The Islamic State’s new leaders are emerging from defeat with an adaptable mindset and ideological flexibility that will allow them to remain ensconced within the core ISIS territories of Iraq and Syria, especially by focusing on local alliances and outreach to other jihadist groups. The new leaders have realized that indefinite attacks on security forces and collaborators are insufficient without local partnerships. ISIS demonstrated this new approach after a consecutive assassination campaign targeting village mukhtars, forging alliances built on convenience and shared sectarian grievances. It now seeks to reinforce these alliances, as revealed in intelligence reports and multiple interactions with its new members and leaders.
ISIS’s new leaders served as some of the most important middle and field commanders during the organization’s emergence and ideological evolution between 2010 and 2014. Their roles and efficacy were clearly demonstrated in the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria. That the men who spent several years operationalizing the strategic guidance from up above now constitute the apex leadership underscores a significant level of institutionalization of the transnational jihadist movement.