The Islamic State is no longer characterized in the media and among security policy specialists as the greatest security threat emanating from the Middle East. In 2017, the Islamic State suffered some of its worst defeats. First, Iraqi security forces took over its biggest stronghold in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Soon after, it lost its capital, the city of Raqqa in Syria, under the offensive of US-backed forces. Since September 2018, one of the group’s last strongholds in the Syrian city of Hajin has been under attack by a US-backed coalition. However, while it may appear that we are seeing the end of the Islamic State, this terror group will likely return, as those who diagnose its demise neglect its history of adapting. Moreover, social forces in the region provide a fertile ground for its return.
This radical group has already returned once in the past from what many thought was its final defeat. The Islamic State as we know it today was previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, (AQI), a regional franchise formed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It quickly recruited Iraqi Sunnis with the intent of combating US forces and the Shia majority in Iraq. When the founder and leader of AQI Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike, this branch was transformed and renamed into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Several other successors to Zarqawi were also killed by US strikes in following years, which forced ISI to go underground. Moreover, following the 2011 assassination of Al Qaeda’s top man, Osama Bin Laden, there were no major indicators that surfaced leading anyone to believe that ISI would ever rise to becoming a major player in global terrorism.
However, the outbreak of civil war in Syria generated a political vacuum that allowed ISI and its new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to redefine themselves as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and subsequently evolving into a powerful pseudo-state with vast territory, firepower, manpower, and uber-radical Jihadi ideology. Given how deeply embedded the Islamic State has become and the sophistication of its organizational structure and propaganda capabilities, it would be naïve to believe that we would see its ultimate demise in the face of immediate military defeat. Instead, if history has taught us anything, it is more likely that this terror organization has gone underground to temporarily disband, disperse, regroup, and retrench. Terrorists are opportunists and it is only a matter of time and a shift in circumstances that will create the window of opportunity for re-assembling and rebranding under a new identify, just as AQI transformed into ISI, and ISI subsequently into the Islamic State.
More importantly, there are social and political forces in play in the region that create a permissive environment for the eventual return of the Islamic State. Firstly, the Islamic State offers a Sunni version of radical Islam, which makes the Sunni population its target audience in terms of following and recruitment. Two countries are particularly salient in that context -- Syria and Iraq. As Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite (branch of Shia Islam) community are victors in the Syrian Civil War, one of the big questions of the Syrian post-conflict political future will be the position of the Sunni majority in the country. Without improvement in the political position of the Sunni population in Syria, many will be susceptible to indoctrination and recruitment by the Islamic State, as they would feel alienated over the prospect of being ruled by a minority group, and even more so in case of inadequate status. Iraq is even more sensitive in that regard, as the Iraqi Sunni community, which once held power under Saddam Hussein, now feels alienated and threated by the current central government in Baghdad, which is dominated by Shia majority. The inadequate social and political rights of Iraqi Sunni Muslims in a country that has been ruled by the Shia community since the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003 has been already documented as a major factor behind the rise of the Islamic State in all of its forms. Without major improvement in Sunni rights in Iraq, the Islamic State will have extremely fertile ground for revival.
Even beyond Iraq and Syria, social and economic trends have a tendency to play into the hand of the Islamic State. Across the Middle East, unemployment, particularly among the region’s youth, is rampant. Indeed, youth unemployment in the region is among the highest in the world at approximating 25 percent, with large Arab nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia having rates even higher than 30 percent. The issue of unemployment has the potential of becoming more acute and unpredictable, as the region is experiencing population growth that has the potential to increase the percentage of youth unemployment. Unless the countries of the region are able to create new job opportunities for the region’s growing youth, young people will fall prey to radicalization and recruitment by the Islamic State and other Jihadi groups.
An additional factor is the connectivity among youth and the population in general in the Middle East, which is increasing as the number of people with access to the Internet grows annually. This creates new channels of communication for the Islamic State (or rathe its next evolution) to spread their content and make recruitment efforts, particularly among the disenfranchised youth who will be using the Internet to articulate their displeasure over lack of opportunity and endemic corruption. In this uneasy social and economic environment, sectarian and political tensions will almost certainly follow, giving new opportunities to the likes of the Islamic State.
Sunni radicalism has displayed an unwavering ability to adapt, evolve and transform over the years, and it will continue to be fueled by economic stagnation and the never ending status quo. The Islamic State still represents a violent but very appealing set of religious, social, and political ideas that thrive in the unpredictable and violent background of the Middle East, giving it an undrainable pool of potential recruits. Given the unpredictable future of the Middle East and the recorded history of the Islamic State, reports of its historical demise have been greatly exaggerated, and indeed, were optimistic and premature.