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What Islamic State’s Loss of Territory Means for Its Survival
On 10 July 2017, Iraq declared victory over Islamic State (IS) in Mosul, following a gruelling ten-month offensive led by a 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militias with key air and ground support from a US-led coalition. On 17 July 2017, Raqqa in Syria came under heavy bombardment from advancing US-backed forces, and on 29 July 2017, Syria’s army and its allies reached Sukhna, the last town held by IS between Palmyra and the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor.
It was the latest blow to the jihadist group, which has already lost all of its territory in Libya. However, the group does not actually need these territories to survive. As Guardian journalist Simon Tisdall argued in a recent column, ‘Good news from Mosul does not signal the end of Islamic State.’ He continued: ‘The jihadists may be losing their territorial bases, but their warped ideology has not been vanquished. The group will continue to propagate its hateful ideas online. Its fighters will probably continue to wage an insurgent campaign. And they may now be additionally motivated to take the fight to the “enemy”, meaning a possible future rise in attacks on European soil.’
In late July 2017, Interpol released a list of 173 IS jihadists who could carry out attacks in Europe. Yet Europe is not the only target, with the organization claiming a deadly assault on Syrian fighters near Raqqa on 28 July 2017 and a car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan three days earlier.
In an interview with Fanack, Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter said that it is important to remember that IS existed before its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate in 2014, and was able to control Mosul discreetly, for example through mafia or cartel-like behaviour, forcing the police to obey using bribery and threats. “They could now do something similar, lay low and wait for an opportunity,” he said. “But they need operators of well-trained and educated people, a coherent leadership to avoid gang fights. They can’t operate in the open like they did in 2013 and 2014. But we do know that they had the ability around 2010 to mutate from a group conquering territories to maintaining a re-emerged underground network. They could wait for another such occasion to reappear, maybe in a different form, maybe less religious for example, except that we don’t know if there is any leader left alive who is able to replace the former ones. For the last three years, they have been in the open, and we cannot judge the future based only on that, ignoring their very successful phases as an underground movement.”
At the end of June 2017, Iraqi officials estimated that around 7,000 IS affiliates remain in Iraq. In an analysis for the Guardian, Ranj Alaaldin wrote that ‘the jihadi organization still controls strategically important, if smaller, patches of territory in places such as Hawija and Tal Afar, and will continue to enjoy the infrastructure that will allow it to continue terrorist attacks in the country. To make the liberation of Mosul count, the Iraqi government will now have to take on the more difficult long-term challenge of confronting militant groups by way of reconstructing the country and reconciling its communities and political factions.’
In Libya too, “nobody controls the south so [IS] could be anywhere, waiting and hiding. It is not what we think of as a victory,” Reuter added.
In Syria, with the exception of Raqqa, which ISIS is defending with well-trained snipers and multiple booby traps, an important place to consider is the Euphrates Valley, especially between Deir ez-Zor and Abou Kamal, said Reuter. “It has the advantage of being a very populated valley close to the desert, where [IS] could hide in both places if it has the necessary transportation, when allied forces would come by road. It would be difficult to conquer and keep this area, especially because it is between the spheres of influence of Russia and the regime on the one hand, and the PKK and the Americans on the other. Whenever a desert touches a fertile and populated area, it is hard to control.”
For the journalist, the only way to rid Syria of IS permanently is national reconciliation. “There is ongoing fragmentation in Syria, with multiple actors, forces and agendas engaged, which will always allow [IS] to hide and act when possible, especially in disputed areas. On Assad’s side, IS was a very useful enemy to rehabilitate his position internationally, but he is now too weak to regain the whole country.”
One thing is certain: IS has the time and opportunity to hide, regroup and potentially reshape its organization, no longer based on territorial control but on a new, as yet undefined, strategy.