The IS is on its last legs, but beware of what comes next
The supreme leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has admitted his terrorist government’s core territory in Iraq is lost. In what he dubbed his “farewell address” al-Baghdadi urged his local fighters to blow themselves up if they were defeated in battle and his foreign fighters to go home and wreak havoc. The latter threat will put almost all major countries, India included, on alert. But this will be more than balanced by the sense that the IS is on its last legs.
Few entities have lined up as many powerful enemies as the Islamic State. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and every sensible world leader has called for their defeat. Even within the Islamic world, at least publicly, all governments have treated it as a political and theological heresy. The IS has acted deliberately as an outlier in the international system. It was the anti-nation state, driven by an apocalyptic version of Islam, using barbaric governance practices and openly promoting terrorism across the world. The surprise has been how long it has taken the international community to destroy this obvious threat. The deep divisions among West Asia’s regional powers – and the reluctance of the United States to take a leadership role – are among the main reasons for IS’s survival these past few years.
Over the past year, the IS’s fortunes have turned. On the military side, it faces two separate assaults: a Russia-backed offensive in Syria and a US-backed Iraqi assault on its east, with Iran providing ballast to both actions. Its finances have also suffered thanks to the fall in oil prices. The steady stream of foreign fighters has become intermittent as countries, most notably Turkey, have tightened their borders. But the drawn-out battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul is a reminder that the IS remains a formidable fighting force and it could be many months before its government will fall.
However, it is important to recognise that the sense of marginalisation among Sunni Arabs will remain, especially if non-Sunni and non-secular regimes come back to power in Iraq and Syria. The IS has already made plans to survive by disappearing into the Iraqi-Syrian hinterland. More importantly, the alienation and anger it represents will remain alive on the Internet and “lone wolf” terrorism will continue for the foreseeable future. Terror analysts have also noted that Al Qaeda, quietly but surely, has begun to reassert itself in the areas where the IS has been forced out of. Al-Baghdadi’s farewell address is welcome. But a new version of the IS leader will emerge if the broader problems afflicting West Asia are not addressed.