Mosul has been reclaimed from ISIL, but the most important battle is yet to come

ISIL may have been defeated in the old city, but the battle against their ideas will be long

In this July 13, 2017 photo, Samaher Saddam cleans the entrance of her damaged house in the west side of Mosul, Iraq. The 9-month fight to defeat the Islamic State group in Mosul ended in a crescendo of devastation: bombardment that damaged or destroyed a third of its historic Old City in just three weeks. The cost of uprooting the militants was the destruction of large swaths of Iraq’s second largest city, leaving a population that is displaced, exhausted and potentially embittered if there is no reconstruction. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

As many commentators and analysts have reiterated time and time again, ISIL’s reign may be over in Mosul and other areas in the region, but their ideology is still very much alive. Its seeds fervently await the next fertile ground in which to thrive.

As we saw with Al Qaeda, the death of Osama bin Laden meant little for the terror group. In fact, not only did the organisation reemerge, but another group more extreme and advanced in its ideological warfare then appeared. Now that ISIL has finally been weakened across the board, who or what will be next?

ISIL’s propaganda war was waged on entirely different fronts to terror groups before it. They avidly used social media to their advantage, recruiting and radicalising followers through appealing to them with the use of familiar religious labels. In fact, they were able to get many to commit crimes solely through online interaction.

ISIL’s narrative originally hinged on summoning foreign fighters to join their so-called caliphate. They then adopted a more decentralised approach by urging followers to cause instability wherever they were.

This only reinforces the fact that following their defeat, ISIL may get creative. Their sleeper cells could exist anywhere in the world. While foreign fighters are easy to track, silent ISIL supporters are not.

Another factor to consider is the fate of ISIL child soldiers. ISIL raised and trained these minors to be the next generation of fighters, naming them the “cubs of the caliphate”. Will they ever have a chance at a normal life or childhood after being exposed to ISIL horrors? Or do we have a young generation of budding terrorists whose psyches have already been conditioned to engage in violence?

All these questions point to one glaring fact that cannot be repeated often enough: countering terrorism does not suffice. We need a long term strategy to combat extremism. Extremist sensationalism and psychological warfare are at the roots of terrorism. The most important battle to fight remains the battle of ideas.

ISIL, Al Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood may have different names, but they all share similar objectives. They have taken words out of context to suit their aims. Their geophysical defeat is only the beginning. We must never take these victories for granted and keep our guards up for new tactics and threats.

Mariam Rashed Al-Mehairbi is an Abu Dhabi-based writer with a master's degree in security and strategic studies and a master's in media and communications.