In a conversation I had with a fellow university student in Damascus in 2000, he made curious remark. "Ana mubayie," he said. The sentence, which translates into “I owe a pledge of fealty”, was a reference to a supposed secret oath he made to Mullah Omar, then the emir of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a secular country like Syria, the lack of context for young students meant nobody made much of it beyond observing its oddity.
When I wrote about the anecdote for The National three years ago, ISIL's announcement of a "caliphate" was widely dismissed as comic and a delusional ambition. Many hoped that ISIL's military campaign soon would be reversed once the Iraqi army recovered from the initial shock. Even more than the military challenge, moreover, it was harder for politicians, clerics and observers to grasp the implications of the declaration on the region and the world, and the subsequent evolution of ISIL from a local insurgent group into a global organisation.
More than the appeal of an obscure emir in Afghanistan, ISIL would have a larger impact. The group operates in the heartlands of the Islamic world, and sectarianism will prove an exhaustible spring for it to endure and even prosper, as it did after it was thought defeated in 2008-2009 in Iraq. Its jihadist project will continue to inspire violence for years to come, regardless of how the group fares militarily on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
Three years after it arrogated for itself the title of a caliphate, the group is now a full-fledged international organisation seeking to reclaim the mantle of global jihadism from Al Qaeda, its former patron. By its own count, the group carried out approximately 1,800 suicide attacks in Iraq, Syria and worldwide, and killed close to 200,000 people. It claimed 35 wilayat -- provinces -- across the region.
Meanwhile, ISIL is expected to lose control of what were once regarded as its two capitals, Mosul and Raqqa. In Mosul, where Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi ascended the pulpit of the Great Mosque in the manner of a traditional cleric to speak to his supposed Ummah, the militants are locked down in the Old City. In Raqqa, the first provincial capital to be controlled by ISIL, in January 2014, the Syrian Democratic Forces have already breached the city limits.
While ISIL has shrunk from being a group that controlled an area the size of Britain to one that holds only enclaves in Iraq, Syria and other countries, it has evolved from being a local Iraqi group into an international organisation. Those fighting ISIL should consider this transformation in their evaluation of progress made against the organisation over the past three years.
For in fact, territorial control is not the main metric to judge ISIL's success, given that its campaign against central governments and others involves the depletion of its enemies and the expansion of its international network.
Indeed, to understand how ISIL conceives of its future, it is best to consider how it has articulated its post-caliphate strategy both at its core, in Iraq and Syria, and internationally. ISIL began to articulate this strategy beginning in May last year, when its former spokesman, Abu Muhammad Al Adnani, gave his last speech before he was killed in Syria later in the year, in August. In that speech, Al Adnani prepared the group's followers for the fall of “all cities” under its control. Throughout the speech, he depicted the rise and fall of his group as part of a historical flow, from the early days of the Iraq war until the present.
Territorial loss, as he explained it, would in fact merely be the beginning of a new chapter in its campaign against its enemy. It is not the end; the campaign just takes a different form. “Do you think, O America, that victory is achieved by the killing of one commander or more?” Al Adnani said. “It is then a false victory… Victory is when the enemy is defeated. Do you think, O America, that defeat is the loss of a city or a land? Were we defeated when we lost cities in Iraq and were left in the desert? Will we be defeated and you will be victorious if you took Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or all the cities, and we returned to where we were in the first stage? No, defeat is the loss of willpower and the desire to fight.”
Since Al Adnani's speech, ISIL has frequently released videos and articles featuring similar themes. An editorial published last August by the weekly Al Naba newspaper, which tends to be more in sync with daily life under the supposed caliphate by virtue of its local focus, echoed the former spokesman's statements on how the group understands its history. The editorial summed up the group's strategy after its expulsion from former strongholds in Iraq as: "In the years that followed the rise of Awakening Councils in Iraq, the mujahideen retreated into the desert after leaving behind tens of concealed mujahideen from among the security squads [ie sleeper cells], which killed, inflicted pain, drained and tormented them, and confused their ranks, and exhausted their army, police and their security apparatus."
Even if it were to be driven out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, ISIL’s tactics will continue to present a greater threat to Syria and Iraq than it did in 2013 and early 2014, before its control of a third of Iraq and half of Syria.
Internationally, the group also benefits from the growing disconnect between its weakening core in Iraq and Syria and its outside appeal to establish itself as a jihadist alternative to Al Qaeda. Much of its international focus over the past three years has been to eclipse its rival, rather than just project power and compensate for its losses at home.
ISIL sought to present itself as the true heir to Osama bin Laden, instead of the “deviated” Al Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman Al Zawahiri. In attacks outside Syria and Iraq, the group sometimes featured statements from bin Laden rather than Al Baghdadi or Al Adnani. The beheading of a dozen Egyptian Christians in Libya in 2015, for example, was depicted as revenge for bin Laden.
The twin attacks against Iranian targets in Tehran last month was, to a significant degree, an attempt to undermine Al Qaeda, which had never carried out attacks in Iran. The actions in Tehran were also framed as a repudiation of Al Qaeda’s credibility in the jihadist worldview.
In a speech delivered a month before ISIL announced its supposed caliphate in June 2014, Al Adnani first claimed that his group in Iraq had not struck the Shia in Iran “in compliance with Al Qaeda’s order to maintain its interests and supply lines.” He added: “History shall record that Al Qaeda owed a hefty debt to Iran.”
As part of its international rivalry with Al Qaeda, as well as to maintain its relevance as it cedes territory, ISIL will focus on sectarianism as its main source of recruitment and popularity. The increasing role of Iran in countries like Iraq and Syria will ensure the continuation of ISIL’s appeal among individuals and groups that see Iran as the usurper of their lands.
Weaponising sectarianism is how ISIL will face less competition, especially due to its willingness to kill Shia civilians and blow up their mosques. In addition, ISIL’s attempts to impose itself as the custodian of militant Sunnism extends beyond action against Shia, to demographics such as the Coptic Christians, Druze, Kurds and Yazidis. This explains the increased targeting of Egyptian Christians, from the beheadings in Libya to the recent bus and church attacks in Minya and Tanta, respectively.
In targeting Shia and Christian civilians, ISIL knows that even Al Qaeda cannot compete with it. Al Qaeda’s strategy, as stated by its leaders for many years, is to abstain from being seen as targeting Shia civilians, something which ISIL does not shy from. With such attacks, ISIL hopes to have an advantage over its Sunni detractors, whether groups like Al Qaeda or countries like Saudi Arabia, as they fail to push back against Sunni extremists’ perceived enemies.
The United States and its allies have reduced ISIL’s strength from its high point in 2014, but the organisation will continue to be a major actor in Syria and Iraq for the foreseeable future, especially given the deteriorating situations in the two countries politically, economically, socially and in numerous other respects. The future of ISIL depends on how effectively the two countries deal with the issues that fostered its growth in the first place.
The battle to dislodge ISIL from territories it currently controls may run into the fourth anniversary of its rise, a year from now. Even senior American officials acknowledge in private conversations that the international campaign has yet to turn its attention to the insurgency tactics that the group resorted to beginning early last year, when it adapted to the US-led campaign and reverted to hit-and-run attacks and small fighting units.
Iraq and Syria will be better off after the group is defeated. But there is still a long way to go before they can properly defeat the group. The factors that sustain its existence — such as sectarianism, illegitimate governance, chaos and foreign presence — continue to exist. And so will the threat emanating from ISIL.
But ISIL has also metastasised from a local Iraqi group into an international menace. Some observers interpret its international terror attacks as signs of desperation by a group that seeks to project power while its supposed caliphate crumbles. But that is wishful thinking. The group has become an organisation with international reach and appeal that may not be tethered from the fate of the main organisation in Iraq and Syria.
ISIL’s campaign to weaken emerging state structures and to deepen social divisions will continue for the foreseeable future. Its attempts to present itself as the preeminent leader of violent sectarianism and global jihad will not automatically be hindered by its territorial retreat. Political failures and religious extremism will provide it the space to prolong its existence until a new opportunity emerges, as it did this time three years ago.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror