The Islamic State after Mosul

It's payback time for Iraqi troops for all the atrocities committed by the IS, who had indulged in mass killings of security forces and their near and dear, showing a deep, personal side to the anti-terror war in Mosul.  

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the end of the ‘Caliphate’ late last month after his troops captured the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the ‘Caliph’ of the world’s Muslims three years ago. The 12th century mosque, whose famed leaning minaret had been adorned with the black flag of the Islamic State (IS) since June 2014, was a symbol of power for the jihadists, so much so that they blew it away and retreated as the Iraqi troops closed in. Within weeks, Mr. Abadi was in Mosul to formally announce the liberation of Iraq’s second largest city.

It’s no small achievement for an army which fled Mosul in droves when IS fighters marched in three years ago. The IS ruled the city with an iron fist ever since and expanded its influence beyond the city limits. The Iraqi army took months to recover from the humiliation it suffered and launched a counter-terror campaign with help from Iran-trained militias and the U.S. Air Force. They liberated small cities first, such as Ramadi and Fallujah, before finally moving towards Mosul in October last year. The Kurdish Peshmerga also joined in, while the U.S. carried out a massive air campaign. In nine months the IS lost Mosul, the jewel of its Caliphate.

This is in line with the military setbacks the group has suffered in recent months. It has lost more than half of the territories it once held. Its propaganda blitzkrieg has taken a hit and even its ability to recruit new jihadists is under strain in the wake of battlefield losses. Its leader Baghdadi is either dead or on the run. But do these setbacks mean the IS is defeated? Has the 21st century ‘Caliphate’ run its course? The ground realities and a historical analysis of the evolution of the IS suggest otherwise.

Down but not out

First, the IS’s proto-state is not completely destroyed yet and it will not be in the immediate future. Though it lost Mosul, the IS still controls swathes of strategic territories in Iraq. Hawijah, a city adjoining Kirkuk that has been with the IS since 2013, continues to pose challenges to the Iraqi troops. The city’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult for the counter-terror forces to move in.

Besides Hawijah, the group controls Tal Afar, Salahuddin province and pockets in Anbar and Diyala. In Syria, it still controls Raqqa, its de facto capital which has been with the group since 2013, and Deir Ezzor, the largest city in the east. The battle to recapture Raqqa has just begun by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and will take time like other anti-IS battles.

Second, there’s no guarantee that the IS won’t come back to the cities it lost. It had done so earlier. The geopolitical fault lines of West Asia, especially in Iraq and Syria, which helped the IS rise in the first place, remain unchanged. In Iraq, a greater challenge before the government is to win over the people in the north and west, mostly Sunnis, who distrust the Shia-dominated government. In Syria, the battle against the IS is more complicated than that in Iraq. In Iraq at least there is a consensus about what the legitimate force is against the IS. All players, from America and the Kurds to Iran and Shia militias, rallied behind the Iraqi government in the war. But in Syria, there’s no such consensus. Raqqa is being attacked by both the SDF and the government troops. The U.S. is supporting the SDF, while Russia is backing the regime. Turkey, another country that’s involved through its proxies in the civil war, is wary of the SDF because it’s led by the Kurdish rebels. So even if Raqqa is liberated, it is difficult to reach a consensus on who will eventually run the city. If chaos prevails, that would be good news for the jihadists.

Third, the IS is fundamentally an insurgency that transformed itself into a proto-state. Now the proto-state is under attack, but the group can retreat to insurgency for its survival. The history of insurgent groups suggests that it is difficult to defeat them outright. Take the more recent examples of jihadist insurgencies. The Taliban regime was toppled and its fighters were driven out of Kabul in 2001 following the American invasion. Their leader, Mullah Omar, died while he was hiding. But does it mean that the Taliban were defeated?

Al-Qaeda is another example. After the Taliban were toppled, al-Qaeda was also forced to flee to the mountains. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, was also killed when he was hiding in Pakistan. Still al-Qaeda made a comeback by mobilising jihadists in Africa, Syria and Yemen. A more specific example would be al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was almost defeated once, only to be morphed into today’s IS as a more vigorous, deadly force.

The IS has already given enough indications that it will move back into insurgency if its proto-state was destroyed. In May 2016, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who was the second-most powerful leader in the IS till his death in an air strike in August that year, said in a long audio message released on the Web: “Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authority, or that victory is measured thereby, has strayed far from the truth.”

In insurgency mode

In fact, the IS has changed its strategy after the ‘Caliphate’ came under attack. Instead of expanding its territories, the group became defensive at its core and unleashed a wave of terror attacks elsewhere in the world, from Paris to Brussels and Berlin to Dhaka. It has also established franchises in other countries. Boko Haram, Africa’s most dreaded terror outfit, has declared loyalty to the IS. In eastern Afghanistan, the IS has a branch — the Islamic State of Khorasan — which is directing the group’s operations in South Asia.

The recent outbreak of a war in the Philippines, where armed jihadist groups that have declared loyalty to the IS have been fighting government forces, suggests that the IS is expanding its asymmetric reach when its core is under attack.

All this suggests that the threat is far from over. The IS has already transformed itself into a globalised idea and outsourced its terror mission to groups and individuals who subscribe to its world view. So even if the IS core is destroyed, the IS insurgency, or an ‘al-Qaedafied’ Islamic State, will continue to pose security challenges.


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 3:27:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-islamic-state-after-mosul/article19272706.ece

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