Has ISIS been truly defeated?
Following the rout of the Islamic State (ISIS) at the hands of the US-backed and mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in Baghouz, Syria, both the Pentagon and the White House declared victory over the terrorist group.
The so-called caliphate of the Islamic State, which ruled over approximately 11 million people and covered territory the size of Britain in 2014, has been rolled back, decimated and dismantled.
However, while the territorial caliphate has been destroyed, can it truly be said that ISIS has been defeated ideologically or even to the point it can no longer undertake the kind of land-grabbing operations it has been attempting for more than half a decade?
Arguably, the answer to this is a resounding no and Iraq provides an example of how fallacious any argument of ISIS being degraded as a deadly force can be.
Standing in the ruins of once proud Iraqi cities, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in December 2017 that ISIS had been defeated in Iraq and that operations against the group would be intelligence-led counterterrorism strikes rather than armed units clashing against one another in open battle.
It is now 2019 and the Iraqi Army and allied pro-Iran Shia jihadi militias continue to be bled slowly by ISIS ambushes, raids and bomb and gun attacks. Suicide bombings in Qayrawan, just south of Sinjar, in late March are evidence of continued ISIS activity.
One must bear in mind that ISIS rose from more humble means than the land-conquering, ambitious terror group that it morphed into. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and after it was clear that the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Salafi jihadists flocked to Iraq and joined the fight against the occupying US troops, eventually creating al-Qaeda in Iraq under infamous terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
ISIS evolved out of this al-Qaeda offshoot, particularly after expanding its operations into Syria following the chaotic power vacuum caused by the Syrian uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad.
ISIS began life as a group specialising in guerrilla and asymmetric warfare and, with the loss of the territorial caliphate, it will revert to this form of war to fight for the “spiritual caliphate.”
After being the only Islamist terror group to have created its own proto-state, ISIS will have significantly enhanced its credibility among other extremists seeking to wage war against the West or anyone deemed to be “collaborating” with them.
This much appears to be clear judging by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s latest propaganda video address released April 29, in which he claims dozens of groups have pledged allegiance to him as “caliph” in places as far away as Mali, Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka, where hundreds of people were killed in a series of attacks on Easter Sunday claimed by ISIS.
Such people will be attracted to join ISIS’s ranks. Losing their caliphate can, in fact, be used by ISIS propagandists and chalked up to a test from God to punish the global lack of faith showed by Muslims in supporting their warped experiment of a state.
Another consideration is that the underlying rampant Iran-sponsored sectarianism in Iraq and Syria is yet to be addressed and this is a key issue that steadily feeds ISIS with recruits. Savagery begets savagery and there is simply no other way to describe the myriad Hezbollah offshoots and other Shia jihadist groups that are as bad as ISIS yet enjoy support from the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian governments and are therefore deemed untouchable.
This sectarianism is compounded by a lack of security and economic opportunity, creating a perfect storm of radicalisation and extremism that ISIS will continually feed off.
UN Envoy for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert called for “wide-based international support” to prevent ISIS from regaining a foothold in the country.
The only way the ISIS threat is ended is by ending the meddling of a hateful, sectarian theocracy in Iran, halting its influence over events in Iraq and Syria and the provision of opportunity for those most vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS agents. Once discrimination is no longer an issue, the reasons for feeling aggrieved will no longer exist, drying the well of hatred that feeds ISIS’s horrific ideology. That is the only way to defeat it.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute in England.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.