Two ideas that have become quite prevalent are that the Islamic State is defeated or on its way to defeat and that the Syrian war is winding down. Both are gravely mistaken.
ISLAMIC STATE RESURGENT
With the Islamic State (ISIS, alternatively known as IS, ISIL, or Daesh) driven from its Iraqi “capital”, Mosul, in July 2017, and its Syrian counterpart, Raqqa, in October 2017, the caliphate was virtually destroyed. There is still a pocket of territory along the Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria around the town of Hajin, but the American-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is planning to deal with this in due course. Virtually every identifiable leader of ISIS, excepting only the caliph, has been eliminated. And the wave of foreign attacks has significantly slowed; the anticipated flood of jihadi returnees to Europe did not come to pass—or not yet.
There are a number of problems with this sanguine picture.
First, when these metrics—territory, leaders killed, finances, foreign volunteers, and external operations—were used the last time, after the Surge and Awakening had apparently defeated the Islamic State movement in 2007-08, they led to the failure to detect that ISIS was gaining strength.
The truth is that ISIS, even now, is far stronger than in 2008 after it had been seemingly eradicated. ISIS is at least as strong as it was in mid-2011 when it was resurgent in Iraq, and possibly as strong as it was in 2012-13 after it had broken key operatives out of prison and began forming shadow institutions in advance of the caliphate declaration in 2014. ISIS’s key institutions—above all its security apparatus—have held intact.
All this is before even considering ISIS’s foreign operations: ISIS is now a global terrorist organisation in a way it was not before. It is able to strike at targets on Western soil, and with the journeying of key operatives from the “centre” to battlefields like Afghanistan, Egypt, and Yemen, ISIS has a brand and bases to ensure its safety and survival long into the future.
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