By Nelly Lahoud, Senior Fellow for Political Islamism
It is reasonable to ask whether the Islamic State can survive as a non-territorial entity. The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has distinguished itself from other jihadi factions by virtue of its success in capturing and governing territory. ISIS claimed that its territorial strength (tamkin) showed it to be the legitimate Islamic state, promised by God in the Qur’an (24:55).
Indeed, in April 2014, two months before the proclamation of the caliphate, its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was so sure of the group’s destiny that he implored God that, if the group turned out not to be the promised Islamic state, he should defeat the group and kill its leaders.1 In Islamic parlance, Adnani’s challenge amounted to a mubahala, a public supplication echoing Qur’an (3:61). God’s verdict is meant to be demonstrated through deeds; in this case, ISIS’s success would attest to its legitimacy and its failure to illegitimacy.
If divine governance is at play, for about a year after Adnani’s mubahala, God’s signs appeared favourable to ISIS as the group continued to capture large cities in Iraq and Syria. For the past two years, however, God’s signs have seemed different. Judged through a religious lens, either ISIS supporters have deviated from the right path, or ISIS was not the state that God promised.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi thinks differently. In his last public statement, released in September 2017, Baghdadi told his supporters that the group’s current tribulations are but a blessing, stressing that ‘patience and steadfastness’ are the sure path to victory.2 Fearing for the morale of ISIS fighters in Raqqa, he assured them that their steadfastness is causing such fear among the ‘infidel nations’ that the United States, Iran, Russia and Turkey have put aside their differences and joined forces to defeat the Islamic State. Baghdadi’s assurances, however, did not prevent the loss of his group’s hold on Raqqa.
Will ISIS be able to have its cake and eat it? Can one convincingly argue that both winning and losing territories amounts to victory? ISIS supporters may claim moral victory, and pray that the tribulations they are encountering in this world are well compensated in the one hereafter. However, the group’s momentum in recruitment has significantly decreased; it is not surprising that, in terms of attracting supporters and fighters, ISIS’s recent losing streak is no match for its previous winnings.
For the counter-terrorism policymakers and practitioners, however, defeating groups that call themselves jihadis, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, is not a simple formula. These groups were never likely to ‘win’ in the first place. The ideological underpinning of jihadism does not lend itself to pragmatism and consensus-building, nor is it even disposed to non-violent disagreement.
Why, then, do groups that are destined to lose pose such a threat to global security? For one thing, the history of jihadi groups has been marred by internal violent discord, and offshoots prove their credentials by being more violent than their parent group. Indeed, it was through internal discord that ISIS evolved from al-Qaeda. Jihadi failure, in this sense, begets additional security threats.
It did not take long for al-Qaeda in Iraq, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed in 2006) and his successors, to be dubbed ‘al-Qaeda 2.0’. So too are analysts now resorting to similar terminology – ISIS 2.0, or 3.0 – to refer to Islamic State as a post-territorial entity. Version 1.0 was no winner. Versions 2.0 and 3.0 are a natural progression, and they are, by necessity, more radical – for it is only through greater and more innovative violence that the offspring groups will eclipse their parent. Thus, the jihadis’ challenge to the global community is not their ability to defeat their enemies; instead, ironically, their failure and accompanying propensity to fracture represents a serious short-term security threat.
The jihadi landscape today is rife with existing and potential rivalries. ISIS’s failure to conclusively defeat al-Qaeda, combined with its territorial losses, allows for a more even competition between the two groups. Perhaps more intriguing is the competition that might emerge between (and among) what ISIS has designated as ‘provinces’ (wilayat) and as ‘soldiers of the caliphate’. It is worth noting that in his last two public statements, Baghdadi took pains to stress that those who cannot ‘perform the hijra [emigration] to the territories of Iraq and the Levant’ should head to the wilayat ‘so that they may establish one of the abodes of Islam’.
If the provinces are the caliphate’s hope of a future, a rivalry among the groups that are officially in ISIS’s orbit may emerge. It is not clear why ISIS bestowed the title of province on some groups (including those operating in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bahrain), while referring to others as soldiers of the caliphate (including Somalia, Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Bangladesh). The different titles may spur a form of ‘outbidding’, a strategy deployed when ‘multiple organizations are engaged in a competition and use violence to increase their prestige’, as argued by the terrorism scholar Mia Bloom in her Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, a book that explains the use of suicide bombing among Palestinian groups.3
The Islamic State’s credibility in the eyes of its supporters has been undermined, and its ability to determine the course of its trajectory should not be exaggerated. But the threat emanating from groups within ISIS’s orbit and from those inspired by its brand should not be underestimated. The Islamic State after the caliphate may yet inspire more and increasing violence.
1 Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ‘Ma Kana Hadha Manhajuna, wa-lan Yakun’, April 2014.
2 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ‘Wa-Kafa bi-Rabbika Hadiyan wa-Nasira’, 28 September 2017.
3 Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 20, 27–31.