IS has lost control of eastern Mosul to a coalition of the Iraqi military and Kurdish, Shia and Sunni militias supported by the U.S. and its NATO allies. That same coalition, which has held together despite a very tenuous political consensus, is now penetrating western Mosul. It has seized the airport and controls the remaining city bridges across the Tigris. The rest of the city will likely fall in the next six to eight weeks.
In Syria, progress has been slower. Syrian government forces, aided by Russian and Iranian allies, have focused on eliminating the resistance posed by Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and only secondarily on fighting IS militants.
The ongoing clash between Turkish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the latter largely consisting of Syrian Kurdish militias and both nominally U.S. allies, has complicated the ground offensive against Islamic State.
Nonetheless, IS forces are slowly retreating towards Raqqa. It’s likely that within six to 12 months, IS will lose direct control of its territorial domain.
What then? Is this the end of the Islamic State?
There are five distinct aspects to the Islamic State.
First, the Islamic State is a state, albeit not recognized by any other government. It has a defined geographic territory, even if those boundaries are amorphous. It functions like any government: it issues passports, collects taxes, organizes a military force and provides basic services to its citizens. It doesn’t do any of these things particularly well but it does them.
Second, Islamic State is an international jihadist movement. The organization has franchises and unofficial affiliates in approximately 50 countries, including the United States. The franchises and affiliates have publicly pledged their loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Franchises have been formally accepted as part of the Islamic State while affiliates have not been. In the U.S., for example, an IS supporter identifying himself as Abu Ibrahim Al Ameriki and claiming to lead an organization of 71 militants pledged his loyalty to al-Baghdadi but was never officially recognized. There are also independent militants who have pledged their loyalty to IS but aren’t members of a local organization. Since 2014, Islamic State and its franchises and affiliates have conducted 143 attacks in 29 countries, killing 2,043 individuals.
Third, Islamic State is an insurgency. It conducts operations directly in Iraq and Syria, and through franchises elsewhere. Among its better-known franchises are Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Boko Haram in Nigeria and a faction of al-Shabaab in Somalia. All three organizations predated IS and joined the organization as franchises after it rose to prominence. In addition, IS franchises in Libya, Sinai, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been implicated in widespread, ongoing insurgencies in those countries.
Fourth, Islamic State is a budding international criminal organization. IS has been smuggling oil and antiquities out of the territory it controls. It has engaged in kidnapping for ransom and various forms of extortion. Over the last year, IS has become increasingly involved with the drug trade in Europe. Russian news reports that IS earns up to US$1 billion a year from the drug trade have never been substantiated and are probably exaggerated. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), however, has confirmed that ISIS militants are involved with drug smuggling across the Sahara and, usually through the Balkans, into Europe.
According to the DEA, IS militants provide protection to drug smugglers, similar to the role the Taliban plays in the Afghan drug trade. When it was in power, the Taliban destroyed poppy fields. Now it’s facilitating the export of drugs and the import of supplies essential to the manufacture of Afghan heroin. The skill set required to be a successful insurgent and carry out terrorist attacks lends itself readily to international crime. As IS continues to feel the financial impact of its loss of territory, criminal activities will become an ever-growing source of revenue.
Finally, Islamic State is a powerful, seductive idea. Its slick, professional propaganda and its ability to exploit social media platforms have resulted in financial support and a continuing stream of supporters. IS media has been responsible for radicalizing lone-wolf attackers in Europe and North America. Moreover, that media continues to radicalize individuals even after its advocates have been killed. Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni Iman and al-Qaeda leader who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, continues to preach thanks to the Internet. In fact, his sermons are openly advertised on Google.
The collapse of the Islamic State nation will have a profound effect on the organization, its ability to stage terrorist attacks, the continued loyalty of its franchises and its international appeal to jihadists. But it will not eliminate its ongoing presence.
IS will continue to adapt, adjust and morph to its new reality. The loss of its Syrian and Iraqi territory will likely result in more insurgent activity in those countries, and an increase in IS-inspired terrorist attacks worldwide.
Islamic State’s first chapter will close soon. It’s second chapter is just beginning.
Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.