ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

When people do something that doesn’t fit their self-image, they often have a hard time remembering it. “Me? No, I couldn’t have done that. It just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Collectively, the American people are that way about fear. We see ourselves as a courageous country, so if you give us a good scare, and then the thing we were afraid of doesn’t happen, the whole episode has a way of slipping our minds. And if somebody deserves credit for avoiding what we were panicking about, well, too bad for them, because … us? afraid? What are you talking about?

President Obama has suffered from this kind of public amnesia before. The day before he was elected in 2008, USA Today ran a reassuring article telling people that a Second Great Depression was “unlikely”, even if things sort of looked that way.

Failed banks. Panicked markets. Rising unemployment. For students of history, or people of a certain age, it all has an all-too-familiar ring. Is this another Great Depression? Not yet.

By any measure, our current economic suffering pales in comparison with what the nation endured from 1929 through 1939. Still, most economists are predicting a long, difficult period ahead. Could it eventually become a depression? It’s possible — but not likely.

That’s what a calm, reasonable voice sounded like in November, 2008: Total catastrophe might happen, but it probably won’t, unless it does. At least it hasn’t happened yet.

But who remembers? If we discuss Obama’s economic record at all now, we probably talk about how anemic the recovery has been. Wages should be higher, poverty lower. “What’s wrong with this guy? Depression? I never worried about a Depression. That doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Something similar has happened with regard to the Islamic State. When ISIS first burst into the public consciousness in the spring of 2014, we weren’t afraid of handfuls of terrorists slipping across borders to carry out operations like the Paris attack last November. Nor did we worry about American individuals giving ISIS the credit for killing sprees like San Bernardino or Orlando (which without the credit to ISIS would be hard to distinguish from secular non-ideological killing sprees like Sandy Hook or Aurora).

In the spring and early summer of 2014, the question was on a different scale: whether Baghdad would fall, leading to the complete collapse of Iraq as a country. Maybe the restored Caliphate, the one Bin Laden had dreamed about but never expected to see, was happening right before our eyes.

In a widely discussed Atlantic article in the spring of 2015 (which I critiqued here), Graeme Wood told us what made ISIS different and far more dangerous that Al Qaeda had been: Large chunks of sharia describe a Muslim’s duties towards the Caliphate, and have been moot since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” … In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

By controlling territory and declaring himself Caliph there, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was filling a role that an underground leader like Osama bin Laden never could. His advancing forces stirred memories of Muhammad’s armies improbably exploding out of Medina to capture the entire Arabian peninsula, then his successors continuing that rapid expansion until their empire was the largest in the world. The Emperor in Constantinople hadn’t been able to stop the armies of Allah; maybe the President in Washington couldn’t either.

So that was the challenge Obama faced two years ago when he formulated his anti-ISIS strategy: Stop al-Baghdadi’s advance and throw his forces back. But a new American invasion of Iraq (plus Syria) wasn’t a good idea because it would simultaneously

  • play into al-Baghdadi’s end-times fantasies
  • support ISIS’ narrative that it represents all of Islam in a Muslim/Christian holy war
  • cost fabulous amounts of money
  • get lots of American troops killed
  • not be supported by the American people
  • involve us in a new occupation that in the long run would probably be as counter-productive as the last one.

So Obama opted for a slow-strangulation approach instead: Use air power to prevent ISIS from advancing with a massed force, and also to kill its leaders and degrade its territory’s economic resources; aid local anti-ISIS forces like the patched-back-together Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and whatever bands of Syrian rebels seem remotely trustworthy; together with our allies, prevent new recruits from emigrating to the Caliphate; and use our economic power to cut off ISIS’ sources of foreign funding.

He doesn’t get much credit for it, but it’s been working. By January, 2015, ISIS’ forward momentum had ground to a halt, robbing it of its greatest propaganda weapon. Since then, it has slowly but inexorably been losing territory: Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Manbij, and maybe soon Mosul and even the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria, reducing the Islamic State’s ability to shift forces between Syria and Iraq.

One measure of how well the strangulation strategy has been working is that (no matter how often they proclaimed Obama’s ISIS policy a failure) none of the candidates in the Republican primaries offered a real alternative. Any detailed policy they offered was more-or-less what Obama is already doing, perhaps seasoned with some additional macho rhetoric like “carpet bombing” that they didn’t mean literally.

So now it is possible to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when ISIS no longer holds territory, and is only a caliphate in some vague metaphorical sense. Al-Baghdadi himself may go down with the ship, or he may survive as a Bin-Ladin-style underground leader, but his mythic status as a caliph will be gone. Then what happens?

An article by Mark Jurgensmeyer in the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs tries to answer that question. In his view, ISIS is really three things:

  • a local Sunni empowerment movement
  • a global jihadist movement
  • an apocalyptic cult

The end of the al-Baghdadi caliphate, Jurgensmeyer thinks, will unbundle those three aspects, and each will have its own future.

Local Sunnis. No matter what happens to ISIS or al-Baghdadi, a lot of Sunnis will still live in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and they still will feel no loyalty to either the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus or the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Eventually, and probably before too long, some political and/or military force will represent their interests again.

The three possibilities are: (1) Baghdad and Damascus re-assert control, but manage to give Sunnis enough respect and local autonomy to keep them happy, (2) Baghdad and Damascus decide they’re glad to be rid of those troublesome provinces and allow the creation of a non-jihadist Sunni state that covers most of the territory ISIS controlled, or (3) the region becomes a failed-state territory, nominally under government control but in practice ruled by warlords of one sort or another. Jurgensmeyer sees some combination of (2) and (3) as the most likely scenario:

In the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

Global jihadists. For young Muslims who feel alienated from the Western or Western-dominated society where they live (and from the local mosque that attempts to fit into that society), ISIS has been a symbol, a brand, an identity, and a virtual community accessed via the internet. (TPM recently had a more detailed article on ISIS’ use of the internet.) The actual territory of ISIS is a place of aspiration, but most never go there. Recently, the Islamic State has been encouraging sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe to carry out attacks at home.

When Raqqa falls, it will be a huge blow to ISIS’ propaganda, and some recruits may see the err of their ways. But like the Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, they will still be alienated. They will still be searching for an identity as Muslims, and the online jihadist community will be there to welcome them.

The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications, and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’s territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS-controlled cities of Raqqah and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

… This branding of autonomous terrorist attacks may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadist network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

In other words: Capturing Raqqa or killing al-Baghdadi won’t stop the next Orlando attack.

This is one reason why American Islamophobia is so counter-productive. Anyone who proclaims that we are at war with Islam is telling our Muslim youth that they have no place in the West and never will. So why shouldn’t they try to burn it all down?

Cultists. One achievement of Wood’s Atlantic article was to introduce the American public to the apocalyptic vision of ISIS’ inner circle. Al-Baghdadi sees himself leading not just a liberation movement, but moving towards a long-prophesied battle of cosmic significance. Jurgensmeyer also emphasizes the importance of this belief:

The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This Islamic Armageddon is supposed to happen at Dabiq, a town within ISIS’ control that also provides the name of its online magazine.

When Dabiq falls and the world keeps on spinning, the cultists will have suffered a major blow. Likewise, when al-Baghdadi’s forces splinter into underground bands of rebel fighters and can no longer be called an army in any meaningful sense, the final battle may start to seem very far away.

However, apocalyptic thinking pops up in almost all religions, and never completely goes away. Jurgensmeyer sees this aspect of ISIS surviving in small groups, many of which will be benign because they will lack the means to carry out their visions. However, the ability of small groups of extremists to occasionally do horrible things should not be forgotten.

Summing up. For a time, al-Baghdadi assembled religion, propaganda, territorial control, and military force into a threat to the Western-dominated world order that went far beyond anything Bin Laden wielded. President Obama’s strategy has addressed that threat without over-reacting. It has not given us the falling-Saddam-statue moments many would like, but it has been effective. Soon, probably during his successor’s term, that special threat will be broken.

But when it is, the Bin-Laden-style terror-attack threat will continue, and the political problems of Sunnis in Iraq/Syria will remain. The wellspring of violence is not charismatic leadership or clever propaganda, it is an alienated populace. That’s something you can’t solve with air power or the conquest of cities.

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  • 1mime  On September 19, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    There are no words……there are no easy answers…….there will be more deaths from this group of people in the name of their religion……

    • jh  On September 19, 2016 at 9:04 pm

      And please count the number of people who have died because of American soldiers and American drones and American weaponry and American sponsoring of terrorists (the one’s who ensured that they would follow our orders).

      There are two sides to this fight. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they are irredeemably evil. They may have damn good reasons to hate Americans and America.

      However – I will state this – religion is a wonderful tool to promote violence and harm based on feelings. People might be a little less prone to violence (both direct and indirect because the RCC murders thousands of people annually when they advocate for no condoms, no birth control, no abortion) without the inflammatory effects of violence.

  • Dan OConnnell  On September 19, 2016 at 9:34 pm

    Sent from my iPad


  • Dane Sørensen  On September 20, 2016 at 7:37 am

    My information on this mainly comes from the War Nerd, so my main concern is the Kurds. They sound like our last, best hope for a progressive Middle East, and Turkey hates them even more than ISIS. In fact, when Turkey entered the war it took a week before I believed they were actually fighting ISIS.

    But, that’s all out of my hands. My job is to put pressure on the government to take in more refugees, since that seems to be the thing that makes ISIS scream. And not just Christian refugees, the bloody morons.

  • Anonymous  On September 20, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    Growing up in a very religious household, we were taught a lot of similar doomsday predictions for Christianity (though we liked to call them “end-times prophecies”). Specifically, the interpretation that we were taught also foretold of a great battle in the Middle East that would result in Armageddon, with some wishful seers predicting that America would lead the charge against Satan’s army — not necessarily JUST non-Jewish Arabs, but you get the idea..

    Like the prophecies that the inner circles of ISIS cling to, many Christians are unaware of or dismiss these predictions, but nonetheless it influences them indirectly, through the people that write their private schools’ curriculum, the messages of televangelists, their favorite talk radio hosts and other segments of fundamentalist Christian society. There are many sources and strains of Islamophobia, but one that seems very common among the people I grew up with centered around this sort of predestined duel, the final Ishmael Vs. Isaac fight.

    People who grew up on the outside of my religious bubble are perplexed and frustrated when they meet someone with this particular strain of Islamophobia. The short answer is that trying to convince them that there are nice Muslims out there won’t get through to them, because this isn’t a race or prejudice issue (from their perspective): it’s a doctrinal interpretation issue. So long as they believe firmly that Jesus is coming down to whoop ass on the Devil in Mesopotamia, they will hold onto their view of Muslims as Abraham’s illegitimate child.

    From my own personal experience, any metamorphosis here has to come from within. Your part as the outsider is to continue to express your views, but in a way that doesn’t belittle the listener or their core faith. For someone like me who was steeped in this doctrine at an early age, it took years before my views would change – thanks to kind, patient people who didn’t attack my beliefs, but asked me to question them myself.

    In short, approach these people the way you would as an evangelist: don’t expect a one-hour conversion, but plant a seed in their mind and tend to the seeds others have planted. You may never see the fruits the seeds may bear; and some may never bear fruit at all. But the consequences of planting on tough soil are less than never trying at all.

    Obligatory “not all Christians are created equal” disclaimer. Your mileage may vary based on region, sect and exposure to Irvin Baxter.

  • Eric L  On September 24, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    “prevent new recruits from emigrating to the Caliphate”

    The rest of the strategy seems great but this is the one thing I’ve really had my doubts about, especially from the perspective of what’s best for the west. Bush infamously said “I’d rather fight them over there than over here” in response to growing terrorism in Iraq, but here we are in a situation where that’s actually applicable; that’s actually the choice before us with regards to *emigration*. And the one great thing about ISIS as compared to Al-Qaeda (once again from a purely western perspective) is that they’d rather be fighting over there than over here. Letting the ISIS-sympathetic leave for Syria seems like a win-win. But instead we put up obstacles to their leaving so the only way they can be part of the ISIS cause is to do ISIS-branded attacks here, and meanwhile we focus our worry on *immigration*, i.e. the people who want to get away from ISIS, when they aren’t the ones causing terrorist attacks.

    Now I’ll grant that we should also be concerned for what’s best for Iraq and Syria. But modern warfare isn’t as much about the numbers; controlling the flow of money and weapons is much more important than controlling the flow of people.


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