By Fawaz Gerges
March 23, 2019
The Islamic State’s territorial rule has
ended. On Saturday, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a United States-backed group,
announced that the final sliver of territory under the jihadist group’s control
Even before this news, President Trump has
rushed to declare “mission accomplished” in Syria. Yet as the United States has
learned before, rhetoric cannot block out reality. And the reality is that it
is premature, reckless even, to pen the Islamic State’s obituary.
Although the group has been dealt a hard
blow, ideologically and operationally the organization is degraded, not
defeated, and its extremist network still functions. This is not to say that
the Islamic State is invincible, but so long as the causes that gave rise to
the extremist group are permitted to persist — the broken politics in the Arab
and Islamic world, the fraying and delegitimisation of state institutions, as
well as ongoing geostrategic rivalries and foreign interventions — there will
be opportunities for the Islamic State and like-minded groups to rebound.
This is not hyperbole. A key insight from
the movement’s recent history should be how it has proved resilient, adaptive
and resourceful, tapping into the deep sense of outrage and injustice felt by
Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The first factor that engenders the Islamic
State is the organic crisis of governance, and ungovernable spaces that plagues
Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, West Africa and
Afghanistan. Areas where state and local authorities hold little to no sway,
and provide little to no support, are fertile breeding grounds for extremist
The second factor is the fierce Cold War
between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran. Although the
Saudi-Iran clash is driven by geostrategic calculations, it has taken on local
sectarian overtones that play out daily on streets in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon,
Yemen and elsewhere. The Islamic State has capitalized on this rivalry by
portraying itself as the defender and protector of persecuted Sunnis.
Overlaying the geostrategic clash between
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the machinations of other regional and foreign powers
that are using local radical groups to achieve their self-interested political
ends. For example, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are areas where other
international powers (like Turkey, Russia and the United States) are battling for
influence and control — a situation that the Islamic State and Al Qaeda exploit
to their advantage.
The third factor is the distribution of the
Islamic State’s combatants and the persistent threat they pose. As far back as
2016, when the Islamic State began to lose control of major urban centres, its
leaders began planning for this day. Thousands of fighters have reportedly
dispersed with fleeing civilians in Iraq and Syria and gone into hiding. Cells
have already carried out hundreds of devastating attacks in both countries.
The movement also spread its tentacles near
and wide, dispatching hundreds of veteran operatives to new fronts in Turkey,
Egypt, Libya, Yemen, West Africa, Afghanistan and beyond. Not unlike Al Qaeda —
though now on a greater and more lethal scale — the Islamic State is a
transnational network with bases and sleeping cells in more than a dozen
Thus, notwithstanding the catastrophic
military blows the group has suffered and the loss of its territorial rule, the
Islamic State has made it unmistakably clear that it will carry on the fight
even if the caliphate is militarily incapacitated. In early March, Islamic
State fighters released a video from the Syrian town of Baghuz that urged the
group’s followers to maintain their faith in the caliphate, even as Kurdish
forces advanced toward the last of its territory.
Unfortunately, it appears that the Islamic
State has both the will and limited assets necessary to survive to fight
Indeed, before he was killed by an American
airstrike in Syria in 2016, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s second
most powerful leader, after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, prepared followers for the
future battles. He said, referring to the group’s progenitor, Al Qaeda in Iraq:
“Do you, O America consider defeat to be the loss of a city or the loss of
land? Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert
without any city or land?”
Like Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was declared
“defeated” from 2006 until 2010, the Islamic State is returning to its
insurgent roots. And less than a year after its expulsion from major urban
centres, the organization now wages a low-intensity guerrilla campaign that has
already killed hundreds of Iraqis, including key security personnel and tribal leaders.
Designed to terrorize local communities, sow instability and expose the
impotency of Iraq’s security forces, the Islamic State’s strategy is paying
The corrupt and dysfunctional Baghdad
government has neglected the emaciated Sunni-inhabited cities (such as Mosul)
that were liberated from the Islamic State’s rule. Once again, the extremist
organization is appealing to disgruntled Sunnis who feel forsaken by the
Shiite-dominated authorities. The recent intensification of the United States’
rivalry with Iran in Iraq under President Trump has served to only further
weaken the central government in Baghdad and embolden the Islamic State.
Similarly, in Syria, sleeper cells
frequently attack the liberated Raqqa and Deir Ezzor province and inflict heavy
casualties on the Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-backed coalition of
Kurdish and Arab fighters. Like in Iraq, the Islamic State bides its time in
Syria, hoping that Turkey’s fixation with the Kurds and Mr. Trump’s decision to
ultimately withdraw most American troops from the northeast will create a
security void that it can fill.
Before Mr. Trump takes a victory lap, he
should know that the next phase of the struggle against the Islamic State and
Al Qaeda will be complex, costly and prolonged. A counterterrorism strategy is
not sufficient. Permanently defeating these jihadist groups will require an
economic, political and ideological strategy with a long-term focus.
The challenge that Arab and Islamic
societies face is to develop a counternarrative to the ideology of Jihadism.
This will require transparent, inclusive and representative government that
delivers jobs and hope, and gives millions of young men and women who feel
excluded and unserved a stake in the future of their countries.
Specifically, instead of wantonly fuelling
geostrategic rivalries and inflaming Arab-Israeli tensions, the United States,
together with other great powers, must help war-torn Muslim societies
reconcile, heal and rebuild. Unless the United States does so, the Islamic
State will remain a threat in the years to come.
It seems unlikely that Mr. Trump has either
the desire or vision to pursue such a farsighted strategy. But if he wants to
celebrate a true “victory” over the Islamic State he should consider the
long-term consequences of his actions.
Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London
School of Economics, is author, most recently, of “Making the Arab World.”