Analysis

After ISIS Loses Its Capital, Focus Turns to Strengthening Global Terror Network

Islamic State will continue to thrive, even without territory, as long as the anarchy and resentment that nourished it continues

ISIS fighters are seen in Raqqa in this undated file image, posted on June 30, 2014 by a Syrian opposition group
Uncredited/AP

As Caliphates go, that of Islamic State, ISIS, Daesh or ISIL – however you choose to call them – was particularly short-lived: less than four years. But what a time they had.

For a while, Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his emirs ruled over tens of thousands of square kilometers of Iraq and Syria, including the major cities of Mosul and Raqqa and oilfields that brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in income. In the space of months they went from being “a JV team,” as Barack Obama airily dismissed them in January 2014, to the “greatest threat” to global security in polls conducted around the world. At various points, its fighting force in Iraq and Syria was assessed as being over 60 thousand fighters, with half of that number being foreign volunteers.

The final capture of the caliphate’s capital, Raqqa, Tuesday morning was accompanied by headlines heralding the “Fall of ISIS,” and there's some truth to that. Without its strongholds, Islamic State won’t be able to draw thousands of young Muslims to its training camps and then the killing fields, to hold dozens of hostages and produce elaborate snuff videos with them.

Thousands are fleeing the battlefield. Some are holing up in the last Euphrates Valley towns that Islamic State still holds, near the Iraq-Syria border. Most are trying to return to their homes, evading roadblocks. When caught, they claim to have been just cooks for ISIS.

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The group will probably take a time-out as it evolves from a political organization back to a more traditional jihadist terrorist outfit. But this is nowhere near the end of Islamic State.

For a start, they still have bases further afield – Libya, Sinai and Yemen, and other locations in the wider region where a vacuum in governance allows them space. But they are unlikely to establish another caliphate in the foreseeable future.

The next incarnation of Islamic State will not be a geographical entity. It's likely to build up its online global franchise, using social media to maintain contact among thousands of scattered and isolated alumni and to keep up recruitment. Those who make it to a sanctuary will serve as clandestine coaches and sources of inspiration for thousands more wannabe jihadists who failed to make it to the caliphate on time. Aspiring soldiers will still be able to enlist online or by voice recording before carrying out suicide missions.

And there will be no lack of targets. In the Middle East, where there was a very brief period of consensus during which everyone wanted to get rid of Islamic State, there will be plenty of fissures to exploit. This is especially true in Sunni communities, where resentment to Iran’s resurgent Shi’a proxies will boil over, and in the more faraway countries that sent warplanes to bomb the caliphate. The World Cup this summer in Russia is about to be the most threatened sports tournament in history.

Smoke rises at the positions of the Islamic State militants after an air strike by the coalition forces near the stadium in Raqqa, Syria, October 4, 2017.
ERIK DE CASTRO/REUTERS

But it could happen now anywhere. The Islamic State template may have a very thin patina or Salafist piety, but it was never a purely religious phenomenon. Radical interpretations of the Koran and rulings allowed the caliph’s soldiers to enforce a regime of rape, pillage and murder. It was no different to those of secular Arab dictators, like the Assad dynasty and Saddam Hussein’s clan, only with beards and black flags.

For young and disaffected Muslims in Europe, the path from a western lifestyle to extreme Islam was too short and easy to have any real spiritual meaning. ISIS is not a real ideology or religious stream; it is a mutant creed that will continue to thrive, even without territory, as long as the anarchy and resentment that nourished it continues.