Why demise of IS is exaggerated
The war against IS is not over as it moves from the military front to the ideological one. How to combat the ideas of the IS is a critical phase of tackling the threat — one that does not have simple answers
The fall of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, that was captured by the Islamic State (IS) and, which became the venue for its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's speech to announce the caliphate (of the so-called IS) fell back to the Iraqi Army few weeks ago. This was a critical triumph for Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Mosul and declared the defeat of the IS.
However, despite the narrative of an IS defeat — as promoted by the Iraqis and the Western coalition, led by the US — a historical understanding of the insurgency will explain that an absolute demise of the IS has been overplayed. In fact, it can be debated whether a complete ‘end’ can even be achieved or not.
The question, why has the IS managed to become such a powerful organisation, can be divided into two parts, both of which have little to do with common reasons of success for insurgency movements, but have turned out to be critical in this context.
The first is territory. And it is a fact that IS-controlled territory is as large as the United Kingdom, stretching through north Iraq into Syria. Unlike its peers, such as Al Qaeda, the IS was interested from the beginning to conquer land and apply its own versions of shari’ah law, turning into a proto-state.
The second factor was the opportunity to exploit political vacuum, which initial leaders of the IS found in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2013 that swept across the Arab world. The uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, amongst genuine people’s movements, was also hijacked in parts by the jihadists, who later on formed the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and so on. This was as much by design by Islamists taking advantage of the situation, as it was, a mixture of timing and luck.
Prior to 2014, and the fall of Mosul, the IS was an insurgent movement, developing out of what was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The mandates for AQI were very different, Zarqawi, while a popular local figure amongst Islamists, was not an internationally recognised face. However, the US, for its pretext of going to war in Iraq in 2003, against the then President Saddam Hussein, announced Zarqawi as one of the big Al Qaeda figures in Iraq via a speech at the United Nations by the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell. This launched Zarqawi into the big league overnight, without him having to do much. He was elevated to the league of Osama bin Laden, with whom he had conversations in Afghanistan, and disagreements as well. However, even bin Laden had realised, despite disagreeing with Zarqawi over the gruesome manner in which he went about conducting violence, that his stature was required for Al Qaeda to ‘break into’ Iraq.
Zarqawi’s ideology was grounded around the idea of territory and the caliphate, a larger aim than just targeting America and Israel, an idea that Al Qaeda revolved around. After his death in a US air strike in June 2006, the ideas that drove Zarqawi were inherited by his subordinates, many of whom he had met while in American prisons, specifically Camp Bucca. The fact that even after his death, Zarqawi’s thought process and way of conducting jihad only resonated further with his followers highlights the challenges of the future for fighting the IS.
Even as IS loses control over land, and struggles to keep hold of its influence zones, the fight against the insurgency group is going to be long-drawn. With roots of an insurgency movement, the IS, despite being pushed back from its proto-state status, will look to morph back into an insurgency movement fighting from within the population and society and employing signature tactics such as suicide bombings, deployment of Improvised Explosive Device, assassinations and so on.
It was, in fact, easier for the Iraqi Army and the US-led coalition to fight the IS as a proto-state, with more of a defined structure, both militarily and geographically than fighting them as an insurgency group, living amongst the local populations making it much more difficult to target them without civilian casualties.
Beyond territorial loss, it is yet to be assessed what sort of impact a receding IS will have on its vast online propaganda activities. Analysts have prophesied that a threatened IS base in Iraq and Syria may lead to an uptick in attacks conducted abroad in an attempt to save face and also re-establish lost narrative of supremacy, power and reach. To quantify this further, the recent battles against IS group, Abu Sayyaf, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — Philippines province, have been highlighted as great successes for the IS.
A recent info graphic released by pro-IS media outlet, Amaq, prominently highlighted the IS’s victories in Marawi, claiming that 335 Philippines soldiers had been killed over time by the IS, out of which 37 were taken down by snipers. The fight in Marawi has grabbed global attention, with the US reportedly initiating operations of armed drones in the region to help the Philippines Government, and even India chiming in with a small monetary donation to help Manila fight the IS.
A defeat of the IS in Iraq and Syria, today, is defined on territorial basis. However, as a proto-state, its molding back into an insurgency could be more worrying an outcome, with guerrilla and urban warfare amongst a returning population could increase the number of civilian casualties in the future. Also, the political and ideological space vacated by the IS requires a strong state response, both in Iraq and Syria, however, due to the fractured nature of the conflict, it is more than possible today that other Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda move in and take control of the narrative. Most groups currently fighting the IS, state or non-state, are fixating their strengths to fight one enemy. Once the IS is pushed to the fringes, many of these Islamist groups will turn to each other for a fight over territorial and ideological supremacy.
Despite the regional jihadist competition, it is not entirely impossible for these currently warring factions to unite to keep state interests out of these territorial regions. As mentioned above, the IS, after all, was a product emitting from the Al Qaeda. Zarqawi, despite his apprehensions, recognised the importance of linking his movement to bin Laden for both mileage, optics, finances and supremacy within the local jihadist movements in Iraq at that time.
It is yet possible that many of the currently warring parties in both Iraq and Syria come under associations via compromises to strengthen their causes by recognising another singular threat, for example, the Government in Baghdad or the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
The war against the IS is not yet over, as it moves from the military front to the ideological one. How to combat the spread of ideas propagated by the IS is a critical phase of tackling the threat — one that does not have any simple answers. British author, Alan Moore, in one of his famous graphic novels had penned the line “ideas are bulletproof”, and that, in essence, is now the biggest challenge against the Islamic State.
(The writer is, Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He specializes in the Middle East and counter-terrorism)
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