Down but not out

The erasure of the Islamic State’s caliphate will not ensure its defeat, warns Scott Stewart, unless external factors that have allowed it to flourish are addressed

The US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an operation on March 1 backed by US artillery and air support to defeat the remnant core fighters of the Islamic State in the last sliver of the militant group’s self-declared ‘caliphate’, the term it used to describe the territory in Syria and Iraq it conquered and governed under its austere interpretation of Sharia. With the destruction of the so-called caliphate, many have begun to wonder if the jihadist group can ever recover. But this is the wrong question. Instead of asking whether the Islamic State core can recover, as manydid when the group was on the ropes in Iraq in 2010, the proper question is whether it will be permitted to recover again. The difference between these two questions is subtle, but vitally important.

History has shown the dangers of underestimating the ability of jihadist groups to rebound from devastating losses. They have done so repeatedly in places like Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mali and, of course, Iraq. This resilience is not solely due to the groups’ perseverance, willingness to suffer casualties and long-war approach to fighting insurgencies: external factors including state sponsorship, sectarian violence and a power vacuum were more important to the Islamic State in Iraq’s recovery and dramatic expansion than the group’s strategy and tactics. Many of these external factors still work in favour of jihadist insurgents in the Levant, meaning the Islamic State may again rise from the ashes.

‘Remain and expand’strategy

A core tenet of the Islamic State’s organisational philosophy is its oft-repeated mantra, baqiya wa tatamaddad, Arabic for ‘remain and expand’. The concept has helped the group withstand a series of significant losses, including the death of its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US airstrike, and the deaths of subsequent leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri. Its persistence is rooted in its firm belief that God favours, although sometimes tests, the group. It is also rooted in writings that influenced its founders, such as Abu Bakr Naji’s ‘The Management of Savagery’ and Abu Musab al-Suri’s ‘Call to Global Jihad’. This narrative serves the important pragmatic purpose of boosting the group’s morale in the face of much more powerful opponents.

ISIS founder, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
ISIS founder, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The Islamic State has spun past battlefield losses by couching them in apocalyptic terms, claiming its numbers needed to be reduced to demonstrate divine power and that only the purest at heart would survive to fight and win the ultimate battle, to bolster the courage of its dwindling ranks.

But in addition to these apocalyptic pronouncements, the group’s leaders have also taken a series of pragmatic steps to disperse some of their fighters, arms and riches, positioning the Islamic State to resume terrorist and insurgent operations after the caliphate’s collapse. This campaign has been on display in Iraq, where the group continues to conduct operations despite having lost control of vast territories.

The Islamic State is again conducting assassinations, bombings and other operations in Iraq designed to shape the battlefield to its advantage, much as it did from 2010 to 2014. Brian Fishman’s book The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victorydoes a great job outlining the group’s efforts during this time. But these efforts to shape the battlefield did not occur in a vacuum: a number of external factors greatly aided the revival of the Islamic State in Iraq and facilitated its expansion into the larger and more expansive Islamic State.

State sponsorship is key

Support from the government of Saddam Hussein in the form of weapons, money and training was one of the biggest factors fuelling the jihadist insurgency in Iraq. Hussein’s military planners understood from the experience of Operation Desert Storm and the example of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan that they stood no chance if they went toe-to-toe with the superior US forces. So in the prelude to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, his military planners decided a prolonged guerrilla struggle was the better course. To this end, they cached quantities of weapons and material throughout the country for use during an insurgent campaign against US forces. Highly trained Iraqi troops became the backbone of the insurgency, and former Iraqi intelligence officers its brains, eyes and ears. Without weapons from government caches and without the Iraqi military and intelligence personnel that flocked to the insurgency, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) group would never have grown so large and powerful so rapidly.

Syria also greatly aided al-Qaeda in Iraq/the Islamic State in Iraq by facilitating the flow of fighters, money and logistics through Syria to support the jihadist insurgency fighting the US-led coalition in Iraq. Later, the Syrian government released large numbers of jihadists from prison in 2011 to bolster President Bashar al Assad’s claims that the rebels were terrorists and to sow confusion and dissension in rebel ranks. Certainly, the emergence of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and the Islamic State’s later entrance as a combatant in the Syrian civil war, helped accomplish both goals.

Exploiting sectarian tensions

Jihadists managed to gain so much traction among Iraq’s Sunni population in part because the process of debaathification significantly disenfranchised Iraqi Sunnis. Progress to reverse Sunni marginalisation during the Anbar Awakening occurred but was promptly squandered by the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the US withdrawal from Iraq. Many Sunni leaders came to believe that with the United States gone and their Awakening gains eroded, the jihadists were the only clout they still held with the central government. But this proved a dangerous calculation, and like Frankenstein’s monster, the jihadists quickly turned on their Sunni master.

With the training and firepower that the Shiite Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) have amassed in Iraq in the wake of the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul, and the close connections that many of them have to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), sectarian tensions will continue to simmer in Iraq, and Sunnis will continue to be wary of Shiite power. This, in turn, will provide Sunni jihadists some breathing room in Iraq’s Sunni triangle. Meanwhile, the survival of the Assad regime in Syria due to ample help from Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces means sectarianism is also primed to continue in Syria.

Thriving in a power vacuum

The Syrian civil war created a power vacuum that swelled the power of jihadist militias. They used this strength to take over a large portion of Iraq and sizable chunks of Syria. The Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and other jihadist groups stepped in to provide governance, justice, security and services in areas left without them due to the civil war. This was similar to the way that jihadists in Iraq flourished amid the implosion of the Iraqi government, and before that, thrived amid the grey areas created by the autonomous Kurdish region and the no-fly zone in northern Iraq enforced by the US-led coalition. With some ambiguity in who governs in northern Iraq remaining, and given the way Syria is currently partitioned, plenty spaces exist in Iraq and Syria that are not sufficiently governed, granting Islamic State militants space to set up operations and regroup.

Lessons of a US withdrawal

The example of how the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 greatly aided the recovery of the Islamic State of Iraq and allowed its metamorphosis into the powerful Islamic State has fostered speculation that a complete US withdrawal from Syria could produce similar results, in this case via a chain reaction of events such as a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria that gives rise to chaos and a power vacuum in eastern Syria. A free-for-all that results in battles among the Turkish military, Kurdish forces from the SDF, plus others like the Syrian military, Iranian forces and Shiite militias could well once again push Syrian Sunnis into the arms of jihadists such as the Islamic State.

US military planners appear to be taking this possibility into account and have pushed back on the concept of a complete withdrawal from Syria in favour of allowing a residual force to remain to help stabilise the situation and assist in ensuring that Islamic State is not allowed to swell again. The initiative to maintain a stabilising force in Syria, however, is under pressure from larger global dynamics causing the US military to shift its focus – and its finite resources – from counterinsurgency efforts to potential conflicts with near-peer powers like Russia and China. This same pressure extends beyond Syria and Iraq to other theatres, driving everything from US peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the scaling back of US engagement in West Africa.

The Islamic State core is just one branch of a global insurgency, a problem the world cannot simply kill its way out of. Combatting a global insurgency requires a global counterinsurgency effort, which means efforts to defeat jihadist groups must persist after the ‘clear’ phase to the ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases of counterinsurgency. And this must happen in every area where the jihadist insurgency is manifesting itself.

From 2010 to now, state sponsorship, sectarian violence and a power vacuum have all persisted to the Islamic State’s advantage. Unless these factors are taken out of the equation, the Islamic State will have the opportunity to re-emerge as a formidable challenge to the region and the world.

Scott Stewart supervises the analysis of terrorism and security issues for the geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor. He was previously a special agent with the US State Department for 10 years, involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations

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