The demise of the so-called ISIS caliphate found many of its members dispersing to new battlefields throughout Syria, Iraq, Africa, Southeast Asia and beyond, establishing new safe havens and sanctuaries for their future activities. The fact that ISIS is not a centralized but a global terrorist organization with affiliates and supports worldwide enhances the prospect of the group’s continuity. ISIS, which has changed the landscape of Islamist terrorism in the 20 years since al Qaeda attacked New York and Washington, has opted for speed in recruitment and planning over centralized and standardized selectivity of its recruits. A number of recent terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere carried out in response to its call to indiscriminately attack and kill civilians serve to demonstrate the point. The low-cost, high-impact strategy deployed by the group is likely to continue to pose long-term significant challenges to law enforcement and security services worldwide.
The group has yet to acknowledge defeat in places like Iraq and Syria, where it continues to maintain operational capabilities to restructure and adapt depending on the conditions on the ground. ISIS is likely to continue to share dominance and influence over jihadist groups, both local and regional, with al Qaeda, primarily due to its “grass-roots” operational framework. The group remains operational in the Raqqa, Deir Ez Zor, Hama, and Homs governorates, where it operates primarily clandestinely, shifting manpower and resources and taking advantage of the U.S. drawdown and Russian withdrawal. Mitigating ISIS risk long-term in places like Syria and Iraq will require a concerted effort by the international community, namely by the United States, Russia, Kurdish Peshmerga, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Iraqi security forces (including Shiia militia), and Turkey, who collectively contributed to the so-called Caliphate’s physical demise. Current tensions among the aforementioned local and international actors will likely afford ISIS a solid pretext to reorganize and further recruit into its ranks.
In Syria and Iraq, ISIS was adept at exploiting global jihadist ideology, Sunni grievances, and sectarian sentiments vis-à-vis Shiia and Iranian influence to build its fabric of organizational power. The group made similar inroads in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Europe, and Africa by exploiting local social, economic, and political conditions, as well as failing local government policies. While ISIS’ proto-state model of governance and its political message have suffered significant blows across its community of supporters and sympathizers, the key pillars of its rhetoric rooted in championing marginalization of the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria, the Pashtun in Afghanistan, and so on remain intact and appealing to many. Additionally, the group continues to operate in a protective network of the Sunni and other communities in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other places. Long-term investments are especially needed to address severe governance failures and to strengthen inclusive governance in the Arab world and beyond that have fueled ISIS rise and spawned ISIS recruits.
With over a dozen branches in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Khorasan (Pakistan and Afghanistan), Central Africa, and East Africa, ISIS affiliates remain loyal and committed to ISIS, albeit to a varying degree. ISIS affiliates in Africa have expanded following territorial gains in Nigeria, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Sahel. While in Somalia ISIS is yet to cement al Shabaab’s loyalty, the merger with al Shabaab could afford ISIS the ability to create a safe haven in Somalia, exploit piracy to benefit itself economically, and create a safe passage for its fighters vacillating between the Middle East via the Guld of Aden. The Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) will continue to seek ways to make further strides by exploiting sectarian sentiments and by seeking potential alliances with other jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIS-K in particular will continue to serve as an imminent long-term danger given its demonstrated ability to engage in urban terrorism and form alliances with the Taliban’s Haqqani network, including conspiring for terrorist attacks in Europe and beyond. The recent developments in Afghanistan are likely to affect U.S. and international partners’ long-term policies in Africa and other places where ISIS, ISIS affiliates, and other terrorist groups are present. Perhaps the international community could seek to arbitrate political solutions with insurgents, including exploiting incohesiveness (unlike in the case of the Taliban) among fighting groups in Africa and increasing rivalry between IS and al Qaeda.
“The group has yet to acknowledge defeat in places like Iraq and Syria, where it continues to maintain operational capabilities to restructure and adapt.”
Women, children, and families in general were essential to ISIS’ governance and state-building project. Arguably, they represented a long-term ideological and operational investment on the part of the group. In its heyday, it successfully balanced the sort of dual contradictory strategy of enlisting children and women to carry out suicide operations and provide logistical support, on the one hand, and providing the same form of support as part of its “strategy of civilian control,” on the other. Despite being known as one of the most prolific perpetrators of gender-based violence, ISIS was successful in attracting a significant number of marginalized women to the Caliphate by virtue of romanticizing the life of women and their children or by other means. Its strategy of civilian control also positioned ISIS as a vanguard of women’s piety and morality while professional roles played by women within the Islamic State structures provided “a source of physical and financial independence from their proscribed domestic roles as wife and mother.”
In light of the aforementioned, women and children are likely to continue to be exploited by ISIS in the way of spreading their ideology and continuing their legacy. The detainment of thousands of women and children in al-Hawl and other camps throughout Syria is continuing to serve as a rallying cry for ISIS supporters worldwide, invoking nostalgia for ISIS rule as deteriorating conditions in such camps continue to worsen. Additionally, the release or planned release of thousands of Syrian women and children from camp al-Hawl could potentially provide an opportunity for ISIS to exploit these vulnerable population groups in areas where ISIS remains operational. It could do so by both targeting the released for recruitment purposes via intimidation campaigns or appeal to protect them in the face of potential retributive violence within the returnee communities. Governments need to more proactively engage in repatriation efforts involving women and children in particular, which is especially necessary given the drawdown of U.S. military presence that has led to the spread of ISIS ideology in the Syrian camps in recent years. Adequate resources and monitoring are also needed to protect returnees in Syria and beyond.
Lastly, in stark contrast to other terrorist groups, ISIS has revolutionized methods of terrorist recruitment and propaganda by propagating its militant discourse via social media and online communities. The sort of “laissez-faire” model of recruitment deployed by the group translates to laxed conditions for joining the group, serving the group, or promoting its cause or interests elsewhere. Despite noble and well-intentioned activities of social media companies, efficacy of content moderation, deplatforming, and counter-messaging in general remains vague and unclear. Sustained research and measures are needed to understand how ISIS and its supporters share and cluster information across various social media platforms. There is also a need to better operationalize how ISIS and its support base not only emerge but also grow and resist counter-activities by governments and online platforms. In fact, identifying the factors that make online hate and terrorist groups resilient to actions by social media to disrupt them may yield much needed insight into possible interventions to stop their proliferation and limit their growth.[i] Additionally, counter-messaging efforts against ISIS may only work if backed by collective actions in support of political, economic, and social progress, which may lend legitimacy to challenge the absurdity of ISIS rhetoric and appeal.
[i] Matteo Gregori, ACTRI Research Fellow, pending research “On the growth and resilience of hate communities online.”