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The Rise and Fall of ISIS

The Rise and Fall of ISIS

Briefing

6 min read

Iraqi soldier holds ISIS flag after capturing Palmyra.

ISIS’ roots go back a long way

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’ predecessor organisation al-Qaeda in Iraq, had air miles under his belt. Before commencing the insurgency in Iraq, the Jordanian had travelled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, but arrived too late. Before the 2003 Iraq War, his fledgling group’s Afghan training camps were provided with seed funding by Osama Bin Laden. Afghanistan has been the root of many such jihadi journeys, fostering a militant network stretching from the Horn of Africa to South East Asia. But Iraq provided particularly fertile soil for jihadi narratives: ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s worldview was as much a product of Saddam Hussein’s ‘Faith Campaign’ to Islamise Baathism, as regional geopolitics.

The deep roots of ISIS are significant in a context where international actors are fixated on defeating specific manifestations of extremist violence, rather than addressing the underlying ideology that drives it, outlined in our report Inside the Jihadi Mind. Jihadi group identities are fluid, starling-like networks which have the resilience to reform, rebrand, and re-emerge from the ashes. As the group’s former spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said, “do you think… that victory is achieved by killing one leader or another?”

A short-sighted counter-extremism approach stands in stark contrast to jihadis’ own long historical view. The Crusades and Sykes-Picot agreement are as contemporary as 9/11 or the 2003 invasion of Iraq in jihadi propaganda. When the Levant is imminently post-Caliphate, there must be a comprehensive strategy to prevent the emergence of an ISIS 2.0.

Militancy thrives in poorly governed spaces

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a ‘Caliphate’ in 2014 was a game-changer for global jihadism. Although extremist groups like the Taliban have ‘governed’ in the past, ISIS’ outward projection of a fully functioning ‘Islamic state,’ incumbent on all Muslims to migrate to, was key to its unique appeal.

Globally, extremists are peddling theocracy as a solution to situations of weak governance, instability, porous borders and geopolitical vacuums. Our report, Milestones to Militancy, shows that over three quarters of veteran jihadis had travelled to at least one of four ‘hubs’: the Sahel, Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Levant, and the Horn of Africa. Here, alongside fighting, groups are delivering state services to boost their appeal, and offering the illusion of stability in conflict zones.

Beyond its grand claims to a ‘Caliphate’ ISIS is adept at tapping into deep-rooted local governance structures where centralised control is absent. Migrant routes, tribal relationships, and informal trade create systems for insurgent groups to command profit and allegiance. Stronger and more effective institutions will be required to minimise the ideological appeal of ‘alternative’ modes of governance that ISIS purports to offer.

Importance of ground forces

Driving out violent non-state actors will necessitate a robust military response, but a reliance on aerial attacks alone runs the risk of exacerbating the situation. As part of a clear, strategic plan, ground forces are essential for reclaiming territory, but also for providing the conditions conducive for development and reconstruction efforts to get underway.

Such military operations must be proportionate and guided by a ‘do no harm’ principle. However, foreign policy is often given an outsized role in debates around the drivers of violent extremism. ISIS’ own propaganda states that is is “important to understand” that “foreign policies” occupy only a “secondary” position in the ‘rationale’ for jihadi violence, behind factors such the West’s disbelief in Islam, the prevalence of secularism, atheism, and ‘transgressions’ against Islam.

A ground operation need not, indeed should not, be reliant on international forces alone. Empowering local and regional actors through training, intelligence, and the provision of resources offers an approach that lays the foundations for addressing future conflicts in the region independently.   

Airstrikes in Libya against the Gaddafi regime proved successful in their immediate objectives, but the failure to utilise ground forces or adequately mobilise a cohesive local force meant that maintaining stability was never on the horizon. In Iraq, the 2007 troop surge saw the deployment of additional military personnel, leading to the degradation of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Airstrikes alone, without an effective, cohesive ground force, run the risk of causing heavy collateral damage and creating further ungoverned spaces that may be exploited. A ground mission, with aerial support, is essential for recapturing and securing territories vacated by extremists, allowing residents and aid agencies to return and rebuild their communities. However, ground forces are only ever treating symptoms rather than causes. Wider action working towards inclusive political solutions will be essential alongside stabilisation efforts.

Tackling the Online Narrative

Military operations will succeed in degrading ISIS’ immediate capabilities, but the battle of ideas the group has engaged in will continue to rage elsewhere, shown by the scale of online extremist content found in our research report, A War of Keywords. While social media platforms have been working to address extremist content online, they themselves have accepted the need be more proactive in this space. Content removal and account closures are a necessary means for limiting the spread of extremist propaganda, but this approach is by definition a reactive measure in which those working to counter such material are always playing catch up.

ISIS spreads images of bustling markets, public displays of justice, and the provision of social services to mask the realities of life under its rule, effectively using the online space to broadcast the utopian alternative it claims to offer. Countering these messages is not enough. Actively presenting the values of liberty, equality, and the rule of law, by providing solutions that bring the benefits of globalisation to the many, not just the few, and by demonstrating that religious communities can and do coexist around the world, we can offer a more viable alternative to ISIS and those that share its worldview.

This online battle is not one that technology companies or governments can win on their own. Civil society and religious groups, many of whom are already working to fight religious extremism and intolerance, must be afforded the resources and opportunities that will equip them to challenge ISIS more effectively online. Governments and technology companies do a have a responsibility to protect users and safeguard the internet, but challenging and contesting ideas cannot be done without the involvement of those communities affected by this scourge.

Lessons for policy makers

After the defeat of ISIS, work closely with regional allies and continue to target the destructive ideology that fomented the group’s rise, to avoid the emergence of an ISIS 2.0.

The challenge of Islamist extremism will likely last a generation. Militants have managed to tap into a diverse current of grievances, wrapping their arguments in the cloak of religion and global struggle. Defeating this ideology requires a coordinated international effort – a unified cross-cultural expression of the unsuitability of this worldview as an answer to the challenges and opportunities of a globalised world.

Do not allow space for extremists to govern and deliver services, bolstering their claim to constitute a cohesive ‘Islamic state.’

Salafi-jihadi groups have managed to thrive in diverse environments, from Yemen to the Sahel. Whilst known for their incomprehensible violence, extremists are as utopian as they are dystopian. Effective governance, strong institutions, and the rule of law are essential for starving extremists of the oxygen of civic discontentment, for which they present their model of an ‘Islamic state’ as the sole solution. 

Effectively confront the symptoms of extremist violence, before they have the ability to flourish, through a locally-led military strategy.

An approach to counter-insurgency based on airpower alone fails to root out the drivers of conflict, and makes it challenging to build trust with afflicted communities. Training and equipping local forces must be at the forefront of efforts, when a military response is required. In the Middle East, there are many countries willing to shoulder increased responsibility for regional security, and with a strong incentive to counter-extremism.

Be front-footed on countering the growing online dimensions of extremism, matching and surpassing the innovation and appeal of extremist groups in the online sphere.

ISIS has been unprecedented in the sophistication of its propaganda. As the group loses geographic territory, it will increasingly shift its insurgency toward the online realm. Ranging in sophistication from encrypted calls for attacks in lands far from its ‘Caliphate’ to cyber-warfare, governments must lead a broad coalition of technology companies and civil society actors to challenge extremists free usage of the internet.

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