Is ISIS done for?

Its leader was killed in a US raid - but ISIS still has the ingredients to stage a comeback

The Trump administration has heralded the operation as an unqualified success, stating that not only was Baghdadi eliminated, but his expected successor was also killed in a subsequent operation that took place shortly after
The Trump administration has heralded the operation as an unqualified success, stating that not only was Baghdadi eliminated, but his expected successor was also killed in a subsequent operation that took place shortly after

Last Saturday, the United States undertook an operation in northwestern Syria that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The operation was a success from a military perspective: the target was taken out, and there were no US casualties. Eight helicopters flew in the American special forces - likely Navy SEALs or US Army Delta Force operators, who quickly took control of the area surrounding Baghdadi’s compound and caused the militant leader to flee to a tunnel in which he detonated a suicide vest - killing himself and three of his children.  

The Trump administration has heralded the operation as an unqualified success, stating that not only was Baghdadi eliminated, but his expected successor was also killed in a subsequent operation that took place shortly after. The operation was remarkable for several reasons, not least because it required close cooperation with various countries, not least Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iraq, who were all advised of the US raid prior to it taking place. US forces flew over Russian-controlled airspace with the Kremlin’s permission. This is a clear example that despite frosty relationships between the US on the one hand, and Russia and Syria on the other, they can still work together on areas of shared interest. 

Many commentators in the US have been quick to say that Baghdadi’s death marks the end of the ISIS threat. This could not be farther from the truth, for several reasons. When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, Al Qaeda was dealt a severe blow, and in truth never recovered to the heights that it had reached in the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks. His son and heir, Hamza bin Laden, was killed in another US operation just last month, depriving al Qaeda of a leader who was seen to be more charismatic than Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama’s former second in command and current AQ leader, and largely seen as less effective than his boss had been. If one uses the AQ example, it is reasonable to state that ISIS is likely to die a natural death also.  

There is a problem with that assertion. ISIS and AQ split some years ago during the war in Iraq, for various reasons. But one of them was that ISIS sought to have a physical caliphate in Iraq, governing territory and starting a new Islamic empire, whilst AQ was focused on building a broader, organic revolution that would lead to uprisings throughout the Muslim world. ISIS was successful in building a state which spanned from Iraq into Syria, capturing large cities like Raqqa and Mosul in the process - but the majority of their territory was desert, making it somewhat easier to capture large swathes of territory as opposed to the fierce urban combat they would have had to otherwise endure.  

ISIS managed to drain resources and recruit from al Qaeda due to their battlefield successes. The other side of the coin, however, was that due to their physical occupation of defined geographical territory, they made for easy pickings for Western air forces. It was only a matter of time before their hold over their empire weakened, which eventually led to their ouster.  

Which leads us to today. ISIS no longer controls any territory in Iraq or Syria. But in 2015, a Reuters report stated that some 90% of their fighters in Iraq were Iraqi, and 70% in Syria were Syrian. They had 40,000 fighters from across the two countries. There are now more than 10,000 ISIS prisoners in Syria alone, some of whom have escaped since the US pulled its troops out recently and left the Syrian Kurds to their own devices. These numbers indicate that ISIS membership is homegrown, and largely a result of discontent with their governments.

With the security situation in Syria deteriorating and the Iraqi security forces being accused of mass purges of suspected former ISIS members and their families, ISIS can once again begin to fill the vacuum left by the US forces in the months and years to come. This is not to say that it will be done in a coordinated manner as it had been in years past. But if one disparate group of ISIS supporters captures a single town or village, it can lead to a domino effect, due in part to the psychological implications on their enemies of having to face another ISIS onslaught, even if the threat is far smaller than it had been previously.  

Some might argue that with so many outside actors involved, particularly in Syria, it is unlikely that ISIS could gain traction to the degree they had before. That sounds both reasonable and logical. However, ISIS may well take root again in Sunni-dominated areas in Iraq, which has provided fighters to both AQ & ISIS in the past, and spread across those areas into Syria, by which time they would be a formidable force. This is very much hypothetical, but still within the realm of possibility. 

The US operation against the ISIS leader has decapitated the militant organisation, at least for the time being. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this means ISIS is done for. It is not. The only way they can come back is if there is a power vacuum or due to the weakening of forces that oppose them. Stability is never a given in this region, and the US, Russian, Turkish and other forces will need to be vigilant over the medium-term to ensure that it does not pop up again. ISIS are down,  but not out - not by any stretch of the imagination. 

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