January 6, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Confounding Resilience of the Islamic State
2015 was a year of territorial losses for the so-called Islamic State. Yet while the group’s holdings in Syria and Iraq contracted, its overall reach expanded from Paris to San Bernardino and beyond. This will likely be the case again in 2016, as the group surrenders more land and gains more ardent supporters far from its self-proclaimed caliphate. These discrepant trajectories frame two key questions for counterterrorism and law enforcement officials: when will the Islamic State’s losses result in noticeable decreases among the group’s many online supporters? Will these territorial setbacks reduce the threat posed by lone wolves and ‘wolf packs’ responding to the group’s call to terror?
To better understand these key questions, the Islamic State should be thought of as two distinct yet connected entities. The first is the terrorist organization holding parts of Iraq and Syria, and millions of people, under its control. It is this entity—the one that needs to hold physical territory—that is under sustained and increasing pressure. This group has benefited from weak states and weaker alternatives. However, the Islamic State's opponents are growing stronger while it grows weaker. As it surrenders more control, the group will revert from a proto-state back to an insurgency and then to a terrorist organization. It is not going to disappear, but will be forced into hiding—an anathematic prospect to its current construct.
It is the second entity that worries Western governments most: the widely dispersed online following of the Islamic State’s ideology of bin Ladinism. A large but unknowable percentage of these followers will remain supporters in name only, finding a sense of unhealthy belonging and empowerment among the online presence of like-minded and disaffected people. A smaller but equally unknowable percentage will act out and try to kill in the group’s name. The Islamic State has tens of thousands of social media supporters who trumpet its successes and ignore or spin its losses. As these losses pile up, the key question is how these supporters will react. National security and local law enforcement officials hope that increased and dramatic territorial losses will result in an equally dramatic loss of enthusiasm for the group on social media, and that this will lower the threat of attacks. However, the Islamic State—as well as al-Qaeda and other groups of their ilk—incorporate defeat into their narratives as effectively as they do success.
There will likely be a prolonged lag time between territorial losses and a reduction in support, if one is to occur. Success on the ground in Raqqa and Mosul is of vital importance, but could lead to a medium-term increase in random attacks like those in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, and elsewhere. Additionally, would-be foreign fighters need a physical destination; taking Raqqa and Mosul off the table leaves potential fighters without a central transit location.
It is also unclear how the territorial defeat of the Islamic State will impact the extremist social media phenomenon in the long term. Al-Qaeda may have lacked the Islamic State’s online presence, but it has weathered 15 years of pressure quite well, and still attracts a passionate following online—some of whom go on to conduct attacks. The bifurcated nature of the Islamic State—indeed, of the whole global jihadist movement—means that defeat in one realm might not precede defeat in another. Militarily removing the Islamic State from its position of power in Iraq, Syria—and now perhaps Libya—is a categorical imperative. How military success against the Islamic State will translate on social media is a question that governments and societies far from the physical battlefield will contend with for years.
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