By Graeme Wood
March 25, 2019
Four years ago, a sympathizer of the
Islamic State told me that the group’s caliphate was hardier than believed and
would survive near-total loss of territorial control. “So long as there is one
street in one village where the caliph carries out Islamic law,” he told me,
“the Dawlah will be legitimate.” (“Dawlah” means state in Arabic.) All Muslims
would remain obliged to travel there, he said. (It would be one very crowded
street.) No rival caliph could challenge Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic
State’s leader, as long as he ruled this alley and did it according to Islam.
Last week, the caliphate finally dwindled
down to that one alley, and on Saturday it vanished entirely.
The Syrian Democratic Forces sacked the
Islamic State’s last minuscule barrio in the town of Baghuz, in eastern Syria,
after a weeks-long siege. “One street in one village” may overstate the size of
that last patch. In a recent video attributed to the Islamic State, apparently
from just days ago, the area looked like a small junkyard defended by vagrants.
Several years back, the Islamic State circulated videos of its fighters living
among swimming pools and well-stocked shops. In the junkyard videos, it looked
as if no one had bathed for weeks. Many of the inhabitants hobbled around on
crutches, and some of the few working vehicles were wheelchairs.
To see the Islamic State reduced to these
indignities is a pleasure worth savoring. Now that we’ve savoured it, though,
it is time to confront the threat that remains — which is not merely, as
President Trump claimed this weekend, “losers” who will “resurface” “on
occasion.” It is a systemic threat.
More than 40,000 foreigners are thought to
have travelled to territory controlled by the Islamic State, and most are
missing. David Malet, a political scientist at American University who studies
foreign fighters, told me recently that when such combatants have travelled to
war zones in the past, they have died at a rate of about one-third. Even if we
assume that, say, half of the Islamic State’s foreigner fighters are dead —
after all, many joined the group to die — that leaves about 20,000 alive.
We have little idea where they are and
seriously undercounted them in Baghuz. In recent weeks, Islamic State fighters
and civilians have emerged from the town as if from a clown car, disgorged in
ever more unbelievable numbers. The most astonishing sight over the past week
may have been a video showing fighters who had surrendered, preferring
captivity to martyrdom, in a line stretching more than 250 men long. Yet many
more fighters may be hiding in the countryside than have turned themselves over
or died in Baghuz.
The Islamic State has had years to prepare
for this moment and for some time had signalled that it was resigned to
eventually losing some or all of its territory. By May 2016, its spokesman, Abu
Muhammad al-Adnani, was telling followers abroad not to bother traveling to
“If one of you wishes and strives to reach
the lands of the Islamic State, then each of us wishes to be in your place to
make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing
them, until every neighbour fears his neighbour,” he said in an audio message.
Since then, some sympathizers had stayed in the shrinking caliphate, while
others stayed abroad or slunk out of the doomed territory to perpetuate the
group’s ideals and re-spawn it elsewhere.
To see how slinking is done right, they
needed only look to their forefathers. The founders of the Islamic State
consisted of Qaeda veterans who escaped destruction by the American military
and Sunni tribes in Iraq. Tactical retreat served them well, and the Islamic
State has not lost the institutional wisdom that allowed those men to survive
and then recapture territory, first slowly, then in 2014 all at once. They
succeeded by positioning themselves as guardians of Sunnis who did not trust
the Shiite-led government in Baghdad or the Alawite-led one in Damascus.
Neither Iraq nor Syria has restored Sunnis’ trust.
Of the more than 40,000 foreigners who
joined the Islamic State, several thousand have returned to their home
countries — not always to face prosecution. Some pessimists worry that these
returnees constitute a fifth column, outwardly rehabilitated but secretly ready
to attack on command. History suggests that our concerns should not be so
The danger comes not just from plotters but
also from their ideas. The spread of Islamic State ideology long predated the
declaration of a caliphate, and it happened quietly, through the efforts of
remarkably few individuals. Returnees from jihad do not always fight again, but
their passion can infect others. Arab veterans of the Afghan war in the 1980s
influenced the generation that fought in Iraq. The number of returnees from the
Islamic State now may dwarf them.
In a few years, even some of those
convicted of terrorist offenses will be free again. (Remember, Europeans tend
not to lock up people for as long as Americans do.) Consider John Walker Lindh,
the American who fought for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was sentenced to 20
years in federal prison in 2002. He is scheduled for release in May and appears
to have remained a devout extremist. Such ideas do not reliably dissolve with
time. They sometimes become more concentrated. Prepare for a new wave of true
believers, recruited by the old.
The Islamic State is like herpes: It can be
managed but never cured. Syria is scabbing over, and it might begin to heal.
Elsewhere, though, the condition is dormant at best. It will break out again.
Graeme Wood, a staff writer at The Atlantic, is the author of “The Way of
the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.”