In recent months, ISIS has suffered a string of setbacks. At the height of their power, the group controlled huge swathes of western Iraq and eastern Syria, from Fallujah to Raqqah. However, recent reports suggest that ISIS has ceded up to 45 per cent of the territory once held in Iraq, and the total size of the putative caliphate has shrunk by a quarter in the last year. How the organisation adapts to this change will leave a lasting impression on the region.
In June, a major blow was dealt to ISIS when Iraqi Security Forces, supported by US airstrikes, reclaimed Fallujah. The city had long been a bastion of support for ISIS and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In mid-August, Baghdad said it was preparing for an assault on Mosul, the other strong point for ISIS in Iraq.
ISIS has been losing ground in Syria as well. In August, the group lost control of Manbij and al-Rai, two cities close to Aleppo. Manbij was taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces – an inter-ethnic militia – while al-Rai was taken by opposition rebels supported by both Turkey and the United States. Furthermore, in recent weeks Turkey’s military has begun pushing across the Syrian border, cutting ISIS’ supply lines in the north and encircling its strongholds, while the US and Russia have increased their level of cooperation and intensified their bombing campaigns.
ISIS’ setbacks have not come because of any sole power but as a result of increased collaboration between the many belligerents in the region. The group’s brutality – which some analysts suggest has been intentionally cultivated to wage psychological warfare on its opponents – may have backfired; it seems to have inspired erstwhile enemies to work together against the group.
When commenting on the blows dealt to ISIS over the past three months, analysts and government spokespeople alike have begun proclaiming that its defeat is at hand. The leadership of ISIS may have begun to suspect the same outcome. On May 21, spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani released a statement declaring ISIS would not be defeated even “if [America] were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqah or even take all the cities and we were to return to our original condition.” This is a drastic departure from ISIS’ earlier claims to legitimacy, which were based predominantly on holding territory. The change of message may suggest that the group is preparing for defeat on the ground – at least militarily.
WHAT NEXT FOR ISIS?
This, of course, raises a vital question: what happens if regional and foreign forces are successful in defeating ISIS’ presence on the ground and reclaiming all of its territory? From a purely military standpoint, this outcome is inevitable – any major nation could easily rout ISIS’ ground forces. With the Iraqi Security Force retaking ground in the south and Turkish, Kurdish, and Syrian forces combatting to the group in the north, the military defeat of ISIS appears to be at hand.
One of ISIS’ most dangerous aspects is its ability to radicalise and recruit from across the world. Thousands of Europeans have travelled to Syria to join the self-proclaimed caliphate. The group distinguishes itself from other extremist organisations in its ability to control territory. Should that territory be lost, it is likely that ISIS’ influence and ability to recruit would-be jihadists will wane. The idea of fighting to establish the caliphate seems to have been a significant incentive for recruitment. Additionally, as ISIS loses ground in northern Syria, the border of Syria and Turkey will become less porous, making it more difficult for foreigners to travel to Syria or Iraq to join the group.
However, as ISIS loses territory the number of attacks against civilians outside of its immediate operational environment may well increase. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS has consistently called for followers to attack “unbelievers” and “infidels” by whatever means necessary. In this, ISIS has been more successful than al-Qaeda, inspiring attacks in many locations around the world, including Nice, Miami, Molenbeek. Should ISIS continue to lose territory, radicalised Muslims who are no longer able to travel to Syria may choose instead to conduct attacks in their countries of origin.
It is also possible that – in order to fulfil strategic objectives – ISIS will undergo some sort form of rebranding, perhaps similar to the recent announcement made by Jabhat al-Nusra. As a putative Islamic state, ISIS’ claim to notoriety depends almost entirely on controlling territory – al-Baghdadi’s organisation was originally called al-Qaeda in Iraq, only taking the name ISIS when they began to capture cities in Syria. If the group loses all of those cities, it is possible that ISIS will discard the name “Islamic State.”
A final possibility is that, should it lose all its territory, ISIS will disband. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not renowned for his charisma, and it is a distinct possibility that his organisation will crumble if it fails to achieve original objectives. What seems certain, however, is that even if its organisational structure collapses, ISIS members will not simply give up the fight. Historically, when Islamic extremist organisations have been disbanded, the majority of local fighters peacefully reintegrate into society. Foreign jihadists, on the other hand, have often returned to their countries of origin and participated in new extremist organisations. Osama bin Laden, for example, founded al-Qaeda with jihadists he met while fighting in Afghanistan in the late 1970s.
Estimates of the number of foreign fighters supporting ISIS range from 20,000 to 30,000. Nearly half of these fighters have come from Northern Africa and Europe, with thousands more hailing from Russia and the former Soviet Union. Even if the majority of these do not join local extremist networks, this unprecedented migration of jihadists will pose a challenge for governments across the world for years to come.
Defeating Islamic radicalism will not be as simple as reclaiming ISIS’ territory. Although the organisation may metamorphise or even disband, its underlying strength lies in its followers and ideas, not its territory. It is its dedicated cadres and persuasive message that will need to be ultimately defeated to claim victory over the ‘Islamic State’.
Colin is the Analysis division’s all-rounder editor, specialising in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency issues.