ISIS After The Caliphate
Andrew Byers and Tara Mooney
The defeat of ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul and its increasingly tenuous grip on its capital in Raqqa, Syria, demonstrates that the group can, and will, be physically defeated. In early July Iraqi security forces reported that they had broken through ISIS’ last line of defenses in Mosul, leaving ISIS in control of a strip of land along the Tigris River measuring only an eighth of a mile.[i] In desperation ISIS even allowed women into battle as a way to slow Coalition advances. Female militants reportedly fired upon Iraqi forces with their children at their sides as human shields, thus preventing the use of air strikes to hasten ISIS’ final push from the city. Although ISIS will likely maintain guerrilla warfare against the people of Mosul, it is no longer able to boast that it controls Iraq’s second-largest city.
ISIS’ problems are larger than its defeat in Mosul. ISIS has already lost more than two-thirds of the territory it once held in Iraq and almost half of its Syrian territory. While the exact timeline and cost for physically defeating ISIS remains unclear, it is reasonable to assume that ISIS will lose control of its “caliphate” during the next year.
ISIS itself is increasingly hemmed in and risks losing control over the remainder of its territory, even in strongholds like Raqqa, which it needs to maintain its claim as a caliphate. Despite the loss of much of its territory and thousands of its loyal fighters in the fighting, it has already begun transitioning to a guerrilla force in areas it once dominated. In May 2017, U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Daniel Coats testified that even after these recent setbacks, ISIS “will likely have enough resources and fighters to sustain insurgency operations and plan terrorists attacks in the region and internationally” for the foreseeable future.[ii]
While taking away ISIS’ territory is a major victory, it does not guarantee stability in Iraq and Syria, nor will it prevent the rise of future jihadi organizations. Policymakers must prepare for two future threats: ISIS’ post-caliphate evolution and the groups that will inevitably follow ISIS and perhaps pose even greater threats to regional and global security.
Even without Iraqi and Syrian territory, ISIS will likely maintain its expansive online presence. Its propaganda machines will continue to spin its activities and losses in ways that are favorable to the group. Its loss of territory will cause some supporters to lose interest and increase defections, but ISIS has been producing propaganda that paints territorial losses as a fulfillment of prophecies since its formation.
ISIS’ propaganda has already moved away from its original focus on “remaining and expanding” its territory. Now, territory is never presented as being as important as simply continuing to fight, and defeats are portrayed simply as tests to determine who is a true believer. Losing ground in Syria and Iraq may even inspire more lone wolf attacks in Europe and the United States as the group and its supporters seek to demonstrate their resolve and capabilities.
Even after ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, it will likely adopt guerrilla/insurgency tactics in the Levant. ISIS’ retreat from Mosul demonstrates its ease in making the transition from conventional to guerrilla force. When unsuspecting Iraqis returned to their homes in Mosul they reported finding light switches and refrigerator doors booby-trapped with explosives, as well as landmines hidden under children’s toys in the streets. ISIS as an insurgency will prove a challenging fight, as the West’s experiences in past counterinsurgencies demonstrate.
We must remember that ISIS is an international--or even transnational--organization. Its wilayat or “provinces” hold territory in Libya, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, among other places. Defeating the group in Syria and Iraq alone will not destroy the organization as a whole. ISIS has previously recommended that recruits migrate to its Libyan territory when the routes to Iraq and Syria became more treacherous. Given the state of turmoil and civil war in Libya, ISIS will be able to maintain a solid presence there for a long time to come, and could even increase its control there over time.
ISIS’s affiliate in Nigeria offers a murkier future. In August 2014, the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram declared its own Islamic caliphate in the Nigerian city of Gwoza.[iii] Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, seemed to be setting himself up as an equal to the self-proclaimed ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In 2015 Boko Haram’s territory was estimated to span 20,000 square miles of northeastern Nigeria.[iv] Despite their strength, seven months after Boko Haram claimed to be a caliphate the group declared its allegiance to al-Baghdadi, giving ISIS a claim to its territory and formidable forces in West Africa.[v]
Unlike ISIS’ affiliates elsewhere, it appears that the relationship between ISIS and Boko Haram is rocky; there is a notable lack of propaganda and recruitment material produced on behalf of ISIS’s newest wilayat, and few other signs of support. These issues were highlighted in August 2016 when ISIS published a lengthy interview with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, its chosen leader for the West African wilayat, in its Al-Naba magazine.[vi] A few days later Shekau released his own audio message claiming to remain in charge of the group and calling al-Barnawi an infidel. Experts believe ISIS’ decision to replace Shekau came after reports surfaced of Shekau killing his own members after they questioned his decisions, and of his repeated decisions to attack Muslims in mosques and marketplaces. Shekau has managed to maintain control over the organization, but this tense relationship calls into question how much ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria can lean upon their West African wilayat in future times of trouble.
Of more recent concern is ISIS’s advancement in the Philippines. Militants claiming to be a part of ISIS took control of the city of Marawi on May, 23 2017 and after 54 days of fighting, the Philippine military had lost 97 troops and 45 civilians without regaining the territory.[vii] An additional 200,000 citizens were forced to flee the city. New wilayats such as this one show the effects of years of online propaganda and determined recruitment by ISIS, even in far-flung regions and predominantly Christian countries. Just as Al-Qaeda has survived and remained vital mostly through its affiliates after the death of Osama bin Laden, so will ISIS after its territorial collapse in Syria and Iraq.
Nevertheless, the DNI has assessed that ISIS will seek to “foster interconnectedness among its global branches and networks” in order to “align their efforts to ISIS’s strategy, and withstand counter-ISIS efforts.”[viii] New recruits are likely to decline precipitously in number after ISIS loses its last territorial strongholds in the Levant, but that does not mean that the global supply of would-be jihadists will be eliminated, or even decrease in number. These individuals will be drawn to other jihadist groups and other conflicts in the greater Middle East, perhaps seeking new opportunities to declare other caliphates outside the Levant. The end of ISIS in its Syrian and Iraqi wilayat will also produce a significant body of battle-hardened jihadist soldiers who are not ready to put down their arms , but who will instead migrate away from Syria and Iraq to fight in other hotspots in the Middle East or to conduct attacks in Europe. While some may lose faith in jihad, many will not; they may form the kernels of new organizations in places like Libya or networks of terrorists in Asia or elsewhere in the Middle East.
This is an especially alarming prospect since ISIS has strongly encouraged a cult of martyrdom among its supporters. In 2001, there were just 54 suicide attacks globally. In 2016, there were 1,112 ISIS-inspired “martyrdom operations” (suicide attacks) in Iraq and Syria, and another 527 such attacks in the first half of 2017, meaning that the pre-September 11 number of suicide attacks is eclipsed each month as a direct result of ISIS indoctrination of its most fanatical members.[ix] This suggests that there is a disturbingly high number of people willing to die for ISIS. Some will die or lose their enthusiasm as ISIS continues its collapse, but others will maintain their eagerness to die while killing ISIS’ enemies elsewhere.
ISIS is a learning organization and its successors will be as well: highly adaptable, nimble and digitally sophisticated. ISIS has pushed boundaries in its use of social media, but in the face of concerted opposition, it will eventually fail. ISIS’ successors will also be inspired by radical visions of Islam. Indeed, many already exist in Syria and Iraq. Others will emerge in the power vacuum that will be left behind as ISIS continues its retreat. Many of these groups govern portions of the Levant with less brutality than ISIS, but their existence nonetheless represents a considerable threat to Iraq and Syria as cohesive states and peaceful civil societies. These groups hold territory of their own and have learned from ISIS’ failures in its relations with local populations as well as ISIS’ successes online. Just as al-Qaeda served as a mold for ISIS, so too will ISIS serve as a model for future groups to come.
What we now refer to as the Islamic State was once a branch of Al-Qaeda called “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” whose leader pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. After Syria began to descend into the chaos of civil war, Al-Qaeda in Iraq began to call itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. It expanded its operations into Syria in April 2013 and ten months later Al-Qaeda officially disavowed this rogue affiliate known for its brutality. It is here that many organizations first pick up the story of ISIS, but the path of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot is perhaps more relevant to the future of terrorism, post-caliphate.
Originally known by the name Jabhat al-Nusra, or The Nusra Front, this group served as al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria until July 2016 when Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, officially released Jabhat al-Nusra from their bonds of allegiance to Al-Qaeda in an unprecedented news conference. Jabhat al-Nusra now took on the title of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, with Abu Mohammad al-Joulani at its head. From Al-Qaeda, JFS learned to win the hearts and minds of the local populations and the world -- even at the cost of its radical principles. But from ISIS, JFS learned how to market itself online. JFS created Telegram social media channels, Facebook accounts, and Twitter handles that all received an enormous following. With social media companies focused on ISIS, some of JFS’s media accounts had followings over 10,000 without being shut down. They flooded these accounts with pictures of charity work, military operations, and strong, pious leaders.
In January 2017 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham announced that it would be merging with four other groups, including a known military rival. The five rebranded collectively as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant, now following Abu Jaber Hashem Al-Shakh. Like ISIS and JFS, this group quickly developed its own media outlets and even its own media agency, Ebaa Agency, whose Arabic Telegram Channel has over 28,000 followers as of July 2017. From Al-Nusra to JFS to HTS, the group has provided some tantalizing hints of what we must prepare for after ISIS.
In an attempt to ensure the longevity of its brand and organization, ISIS has spent vast resources indoctrinating children within its territories. Atallah Saleh, a 15-year old Iraqi boy, was recently freed from ISIS’ control and fled to a refugee camp with his family. He told reporters that ISIS taught the young boys “how to be suicide bombers and make IEDs...how to hold a Kalashnikov, how to shoot and kill, how to become a suicide bomber and fight the jihad.”[x] Aid workers running camps have started to work with the children, offering psychological help and teaching comprehensive Islam rather than the warped Islam that ISIS’ ideology is based on. But camp workers report issues with boys between 14 and 17, who have spent many of their formative years under ISIS’ tutelage. ISIS outlined a purpose and a role for these boys who now sit in pitiful refugee camps. This is a generation of young men who will continue to pose a grave danger to local and international security for decades to come, potential recruits for the groups that follow ISIS. Reversing the ideological indoctrination of these young Muslims will take considerable effort, and can really only be successful if peaceful and stable civil societies can be established in the Middle East. Fragile states like Iraq will continue to be threatened by ISIS-indoctrinated militants.
Regardless of how long ISIS clings to power in Iraq and Syria -- though its days are clearly numbered in the Levant -- it will leave several lasting legacies that will be adopted by future jihadist organizations. First, it has embraced the use of internet and social media resources for recruitment, finance, and propaganda in ways that are vastly more sophisticated than its predecessors. In many ways, its prowess in cyberspace is one of the chief reasons ISIS has survived as long as it has. Future groups will take note of this, and build on ISIS’ cyber successes; we will never again face major jihadist threats that fail to use social media to the fullest extent possible.
Second, ISIS is a unique organization with means and ends that differ significantly from those of traditional terrorist organizations--like Al-Qaeda--and insurgent groups that seek to overthrow a single national government. It shares some of the characteristics and goals of terrorists and insurgents but its desire to seize and hold territory--creating a unified and aggressively expansionistic theocratic state--and its successes at doing so, at least on a local scale, have broken the mold for what future jihadist organizations might try to achieve. While ISIS has tried and failed to destroy the international order in the Middle East and the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty, future groups could embark on a similar path, and thereby disrupt or destroy weak states in the region.
ISIS will fade significantly in the next year. But once ISIS is gone, there are countless groups waiting in the wings to take over, having learned from ISIS’s successes and failures. For now, these groups adapt and evolve, gaining followers and traction while the world watches ISIS. It is imperative that the United States and local allies learn how to respond to ISIS’s presence in the physical and cyber domains now. If we cannot learn to outpace ISIS, we will not be ready for the group that surpasses it.
[i] “IS Fighters Counterattack In Mosul, Kill Two Journalists,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 7, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/iraq-islamic-state-mosul-final-push/28600959.html.
[ii] Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence, Statement for the Record to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, May 11, 2017, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/SSCI%20Unclassified%20SFR%20-%20Final.pdf.
[iii] “Nigeria rejects Boko Haram 'caliphate' claim,” Al-Jazeera, August 25, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/08/nigeria-rejects-boko-haram-caliphate-claim-20148251062176395.html.
[iv] Stanford University Mapping Militant Oragnizations Project, updated August 26, 2016, http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/553.
[v] Peter Pham, “ Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance to ISIS: What it means,“ CNN, March 10, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/10/intl_tv/pham-boko-haram-isis/index.html.
[vi] “Isis tries to impose new leader on Boko Haram in Nigeria,” The Guardian, August 4, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/05/isis-tries-to-impose-new-leader-on-boko-haram-in-nigeria.
[vii] Felipe Villamor, “Duterte Seeks to Extend Martial Law in Marawi as Militants Hold Ground,” New York Times, July 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/world/asia/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-martial-law.html.
[viii] Coats testimony.
[ix] Thomas Joscelyn, “The Terrorist Diaspora: After the Fall of the Caliphate,” RealClear Defense, July 14, 2017, http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/07/14/the_terrorist_diaspora_after_the_fall_of_the_caliphate_111802.html.
[x] Sulome Anderson, “Educated in Terror: Deprogramming the Children ISIS Taught to Kill,” NBC News, July 6, 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-uncovered/deprogramming-children-isis-n780081.