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ISIS's first two years of development, 2012-14, were primarily concerned with creating a new caliphate. This period culminated in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's announcement of the new entity in Mosul on 4 July 2014. ISIS propaganda greeted this as the distinguishing feature of the whole movement.
Now, over two years on, ISIS's continued loss of ground in Iraq and Syria fuels its strategic aim of taking the war directly to the “far enemy”.
In contrast to the failure of al-Qaida to take over a state in full, ISIS was able to establish a hugely significant presence in the heart of the Islamic world. Moreover, this was in parts of two states that had been artificially created by the far enemy nearly a century earlier. This achievement alone supported its claim to be the true defender of Islam against the crusaders and Zionists.
The new caliphate, with al-Baghdadi as the leader, could stand in the tradition of the Ottoman-era institution dismantled in 1923 – and all the other caliphates from the time of the Abbasids in the eighth to thirteenth centuries. True, It would be extreme and radical compared with the latter civilisation; but then even that, for the new ideologues, had not been true to their perceived vision of Islam.
Within months of the declaration, the United States and some of its regional allies had recognised the threat from this new creation. In August 2014 they launched a hugely violent, intensive and continuing air bombardment. This “remote-control war”, including the use of special forces and private military companies, has been a foremost instrument in containing ISIS. In the process it has killed tens of thousands of the movement's supporters and helped the Iraqi army and its allied Shi’a militias to retake territory.
The Shi’a element alone makes unlikely the complete decay of support for ISIS among Iraq’s Sunni minority. This factor apart, ISIS has long since recognised the need to take the war to the west. This has involved both direct involvement in some attacks and intensive proselytising to motivate local sympathisers. It now looks certain that as its territory recedes, many of its most experienced paramilitaries will move to western Europe.
But not only there: Saudi authorities have reportedly uncovered a substantial cell in the kingdom. This is a huge concern for western counter-terror agencies, and is expected to grow still further as ISIS control diminishes in its own territory.
The next phase
The restriction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will likely give rise to new manifestations of the al-Qaida/ISIS idea. Two aspects of this deserve emphasis. The first is the very symbolism of having created a caliphate, a quality which will survive the institution's physical suppression in the short term. After all, the ISIS worldview is not bound by mere temporal considerations, and thus "short” in its eyes can mean decades or even centuries. It is the fact that a proper Islamist caliphate has existed, even for a few brief years, that counts: a story to be told and retold for future generations, including its having been torn apart by the hated crusaders.
The second aspect is the evolution of yet another generation of fighters. In the modern era this started with the mujahideen and their multinational allies fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Paramilitaries from Kashmir and elsewhere were among those involved, many of whom returned to their own states to foment the new al-Qaida vision after the Soviet retreat.
More paramilitary cohorts gained experience in the 1990s in the Balkans, Algeria, Chechnya and in the Taliban’s fight with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance of warlords. Yet others joined after 9/11 in the fight against the Americans. In 2003 and after, Iraq was to form the best possible laboratory of paramilitarism. A great boost came when Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) was apparently crushed in the "dirty war" against western special forces from 2004-08, when survivors and escaped prisoners from the movement's ranks gave the new ISIS its toughest and most experienced fighters.
The many that survive will join with other younger fighters to create new teams of operatives. This time, many will be embedded across the western world, a ready resource available to train newer devotees of the dreamed-of caliphate.
It is perhaps a little early to make a firm judgment. But there are early indications that the decline and fall of ISIS is but a metamorphosis into the next phase of the 30-year war.