ISIS: The rise and fall of a militant group that captivated and repulsed the world

As US-backed forces squeeze the ISIS fighters into the last small pockets, The National reflects on the terror group who were once the most powerful and well-financed non-state militant group in history

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 30, 2017, members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) with a flag of the Islamic State held upside-down, outside the destroyed Al-Nuri Mosque in the Old City of Mosul, after the area was retaken from IS. Even as the last pockets of resistance in eastern Syria hold their ground, the Islamic State group is shapeshifting into a new, but no less dangerous, underground form, experts warn. Also known as ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it had long been ready to cede the territory it once held in its self-styled "caliphate," and has already begun the switch to a more clandestine role, closer to its roots.  / AFP / FADEL SENNA / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Michel MOUTOT, "Islamic State not defeated, just transforming, experts say"
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ISIS once controlled territory comparable in size to England but now holds just 15 square kilometres, a spokesman for the US-backed militia fighting the extremists in northern Syria said this week.

"The so-called caliphate is drawing its last breath," Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said on Thursday. The final operation to defeat them will be over within a month, SDF officials predict.

Declarations of victory by leaders in the global coalition against ISIS have followed earlier prominent victories in Mosul, Raqqa and the end of military operations in Iraq.

But the statement by Mazloum Kobani, chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, was unique. "I believe that during the next month we will officially announce the end of the military presence on the ground of the so-called caliphate," he told AFP.

As ISIS gives up its last territory in Syria, its pretensions to ruling over a caliphate crumble, even as surviving members revert to insurgent style attacks across Iraq and Syria, and affiliates from Afghanistan to Africa plant the black flag to declare ISIS “provinces”.

The final battle in Syria has not been the apocalyptic showdown with the West as prophesied by earlier ISIS propaganda. Instead, through the winter the Kurdish-led SDF have been pushing a grinding advance on a collection of muddy hamlets in the Euphrates River valley. Thousands of SDF fighters have been killed as cornered ISIS fighters fight to the death. Others have surrendered, including a number of foreign fighters.

If it seems an ignominious, if predictable, end to a group that five years ago was the most powerful and well-financed non-state militant group in history, it is worth remembering that the ultimate defeat of ISIS was not always so obvious.

On June 30 2014, the cover of Time magazine proclaimed "The End of Iraq". The day before, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi had declared a caliphate, shortly after ISIS militants seized Iraq's second city of Mosul and advanced to the gates of Baghdad. The accompanying article stated that "the breakup of Iraq as a nation-state appears to be all but an accomplished fact."

At its peak, ISIS governed a third of Syria and 40 per cent of Iraq; an area over 100,000 square kilometres, a significantly larger area than the UAE.

It also ruled over 8 million people – a population size comparable to Switzerland – and mobilised an estimated 25,000 fighters from inside Iraq and Syria, alongside countless thousands of supporters and low-level employees. In addition, an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters travelled from over 120 countries to join the group, more than the number of “Mujahideen” who travelled to Afghanistan to battle the Soviets during the whole of the 1980s.

ISIS was able to pay their salaries and fund many of the services of a state via a ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy that rivalled established governments. In addition to the vast stocks of weaponry, bank vaults of cash, and silos of grains it captured, the group was self-sufficient – for a time – through the sale of oil, taxation, extortion, looting and smuggling. In early 2015, the group was estimated to be bringing in over $80 million a month, higher revenues than many developing nations.

Even a year into the US-led bombing campaign, American generals were predicting a decade-long fight. US Army outgoing chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, told reporters in 2015 that defeating ISIS would be a “10 to 20 year problem”.

"I do think it's going to be a generational struggle," then vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, told Foreign Policy.

But gradually airstrikes and ground forces wore ISIS down. The US-led coalition carried out over 14,000 strikes in Iraq, and nearly 17,000 strikes in Syria, according to data collated by conflict monitoring organisation Airwars, leading to staggering casualties – both militant and civilian.

In July 2017, at the end of the nine month battle for Mosul, commander of the US Special Operations Command, General Raymond Thomas, estimated that 60,000 to 70,000 ISIS fighters had been killed since August 2014. In the year-and-a-half to follow, thousands more would be killed in Raqqa and the Euphrates River valley in eastern Syria. Untold thousands of civilians were also killed, though to date the coalition has acknowledged just 1,124 likely civilian deaths.

Iraqi authorities would end their war against ISIS by detaining an estimated 19,000 people accused of affiliation to the group, according to an AP estimate. Most are being sentenced to death in brief trials criticised by rights groups for relying on confessions extracted by torture. Meanwhile, in Syria, the SDF holds some 800 foreign fighters, alongside a similar number of local ISIS fighters, with no plan for their future.

With the fighting drawing to a close, observers are already highlighting the lack of money for rebuilding, ongoing revenge attacks against those accused of ISIS affiliation, and an alarming resurgence of ISIS sleeper cells. Few on the ground are predicting a peaceful future.