A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, removes an ISIS flag in the Syrian town of Tabqa in April 2017.
After a long campaign against the group, ISIS has been defeated in its major urban centres of Mosul and Raqqa, has lost most of its territory, and lacks lines of communication, which are essential to its survival. However, the fundamentals that led to the rise of the most recent incarnation of Salafi-jihadism have not been addressed.
The prospect of a stable political future in the Middle East is not good. As pundits and scholars weigh in on what the destruction of ISIS means for the future of Salafi-jihadism, one thing is clear: this ideology is far from defeated.
In this respect, the importance of the nexus between territory and ideology is paramount. As the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) evolved from al-Qaeda, and ISIS evolved from ISI, so too will the next incarnation evolve, fully cognizant of how territory and ideology mutually serve each other. Be it in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria or Yemen, violent actors will find safe havens if they exist.
As pundits and scholars weigh in on what the destruction of ISIS means for the future of Salafi-jihadism, one thing is clear: this ideology is far from defeated.
Salafi-jihadi recruitment today is very different from in the late 1990s, when the geography of the Afghanistan/Pakistan region and al-Qaeda’s selectivity meant the group remained relatively small. Moreover, al-Qaeda’s leadership chose not to declare a caliphate in the first instance. This key difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS is significant. Al-Qaeda sought first to establish a significant population base by challenging the West, then targeted Arab regimes and only later declared the existence of an Islamic state or caliphate.
In contrast, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of ISIS’s caliphate soon after securing control of Mosul in June 2014. By doing so, ISIS opened its arms to dislocated Muslims the world over in a much more accessible location than Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, this problem has created a spiral effect. In the absence of order, groups will retain territory and attract new recruits. These recruits from different backgrounds can be expected to be far more dangerous than traditional adversaries as they find common cause around the guiding ideas of Salafism and the experience of shared sacrifice fuses them together.
To this effect, the story of the last four years offers a powerful warning. Since 2014, the collapse in governance across the Middle East has illuminated an important reality for policymakers: the historic ties binding Aleppo to Mosul—a function of the Silk Road—are still of great significance.
In the absence of order, groups will retain territory and attract new recruits.
This link has been shown increasingly over recent years. In February 2018, the BBC reported that Dr Weisi Guo, an engineering professor at the University of Warwick and an analyst of complex networks, had overlaid conflict data onto maps outlining the Silk Road. The results showed a strong correlation between ancient trade routes and conflict hotspots in Iraq and Syria.
Moreover, recent studies by ARTIS International in the areas surrounding Mosul have found that by eliminating checkpoints and increasing freedom of movement, ISIS gained significant popularity in the first year of its control.
This has two dynamics. Firstly, the population was free to move between Deir ez-Zor and Mosul and beyond. Secondly, the elimination of roadblocks (in the early days) garnered considerable popular support for ISIS. Roadblocks had proven to be a major source of grievance since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, becoming synonymous with harassment as various groups attempted to restrict movement. When ISIS secured strategic lines of communication and exploited vacuums of legitimate government, it also secured territory. This support was short lived, however. As ISIS became increasingly oppressive, it began to implement its own roadblocks to prevent a diaspora; counterproductively, this also decreased much of its remaining support.
The politics of territorial control will prove a significant challenge for the Iraqi government as it attempts to address deep-rooted grievances north and west of Baghdad. It will be a similarly extraordinary challenge for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as it seeks to gain the sympathy of populations east of the strategic M-5 motorway that runs past Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.
The politics of territorial control will prove a significant challenge for the Iraqi government as it attempts to address deep-rooted grievances north and west of Baghdad.
ISIS used the history of the Middle East to offer a theopolitical structure as an alternative system of governance for the region’s aggrieved populations. For many, ISIS’s ability to hold territory was magnetising. This appeal, directly linked to Baghdadi’s proclamation of a caliphate, made the survival of ISIS inherently tied to the maintenance of territory.
The holding of territory against Western-backed forces, with overwhelming technical dominance, captured the spirits and souls of disenfranchised and dislocated people around the world. The manifestation of this was the success ISIS had in its global recruitment project: the group was able to recruit in numbers previously unseen by Salafi-jihadi movements.
For the most part, recruits believe in the idea of a caliphate and seek emancipation from societies in which they have never found purpose and harbour significant grievances. Yet before physically joining the caliphate, few appeared willing to fight and die for the cause. Once in ISIS territory, however, recruits became significantly more willing to make costly sacrifices—including fighting, dying and allowing family members to suffer torture—for their group and for their values.
Acknowledging the importance of group spirit is not a breakthrough in military studies. Many military scholars have emphasised the importance of unit cohesion. As US Army Chief of Staff Edward Meyer explained, such cohesion is based on “the bonding together of soldiers in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other, the unit, and mission accomplishment”. These factors in large part explain the effectiveness of ISIS in the face of overwhelming firepower. The group was able to hold land and so attracted a population base that became a formidable fighting force.
Human beings seek and need purpose. This fact becomes much more pronounced when the entity offering meaning controls territory.
The intersection of territory and ideology is central to ISIS’s success. Although governments must use force to deny groups safe havens, at their core safe havens arise because of political dissatisfaction. And thus, the roots of conflict rarely have long-term solutions coming from the barrel of a gun. If people have grievances and lack purpose—whether in Deir ez-Zor, the banlieues of Paris, Barcelona’s El Raval or London—then messages with simple yet extreme solutions, for example violence on behalf of a noble cause, will resonate.
Human beings seek and need purpose. This fact becomes much more pronounced when the entity offering meaning controls territory. Ultimately, the gathering of many people with a shared ideology fosters something far more violent and dangerous than has been seen in the past.
More broadly, individuals’ lack of purpose is not isolated to the Islamic world. It is systemic in the rapidly globalising world, and populations around the globe appear to be suffering from identity crises and are reverting to simple yet visceral identities.