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August 2014, the United States had begun launching airstrikes against ISIS and redeployed troops to Iraq that had been withdrawn by President Barack Obama in 2011.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?