By Vladimir Sazhin
March 18, 2019
The year 2019 witnessed the rout of the
Islamic Caliphate – the pseudo-state entity created on the territories of Iraq
and Syria by the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,
a.k.a. the Islamic State or IG, ISIL, Daesh (Arabic), a terrorist group
outlawed in the Russian Federation.
On March 1, 2019, just three or four years
after the Islamic Caliphate terrorized the entire world, Kurdish units of the
Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria launched an offensive to flush out 500
jihadist fighters holed up in the city of Baguz, ISIL’s last stronghold in the
Does this mean that Islamist terrorism is
now done for?
During the first decade of the 21st
century, ISIL emerged as the biggest threat to international security and world
order. On June 29, 2014 ISIL terrorists announced the creation of an Islamic
Caliphate with claims to global domination.
As seen on the map, the Islamic Caliphate,
comprising numerous provinces, was to extend from China to the Atlantic Ocean,
and from Central Europe and Siberia all the way down to equatorial Africa. The
Caliphate encompasses all Muslim states without exception, including Iran and
non-Muslim Israel, the territories “occupied by infidels,” as well as the whole
of the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, the Caliphate lays claims to
Western Asia and Europe, including Spain, the Balkans, Romania and Austria.
The Islamic Caliphate went on to make the
Syrian city of Raqqa its de-facto capital in 2014.
Although still far from achieving global
dominion, the jihadists started building the basis of their future Islamic
Caliphate by enslaving between 8 million and 10 million people in the occupied
territories of Iraq and Syria, and virtually annihilating Syrian and Iraqi Christians,
Yazidis, Shiites and Kurds.
In addition to Syria and Iraq, the Islamic
State and its affiliates controlled parts of Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Libya,
Nigeria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
ISIL also used its substantial financial resources
to increase the number of “sleeper” terrorist cells in Morocco, Algeria,
Tunisia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Indonesia, the Philippines, the North
Caucasus and various European countries.
During its criminal heyday in 2014-2017,
ISIL was one of the most numerous and well-armed terrorist groups in the Middle
East, boasting over 100,000 fighters active mainly in Syria and Iraq.
Add to these 27,000 to 31,000 mercenaries
from 86 countries who, according to the Soufan Group analytical centre, fought
in the ranks of this terrorist organization.
Equally noteworthy is the distribution of
foreign ISIL militants by region and country (2016 – 2017):
Former Soviet republics
Near and Middle East
Maghreb countries (North Africa)
South and Southeast Asia
Countries –main suppliers of fighters for ISIL:
Equally noteworthy is data pertaining to
the number of ISIL mercenariesfrom former Soviet republics (2015)
ISIL owes its temporary success in Iraq and
Syria to these countries’ weak militaries, the seizure of their arsenals of
advanced US-supplied weapons, and to the considerable financial resources
looted from Iraqi banks.
And also to its militants’ religious
fanaticism, the professional skills of former Iraqi and Syrian military
officers who joined ISIL, to foreign mercenaries, the cruel and fear-instilling
daily activities of this quasi-state, the ideological brainwashing of jihadist
fighters and to professionally organized advocacy work.
ISIL’s bloody and ruthless way of dealing
with opponents and the medieval laws it imposed on its subjects shocked the
world. Even the ill-famed al-Qaeda that ISIL spun off from has come out against
its “daughter,” with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri officially announcing in
February 2014 that he did not recognize ISIL as a member of his group.
In their effort to secure the locals’
support, ISIL members tried, within the framework of their quasi-state, to
restore the cities’ economic life by rebuilding their war-ravaged
infrastructure. Imitating state authority, they paid salaries and benefits to
the unemployed, collected taxes and paid monthly salaries of $700 to their
militants. At the same time, in their brutal imposition of Islamist medieval order,
they surpassed even the Afghan Taliban.
Propaganda and PR feature prominently in
the ISIL leaders’ activity.
ISIL has “revolutionized” the field of
online promotion of jihadist ideology by creating a powerful social movement
and recruiting thousands of fighters from around the world, Russia included,
through a web of social networks alone.
According to Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya,
director of the Centre for Analysis and Conflict Prevention, a leading expert
on the North Caucasus, ISIL created a highly professional and ramified
propaganda machine for recruiting online, consisting of “central” media
organizations, such as Al-Furqan and al-Hayat, and “regional” ones. In
addition, the AMAQ News agency provides coverage for the Caliphate’s military
operations and its everyday life even without having the status of its
“official” media outlet.
Propagandists enjoy a privileged status in
ISIL. According to the propaganda researcher IG Charles Winter, during the
organization’s halcyon days (2014–2015), spin doctors were paid seven times as
much as regular fighters.
Since its outset, ISIL has put out over
41,000 media releases, with an additional 2.3 billion releases made by its
supporters (The New York Times).
“The loss of territory, resources, the
retreat and evacuation of fighters, compounded by problems with the Internet
has significantly reduced the flow of jihadist propaganda,” Yekaterina
“Daesh will not be able to maintain the
previous level and quality of its propaganda materials any time soon. Realizing
that with the loss of its ideological machine the whole project of the Islamic
Caliphate will eventually be doomed, the ISIL leadership is adapting to new
realities with affected references to a high mission now making way for more
down-to-earth calls for one-off attacks with knives and axes on unarmed people.
This change of tactic began in late-2015, after security agencies of various
countries had seriously complicated the process of bringing in new fighters to
Syria. ISIL initially advised its supporters to look for workarounds, and later
– to move to other “provinces” of the Caliphate. Finally, last year, ISIL said
that those who could not reach the Caliphate proper should stage attacks back
at home,” she continues.
This is an extremely important trend. Just
as the Caliphate ceases to exist as a quasi-state, its subjects, who have
survived the antiterrorist battles, remain. Islamist terrorism is taking a new
The Islamic Caliphate created by ISIL is
perhaps the highest organizational quasi-state form of modern-day Islamist
terrorism. Terror (“Fear,” “horror” in Latin) was used by ISIL as a primary
method of warfare. Therefore, it could be compared (in function, if not in
scale) with Nazi Germany or militaristic Japan, where international terrorism
was part of official state policy.
Even though chances of a complete
reincarnation of either ISIL or the Islamic Caliphate are pretty slim,
dangerous options thereof can’t be ruled out.
That terrorism is often used by non-state
actors – whether left-wing, right-wing or nationalist – and religious groups,
is well known. In the 19th and 20thcenturies, hundreds of political parties and
groups were known to have used terror in their work.Their activities covered
virtually the whole world: from small settlements and countries to continents,
and were often supervised and financed by individual states to achieve
It is highly probable that the routed ISIL
will still be trying to preserve its remaining terrorist groups, rebrand old
ones, and recruit new fighters. Moreover, what has remained of the Daesh forces
will spread throughout the world.
As BBC columnist Frank Gardner writes, “At
the recent Munich Security Conference, Alex Younger, the chief of Britain’s
secret intelligence service (MI6) said this: “The military defeat of the
‘caliphate’ does not represent the end of the terrorist threat. We see it
therefore morphing, spreading out… within Syria but also externally… This is
the traditional shape of a terrorist organization.”
Speaking at the same event, German Defense
Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that ISIL was going deeper underground and
building networks with other terrorist groups.
General Joseph Votel, who runs US Central
Command, also said that even though the ISIL network is dispersed, pressure
must be maintained or its components will have “the capability of coming back
together if we don’t.”
Indeed, much of the ISIL militant force has
not been destroyed and is now breaking up into small terrorist groups, which is
only natural since ISIL is a plethora of jihadist groups fully capable of
acting autonomously. .
With the rout of the Caliphate now a hard
fact, ISIL is desperately looking for a way out of the situation. There are
several such “exists” to speak of.
The first is the dispersal of jihadist
fighters among the local population in Syria and Iraq, and the creation of
“sleeper cells” waiting for an order to resume the fight.
A second option would be to redeploy
militants to remote areas of Syria and Iraq, and the formation of guerrilla
Thirdly, this could be gradual infiltration
into other countries where ISIL already has a base, or at least has supporters
necessary for the organization to function further, perhaps under a different
name, but with similar ideology and military-political doctrine. Primarily into
Libya, where ISIL controls the cities of Derna, Nofalia, Sirt, and the
Al-Mabrouk oil field. Moreover, in Libya, ISIL could become a third party in
the ongoing confrontation between Tripoli and Tobruk.
In Afghanistan, ISIL has already become a
third party in the long-running standoff between Kabul and the Taliban.
However, the ongoing negotiations between the international community,
primarily Russia and the US, with the Afghan Taliban (though in a separate
format) could eventually ease tensions in that country which, in turn, would
seriously undercut ISIL’s ability to influence the situation there.
In Egypt, local jihadists, taking orders
from ISIL, control parts of the Sinai Peninsula.
Also, the Boko Haram group, which controls
the north-east of Nigeria and is making inroads into neighbouring Chad,
Cameroon and Niger, has recently subordinated itself to ISIL.
There are certain opportunities now opening
for ISIL also in Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Another “exit” option could be the return
of the remaining jihadist fighters to their home countries, either individually
or as part of small but closely-knit groups.
In the wake of the Islamic Caliphate’s
downfall, many militants have recently returned home. About 30 percent of the
5,000 ISIL fighters (1,500) happen to be EU citizens. Of these, 300 have
returned to France, about 900 people – to the former Soviet republics
(including 400 to Russia), 800 – to Tunisia, 760 – to Saudi Arabia, and 250 –
This process is characteristic of all 86
countries Islamist volunteers once set out from to defend the ideas of radical
Clearly, the presence of experienced and
battle-hardened ISIL terrorists, sometimes even armed, in the countries of
their current residence is dangerous, even disastrous for these and other
countries’ security. Small wonder, therefore, that the world is getting
increasingly aware of the real threat posed by this jihadist-terrorist
Religious leaders are united in their
denunciation of Islamist terror.
Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Mufti Abdulaziz bin
Abdullah Al-Sheikh has branded the al-Qaeda and Islamic State jihadists the
main enemies of Islam. He also quoted a verse from the Koran, which calls to kill
the perpetrators of acts that “have a disastrous effect on Islam.” Any compromises with bloodthirsty fanatics
are simply out of the question. They must be eliminated once and for all.
Pope Francis has approved the use of force
against Islamist radicals. The Pontiff believes that coercive methods should be
used to protect religious minorities from militants.
The World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the
Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) has urged the entire world community to stand
together against the “disgusting wave of violence” against Christians in the
In Iraq, the Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani has reiterated his call for the Iraqi people to resist ISIL
Important as religious leaders’ rejection
of terrorism and its perpetrators is, however, the same can hardly be said
about the world community. Indeed, even in the midst of the fight against ISIL
in Syria, the antiterrorist forces failed to present a shared understanding of
the danger posed by their common enemy.
It is really unforgivable that a
universally accepted definition of international terrorism has not yet been
worked out. The term is often used as an instrument of political struggle,
because each country actually decides for itself whether a certain group is
“terrorists” or “freedom fighters.” In Russia, 21 Islamist organizations are
recognized as terrorist, and 33 in the United States. Moreover, actual
definitions of “terrorism” often vary.
Coordinated fight is the only possible and
effective way of ridding the planet of the scourge of terrorism. Unfortunately,
there is no international legal basis for a collective solution of the problem.
The experience of the past few years shows that a slow-moving and bureaucratic
UN is not capable of providing quick and effective response to the threat posed
by international terrorism. The world needs a fundamentally new and mobile
international mechanism, structured to counter the terrorists’ extensive and
diverse criminal activities.
The proposed idea of creating a
supranational system uniting antiterrorist forces that would include
administrative, information, analytical, intelligence, financial,
counter-propaganda and power structures – well-equipped counter-terrorist units
ready for quick deployment to troubled regions looks pretty viable. However,
this international antiterrorist system must be established under the auspices
of the United Nations, with its blessing, and rest on a solid legal foundation.