ISIS Is a Survivor

Donald Trump claims to have defeated the Islamic State—but the group was designed to prove him wrong.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Fighters from the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade, take part in a training exercise in Iraq's central city of Najaf on March 7, 2015, ahead of joining the military operation in the city of Tikrit.
Fighters from the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade, take part in a training exercise in Iraq's central city of Najaf on March 7, 2015, ahead of joining the military operation in the city of Tikrit. HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images

Back in February, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the Islamic State was “100 percent” defeated and took full credit for the alleged victory. Unfortunately, the president and the truth seemed to be on different planets once again. National Security Advisor John Bolton quickly corrected Trump’s boast, telling ABC News that “the ISIS threat will remain.” U.S. Defense Department reports emphasized that remnants or offshoots of the group remained active in several places, including Afghanistan, and last week, a lengthy New York Times article reported that the group was regaining strength in Iraq and Syria.

Trump was obviously wrong to claim the Islamic State had been totally defeated, but its persistence and partial recovery are not surprising at all. On the contrary, to believe that such a group could be totally defeated in the short to medium term was never a realistic goal. Eliminating the Islamic State’s territorial control over a significant part of Iraq and Syria (much of it empty desert) was a feasible objective, and the United States and its local partners did that job pretty effectively. Eradicating the organization in its entirety was never in the cards, at least not anytime soon.

In fact, history is filled with examples of radical political and/or religious movements that enjoyed a brief vogue, suffered setbacks for one reason or another, but nonetheless hung around for decades. Consider the Shakers, a millenarian Christian sect now remembered mostly for their furniture. The Shakers were in many ways the ideological opposite of the Islamic State—they believed in gender equality and peace, for example—but they also held pretty extreme views on a variety of issues. In the 19th century, there were thousands of Shakers living in dozens of separate communities around the United States. That number had shrunk to a dozen by the 1920s, in part to their strict rules about celibacy, which made it far more difficult to grow or sustain the movement. Even so, there is still one Shaker community in existence, more than two centuries after the movement was founded.

Or consider a different, more pertinent example. Leon Trotsky was a key player in the Bolshevik Revolution but eventually lost a power struggle with Joseph Stalin and fled into exile, where he was eventually murdered by a Soviet assassin. Trotsky’s life in exile was devoid of significant political achievements, yet he retained the loyalty of thousands of loyal Marxists who preferred his version of communism to Stalin’s. Trotsky died, but Trotskyism endured for years after his passing.

So it is likely to be with the Islamic State. Despite have angered, alarmed, and horrified millions of people around the world, and despite having failed to either defeat its adversaries or spark a firestorm of revolutionary fervor throughout the Muslim world, the Islamic State still retains the loyalty of thousands of people and can still attract some number of new recruits. But why? What explains its staying power, its ability to hang around despite its unrelieved brutality, and its near-total failure to deliver on any its promises?

One obvious reason is that the Islamic State is as much an idea as it is a tangible concrete movement, let alone a powerful “caliphate.” Its opponents can recapture the territory it once controlled, kill or capture most of its leaders and foot soldiers, and go after its online recruiting efforts—just as we’ve been doing—but as long as its ideas can capture the imagination and loyalty of new adherents, the movement will survive in some form.

Indeed, like most revolutionary ideologies, the Islamic State’s worldview is designed to insulate the movement from potential failures and setbacks. Like Leninism, Maoism, Jacobinism, and other revolutionary ideas, Islamic State ideology acknowledges that its cadres are (presently) outnumbered, accepts that its opponents are more powerful for the moment, warns that temporary setbacks are possible, and tells its members that they must be prepared to make sacrifices in what may be a long struggle. Yet just as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and their followers prophesied the ultimate triumph of communism, Islamic State leaders insist that victory is inevitable in the long run, provided that followers do not lose heart.

Paradoxically, the Islamic State’s own divisive tendencies may also help its remnants survive. When a radical sect or political group faces setbacks, the likelihood of fratricidal schisms increases. After all, such movements usually depend on the leader’s claim to have discovered the “one true faith” (be it religious or secular). Not only does this make them intolerant of dissent (and therefore prone to label internal opponents as heretics or traitors), it also leaves them vulnerable to schisms whenever the movement’s lofty prophecies are not fulfilled.

The good news is that such internal divisions undermine the unity of these movements, dissipate resources trying to ward off or defeat internal challenges, and thus make them less effective in dealing with their external foes. The bad news, however, is that the tendency to divide into various splinter groups and factions may help sustain the broader set of ideas because defeating one faction will not suffice to fully discredit the entire movement. This same tendency may also give new hope to those who have been disappointed by the results to date but can be convinced to keep going under a new leader or label.

Furthermore, the Islamic State has yet to disappear because some of the conditions and grievances that fueled its emergence are still present. From the very beginning, virtually all jihadi movements derived some of their support on overt opposition to foreign (read: Western) interference in the Muslim world. This is as true of the Taliban as it is of al Qaeda and the Islamic State (although there are important differences between them as well). Guess what? Foreign powers are still interfering in the region, and Western leaders—including Trump—continue to say and do things that appear to confirm Islamic State propaganda about the West being “at war” with Islam. (The Islamic State itself is at war with just about everyone, of course, including the millions of Muslims it deems heretical.) As long as this level of foreign involvement persists, the Islamic State and its brethren will be able to win a few recruits.

The Islamic State has been equally hostile to existing Arab and Muslim governments, and its leaders originally believed that proclaiming a caliphate would trigger a sympathetic uprising that would topple the so-called corrupt apostates now governing key Arab states. That result was never likely and didn’t happen, but the conduct of some prominent Arab governments hasn’t done much to discredit the Islamic State’s denunciations. Defending the behavior of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt or Mohammed bin Salman’s in Saudi Arabia is not exactly an easy task these days, and you can bet that Islamic State stalwarts are quick to highlight the brutal and capricious nature of these governments and their intimate ties to the United States. Such arguments won’t turn the Islamic State into a revolutionary juggernaut (or even to allow it to regain its former position in Iraq and Syria), but they may provide just enough ideological oxygen to keep the movement alive.

Like all criminal operations—and any movement that triumphantly beheads innocent people and finances itself with illegal activities fully deserves that label—the Islamic State thrives in areas that are poorly governed. It first emerged after the destruction of the Baath state in Iraq and the collapse of local institutions there, and it has now migrated to loosely governed areas like Afghanistan. It persists today—and may be making a partial comeback—because local authorities remain weak, corrupt, and incompetent in many of these places. The only solution to this problem is the creation of more effective and legitimate local authorities, but that is a long-term task that outside forces cannot accomplish on their own.

For all of these reasons, declaring total victory over a movement like the Islamic State is like declaring victory over winter as soon as the last snowfall ends. Such declarations pander to our natural desire to put troublesome problems in the rearview mirror, and politicians like Trump are inevitably tempted to claim credit for them. But such claims mislead in two ways: 1) They exaggerate the danger that the Islamic State once posed, and 2) they overstate the degree to which that (modest) danger has ended.

We are better off recognizing that the Islamic State isn’t totally defeated and probably won’t disappear completely for a long time. Fortunately, it is not an existential threat. Its remnants will likely remain a problem that deserves some degree of attention and effort for a long time, although most of the effort must come from the countries in the regions in which it operates. It shouldn’t be entirely ignored, but we’ve got much bigger problems to deal with these days and in the years ahead.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.