Whether after a protracted struggle or a rapid defeat, the Islamic State will lose control of Mosul in the face of the offensive to expel it. This naturally raises the question: What comes next for the Islamic State? But the answer depends on how you define the Islamic State, and which division of the movement you consider.
The Three Islamic States
Stratfor has long rejected the Islamic State's efforts to define itself as a single, global hierarchical entity. Instead, we consider the group to be made up of three distinct parts:
- The Islamic State core.
- Franchises or affiliated groups that have pledged allegiance to the core.
- Grassroots Islamic State supporters who may or may not have some contact with the core or a franchise group.
The loss of Mosul and other key territories, including the prophetically significant town of Dabiq and the logistically critical city of Manbij, will impact each of the branches differently.
The Islamic State Core
The Islamic State core stands to lose the most men, materiel, resources and supply lines from these cities' capture. Without them, the core will be less able to recruit new members from the population's ranks. Similarly, the Islamic State will no longer have as many people to tax and extort, or — in the case of citizens who have fled, have been imprisoned or have been executed — as many people to appropriate goods and property from. The group will forfeit valuable oil fields and smuggling routes as well. Meanwhile, the core will have to contend with the deaths or capture of its leaders. Though the Islamic State has a lengthy track record of keeping a deep bench and a robust bureaucracy able to weather leadership losses, the amount of experience the group has recently sacrificed will be difficult to replace, at least in the near future.
The Islamic State core in Iraq is entering a period much like one it saw in 2010, when it was badly battered and hurting for resources. Foreign fighters will once again be forced to flee the country to avoid being caught or killed. But eradicating the group will prove just as hard today as it was during the group's 2010 nadir. Elements of the Islamic State will go underground in cities such as Mosul and in the wasteland of western Anbar province, or cross the border and disappear into the chaos of the Syrian civil war. Reports have already emerged of Islamic State members operating in previously liberated cities such as Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah. And as my colleague, Reva Goujon, has discussed, if the political, ethnic and sectarian problems that led to the rise of the Islamic State are not dealt with, the group — or some variation of it — will have an opportunity to re-emerge in the Sunni areas of Iraq.
If the political, ethnic and sectarian problems that led to the rise of the Islamic State are not dealt with, the group — or some variation of it — will have an opportunity to re-emerge in the Sunni areas of Iraq.
There has been much talk about the danger of an exodus of foreign fighters from Iraq. But in today's environment, most of those fighters will have a hard time returning home. Making the trip would be logistically difficult, especially since many fighters are being sought by intelligence services in their home countries and in their areas of operation. Even those who attempt to flee to Syria will have to run a gauntlet of withering airstrikes and enemy ground forces. Should they then try to leave Syria, they would have to pass through borders controlled by hostile forces, where they will come under far more scrutiny than counterparts who came before them returning home from other fields of jihad. Grassroots terrorist attacks in fighters' countries of origin, as well as the Islamic State's external operations in France and Belgium, have forced governments worldwide to boost law enforcement readiness, enhance cross-border information sharing and pass or enforce more robust counterterrorism laws. As a result, many countries now have atmospheres far more hostile to jihadists than when many fighters first left their homes.
The Islamic State core's ability to dispatch, fund, command and control clandestine cells in Europe and farther afield will also take a hit in the face of fewer resources, men and smuggling routes. It will struggle to dispatch operators into less hospitable environments abroad, particularly given the group's low level of transnational terrorist tradecraft. Though the Islamic State has proved it can conduct spectacular attacks inside its primary areas of operation for some time, it has not seen the same success in projecting its strength outside Iraq and Syria.
Of course, this does not mean the Islamic State core will not pose a threat beyond Iraq and Syria. Rather, that threat will be limited to the type and level of attacks seen since 2014. In other words, the Islamic State core will present a persistent but low-level threat to soft targets that will not increase in scope or degree.
Islamic State Provinces and Affiliates
Some of the Islamic State's affiliates have been officially branded provinces (or "wilaya"); others have not. They all, however, are indigenous militant groups or splinter factions that existed before the Islamic State broke from al Qaeda's orbit in 2014. Consequently, these groups have command-and-control networks that do not rely on the Islamic State core. They are also financially and logistically independent of the core. Its losses in Iraq and Syria are therefore unlikely to directly or significantly affect these organizations' operational capabilities.
To degrade the franchises' networks, local and foreign partners must address each of them within their local or regional context. Moreover, some of these groups may choose to discard the Islamic State brand as easily as they adopted it. This is especially true for groups that already more or less follow al Qaeda's approach of avoiding attacks on places of worship, civilians and neutral sectarian or religious targets.
In fact, it is quite likely that some of these groups will eschew both the al Qaeda and Islamic State mantles moving forward, instead developing their own ideological strains of jihadism shaped by local conditions and beliefs. Just as time and geography produced different forms of communism, including Stalinism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism and Marxism-Leninism, unique veins of jihadism will likely emerge in different places. A wide array of jihadist practices has already emerged in Syria and Pakistan, some which could gain traction.
Like the Marxists and the Maoists, or al Qaeda and the Islamic State, some forms of jihadism will compete for recruits and resources, perhaps even physically fighting with one another. Where power vacuums exist — Libya, Yemen and Somalia, to name a few — some may even grow quite strong, seizing and holding territory unless security forces keep them in check.
Though some grassroots jihadists have links to the Islamic State core or a franchise group, and others may even come in direct contact with core operatives sent abroad, most will continue to operate under the principles of leaderless resistance. By and large, this means that the Islamic State's grassroots supporters will continue to pose a broad, low-level threat.
Though some grassroots jihadists may become disillusioned by the Islamic State's inability to fulfill its apocalyptic promises, most will probably remain radicalized despite the core's setbacks.
Grassroots operatives, especially those who are more difficult to identify because they have not traveled abroad to wage jihad and have not had direct contact with professional terrorists in the Islamic State core or one of its franchises, will create challenges for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Though some grassroots jihadists may become disillusioned by the Islamic State's inability to fulfill its apocalyptic promises, most will probably remain radicalized despite the core's setbacks.
In 2012, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's precipitous territorial losses did very little damage to the group's popularity. Nor did the September 2011 death of the group's spokesman, Anwar al-Awlaki, stop him from serving as an influential ideological force who has had a hand in radicalizing many grassroots jihadists involved in recent plots and attacks — some of whom acted on behalf of the Islamic State. In much the same way, the Islamic State core's territorial losses and the deaths of its ideologues — including Abu Mohammad al-Adnani and, eventually, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — will do little to cripple its ability to radicalize and motivate grassroots jihadists. So, though grassroots attacks will likely occur less frequently after Mosul falls than in late 2014 or Ramadan 2016, the threat will endure, albeit at a low level.