Collapse may come swiftly—but will that leave the world any safer?by Jason Burke / April 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Some time within the coming weeks, Iraqi forces will reach the great mosque of al-Nuri, in Mosul. It was from the pulpit in this small, 900-year-old complex that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (IS), declared the foundation of a new caliphate with himself as caliph in 2014. The mosque was not chosen at random. Nur ad-Din Zangi, the man who ordered its construction, and after whom it was named, fought crusaders and their allies in the 11th century and carved out a short-lived territory across what is now Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi’s choice of this location encapsulated IS’s distinctive, animating ambition: the rebuilding of the lost caliphate, that transnational state that fused faith and empire and is, for many conservative Muslims, symbolic of a golden age when Islam was a superpower. Researchers have found that, when not fighting, IS members listen to al music, poetry, weep together, discuss and interpret dreams. And, for many among them, the greatest dream of all is the return of the caliph at the head of a refounded, resurgent caliphate.
The importance of the mosque’s recapture will escape few either: it will be the flag on the Reichstag moment. It will allow victory over IS to be declared by the Iraqi government, their US allies and others around the world keen to see the end of the group. That declaration will be premature, and much hard fighting in Mosul and elsewhere will follow—but it won’t be entirely unjustified. Within six months to a year, IS will have lost any foothold, not just in the city, the second largest in Iraq but also, it is likely, in Raqqa, the Syrian provincial capital 300 miles to the east which is almost surrounded. Baghdadi and his followers may hold on to a few pockets of territory in the east of Syria and in western Iraq, or simply be scattered, taking refuge in those zones of farmland and semi-desert around major cities which have provided havens before. They will maintain networks in Mosul and elsewhere but will not control streets, schools, police stations and markets.
Donald Trump will claim the credit. In January the new US president ordered his generals and security officials to draw up a plan to defeat the group. “IS is not the only threat from radical Islamic terrorism that the [US] faces, but it is among the most vicious and aggressive,” the executive order noted, not inaccurately. Whether Trump has helped in the fight against the group since taking office is less clear. The new president has not so far significantly altered Barack Obama’s military strategy of pressuring IS through local forces backed by air power and special forces. His taking office does appear to have coincided with a spike in the number of civilian casualties inflicted by planes of the US-led coalition fighting IS. Trump did promise to “bomb the shit out of IS” as a campaigning candidate and some observers say the high level of civilian casualties in recent weeks is a consequence of some restrictions on such attacks being lifted. Officials deny this.
There are many factors in the retreat of IS since the group’s territorial high point in December 2014. Western air strikes have caused the group material damage and human losses and have also curtailed its ability to move fighters around the shrinking battlefield. Cash has dried up, undermining the military effort and the administration of the millions of people who still live within IS-controlled territory. Much of any early support for IS among the battered and frightened Sunni communities of eastern Syria and western Iraq depended on the group’s ability to provide security, justice and services. Now that IS cannot act as a government, the inhabitants are more likely to turn against their brutal rulers. IS can rely on force to maintain order, inspiring fear through spectacular acts of violence, but this kind of terrorism will not suffice indefinitely. The collapse may come swiftly.
The project of re-founding the caliphate was always a desperate gamble, fuelled by faith, rage and a distorted view of history. And yet the caliphate could be portrayed as a plausible project because the group controlled swathes of territory and had thus supposedly restored the lost honour of Sunnis. Continuing victory was a clear sign that IS was doing God’s work. Expansion meant new recruits to replace combat casualties, arms and ammunition to appropriate, archaeological treasures to sell, property to loot, grain to distribute, new populations and resources such as oil wells and refineries to exploit.
As the pressure has increased over the last two years on its strongholds in the Levant and in outposts such as in Libya, the IS tone has adjusted to the possibility of losing land, and at the same time become even shriller. Last May, the group’s chief spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who would soon be killed by an airstrike, evoked a future for it without any territory at all and referred to the many years during which IS, or its forerunners, “were in the desert without any city or land.” He asked western powers and their local allies if IS “would be defeated, and you be victorious, if you were to take Mosul or Sirte [in Libya], or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition?”. “Certainly not,” he answered his own question, adding that “True defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight.”
This question of what might constitute “true defeat” of IS is suddenly pressing. A reminder of the difficulty of declaring the group dead was the Westminster attack in March, by a 52-year-old British convert. IS claimed it, identifying the culprit, Khalid Masood, as a “soldier of the Islamic State.” But IS has provided no evidence that it had any knowledge of Masood before his attack, which killed four, let alone contact with him. Is this the future for IS—an inspiration for terrorist strikes despite having no real presence? Or will it, stripped of territory, simply disappear back into the scrubby desert and farmland around the Sunni towns in western Iraq from which it emerged a mere four years ago?
Ten days before the first US assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in April 2004, a group of senior jihadi militants had met in the western Iraqi city “to review the situation.” Settling down to “study recent accomplishments,” their conclusions were far from edifying. One of them, a Jordanian-Palestinian cleric called Abu Anas al-Shami, recorded in his diary: “We realised that after a year of jihad, we still had achieved nothing on the ground… we did not even hold sufficient territory to unroll a prayer mat in tranquillity.”
Shami was a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a thuggish Jordanian militant who was emerging as the leader of the growing number of foreign fighters in Iraq. Zarqawi had arrived in Iraq in 2002 from Afghanistan where he had spent 18 months running a small training camp for his own group. A meeting with Osama bin Laden had not gone well. The ascetic Saudi founder of al-Qaeda had been unimpressed by the uneducated younger man. A senior aide of bin Laden had arranged some financial assistance, but this was all.
Zarqawi had little time for bin Laden’s strategy of using spectacular terrorism to spark insurgencies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, in the vague hope that the caliphate might emerge. Zarqawi’s agenda was more concrete: to seize, purge and hold territory, which could then be used as a base for further expansion. Other differences between al-Qaeda and the Jordanian emerged in the bloody wastelands of US-occupied Iraq. Zarqawi took a rigidly sectarian approach, especially to Iraq’s Shia majority who were in the political ascendency after centuries of Sunni rule. Bin Laden, though no fan of Shia Muslims, believed in solidarity in the face of the threat from those who had renounced the faith, and the west. Factionalism—or fitna—between Muslims, and especially between Sunni militant factions, was to be avoided. Millenarian prophesies of impending apocalypse were to be disdained as a folksy, ignorant tradition which had no use for contemporary jihadis. Before Zarqawi died in 2006, he eventually swore allegiance to bin Laden. But the group he set up in Iraq continued to follow his distinctive strategy: Iraq’s Shias were the enemy; rival Sunni militants were pursued too; and, despite holding no territory, Zarqawi’s successors declared an Islamic state in Iraq in 2007, complete with ministers and departments.
Ibrahim al-Awwad, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took over the group in 2010. The government’s policy of targeting Sunni communities in Iraq and the chaotic civil war in neighbouring Syria provided a strategic opportunity which Baghdadi exploited with brutality, aided by numerous former Ba’athist officers. This expansion led to a final break with al-Qaeda, and conflict with the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria in which hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed. This was the birth of IS.
Some elements of IS’s ideology and strategy can be found among other jihadi militant groups. But no other organisation has combined sectarianism, a need to seize and hold territory, a vision of an authoritarian state, an ambitious global project, a willingness to initiate conflict with extremist rivals and an instinctive preference for coercion when dealing with communities as IS has done. This is a new formulation that, though it draws on varied influences, has developed over the last 15 years or so in the very specific circumstances found in Iraq and, more recently, Syria.
If we want to predict what will happen to IS when it falls, does history provide any guide? There are examples of Islamic militant groups gaining and losing territory before. The Taliban ran much of Afghanistan, until its government in Kabul was toppled by America’s post-9/11 assault. It has spent the 16 years since gradually re-establishing that control, though so far over a lesser area. Another case is that of al-Shabaab in Somalia, which also seized substantial parts of that country, including the capital city, before being pushed back. It now has nominal authority over substantial parts of southern and central Somalia, though, like the Taliban, no major cities.
In both cases, the retreat of the militants has brought only partial relief to their foes. The reason is that both the Taliban and al-Shabaab draw on local religion and culture, respectively one of Islamic revivalism among rural Pashtuns and successive zealously puritanical Muslim movements in Somalia. The lesson is that military setbacks for the militants do not easily eradicate them, because of the deeply-entrenched traditions from which they draw their strength. Neither air strikes nor armies can root these out.
The global jihadi movement, to the extent it exists at all, is composed of sharply distinctive regional tendencies. So a group like Lashkar-e-Taiba represents a long-standing Pakistani strand of state-sponsored extremism, which is very different in practice and doctrine from Boko Haram, the Nigerian group tenuously attached to IS. Other groups in the Caucasus and the Philippines grow out of different cultural soil again. The only environment where Islamic militants do not have deep local traditions to draw on is the west, where large Muslim communities are a relatively new development. In the UK, the US and Europe, the roots of militant violence are thus shallower than elsewhere, and as a consequence are more prone to influence by strands of violent activism elsewhere in the Islamic world. IS has of course been the local strand which has met with the most spectacular success in the last several years. The question, however, is whether it disintegrates in defeat, or is sustained by ideological momentum.
There are five things to watch out for as the collapse of IS unfolds. The first is what happens to Baghdadi, who is in his mid-40s. It took 10 years for the US to find and kill bin Laden. Though diminished in capability, his survival allowed the cult around the al-Qaeda leader to flourish. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian extremist who succeeded him, has proved a canny strategist but lacks the charisma of his predecessor: leadership matters.
It is unlikely that Baghdadi will survive the fall of the caliphate. Leaders need somewhere to hide if they are to stay alive, let alone lead. True, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the late leader of the Taliban, hid in Pakistan for years, just as bin Laden spent his last half decade in a family home in the north of Pakistan before being traced by the CIA. But it is difficult to think where Baghdadi could go to ground. The closer parallel may be with Zarqawi, who was forced out of Iraq’s Anbar province by the uprising of local tribes in 2006. He was located by US, Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence and killed in months. The technical resources now available to those hunting him are very significant. So could Baghdadi be replaced? Only with difficulty. A caliphate without territory already suffers a serious legitimacy problem. A new caliph, even if he fulfilled the various supposed qualifications necessary for the position such as scholarship and descent from the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed, would have a hard time appearing credible, especially after IS spent these last few years putting so much stress on holding land.
The second consequence of the demise of IS is an increased probability of attacks in the Middle East and the west. In late 2001, as they fled their bases in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda planners tasked recruits with attacks all over the world. There was a wave of violence in 2002 and 2003. IS will do something similar, and though much of its effort will be focused on destabilising Iraq, Syria and neighbouring countries, especially Turkey, there will be violence elsewhere. The ability to mount complex attacks in Europe is weakened, now that the networks responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks of 2015 to 2016 have been dismantled, but any militants who are willing, able and available will be deployed. As the attacks in Nice, Berlin and Westminster have shown, a twisted desire and a vehicle is enough to create mass casualties.
Then there is the broader diaspora of fighters. If Baghdadi hunkers down in Iraq, some IS militants will attempt to reach other zones of violence—Libya, the Sinai desert, the Sahel, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the late-1980s and early 1990s, the small number of hardened veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan aggravated conflicts in Algeria, Yemen, the Caucasus, Indonesia, East Africa, the Balkans and beyond. Even non-combatants can be a threat: Zarqawi himself didn’t fight in Afghanistan, he merely published jihadi newspapers in Pakistan well after the Soviets had left in 1989, but he still went home to Jordan to launch an abortive militant plot there. Many of the foreigners who have fought with IS could scatter across the Islamic world, to states ill-equipped to deal with the threat that they pose.
Some will return to the west. Many will be picked up by security agencies and imprisoned. In jail they may radicalise others. De-radicalisation programmes have limited effects, and after mostly short sentences, these people may pose further problems: many attacks have involved released prisoners. Other veterans will not be detected on their return from Syria. Security officials believe that most will keep a low profile, while nonetheless posing a threat. Some will try to implement their own violent projects immediately.
“Will we ever see the end of these successive waves of jihadi militancy? Not any time soon”
The third area to watch is the remote appeal of IS. The Westminster attack appears to show that the problem is not the ability of IS to organise extant recruits but rather to inspire new ones, who may have no direct contact with the group. Analysts differ over how the caliphate’s collapse will affect such recruitment. The mere fact that IS proclaimed a caliphate will exert a draw for decades to come. There is little doubt that the strife that wracks the Middle East will be a powerful factor in sustaining recruitment to jihadism in Iraq, Syria and further afield. But the appeal in the west has been based on rather different qualities. Olivier Roy, the French expert whose new book is reviewed on p74, has spoken of the “Islamisation of radicalism, rather than the radicalisation of Islam,” suggesting that IS has tapped into the social alienation of the European-born children of immigrants. In Molenbeek, a poor neighbourhood of Brussels that I visited last year, former IS recruits spoke of how the group had appealed to them because it was “the biggest gang around.” IS offers every-thing a street gang does—adventure, status, even financial and sexual opportunity—but with the bonus of redemption from past sins and the resolution of a complex identity crisis. A weakened IS without territory where Europeans from immigrant backgrounds can live out violent fantasies, has less to offer. Recruitment from Europe started dropping when IS started losing ground in 2015, and should continue to decline. Some may make their way from Birmingham or Hamburg to Libya or Afghanistan—but few.
The fourth thing that will shape how the downfall unfolds are the local conditions, especially in Iraq—the crucible in which the group was originally forged, and the land whose traditions continue to define it. Syria is now deeply inhospitable to foreign fighters: what one British recruit dubbed “the five star jihad” is long over, as IS has been forced back. Even before that, many a western recruit would arrive and be disillusioned on discovering that the enemy is not always Assad’s unbelievers, or the Iranian Shia forces, but other devout Sunni factions. Few will head there from Brussels or Bradford now. The global element will have been shorn from the IS that emerges from the debris of Mosul, and eventually Raqqa. But most of the group’s fighters are and always were locals, drawn from deeply conservative local communities. The fear of Shia hegemony is still one recruiting sergeant; tribal rivalries are another. And even without incidents such as the deaths of up to 200 civilians in a single coalition airstrike in Mosul in March, the locals here do not need encouraging to see the west as an aggressor: those of fighting age grew up in the shadow of the 1991 Gulf war, sanctions and the 2003 invasion. The use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces in April underlines how communities here are caught between deadly threats. (Trump has now raised the stakes by retaliating). Make the wrong call, support the wrong group, or bow to the wrong authority and that can mean annihilation. The more some Syrians have reason to fear a resurgent Assad, the more attractive the protection of militants—including a weakened IS—becomes. Concern over violent sectarianism in Iraq has the same effect there.
This core local constituency will become more important as the so-called IS “provinces” in Yemen, the Sahel, Afghanistan and Somalia, are left exposed. They will be cut loose from a group with global pretensions as it reverts to being the Iraqi organisation it was at the outset. Most were composed of factions in search of a powerful sponsor to help them gain advantage over competitors. Some IS outposts will still exist, but its empire will fragment.
Which leads us to a fifth consequence of the collapse of the caliphate: the return of al-Qaeda. While the world has been focused on IS, al-Qaeda veterans have been doing worryingly well. Partly in a deliberate bid to distance themselves from their upstart rivals, they have downplayed sectarian strife and stressed a desire to minimise Muslim civilian casualties. The strategy has paid dividends and al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Somalia, Yemen and, above all, in Syria are thriving. This new al-Qaeda appears to be focused on building long-term support in the Islamic world. This may change. No one has forgotten how 9/11 grabbed global attention. If al-Qaeda decides to target the “far enemy”—the west—rather than Islamic opponents, it will be well placed.
Will we ever see the end of these successive waves of jihadi militancy? Not any time soon, and yet we can mitigate the threat. Many lessons have been learned since 9/11. The momentum generated by that attack, further fuelled by the Iraq invasion, was first braked and then reversed as Muslim populations came to see al-Qaeda as violent criminals. Such distaste should continue to check the growth of militant ideologies in years to come. Also, western security agencies have become sharper, with the physical elimination of many leading terrorists overseas, as well as more effective counter-terrorist strategies domestically. Western powers have, finally, adopted more sensible policies, avoiding embroilment on the ground in the Islamic world. Western leaders moderated their rhetoric and avoided statements implying collective Muslim responsibility, or complicity, with terrorism. Though with Trump in power, this appears to be changing.
One lesson remains half learned—militancy reflects local culture and circumstance in the west as much as in the Islamic world. Europe’s own failings are reflected in its jihadis. European jihadi culture is “street,” with an over-representation of criminals and converts. Its hallmarks include its sartorial code, a vocabulary that draws heavily on gangster rap, and a deep ignorance of Islam. This is a vulnerability that can be exploited. Europe, the UK and the US will inevitably develop their own jihadi traditions in the years ahead. These will outlast IS and sustain activists after its collapse. But these traditions remain half-formed, fractured and weak—mere works in progress. We need to keep them that way.