Tunis- With the once seemingly invulnerable forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) in apparent disarray, tacticians and academics are speculating what might come next for the jihadist group whose blitzkrieg advance across Syria and Iraq shocked the world.
While US President Donald Trump’s claim in the wake of New York’s Halloween terror attack that ISIS had been defeated in the Middle East may have been overstated, it is impossible to deny that the crumbling of ISIS’s caliphate has fundamentally undermined its ability to stage the kind of dramatic advance that had established its reputation. However, after years of its brutal rule and the wilful radicalisation of thousands of young people, its lasting legacy may yet outlive its rule.
Central to the ISIS’s identity was the caliphate. What the group’s forerunners in al-Qaeda had only spoken of in terms of years, ISIS had made real. “The [caliphate] was and is the critical conceptual part of [ISIS], its pull and the moral foundations of its commitment and prowess.” Scott Atran, director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, said via e-mail.
The importance of the caliphate to ISIS’s mythology is hard to overstate. Its establishment tapped directly into a vein of Islamic ambition that had long been denied. The group’s rules and dictates covering every aspect of life rendered the caliphate real and served as a daily reminder of its presence.
Despite ISIS’s advances, the signs that its dreams of a lasting caliphate were turning to dust also cannot be denied. A recent report by the Soufan Group stated that the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS’s ranks has slowed to a trickle. Over the last two years, propaganda from ISIS keyboards morphed from bucolic scenes of life within the caliphate and the strictures by which it operates to postings dominated by heroic scenes of warfare and carnage, researcher Charlie Winter at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London wrote.
“ISIS was really good at portraying itself as the dominant jihadist group,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, “but that brand has taken a beating. Now it needs to hope that its myth will buy it the time to reconstruct itself.”
Though its reputation may buy it time, the savagery with which ISIS forged that myth may work against it. The rejection of any religious compromise is hardwired into ISIS’s DNA. Now, either defeated or retreating across much of Syria, the group is vulnerable in a way it has never previously experienced.
“ISIS lived by the sword and now they’re going to need to get used to dying or at least suffering by the sword. There are very few groups in Syria that are going to help them,” Heras said.
ISIS remains a powerful force, capable and experienced in fighting terrorist, insurgent and pitched warfare campaigns at different locations successfully and simultaneously. Even from what territory it has been forced from, the group remains a presence.“ISIS has dominated much of Syria for nearly half a decade.” Heras said, “During that time, it’s really focused upon recruiting and radicalising the youth. What’s more, it’s been incredibly effective at that. For any holding force (entrusted with guarding seized territory) with young soldiers typically taken from that territory, that leaves them wide open to infiltration.
Though the loss of ISIS’s territory to the regime, its allies and the US-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces may have levelled the group to that of other jihadist groups, the threat it poses remains. ISIS will always have the ability “to endure and expand under the appropriate conditions, where chaos and no overarching power reign,” Atran said.
Ultimately, he said, the group’s revolutionary message, deeply rooted in the moral history of Islam, will leave the door open to its resurgence “in the world where moral authority is absent, corrupted or so fragmented that no one really knows what’s what and longs for clear red lines that eliminate moral uncertainty.”