What Is Next for the Islamic State?

By: Patrick Hoover, Columnist

Photo Credit: Chiangrai Times

The Islamic State (IS) is on the verge of transforming from a semi-conventional to a decentralized, underground organization. With the loss of al-Raqqa city and al-Mayadin this past month, IS is rapidly losing control over towns and cities in Syria. However, the post-IS fallout may pose various threats: greater use of guerrilla tactics, alliances among former IS fighters and other nascent jihadist groups in Idlib, and expansion of other IS affiliates across the region. US counterterrorism (CT) planners should draw lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq by strengthening local security and working with regional partners in order to ensure that IS or an IS-like entity does not re-emerge as the Syrian conflict winds to a gradual end.

At the height of its power in late 2014, IS controlled nearly one-third of both Syrian and Iraqi territory. In only ten years, the group had morphed from a ruthlessly, anti-American insurgency then known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq to a state-like entity governing an estimated 2.8 to 5 million people.[i]

At the current moment, IS’s territory is being reduced to a small cross-border region between southeastern Syria and western Iraq under the weight of US- and Russian-backed offensives. The group’s de-facto “caliphate” is crumbling, its leaders are on the run, and its political and financial systems are in disarray. However, this does not signal that the group is finished. In fact, IS is likely to return to the same sources of power that drove the group to new heights in the first place: local networks and guerilla tactics.

More than one year ago, IS leaders actually developed a post-caliphate strategy entailing a return to its underground roots. Prior to his death in August 2016, then-IS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani decreed that, “true defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight.”[ii] IS fighters heeding Adnani’s call have launched a series of bombings and assassinations across liberated territory in Iraq, as well as Kurdish- and Syrian regime-held cities in northern Syria. The group’s most recent series of counter-attacks centered on Syrian regime forces along the Palmyra-Deir al-Zour highway in late September 2017. Well behind enemy lines, IS fighters captured at least three towns and threatened the key way station of Sukhnah.[iii] The counter-attacks coincided with the unverified release of a statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calling the group to “be patient and resist the infidels,” and refrain from panic and disunity.[iv] These attacks reflect a shift to new tactical doctrine centered on avoiding detection and direct confrontation—central pillars of guerrilla warfare—that was introduced in the September issue of the group’s al-Naba magazine.

This renewed interest in guerilla tactics is also driven by the availability of personnel to carry out such attacks. On one hand, many local Syrians and Iraqis who are tenuously linked to IS through tribal allegiances, family members, or administrative employment are susceptible to blackmail and recruitment by IS. Much like how the group reasserted itself in Anbar province following the US surge in Iraq in 2007-2008, IS will likely employ similar intimidation tactics to wield influence over disenfranchised Sunni Arabs in Syria. In particular, IS may leverage historic Arab-Kurdish tensions to frame the Kurds as a US proxy bent on reducing Arabs to second-class citizens. On the other hand, most IS foreign fighters see no other option except continued fighting. Iraqis, who comprise the group’s core leadership, likely fear retribution from the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Units) and Iraqi government if they return home. Central Asians, particularly Chechens who are well known for their combat experience and fighting ability, simply do not have a home to return to.

Another palpable fear is that IS fighters, particularly those purely driven by jihadist ideology, will melt into the local Syrian population and join up with other radical groups in Idlib province. Despite the ongoing Turkish intervention in northern Idlib, at the behest of Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate—Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—many HTS fighters are splitting from the group and forming their own jihadist cells. Most recently, on October 9 a group of Syrian and foreign fighters formed jihadist group, Ansar al-Furqan.[v] HTS risks losing credibility within hardline jihadist circles if it continues to bow under Turkish pressure, opening the door for former IS and HTS militants to reconstitute and foment instability in both Syria and the Turkish border region.

Instead of exploiting dynamics local to Syria and Iraq, IS may seek to reconstitute itself in other countries with local affiliates. Specifically, Libya continues to remain divided as a result of Gaddafi’s overthrow in October 2011. IS militants have utilized the country’s vast southern desert to launch attacks along the northern coastal cities, posing such a threat that the US conducted a large-scale CT strike targeting IS strongholds in the country on January 19, 2017 for the first time in nearly nine months.[vi] Afghanistan has also emerged as a vulnerable, sectarian-tinged target, and in mid-October IS militants killed at least 63 people in twin suicide bombings in Kabul.[vii] IS militants have also staked out a durable presence in the southern Philippines, suggesting the group may be seeking a more global brand, similar to al-Qa’ida 15 years ago.

To prepare for the next iteration of IS, US CT planners should consider integrating tactical considerations with broader political dynamics. With the Syrian opposition in shambles, a post-war Syria is likely to emerge under joint regime-Kurdish control. The United States needs to dedicate acute focus on increasing support to local security forces in Kurdish-controlled areas to not only prevent IS infiltrators, but also establish a degree of inter-communal trust among local Sunni Arabs and Kurds. More broadly, US CT operations may require closer coordination with Turkish authorities to consider expected population flows into southern Turkey and prevent would-be operators from launching attacks in Europe.

[i] Eli Berman and Jacob N. Shapiro, “Why ISIL Will Fail on Its Own,” Politico, November 29, 2015, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/11/why-isil-will-fail-on-its-own-213401.

[ii] Margaret Coker, Eric Schmitt, and Rukmini Callimachi, “With Loss of Its Caliphate, ISIS May Return to Guerilla Roots,” New York Times, October 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/world/middleeast/islamic-state-territory-attacks.html.

[iii] Ennabaladi, “The Organization, ‘The State’, Declares it Killed a Russian Soldier and Captured Two in Deir al-Zour,” September 28, 2017, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/175315.

[iv] Al-Jazeera, “ISIL posts ‘Baghdadi Audio’ Issuing ‘Resistance’ Call,” September 28, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/isil-posts-baghdadi-audio-issuing-resistance-call-170928165854930.html.

[v] Al-Etihad Press, “Ansar al-Furqan in Bilad al-Sham…A New Group Calls to Fight the Free Army and the Turkish Army in Syria,” October 3, 2017, http://aletihadpress.com/2017/10/09/أنصار-الفرقان-في-بلاد-الشام-جماعة-جدي/.

[vi] Alex Gallo, “American National Security Policy Needs to Get Ready for ISIS 2.0,” The Hill, September 29, 2017, http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/353119-america-needs-to-get-ready-for-isis-20.

[vii] Amir Shah, “Suicide Bombings in Afghanistan Hit Mosques, Killing 63,” Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-afghanistan-suicide-bombing-20171020-story.html.

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