ISIS: the long-term prospect

The caliphate is besieged. But ISIS can take heart from global trends working in its favour.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 June 2017

Over 80 suspected Islamic State militants are packed into a makeshift cell close to Mosul, Iraq, 07 June 2017. Suspects were told by Iraqi forces to face away from the camera to protect their identities. Andrea DiCenzo/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Mosul's impending fall and Raqqa's ongoing siege highlight ISIS's slow loss of control of the much-vaunted caliphate it declared exactly three years ago, on 29 July 2014. The costs to the movement have been huge: over 50,000 of its supporters have been killed during the coalition’s three years of intensive airstrikes, and many thousands of civilians across Iraq and Syria have died as a direct result of the war.

But ISIS can claim to have seriously damaged the Iraqi army’s special forces, making it much more difficult for Haider al-Abadi's government in Baghdad to stabilise Iraq. This will in turn help ISIS to transform itself into a guerrilla force and, it would hope, a long-term insurgency.

ISIS's self-image is enhanced by the level of force used against it by the “crusader states” of the “far enemy”.

ISIS's capacity to deploy at least 1,000 suicide-bombers in the battle for Mosul means it can present itself as a powerful symbol of continuing struggle. It is significant here that the movement's timescale for success is measured in many decades, with a short-lived caliphate only one portion. Furthermore, its self-image is enhanced by the level of force used against it by the “crusader states” of the “far enemy”.  ISIS believes it will outlast the present generation of western leaders and keep alive its historic mission of creating the true caliphate to come.

ISIS's current strategy has two more elements. The first is to export the war to aggressor states – the European and north American components of the far enemy. Recent examples include the attacks in Manchester and London, the potentially devastating failed attack on 27 June at Brussels' central station. These operations aim to stir up as much anti-Muslim bigotry as possible, thereby weakening social cohesion in western states and perhaps even their determination to continue fighting ISIS.

The second element is to disseminate the idea around the world. In a sense this is already well underway: ISIS has largely taken over from al-Qaida as the figurehead that Islamist movements in a host of countries seek to emulate: northern Nigeria, Mali and across the Sahel, Yemen, Somalia, Bangladesh, southern Thailand. Afghanistan and Egypt – where the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seeks to suppress Islamist dissent but inevitably provokes it – are proving fertile territories. The southern Philippines is a surprising addition to the list: there, a coalition of Islamist paramilitary movements is trying to maintain its weeks-long control of Marawi, on the island of Mindanao, against the firepower of the Filipino army and United States special forces.

A view across decades

These operations aim to stir up as much anti-Muslim bigotry as possible.

These factors raise the much broader question of whether ISIS, its offshoots and like-minded extreme movements – whether these are rooted in religious, political, nationalist or ethnic identities – may develop further, and even coalesce into broad “revolts from the margins”. This is still an open question, but it can be approached in the context of global trends that really could have such a result (see "After Mosul: Islamic State’s Asian and African Future", Oxford Research Group, 28 June 2017).

A recent report finds that twenty-two Arab countries are home to 100 million people aged 15-24, while those in Asia and the Pacific have 400 million. This total of 500 million makes up 60% of the world’s youth population. The Arab states in particular suffer from very high rates of youth unemployment, averaging 30% for the region but peaking in war-torn states such as Yemen at 55%.

At the same time, one of the successes of the last four decades or so has been real improvements in education, literacy and communications. This means that any perception of marginalisation and meagre life-prospects is more likely to be rooted in direct knowledge of how elites live. The combination of high rates of graduate unemployment and insecurity offers clear dangers. A prominent example is Tunisia: it is making a slow transition to more representative governance, yet proportionally more of its young people embrace extreme Islamist views than in most Arab countries (see "Tunisia and the world: roots of turmoil", 24 January 2011).

ISIS today seems to be near collapse, but the longer-term prospects  for it and like-minded movements are far more promising than many in the west are ready to acknowledge.

In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, tens of millions of young people also have poor life-chances, notwithstanding a quite rapid pace of development and the provision of much wider educational opportunities. This situation gains even further seriousness if the growing impact of climate change on the agriculture sector is added. A powerful statement from the leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger says that “drought, food insecurity, water scarcity, unemployment, hopelessness about the future and poverty are fertile grounds for extremism, and a sign of insecurity, instability and unsustainability”. 

The United Nations convention to combat desertification (UNCCD) is also focusing on this nexus. Its executive secretary Monique Barbut points to the 375 million young people who will enter African job markets by 2032, over half (200 million) of whom will be living in rural areas. She says: “Millions of rural young people face an uncertain future due to the lack of decent rural jobs and continuous loss of livelihoods due to land degradation and falling yields…Frustrations will boil over with more migration and more conflict over a shrivelling resource base”.

In short, there are many tens of millions of young, educated and knowledgeable people across the Middle East, Africa and Asia who have grounds to see the world from an entirely different perspective to leaderships and elites in the global north. For them, the current world economic system is not delivering reasonable ambitions – and that is even before inexorable climate disruption has a fuller impact (see "Al-Qaida, and a global revolt", 22 May 2014).

ISIS today seems to be near collapse, at least in a territorial sense. But in light of these larger circumstances, the longer-term prospects for it and like-minded movements are far more promising than many in the west are ready to acknowledge.

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