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IS's Looming Death Could Be Hiding Bad News

FILE: A rebel fighter takes away a flag that belonged to Islamic State militants in Syria's northern Aleppo Governorate in October.
FILE: A rebel fighter takes away a flag that belonged to Islamic State militants in Syria's northern Aleppo Governorate in October.

In 2014, the world was gripped by news of two deadly epidemics.

Both were bloody, vicious afflictions that killed many who came in contact with them. Local populations were being devastated, but so, too, were foreigners who traveled to affected areas to help. Fears spread quickly that both would cross borders, infect cities, and threaten major events. There was panic on TV and in world capitals as politicians and pundits debated shutting borders or even denying travel to people from affected countries.

One, the Ebola virus, has been largely contained geographically and combated with proper equipment and training, and no longer captures headlines. It is a terrifying killer that has claimed around 15,000 lives since its detection in 1976. But it is arguably less devastating on a global scale than, say, HIV/AIDS, which has killed more than 3 million people since its identification in 1981, or malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. Simply put, Ebola has so far been isolated and made to burn itself out.

The other affliction, the extremist ideology of Islamic State (IS), shares some attributes with Ebola hemorrhagic fever. Both kill victims in terrifying, public, and cruel manners. While Ebola's victims often bleed to death, IS has crucified, beheaded, or burned its victims alive, among other methods. It is the stuff of nightmares.

But by sheer numbers, IS has killed relatively few people worldwide. The University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism has estimated that more than 33,000 people were killed by IS or other terrorist groups loyal to IS between 2002 and 2013. For perspective: There are estimates that as many as 1 million people have been killed in Syria between 2011 and 2016 -- only a tiny fraction of them by IS.

Just as Ebola essentially disappeared from public debate in the past year, major news outlets may not be talking about IS a year from now. Also as with Ebola, media attention could snap right back to 24-hour panic mode if fears arise of a new outbreak.

But more troublingly, in the case of IS, such a focus could lead to complacency about an arguably more dangerous threat: the growing cloud of Al-Qaeda, which has benefited tremendously from the events of the last few years.

The Collapse Of The Physical State

The "dawla," or "state" -- the physical territory controlled by IS -- once stretched from just west of Baghdad, Iraq, to just east of Aleppo, Syria. The region has essentially operated as a quasi-state, run by extremists -- with local governance, tax collection, industry, law and order, border control, and a multifaceted intelligence apparatus, to say nothing of the obvious: a military.

And today the "dawla" looks to be in total collapse.

On the eastern front, a U.S.-backed coalition of Iraqi Shi'ite militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi government, a collection of international air forces, and U.S. special forces are hammering away at IS in Iraq. Ramadi and Fallujah have fallen to this coalition, which has now set its sights on Mosul. Once that northern Iraqi city is retaken, IS will have lost its de facto capital in Iraq. Only weaker pockets of surrounded IS fighters will remain.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces walk through a town near Mosul after they had retaken it from Islamic State in November.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces walk through a town near Mosul after they had retaken it from Islamic State in November.

At IS's center, the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Force (SDF) has pushed from northern Syria down like a dagger toward Raqqa, the heart of IS territory. Mostly comprising Kurdish forces aligned with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG (considered a terrorist group in Turkey), the SDF has captured the most territory from IS over the last two years. Throughout the summer, the SDF also pushed west of the Euphrates River, capturing territory along the Turkey-Syria border.

It appears to have been SDF progress that prompted another country -- Turkey -- to intervene on IS's western front. Since the Turkish government considers the YPG to be an enemy of the Turkish state, the loss of the border to the Kurdish group is something that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was clearly unwilling to accept.

Less than a month after Turkey's failed coup on July 15, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, on August 24, Turkish military units crossed the border into IS-controlled territory, capturing key towns near the border that seemed bound to fall to the SDF without Turkish intervention.

Turkey continues to advance. In October, Turkish forces attacked the town of Dabiq. While not militarily important, Dabiq was a sufficiently important symbol for IS's English-language propaganda magazine to have been named after the town. According to the Hadith, an ancient text that reportedly recorded some of the teachings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad, a great apocalyptic battle between the followers of Islam and non-believers was to take place there.

What better symbol could there be for the Ebola of geopolitics than control of the city from which the apocalypse starts? And yet IS fighters left the town without a fight, a symbol to some that the collapse of the "state" was inevitable and might accelerate.

Turkish troops driving tanks on one of their country's military incursions into Syria earlier this year.
Turkish troops driving tanks on one of their country's military incursions into Syria earlier this year.

Now, Turkish forces and moderate Syrian rebels are besieging the IS stronghold of Al-Bab, once a symbol of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which was held by moderate rebels backed by Turkey and the United States before IS seized it in the summer of 2013.

This fight on the western edge of the would-be caliphate, like those on the eastern front in Mosul and in Raqqa, will be a tough one. But IS's military defeat in all three places is all but certain. In all likelihood, the territorial "Islamic State" as we have come to know it will be gone by the close of 2017.

But does that really mean the extremist group IS will simply disappear?

The Evolution Of A Disease

Despite media reports touting the imminent death of Islamic State, not a single expert interviewed for this article said they believed that the recapturing of IS territory in Iraq and Syria would mark the end of that group. There's a simple reason for this: history. IS has been militarily defeated before -- under a different name -- and it came back more virulent than ever.

In their book, ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan trace the beginnings of IS back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, a Jordanian-Palestinian who became an uneasy ally of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the lead-up to 9/11 and the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Even then, there were clear tensions between the two leaders.

There were major ideological differences between the Islamic extremists Osama bin Laden (left) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
There were major ideological differences between the Islamic extremists Osama bin Laden (left) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Like the organizations they founded, each leader subscribed to a radical jihadist ideology. Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at King's College London's International Center for the Study of Radicalization, has described the brand of Salafi-Jihadism that Al-Qaeda and IS follow as seeking a return to the practice of Islam in its purest form, as was seen in the earliest days of the religion. As Maher lays out in his new book, Salafi-Jihadism: The History Of An Idea, the goal of these fundamentalist organizations, then, is to create a caliphate, a kingdom on earth to bring about this radical purification.

Kyle Orton, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, summarizes Maher's writing by saying that Salafi-Jihadism rests on five pillars:

According to Mr. Maher, Salafi-jihadists all adhere to five ideological pillars, and learning to identify them will help us understand an enemy that has shown itself to be highly adaptable. The first of these pillars is jihad, the method by which the Salafi-jihadists' millenarian vision is to be realized, upending the existing world order and creating a utopia. Liberal interpreters of Islam would explain jihad as an internal struggle or an overcoming of the self. But to Salafi-jihadists, it is a military matter and an obligation second only to accepting the faith itself, and must continue until the end of time.

In order to endure, however, revolutions must define an in-group. Jihadists do this through adherence to the pillars of tawhid (the oneness of God) and hakimiyya (God's sovereignty), which define the limits of belief and the nature of legitimate authority. Those who don't belong to the in-group must be shunned, according to the pillar of al-wala wa-l-bara, based on the concepts of al-wala (devotion to god and his believers) and al-bara (the disavowal of and severance from the disbelievers). The final pillar identifies internal corrupters, who must be subject to takfir, or excommunication.

Bin Laden and Zarqawi, and now Al-Qaeda and IS, portrayed themselves as holy warriors fighting to protect Islam from enemies that include imperial powers like Russia, whose troops under Soviet rule occupied Afghanistan, and the United States, which toppled the Taliban and attempted to hunt down Al-Qaeda's leadership after the 9/11 attacks.

Far Versus Near Enemies

But there were significant differences between the two men. Bin Laden was principally concerned with targeting the "far enemy," the foreign "occupiers," non-adherents to Islam, and members of decadent and corrupt societies that had deployed their militaries to what bin Laden regarded as Islamic lands. Zarqawi, on the other hand, was a takfiri, focused on those (including other Muslims) who he believed were undermining Islam itself. Zarqawi considered the Muslim governments that had cooperated with the United States to be a "near enemy" worth killing. In Zarqawi's vision, the "murtad," apostates who betray Islam, are worthy targets of holy war.

Crucially, that interpretation of "murtad" includes not only allies of the West who call themselves Muslims but also all who practice what Zarqawi defined as impure Islam -- including all non-Sunnis.

To bin Laden, this was unacceptable for several reasons. First, bin Laden's mother was a Syrian Alawite -- a sect of Shi'ite Islam -- not Sunni, and so while his theological beliefs likely included Shi'a in the column of people who were not practicing pure Islam, they were not an immediate concern. Second, bin Laden was far more practical, and believed it would be hard to rally fellow Muslims around the cause of toppling domestic, Islamic governments, killing innocent Muslims in the process.

Paving The Way For A Caliphate

Clearly, bin Laden's more pressing target was the non-Muslim foreigners who might be driven from Muslim lands by a concerted effort of bin Laden and those who would follow him. In that sense, zealots might describe bin Laden as someone who was clearing the way for the creation of the caliphate.

Through his works and example, bin Laden hoped to inspire a movement that would eventually become an Islamic state; in order to pave the way, he believed he needed to stand up to foreign powers, principally the United States.

Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda was focused on sending a message, through terrorism, that the United States should withdraw its troops from the Middle East. The death of innocents was not the goal but a method to help achieve that goal. Killing Muslims was acceptable if they died as collateral victims of bin Laden's jihad or if they were working directly with the Americans.

Ideological Purity

Zarqawi and the organization he founded have concerned themselves with their versions of ideological purity now, the immediate creation of a caliphate, a physical state, and a spiritual state of ideological purity. The deaths of non-believers and impure Muslims has been the goal, and terrorism one method of advancing that goal.

Zarqawi's theology, then, was far too radical -- far too "rigid," to use bin Laden's term -- and far too impractical for it to be compatible with bin Laden's vision.

And yet takfirism -- alleging apostasy by fellow Muslims -- would find the perfect opportunities to take root, first in Iraq and then in Syria.

Zarqawi went to Iraq as early as October 2002, when the United States was already debating the invasion and forcible removal of Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden saw Iraq as an opportunity to bog the United States down in a different conflict, relieving the pressure against his organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Zarqawi was more than willing to accept the assignment, as it was a near-perfect breeding ground for his deeply sectarian worldview. Just barely more than half of Iraqis are Shi'a, but a long line of Sunnis had controlled that country since soon after the end of World War I.

Zarqawi exploited that sectarian dynamic, planting seeds of distrust between Sunnis and Shi'a, conducting terrorist attacks to exploit and widen these tensions, and ultimately seizing control of large parts of the country in order to resist both the foreign invaders and the local Shi'ite government that rose to power after Hussein's removal.

Increased troop numbers saw the United States make inroads against Al-Qaeda in Iraq between 2006 and 2008.
Increased troop numbers saw the United States make inroads against Al-Qaeda in Iraq between 2006 and 2008.

The results are seemingly obvious. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which eventually became Islamic State of Iraq, had captured large parts of the country by 2006. By their reckoning, the caliphate was at hand. But it was not meant to be. Between 2006 and 2008, the United States boosted the number of troops it had on the ground and rallied the local Sunni population to rise up and defeat this radical organization. U.S. officials were able to convince Sunnis that it was AQI's radical theology, its brutal methods, that had destroyed the country: AQI's apocalyptic death cult and its pursuit of ideological purity at any cost ruined the lives of the very people it was supposed to save. It was time for AQI to end.

The levels of violence dropped significantly during that period, frequently referred to as the "Sunni awakening." Groups like the Iraq Body Count, which attempt to monitor the numbers of civilian deaths in the conflict, went from reporting more than 3,000 deaths per month in 2006 to reporting fewer than 500 per month in 2009. The Obama administration, following a document drafted by the Bush administration, withdrew U.S. combat troops from Iraq between 2009 and 2011. As Retired Colonel Peter Mansoor told NPR: "All of the intelligence that we had gathered, all of the results of the surge, all of the detainees we had in our detention system, all of the information we had coming to us from people on the ground, from the tribes, indicated that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated."

But Al-Qaeda in Iraq was not defeated. Like Ebola, the outbreak was over but conditions on the ground that led to the outbreak only worsened between 2011 and 2013. By 2013, the organization that eventually became Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (greater Syria) and, ultimately, Islamic State, had found new breeding grounds just across the border.

With Enough Death, Propaganda Becomes Truth

Early on in the Syrian uprising, protesters in the streets of western and southern Syria were not calling for the removal of the regime. The protesters were demanding reform from the Assad government, which had been in power for 40 years.

What happened next is well documented. Protesters were pushed around by police, but the crowds grew. Then came the tear gas, the beatings, and arrests. The protests spread. By the summer of 2011, the Assad security apparatus had begun to fire into crowds of protesters with live ammunition, and it was soon deploying armored vehicles to Syrian cities like Homs.

In time, many of Assad's soldiers refused to fire on peaceful crowds. Those soldiers were then themselves fired upon, and a peaceful protest movement turned into a revolution, started initially not by the protesters themselves but by those who had been ordered to kill to preserve the regime.

In the early days, a sectarian dynamic was not the defining characteristic of the events in Syria. Yes, Syria, a majority-Sunni state, had been ruled by Shi'ite leaders for four decades. But there were plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Assad that went beyond sectarianism.

Protesters in Hama whom I interviewed in 2011, for example, told me that after witnessing the sectarian madness of Iraq, they were working to avoid encouraging any narrative that would further divide the country or push it toward civil war. But while the opposition movement -- from the grassroots level to the Syrian National Council, a government formed in exile in August of 2011 -- tried to push back against the sectarian narrative, the Assad regime adopted it from the start, branding anyone who opposed Assad's rule as a Sunni terrorist despite the presence within the movement of Kurds, Christians, Shi'a, and Druze.

That is history, however. Current events tell a different tale. In the last four years, the Syrian military and its allies have leveled Sunni neighborhoods and forcibly relocated civilians, and pro-Assad militias have conducted massacres of Sunni villagers in rural areas of the Homs and Hama provinces. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the ideology of Zarqawi and the fighters who follow it decided to make a home in Syria.

Like a perverted phoenix, the ideology of AQI reemerged from the ashes of its defeat in Iraq. Video that appeared during the summer of 2013 showed convoys of armed men crossing the border from Iraq near Al-Bukamal. Soon, the group that would come to be known as IS imposed its strict Shari'a law across large parts of eastern Syria. And while the Syrian government has killed far more people in Syria than IS has, the extremist group has been hauntingly and myopically sectarian.

A TV image purportedly showing the detention of Iranian fighters in Syria who had been fighting regime forces.
A TV image purportedly showing the detention of Iranian fighters in Syria who had been fighting regime forces.

Iraq, Iran, Hizballah fighters from Lebanon, and extremists from all over the globe have flocked to Syria in order to advance sectarian goals. Predominantly Sunni states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have seemingly backed rebel groups out of sectarian interests. Shi'a-dominated Iran is currently fighting proxy wars against the Sunni Gulf states in both Syria and Yemen. There is no denying that what is going on in Syria and Iraq has become a sectarian land grab that will have consequences for years to come.

Such sectarianism might appear to reinforce Zarqawi's original vision. Sunni extremists are locked in an existential struggle against Shi'ite Muslims, backed by foreign powers (including the United States) and Kurds. Sunni rebels who have opposed IS are locked in a desperate struggle against the Shi'ite Syrian regime backed by Iran's Shi'ite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Shi'ite Hizballah extremists from Lebanon, Shi'ite Iraqi militias, and the might of the Russian military. Civilians, mostly Sunnis, are caught in the crossfire, and in Aleppo and many other places across Syria they are being actively hunted by the pro-Assad coalition.

Those are some of the dynamics that enabled IS to build what it regards as its caliphate, and absolutely none of this will change when IS's caliphate crumbles.

Al-Qaeda's Silent Threat

IS in many ways embodies the worst fears of counterterrorism experts and government officials. It is the complete package, as they say. First, it features an ideology that is far more radical and apocalyptic than that of its predecessor, Al-Qaeda.

Second, IS has been able to control large swaths of territory. This has enabled it to use the economic resources of a small quasi-state to fuel its larger ambitions, and it has provided IS with a physical, palpable symbol -- a seeming embodiment of its ideology. With access to oil pipelines and captured U.S. firepower, by some measures the physical territory poses a greater threat than the Taliban's control of Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001, which Al-Qaeda utilized to launch its attacks on the other side of the globe.

Third, IS has managed to inspire others, worldwide, to either travel to the Middle East to join the organization or, perhaps more troublingly, to conduct terrorist attacks in their homelands. That syndication effect is neither new nor unique to IS, or even to its rival Al-Qaeda. But what is new is the number of IS sympathizers who have proven willing to make themselves martyrs for Islamic State, and the scale of the violence that has ensued. Insurgencies fueled by IS franchises can be found in Egypt and Libya, across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. But terrorists who have declared allegiance to IS have conducted attacks in the United States, France, Belgium, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Horrific gun attacks in Paris that left 130 dead in November 2015 are just one example of how Islamic State has managed to spread its tentacles beyond the Middle East by inspiring others to carry out terrorist attacks elsewhere (file photo).
Horrific gun attacks in Paris that left 130 dead in November 2015 are just one example of how Islamic State has managed to spread its tentacles beyond the Middle East by inspiring others to carry out terrorist attacks elsewhere (file photo).

In other words, Islamic State is arguably more dangerous and effective than Al-Qaeda ever was. It is also potentially the next stage of evolution for a radical, violent form of Salafism that has been developing for decades.

Multiple experts consulted by RFE/RL said that Islamic State is likely to see a massive military defeat this year. As with Ebola, however, there could be new outbreaks. Hassan Hassan, a weekly columnist for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi who is from Al-Bukamal, scene of IS's entrance into Syria from Iraq, warned that the recent Islamic State victory in Palmyra is an excellent example of how the group is likely to go underground rather than go away. "They'll operate as bands until they can take over areas again," Hassan said.

The real and unaddressed problem, however, is that while IS has been burning out, Al-Qaeda -- the ideological construct that was ultimately responsible for the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history -- is going strong. Since Al-Qaeda has not generated the same kind of international response as IS has, it has escaped the latter's fate.

Benefiting From Brutality

Again, as with Ebola, those infected with IS's virulent strain of Salafi-Jihadism frequently die quickly. In IS's case, the brutality of its actions has alienated many Sunni Muslims and scared Muslims and non-Muslims of many sects and nationalities into joining the fight and defeating the movement.

But in an odd way, IS has also seemingly advanced Al-Qaeda's goals. Many who do not subscribe to Salafism have fled the Middle East. World powers are afraid of intervening in the region. And IS's extreme levels of violence have normalized Al-Qaeda's (slightly) less radical approach. "Al-Qaeda -- and, more importantly, the Salafi-jihadist ideology and movement -- is spreading; probably the fastest-growing Islamic trend right now," Kyle Orton told RFE/RL.

Unlike Ebola -- but rather akin to AIDS or malaria -- Al-Qaeda's ideology has spread to a much wider population, particularly in Syria. Al-Qaeda elements have even allied themselves with non-radical elements of Syrian society. During the siege of Aleppo, for instance, a massacre conducted by the pro-Assad coalition in which Russia played a role has been front-page news in every corner of the globe.

And yet while world powers have failed to stop the bombing campaigns of the Russian and Syrian air forces, Al-Qaeda elements have played a crucial role in trying to break the siege of the city from the outside. Over the summer, they nearly succeeded when Al-Qaeda suicide bombers blew apart military bases that had been besieged by moderate rebel forces since 2012, nearly reversing the momentum of the Assad regime's military campaign in the north.

Nasser Weddady -- a scholar and activist who works to combat Islamic radicalism and who has spent much of his life in Syria -- put it succinctly. By avoiding the kinds of terrifying behavior for which Islamic State is infamous, Al-Qaeda has also avoided alienating Syrians in the same way IS has. And with many thousands of civilians trapped in Aleppo, Al-Qaeda was free to bill itself to the Syrian people as the only effective power that was willing to risk it all to stop the killing.

In the eyes of many Syrians, Weddady told RFE/RL, Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups "became the saviors, and the West allowed this to happen."

"At the end of the day, you, America, the civilized world, the UN Security Council -- where were you?" Weddady said.

Syrians, Weddady argued, are not "duped" by Al-Qaeda but "they are like a firefighter who comes to your home while your house is on fire: You're not going to tell them to shut off the hose because you disagree with them, or even because you hate them. The world, through inaction or whatever you call it, handed Al-Qaeda a gift on a silver platter, the gift of really defending the people in their hour of need."

Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, agreed. Itani has written extensively about how the sectarian nature of the military campaign against IS has jeopardized the fight against the extremist group's ideology. "I think we will see Islamic State bottled up as soon as we have an actual ground force component that we are willing to back without compromising other core interests," he told RFE/RL. "Al-Qaeda is more pernicious and quieter."

He added: "As a whole, the Syrian war might teach people that these people were more trouble than they were worth, but the lesson to outsiders may be lost. I don't know whether [Al-Qaeda] is growing, but it doesn't seem to be receding."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL