Islamic State Loses Territory But is Far From Defeated

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters pose for a photo on a rooftop overlooking Baghouz, Syria, after the SDF declared the area free of Islamic State militants on March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Last month, leaders from across the world hailed the “defeat” of the Islamic State (IS) after the group was pushed out of its final swath of territory. Many pointed to this takeover as the end of IS and a major turning point in the conflict in Syria. While undoubtedly a significant event, its impact on the future of IS and the group’s ability to continue functioning is more complex.

Some analysts contend that since IS as an organization, idea, and even brand is closely connected to a caliphate with territory, the fact that they no longer hold territory means the group will further fracture and splinter. Looking beyond characterizations of the group as “barely breathing,” there are a few factors that mean this may not be true and IS could continue functioning and adapt, including the number of followers it can claim, the global reach it has made effort to cultivate, its employment of insurgent tactics, and the social and political environments in the countries in which it operates.

In terms of personnel, estimates point to IS still possessing fighting power. At its peak in 2015, IS had around 33,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, but at the point of losing its remaining territory in Syria, the United States Department of State estimated there were still between 15,000 and 20,000 active fighters across the Middle East, located mostly in sleeper cells. This is a full two-thirds of its peak army, a significant number that the US government warned earlier this year, “could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.”

What could further aid IS’ regroup in Syria is the fact that its fighters, as the US government’s assessment suggests, are still able to access sophisticated weapons and its commanders still have “excellent command and control capability”—this despite internal disagreements over Islamic doctrine and state functioning. With troops and capability it stands to reason that IS will make an effort to get back what it has lost. If they are unable to win back territory, they would likely continue to target rebel and government troops, and would find ways to take advantage of local instability and stoke sectarianism.

The group’s approach in Iraq is illustrative for how this could play out. Just a year after the Iraqi government announced that the group had been defeated, IS reorganized itself into a covert network and a rather complex group that a recent United Nations report said is “organising cells at the provincial level, replicating the key leadership functions.” What IS plans to achieve with these cells is an atmosphere of apprehension and panic in Iraq in an attempt to—as the UN rightly suggests—“sabotage societal reconciliation and increase the cost of reconstruction and counter-terrorism.” IS has made those intentions known by slaughtering local community leaders, blowing up petroleum pipelines and electrical installations, and making highways unsafe, as armed bandits dressed as Iraqi soldiers have in recent months mounted fake checkpoints where they hijack vehicles and rob travelers, especially along the highway linking Baghdad and Kirkuk.

These approaches could be replicated in Syria where its fighters are reportedly present and active in areas like the government-controlled southern axis of Damascus and in the north-western province of Idlib, which is held by the opposition. And because the Syrian civil war is still ongoing, IS militants could see it as an opportunity to blend with so called “moderate” factions who will seek to be allies while pretending to distance themselves from the Islamic State. Whether or not IS controls territory, if it employs this strategy it will remain a persistent and at times major threat in the Levant. Conditions in Iraq and Syria are particularly conducive for this form of conflict and extremism.

Then there are the social and political factors that IS can seek to exploit. In Iraq, Sunni Muslims have accused Shiite militias, who are in search of IS jihadists, of abuse and harassment. The grievances of those Sunnis who suffered at the hands of IS and the militias are not insignificant and could be a pressure point that IS exploits. This tactic worked well for the group at the time of its break with al-Qaeda, as they were able to take advantage of widespread anger among the Sunni population because of the Shiite-led government’s treatment of them.

The group also exploited the gap left by the withdrawal of US forces, and could take advantage of security lapses on the part of Iraqi forces and the potential drawdown of US troops. With respect to US troops, the risk of President Donald Trump moving ahead with his plan to withdraw the majority of the US forces in Syria (President Trump’s plan is keep 200 troops in northeast Syria near the border with Turkey and another 200 close to the Iraq border at an area known as al-Tanf), is that IS could push back against Kurdish groups allied with the US who will have less protection. While Turkey may want to increase its fight against these groups, they will likely be less able to do so now that the Syrian government is further increasing its control of the eastern and southern regions of the country.

A final telling example of how IS might adapt is that of al-Qaeda. While the groups are different in many ways, the strength of the al-Qaeda ideology proved a determining factor in its persistence and expansion. For example, at the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had less than 500 fighters who fled into eastern portions of the country and Pakistan. Perhaps unexpectedly, the dispersal of the fighters and their forced operation as smaller cells made the group nearly impossible to fully eradicate. The US invasion of Iraq then provided fertile ground for the group to expand. The status of IS at the moment has parallels and if its global wilayats and covert cells in Syria and Iraq are able to continue as al-Qaeda’s disparate small groups did, it can be expected that IS could easily expand in numbers or even in territorial control when circumstances are ripe.

IS is not dead and is rather taking a different shape. The new-look IS could open room for alliances with other militant groups including al-Qaeda, as we’ve seen with the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), its Nigerian franchise, and Ansaru (a Nigerian militant group also known as al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel) working hand in hand. As long as sectarian and political conflicts are a factor in Iraq and Syria, IS’ chances of maintaining relevance and even retaking villages will remain.

Philip Obaji Jr. is a journalist based in Nigeria. His work on jihadist groups, terrorism, and Africa has appeared in numerous publications including The Daily BeastThe HillIRIN News, and The Guardian.