October 31, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Durability of a Stateless Islamic State
Despite encountering pockets of resistance, the military campaign to drive the so-called Islamic State out of Mosul and surrounding areas is proceeding well. Amid reports of mass hostage taking, the use of human shields, extensive tunnel networks and a surge of suicide bombings, the Mosul campaign is far more complex and dangerous than any previous anti-Islamic State effort in Iraq. The campaign will undoubtedly experience setbacks, but it will likely end with the Islamic State ejected from power in Iraq’s second largest city. While retaking Mosul from the group would be an extraordinary victory, such a success would not render the Islamic State powerless by any measure.
With the loss of Mosul and eventually Raqqa—a campaign that rivals Mosul in terms of ethnic and regional complexities—the Islamic State will soon be ‘stateless’ in terms of holding and governing population centers. Indeed, it was the capture of Mosul in June 2014 that led to the group’s announcement that it had reconstituted the caliphate. While there is hope that the loss of Mosul will translate into the loss of the self-proclaimed caliphate, the group’s messaging over the past year suggests otherwise.
The group has been laying the groundwork to outlast its territorial defeats, framing such losses as temporary setbacks in Iraq and Syria and arguing that the Islamic State is a state of mind as much as it is a governing state. For the group’s supporters, this message is easier to embrace the further away they are from the military losses in Iraq and Syria. In Mosul, the Islamic State as a governing, territorial entity is crumbling—though not without a fight. Yet in the minds of supporters in the U.S., EU, North Africa, and elsewhere, the appeal of the Islamic State has not dissipated with its territorial losses. For some, the group remains a powerful magnet that attracts violence and a sense of belonging. This dynamic is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, even as the physical state of the Islamic State continues to dissolve.
The disconnect between the Islamic State’s reality on the ground and its external messaging was highlighted on October 25, when two Americans were arrested by Tunisian authorities on Islamic State-related charges. There is no generalizable profile of the group’s external supporters, but many reject some aspect of their current reality and seek to find another reality within the group’s orbit. While the Islamic State’s territorial defeats have naturally cut down on attempts to travel to join the group in Iraq and Syria, these defeats have had less impact on the motivations of those attracted to the group’s message. The Islamic State’s supporters far from the battlefield may not be disillusioned by the group’s setbacks, but rather motivated by the sense of persecution that drives much of the group’s message and appeal. Thus, it remains possible that the group’s losses in Mosul and elsewhere could lead to an increase in external support, and a corresponding increase in the threat of terrorism around the world.
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