Islamic State: Defeated but still dangerous

The terrorist organisation, though damaged, remains a threat, especially in Europe

The Syrian town of Kobani in 2014. The US-led coalition has carried out more than 27,000 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since August 2014.  Photograph: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

The Syrian town of Kobani in 2014. The US-led coalition has carried out more than 27,000 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. Photograph: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

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Perhaps the most significant set of events in the Middle East over the past 12 months has been the near total elimination of the radical jihadist movement, Islamic State.

At its peak, Islamic State, also known as Isis, controlled nearly a third of the territory of Iraq and more than a quarter of Syria, a total area the size of Britain with a population of 10 million people under its control. The movement’s rhetoric of an end to the Sykes-Picot agreement – the British-French accord that established a new order in the Middle East following the first World War – was taken as seriously across the region as it was outside.

The expansion of Islamic State seemed unstoppable to the extent that, by May 2015, observers wondered if it might take control of Baghdad.

What followed, however, was the inexorable decline of the Islamic Caliphate that had been proclaimed by Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul in mid-2014. The 2015 intervention of Russia in support of Syrian president Assad’s regime, combined with US backing for a Kurdish-Arab force, presented Islamic State with a military challenge it did not have the resources to resist.

The US-led coalition has carried out more than 27,000 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since August 2014.

Estimates of the number of Islamic State casualties vary widely. At the end of 2016, the US defence secretary, Ash Carter, gave a “conservative” figure of 50,000. At the same press conference, his British counterpart, Michael Fallon’s estimate was 25,000. The air campaign has also had a heavy civilian cost with up to 6,000 lives lost.

Not only has Islamic State been forced out of almost all of the territory that it once controlled, the impact on its finance model has been enormous. By December 2015, the world’s richest terrorist organisation, as it was once dubbed, enjoyed monthly revenues of $80 million from a variety of sources, including oil sales, internal taxations, human trafficking, extortion and ransoms and international donations.

Sources of revenue

Loss of territory on the scale that Islamic State has experienced has removed many of those sources of revenue. However, it is worth noting that it has also relieved Islamic State of many of its “state-like” financial responsibilities also – it is no longer running a caliphate on a day-to-day basis and is no longer responsible for the millions of Syrians and Iraqis formerly under its control.

A report from Chatham House in July 2017 suggested that Islamic State was moving in the direction of seeking to create legitimate businesses via third parties in an attempt to launder its massive cash reserves to ensure its survival while waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge.

But, while Islamic State is now confined to a sparsely inhabited area on the Iraqi-Syrian border, this does not mean a complete end to its version of jihadism. Just as, in the recent past, Al-Qaeda mutated from a core organisation led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri into a set of ideological positions to which a diverse range of radical Islamist organisations pledged allegiance, so Islamic State has seen its “brand” adopted in a number of settings in the Middle East and beyond.

To that extent, at the very least, the idea of Islamic State will remain potent for the foreseeable future. A clear reminder of this came in November 2017 when an Islamic State affiliate in Egypt attacked a mosque associated with Sufi worshippers in North Sinai, killing more than 300 people.

The group responsible, Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province or Islamic State in the Sinai), first emerged in 2011 as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), pledging allegiance to Islamic State in November 2014.

In 2015, it was responsible for an attack on a Russian charter jet flying from Egypt to St. Petersburg, which exploded over Sinai killing all 224 people on board. It has carried out hundreds of attacks since then. The group draws on the underdevelopment of the region and widespread feelings of marginalisation and neglect by successive regimes in Cairo.

In Afghanistan an Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for an attack on Kabul military academy at the end of January of this year in which at least 11 soldiers died.

Islamic State emerged in Afghanistan in 2015 with the creation of the Islamic State in Khorasan province which attracted defectors from the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. Within a year, it boasted more than 7,000 fighters and supporters and had a presence in most of the country’s provinces.

Passive support

However, this was sometimes limited to no more than passive support. The group has come under attack from both the Taliban and US-backed Afghan forces and many see it as in decline. Former commanders claimed that they were attracted more by the superior monthly salary paid by Islamic State than by its ideology, while the group’s brutality alienated many former supporters.

Nonetheless, the group remains active.

In 2017, an Islamic “mini-caliphate” was established in two districts of Jawzan province of northern Afghanistan, and the group continues to mount attacks in the country, including an attack on the Supreme Court in Kabul in February 2017 in which 22 people were killed.

IS in Yemen faces opposition from virtually all parties involved in Yemen’s complex civil war

In Yemen, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in 2014, taking advantage of the absence of a functioning state. In March 2015, it carried out a co-ordinated suicide bombing of two mosques in Sanaa which were mainly used by Shia Zaydis, killing more than 130 people.

Since then, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Yemen. However, it controls little territory there and is significantly weaker than al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has more members and deeper roots in the country.

Indeed, IS in Yemen faces opposition from virtually all parties involved in Yemen’s complex civil war. The United States, the Saudi-backed coalition that intervened in the country in March 2015, and southern separatists see it as an enemy, while the Shia Zaydi Houthis who control much of the north of the country have been victims of the group’s barbaric violence. In addition, there have been clashes with AQAP, which seeks to portray itself as more “moderate” than IS in Yemen.

Groups affiliated to Islamic State have also emerged in Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. However, in Libya, Islamic State failed to put down roots and was routed from its base in Sirte. Islamic State in Tunisia was defeated in an attempt to take control of a town on the Libyan border in March 2016 by the country’s security forces, while in the case of Algeria, the number of those who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State is probably less than 100 in total.

Further from the Middle East, an Islamic State affiliate in Somalia has grown from a few dozen members to more than 200, according to a UN report in November 2017. In 2016, the group captured the town of Qandala in the autonomous region of Puntland and declared it the seat of the Islamic caliphate in Somalia before being driven out by Puntland forces backed by US military advisers. The group has since carried out a number of other attacks.

However, while the UN report expressed the fear that Somalia might become a haven for militants fleeing Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State-affiliated group in Somalia is much smaller than the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab, which has more than 7,000 fighters.

Attacks in Europe

European attention often focuses less on the implications of the decline of Islamic State for the greater Middle Eastern region and beyond, than on its likely impact closer to home.

Between the declaration of the “caliphate” by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014 and December 2017, Islamic State conducted or inspired 20 attacks in European countries and another 11 in Canada, the United States and Australia. It is widely feared that the demise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq may lead to an increase in attacks in Western states.

This could occur for a number of reasons: to show that Islamic State still plays a significant role in responding to the Western “threat” to Islam; as acts of revenge against the perpetrators of the air assault in Syria and Iraq and, finally, to destabilise and polarise Western societies. These fears are deepened by the phenomenon of Islamic State fighters of European origin returning home from areas of conflict.

In July 2017 the European Union’s Radicalization Awareness Network estimated that around 30 per cent of the approximately 5,000 EU residents thought to have gone to Iraq and Syria had returned home. In the cases of Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom, that figure was closer to 50 per cent.

How Western states construct and respond to the threat of future terrorist violence is going to be crucial on a number of levels. Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who spent 10 months as a hostage of Islamic State in Syria, wrote after the Paris attacks of November 2015 that “every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia” on the part of Europeans would simply hearten Islamic State – while pictures from Germany of people welcoming migrants would trouble them.

It is worth remembering that Western states have survived extraordinary levels of political violence in the past

The danger of overreaction to the threat of radical Islamist violence is made greater by the sort of rhetoric that accompanied some responses to the wave of attacks carried out or inspired by IS to date – in particular, the suggestion that “our” way of life is under some form of existential threat.

Political violence

Here it is worth remembering that Western states have survived extraordinary levels of political violence in the past without resorting to the sorts of measures that have been mooted, or, worse, adopted by many states in response to contemporary terrorism.

For instance, anarchist groups and individuals perpetrated an extraordinary set of attacks during the period between 1881 and 1921.

The president of the French Republic, Sadi Carnot, was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in June 1894. The August 1897 assassination of president of the Spanish council of ministers, Antonio Canovas, as well as the murder of Empress Elizabeth of Austria in September 1898, were both the work of Italians espousing revolutionary anarchist ideas.

In the United States president McKinley was assassinated by an American anarchist, Leon Czolgosz in September 1901.

More recently, the Italian Red Brigades, founded in 1969, carried out over 14,000 terrorist attacks and were responsible for more than 400 deaths during the first 10 years of their existence.

There is also the danger of allowing fears of terrorism emanating from the Middle East to determine Western, and, in particular, European relations with regimes in the region.

As Daniel Byman of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution, has pointed out, IS threatens democracy in the Middle East in more than one way. It helps the cause of autocrats who argue that the choice is between them and “the abyss”. Across the region, rulers have moved, or returned, towards authoritarianism.

Egypt is a typical case. By 2016, estimates of the numbers of those detained and imprisoned by the Sisi regime were as high as 60,000. There have been 7,400 military trials of civilians, while, in a single 12-month period between August 2015 and August 2016, there were 912 enforced “disappearances”. According to local human rights organisations, 326 extrajudicial killings were carried out by the security and intelligence services in 2015 – a number that rose to 754 cases in the first half of 2016 alone.

A return to the largely uncritical support for autocracy that characterised Western policy towards the Middle East before the Arab Uprisings of 2011 will do little to persuade the region’s governments to begin the critical chore of addressing the underlying political, economic, social and religious problems on which IS and other jihadi organisations have capitalised in the past – and will continue to do until they are meaningfully resolved.

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