In August of 2014, ISIS made international headlines when it released a video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley. The disturbing video epitomizes an moment in which the entire world intensely feared the terrorist group. In the same year, ISIS would reach its territorial height—controlling large areas of Syria and Iraq that included major cities like Mosul and Raqqa. It conducted several high-profile terrorist attacks, including the 2015 Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more. Yet since then, ISIS’s power has gradually declined. US-backed forces continued to reclaim ISIS territory until March 23 of this year, when they declared they had completely taken back all territory claimed by the militant group. While this is a significant blow, and ISIS’s strength has in a large measure been diminished, it would be wrong to declare total victory over the group. ISIS remains a threat due to two principal factors: the vast number of insurgents still active around the world and the region’s potential to become unstable again.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to defeating ISIS is its ideological influence. Even with the group’s territory gone, adherents can still conduct terrorist attacks in the name of ISIS. For example, as its territory dwindled to almost nothing, the group still carried out a suicide bombing in January that killed sixteen people in Manbij, Syria. Further, US officials believe many active ISIS fighters are still out there and are blending into local populations in Syria and Iraq. One estimate places about fourteen thousand fighters in Syria and Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s leader, has also evaded capture and is believed to be hiding somewhere in the desert between Iraq and Syria. The remaining fighters are expected to focus on using online propaganda to direct lone-wolf attacks on targets both inside and outside the Middle East.
Even outside the Middle East, terrorist groups identifying themselves with ISIS have grown. For instance, ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing of a cathedral in the southern Philippines this January. The group began recruitment efforts in the region in 2016 by circulating videos online encouraging those who could not travel to Iraq or Syria to begin conquering territory in the Philippines. Militants even took over the Filipino city of Marawi for five months before it was taken back by the military. West African countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger also face a rising threat from a branch of ISIS that has grown stronger as the United States has reduced its military presence in the region.
The rise of ISIS offshoots throughout the world illustrates how taking back the territory in Iraq and Syria does not rid the world of ISIS itself. While the group is considerably weaker without its quasi-state, it can still wreak havoc as its adherents conduct terrorist attacks and as an insurgency elsewhere in the world. Even as its last bit territory being taking back, ISIS has claimed responsibility for 502 attacks throughout the world this year. Its latest defeat therefore mainly signals a paradigm shift—the group has gone from defending its caliphate to directing terrorist attacks throughout the world.
Another concern is that the territory in Iraq and Syria formerly controlled by ISIS remains highly unstable. Major reconstruction is needed to restore cities where large areas have been destroyed and many people have been left homeless or displaced. Though this is especially true in Syria’s case, there is no plan in place to begin rebuilding. Syria is exhausted from its eight-year-long civil war, which has left the country’s economy shattered, cities destroyed, and millions of its people displaced. The cost of reconstruction is estimated to be several hundred billion dollars. Adding to the country’s chaos is that it is not controlled by one regime. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has not reclaimed control over the entire country, and rival states like Saudi Arabia and the United States could back rebel groups to prevent Assad from regaining full control over the country. It is thus unclear who would lead the effort to rebuild Syria and whether vulnerable regions would be protected from resurgences of ISIS.
Iraq faces similar instability. Over two million Iraqis are internally displaced and millions more need humanitarian aid. Reconstruction is also estimated to be very expensive. Some Sunni Muslims in the country claim that they are abused by Shi’a militias, who, in turn, state that many Sunnis were accomplices of ISIS, as many of ISIS’s initial adherents were members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, which oppressed Iraq’s Shi’a community. In both countries, many people whose lives have been uprooted by the conflict feel resentment toward both ISIS and the United States and its allied forces because they blame them both for the destruction.
The instability left in ISIS’s wake could allow the group to regain a foothold in the region. Some experts believe that ISIS’s plan is to wait and slowly rebuild its infrastructure in its former territory while conducting terrorist attacks that continue to inspire its followers. While the region remains fraught with chaos and desperation, ISIS can continue to inspire with promises of power and martyrship to its members. In fact, the same kinds of conditions present in the region today were present when ISIS began to rise.
Given these circumstances, a resounding defeat of ISIS is probably impossible. Opposition efforts will need to prevent the group from rising again in Iraq and Syria while also squashing it wherever in the world it pops up next. Anti-ISIS efforts would also need to dismantle the group’s extensive network of online propaganda. Due to the enormity of these tasks, it is unlikely ISIS will ever completely vanish. Keeping the territory that once belonged to ISIS relatively stable, however, is one way to weaken the group. For example, in February, President Trump reversed his decision to pull all US troops out of Syria and announced that four hundred would stay. This foothold gives the United States more ability to eradicate what is left of ISIS and supports the Kurdish forces that led the attack against ISIS.
The path is less clear in regards to ISIS offshoots in the rest of the world. There is not much that the United States can directly do, for example, about an ISIS branch in the Philippines, especially since the branch has only directed attacks inside the Philippines. Taking down the group’s online network would prove even more challenging. While many social media sites have cracked down on ISIS with success, the group is still adept at finding and targeting groups vulnerable to extremism. It was through these online efforts that ISIS was able to build bases in the Philippines and in other areas outside Iraq and Syria.
ISIS is certainly weaker than it was at its peak a few years ago. But it would be a mistake to claim that the group is or ever could be completely eradicated. As long as its ideology, which provides power and a higher calling to individuals without a strong sense of purpose, appeals to people around the world, ISIS will survive. Addressing the instability and despair that lead people to join ISIS—a difficult task—is perhaps the surest way to destroy the group. However, until this can be done, ISIS will keep popping up throughout the world.
Meghan Ward is a staff writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. The license can be found here. The image has not been modified and the author is unknown.