By: Andrew Swick, Columnist
Photo Credit:Al-Sharq al-Awsat (via CIA release)
Last month, the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) took control of Raqqa from the Islamic State (ISIS), reducing the so-called caliphate’s territorial holdings to a diminished stretch of land on the eastern side of the Euphrates River. While American officials were cautious in their immediate assessments of the coalition’s victory, SDF leaders quickly declared the capture of the caliphate’s capital city.[i] By all measures, the fall of Raqqa represents a serious blow to the already damaged Islamic State. At the outset of 2018, the SDF will likely be poised to seize all of the remaining territory held by ISIS, though this is unlikely to signify the end of the Islamic State itself.
Even after ISIS loses its physical domain, the caliphate will pose a lasting threat to the United States and its allies through unconventional warfare and virtual inspiration. Most immediately, following battlefield losses ISIS members can reintegrate into local Sunni communities and adapt new tactics as needed. As described by Colin Clarke and Craig Whiteside, these fighters are “experienced in blending back into the local population” and continuing the fight through “low-level insurgency.”[ii] Troublingly, recent reporting by the BBC indicates that the SDF allowed hundreds of ISIS fighters to escape Raqqa, along with their weapons and ammunition, breathing life into a nascent ISIS insurgency.[iii]
At the same time, the Islamic State may persist outside Iraq and Syria through durable affiliates and its virtual caliphate. As terrorism expert Clint Watts points out, ISIS will likely soon find itself in a dilemma similar to that faced by al-Qa’ida when confronted by the constant threat of drone strikes from 2009 to 2011; to survive, ISIS will need to reconsolidate its leadership on new terrain.[iv] Watts further notes, however, that ISIS’s current prospects for transferring authority to an affiliate “appear bleak,” given regional competition and counterterrorism efforts faced by ISIS affiliates in Africa and Asia.[v] The ISIS threat will likely endure, though, in part through the organization’s continued use of virtual propaganda and social media to inspire attacks by homegrown terrorists. Also, while many foreign fighters will be prevented from traveling to their home countries after ISIS’s fall, the threat of returning fighters executing attacks presents a “major concern” for governments in the Middle East and Europe.[vi]
Moreover, as ISIS continues to lose their territorial hold in eastern Syria, al-Qa’ida and its proxies are increasingly primed to reassert leadership over the global jihad. Unlike ISIS, al-Qa’ida-backed groups such as Syrian affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have tempered their use of violence to retain financial backing in the hopes of ensuring long-term survival even as dispersed militias.[vii] And already, as noted by Christopher Meserole of the Brookings Institution, al-Qa’ida has been “actively courting” ISIS fighters to join groups like HTS.[viii] Even while working to deprive ISIS of its troops, al-Qa’ida is also positioned to negotiate a favorable alliance with the caliphate’s weakened remains. To this end, Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman argued in an interview last year that ISIS could ultimately survive through a “merger or forced amalgamation” with al-Qa’ida, once the “ISIS organization is catastrophically weakened.”[ix]
Key to al-Qaeda’s ability to win over ISIS fighters, however, is Hamza bin Laden’s prominence in the organization’s leadership and communication strategy. Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s “favorite” son and the heir apparent to his father’s legacy, recently adopted a more public role within al-Qaeda, issuing calls to jihad. Notably, Hamza—whose current location is unknown—has followed in the recent ISIS mold of encouraging aspiring terrorists to target infidels in their home countries rather than travel to warzones like Syria or Afghanistan.[x] In addition, Hamza has refrained from “explicitly criticiz[ing] the Islamic State;”[xi] similarly, while ISIS publicly broke ties with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islamic State members regularly “profess admiration” for Hamza’s father.[xii] By appealing to ISIS fighters just as the caliphate loses its operational base, Hamza bin Laden appears to be positioning himself to take over the mantle of leadership in the global jihad.
To effectively confront this continuing terrorist threat from both al-Qaeda and ISIS, the United States cannot afford to take its foot off the gas in its counterterror efforts overseas. Bruce Hoffman further notes that to comprehensively defeat the Islamic State following the defeat of the territorial caliphate, the United States needs to “fight…on two levels.”[xiii] Specifically, Hoffman argues that counterterror strategies must focus both on “seizing their physical sanctuaries and safe havens” while simultaneously opposing their shared Salafi jihadist ideology.[xiv] Finally, the United States cannot focus so narrowly on its campaign against ISIS as to ignore the larger jihadi threat. Long after the Islamic State loses its last holdout in Syria, jihadists will continue to target America—likely under an all-too-familiar banner.
[i] Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “Raqqa, ISIS ‘Capital’ Is Captured, U.S.-Backed Forces Say,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017.
[ii] Colin Clarke and Craig Whiteside, “Charting the Future of the Modern Caliphate,” War on the Rocks, May 3, 2017.
[iii] “U.S. quietly let hundreds of ISIS fighters flee Raqqa,” CBS News, November 14, 2017.
[iv] Clint Watts, “When the Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of the Islamic State’s Affiliates,” War on the Rocks, June 13, 2016.
[vi] Barnard and Saad, “Raqqa, ISIS ‘Capital’ Is Captured, U.S.-Backed Forces Say.”
[vii] Watts, “When the Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of the Islamic State’s Affiliates.”
[viii] Christopher Meserole, “Raqqa has fallen. Has ISIS?,” The Brookings Institution, October 19, 2017.
[ix] Bruce Hoffman, “Al Qaeda: Quietly and Patiently Rebuilding,” The Cipher Brief, December 30, 2016.
[x] Ali Soufan, “Hamza bin Ladin: From Steadfast Son to al-Qa`ida’s Leader in Waiting,” CTC Sentinel 10, no. 8 (September 2017): 4.
[xiii] Scott Simon and Bruce Hoffman, “Why the Fall of Raqqa Doesn’t Signify the End of the Islamic State,” NPR, October 21, 2017.
[xiv] Joshua Keating, “A New Look at Hamza Bin Laden,” Slate, November 2, 2017.