The Islamic State (ISIS) is on the back foot after its defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul and smaller losses in Syria, but questions remain over eradicating the group’s leadership.
There have been persistent rumours that ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed. These, however, have not been confirmed and should be treated sceptically.
What is certain is that ISIS’s leadership structure has been declining following the death of leading figures who have not been replaced due to a sustained campaign of US-led air strikes.
The anti-ISIS military campaign has led to the decline in ISIS propaganda, which can be measured qualitatively. Charlie Winter, an academic who follows ISIS’s output, tweeted that ‘[ISIS] media noticeably dropped off in early June’. He attributed the fall to international coalition and Iraqi government operations ‘having [a] serious impact on its ability to get propaganda from A to B.’
Nevertheless, ISIS has demonstrated that it is resourceful and has a history of coping with military defeats. The line of succession of Baghdadi is unclear and although his death may mean the end of the self-proclaimed caliphate, it does not spell the end of ISIS in operational terms.
As al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS survived long periods of mounting insurgent campaigns in the very territory to which it is soon expected to be reduced. Its leaders have been killed before and it has endured.
Analysts said that ISIS militants have retreated to what the group calls Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates province), which covers several Iraqi and Syrian towns. Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said Baghdadi was there.
Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism, said: ‘Wilayat al-Furat is and will be the final redoubt of the Islamic State, a base in difficult terrain that it will be difficult for any outside force to clear [ISIS fighters] from’.
He explained that ‘It was in this zone, on the Iraqi side of the border, that [their predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq] rode out defeat and from which they spread back across Iraq in 2008’.
Orton said that, in addition to Iraqi territory, ISIS has ‘the Syrian side of the border, too, and a much more hospitable political and military environment’. The survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, a cause of great instability and internecine hatred, is a boon to ISIS, both now and in the future, argued Orton.
As well as these ungoverned spaces, ISIS can count on favourable conditions in other parts of Iraq and Syria. ISIS appears to have planned for its defeat in Mosul for months. Defending those cities was merely one stage of a multiphase plan.
Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer and fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that in Iraq ‘ISIS cells will continue to operate in cities where Iraqi Shia militias and Iraqi Security Forces have relaxed their security postures’.
In the same way, forces fighting ISIS must be prepared to operate a similarly staged strategy. ‘Phase I: Take away territory. Phase II: Fight ISIS as it moves to the al-Qaeda model’, Pregent said. The third phase, he said, may include a ‘security backslide in liberated areas’.
Pregent noted that the future of ISIS rested on Sunni communities, many of which were distrustful of what they perceived to be Shia domination of Iraq’s government.
There was a real fear that, among government circles and worldwide, ‘there is no interest in protecting the population, let alone empowering the Sunni population to fight back against the next iteration of ISIS’, said Pregent.
Iraqi Sunnis are both the basis of ISIS’s support and the most important opponents of its worldview. They have fought back against its predecessor organisations but need support – moral and military – to do so.
Pregent said the manner in which cities have been captured from ISIS would provide propaganda material for a wide range of rejectionist groups in opposition to the Iraqi government.
Conditions exist in both Iraq and Syria for the survival ISIS, which can be expected to exploit political weakness and sectarian division and make use of ungoverned space in the region. This presents numerous options for the group, even after the certain loss of major urban areas. Some form of ISIS will exist for years.
Sustaining ISIS’s defeat and altering the conditions that would allow it to grow once more remain a challenge that faces policymakers and leaders, in Iraq, Syria and across the world.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.