The Islamic State has entered into a slow decline that will continue throughout 2017. After its inception, the group energized the jihadist movement and drew thousands of enthusiastic foreign fighters by announcing the creation of a caliphate and assuring its followers that the end of the world was near. This enabled the Islamic State to rapidly amass manpower and capabilities — at least at first. But both time and geography have worked against the organization since its initial proclamation of a caliphate and an impending apocalypse.
Despite the Islamic State's frequent and pointed criticism of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group has roughly followed the plan al-Zawahiri laid out in a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was then the head of the Islamic State's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between the timeline al Qaeda and the Islamic State have set for that plan's execution. As we noted last week, al Qaeda argues that the caliphate can be established only after the United States and its European allies have been defeated so thoroughly that they can no longer interfere in Muslim lands, having lost either the ability or desire to do so.
The Islamic State, by comparison, has adopted a more urgent approach based on the belief that the time for taking, holding and governing territory is now. But this strategy hinges on being able to use the territory conquered, resources captured and fighters recruited for greater expansion. This sense of immediacy explains the Islamic State's decision to quickly trumpet the foundation of a caliphate after it seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. The group's message to the Muslim world was plain: The caliphate is a historical fact whose spread cannot be stopped, and all Muslims should migrate to it to help support the Islamic State's rise. The group thought that it could leverage its initial success to quickly conquer more territory in much the same way the Prophet Mohammed and his followers did.
Bound by Time and Geography
Insurgencies battling stronger foes have the advantages of relative mobility and agility. They can attack at a time and place of their choosing, ideally where the enemy is weak and where tactical surprise and numerical superiority work in the insurgents' favor. Their mobility often gives insurgents the upper hand over government forces, which must hold, manage and protect population centers, natural resources and lines of communication from hit-and-run attacks.
Thus, when the Islamic State transformed from an insurgency to a government, it lost many of the advantages it once had. The group was forced to take on many of the responsibilities that come with governance, such as devoting tremendous resources to securing cities and providing basic services. By becoming bound to specific locations, the Islamic State also opened itself up to years of punishing airstrikes. The U.S.-led coalition's bombing efforts, which began in August 2014, have significantly degraded the Islamic State's military capabilities by destroying a considerable amount of its equipment and troops. Beyond losses of materiel, the group has also run into several ideological roadblocks. Even in its core territory in Syria and Iraq, it has struggled to reach beyond areas with Sunni majorities and into Shiite and Kurdish communities. Together, these factors have stymied the group's growth.
Last year the group even lost a handful of critical holdings, including the prophetically significant town of Dabiq in northern Syria. Just before the town was overrun, the Islamic State changed the name of its main foreign-language magazine from Dabiq to Rumiyah in an effort to shift its followers' focus from foretellings of a glorious victory in Dabiq (which clearly failed to come to pass) to nebulous predictions regarding the conquest of Rome. In our 2016 forecast, we incorrectly estimated that the Islamic State would put up a fierce fight to defend Dabiq; in reality, it surrendered the town with very little resistance, choosing instead to make its stand in the city of al-Bab. Part of its rationale may have been that the prophesied crusader armies had not appeared — in the end it was confronted by fellow Muslims — but the town's small size and the difficulty of defending it probably weighed more heavily in the group's decision. Either way, the Islamic State no longer has control of an important location that it had used extensively in its propaganda.
The group's loss of the city of Manbij has denied it a vital supply corridor as well. Moreover, with Turkey and its allies currently besieging al-Bab, another major supply route has been severed. The recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State, meanwhile, will continue to be slow, deliberate and difficult, but it will eventually succeed sometime this year. The campaign to seize the Islamic State's capital of Raqqa should also begin in earnest in 2017, unless the Turks and their allied militias launch a spoiling attack against Kurdish forces that diverts the Kurds' attention from the city.
Although we expect the Islamic State's core leadership to continue to sustain serious losses in members, territory and resources in the coming year, it nonetheless will maintain potent insurgent and terrorist capabilities and will be able to strike throughout Syria and Iraq.
It will also keep trying to export those capabilities beyond its primary areas of operation. The threat the group poses outside the caliphate's borders, however, will be limited to the type and scale of attacks that have been seen since 2014. In other words, the Islamic State core will present a persistent but low-level danger to soft targets that is unlikely to increase in scope or degree this year.
Hindered by Setbacks Abroad
The Islamic State also boasts a set of franchise groups known as "wilaya" — the Arabic word for "provinces" — stretching from the southern Philippines to Nigeria. But like al Qaeda before it, the Islamic State has not built these wilaya from new organizations. Rather, it has rebranded existing jihadist groups (or factions that have splintered off from them) that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
On paper these wilaya span a sizable portion of the Earth, but they are actually very weak in most places. For example, Islamic State franchises in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia are nowhere near as strong as their much more powerful al Qaeda rivals. In some of these countries, such as Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia, they are even engaged in armed conflict with their larger al Qaeda adversaries.
At the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though the Islamic State's Wilayat Barqa (Libya) and Wilayat Khorasan (Afghanistan) were getting stronger. But both of these organizations have been hit hard over the past year. Wilayat Barqa has lost control of its capital of Sirte, suffering heavy losses in manpower and weapons in the battle for the city. Though weakened, remnants of the group have been able to seek refuge in other parts of the country. The Islamic State will certainly survive in Libya, but it will have trouble gaining much ground in the country's competitive militant environment. Wilayat Khorasan has likewise been dealt a heavy blow over the past year, experiencing a string of crippling defeats in early 2016 from which it still has not recovered.
Not far away, Wilayat Sinai — the Islamic State's Egyptian province — started 2016 on a high note, having just bombed Metrojet Flight 9268 as it left Sharm el-Sheikh on Oct. 31, 2015. But Egyptian authorities have since hammered the group relentlessly. Though Wilayat Sinai can still conduct terrorist attacks, it can no longer launch the type of large-scale insurgent attacks it did on July 1, 2015, when hundreds of jihadist fighters converged on the city of Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai. In December 2016, the group bombed a Coptic church in Cairo, killing dozens and injuring over 50, its deadliest attack ever against an Egyptian population center. More attacks against Copts and perhaps even Muslims whom the group considers apostates are likely in the coming year, even as the Egyptian military continues to aggressively hunt Islamic State fighters in the Sinai Peninsula.
To the southwest, Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi (better known by its former name, Boko Haram) is anything but defeated, as the Nigerian government has claimed. But it has been forced to abandon the cities and towns it once occupied, moving back into the Nigerian bush as an insurgency. The group has also split into two factions that continue to clash with each other. The Nigerian government and its regional partners will not abandon their efforts to track down and destroy Boko Haram's forces, but they probably will not be able to vanquish the group by the end of the year. Instead, the militants will continue to conduct hit-and-run insurgent raids intended to harass regional military forces and seize materiel. Boko Haram's al-Barnawi faction will probably focus its efforts on the Nigerian government, perhaps also targeting foreign interests in kidnapping and terrorist attacks. The Shekau faction, on the other hand, will likely continue to launch suicide bombings against soft civilian targets.
Moving toward South and East Asia, escalating competition between local al Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked jihadist groups ratcheted up the risk of terrorism in Bangladesh last year. Most of the attacks conducted by these rivals were relatively simple and targeted perceived enemies of Islam, such as bloggers and secularists. The government in Dhaka consistently denied that external forces were involved in the incidents, but it struggled to stick to that line after militants affiliated with the Islamic State led an armed assault against the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on July 1. The global publicity that the attack garnered prompted the government to undertake a severe crackdown on Islamic State- and al Qaeda-linked jihadists operating in Bangladesh. Despite these measures, jihadists tied to or inspired by the Islamic State will probably resume simple attacks with knives and guns in Bangladesh in 2017.
Militants in Indonesia and the Philippines have also declared their allegiance to the Islamic State.
In Indonesia, authorities are aggressively "mowing the grass" in hopes of keeping Islamic State supporters from gaining much operational momentum. (According to this strategy, jihadists who start to develop sophisticated terrorist tradecraft skills are hunted down and removed from the militant environment.) Meanwhile, several small groups of militants in the southern Philippines — including the Basilan-based faction of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group — have joined the Islamic State. Whether they did so for ideological reasons or because they thought that invoking the Islamic State's name would help them in negotiating lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom exchanges remains unclear. Either way, the Islamic State's Philippine franchises have not been able to gain much traction within the country's crowded militant landscape.
Because the Islamic State's affiliates emerged from pre-existing militant groups, they have command-and-control networks that do not rely on the Islamic State core. They are also financially and logistically independent, which means the core group's losses in Iraq and Syria are unlikely to directly or substantially damage these organizations' operational capabilities. To degrade them, local and foreign partners must address each group within its local or regional context. And as the Islamic State core weakens, some of these groups — particularly those that already adhere to al Qaeda's approach of refusing to attack places of worship — may choose to discard its brand as easily as they adopted it.