The Islamic State Has Become a Resilient Insurgency

The group may no longer have its caliphate, but it’s far from defeated.

By , a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Soldiers stand near a large military vehicle on a muddy street.
Soldiers stand near a large military vehicle on a muddy street.
U.S. soldiers and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces gather in the neighborhood of Ghwayran in Hasaka, Syria, on Jan. 29. AFP via Getty Images

In celebrating the U.S. military operation that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in Idlib, Syria, on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that the successful operation demonstrated that U.S. forces could “take out” terrorist threats anywhere in the world.

Yet Biden conspicuously avoided saying that Qurayshi’s death would constitute a strategic blow to the group. This omission is notable and represents the Biden administration’s clear-eyed understanding of the precarious status of the struggle against the Islamic State.

On the one hand, Qurayshi’s death represents a major setback for the Islamic State. The challenge facing the group is to find a replacement for Qurayshi who will maintain continuity with the founders of the movement, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who established al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s precursor, in 2004, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s previous leader who died in a U.S. operation in 2019. Qurayshi was a close companion to Zarqawi and Baghdadi, providing both legitimacy and continuity when he took over following Baghdadi’s death. However, most members of this founding generation have been killed, which raises serious problems about the future leadership and direction of the movement.

In celebrating the U.S. military operation that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in Idlib, Syria, on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that the successful operation demonstrated that U.S. forces could “take out” terrorist threats anywhere in the world.

Yet Biden conspicuously avoided saying that Qurayshi’s death would constitute a strategic blow to the group. This omission is notable and represents the Biden administration’s clear-eyed understanding of the precarious status of the struggle against the Islamic State.

On the one hand, Qurayshi’s death represents a major setback for the Islamic State. The challenge facing the group is to find a replacement for Qurayshi who will maintain continuity with the founders of the movement, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who established al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s precursor, in 2004, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s previous leader who died in a U.S. operation in 2019. Qurayshi was a close companion to Zarqawi and Baghdadi, providing both legitimacy and continuity when he took over following Baghdadi’s death. However, most members of this founding generation have been killed, which raises serious problems about the future leadership and direction of the movement.

On the other hand, Qurayshi’s death will not radically derail the group’s sprawling operations, which stretch across many theaters worldwide. Increasingly resourceful and agile, the Islamic State has morphed from a top-down, centralized caliphate into a decentralized, largely rural, but nonetheless resilient insurgency. The death of another top leader is unlikely to make a huge difference in this diffuse and lethal insurgency in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Indeed, if past experience is a guide, Qurayshi’s killing will have more of a tactical than a strategic impact on the Islamic State. For example, after the defeat of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in 2019 and the death of its charismatic leader Baghdadi, in a U.S. raid that same year, then-President Donald Trump prematurely declared that “[w]e have defeated ISIS” and that U.S. troops in Syria (and Iraq) would all come back home.

Trump’s triumphalism recalled former U.S. President George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech immediately after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Yet just as Bush’s rosy proclamation proved to be embarrassingly short-sighted, so did Trump’s. In neither Iraq nor in Syria is the mission accomplished, and the Islamic State is not yet permanently defeated.

Long before the loss of its physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2019 (respectively), the Islamic State plotted for the morning after. By sending fighters and midlevel lieutenants to the mountains and deserts and other secured areas in Iraq and Syria, the group has been able to survive without having a physical base. Moreover, Islamic State members were also sent to Afghanistan, Libya, and other parts of Africa to establish bases and expand operations.

As a result of this pre-planning, the Islamic State has been able to sustain itself amid the loss of its territorial caliphate in Syria and Iraq. With an estimated 10,000 active, radicalized combatants still willing to give their lives for the group’s cause, the Islamic State today has the ability and willpower to carry on a prolonged struggle. Midlevel operators have operational autonomy and can act without higher-up authority.

In the past three years, the Islamic State has carried out thousands of deadly hit-and-run attacks in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, killing hundreds of security forces, tribal figures, local leaders, and village notables, and imposing its authority and control over rural Sunni communities.

Days before the raid that killed Qurayshi, the Islamic State launched a highly complex and coordinated attack on a prison in the city of Hasaka in northeastern Syria, which housed more than 3,000 suspected members of the group and almost 700 boys who were children of Islamic State fighters.

Two suicide car bombers blew the prison entrance open and allowed for more than a dozen fighters to enter and take the prison staff hostage. The New York Times reports that Islamic State sleeper cells also seized buildings and grain silos in residential neighborhoods in Hasaka and attacked reinforcements sent by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to regain control of the prison. The SDF controls this area, and U.S. troops are based there as well. The ability of Islamic State sleeper cells to infiltrate this sensitive area shows daring and sophisticated operational preplanning.

Even with the United States assisting with armored vehicles, attack helicopters, and airstrikes, it took Kurdish-led forces more than a week to oust Islamic State gunmen from the prison. In the process, dozens of Kurdish militia members and hundreds of Islamic State members were killed, testifying to the intensity and resilience of the group.

That the Islamic State was planning a daring, large-scale attack on the prison was an open secret. U.S. and Kurdish-led forces had known in advance that the group had repeatedly promised to free its captive fighters. In fact, as the New York Times reported, “A senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the probable goal of the operation was to free some of the group’s senior or midlevel leaders and fighters with specific skills, like bomb-making.”

The official estimated that about 200 prisoners had gotten out of the prison. Those 200 hardened combatants will add even more fuel and firepower to the group’s unfolding insurgency in Syria, Iraq, and neighboring countries.

There is also growing evidence that the Islamic State has been steadily renewing its ranks with younger recruits, mainly from families with older members who had ties to the group, as well as from internally displaced and excluded Sunnis.

This should not come as a shock when one considers that years after the expulsion of the Islamic State from key urban centers in Iraq, the country remains dotted with tens of thousands of internally displaced Sunnis who are treated with disdain and exclusion. Relatives of Islamic State members have been implicated by association and placed in detention camps, a fact that has created resentment and even radicalization.

Similarly, in Syria, the dismantling of the group’s territorial caliphate in 2019 has brought neither stability nor prosperity. Civil strife and geostrategic rivalries have turned the country into a magnet for extremists of all colors and stripes, including al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and sectarian militias. It is no wonder then that both Baghdadi and Qurayshi were based in Idlib near the Syrian-Turkish border, an area that lies outside of Syrian government control and is home to millions of Syrian refugees and foreign fighters.

Foreign governments have refused to repatriate thousands of citizens accused of being Islamic State fighters and tens of thousands of their family members, and the SDF has been unable to fully secure prisons and detention camps. There is a real danger that these camps could become incubators for the next generation of Islamic State fighters.

Yet the Islamic State isn’t a strategic threat. It is vulnerable and fragile. The group no longer controls significant territory and is scattered all over. It has lost not just its caliphate but also the top lieutenants and enforcers who had consolidated its territory and kept the population in check. The Islamic State is limited to rural hideouts, mountains, and deserts from which it carries out attacks.

Nevertheless, the persistence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria shows the urgent need to address legitimate Sunni grievances through healing, reconciliation, and the reconstruction of the Iraqi and Syrian states based on the rule of law, citizenship, and inclusiveness. Of course, this is easier said than done. But the Islamic State is a symptom of both the breakdown of state institutions in the heart of the Arab and Islamic world and the intense and repeated foreign interventions in the region’s internal affairs.

The most effective way to prevent the Islamic State’s resurgence depends on the ability of Arab and Muslim societies, together with the regional and great powers, to work toward a political resolution of communal violence and to embark on projects of state-building that are based on transparency and legitimacy.

Civil strife and violence in conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, West Africa, and elsewhere are the key ingredients to the survival and consolidation of the Islamic State and similar groups.

The international community can deny them these ingredients by helping to end prolonged local conflicts such as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, and geostrategic rivalries such as that between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which have provided ideological nourishment to nonstate actors, including the Islamic State.

This, far more than the death of any one leader, will help put a permanent end to the Islamic State and similar groups.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of several books, including a new edition of ISIS: A History. Twitter: @FawazGerges

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