The ambitious agenda of ISIS, or so-called “Islamic State,” to establish a caliphate, namely a pan-Islamic state in the Middle East and beyond, has failed. As we have noted in previous analysis, ISIS’ actions in the Middle East, and especially the threat they represented for the regional state system and to global security as well, provoked a broad coalition that sent the ISIS vision for a caliphate to the dustbin of history.
The liberation of Mosul from the yoke of the jihadists in Iraq, the financial capital of Islamic State, in July 2017 and the fall of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS in Syria, in October of the same year marked the end of the caliphate.
However, that does not mean the organization has disappeared. On the contrary, it is operationally ready to continue with its lethal agenda against its enemies, the West and generally against those it considers as infidels.
Numerous terrorist attacks linked to ISIS have occurred this year, in Russia, France and Belgium with several deaths, and of course in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) with dozens of casualties. Moreover, ISIS issued threats against the World Cup in Russia several times.
In other words, ISIS is continuing its terrorist actions and is spreading its message in an effort to proselytize every would-be terrorist. The fact that it has been defeated militarily does not mean that it will not continue pursuing its obnoxious goals.
Shift from state-building to insurgency
ISIS’ military defeat forces the terrorist organization to redefine its strategic objectives. It has to shift from the goal of state-building to its survival as a terrorist organization with enhanced insurgency capabilities.
There are about 10,000 jihadists in Iraq and Syria being pounded by Russia, by the international coalition under the US, and by regional and local actors as well. As we know from strategic theory, asymmetry of means and goals leads to failure. Whereas terrorism was one of the means for capturing land, now terrorism remains the main strategic goal that promotes the extreme ideology of ISIS.
There are many young men who are jobless and distressed who can be easily exploited by ISIS and its propaganda. In addition, so-called lone wolves can be easily influenced by ISIS’ extreme ideology to commit terrorist acts.
The organization’s new strategy is reflected in its call to increase attacks in Europe and elsewhere, especially in crowded areas. Therefore the attention of the international community and especially of the police and secret agencies worldwide should focus on this.
Internet at the service of terrorists
Technology continues to serve ISIS’ goals. According to some reports, there are 200,000 websites with alleged links to ISIS. Despite a pan-European operation targeting and damaging many of ISIS’ Internet tools, its ability to spread its message and radicalize young people is has not been destroyed. Regardless of its formidable losses and strategic shrinkage in the areas formerly under its control, “Islamic State” is stepping up an online propaganda war.
While Amaq, ISIS’ main online portal, was closed for one day in late April, the next day it was operational again through another server. This displays the difficulties that authorities and counter terrorism services face in totally crushing ISIS’ propaganda tools.
The jihadists easily adapt their strategy and they use various methods such as Telegram for their propaganda and for their terrorist attacks. The Telegram app has been used in many terrorist attacks because is more secure for communications between ISIS and its recruits for potential terrorist attacks. This happens because the app prevents anyone except the sender and the receiver from accessing the message, and has an option for self-destructing messages as well.
Moreover, despite the attacks against ISIS by international security and police services, its propaganda is still online and one can easily find on the Internet videos containing advice on vehicle and knife attacks.
Therefore it would be wrong to assume that global jihad is on the wane. On the contrary, ISIS’ remarkable course in the Middle East as a non-state actor with semi-state characteristics helped jihadists win a worldwide reputation, something that absolutely serves their ends.
Beyond doubt ISIS has been eclipsed as a political entity in the Middle East. It has lost 98% of its land. Yes, we can declare the death of ISIS’ caliphate. However, we cannot do the same for jihadi terrorism.