Opinions differ as to what will become of the so called Islamic State (IS) in the near and distant future, but they agree regarding the diagnosis of the current situation. Essentially, “IS is defeated” and has lost its regions of influence on the ground in Iraq and Syria. It has also lost most of its capabilities in elsewhere.
Since the declaration by the US of the group’s defeat in Syria in March 2019 and the death of its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on 27 October 2019, there have been no viable signs that IS will make a comeback or have any tangible presence on the ground. Many scenarios were presented after the group’s defeat, but none focused on how these defeats and setbacks might impact its appeal or ability to recruit.
IS’s fall was resounding, especially considering how its aspirations had begun to take shape on the ground. The question today is whether those aspirations too have fallen. Has the ambition to create an alleged Islamic state been stamped out? Is there another slogan or concept the group can use for a comeback?
The rise of IS was the culmination of several factors, including taking advantage of unstable and chaotic conditions to take root and control areas on the ground, presenting that as a point of appeal. It also relied on skillfully using technology, an advanced media machine, an abundance of funds and a central military strategy. But most importantly, it employed an ideology that utilised all of the above to serve its goals.
Even though the majority of factors leading to its rise no longer apply, IS’s primary and key component remains: ideology. Its resilience is dependent on how it will handle the repercussions of defeat and its ability to rebuild its message the tools to spread.
Many have discussed the notion of a “virtual caliphate” as an alternative to a caliphate on the ground, especially since the group is skilled at using cyberspace and encrypted apps. There is also discussion about the viability of survival, expansion and reconsideration of both. Most of these views believe expansion for the time being is not an option, and the most IS can do is hold onto its gains and try to survive in light of regional and global changes no longer allowing to expand. This means the group will survive, but will not expand for the time being.
Looking at the reason and the root of the slogan “Survival and expansion”, we find it is used at a moment of defeat, not victory. The group’s emergence and its taking control of areas on the ground in Iraq and Syria was not the goal, but the beginning. The slogan does not mean geographic expansion but rather the survival and expansion of the venture itself. The concept of a state does not mean a tangible one limited to physical borders, and therefore it would not simply vanish once influence was lost on the ground.
There is no doubt that IS has been defeated; but there is doubt about the ways in which it will overcome this defeat, the possibility and scope of finding new sources of inspiration for its followers, attracting a new wave of jihadists to join its ranks and, more importantly, holding onto its followers.
Many analyses discuss the risk of IS members returning to their home countries and forming new, random component groups, relying on digital promotion and encrypted apps until the group is able to find brick and mortar headquarters and a region for its activities. Defeating IS on the ground does not eradicate its ideological legacy, or extinguish it as a transborder organisation. This legacy will depend on the group’s image after defeat, and if it succeeds in remaining an inspiration for its supporters.
It is therefore important to focus on how IS supporters process the group’s defeat, and how this impacts IS’s future of IS. This issue requires a discussion of the “psychology of defeat” among radical religious groups in general, which became clearly evident in IS messaging after the defeat and the responses of its disciples.
At the beginning, the group and its advocates adopted a “rhetoric of denial” which dealt with news of the group’s collapse by describing it as misleading media propaganda. After reality came crashing down following Al-Baghdadi’s death, many of the group’s slogans vanished and were replaced by new ones. A different rhetoric emerged, reducing the importance of tangible control on the ground, and describing defeats as tests to expose hypocrites.
In fact, some even described defeat as a “purge” in the group’s ranks in preparation for the great victory of the future. The group claimed that the more defeat intensifies, the closer victory will be. It is difficult to address and combat these views because IS supporters reinterpret current events in a way that serves or reinforces their sense of certainty, even if the facts point to the opposite.
As has been mentioned, IS’s rise relied on a number of factors that promote the aspiration to an Islamic state, but the truth is that the appeal of IS and other terrorist organisations is mainly based on their rhetoric which offers alternatives and divides the world into good and evil, saints and sinners. Terrorist groups offer a sense of certainty to the uncertain and the lost, which is very attractive to young people in a transitional phase of their life and going through an identity crisis. These messages are not affected by defeat, and may take a more radical form and cause most supporters of the group to reformulate and restructure their ideas and beliefs, reinterpreting the facts to accommodate their perspective.
In conclusion, one cannot say that IS has the appeal it once did. Its allure has undoubtedly largely waned, but is not entirely extinguished. Its resilience and popularity remain contingent on its ability to adapt to defeat and use it to create new goals for its followers, to compel them to hold onto the group’s aspirations and ideas, and maintain their loyalty.
This means that despite the success of the tactical and military war on IS, the psychological and ideological war rages on. And now that IS is more interested in loyalty than structure, victory relies in combating the ideology.
*The writer is an expert at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly