After over a month of fighting, the Iraqi government has at last reclaimed the city of Fallujah from the Islamic State's grasp. Clearing the city of any remaining fighters could take weeks, and removing the booby traps left behind will almost certainly take months. Nevertheless, the June 26 defeat is a huge symbolic loss for the jihadist group and a significant victory for the forces trying to discredit and destroy it.
Fallujah has a history as a hotbed for jihadist insurgency. In 2004, the U.S. military had to invade the city twice to wrest it from the hands of the jihadists controlling it. The second attempt, an operation that lasted more than six weeks, resulted in some of the heaviest urban combat that American troops experienced during their occupation of Iraq.
It came as no surprise when, a decade later, Fallujah became the first Iraqi city to fall to jihadists trying to expand their territory. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant seized the town in January 2014, six months before it swept through Mosul. A few weeks after Mosul's highly publicized fall, the group declared that it had re-established the Islamic Caliphate and changed its name to one that better reflected its global ambitions: the Islamic State.
Finding Reality in the Quest for Utopia
At first, the people of Fallujah welcomed the jihadists as allies who could help them resist the oppressive policies of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. But the past two and a half years of Islamic State rule seem to have changed their perception of the group. The speed with which Iraqi forces were able to retake the city, though partially a testament to their improving capabilities, also indicates that the population viewed the operation as one of liberation rather than occupation. The distinction is important, because like the rapid recapture of Ramadi in December 2015, Fallujah's fall reflects the alienating effect that the Islamic State's governance can have on its one-time supporters.
Islamic State leaders appear to have learned much from their predecessors' experience with holding and governing territory from 2004 to 2007. Even so, that knowledge has not made up for the fact that the group's utopian ideology is falling flat in the face of reality. In theory, the Islamic State's promises of a fair, just and prosperous society ruled by Sharia principles sound attractive. But in practice, those under the group's thumb have found themselves subject to severe and capricious regulations enforced by a cadre of sadistic and rapacious sociopaths.
That the group's actions have shattered the utopian vision it peddles to its disciples is nothing new. Populations in Yemen, Mali, Nigeria, Libya and Somalia have seen jihadist rule before and have bucked its austere laws, which ban smoking, prohibit beard shaving and restrict a host of other personal liberties and behaviors. The abuses that jihadist fighters often visit upon the people they feign to protect erode their legitimacy even further. Large stockpiles of Viagra are a common finding in Islamic State strongholds after they have been retaken, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. Female sex slaves who have escaped captivity in these areas have confirmed that the group's members are heavy users of the drug. Any military organization that fuels itself with Viagra clearly cannot provide a safe and stable society for the people it is holding, quite literally, under the gun.
The abuses that jihadist fighters often visit upon the people they feign to protect erode their legitimacy even further.
In fact, these types of abuses are precisely what led to the Anbar Awakening in Iraq in 2007. Jihadists threatened, abused and killed members of the country's Sunni tribes, inciting rebellion. Iraqi Sunnis then helped U.S. and Iraqi forces to expel the jihadists from cities such as Fallujah before hunting them down. Though the Islamic State initially vowed not to repeat those mistakes, it has abused its power more and more the longer it has held it. Two years of Islamic State reign have been enough to convince citizens in Fallujah, Mosul, Deir el-Zour and Raqqa that the group is no more benevolent, just or peaceful than its predecessors were. And as was the case with al Qaeda in Iraq in the 2000s, the Islamic State — once considered a tool with which Sunni tribal leaders could combat the Shiite government — has become too powerful and unwieldy to be counted among the tribes' allies.
Of course, local hostility is not a problem unique to the Islamic State. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders claimed to have learned many lessons in the wake of their failed 2011 campaign to take over a wide swath of Yemen. Indeed, the group's now-deceased leader, Nasir al-Wahayshi, even counseled other jihadist leaders not to repeat AQAP's mistakes. Yet despite the militants' efforts to present themselves as the "Sons of Hadramawt" as they seized Mukalla in April 2015, they were clearly unpopular with the city's residents. Locals quickly turned on the group when Yemeni security forces, backed by Emirati special operations forces and air power, began to advance on Mukalla. Without the support of the people, AQAP was forced to abandon the city, retreating to save its men and materiel.
And the dashing (or perhaps Daeshing?) of utopianism against the rocks of reality is not isolated to the Islamic State — or, for that matter, the jihadist movement — either. Any utopian ideology that has risen to power has been severely tested. Lenin's Marxist Soviet Union, Enver Hoxha's Communist Albania, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and many other utopian experiments now lie in the dustbin of history, and Venezuela's Bolivarian exercise probably will not be far behind.
An Opportunity for the Islamic State's Enemies
The Islamic State's brutal tactics have helped to unify a number of disparate parties on the need to rid Iraq of the jihadist group. The fact that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani can move freely around Iraq without a U.S. aircraft dropping a Hellfire missile on his head is a testament to this. But even at the national level, citizens have come to see Iraqi security forces as liberators instead of occupiers, presenting an opportunity for reconciliation between the government and its Sunni population. If Baghdad takes advantage of it, Iraqi leaders may stand a chance of pulling the country's Sunnis back into the national fold.
Numerous challenges still block their path, though. First, government security forces must keep a tight lid on Iraq's Shiite militias, preventing them from committing the type of human rights abuses that caused Sunnis to see jihadists as saviors to begin with. Second, Baghdad will need to work with local authorities and tribal elders to re-establish some semblance of Sunni control in the region without disenfranchising them. Finally, Iraqi leaders must find a way to increase Sunni participation in the national government — something former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki worked tirelessly to prevent.
The loss of Fallujah, in particular, has also created an important opportunity for those waging an ideological battle against the Islamic State. The city's fall serves as yet another reminder that the Islamic State is not the unstoppable force blessed by Allah that it claims to be. Instead, it is losing ground, which will help to undercut the victorious swagger that has drawn so many foreign recruits to the group's ranks. Furthermore, stories of the Muslim families who were abused and oppressed by Islamic State fighters provide ample fodder for those seeking to counter the appeal of the group's utopian ideology. The challenge, however, will be to ensure that these messages are not eclipsed by atrocities committed by Shiites in the wake of the Islamic State's defeat.