July 15, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Two Fates of the Islamic State

• With the onset of the Iraqi offensive to retake Anbar province, and the reported deaths of two senior commanders in Syria, the Islamic State group is facing intense pressure on the ground this summer

• As an ideology and a movement, however, the group is thriving; recent arrests of its supporters across the globe demonstrate the breadth of its appeal

• Even if the Islamic State eventually loses its physical territory, which is not a near-term prospect, its external influence will remain, as the group’s violent message has attracted countless international followers

• The amorphous nature of the group’s social media support ensures that defeat in one arena does not correlate closely to defeat in others.


On the ground in Syria and Iraq, the long-term trend lines are shifting noticeably against the Islamic State. The terrorist organization is finally beginning to feel fear and pain like that which it has inflicted on so many others. The onset of the Iraqi government's offensive in Anbar province, which has been announced before to little effect, is yet another sign of the noose tightening around the group in Iraq and Syria. This time, however, the offensive appears more substantial than a mere press release. In Syria, two senior commanders who played a large role in the group’s Syrian operations were reportedly killed in a U.S. airstrike. The deaths of Abu Osama al-Iraqi and Amer al-Rafdan are serious blows to the group, whose fortunes in Syria have been on a steep decline since the seizure of Palmyra in May.

Despite being squeezed in Iraq and Syria, the group still has a lethal presence in both countries. When under threat, the Islamic State has in the past gone on the offensive, as a way of balancing its losses in one area by gaining territory in another. But this time the trend lines are uniformly against the group. It might indeed attempt a high-profile offensive, and it might even temporarily succeed. But increasingly the on-the-ground reality in Iraq and Syria favors the opponents of the Islamic State—a far cry from last year when the group faced no serious opposition. Unfortunately, the conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State—such as poor governance, sectarian hatred and a ripped social fabric—will still exist even when the group is pushed out of its strongholds.

While the on-the-ground fate of the organization in Iraq and Syria looks relatively negative, its fate as a global ideology has an extremely positive outlook. Just this week, Islamic State supporters and plotters were arrested in Boston, Malaysia, and Germany. The group's message has gone viral and there is little chance of putting the genie back in the bottle. One of the problems is that the group’s actual standing in Iraq and Syria has less and less impact on its global influence. This bifurcation presents unique challenges for governments that had hoped the diminishment of the physical group would lead to a diminishment of its ideological appeal.

The danger is if the message outlives the messenger. The so-called caliphate, for many in the region, represents an alternative to current nation-states, many of which are run so poorly as to explain, if not excuse, the group’s appeal. This makes sense to a degree in Iraq and Syria—both countries undergoing immense suffering and trauma. Yet the group’s pool of supporters also come from some of the best-run countries in Europe and Asia, as well as North America, contradicting the idea that the group’s allure is primarily driven by poor governance. Unfortunately for the efforts to counter the group’s appeal, the reasons why people are drawn to the Islamic State are as individual as the people supporting it. That means programs that seek to counter the group’s message would be better served attending to the differing motivations of those vulnerable to recruitment, rather than providing a counter narrative that seeks to be a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Islamic State has two fates that exist in parallel, drawing from one another but not co-dependent. Before the Islamic State launched its ubiquitous social media campaigns, there had never been a group that could survive its own demise. It is important to dismantle the proto-state that the terrorist organization has created in Iraq and Syria, but that will not solve the larger problem. To begin with, the conditions in both countries are ripe for extremism. Even if the group is pushed out of its strongholds, it is not actually going anywhere. Furthermore, its appeal has escaped the borders once assumed to contain it. Defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a necessary step, but it is not the same as defeating its ideology. The two fates are not intertwined.


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