In its peak days, Islamic State (IS) controlled two-thirds of Iraq and one-third of Syria. It had an annual turnover of $2 billion. Three years of military measures by Iraqi and Syrian armies, indigenous opposition groups and multilateral international support resulted in decapitating the outfit to a great extent. Consequently, the group lost more than 98 per cent of the territory which it once controlled, and its revenue shrunk to $300 million.
Following significant territorial and economic losses, IS in Iraq and Syria now persists in the form of pockets across the two countries. However, the outfit remains a true global insurgency capable of conducting terrorist attacks through its regional affiliates which are present in over a dozen countries. Experts and analysts have been deliberating about the future of IS. However, they remain unanimous about the fact that the militant group cannot cease to exist by severe territorial and economic losses, and countermeasures against the outfit will not decisively destroy it if the root causes which boosted the capabilities of IS remain unaddressed.
With about 10,000 fighters still intact, the group has the potential to launch a new insurgency in the region. Military action in Iraq and Syria continues to root out cells of IS, which will continue to exist in future.
Generally, experts predict a number of future scenarios about the future of IS which are as follows:
- Displaced foreign fighters could enhance the numerical strength of other terrorist and insurgent groups.
- Former IS members could either form splinter groups or IS 2.0.
- Creating an altogether new organization in unstable states by exploiting grievances of local populace.
- Evolution of IS into a virtual organization.
Paul Staniland, who studied 15 South Asia based insurgent outfits, predicted the following three potential trajectories for IS which are as follows:
- Scenario 1 – Total annihilation of IS
- Scenario 2 – Retaining control of substantial territory and launching guerilla and terror operations in the areas which it lost.
- Scenario 3 – Return to guerrilla warfare
Despite future projections about IS, the factors that contributed to the emergence of the outfit continue to loom. Nearly 80 per cent Iraqis believe that their country is headed in the wrong direction. Since March, there has been considerable decline about the confidence among Iraqis regarding their national government. Similarly, there has been decline among Sunnis with respect to associating themselves as Iraqis.
In spite of losing more than 98 per cent of the territory which it once controlled, IS still possess a swathe of land from where the possibility of conducting complex attack remains thin. Currently, the terror outfit has switched from governing mode to insurgency mode by going underground and waiting for the right opportunity to re-emerge. With about 10,000 fighters still intact, the group has the potential to launch a new insurgency in the region. Military action in Iraq and Syria continues to root out cells of IS, which will continue to exist in future. Moreover, IS franchises in Africa and Asia possess the capability to launch terrorist attacks of significant nature.
The overly emphasized military and security approaches will not help defeat the group in its entirety. Terrorism experts proposed a number of strategies which can help in countering IS. These strategies can be generally divided into three plans of action:
Adopting comprehensive measures to win the trust of local Sunni population for reaching a political settlement. In addition, IS needs to be defeated militarily by building domestic capabilities. This plan of action is more possible to materialize in Iraq than Syria.
In this plan of action, there is a need to double military efforts along with a sustainable coalition of local allies in Iraq and Syria. However, this plan will neither curtail the ideological appeal of the group nor weaken the insurgency. The situation is further compounded by lack of domestic capabilities and strong allies.
The containment strategy rejects any new occupation by sending troops to the region, which may trigger the same resistance which was witnessed following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, this strategy also does not have an ideological framework to counter and prevent the reemergence of IS in future.
Amidst the troubling future projections about IS, the focus should remain to erode the environment which encourages the militant group to make a comeback. The approach should be to address socio-economic grievances through good governance, promote a culture of sectarian harmony with actions, limited and highly specific goal-oriented military engagement against the outfit.
Ensuring ideological defeat of IS requires a long-term roadmap which addresses the root causes which motivate individuals to get radicalized and join groups like IS. The narrative used by IS to recruit fighters can be countered by a stronger and more effective counter messaging initiative.
Similarly, a number of steps need to be taken to avert the emergence of IS-like terror outfits in Iraq and Syria. These steps include combating corruption, adopting a reconciliation strategy, introducing political reforms, reconstituting state institutions, overhauling the armed forces and security services.
However, the main challenge continues to remain the ideology which drives individuals towards IS. The materialization of ideological defeat can take up to several decades of sustained efforts to tackle the root causes of radical ideas and beliefs. Ensuring ideological defeat of IS requires a long-term roadmap which addresses the root causes which motivate individuals to get radicalized and join groups like IS. The narrative used by IS to recruit fighters can be countered by a stronger and more effective counter messaging initiative.
A rehabilitation and reintegration program tailed to local context should be formulated. The program should adopt a multi-agency approach by involving social workers, teachers, psychologists and religious scholars to provide early intervention support to individuals or groups who are exposed to radicalization. The program should isolate ‘instigators’ from ‘perpetrators’ because it is nearly impossible to mainstream the instigators who do not entertain any alternative view.
Constituting the major portion of any outfit, the ‘perpetrators’ lot is motivated by a number of factors like marginalization, social injustice, unemployment and low self-esteem. These people can be brought into the mainstream by offering them economic opportunities and helping them in every way possible so that they do not become vulnerable to radicalization. Successful case studies from Denmark and Algeria should be studied and formulated in accordance with local context of Iraq and Syria for mainstreaming of perpetrators.
Without envisioning the ideological defeat of IS, any action plan against the outfit will remain futile and in the opinion of Peter Krause ‘..will result in a long and frustrating period of tactical victories and strategic defeats’. Therefore, the future of IS depends more on the action plan formulated by local, regional and international authorities than the leadership of the terror group itself.
Fahad Nabeel is currently pursuing M.Phil in International Relations from National Defence University. He has graduated in Journalism and Mass Communication from the Virtual University of Pakistan. Fahad has considerably researched on regional geo-political issues and militancy trends. Currently, he is working as a Senior Research Associate at CSCR.