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Dead or Alive? The Future of the Islamic State

By Dr Christina Schori Liang

At the peak of its power in 2014, the Islamic State ruled over approximately nine million people and was able to rule a swath of land approximately the size of the United Kingdom.

Its ingenious global political and ideological campaign was able to attract thousands of foreign fighters from over ninety countries to populate its new experiment. Today, the Islamic State has lost most of its physical caliphate, it is still far from diminished. There are multiple reasons why the world will not be able to close the chapter yet on one of the richest and most violent terrorist groups in modern history.  

  1. “Jihad has entered a new stage,” according to the Islamic State. Although ISIS has lost roughly 98% of the territory of its self-proclaimed “caliphate”, the group maintains that it will return to its old incarnation, similar to the one following the US-led invasion in Iraq in 2003 with bombings, assassinations and sniper attacks. Many of its fighters have been killed; 70,000 of the estimated 100,000 that existed in 2015 are thought to have died. However, thousands have managed to escape, and some remain in Iraq and Syria while others have fled into Turkey or have joined affiliates in Egypt, Libya, and South-East Asia. Approximately 10,000 foreign fighters are thought to have returned to their countries of origin raising fears of increased attacks at home. According to a new report by Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC), fighters will bring with them “high-tech” weapons knowledge, including the weaponising of drones, industrialised manufacture of car bombs and IEDs.
  2. The dream of a “pure” and “just” “Islamic Caliphate” is not over. The idea has more appeal today than it did 15 years ago. Today, there is a growing collective Muslim identity that is convincing young Muslims to see themselves as a collective community for which a more “just” and “stable” homeland still offers a hopeful alternative to their current dire status. This is building upon a political narrative that acknowledges the grim reality that many Arab states are guilty of immeasurable human rights abuses and inconceivable violence and are simply unredeemable too many.  The continuing fact that deeply unpopular autocratic Arab states are still being protected by the West is also fostering the appeal. An in-depth study focused on young Sunni men coming out from ISIS rule in Mosul revealed that although the caliphate is no more -- the allegiance of supporters for a Sunni Arab homeland governed by sharia law is far from over. The study indicated that there is still a great willingness to make sacrifices for this vision and that they appear greater than those in support of a unified Iraq. While it is difficult for the West to comprehend, individuals interviewed rejected and expressed unwillingness to tradeoff values for material gain. These findings suggest that in order to improve the situation, the societies’ core values will need to be leveraged, since Western values of democracy and of material gains will not have an impact in preventing (re)radicalization.
  3. The birth of the Cyber Caliphate. According to Benedict Anderson, an “imagined community” exists because it “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion .... [It] is imagined as a community, because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” While the Islamic caliphate may no longer hold sway in the physical world or will be maintained in sporadic pockets across the globe, a more widely acknowledged virtual caliphate may take its place. The public sphere of social media is creating new imagined transnational communities. This could lead to the creation of a new transnational global movement to establish and support a cyber caliphate – borderless, transnational and truly global -- both in scope and power. The Islamic State has already created a cyber army. Several hacker teams have conducted cyber operations under the IS banner. In April 2016, many of these teams united to form the so-called United Cyber Caliphate (UCC); the group comprises the subgroups known as the Cyber Caliphate Army, Ghost Caliphate Section, Sons of the Caliphate Arms and Kalachnikov E-Security. IS has stated that it is interested in building up its cyber army to conduct future asymmetrical attacks. New destructive hacker technology has been leaked, creating new opportunities for terrorists and criminals alike. The US National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor Equation Group was hacked in 2016 and destructive hacker toolkits were stolen that is capable of seizing control of computers, watching and capturing keystrokes, and penetrating security firewalls. These weapons could be bought by IS supporters who could use them to cause widespread devastation. Another leak called Vault 7 that details the capabilities of the CIA Center for Cyber Intelligence to carry out surveillance and cyber warfare was also stolen. This release has helped to close the gap between the capabilities of states and those of terrorists and criminals. IS has been trying to find ways to wage more effective asymmetric warfare, and obtaining these toolkits and inside information would be its greatest prize.
  4. Islamic State continues to weaponize the internet to radicalize, recruit, and inspire acts of terror while sharing best modus operandi. IS propagandists and recruiters communicate with encrypted methods and share modus operand on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to their followers. They use file sharing sites like Google Drive, WhatsApp and Archive.org. Despite increasing efforts by tech companies to take down extremist content and websites, ISIS still uses Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to enlarge its audience. ISIS is still able to exploit the absence of legal frameworks that would force companies to prevent the proliferation of terrorist propaganda. There is a clear indication that corporate efforts are failing.   A video posted by ISIS on New Year’s Eve that incited attacks against the US and Europe was viewed 4,700 times within a few hours. ISIS-supported ezines such as the French language Dar al-Islal offers advice on the best technology to help stop investigators from tracking IS supporters. Most recently, from 27-28 April, a simultaneous, multinational takedown targeted ISIS-branded media outlets including Amaq, a news agency used to broadcast attacks and spread jihad. Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, France the Netherlands, Romania, the UK and the US took part working in tandem to remove multiple propaganda channels including Bayan radio, Halumu and Nashir news. According to EUROPOL, the action has temporarily hampered ISIS ability to broadcast its propaganda via its normal channels.
  5. Benefiting from political dysfunction and conflict. The Islamic State and other Salafi-Jihadist insurgent groups will continue to endure due to the sharp rise in the number of civil wars that are continuing in Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. Salafi-Jihadists have proven effective in exploiting political vacuums and ungoverned spaces that ensue after civil wars. They also gain recruits from the long-standing wars which leave many psychologically damaged and with political mindsets and skill sets suited only for war. The Islamic State’s new narrative revolves around war and is continuing to perpetuate its desire to inspire lone wolf attacks across the globe.
  6. “Demonstrating a continued willingness and capability to fight.” ISIS is conducting attacks on the western side of the Euphrates against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad. ISIS is also seizing neighbourhoods in southern Damascus. Experts are predicting that attacks will increase across Syria and Iraq with the start of Ramadan season on 15 May. Mr. al-Muhajir, the Islamic State’s spokesman, called for violence against neighbouring Arab nations. In an audio recording released on Telegram on 21 April, he claimed that there was “no difference” between fighting the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and the Palestinians “and their American Crusader allies, or the Russians or the Europeans,” al-Muhajir maintained that such foes deserved even harsher treatment because “these are Arabs and are more fierce and vicious against Islam.” The Islamic State is continuing attacks across towns in Syria and Iraq long after their “liberation” from coalition forces. The attacks include suicide bombings, suicide fighter operations, armed assaults including (improvised explosive devices, indirect projectiles (such as mortars), direct fire weapons (such as sniper fire or RPGs), and other types of attacks (air defence operations, arson).
  7. Successfully branching out globally. IS has established multiple franchises, affiliates and allies across the globe including over 43 global affiliates. These include affiliates in Afghanistan, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya, and the Philippines -- where four groups in the southern Mindanao region have pledged their allegiance to Islamic State. In the African Sahel region, an allied group that calls itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has conducted attacks on security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Yemen. Boko Haram in Nigeria targets security forces and civilians including kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls.  Islamic State has affiliates in Algeria the Caucasus region, Russia and Saudi Arabia striking both security forces and civilians. The multiple groups around the world that are associated with the Islamic State include some that were established directly as franchises, others that existed previously and have rebranded themselves as IS affiliates, as well as those who operate separately but have sworn allegiance to IS and still others that just share its goals.It should be noted that the Islamic State is not unique in using extreme interpretations of Salafi-Jihadism to attract followers. In the last six years, Salafi-Jihadist groups have been expanding. They are helping to perpetuate civil wars in many Muslim-majority countries. Since 2016, Salafi jihadist groups made up approximately 35 percent of all major militant groups in Iraq,. 50 percent of major militant groups in Somalia, and 70 percent of the groups in Syria.
  8. ISIS messages resonate with youth. While many believe the IS has floundered.  It’s appeal still resonates among youth for a multitude of reasons—1) young people are more likely to identify themselves as citizens of Islam, the idea of citizenship in many Arab states and in the West has become even more difficult. Conflict in the MENA and structural racism in the West, keeps Muslims disproportionately unemployed and incarcerated. Many governments are increasingly stigmatizing outward signs of Muslim identity by banning the veil and by putting Muslim groups under counterterrorism surveillance.  2) There are few job opportunities in the MENA making it difficult to marry before middle age or not at all.  3) Police do not securitize, they terrorize their constituents into paying bribes. Corruption is still rampant in many Arab states and in the Gulf countries. 4) The promise of martyrdom and an afterlife is very appealing given the grim reality in many states across the MENA.
  9. Politicians in the West are attempting to argue that Islam is a religion that promotes extremism. This is another factor that is playing into the hands of extremists and is helping to promote the Islamic State’s propaganda machine.  US President Donald Trump’s executive order which attempted to ban all immigrants and visa holders from seven Muslim countries from entering the US – played directly into ISIS narratives. This order dubbed “the Muslim ban” was a huge gift to ISIS. This type of rhetoric helps fuel extremist thinking in the MENA and beyond --feeding into the rhetoric that the “West- and especially the US- is at war with Islam.” While the executive order is still pending, the message that was sent was deeply flawed and unconstitutional, violating the United States Constitution's most basic guarantee of religious freedom. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is also helping to fuel and embolden right-wing extremist groups which are on the rise in Europe and elsewhere.
  10. Where did all the money go? What happened to the wealthiest terrorist group in history? At its peak in 2015, the Islamic State was gaining about 80 million a month from oil, gas, antiquity smuggling, taxation and kidnapping.  Today, it is relying on funds from businesses that it has set up across Iraq and gold acquisitions it has invested in Turkey.  To build up its wealth, it enforced the use of its own currency in eastern Syria, extending it to currency dealers and thereby facilitating access to Syrian pounds and American dollars. In Iraq, IS helped bankroll hundreds of exchange houses which in 2014 and 2015 took part in Iraqi central bank’s currency auctions; this move enabled IS to convert Iraqi dinars into US dollars. Since 2017, currency dealers in Turkish cities claim that IS has been moving large sums of money to Turkey through the hawala system. Hawala shops in Syria and Turkey have expanded greatly since the start of the Syrian war, enabling terrorists, rebel groups, refugees, weapons-dealers, and oil-smugglers move cash in and out of the country. The million dollar IS transactions can take weeks to complete and due to their size involve multiple dealers from Turkey, Europe, Lebanon and the Gulf. Hawala dealers use the encrypted mobile-chat application WhatsApp to communicate, making the transactions difficult to trace. Intelligence officers believe the cash is being stored in Turkey and will be accessed for future operations or is being used to keep IS sleeper-cells active. Approximately $500 a month will feed and house a cell of two or three people, according to Ahmet Yayla, former head of counter-terrorism for the Turkish police. Investigations after the 1 January 2017 Istanbul nightclub attack revealed that IS had about 100 safe-houses in the city, stashing up to $500,000. IS has also invested in legitimate businesses in Iraq using middlemen to buy farms, car dealerships, hotels and hospitals. IS also retains its ability to generate cash via its black market enterprises, working with former tribal leaders or businessmen who profited earlier in smuggling oil, weapons, goods and people. The jihadists continue to practice extortion, smuggling and kidnapping. ISIS is also leveraging the internet, calling for donations worldwide and instructing donors to send bitcoin to dark wallet accounts on the Dark Web.

The Islamic State continues to pose a grave danger to the world. Designing, developing and executing a strategy to defeat it will take years. The core challenge will be to persuade the global community to join forces to help rehabilitate and develop confidence among the warring parties to help build and sustain a lasting peace. 

Dr Christina Schori Liang is a Senior Programme Advisor and Senior Fellow on Emerging Security Challenges Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). She serves as Cluster Leader on Terrorism and Organized Crime.