The speed with which the Islamic State conquered territory after its advent in 2014 and in the years that followed cannot be denied. Nor can the ferocity and threat of its rule. The apparent self-confidence of its theology and the devotion with which fighters – foreign and local – flocked to its cause made it a threat seen across the world.
This threat galvanised opposition to the Islamic State (ISIS) and led to a global effort to defeat the caliphate its leaders had declared. With progress of varying speed, but always with worldwide support, and with varying fighters on the ground, but always with great international assistance, the coalition against ISIS defeated the militant group.
Its capitals were taken, some destroyed in the process, and what was purported to be ISIS’s last stand took place not in the cities it had dominated but in Barghouz on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria.
This was a fitting denouement but not an end. Though many ISIS leaders have been killed, many of its key figures are alive and in hiding. The man ISIS attempted to declare caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still at large. Thousands of fighters still flock to his banner.
For several years, analysts and policymakers warned that the recapture of territory from ISIS would not end the threat of the group. They noted ISIS’s history, its permutations before and after the war in Iraq that began in 2003 and the extent to which ISIS was capable of using ungoverned spaces to recover, gather strength and create as a springboard for future conflict.
The apparent defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the driving of its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq, into the desert were followed, less than half a decade later, by the rise of ISIS.
So pervasive have warnings of an ISIS resurgence become that broad agreement on this possibility has given way to dissension on the details.
An analysis on a report from the Institute for the Study of War makes the case that ISIS could return in an especially stark framing.
In it, analysts led by Jennifer Cafarella suggest that ISIS is stronger than its predecessor organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq, was in 2010. Cafarella and her co-authors claim and that ISIS has the capacity to capture a ‘major urban centre in Iraq or Syria’.
The report notes that ISIS has, in infrastructural terms, assets that its predecessor did not possess, such as a sophisticated global propaganda campaign and a network of foreign affiliates and operatives that have proven themselves capable of committing acts of terror across the world.
This analysis dovetails with worries about ungoverned spaces in eastern Syria and western and northern Iraq. The weakness of the Iraqi government around Hawija, still containing an ISIS pocket, and the continued collapsed state Syrian society has entered could present a more dynamic insurgency – of the sort ISIS’s messaging has switched to promoting – sufficient space to resurge.
All this gives the lie to claims – made by the United States, especially and the rest of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in more guarded terms – that ISIS has been comprehensively defeated.
Nonetheless, ISIS’s capacity and its leaders’ intentions are not sufficient to create a new terror state. There are other players against whom ISIS would compete if it wished to re-establish its hold over territory.
Ryan O’Farrell, an independent analyst, said: ‘I think it’s important to note that the Iraqi Security Forces are far better positioned to deal with security threats than they were in 2011-14. Their numbers, capacity and morale are far superior so it’s hard to see them abandoning entire cities as happened five years ago, despite enduring issues of corruption, human rights abuses and sectarianism, which remain huge problems’.
In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, despite defeating rebel pockets in the country’s south and slowly attracting the de facto support of Arab, European and North American states that no longer – even in gesture – argue for Assad’s removal, remains weak.
‘The regime, however, has faced mounting casualties to ISIS units in the areas between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor and has manpower issues given the deployments to the Idlib fronts’, O’Farrell said.
Other forces, such as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian rebels, some of which are practically supported by Turkey, were used by the Global Coalition as ground forces to fight ISIS in the campaign that just concluded.
Despite the rebels’ relative weakness, they and the SDF would likely possess the resolve and international support necessary to keep a resurgent ISIS at bay.
However, its history, declared willingness to build on insurgent foundations and the problems afflicting countries on both sides of the Iraq—Syria border contribute to a situation in which a re-emergence of the Islamic State remains worryingly possible, if not certain.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.