ISIS continues to be the wealthiest terrorist organization in history, with hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed away in readiness for its re-emergence. Tens of thousands of ISIS personnel may still be at large, or deployed as sleeper cells across Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, about 100,000 detainees with various levels of ISIS affiliation languish in mass camps. Their status is problematic, because of their multinational character: Should their home countries reluctantly accept them back, or leave them to rot or hang?
Let us not forget that ISIS perpetrated the worst crimes known to humanity: Burnings, stonings, beheadings, rape, genocide and other systematic atrocities. Yet its ideology remains potent, with wide-reaching propaganda capabilities: A few symbolic victories (the recapture of a town, a spectacular terrorist attack…) could inspire thousands of confused and sick individuals to flock back into its ranks.
It is tempting to assert that because ISIS’s actions were self-evidently evil, all those who lived under it must be evil too. Our failure to recognize why many ordinary Iraqis and Syrians tolerated ISIS (other than simply out of fear) will be a major factor in allowing this menace to return.
ISIS’s rule varied markedly across its so-called caliphate. While foreign jihadists brutally imposed alien theocratic models upon major cities, in small rural towns ISIS leaders were predominantly locals. The result was an organic hybrid between local traditions and ISIS’s rigid asceticism. When ISIS was purged, local jihadists simply melted into the mountains, using their exhaustive knowledge of the landscape to embark on a war of attrition against security forces.
By 2011 Al-Qaeda in Iraq was a defeated force. Yet Nouri Al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, his purge of Sunni politicians, and his reliance on brutal paramilitaries to entrench his power alienated Sunnis and other communities. By 2013, Iraq was awash with a furious ferment of protest movements and anti-state forces — Islamists, tribes and Baathists. ISIS swept to power out of this complex milieu.
The fight-back against ISIS was partly franchised out to Iran-aligned paramilitaries who have today been put back in control of localities reduced to ashes by coalition bombing campaigns. Iraqis are squeezed between two evils: “Hashd” militants and ISIS are equally guilty of sectarian atrocities. Before the 2018 elections, Sunnis in areas liberated from ISIS were widely prevented from accessing documentation allowing them to vote, access benefits and travel around the country. Paramilitaries terrorized returnees into fleeing back into exile. Thus, a high proportion of the population have effectively become non-persons, with the stigma of ISIS association branded upon entire communities. Aside from discredited allies of the Hashd, few respected Sunnis are allowed to hold political posts. It is dangerous for Iraq’s national unity that Sunnis are left feeling more alienated and angry than ever.
Deprived of core territories in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has become more dangerous. Thousands of foreign fighters who avoided capture have dispersed, either quietly heading home or migrating to new battlefields, pledging to wreak mayhem and attract new recruits wherever they end up.
There have been recent deadly ISIS assaults in northern Lebanon and the Sinai, along with horrific attacks against Sri Lankan churches a couple of months ago that killed over 250 worshippers. We can guarantee more such attacks, whether against Egyptian Copts, Asian tourist resorts, overcrowded African malls, or Western stadiums and other public places.
Already, in a dozen states across northern and sub-Saharan Africa, a resurgent ISIS is carving out something resembling a new trans-continental “caliphate.” Last week it claimed attacks in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, two states not known as hotbeds of Islamist extremism. The group also reported pledges of loyalty from other Sahel factions, further indications of an ambitious pan-Africa strategy.
ISIS Mark II has learned a lot from defeat. It will aspire to be more geographically dispersed to avoid presenting an easy target, it will consolidate its strength in the shadows to avoid provoking a decisive response, and it will avoid unnecessarily alienating local people. ISIS is also seeking to overcome past enmities with rivals such as Al-Qaeda, which had weakened the jihadist movement. The knee-jerk racism and Islamophobia of an emergent European far-right will leave disaffected young Western Muslims increasingly vulnerable to the blandishments of extremists.
Without radical efforts to address sectarianism, militancy, injustice and social exclusion in Iraq and other priority states, most experts concur that the necessary prerequisites are in place for ISIS to again achieve breakout capacity. However, ISIS in 2019 it is a greatly more experienced, globe-straddling and organically integrated force than it ever was in 2014. Affiliated factions in Libya, Western Africa, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Indonesia and elsewhere will act in concert to make ISIS’s second coming a truly globalized phenomenon. Where is the globalized response to an entity that is consolidating its strength across dozens of states?
In 2014 the world feigned astonishment when a hitherto unknown terrorist horde swarmed across much of Iraq and Syria. Yet ISIS’s expansion had already been obvious for over a year to those who cared to pay attention. If history is condemned to bloodily repeat itself, it will be through criminal lack of foresight and leadership in failing to eradicate a menace that should never have been allowed to reconstitute itself as an existential global threat.
When grievances are addressed, citizens’ voices are represented and a culture of tolerance is cultivated, society becomes effectively immunized against the nihilistic, hateful propaganda of both right-wing and Islamist extremists. Prevention is a thousand times better than cure. We know this, yet instead we choose once again to leave the hen-house door wide open for the wolves.