Islamic State (ISIS) is similar to cockroaches, that would repeatedly return – with the same capacity of causing destruction – or it may even gain further strength, with its new ally – the rogue Iranian regime. According to counterterrorism experts, the loss of the new caliphate in 2019 has done little to damage the highly sophisticated social media-driven propaganda campaign of the Islamic State, with its celebration of extreme violence against unbelievers, and its alluring promise of eternal salvation for martyrs. The dream of re-establishing that caliphate remains strong in the hearts of the believers, while the fecklessness of the government in Iraq, and its failure to address the grievances of Sunni Muslims, who constitute about 20 percent of its population, only lend credence to predictions that ISIS will rise again in the very heart of the Middle East.
According to 2020 UN report, Syrian Democratic Forces in the region have been unable “to maintain adequate control over a restive population of detained ISIL fighters, as well as family members, numbering more than 100,000.”
Most of the captured family members remain at the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria near the Iraq border, where they live in appalling squalor with inadequate food and sanitation—a recipe for despair and radicalization of the young adult males. Idlib Province in Syria, the site of the last caliphate stronghold, remains dominated by ISIS fighters and those friendly to them. Anbar Province of Iraq, near the Syrian border, also remains a hotbed of ISIS activity, according to the report.
The UN report is bad news, of course, but to serious students of the War on Terror, it is hardly surprising. Way back in December 2017, as ISIS’s last toehold in Iraq fell, President Trump declared that ISIS had been “100 percent defeated.” The statement was one in a long line of naïve and wildly over-optimistic pronouncements by American war leaders engaged in counterinsurgencies, including, most famously, George W. Bush’s May 1, 2003 triumphal declaration aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” and General William Westmoreland’s claim that he “had the enemy on the ropes” in Vietnam, two months before the Tet Offensive of January 1968 forced Washington to admit it couldn’t win in Southeast Asia by force of arms.
In Vietnam, American soldiers and Marines often had the demoralizing experience of engaging Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regiments and divisions their superiors had declared vanquished or destroyed. Like corks floating in the ocean surf, these phoenix-like fighting organizations would reappear again and again after being “defeated.”
So, it is in the Global War on Terror, where America’s adversaries, ISIS included, have an inconvenient habit of resurrecting themselves from defeat. Not long after the Taliban and al Qaeda had been routed in Afghanistan, both organizations resurfaced with a vengeance. Today, the Taliban is a much more powerful organization than it was before the United States launched its October 2001 unconventional assault with the help of the Northern Alliance. Indeed, most experts on the War in Afghanistan believe the Taliban has a very good chance of reestablishing control over vast swaths of that nation’s countryside as soon as American forces depart.
Under the leadership of an uneducated Jordanian thug named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) became the dominant force in the hydra-headed insurgency against the Americans in Iraq by 2005. By late 2007, Zarqawi’s organization had been severely degraded by a bold new American counterinsurgency strategy, a surge in U.S. combat power, and an alliance with the militias of a group of Sunni tribal sheikhs who had become disillusioned with AQI’s shockingly violent tactics.
Taken together, these developments resulted in a considerable diminution of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Anbar Province and in Baghdad, and they broke al Qaeda’s hold over a number of other insurgent groups. Civilian casualties dropped off markedly.
Military analysts praised the surge and the Americans’ new counterinsurgency strategy effusively, seeing it as a major turning point in the conflict that might well bring order and security to the entire country.
Sadly, the success of that strategy proved to be fleeting. Once U.S. combat troops left, writes defense analyst Carter Malkasian, the sheikhs “were too divided and isolated to mount an effective resistance” against a resurgent ISIS, and “almost everything the United States fought for between 2003 and 2007 was lost.”
The new American strategy tamped down the violence, but did little to enhance the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces, or the legitimacy of the government in Baghdad in the eyes of its own people, especially the disenfranchised Sunni minority. That government remains deeply corrupt, faction-ridden, and criminally unresponsive to its citizens, even today. Back in 2008 historian Thomas Powers called Iraq “a seething cockpit of warring religions, political movements, social classes and ethnic groups, many influenced by Iran.” And so it remains today.
The loss of the new caliphate in 2019 has done little to damage the highly sophisticated social media-driven propaganda campaign of the Islamic State, with its celebration of extreme violence against unbelievers, and its alluring promise of eternal salvation for martyrs. The dream of re-establishing that caliphate remains strong in the hearts of the believers, while the fecklessness of the government in Iraq, and its failure to address the grievances of Sunni Muslims, who constitute about 20 percent of its population, only lend credence to predictions that ISIS will rise again in the very heart of the Middle East.