The Caliphate Is Destroyed, But the Islamic State Lives On
Why the United States can’t be complacent about undermining the remnants of the terrorist group.
The fall of the town of Abu Kamal in Syria and recent victories by Iraqi security forces in Qaim and Rawa in Iraq mark the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate. With the loss of these towns located along the Iraq-Syria border, the terrorist group no longer controls any major population center in either country. This represents quite a reversal for the Islamic State from its heady days of only three years ago, when it controlled vast swaths of territory, routinely extorted taxes from local businesses, exploited the region’s natural resources (especially oil), and governed a large percentage of the population of both countries. Those days are thankfully done — at least for now — and that’s a development worth celebrating.
But is this a lasting setback for the Islamic State, or is there another chapter to its story? Unfortunately, as the Islamic State has demonstrated in the past, it’s a resilient and adaptive enemy that almost certainly will not go quietly into the night. Rather, it will work doggedly in the coming months to keep its brand alive, likely through a combination of actions.
First, many battle-hardened veterans will try to retreat into remote regions of western Iraq and eastern Syria, waiting patiently to determine whether both governments are serious about holding and rebuilding newly liberated areas. And while they wait, these fighters are likely to periodically attack government forces and urban centers, sending a not-too-subtle reminder to local populations that the Islamic State is still operationally viable.
Second, the Islamic State still retains some control over eight global branches and networks, and the group will likely make every effort to deepen operational connectivity across its global enterprise. At the moment, it seems especially interested in reconstituting a presence in central and southern Libya, and in expanding activities in Southeast Asia. Many Islamic State fighters are also likely to return to their countries of origin, with at least some determined to carry on the fight from there.
And finally, the Islamic State will try to adjust its public narrative, using every available platform to reinforce its core messages: that the fight goes on despite the end of its caliphate, and that sympathizers should launch lone-wolf attacks in the West — similar to the one conducted at the end of last month in lower Manhattan.
So, that’s their plan. And what should we do in response?
To counter the Islamic State playbook, U.S. policymakers will need to act against both the near-and long-term challenges the group presents. In the near term, there are several policies worth considering, including increasing support for reconstruction efforts in Iraq and parts of eastern Syria, particularly through measures aimed at empowering local Sunni populations and assuaging their fears of Shiite political power; learning everything we can from the alleged perpetrator of the New York City attack about his radicalization process and then devising tailored countermeasures; and deepening information sharing between our intelligence, law enforcement, and domestic police forces, while expanding cooperation with partner nations as they begin to deal with the imminent return of highly skilled foreign fighters.
However, having worked on counterterrorism issues in senior government positions for the past several years, I’m also convinced that these types of short-term responses are insufficient if we hope to undermine the Islamic State’s long-term prospects.
To achieve that goal, U.S. and Western policymakers will have to begin chipping away at the underlying conditions that have fueled the Islamic State’s growth. Fortunately, one opportunity may be presenting itself in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has embarked on an ambitious reform agenda to remake Saudi society and, most importantly, to promote a more moderate version of Saudi Islam. A genuine reform effort in the kingdom — and it’s still too early to know whether this is real or cosmetic — coupled with a concrete commitment to no longer export the Saudi brand of puritanical Wahhabi Sunni Islam abroad would be a significant help in preventing radicalization globally and in shrinking the Islamic State’s pool of potential recruits. The stated goal of the Saudi reform initiative is unprecedented, and it’s a project worthy of Washington’s close scrutiny and, if warranted, encouragement.
Similarly, to undermine a key aspect of the Islamic State’s historical appeal to Sunnis, U.S. and Western policymakers might usefully explore ways to strengthen Iran’s moderates, even in the face of the bitter debate about the fate of the nuclear agreement. While Washington clearly needs to push back on Iran’s malign activities in the region, President Hassan Rouhani’s reformist mandate (he was re-elected by a landslide last May) offers the best hope for undercutting hard-line elements inside the country, especially the Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force — the units responsible for Iran’s aggressive military operations throughout the Middle East. As a regional expert once told me, there are three categories of political actors in Iran: moderate, conservative, and evil. We need to subtly support the former even as we confront the latter. U.S. policies that inadvertently weaken Rouhani and strengthen Iran’s hard-liners fit neatly into the Islamic State’s recruiting pitch: that the caliphate represents a bulwark against a pan-Shiite, Iranian-led expansionary movement. That’s a message that’s tailor-made to appeal to isolated and disempowered Sunnis throughout the Middle East. So, while confronting the Islamic State on the battlefield is necessary, empowering moderates throughout the Muslim world is critical.
And lastly, to further erode the Islamic State’s long-term influence, U.S. and Western diplomats should target their diplomatic efforts at resolving (or at least easing) conflicts in a few critical countries, particularly Libya and Yemen. The Islamic State has exploited profound instability in these countries to expand its footprint, acquire key terrain, and conduct operations; thus progress there in reducing violence, improving humanitarian conditions, and strengthening central governance will inevitably help shrink the operating space.
The end of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s physical caliphate is a clear success of U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence efforts across the past two administrations. It reminds us what a carefully considered, integrated, and well-resourced strategy can accomplish in the span of only a few years; it’s also significant that the United States was able to accomplish this in close coordination with partners and resisted the urge to confront the Islamic State unilaterally. But whether this success is short-lived or an actual turning point will be heavily influenced by the decisions we make in the next few months, and whether we commit to tackling immediate challenges as well as the deep-seated political, security, cultural, and ideological conditions that contributed to the Islamic State’s rise in the first place.