Post-Caliphate ISIS

The disintegration of the Islamic State’s Caliphate — which once included large portions of Iraq and Syria — may be a strategic defeat for ISIS, yet the jihadi terrorist group is very much alive. Its ideology, tactics and objectives have not altered. ISIS remains steeped in the ideology of “salafiya jihadiyah” (Salafi jihad), which requires every Muslim to wage “holy war” in some fashion against the “infidel.”

The ideological vision of ISIS and the extremist acts which flow from that vision, such as its iconoclastic destruction of graves, sacred shrines, and cultural sites, closely resembles that of Sunni Wahhabi extremism with origins in Saudi Arabia, the source of the ISIS’s ideological conflict against the values shared by freedom loving nations. An example of this ideological affinity is ISIS’ destruction of the alleged graves of the Prophets Daniel and Jonah in the area of Mosul, Iraq in July 2014. As early as 1802, Wahhabi marauders acted similarly, destroying many shrines, graves and sacred sites in Shia Islam’s holy city of Karbala, while massacring hundreds of Shia Muslims in the process. This behavior closely resembles the comportment of ISIS operatives throughout their Caliphate territories in Iraq, where they destroyed Christian churches in Mosul, Iraq and in Syria where they demolished ancient ruins in Palmyra.

Today, ISIS remains a most brutal jihadi terrorist network, known in the West for posting horrific execution videos online. The unearthing of several mass graves in regions of Iraq and Syria once under ISIS control underscores its willingness to murder large numbers of innocents. By spreading paralytic fear, they can presumably more easily control local populations.

ISIS’ claim of responsibility for the terrorist bombing of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu Province, Philippines, seems evidence of a strategic effort to instill fear. ISIS, in cooperation with nearby chapters of the Abu Sayaf Group, detonated two bombs in Jolo on a Sunday morning, just before mass. The Jolo bombing could have been punishment meted out by ISIS and Abu Sayaf, as that was the only part of Sulu Province which had voted against a referendum to grant autonomy to this Muslim-majority province.

This ISIS penchant for high-profile cruelty is likely to continue, even against Muslims who already account for most of its victims. ISIS justifies this brutality against fellow Muslims by judging them as insufficiently orthodox in their Islamic faith, a theological tactic of attacking a fellow Muslim’s commitment to Islam that is called “takfir.” ISIS mullahs use takfir against Muslims who oppose the ISIS ideology, and ISIS clerics denounce their opponents as apostates to Islam in order to discredit them. ISIS’s intolerance extends from Sunni moderates and Shia Muslims to ethnic minorities and non-Muslim religious factions, including Yazidis and Christians. ISIS believes that it is permissible to purge these non-believers from Islamic areas to “purify” the community.

By the autumn of 2017, it was clear that the ISIS Caliphate’s days were numbered, yet ISIS still endures. Today, ISIS survives, in part, because it has demonstrated organizational flexibility. Although its networking has been global in scope, it is not a top-down organization such as al-Qaeda; a difference that may have made al-Qaeda’s leadership more vulnerable to counterterrorist forces. ISIS is more amorphous than al-Qaeda: in ISIS, there no longer seems to be a head of the snake to sever. ISIS also possibly endures because some Muslims in the Middle East applaud it for having challenged the legitimacy of the maps created by European imperialist victors of World War I, thereby transcending the artificial state borders established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement drafted by the victorious allied powers of France and Great Britain.

In short, members of ISIS were defeated geographically, but may not feel not eviscerated ideologically. Rather, the organization is in a state of flux, in which ISIS fighters must face the new realities of a post-Caliphate era in their jihad. Some ISIS veterans remaining in or near villages in northeastern Syria will continue to engage in skirmishes against government, Kurdish, and foreign forces rather than surrender. A portion, however, are surrendering to US-led, mostly Kurdish, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); still others may try to blend in with local population. Many foreign ISIS fighters, particularly from European countries, may have migrated back to their homelands or have been captured or killed. Others have apparently followed the directive of ISIS’s Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to perform “hegira” (migration) to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the latter where al-Baghdadi recently was reported to have fled.

ISIS leaders, after the roll-up of the Caliphate, may have decided that they had to prove to their fighters that ISIS was still very much alive — possibly the reason for the decision to execute its recent suicide-bombing operation in Manbij, Syria, in which four US nationals were killed. The operation also may have been, in part, a response to US President Donald Trump and the statements of other officials, asserting that ISIS had been crushed in the region. The strike on Manbij must feel particularly stinging, as about three years ago, the Manbij area celebrated its liberation from ISIS.

ISIS also may have targeted Manbij to attract more recruits by demonstrating that it remains vibrant and can reach anywhere, including areas assumed by counterterrorist forces as cleansed of terrorists.

In addition, ISIS continues its traditional messaging on social media platforms, with tweets as well as videos for Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. However, the terrorist group’s propaganda themes have altered significantly. Gone are the sensational videos of battlefield victories and executions of captured “apostate” Muslim warriors.

Also absent from al-Baghdadi’s latest communication to ISIS adherents are his former entreaties to build the infrastructure of an Islamic society inside the Caliphate. Al-Baghdadi now instructs ISIS recruits to concentrate on the “long war,” which must be waged against the unbelievers. In keeping with this theme, last August, al-Baghdadi in an address entitled “Give Glad Tidings to the Patient,” counseled his fighters, “The scale of victory or defeat with the mujahedeen, the people of faith and piety, is not tied to a city or a village that was taken.”

In the foreseeable future, ISIS, because of its loss of a territorial Caliphate, will likely limit its battlefield operations to guerrilla warfare. Nevertheless, the overall thrust of ISIS propaganda will probably remain oriented to appeal to young male Muslims who feel isolated or are searching for meaning in life.

Despite ISIS’s ideological rigidity, there is evidence that ISIS Caliph Al-Baghdadi can be quite flexible when military practicality dictates. Al-Baghdadi, for example, clearly rejected Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri’s demand that ISIS detach itself from its battlefield alliance in Syria with the anti-Assad Sunni organization, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. After its initial series of battlefield reverses, by the beginning of 2016, ISIS’s warrior numbers had decreased to an estimated 30,000 in the Iraq-Syria Caliphate. The organization still has considerable strength in some parts of the Islamic world, especially in the Levant (Greater Syria), Afghanistan, and countries along the North African coast, particularly in Libya and Tunisia.

Despite disastrous military defeats, ISIS is still a threat, is very much alive, and is recruiting a new generation of young, mostly male Islamic terrorists.

It might be safest to assume that this religiously-motivated jihad against “unbelievers” might last for some time.

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