It was the summer of 2014 when most Americans took notice of the Islamic State, but the group had been around in different forms for about a decade. Many of its fighters were the same people who’d fought U.S. troops under the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq, until a massive U.S. military effort suppressed them. Then the American people and their government decided that the war was done.
What came next was a renewed militant group with even greater international ambitions, as ISIS captured territory across Iraq and Syria and declared it a caliphate. Now, with the U.S. government once again trying to wind down a war following the so-called caliphate’s collapse, the question is whether ISIS can repeat its history of survival, and what it might morph into next.
In the past year, its leader has died and it has lost the last of its territory, which at its peak was roughly the size of Britain. Much like after the Iraq War, though, both ISIS and the conditions that fostered it remain—and in some ways, the environment is even more promising for its survival now. ISIS may be weaker, but it retains thousands of members across Iraq and Syria. The Obama administration’s management of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq had its own problems, but Trump’s abrupt and unilateral decision to pull U.S. troops from northeastern Syria has been a picture of chaos. U.S. efforts to rebuild and provide humanitarian relief and security in former ISIS strongholds in the country are in jeopardy, as is the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which served as America’s main partner. In Iraq, many areas have not been adequately rebuilt, and the country’s political and economic morass has spurred weeks of demonstrations, to which the government has responded with brutal crackdowns. An entire generation across both Iraq and Syria has been traumatized by extremism and war, and tens of thousands of suspected ISIS members and their families languish in the limbo of poorly resourced camps in Syria. The international community has made little effort to help the masses of children whom ISIS made a concerted effort to radicalize.
So what’s next? Aaron Zelin, a veteran researcher of jihadist groups, told us that another ISIS surge and land grab is unlikely in the near term. Instead, ISIS will probably retain its core in Iraq especially, but in Syria as well—as Zelin noted, the group is comfortable underground in its territory and has survived this way before—with connections to supporters and affiliates around the globe. From there, it can bide its time, pursuing a long-term vision that its leaders have called a “generational strategy,” Zelin said. “They see this as a battle of attrition, and that eventually they’re going to wear everyone out. They’re not rigid in their thinking, and they’re willing to evolve.”
The raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took place over a weekend. Defense Secretary Mark Esper hailed his death as a “major victory in the enduring defeat ISIS mission”; Trump declared that the world was a “much safer place” as a result.
But when U.S. officials returned to work on Monday, there did not appear to be any consensus on what would come next for ISIS following Baghdadi’s death.
One U.S. government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, told us that views of ISIS’s future fell broadly into two camps. Some saw an organization in chaos and ripe for succession struggles, with its leader killed, thousands of its fighters imprisoned, and its communications hampered by the constant fear of U.S. surveillance or spies. Others argued that although Baghdadi was dead, ISIS had a succession plan in place and a bureaucracy still functioning well enough to implement it. Jason Blazakis, who worked on counterterrorism at the State Department for more than a decade and remains in touch with U.S. officials, confirmed these two general competing views within government.
The first view suggests a grim future for ISIS. Maybe its fighters could still hide out across Iraq and Syria, and maybe some adherents could still stage attacks and assassinations. But the difficulty of coordinating actions among cells in the face of continuing military pressure would mean that they could never again mass forces as they did when they entered Mosul, Iraq in 2014; moreover, if they did, they would make themselves a target—one that the international community would not ignore this time. Otherwise, though, they might operate more like a dangerous criminal movement—capable of murders, robbery, and extortion, but something that local security forces could deal with.
This is perhaps one example of ISIS’s weakness: Fewer than 200 suspected ISIS prisoners in northeastern Syria managed to escape in the chaos that followed Turkey’s incursion into the area this fall. Despite Baghdadi’s call, before he died, for mass prison breaks, ISIS has been unable to take full advantage of the moment; most of the roughly 10,000 suspected members held in northeastern Syria remain behind bars. “They clearly don’t have the capability,” the U.S. official said. “This isn’t even hard. This isn’t hijacking a plane.”
Others, in and out of government, have argued the threat is much greater and the U.S. victory much more tenuous and fleeting—especially since the Turkish incursion into Syria. The Pentagon inspector general released a report this week saying that the group could use the space created by the U.S. drawdown in Syria to reconstitute and plot attacks against the West. Russell Travers, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said recently that ISIS had been preparing for years for the end of its territorial caliphate, and the potential loss of its leader. “They’ve lost a lot of leaders,” he told a congressional committee this fall. “This is a bureaucracy that’s pretty good at doing succession planning.” ISIS cells in Iraq and Syria are exploiting chaos in both countries and keeping up what Travers called “a diminished but steady rate” of attacks. He assessed the group’s current strength at 14,000 members in Iraq and Syria, mostly Iraq, “which for us suggests that there is a great fertile ground for a long-term insurgency.” Since the Turkish incursion, ISIS has claimed responsibility for attacks such as a car bombing in the Kurdish city of Qamishli and the assassination of a priest.
The group’s future may depend in part on who is actually leading the organization, said Blazakis, now a professor at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Baghdadi’s successor, identified by the ISIS media arm as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, may be the wanted terrorist also known as Hajji Abdallah, Blazakis said—a man with a $5 million reward on his head who was part of al-Qaeda in Iraq and may have even met Baghdadi as a prisoner of U.S. forces in Iraq. He is a religious scholar with operational experience—somebody, in Blazakis’s words, “who has showed that he can stay alive for a long time.”
Such a leader could help reconstitute the organization into a perhaps diminished version of its former self, both in its core territories and in commanding loyalty across 20-odd affiliated groups, each with membership ranging from a handful of people to thousands, as Travers said in his testimony. Finally, loyalists or returned foreign fighters in Western countries could carry out attacks. The United States, which supplied a smaller number of ISIS recruits than many European countries, would be more likely to face internet-inspired attacks, as it has in previous years, as opposed to the plots that plagued Europe, like those in Paris and Brussels.
Yet ISIS’s territorial decline has at least had meaningful short-term effects abroad. As Travers noted, both Europe and the United States have seen a marked decline in ISIS-inspired attacks in recent years—a fact he attributed to the gradual loss of the so-called caliphate. So far, Kurdish-led forces are still keeping thousands of suspected ISIS fighters off the battlefield.
The risk is that, with its erratic commitment to the counter-ISIS mission, the United States may not be able to keep it that way. The Kurdish-led forces have said they can’t hold ISIS prisoners indefinitely, and they are in any case almost dependent on the support of the U.S.-led coalition, according to the Pentagon inspector general report. Even as Trump vows to keep U.S. troops in Syria to secure oil fields, the future of that support remains in doubt.
Robert Ford, the last American ambassador to Syria and a former deputy ambassador to Iraq, who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale, outlined what he thinks realistic success against ISIS would look like: “The point is to get the countries out there to the point where they can deal with these problems on their own.”
The Trump administration had the chance to make a serious attempt at leaving behind enough stability in Syria and Iraq to enable a lasting defeat of ISIS, but instead it lost interest once the military part of the struggle was mostly done. In cities like Mosul, and Raqqa, in Syria, Ford noted, America has left “a moonscape of destruction and doesn’t want to pay for reconstruction.” While Iraqi security forces are currently being rebuilt by the U.S., they must try to bring order to a country that, as Ford puts it, is still “flat on its back.”
And the Islamic State has a key advantage: It fully intends to stay. Trump has repeatedly emphasized his desire to get out of the region altogether; meanwhile, ISIS has its sights on the next generation. Zelin noted that 20,000 children under 5 are languishing in the camps in Syria, and that ISIS made an attempt to co-opt children. And some ISIS members escaped from Iraq and Syria as the group was losing its territory, intent on spreading its violent vision. “This isn’t just about fighting. This is a societal project,” Zelin said. “It’s something like a jihadi manifest destiny.”