, the Sinai and Libya – as well as continuing to appeal to ‘lone wolves’ in the West.
Shiraz Maher, author of ‘Salafi Jihadism: The History of an Idea’ and director at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, points out in The New Statesmen that this is not the first time that ISIS has attacked Christians or churches on holy days. The group, for instance, bombed two churches in Egypt in 2017.
For him, this is part of a strategy to cause “the greatest possible offence”. Not only does ISIS seek to provoke outrage via an attack, it wants the event to be an “assault on human decency”.
“This is known as the ‘propaganda of the deed’, where an action is invested with significance greater than itself and is designed to serve as an exemplar or motivating force for others,” he wrote. The need to cause “maximum revulsion” was also apparent in Islamic state’s sexual enslavement of Yazidi women. Maher argues that “for IS, the world must exist in binary terms: a stark division between devout Muslims and everyone else”.
Maher continues that: “Those who talk in absolutist terms of ‘defeating terrorism’ or ‘winning’ the war on terror don’t understand the challenge, which is amorphous and constantly metastasising. Our best options are often confined to choosing between outcomes that are bad and even worse… Islamic State’s global network has become more diffuse and decentralised.”
In many parts of the world, Maher notes, ISIS fighters are returning with technical skills, know-how and capability. He argues that “aggressive attacks such as in Sri Lanka make perfect sense from IS’s perspective, allowing it to pursue an asymmetrical strategy against the West while demonstrating its continued relevance”. Further mass casualty attacks, including in Europe, are therefore a distinct possibility.
Terrorism researcher Kyle Orton said that ISIS continues to present a potent and multi-faceted threat, both locally in Syria and Iraq and internationally. Locally, now that it has lost its Caliphate, it has adapted to become an insurgency and, internationally, it has developed a capability to seed operatives into local insurgencies it was not able to access previously and to guide operatives who seek it out from Europe to the Far East, as evidenced in Sri Lanka.
It would be historically illiterate and strategically suicidal to assume that ISIS has been defeated.Julia Ebner
Orton points out that, the more deep-rooted external threat the Islamic State represents is in its ‘Wilayat’s’ particularly Afghanistan, Egypt parts of West Africa and that for a “host of reasons Saudi Arabia is one to watch.”
Julia Ebner, author of ‘The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-right Extremism’, believes that ISIS is a global threat that cannot be defeated by only military means because, even if it has lost is Caliphate, “its fighters, propagandists and sympathisers are still dangerous”. She has said that some fighters have formed new online and/or offline cells. On occasions, these are locally focused, but in the “online space these groups tend to be increasingly transnational, sometimes multi-lingual”.
Stanly Johny, editor of international affairs at The Hindu and author of ‘The ISIS Caliphate: from Syria to the doorsteps of India’, told Byline Times that, contrary to perception, ISIS has not changed strategy.
He argues that, since early 2015 when its Caliphate came under attack, it started targeting foreign locations through suicide attacks. For him, ISIS is “basically an insurgency that grew into a proto-state”, which gives it a nebulous and flexible character. So, for example, when its Caliphate is destroyed, it reverts to an insurgency. Further, even if a person is not a member of the group, they can claim allegiance to Baghdadi and carry out attacks under the ISIS ‘brand’.
South Asia – A New Battleground for ISIS?
Stanly Johny told Byline Times that, given ISIS recruits are young Muslims, it feeds off chaos and states already battling conflicts in South Asia are ‘fertile ground’ for the Islamic State.
At least two Muslim-majority countries in the region are riven by conflicts and terrorism: Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, a country in chaos, ISIS has had a presence for some time, carrying out regular attacks and already establishing a province, Khorasan. In Pakistan, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban have pledged allegiance to ISIS and, in Bangladesh, ISIS has claimed one major attack – the 2016 Dhaka bakery attacks. The recent attacks in Sri Lanka suggest that ISIS is making a conscious effort to move into the region.
Research conducted by The Washington Post in light of the Sri Lanka attacks reinforces this analysis. It found that, according to its government, 32 Sri Lankan citizens travelled to Syria to join the ISIS Caliphate. Experts estimate that 200 Maldivians joined the group (one of the highest per capita rates in the world). While the government of Bangladesh insists that ISIS has no presence there, the US disagrees and maintains that a local group Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) is effectively the local branch of the Islamic State. As already mentioned, ISIS has a significant presence in Afghanistan and some nebulous links with militants in Pakistan. India, with its approximately 200 million Muslims, has so far resisted the group.
For IS, the world must exist in binary terms: a stark division between devout Muslims and everyone else.Shiraz Maher
All of this suggests that, although the Islamic State did indeed suffer heavy losses and lost most – if not all – its physical Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the group still represents a very potent and dangerous threat, both locally and globally as the Sri Lankan attack suggests.
The group has proved remarkably resilient, intelligent and with an ability to mutate, adapt and change strategy to maintain its effectiveness. Sadly, this means that the likelihood of further mass casualty attacks in many locations across the world, including the West, is very real.
As Julia Ebner states: “It would be historically illiterate and strategically suicidal to assume that ISIS has been defeated.”