Caliphate, interrupted

Editor’s Note, this article was originally published at The Washington Examiner.

After being bombarded by four years of U.S. airstrikes, a relentless ground campaign by Kurdish-led U.S. allies, and attacks from Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces, the Islamic State has lost the last vestige of its physical caliphate.

But that defeat was neither final nor decisive, and policymakers should heed the War on Terror’s lessons to ensure the West doesn’t squander this advantage and enable ISIS, or its copycats and successor groups, to rally.

The history of ISIS itself tells us as much.

ISIS burst onto the scene in 2013 during the height of the Syrian civil war amid a growing insurgency in Iraq. Originally a branch of al Qaeda, ISIS and its leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi attempted to subsume the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

But al Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, rejected Baghdadi’s play and ultimately expelled him and his cadre.

Undeterred, Baghdadi declared the formation of a new Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It overran Fallujah and much of western Iraq by January 2014, and by June of that year, it had done the same to most of central and northern Iraq, including Mosul. That’s when Baghdadi declared the caliphate and himself caliph. Shortly afterward, ISIS “provinces” began popping up in other countries.

ISIS’s brutal tactics in Iraq and Syria, particularly against the Yazidis in northern Iraq, drew American intervention. By August 2014, the United States had begun launching airstrikes against ISIS and redeployed troops to Iraq that had been withdrawn by President Barack Obama in 2011. The U.S. also partnered with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds to serve as local ground forces. As U.S. and allied forces battled ISIS in Iraq, the Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, fought the jihadi group in Syria.

Despite an impressive array of forces against ISIS, it took nearly four and a half years to finally liberate Baghuz, its last stronghold. The Syrian Democratic Forces, which consists primarily of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that is nonetheless backed by the U.S. military in this conflict theater — finally broke the back of the caliphate on March 23.

The first lesson policymakers should take from this is that we cannot continue treating the War on Terror as a game of whack-a-mole. ISIS’’s loss of territory is significant, an advantage that should be pressed.

Without land, ISIS is a caliphate in theory only. The propaganda value of the physical caliphate in the heart of the Middle East was a recruiting bonanza. ISIS used the existence of the caliphate to direct and inspire attacks against the U.S. and Europe. Dozens of high-profile shootings, suicide bombings, stabbings, and car rammings germinated from the caliphate.

However, as the recent suicide assault in Sri Lanka demonstrates, ISIS does not need territory to carry out deadly attacks in other countries. Seven ISIS suicide bombers killed more than 250 people, including Americans, in heinous attacks on Christian churches and hotels frequented by Westerners.

The second lesson is that ISIS can survive without land. The Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, which was really a front for al Qaeda in Iraq, suffered a major defeat during the U.S. surge from 2006 to 2010. The Islamic State of Iraq controlled vast areas of the country prior to the surge, during which numerous leaders of the group, including al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Islamic State of Iraq Emir Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, were killed along with thousands of fighters.

The Islamic State of Iraq responded by going to ground and husbanding its forces. By early 2012, the group was back launching vicious attacks against Iraqi security forces, a prelude to the Islamic State’s rampage in 2014.

This same cycle has been seen in other theaters against jihadi enemies. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula overran several provinces in Yemen and held them for extended periods of time twice since 2011. Al Shabab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, held Mogadishu and large areas of southern Somalia for two years between 2009 and 2011 before being driven out by African Union forces; it reorganized, and today it controls 25% of the country, some of which it had been driven from previously. In Afghanistan, the Taliban was ousted from control by U.S. forces after 9/11; today, the Taliban controls at least 10% of the country and hotly contests another 50%. Boko Haram, previously loyal to al Qaeda and now part of ISIS, has controlled large areas of northern Nigeria several times since 2009.

Conditions in Iraq and Syria are ripe for this pattern to repeat itself. Baghdadi and many key leaders remain alive. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of ISIS soldiers are at the ready. The Syrian and Iraqi regimes are ill-equipped to deal with the long-term threat.

In Syria, Bashar Assad’s regime is stronger today than it was five years ago, but it’s still fragile. Assad only controls a portion of his country, with the northwest still under control of a coalition of rebels and jihadis led by al Qaeda loyalists and the northeast by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party-led Syrian Democratic Forces. It is unclear how long the Turkish government will tolerate a Syrian enclave commanded by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its border. The fact that the U.S. has had to rely on a foreign terrorist organization as its prime ally in Syria demonstrates just how complex and tenuous the situation there is.

In Iraq, the central government has been more effective in rallying against ISIS, but this has come at a cost. As much of northern and central Iraq was being overrun by the ISIS in the late spring of 2014, the Iraqi government turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias to bolster the collapsing Iraqi military and police. While this stemmed the jihadi tide, the Shiite militias exacted revenge on some Sunni communities that hosted ISIS. Towns were razed and ethnically cleansed. The whole affair has fueled the ISIS’s narrative that the Iraqi government is a tool of Iran and that Sunnis would pay the price.

ISIS can also draw on resources outside of Iraq and Syria. Since its founding in 2014, branches have been established in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, and the Philippines. In many of these countries, the Islamic State is a secondary actor to al Qaeda and its allies. However, in Nigeria and the Philippines, ISIS has largely subsumed its jihadi competitors.

The third lesson: ISIS is not the only threat that would be buttressed by a triumphalist American withdrawal.

While the U.S. focused primarily on suffocating Baghdadi’s forces, the original jihadi enemy gained ground and remains a viable threat.

Al Qaeda, which initiated the war on 9/11, has not been “decimated” and is not “on the path to defeat” as Obama boasted years ago. Although the United States killed Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, who was bin Laden’s deputy on 9/11, remains alive and in command. Despite many proclamations that Zawahiri is an ineffective leader — his inability to keep Baghdadi in the fold is a black mark — he has kept al Qaeda a cohesive fighting force after bin Laden’s death.

Al Qaeda has maintained effective insurgencies in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and northern and western Africa. These insurgencies have tied up U.S. forces across multiple continents, and despite concerted campaigns to root out al Qaeda’s branches, they persist.

Some analysts attempt to write off some of al Qaeda’s successes by claiming they’re carried out by groups disconnected from “core al Qaeda,” which only seeks to attack the U.S. Nothing could be further from the truth. Al Qaeda’s local insurgencies are key stepping stones to its singular goal of overthrowing local governments, establishing emirates, declaring a global caliphate, and imposing Islamic law. Note that Obama made this error when he declared the Islamic State the “JV team” that only sought to fight local battles.

In fact, al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s prime goals are the same; they only differ in tactics. The Islamic State seeks to declare a caliphate now and demands complete obedience, while al Qaeda takes a more patient approach and is willing to ally with other jihadi and Islamist groups to eventually attain a caliphate. Although the two share the same end goal, they are bitter rivals in the jihadi sphere.

The jihadi threat has metastasized over the past two decades. Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda waged an insurgency alongside its Taliban ally in Afghanistan, played a role in Bosnia and Yemen, and existed at the cellular level in several countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Since 9/11, active and vicious insurgencies have metastasized to Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, Libya, the Caucasus, the Philippines, Indonesia, and elsewhere. The pool of jihadis and the battleground have both increased dramatically, while the terrorists’ mastery of social media has opened new avenues for recruitment and incitement. Meanwhile, terrorists have launched attacks in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, and Australia.

Meanwhile, the West has grown exhausted. U.S. leaders want to exit the fight before dealing a decisive blow to its enemies. Obama sought to “end the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he received little pushback. He pulled U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 as the jihadi-led insurgency was raging in Syria and sought to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of his second term. He ultimately failed in pulling out from Afghanistan, as the Taliban refused to submit or negotiate.

President Trump seems hellbent on making the same mistakes as the Obama administration. In his typical fashion, Trump ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria in an announcement made on Twitter. After pushback from the military and some national security officials, he decided to keep a mere 200 troops in the country. It is difficult to see just what difference 200 troops can make, particularly if the Islamic State can reorganize its forces.

But his biggest mistake is being made in Afghanistan. In August 2017, Trump talked tough and said he would force the Taliban to the negotiating table and break Pakistan’s support for it. The Taliban responded by launching highly effective attacks on Afghan security forces and overrunning numerous military bases, district centers, and two major cities. Pakistan was unimpressed by the threats and continued to provide a safe haven and key aid to its jihadi ally. Six months after his speech, the U.S. opened negotiations with the Taliban, which are ongoing. The Taliban is negotiating from a position of strength and refuses to talk to the Afghan government or denounce al Qaeda. The U.S. is negotiating the terms of its own exit.

Make no mistake, a Taliban victory will be an al Qaeda victory. The propaganda value of the Taliban returning to power after standing up to a superpower and refusing to hand over or break with al Qaeda will bolster al Qaeda’s recruiting and fundraising. It will also be a humiliating defeat for the U.S.

The lack of commitment by the U.S. will also be taken as a sign of encouragement for state sponsors of terrorism, particularly Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan arguably is responsible for the death of more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Without Pakistan’s support of the Taliban, it would not be able to maintain a viable insurgency. Iran has paid no price for backing Shiite militias in Iraq, which are responsible for the deaths of more than 600 U.S. soldiers. Disengagement will be seen as a green light to use terrorism as a tool of statecraft.

The defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a welcomed and necessary development in the war, and it was long overdue. But it was merely one battle in this long war. These jihadis remain committed to their cause, despite long odds against them. There is no question that the West possesses the resources and talent to defeat such an enemy. Does it have the will?

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Paddy Singh says:

    The US, the UK and major EU countries like France and Germany don’t want to put their boots on the ground. It needs courage and that is sadly lacking because so many innocents will be sacrificed for a war they started and basically lost. The isis like the Taliban has retreated tactically and its anyone guess when US foreign policy deciders will be begging the Isis to come to the peace table like their overtures after overture to the Taliban, they thought they had defeated. An air war has never consolidated enemy strongholds on the ground. Boots need to be sent in. But then today’s Generals direct and fight a war from thousands of miles away unlike the Pattens, Bradleys and Montgomerys of yore

  • cdor says:

    Very salient points made by the author and scholar whose knowledge far surpasses mine. I much appreciate his persistent work in tracking Islamists of all stripes who present an ongoing danger to the West in general and US citizens, in particular. Mr. Roggio has offered his concerns about the policy of President Trump with regards the Middle East and foreign affairs, in general. The President has never been shy about announcing his position–stay clear of never ending foreign entanglements. He does, however, seem more than willing to get involved if he sees an immediate need and the ability to succeed. Perhaps the author could put forth some possible actions that the USA can take that would only be possible with a larger and more permanent force. Where would they be stationed and what would they do that we have not done over the last fifteen years?

  • Brian says:

    “[H]is inability to keep Baghdadi in the fold is a black mark.”

    And he seems to have some problems with Jawlani, though he hasn’t expelled him.

  • Richard Loewe says:

    Whack-a-mole is exactly the model that everybody is still following. Why? Simple: all these organisations (AQ, MB, HuT, etc.) are merely symptoms popping up locally, then some of them grow. Whether the local symptoms is one jihadi with a knife or 20,000 with armoured vehicles, they are all symptoms of the same disease. If a doctor would just treat the symptoms as they manifest themselves but never even think about what the disease might be, we wouldn’t even call him a doctor. As long as there is islam, there was, is and will be jihad. I am not saying that all carriers of the disease must be eradicated (they cannot be inoculated), but the disease (the theory of islam) must be isolated. No immigration from islamic countries, serious vetting, no public support for any mainstream islamic group, no iftar dinners. And most importantly: talking about the disease.

  • Maximus_Reader says:


    Thank you for the excellent write-up. I humbly disagree with a few points, as below.

    The existence of the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria was not, in my view, the reason for the attacks against non-Muslims in various other countries, even if the attacks may have been directed from the territory under ISIS control. Just look at the pattern. These were men and women, convinced (brainwashed) in Islamic religion-political doctrine who volunteered to travel to the badlands of Iraq and Syria, without hurting anyone along the way (what they did once they got there is another matter). The great deal of surprise portrayed in the media about the neighbours of these men and women, reacting when told about their travels, suggests just how voluntary this action was.

    It is convenient of Western (and other) governments to blame ISIS for the attacks against non-Muslims by Muslims using various means and methods, when the real culprit lies in the lax immigration policies of these countries in allowing such large numbers of clearly incompatible people to migrate into these societies without any consideration as to whether they would successfully integrate or not. The brunt of this lack of oversight has to be borne by the unfortunate victims and families of these attacks, now many hundreds in number.

    ISIS is a problem long before, as you have pointed out, they have gotten territory to control. It is based on a utopian Islamic eschatological proposition, wherein “before the end of time”, another caliphate will be created and all Muslims will converge on to one place in Arabia, so on and so forth. The propagators of this theory are the madrassas which are at the best of times loosely controlled or licensed.

    There is a fundamental ferment within Islamic communities everywhere, which feels unable to compete, except as a provider of raw materials, with a world where societies are advancing rapidly. On all counts of human development, Muslims are behind other communities, wherever they find themselves, except for a tiny minority among them. But for the oil-rich countries of the Gulf, where the ruling elite write checks to buy allegiance, they are all poor. The little prosperity they have (in the Gulf states for example) is sponsored by US defence. In other words, they are weak, vulnerable and failing. They know it, and can see it.

    This inferiority complex, and the manifest failings of Islamic societies paves the way, in light of the visible advances of others, for resentment to creep in and a “search for an answer as to why”. Islam becomes a recourse, and ISIS becomes a proposed political solution.

    Indeed, destroying the physical caliphate has, ironically, made the task harder, for the idea and the resentments leading to ISIS has become more diffuse, and hence more difficult to track. The existence of the ISIS caliphate as a physical entity gave their sympathisers, secretly many million in number, something to actively defend and spend their energies. A brief look at the former nationalities of the ISIS cadres would be an indication of just how far the rabid ideology has spread. With their physical caliphate now gone, they are back to quietly brooding and plotting against the infidel.

    To beat ISIS, one has to stop thinking against them; one has to think like them and understand their motivations. Had ISIS really survived, then problematic, brooding minorities from much of Asia as well as other countries would have made their way voluntarily to the territory, leaving their host societies alone. The destruction of the physical caliphate has ironically made the task of the host societies harder.

    As for the ISIS themselves, they are fully aware of their physical weakness. They derive their strength from the promise of “moral” government, failure on which front they cite as “the reason” for the various miseries affecting the societies where they take root. Countries across the Sahara and the Sahel Belt – Mali, Chad, Libya, Niger, now Sudan, Burkina Faso all are countries where the state is in various forms of retreat. ISIS is filling in for the state in communities where state control has weakened.

    The only parallel one can attach to the likes of ISIS and Islam is the Soviet Union and Communism, victory over the latter which was ultimately attained without one shot being fired, even though many proxy wars were fought.

    Ironically, the caliphate should not have been destroyed; it should have been allowed to exist, allowed to manifest, to its own “citizens”, the severe limitations and failures of its ideology, and die its own death. “The West” destroying the physical caliphate has, ironically, prolonged the fight against the ideology, and given its adherents the grounds for resentment it needs to breed and the talking points it needs for further recruitment.


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