The Islamic State (IS) terrorist group used extraordinary levels of violence in Syria, according to a report on its activities called “Brutal Administration”, in order to strike fear into the hearts of its enemies, decapitating people, detonating bombs, killing men, enslaving women and recruiting children.
It also destroyed religious shrines and historic monuments on the path to its alleged goal of establishing a “caliphate” and imposing Islamic Sharia Law in the region.
The group had enormous resources and heavy military hardware left behind by the Iraqi army when it withdrew from Mosul in northern Iraq.
After occupying many Syrian cities, most notably Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor, it took control of oil wells and grain silos and collected funds from theft, kidnapping and blackmail.
All this enabled IS to find logistical supplies for its fighters and achieve victories on many fronts between 2013 and 2015.
The rapid advance of the group had its supporters repeating its infamous slogan about a so-called state that it was “standing and expanding” after IS declared a caliphate in June 2014 led by leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on territory conquered in Syria and Iraq.
At its peak, this covered an area of 91,000 square km in 2015, diminishing to 60,000 square km in 2017.
In 2015, the group’s membership also peaked, and various estimates suggested tens of thousands of fighters of various nationalities were on the ground in Syria and Iraq, including 5,000 from the European Union and hundreds of women.
IS has been the only jihadist group that has built organisational structures similar to those of a state. It collected taxes, printed its own currency, and its budget reached hundreds of millions of dollars.
IS chose the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital after conquering it from the Al-Nusra Front and its allies in March 2013 only days after the latter had taken control of the city after the withdrawal of troops loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
At its core, however, IS was no different from any other jihadist group. These raise the banner of creating an Islamic “caliphate” on Earth and promise their fighters passage to heaven as a reward for what they view as jihad in the name of God.
But IS excelled over other groups by its use of violence and its promotion through the publication of shocking images and videos.
Thus, IS represented a shift in the scale and type of violence compared to Al-Qaeda and a development that attracted some young people who could not integrate into Western societies.
The group benefited from the mayhem following the Arab Spring, which opened a Pandora’s box of political experiments in the region. Some young people found their way into an ideological trap, pushing them to a nihilistic rebellion against reality.
The group found the alleged oppression of Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq the perfect opportunity for rapid expansion after the US created the conditions for the expansion of Shia militias in Iraq.
Some Syrians who revolted against the Al-Assad regime hoped IS would provide them with security, after suffering chaos resulting from competing armed groups and bad administration in “liberated areas”.
But it did not take long before this supportive grassroots environment was disappointed due to IS’ actions, including unparalleled limitations on personal freedom and social restrictions that were completely unacceptable.
IS’ allure weakened after the group was defeated in the Battle of Ain Al-Arab (Kobani) in February 2015, and the countdown began for the group’s demise once the International Coalition against it was formed on 23 September 2014. The US began air strikes on IS targets in Iraq on 7 August 2014 and on targets in Syria on 10 September 2014.
An advantage for IS compared to other radical Islamist groups was that it was apparently infiltrated by regional and international intelligence agencies.
There are also suspicions that some countries fighting IS sought to recruit its members to gain advantages, something which was especially apparent in Syria.
When the battle for and in Syria was at its peak, IS benefited from the contradictory interests of the intervening countries to take control of key positions in Syria.
IS columns roamed the desert for hundreds of km without resistance amid supposed enemies on the ground and in the skies. It conquered Palmyra, for example, and there were many US stealth operations in Hasaka and Deir Al-Zor where IS leaders were captured and taken to unknown locations.
There have been reports that the US received dozens of tons of IS gold and confiscated an unknown number of the group’s documents.
Meanwhile, Iran through its relations with Al-Qaeda members who crossed its territories recruited some of them, with others ending up in IS ranks. Many IS members travelled back and forth through Turkish airports, and the Turkish opposition even claims that Ankara turned a blind eye to their actions.
The Turkish authorities have vehemently denied cooperating with IS, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained in 2015 that Turkey “was the target of unfair media” reports.
In military terms, IS is now all but pulverised, but this does not mean the group’s demise. It has disintegrated into smaller cells that could fight as guerilla gangs in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, and there are also sleeper cells that could be awakened at any moment and carry out terrorist attacks.
The current manner of dealing with the group is killing its members or arresting and prosecuting them amid disputes over the manner in which this should be done. Some countries are evading their responsibilities, such as the European countries refusing to take back their nationals who were members of IS.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) cannot hold onto thousands of IS fighters for long, and there is a concern, especially after the US repositioned itself in Syria, that they will escape and be smuggled to unstable areas. Since the SDF does not have the legitimacy to prosecute them, Iraq is the most likely candidate.
Lessons learned from imprisoning extremists is that prisons are often incubators for radical ideology and finding new ways for organising in preparation for more attacks.
The extremism represented by IS is only the tip of the iceberg, and it hides a mass of unresolved problems and is the result of the stagnation enveloping some Arab societies.
Confronting this extremism through military means avoids dealing with the problems underneath. Where there is chaos, instability, marginalisation, poverty and backwardness, extremism finds a way, taking on shifting shapes depending on local conditions.
This means that IS could now take on a latent state, as long as international disputes continue and the issues underlying extremism remain unresolved.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The end of Islamic State?