In October 2014, Islamic State (IS) territory in Syria and Iraq was at its maximum. The extremist offshoot of al-Qaeda controlled an area extending from central Syria to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, including major cities such as Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit and Raqqa. The group looked to be on course to establish a ‘caliphate’ to end the post-WWI state model in the Middle East. At its peak, ISIS ruled over 10 million people and took drastic measures to continue expanding beyond its stronghold in Iraq and Syria. However, by June 2018, ISIS had lost almost all its territory in the Middle East. Many of its local foot soldiers have been either killed or captured, and many of its foreign fighters have been eradicated or returned home. Does this mean the end of ISIS?
Liberating the territory controlled by ISIS has involved an almost unprecedented global military coalition. On 3 December 2014, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, the representatives from 59 countries assembled to plan a united action against IS. Although US President Barack Obama wanted to withdraw from the Middle East, once again an American-led coalition was forged to undertake a major military operation in the region, this time against ISIS. The costs have been high: by 30 June 2017, the US alone had spent $14.3 billion on the operation.
Iran, America’s regional rival, was also quick to join the fray. Although it was not part of the coalition, its elite Quds Force, led by General Qassem Suleimani, was deployed to Samarra, Baghdad and Karbalag. By late September 2015, Russia, Iraq, Iran and Syria had formed a ‘joint information centre‘ in Baghdad to coordinate military action against ISIS. Other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia also declared war against ISIS. On 14 December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced that 34 Muslim countries would join the war on terror.
On 9 December 2017, Iraq declared victory against IS as the group was no longer controlling any territory in the country. Apart from a small area, IS no longer controls any territory in Syria either. The drastic reduction of coalition military operations against IS shows that the group no longer pose the same threat. For example, in April 2017, American and allied jets dropped over 3,000 bombs on IS both in Iraq and Syria. A year later, just 254 bombs were dropped on IS targets, a sign of how much the war has changed. At the same time, more than 15,000 civilians were killed by air strikes in 2017, an increase of 42 per cent in a year. There is no doubt that these anti-ISIS operations in themselves will contribute to more extremism and anti-Western sentiment in the affected communities.
Yet while ISIS has been weakened in the Middle East, it still has a considerable presence in Afghanistan. Of course, it is not a populist movement like the Taliban, which has a large social base. However, the group is willing to undertake deadly and high-profile attacks. Weak security institutions, political instability and widespread corruption have made Afghanistan fertile ground for ISIS. ISIS-affiliated insurgency organizations are also active both in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and West Africa.
Beyond Afghanistan, it is important to note that IS is still exploiting Iraq’s black market and widespread corruption to amass millions of dollars to fuel its insurgency. Despite the military triumphalism of the Iraqi government, it has so far been unable to undermine ISIS’s financial capabilities. The group has invested at least $250 million in legitimate businesses in Iraq. The enterprises are operated through local middlemen who are mainly motivated by personal economic gain. Through these proxies, ISIS is active in various sectors such as car dealerships, electronics shops and pharmacies and, more importantly, currency exchanges. The Iraqi authorities admit that hundreds of small ISIS-linked exchanges operate in Baghdad alone.
Although defeated on the battlefield, ISIS continues to accumulate wealth, which eventually contributes to their operations within and beyond the region. Thousands of battle-tested ISIS foreign fighters have returned home. Some of these returnees may now be disillusioned with the group, but some of them are likely still committed. This means that the group has access to a global network of people who are prepared to die for the cause. It is not surprising then that the current threat level for international terrorism in the UK and many other Western countries remains high. In recent weeks, ISIS supporters have published graphic online posters and threatened to target the FIFA World Cup in Russia, the biggest sporting event in the world.
Many IS leaders have been killed, but according to Iraqi officials. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and being treated at a medical facility in north-eastern Syria after being severely wounded in an air raid. Although this is a major blow to the group, it has not permanently paralyzed it. Indeed, ISIS has shown itself to be highly opportunistic, and should it find hospitable ground, it will quickly regenerate. Although strong leadership is important for its continuity, IS primarily thrives in a climate of political instability.
The group initially emerged in Iraq as the result of weak state institutions, insecurity and rising sectarianism. It capitalized on local grievances and popular anger, turning them into a violent force intent on destroying the political order and replacing it with a utopian system.
Although IS is unlikely to regain the influence It had in 2014, as long as political instability and weak state institutions persist, it will be an imminent threat. Following the parliamentary elections in Iraq on 12 May 2018, which saw the surprise victory of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s alliance, there is some hope for a new political direction that could provide some stability. However, the situation in Syria remains uncertain. Although President Bashar al-Assad, with the help of Russia and other allies, has all but eliminated opposition forces, the country is far from having the stability that is desperately needed to deter ISIS and similar insurgent organizations.