The Islamic State isn’t going away anytime soon
In almost every war I ever covered, the side that took control of traditional symbols of power — legislatures, leaders’ residences, military bases, print and broadcast headquarters — held control of government. But in its war with its many enemies, the Islamic State doesn’t have to keep a hold on vital buildings, as long as it has a hold on the human mind.
That’s why it might be misleading to be cheered by The Denver Post’s hopeful headlines the past week. Like “Iraqi leader declares end to IS caliphate” and “Airstrikes in Mosul,” which described the Iraqi army’s “territorial gains.”
From “Peace is at hand” in Vietnam to “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, we know that politicians strive to shape the narrative. So don’t be fooled. Instead, beware. The Islamic State might have to reinvent itself. But it isn’t going away.
The fact is, it hasn’t even lost its caliphate, at least not yet, let alone its incomprehensible appeal to militant Muslims, or its ominous existence on every continent. You read that right: every continent (if we can exclude Antartica). Last year, experts counted up to two dozen nations with some incarnation of the Islamic State: Islamic State armies, Islamic State affiliates, Islamic State cells, Islamic State wannabes. Today the estimates are half-again higher.
A year ago, even before the self-proclaimed caliphate seemed seriously threatened, one of its leaders said in an audio message to its acolytes, “Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authority, or that victory is measured thereby, has strayed far from the truth. It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare open desert, displaced and pursued.” Chilling.
Because the “bare open desert” isn’t sand. It’s Christmas parties in San Bernardino and nightclubs in Orlando. It’s bridges in London, airports in Brussels, fireworks spectacles on Independence Day in Nice. As Brookings Institution senior fellow William McCants puts it, “They are prepared to wage a war from the shadows.”
West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center reported last month that in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State recently has staged roughly 1,500 attacks. And here’s the chiller: in those 16 cities, the Islamic State had been declared defeated. Just because the Islamic State’s enemies are winning some pivotal battles, it doesn’t mean they’re winning the war.
Case in point: the Philippines. In late May, rebels variously described as “aligned with” and “linked to” the Islamic State took control of Marawi City and its 200,000 citizens. Most people have fled, but the rebels are still there, fighting house-tohouse battles with the Philippine army. By all accounts, even if the army wins, there won’t be much of a city left for citizens who return.
When a nation is unstable, let alone engulfed by conflict, huge pockets of the population can lose whatever public services they’ve had. For example, in towns through which war has swept in Iraq and Syria, in Libya and Yemen and Afghanistan, life for those left is dismal: no electricity, fuel, bread or water. No functioning hospitals, no functioning schools. Still a lot of rubble. And still a lot of decomposing bodies buried beneath it.
You know what they say about a vacuum. Ideal for a terror group to move in.
I’ve covered it elsewhere. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority was so corrupt, it stopped providing services for citizens. Hamas filled the void. Hamas now holds the power. Likewise in Lebanon, where the government pulled out and Hezbollah, with Iran’s support, replaced it. The Islamic State knows this playbook. And can still make friends, especially if President Donald Trump has his way and American aid funds are cut.
You will hear that the Islamic State is on the run. But don’t be fooled. It is not subject to conventional military defeat. It can turn defeat into victory. Don’t let the politicians, and the generals, and certainly our inventive and ignorant president with his “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State, tell you otherwise. It is not going away.