So ISIS – or Daesh (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) as the Arabs call it – is finally defeated. Like trapped rats, the last jihadi fanatics hide in their final boltholes to await their inevitable doom at the hands of the Kurds, Turk, and Syrian armies – helped by the US, Russian and UK’s Royal Air Force – all closing in for the kill. Thousands of men, women and children have fled ISIS’s surrounded final stronghold in the village of Baghuz, on the Iraqi border, surrendering to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Kurdish-led militias backed by the West. The women and children seen streaming into squalid desert refugee camps to be told what the future holds for the families of the broken terrorist army are the tangible evidence of defeat.
The war is over and everyone can come home … er, well, no … it isn’t, actually.
If you tread on a poisonous mushroom it explodes to scatter its thousands of spores throughout the woods. So it is with ISIS, because group was never just a ragtime army of Islamic hotheads living on captured land. ISIS is much more: it is an ideology that cannot be crushed and exterminated with bullets rockets and bombs. Ideas are spread like spores. Defeat on the battlefield has had the effect of scattering the survivors of the army of the faithful throughout the Middle East – and far beyond. The battle is won, but the war will go on.
This time it will be a war based on two separate but linked campaigns. First is the need to keep the flame of Islamic purity and the search for God’s kingdom of the Ummat al-Islām ( أمة الإسلام ), the collective community of Islam, alive to carry the Holy Gospel of the sacred Koran far afield. Second, the ISIS survivors now on the run are planning a bitter revenge on the West and all those infidels who have destroyed their dream of an ideologically pure Muslim Caliphate.
No one sees this more clearly than General Joseph Votel, who is in charge of US operations in the Middle East. In evidence to the US Congress’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on 7 March 2019, he shared evidence that although Daesh militants are losing the last of their territory in Syria, the militants who remain represent a ‘serious generational problem’. He told the hearing: ‘We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization. Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment – but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over and our mission remains the same.’ The general also warned of more trouble ahead: ‘The Isis population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.’
General Votel is right. Those who have held out until now are still defiant. What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organisation, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and going to ground in remote areas to wait for the right time to re-emerge to carry on the fight elsewhere.
Many of the women have told reporters they are unrepentant in their support for ISIS and have pledged to continue the struggle. Women in camps for the displaced have even reported attempts to maintain ISIS discipline there, with unveiled women being attacked by other ‘ISIS brides’.
One 60-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said that ISIS will continue because the ‘Caliphate’s Cubs’ under the terror group’s rule have been trained to fight from a young age. She said: ‘The caliphate will not end, because it has been ingrained in the hearts and brains of the newborns and the little ones.’ Some of the civilians threw rocks at the cameras of those trying to film them, whilst one screamed at a photographer and called him a pig.
The captured fighters on the other hand have kept their heads down. Most have been taken to Kurdish and Syrian detention camps. Their fate remains unclear, especially the many hundreds of foreign fighters whose home countries are reluctant to take them back. They are an international hot potato for whom – understandably – no one wants to take responsibility.
The real danger now is that ISIS supporters are being urged to launch lone-wolf terror attacks on Western targets, according to their message traffic. The organisation still has the wherewithal to fight. A UN report published last month claimed ISIS has a secret war chest of up to $300 million (£230 million) that could be used to sustain its operations and fund new attacks on the West. Although the terror group is assessed to have ‘bulk stored’ some of the money in its stronghold area (leading to one spectacular USAF strike on a warehouse that literally blew millions of dollars up into the sky), much of the rest has been smuggled abroad or invested in legitimate businesses. So, not only does ISIS still have an army of sympathisers on which to call, it also has plenty of cash to fund any future operations.
Already there are ISIS propaganda posters encouraging new attacks, including one depicting a man walking through an airport dragging a suitcase depicting the terror group’s logo. We have seen similar Islamist terror posters in the past, often using images of major Western cities such as New York and London as part of their scare tactics. To further strengthen the case that ISIS is going to ground but still remaining active, monitoring agencies report that known ISIS sympathisers are sharing encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram to ‘inspire’ extremists to carry out terror attacks. This follows reports that desperate ISIS-linked media groups are calling for a new ‘online jihad’ now that the terrorists have been neutralised in Syria and Iraq.
The problem is that, like Communism, jihadism is a global phenomenon. History has shown us the dangers of underestimating the power of ideologies. In places like Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen, fundamental Islam is still prepared to fight and die for the cause, as al-Qaeda still demonstrates. One of the jihadi’s key mantras is ‘stay and expand’. This philosophy and a willingness to accept heavy casualties whilst planning for a long struggle are rooted in a firm belief that God favours their cause and sometimes tests the faithful so that only the purest at heart will survive to fight and win the ultimate battle. Such a mindset makes for a dangerous adversary, whatever its losses.
There is also growing evidence that the group’s surviving leadership have moved to disperse some of their fighters, arms and riches, preparing ISIS to resume terrorist and insurgent operations after the caliphate’s collapse. This campaign has already started in Iraq, where Islamic State is again conducting assassinations, bombings and other operations despite having lost control of vast territories. Given the way Syria is currently partitioned, the various political vacuums in the region are already giving fleeing ISIS State militants time and space to regroup and set up new operations.
The bitter truth is that Islamic State is just one branch of a global insurgency, a problem the world cannot solve by just killing and bombing one single nest of vipers. Combatting a global insurgency will require a coordinated global counterinsurgency effort. This means that efforts to defeat jihadist groups must persist well after the ‘clear’ phase to the ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases of counterinsurgency. In addition, this must happen in every part of the world where the jihadist insurgency is manifesting itself, from Bali to Birmingham.
Of one thing we can be sure. The erasure of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria won’t ensure its final defeat. The war goes on ….