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.