With the loss of almost all of its “caliphate”, the so-called Islamic State (IS) is widely assumed to be on the edge of defeat. That may be true on the ground in Syria and Iraq, but even there, the group shows signs of transforming into a different kind of movement. And in the wider world, it is very much alive.
Last May, the southern Philippine city of Marawi was largely overrun by an IS-linked coalition of Islamist paramilitaries. In spite of large-scale army and air force attacks, as well as aid from the US military, it took six months for the government to regain control, by which time much of the city had been wrecked.
In October 2017, four US Special Forces personnel were killed in an attack in Niger. The incident received considerable coverage in the US media, mainly because so few people realised that the Pentagon even had forces there. In fact, US troops have been “training, advising and assisting” personnel in Niger for decades, but with Islamist paramilitary action across the Sahel on the rise, the US now has dramatically expanded its presence and operations in the country and beyond.
In a further expansion, the US is now constructing a substantial base at Agadez, in the centre of Niger, which will be used mainly for drone operations. Along with extensive French military operations across the Sahel and UK assistance to Nigeria, it seems the region is now a major focus of Western military action.
Elsewhere, the Taliban and other armed opposition groups control at least a third of Afghanistan, including most of Helmand Province with its rich opium harvests. In Somalia, Islamist militant group al-Shabaab recently killed more than 300 people with a single bomb attack, while in Egypt, General Sisi’s military regime is finding that its determined attempts to crush Islamist movements appear just to fuel the armed opposition.
On the 16th anniversary of 9/11, 28 police were killed in an attack in Sinai, long the centre of radical Islamist activity in Egypt. And there was worse to come: on October 21, at least 54 policemen were killed in an ambush during a raid on a militant hideout southwest of Cairo.
The links between some of these groups and IS may be tenuous, but IS still a symbol of what can be achieved, even if only for four years, against the world’s strongest military forces. This brings us to the group’s situation in its sometime heartland across northern Syria and Iraq.
Since it began in August 2014, the sustained multinational air war led by the US has killed tens of thousands of IS supporters. This is the main reason why government forces in Iraq and largely Kurdish forces in Syria have now retaken most of the IS caliphate – but the knock-on effects are only just kicking in.
In Iraq, the intensity of the fighting in Mosul crippled the Iraqi Army’s crucial Special Forces, which lost 40% of its human and military resources. This will hugely limit the army’s capacity to contain any guerrilla warfare, in turn forcing it to depend even more on Iranian-backed Shia militias. That is anathema to many Iraqi Sunnis, and of great concern to the Saudi government.
In Syria, the progress of the Syrian Kurdish forces has been considerable, but causes huge concern in Ankara. Other gains against IS in eastern Syria have been won by the Assad regime’s forces, meaning the regime in Damascus feels far more secure. With IS turfed out of major strongholds, Western calls for Bashar al-Assad to stand down seem to have subsided for now.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to predict is what will happen to the thousands of IS paramilitaries who have gone to ground in both countries, and how they will act. But by early indications, the IS leadership sees some clear avenues for future progress in spite of huge setbacks.
One task is to represent the caliphate as a powerful symbol of what can be achieved against a hugely powerful military coalition, an example that will endure for decades. Another priority is to extend and strengthen links with like-minded groups operating across much of Africa and South and South-east Asia, while returning to the insurgency which was the mark of the sudden rise of IS from the old al-Qaeda in Iraq back in 2011-14.
Finally, there is the matter of taking the war to the “far enemy”, as was done in the recent attacks in Barcelona, Manchester, London and elsewhere. Some may be directly aided, others might be incited and still others merely inspired, but all share a common aim: to demonstrate that IS still exists, that it can and will avenge its losses, and, above all, that it still intends to damage community cohesion in the lands of the far enemy. The recent attack in New York may well be just one more example of what is to come.