The Islamic State Five Years After the Collapse of the Caliphate

While ISIS’s territorial caliphate has been dismantled, its ideological appeal endures.

ISIS and its affiliates have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and survive, transforming into a decentralized network of regional branches, many of which retain the capacity to launch high-profile terrorist attacks.

The ISIS-K attack in Moscow last week was a stark reminder of the group’s reach and demonstrated that, with the deadly marriage of capability and intent, Islamic State jihadists could look to target US embassies, facilities, or personnel abroad.

An innovative and adaptive counterterrorism strategy that ensures interagency collaboration, resource optimization, synergy of effort, and international cooperation are desperately needed to address the complex challenge of terrorism and ensure the security of the United States and its allies.

Five years ago this March, the final remnants of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate were physically destroyed. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish militia backed by the United States and its allies, swept into the Syrian desert town of Baghouz to capture the group’s remaining fighters and their families. ISIS’s last stand was the culmination of a years-long effort led by the United States and its allies to uproot the group from its Levantine headquarters.

At its apex in 2015-2017, ISIS-controlled territory larger than the size of Great Britain. They boasted tens of thousands of foreign fighters from dozens of countries and were capable of launching complex terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe, as the group did in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016. Its propaganda inspired lone wolves to embark on murderous rampages targeting crowds of civilians with vehicles. Its fighters beheaded Western hostages and used the videos and images to seduce radicalized recruits.

But in early 2024, the organization is nearly unrecognizable from what it was just five years earlier. Although ISIS is no longer anchored in the Middle East, a rump of hardcore fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, where they conduct guerrilla-style operations. Many of its most prolific and active branches are now located in Africa, where ISIS branches regularly claim attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Mozambique, and Nigeria.

Its franchise in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), is the group responsible for last week’s terrorist attack at a theater in Moscow, in addition to attacks in Iran and Türkiye so far this year. ISIS-K is currently the Islamic State’s standard bearer and most operationally capable affiliate, drawing comparisons to al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch in the Arabian Peninsula, which developed a reputation for its ability to develop high-profile terrorist plots.
The Islamic State’s Global Network of Affiliates

ISIS and its affiliates have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and survive. After sustaining significant territorial losses in the Middle East, substantive reductions in its ranks, and the elimination of key leaders, ISIS still managed to transform itself into a decentralized network of regional branches, many of which retain the capacity to launch high-profile terrorist attacks. Built around its central Salafi-Jihadi extremist ideology that has continued to resonate with aspiring extremists, ISIS has leveraged social media, internet forums, and a sophisticated propaganda apparatus to promote its violent and virulently sectarian messaging to vulnerable and disenfranchised populations.

ISIS’s ability to recruit, inspire, radicalize, and mobilize its supporters to violence is directly tied to its effectiveness in exploiting historical grievances and its deliberate strategy to establish franchise groups in regions characterized by political corruption, vast socioeconomic disparities, and weak governance.

ISIS’s effectiveness in identifying the most fertile ground to promote its ideology and brand has led to the birth of affiliate groups in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Somalia, Mozambique, West Africa, and the southern Philippines, among other places. Each affiliate’s alliance with ISIS is contingent on their pledge of baya’t (allegiance) to ISIS’s core leadership. The organization’s decentralized structure permits the affiliates to operate semi-autonomously outside a traditional rigid command-and-control structure. Still, it allows their activities to nest within the group’s global terrorism enterprise and reinforce its overall objectives.
Where ISIS Poses the Greatest Risks

The most glaring example of where the fight against ISIS has been left unfinished is in Iraq and Syria. Approximately 46,500 women and children are still languishing in dilapidated refugee camps in northeastern Syria, while an additional 9,000 ISIS fighters are held in detention centers administered by the SDF. On multiple occasions, ISIS fighters have attempted to free their comrades from prison, even launching an offensive campaign termed “Breaking the Walls,” focused on assaulting prisons and inciting prison riots. In January 2022, ISIS attacked a prison in Hasakah, Syria, sparking a ten-day battle and allowing hundreds of jihadist prisoners to escape.

In Africa’s Sahel region, a vast semi-arid swath of desert that encompasses western and north-central Africa, the Islamic State Sahel Province and Islamic State West Africa Province control pieces of territory that stretches from the West African littoral to the Lake Chad Basin. According to the Global Terrorism Index, four of the top ten countries most impacted by terrorist violence last year are located in this region: Burkina Faso (1), Mali (3), Nigeria (8), and Niger (10).

ISIS-K has been linked to a growing number of plots in Europe recently. Three men were arrested in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia over alleged plans to attack the Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Eve in 2023. The raids are linked to another three terror arrests in Austria and one in Germany that took place on December 24. The four individuals were reportedly acting in support of ISIS-K. Going back a bit further to July 2023, Germany and the Netherlands coordinated arrests targeting an ISIS-K-linked network suspected of plotting attacks in Germany. Nearly four years ago, German police halted a plan to attack US and NATO military bases in Germany (April 2020). The four Tajik nationals arrested were reported to be in contact with Islamic State officials in Afghanistan and Syria.
Challenges in Countering the Islamic State

The ISIS-K attack in Moscow last week was a stark reminder of the group’s reach. It demonstrated that, with the deadly marriage of capability and intent, Islamic State jihadists could look to target US embassies, facilities, or personnel abroad. The Islamic State is attracted to unstable regions, stretching its tentacles into Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. An increasing operational tempo offers a hint at the group’s plans.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission report spoke of terrorism as a generational challenge. For those who lived through the aftermath, as we both did, that challenge remains despite the understandable fatigue of the Global War on Terrorism. The zeitgeist in Washington and Brussels is all about ‘great power competition.’ Major challenges loom on the horizon, and it makes sense to divert resources to counter China’s rise and deal with the complexities presented by artificial intelligence. Yet, pivoting from counterterrorism will have serious consequences for the United States and its allies.

After British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was nearly killed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in a bombing at the Brighton Hotel in 1984, the ‘Provos’ scolded her: “You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.” The Islamic State, and ISIS-K in particular, are aware of those odds and, without significant counterterrorism pressure, will not relent.
What Can Be Done?

First, it is crucial to recognize that the Islamic State and its affiliates are persistent and enduring threats. While the group’s territorial caliphate has been dismantled, its ideological appeal and metastasizing global disposition pose significant security challenges to the United States and the international community more broadly. Acknowledging that we still have a terrorism problem is not a failure but a reality. This acknowledgment also sets the conditions for ensuring counterterrorism remains a strategic priority, which requires proper resource allocation and facilitates the development of comprehensive strategies to address the complexity of the threat.

Looking back, we must at once recognize that ISIS has shown an instinctive ability to adapt to shifting dynamics, allowing it to grow stronger over time and, in turn, remain a lethal global enterprise despite years of an aggressive US-led counterterrorism onslaught. While ISIS’s territorial caliphate has been dismantled, its ideological appeal endures. The Islamic State’s global network has shown an instinctive ability to adapt and take advantage of shifting geopolitical circumstances. The United States has largely maintained a monolithic counterterrorism strategy for the past two decades based almost exclusively on military force, and in some ways, it has been a victim of its own success. Exquisite intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, augmented by armed drones and special operations forces (SOF) raids, have produced endless tactical victories against terrorist networks, but a strategic breakthrough has proven elusive.

America has developed an incredible capability to locate members of foreign terrorist organizations and remove them from the battlefield in some of the most far-flung corners of the globe. However, despite the tactical effectiveness against terror networks, groups like ISIS continue to grow in size and lethality like a widespread metastatic cancer.

Looking forward, it is imperative to understand that terrorism is a complex challenge that spans across political, military, diplomatic, and economic spheres. Therefore, the need to construct a counterterrorism strategy that transcends military might is self-evident. Developing and implementing a fully evolved counterterrorism strategy that blends “soft power” components with limited hard power tools, employing the full spectrum of national power, is a critical first step.

Vitally important to the success of such an approach is ensuring synchronization of efforts across government agencies and departments. This is required to ensure that disparate programs and resources are complementary and do not conflict with each other or work at cross-purposes, as some security and economic development initiatives might. A whole-of-government approach is more than just policy jargon; when done properly, it can minimize redundancies and ensure that manpower and resources effectively contribute to the broader strategy. While some have pointed to the reallocation of resources away from counterterrorism and over to the strategic competition space to counter China and Russia as a concern and excuse for why the violent extremist problem continues to grow, substantial capabilities and tools remain to address the challenge of terrorism.

Our next two decades will most certainly mirror the past two decades, with the threat continuing to expand, unless we acknowledge the deficiencies in our current application of a military force-dependent counterterrorism plan and pivot to a more comprehensive approach in concert with our international partners. An innovative and adaptive counterterrorism strategy that ensures interagency collaboration, resource optimization, synergy of effort, and international cooperation is desperately needed to address the complex challenge of terrorism and ensure the safety and security of the United States and its allies.

The terrorist massacre that Hamas perpetrated on October 7th and the more recent attack by ISIS-K in Moscow should serve as a wake-up call that the threat from terrorism is still very real.

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