The Rise and Fall of the IS
By Ajay Singh
It was just a month ago, on 22 March to be exact, that the Islamic State was pushed out of its last stronghold in the village of Baghouz in Syria by a huge land offensive by Syrian Democratic Forces fighters supported by over 2000 coalition air strikes. With the loss of its last sliver of territory, the IS was finally evicted from its self-declared Caliphate.
The IS was defeated, but was it gone?
The defeat of the IS has been announced quite often before. In December 2018, President Trump even ordered the withdrawal of 2000 US troops from Syria claiming that the IS had been defeated (a decision fortunately rescinded). In December 2017, the Iraqi Prime Minister jubilantly announced the defeat of the IS after the recapture of Mosul and Raqqa, only to have 1270 IS attacks in Iraq in the year that followed. Even now, the IS may have lost the territory it once held, its fighters have been killed or dispersed; but it still lives on and perhaps is more dangerous than before.
The IS grew out of Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and came into international limelight in July 2014 when its fighters burst into Mosul – their self-proclaimed capital. From the Al Nuri mosque in the city square, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced, ‘Rush, O Muslims, to your Caliphate’. The idea of a Caliphate based on a tangible piece of ground gave it an appeal that other Islamic groups could not muster and it attracted recruits in droves. At the height of its power it ruled over 8 million people in a swath of land across Syria and Iraq, which encompassed an area the size of Great Britain. It ran an efficient, – though brutal – government and generated billions through taxes, sale of oil and precious artefacts, kidnappings and extortion. It committed unimaginable atrocities against Yazidis and Kurds, conducted well-choreographed executions on social media and revealed a brutality that even repelled other hard line groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
It has taken five years of concerted actions by the Syrian and Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish and Iraqi militia and coalition air forces to finally push the IS out of its strongholds one by one. The loss of territory means that the IS does not have the physical symbol of a Caliphate – its strongest idea. Nor does it have access to the revenues it extracted, which made it the richest terrorist organisation in the world. The disappearance of Al Baghdadi also fuelled speculation of his death. Yet neither the loss of its territory or its leader (unfounded, as it turned out) has diminished its virulence. Its ideology, its most potent weapon, continues to spew venom across the world.
Even as the IS lost its territory, over 10 -12000 of its fighters have slipped away from Iraq and Syria to join IS franchises in different parts of the world. And IS franchises are abounding. The IS Khorasam Province, the Province in East Asia in the Philippines and their West Africa Province have spawned and now control huge swaths of territory in their regions. The ISIS Wilayat in Philippines (ISP) had succeeded in capturing the town of Marawi and held on to it for over five months in the face of sustained assaults from Armoured Fighting Vehicles and gunships. In the Sahel, an arid swath of scrubland in the Sahara, the Islamic State West Africa Province controls much of Mali and Burkina Faso. Boko Haram and al Shabab – off shoots of the IS – control virtually all of Nigeria and Somalia. Africa now seems to be the base which the IS leadership can exploit after their loss in Iraq and Syria, and perhaps their ‘Caliphate’ can come up there.
Even without their territory, the IS can still inspire thousands. Their media wing comprising of Al Bayan, Al Furqan and Amaq, covers almost every social media platform and even has its own television station. Their use of social media has enabled them to get recruits, inspire lone wolf attacks and conduct suicide bombings virtually anywhere in the world. Smaller radical Islamic groups operating in different countries provide them sympathisers and affiliates who can be easily indoctrinated to conduct attacks on their behalf. Using this model they can launch strikes at will, as the ‘Easter Bombings’ in Sri Lanka have shown.
The ‘Easter Bombings’
On 21 April, as the world celebrated Easter Sunday, nine bombs were detonated by suicide bombers in three churches and three posh hotels of Sri Lanka killing 253 and wounding over 500 others. It was the deadliest terrorist strike since 9 /11 and forms a case study as to how the IS will operate.
The attacks were masterminded by Zaharan Hashim, the head of the National Thowkeed Jamat (NTJ), a radical Islamist group which earlier did little than deface statues of Buddha. He had been attracted to the IS ideology and then used Facebook, You Tube and internet chat rooms to recruit and indoctrinate the core team of eight members who actually conducted the suicide bombings. Amongst them were Inshaf and Ilham Ibrahim the sons of one of Sri Lanka’s wealthiest spice traders. Around 9 AM on Easter Sunday, Ilham and Zaharan walked into the plush Shangri La restaurant wearing back packs and baseball caps, positioned themselves on opposite sides of the room and blew themselves up almost simultaneously. Inshaf and another accomplice did the same in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel – both plush hotels frequented by foreigners. Around the same time, five other bombs went off in three churches – each having a packed congregation for Easter Mass. The bombs shattered the peace of an island that was just returning to normalcy.
The IS claimed responsibility for the attacks stating they had done so to avenge their defeat in Syria and Iraq and also as revenge for the killing of Muslims by a right wing extremists in Christchurch. A week later, Baghdadi himself resurfaced on a video – a little heavier than when last seen five years ago, his beard now grey and hennaed at the tips, a signature AK- 47 by his side. He praised the attackers and warned of the coming ‘battle of attrition’. The deliberate targeting of Christians seemed to be part of their overall strategy to provoke a back lash and create another clash of civilisations.
That may well be the model of future IS actions. Latch on to an affiliate or a franchise, support it ideologically, provide the finances and logistics and coordinate the entire attack through some remote location via social media. Using this method, it can conduct attacks at will. It does not even need any physical territory for it. All it needs is a medium to convey its ideology, which it has through its social media presence over a range of platforms. And affiliates can be found aplenty, especially here in the neighbourhood.
The region forms fertile ground for IS. The Maldives itself has provided more fighters to the IS in relation to its overall population than any other country in the world. The IS has infiltrated in to Bangladesh where they conducted the attacks on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka – once again using affluent locals that had been indoctrinated via social media. They have established a foot print in Afghanistan, where almost 2500 fighters have infiltrated. Myanmar, with its massive exodus of Rohingyas offers another fertile recruiting ground. And Pakistan with its rampant fundamentalism, is a potential base where the IS can consolidate and regroup to revive its idea of a Caliphate in the sub-continent. A measure of its growing presence here is the fact that days after the Sri Lanka attacks they announced an Emir in Bengal and warned of attacks in Bangladesh and India. In Bangladesh itself, another radical organisation, the Jamatul Mujahideen, is affiliated to the IS and can be the vehicle for its attacks.
India has been fortunate that even though it holds the world’s second largest Muslim population of over 200 million, only around 150 -200 have actually travelled to Iraq or Syria to join the IS. Yet a large number of sympathisers have been indoctrinated on social media and perhaps a vast number of ‘sleeper’ cells are in existence. The black flags of the IS have been coming up in Kashmir with increasing regularity and the situation there is rife for it to implant its scary ideology. In conjunction with Al Qaeda, they can also exploit the divisions in Indian society to create a series of spectacular strikes, provoke a back lash, create communal violence and widen the schism. India is a potential target for the next big attack, which can be launched using sleeper cells or local radicalised groups.
Indian security and intelligence agencies have done yeoman service by detecting and preventing such strikes here (In fact, the unearthing of a IS operative in Kerala prevented a attack there and also provided intelligence of the impending attack in Sri Lanka which was disregarded by them). The IS may be defeated and evicted from its territory, but it is definitely not gone. And as long as its ideology holds appeal, it will continue. It is likely that it will shift to sub-Saharan Africa, Yemen, Somalia, or even Afghanistan where its affiliates have already established bases. At the same time, its ideology will continue to inspire lone wolf attacks and coordinated large strikes. The defeat of the IS will only be assured once its ideology is defeated. And unfortunately there is no counter narrative for that at the moment.
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