Several people have asked me lately whether I thought the Islamic State will become a "virtual caliphate" now that it has lost most of the terrain it once held, including the strategic cities of Mosul and Raqqa. At the same time, I've talked with people who claim that the Islamic State has been destroyed. Both viewpoints have some truth to them, but neither is the whole truth. Both miss where the Islamic State is really headed.
Charting the Islamic State
When attempting to chart the trajectory of the Islamic State pole of the jihadist movement, it is important to recognize that the group is more of a movement than an organization. As we see it, the Islamic State has three main components: the Islamic State core in Iraq and Syria; the Islamic State franchises in Libya and other parts of the world; and grassroots jihadists who are not connected to the core or to the franchise groups. While each element swears allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim, also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they are all distinct and will respond differently to the Islamic State's losses on the battlefield.
The core organization, of course, has taken the biggest hit from the coalition efforts against it in Iraq and Syria. In addition to losing huge stretches of terrain, the group has lost vast numbers of troops and heavy weapons systems, along with significant sources of funding. In this sense, it's true that the physical caliphate as it existed in 2014 has been destroyed. That doesn't mean, however, that the Islamic State core organization has been destroyed. The group has weathered defeats before.
(JM Lopez/ Marwan Naamani/ DVIDSHUB/Wikicommons/Matt Cardy/Valery Hache/Yoshikazu Tsuno/Fadel Senna/Gokhan Sahin/Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)
Some observers say they see the Islamic State entering a second phase, or Islamic State 2.0. But looking back at the organization's history — first as a group called Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad operating in Afghanistan and in Iraq, then as al Qaeda in Iraq, as the Islamic State in Iraq, as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, and, finally, as the Islamic State — I see the next phase more as version 7.0 at least.
In June 2006, the group's founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq along with one of his key lieutenants. Al-Zarqawi's death was the beginning of a long line of serious losses the group suffered in subsequent years, such as the killings of then-Islamic State in Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his Egyptian deputy in April 2010. Their deaths caused many people, including me, to wonder whether the group could rebound.
It did. The Islamic State in Iraq began to re-emerge and grow after U.S. forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, aided by sectarian violence against Sunnis. The group put its mantra, "baqiya wa tatamaddad" or "remain and expand," into practice, burrowing into the human terrain of Iraq's Sunni areas and waging a terrorist campaign before returning to insurgent operations.
Despite its losses from 2006 to 2010, the Islamic State never abandoned its struggle. Instead, it shifted from attempting to wage conventional battles and hold terrain, as it had done in places such as Fallujah and Ramadi, to fighting an insurgent campaign. Launching terrorist operations or even hit-and-run insurgent attacks takes considerably less resources than do holding and governing territory — especially a large city such as Mosul. Furthermore, the fighters and materiel the group could lose in a single conventional battle against coalition forces could otherwise conduct a host of smaller attacks over a long period of time. The insurgency had three essential goals. First, the group needed to survive, the primary goal of all insurgencies. Second, it aimed to attack coalition forces to make their involvement in Iraq unbearable. Third, it wanted to attack Shiite targets and Iraqi state institutions to provoke Shiite government forces to retaliate against Sunnis, thereby escalating sectarian tensions.
The group's long-war strategy worked. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government in Baghdad responded to the insurgency with a heavy hand, and the Islamic State in Iraq — which had alienated the Sunni population in the mid-2000s with its brutal and austere version of Islam — was able to position itself as a protector of Sunnis. This approach enabled the group not only to remain but also to expand. The Islamic State in Iraq began to plan and prepare to launch a strategy to take control of Iraq's Sunni areas. By 2014, the group had seized large portions of Syria and Iraq and declared itself the return of the Islamic caliphate.
Now that the self-proclaimed caliphate is crumbling, the Islamic State's history bears revisiting. I see strong parallels between today and 2010. Coalition strikes have seriously weakened the Islamic State over the past three years. But if sectarian tensions persist in Iraq and Syria, and if Sunnis are left feeling persecuted and disenfranchised, the stage will be set for the group's remnants to embed themselves again in the Sunni populations. There, they can remain and develop plans to expand their control once more. The Islamic State has lost much of the caliphate's territory, and, in time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will meet the same fate that his predecessors did. Even so, sectarianism could sustain the group. Iran's growing influence in Syria and Iraq — and the fear its role is engendering among the region's Sunnis — only enhances the possibility.
The Islamic State core will retain a physical, real-world presence long after it loses control of the territory it once governed. It is far from becoming merely a virtual organization.
The Ends of the Earth
Notwithstanding the caliphate's physical collapse, the Islamic State's affiliate organizations retain an insurgent and terrorist presence across a large portion of the globe. It's important to recognize that almost all of these groups already existed, either as jihadist groups or as splinters of jihadist groups, before they pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Islamic State's West African wilayat, or province, for example, was previously known as Boko Haram; its Sinai province was an Egyptian group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis; and its branches in Yemen were defectors from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Though these groups generally try to follow the Islamic State's philosophy and guidance, they are franchises: They use the Islamic State brand but remain under local ownership and management. The Islamic State core has provided funding and training to some of its franchises, but most of them fend for themselves in terms of financing and logistics, recruiting and training, and weapons acquisition.
As long as the Islamic State's ideology survives, it will continue to attract recruits, just as older radical ideologies such as anarchism and national socialism still do to this day.
Consequently, the core group's losses in Iraq and Syria won't have much bearing on the local or regional activities of the franchises. Their fate hinges more on their own capabilities, on the capacity of the governments they're fighting against and on the international support those governments receive. The United States and other coalition members have conducted airstrikes against Islamic State targets far and wide in places such as Yemen, Somalia, Mali and Afghanistan.
The concept of the "virtual caliphate" is most relevant for the grassroots jihadist element of the Islamic State movement. Grassroots operatives aren't members of the Islamic State core or a franchise group, and their connection with the movement's other two components range from exposure to propaganda to direct communication with and logistical assistance from them. Their independence from the core will shield the grassroots operatives, like the franchise groups, from the Islamic State's battlefield losses, though the defeats have tarnished the movement's appeal. By retaking the Islamic State's territorial holdings, after all, coalition forces have disproved the claims that the group is an inexorable force and its caliphate a paradise on Earth.
Nevertheless, as long as the Islamic State's ideology survives, it will continue to attract recruits, just as older radical ideologies such as anarchism and national socialism still do to this day. The hope is that the rate of recruitment will decline to the point that jihadism, too, can be relegated to the dustbin of history as a radical fringe ideology. Until that happens, however, the Islamic State will pose a very real threat in the physical world, both as an insurgent force and as a terrorist group.