Five years ago, speaking from the pulpit of the ancient al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the rise of the “Islamic State” (IS). Under his personal guidance, the group was set to take control and expand its territories across Iraq and Syria, to establish a transnational “Caliphate” that was meant to be the home for all Muslims in the region and beyond. IS thus spread like wildfire all over the Middle East attracting foreign fighters from all over the world. In 2015, the moment of largest territorial expansion, the group controlled over one third of Iraq and Syria, with provinces proclaimed within an arch of crisis stretching from North Africa to South East Asia.
However, the Caliphate’s dream of statehood did not last long. Under the aegis of the US led international coalition, military campaigns for the liberation of IS-held cities began to bear fruit already in early 2015, when IS militants were driven away from key cities like Tikrit and Tal Abyad. 2016 was then marked by continuous battles and successes of the international coalition both on the Iraqi and Syrian ground. Eventually, the announcement of the liberation of Mosul in July 2017 and the following liberation of Raqqa, in October, respectively the Iraqi and Syrian strongholds of IS, were met with celebrations and the desire to turn the page on one of the darkest chapters of these countries’ recent history.
The rapid succession of liberation campaigns, however, and especially the final, most recent successes that have been so much acclaimed by the international community, have diverted the attention from what was remaining.
In Syria, for instance, while Baghouz (the very last IS stronghold in Syria, across the crucial zone alongside the Iraqi border) was liberated in March 2019, it is absolutely premature to claim that the terrorist organization has been obliterated in the country. Despite the fact that its state apparatus has been destroyed, thousands of IS sympathisers are said to have moved underground and will likely continue to have an impact on the future of the country.
Similarly, in Iraq IS has not disappeared. Despite having lost control of major cities and oilfields, and despite having lost much of its military capability, especially in Central-Northern Iraq, the terrorist organization still carries on guerrilla activities, demonstrating itself more than able to carry out an aggressive insurgent activity. Moreover, while the average number of IS attacks by month has actually decreased, attacks have increased.
In other words, victory might have been celebrated too soon. Today, although the IS military capacity seems nothing compared to five years ago, its threat is far from being neutralized, as its territorial defeat over the Iraqi and Syrian ground has not coincided with the end of the organization, rather with a transformation of it.
How is this transformation taking shape? The Islamic State’s new phase seems to be characterized by a shift from heavy battle on the “mother front”, Iraq and Syria, to smaller/lighter activities in a multitude of local fronts all over the world. On the one side, this is an unavoidable choice, as little remains to be done in Iraq and Syria, as room for manoeuvre has dramatically shrunk; on the other, expanding outwards is also instrumental in assuring new followers. The numerous attacks claimed by IS all over the world (Saudi Arabia, Congo, Libya, Sri Lanka, etc.) are a clear sign of this.
Some insights on the new tactics to be adopted have even been made clear by the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video released by the IS media network on April 29, 2019. For the very first time since July 2014, the self-proclaimed Caliph made a public appearance in an 18-minute video, himself looking as firm and steady as in his previous public show up, but in a definitely much less triumphant setting. The video was released with a clear objective in mind: demonstrating that neither the Caliphate nor its leader can be written off as dead. A month after losing Baghouz, al-Baghdadi’s words sounded like a desperate attempt to divert attention from the decline of the organization following its territorial losses, to re-launch the jihad, which must continue. Addressing IS franchise groups and supporters all over the world, the leader’s words also wanted to remind the public that the Caliphate is a global organization, and that its territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria will not stop it.
The new strategy that the terrorist group has adopted is that of a “war of attrition”: terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria should be continuously carried on, however the Islamic State’s reach must be expanded as much as possible, in order to connect with distant militant groups and attract them into its orbit. Enemies must be exhausted with unpredictable, dislocated attacks of any nature (suicide bombings, roadside bombings, targeted assassinations, starting fires, sniper attacks), which are difficult to be traced and prevented.
Five years later, the devastation left behind and the continuous security operations remind of the near past. The shadows hanging over the future of IS are essentially twofold. First of all, while the IS no longer possesses any territory under its administration, the counting of deadly attacks has not stopped. In Iraq, numerous security incidents allegedly orchestrated by IS have affected areas stretching from Sinjar (on the border with Syria) to villages south of Mosul and other provinces to the north and east of Baghdad. The group has also set fire to agricultural areas that have devastated crops in multiple parts of Syria and Iraq representing a clear manifestation of the group remaining capabilities and will.
Second, and probably most importantly, while the Caliphate’s ambition to establish a State for the whole umma has not been met, and its state apparatus have been entirely destroyed, the message that it brought has not been cancelled and will hardly be. Unless its message is eradicated at its very root, the risk that it might encounter the support (or, at least, the non-opposition) of populations – as it once did – will always remain.