THE self-proclaimed caliphate of Islamic State (IS) is weakening fast. In June the jihadists were kicked out of Fallujah by the Iraqi army, then pounded by air strikes as they fled. American-backed rebels in Syria have surrounded the group’s fighters in the northern city of Manbij and are eyeing Raqqa, its de facto capital. In total, IS is now thought to have lost half of the land it seized in Iraq and 20% of its territory in Syria. It is on the verge of losing its main stronghold in Libya, too.
The biggest fights are still to come: for Raqqa and Mosul, in northern Iraq, the two biggest cities under IS control. IS fighters are expected to defend them ferociously. More than just land is at stake. Apart from its savagery, IS has distinguished itself from other jihadist groups—and indeed, surpassed the likes of al-Qaeda—by capturing territory and governing it. As it loses that land, and any chance of building an Islamic Utopia, its appeal to disaffected Muslims may dwindle. So the group is adapting.
In many ways IS is becoming more like a conventional, stateless, terrorist organisation. In an abrupt and remarkable shift, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, said in May that IS does not fight for territory. It would defend Raqqa and Mosul, of course, but it is also preparing to revert to guerrilla tactics. And Mr Adnani repeated an appeal for followers to hit the group’s enemies abroad. “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would [do] if you were with us,” he said.
Several individuals and groups have responded to his call. Attacks in places such as Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Jeddah have killed hundreds in the past month. Some were directed by IS; others were merely inspired by it. All have distracted attention from the group’s failures in Iraq and Syria, leading some to predict that the attacks will increase. “The next 12 months most likely will be bloodier than the past 12 months,” says Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics.
The group’s strategy is not as reactionary as it may seem. IS has been dispatching volunteers to the West for years. Recent attacks in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul were the work of mature networks. The American-led coalition has put pressure on the group’s finances and diminished its capacity to plot and train, but IS can still sow terror, says John Brennan, the director of the CIA. “The group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly.”
Many analysts think that a completely stateless IS would lose most of its appeal. Its setbacks seem already to have had an effect. In February an American intelligence report attributed a big fall in the number of IS fighters to casualties—and desertions. But Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, believes the loss of territory may motivate supporters. He points to the group’s experience in Iraq in the late 2000s, when it appeared defeated. “That was the moment when a lot of jihadists began to take up its flag,” he says.
Back then IS was affiliated with al-Qaeda. But the groups fell out in 2014—even al-Qaeda thought IS too extreme. They are now fighting each other in Syria, and competing for recruits and affiliates. The results may demonstrate the appeal of IS. Take Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group, which had links to al-Qaeda before declaring its allegiance to IS in March 2015. Now analysts think it may switch sides again. “Moving forward, al-Qaeda is a much stronger brand in almost every region,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, an American think-tank.
Within the next year or so IS is likely to be pushed out of Raqqa and Mosul. As the pressure mounts, “we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda,” says Mr Brennan. But it is unlikely to give up its goal of a caliphate, not least because the conditions that allowed IS to form in the first place have not changed much. Divisive and ineffective governments still rule in Syria and Iraq. Who will keep IS from returning to its lost cities?(Source: The Economist)