ISIS fighters surrender in west Mosul. Carol Guzy/PA Images. All rights reserved.President Trump has declared that ISIS has been defeated and victory is at hand. Haider al-Abadi's government in Baghdad has even held a victory parade. Such hubris may be questioned by referring to recent history. Similar claims were made when the Taliban were deposed and al-Qaida dispersed in late 2001; after the Saddam regime fell in three weeks in 2003; when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011; and when Barack Obama withdrew most American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011-16.
Yet conflict has extended and even escalated. It includes a rash of attacks in western Europe and the United States; an upsurge in Islamist-inspired violence in Mali, Egypt, Somalia and the Philippines; and the reinforcement of United States troops across the Sahel, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. So where is the "war on terror" now going? In search of an answer, two deeper influences on the paramilitaries' strategy need to be discerned.
The first is linked to the impact of western military campaigns. The Pentagon reports that three years of intense air and drone operations since August 2014 have killed over 60,000 adherents of ISIS. Many western citizens, who see these people as terrorists who deserve no better, will applaud this result. At the same time, those numbers mean that many more family members and friends are affected. The deaths are also widely reported in social media, with coverage that attributes to these martyrs a heroic role as true upholders of Islam against its Crusader-Zionist foes.
In consequence, the paramilitary narrative now acknowledges the retreat of a short-lived caliphate while highlighting its resilience and the certainty of its return. It cites the brave example of all those young people, and the thousands of women and children who were killed, as exemplars who must serve as a catalyst for further action. Those it sees as taking up the torch may be individuals in the “far enemy” countries, fighters in Iraq and Syria, and believers in other theatres of conflict worldwide.
ISIS's determined supporters believe they are operating as part of an eternal struggle, not some potential revolutionary change measured in mere years or even decades. The implication, which might be difficult for many western politicians and security analysts to comprehend, is the urgent need to take on board this wider narrative and what it should be expected to foment.
A networked campaign
The second influence relates to the combat and weapons experience gained progressively in the various recent conflicts. In the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen became more sophisticated as they fought against the Soviet military. Among them were many Arabs, some of whom went on to form al-Qaida and link up with the Taliban in the 1990s. In that same decade the Chechen and post-Yugoslavia wars, and the simmering conflict in Kashmir, provided more experience for a rising generation of Islamist paramilitaries.
Many were killed but more survived. By the early 2000s, al-Qaida and other Islamist militias included veterans of all these conflicts, soon to be joined by thousands of young people who had seen military action from Libya, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and north Africa. Connections were forged between conflicts in the Sahel and those in west and east Africa. A bomb planted by Boko Haram in Nigeria's capital Abuja, in the movement's early stages, incorporated a shaped-charge explosive quite probably supplied from Iraq. Numerous techniques relating to explosives, timers, fusing and other characteristics were shared, both personally and via the internet.
The bitter shadow war fought between al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), the precursor of ISIS, and the best-equipped elite forces of the US/UK Task Force 145 provided further valuable tests. Then came the years of the caliphate itself. Details of this period are still coming to light, including the origins of much of the weaponry and ISIS's ability to produce its own. ISIS's seizure of Iraqi cities such as Mosul in 2014 provided it with advanced weaponry and munitions. More was gained after Nato’s disastrous intervention in Libya. Informal conduits criss-crossing the Middle East were another constant source.
An investigative report by a unit with European Union backing finds that up to a third of ISIS weapons from outside the region came from central and eastern Europe via Balkan supply-routes. Many of these routes are financed by US and Saudi governmental agencies in breach of international agreements, the arms having been supplied to anti-Assad rebels in Syria but ending up in ISIS's hands. Even more surprising, a detailed study in Wired magazine points to ISIS engineers' ability to modify and develop both commercial and military explosives for their own purposes, including some originating in the United States.
ISIS has gained a particular advantage in controlling territory for several years. Taking over a large town or city meant access to all manner of small engineering shops and factories, and in some cases technical colleges and university laboratories. Before the air-war intensified, ISIS was able to run a sophisticated and coordinated production system, even developing its own weapons specifically for the nature of the wars it was fighting.
None of this is to diminish the west's own many military transformations, not least in armed-drone warfare. But it does indicate the sheer amount of knowledge and expertise that ISIS and related groups accrued in this latest phase of conflict. Far from disappearing, these will be put to use in perhaps unexpected ways. It is another reason why the "war on terror", even as it takes different forms, is likely to continue.