Editor’s note: On March 21, 2019, Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly took a village called Baghuz – and with it, the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Syria. This is the sort of thing that’s true only so long as you don’t think about it too much. The underlying problems that led to the group’s emergence have not gone away, nor have the thousands of IS soldiers and supporters who have melted back into their local populations. For a fuller picture of how the Islamic State came to be, and why it is down but not out, we republish the following analysis, which originally ran in February 2018.
Shortly after New Year’s Day, 1924, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the father of the Republic of Turkey – traveled to the city of Izmir, on the coast of the Aegean Sea. His presidency, like the republic itself, was only a year old. Both had emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire’s recent defeat in World War I, after which the empire had been dismembered by its enemies. This was a disgrace Ataturk meant to avoid. The stated purpose of his visit was to oversee large-scale military maneuvers. But after the military exercises ended, Ataturk stayed for almost two more months. With him was an entourage of important officials, including the prime minister, the minister of war and the chief of general staff. In Izmir, surrounded by his aids, Ataturk decided that unless Turkey abdicated its position as leader of the Muslim world, it would suffer the same ignominious fate as the Ottoman Empire.
Ataturk returned to Istanbul, and on March 1 he gave a speech to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. With his usual charisma, he told his countrymen that the survival of the new Turkish Republic required an immediate cleansing and an elevation of the Islamic faith. Within three days of Ataturk’s speech, Caliph Abdul-Mejid II, the 101st leader of the Muslim world, was deposed and his office abolished. At daybreak on March 4, the caliph was driven to a train station outside Istanbul, given 2,000 pounds sterling, placed on the Orient Express and told never to return. Thus ended the Islamic caliphate, an institution that had governed the faithful for 1,292 years.
Almost a century later, in June 2014, a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dressed entirely in black, stood at the pulpit in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The mosque he chose was deliberate: It was built in the 12th century by a Turkic ruler famous for fighting Christian crusaders. The name he chose was deliberate: It was a nod to the first caliph, Abu Bakr. The garb he chose was deliberate: It harkened back to the caliphs of yore and thus to the Prophet Muhammad himself. The words he chose were deliberate: Failure to re-establish the caliphate, he said, was nothing less than apostasy. And so it was, with reverence and humility, that this shadowy figure, having declared an end to Islam’s humiliation and disgrace, resurrected an Islamic State. In al-Baghdadi’s own words, the “sun of jihad” had risen again.
For over three years, al-Baghdadi’s followers did everything their caliph asked. The group they constituted, known as the Islamic State, conquered towns and cities, set up legal systems based on fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law, levied and collected taxes, issued currency, provided social services and attracted adherents from all over the world. It fielded highly motivated soldiers who were as adept at tactical maneuvering as they were at strategic planning. Eventually, the group posed such a threat to the established order that traditional enemies become allies, and together they turned the tide of war against the Islamic State, which retreated from its capital city of Raqqa in October 2017.
As a territorial entity, the Islamic State fell as quickly as it rose. Except for a few pockets in the deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq, it was virtually landless by 2018. Yet as a movement, the Islamic State endured. Its adherents believe the Islamic State is a legitimate caliphate, and religious beliefs are not circumscribed by physical borders. Shortly before his own death in a drone strike in 2016, senior Islamic State leader Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said, “Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land … has strayed far from the truth.” The Islamic State has conceded Raqqa. It has not conceded defeat.
Deprivations and Extremes
The Islamic State can be traced back to a single individual, a Jordanian man known to history as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi’s early life was not particularly distinguished. Most reports suggest he was a high school dropout and a petty criminal, though those may have been fabricated later to discredit him. Whatever al-Zarqawi’s character, it’s clear that by the mid-1980s he become enthralled by Salafism, an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam. He left Jordan for Afghanistan, where he hoped to join the U.S.-backed mujahedeen in their holy war against the Soviet Union.
But al-Zarqawi was too late. By the time he arrived, the Soviet Union was already withdrawing its forces. Undeterred, al-Zarqawi returned to Jordan and founded Jund al-Sham, the first of many jihadist groups he would eventually lead. After a seven-year stint in jail where he was radicalized further, al-Zarqawi was pardoned and immediately took up arms. He started a new group called Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad and plotted attacks on tourist sites in Amman in 1999. But Jordanian authorities uncovered the plot, and al-Zarqawi fled to Pakistan.
It was a short stay. When Pakistani authorities revoked his visa, al-Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan. There, he met Osama bin Laden, who in 2000 gave him permission and money to train his fellow Jordanians at a camp in Herat. Al-Zarqawi and the roughly 3,000 comrades he trained in Herat had a specific goal: overthrow the Jordanian monarchy and spread jihad throughout the Levant. After the United States began airstrikes on Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi was forced to pack up his camp and take his fighters back into the Middle East. Jordan remained his primary target, and his group carried out its first attack there in 2002.
When he was deprived of his base of operations in Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi began to make connections with like-minded individuals in Iran, Iraq and Syria – connections that would pay off when, in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. This was the opportunity for which al-Zarqawi had long hoped. Washington had done what al-Zarqawi’s group was not strong enough to do: remove a secular Arab dictator from power. In effect, the U.S. did the dirty work for al-Zarqawi by deposing Saddam Hussein. Now, all al-Zarqawi had to do was take advantage of the chaos. He had arrived too late for jihad against the Soviets. He would now initiate jihad against the Americans.
In the insurgency that followed, Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad became renowned for its brutality. While some groups attacked U.S. troops head on, his group conducted suicide bombings that killed civilians and other non-combatants, later drawing international condemnation for beheading its captives. One of al-Zarqawi’s signature moves was to attack Shiites, a tactic he hoped would incite a sectarian civil war that would both complicate the U.S. occupation of Iraq and prevent a new Iraqi government from emerging.
In October 2004, seeking additional resources and influence, al-Zarqawi decided to join forces with al-Qaida, renaming the group al-Qaida in Iraq. It was an uneasy partnership from the start. Al-Zarqawi had pledged fealty to bin Laden, but the two never saw eye to eye. Al-Zarqawi was an extremist’s extremist, unwilling to brook compromise with any person or group to gain their support. Eventually, his tactics became too extreme even for al-Qaida, which urged him to refrain from targeting non-combatants and Iraqi leaders hostile to the United States.
This was anathema to al-Zarqawi. The Prophet Muhammad and his followers had brought Islam to the region with the sword and cut down any who were not willing to submit. Faith required emulation of the prophet; anything less was hypocrisy. Al-Zarqawi took that faith to his grave when he was killed in a U.S. airstrike on June 7, 2006.
Meeting the Conditions
Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad, the group that would eventually become the Islamic State, would not have been were it not for al-Zarqawi. But the Islamic State owes its emergence as much to the geopolitics of the Middle East as it does to al-Zarqawi’s religious fervor. The history of the Middle East is one of conquest, of various peoples uniting, blazing through the region and then falling apart, only to yield to new conquerors.
Some of the conquerors were indigenous. At various points, the ancient Egyptians, the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Arameans, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans and the Persians claimed the region as their own before fading into history and giving way to another empire. They encompassed parts or all of the Fertile Crescent, home to the earliest evidence of civilization.
But civilizations grow, and when they grew beyond the confines of the Middle East, foreign empires began to invade the region. First it was the Greeks, then it was the Romans. The fall of the latter’s empire introduced new power dynamics to the region. The Byzantines, the remnants of the Romans, held much of present-day Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. To the east, the Persian Sassanid Empire coveted Byzantine lands. Both supported various buffer states to manage their empires and keep an appropriate distance from each other.
This was the Middle East on the eve of Islam’s birth. The peoples and empires native to the Fertile Crescent had faded into history, some wiped out completely, others surviving as small confederations of tribes, or vassal states of two aging empires that cared little about the Middle East so long as trade routes remained open and secure.
All that was left were the Arabs, described once by historian Bernard Lewis as “the undifferentiated residue after the great invasions of ancient history had taken place.” The Arabs were nomadic and tribal. Survival in the vast deserts of Arabia meant that land, water sources and livestock belonged to the tribe, not to the individual. It was a conservative society, regulated by custom and adherence to precedents established by earlier generations. They didn’t necessarily share the same religious traditions, though most accepted the existence of a deity named “Allah.” Like their resources, their religion was tribal, and conformity to the tribal cult was the definition of political loyalty. In short, the tribe was the individual, and the individual was the tribe.
Out of this environment emerged Muhammad, Islam’s most revered prophet, who started his own religion and united many of the disjointed Arab tribes under its banner. The new faith Muhammad preached was never just a religion. Like the old tribal cults, it was a basis for political loyalty. Muhammad’s innovation was to use this basis to transcend tribal differences and to create a tribe loyal to Allah and, in effect, himself, alone. From a tribe he built an empire, through a process of conquest and conversion called jihad. As a concept, jihad – literally, “struggling” – can be found in the Quran and in Islam’s earliest history, and its importance as a concept ebbed and flowed in the Muslim world depending on circumstance.
Never was it more important than in 632, when Muhammad died and leadership of the Arab empire passed to the first caliph, Abu Bakr. Within 100 years, the Arabs ruled an empire as mighty as any the Fertile Crescent had seen. But the ties that bound the new Arab empire together were weak. Jihad kept it together. Abu Bakr reigned for just two years, and yet during that time he put down several rebellions in the Wars of Apostasy and initiated military campaigns against both the Sassanids and the Byzantines. In fact, there was opposition from the start, even to Abu Bakr’s rule. That opposition would culminate in the Battle of Karbala in 680, marking the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split.
The advent of Islam was a radical change in the Middle East. It is the only ideology that ever united the region’s various peoples around something more than a tribe – or a resource to exploit. They had their differences, of course. Different sects and ethnic groups fought each other. Different Islamic legal systems emerged, and the evolution of many different Arabic dialects made communication more difficult. But through it all, there was an understanding that a caliph lived and breathed, that the caliphate was still alive, an unbroken chain that stretched back through time to Islam’s golden age, when it conquered the world as they knew it and expelled the region’s foreign invaders.
After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, new empires invaded, and the Middle East reverted to a more primal state. The region was carved up into nation-states by the British and the French. The United States and the Soviet Union then used those nation-states as pawns in a Cold War chess match.
But what held the Muslim world back, according to Ataturk, was not the machinations of imperialists or the vagaries of the Cold War, but Islam itself, of which the caliphate was a relic, a vestige of the past, an albatross around the neck of the Muslim world that enabled Western civilization to surpass his own. The caliphate’s dissolution was Turkey’s survival, but it was also the Muslim world’s liberation, or so the thinking went.
This was the moment the seeds of the Islamic State were planted. By the 18th century, Salafism had already emerged as a popular ideology, and so too had notions of returning to an imagined glorious past by observing the traditions of the earliest generations of Muslims. But even Salafists didn’t dare claim the mantle of the caliphate for themselves. It was only once the caliphate had been destroyed – and by Muslims themselves no less – that the Muslim world truly began to fall apart, sending it down its current path.
What was planted by the dissolution of the caliphate was sown by the conclusion of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union lost some of their interest in the Middle East. The U.S. had won, and over time it expected the region’s Muslims to adopt the liberal, secular principles of the United States. Heady from victory, the U.S. believed it could reshape the Middle East in its own image, just as the British and French had tried to do after World War I. But the Muslims of the Middle East didn’t want to be ruled by outsiders, and they were tired of what they saw as the damage the West had wrought on Muslim civilization for over a century.
Without this pent-up anger, the al-Zarqawis and bin Ladens of the world would not have been able to find recruits. The Islamic State, in that sense, is just a small part in a much larger movement of Muslim hostility to the West. The Islamic State is a radical fringe of that movement, and only a small minority of Muslims subscribe to its views. But at the same time, the Islamic State is also a manifestation of an eternal aspect of Islam, which itself is a manifestation of the Fertile Crescent’s geography. Like Islam in the seventh century, the Islamic State’s rise in the 21st required two preconditions: a fractured regional environment and a sufficiently weak and hostile foreign presence. Less than 100 years after World War I, these conditions were met.
That some kind of revolutionary political entity would emerge in the Middle East at the Cold War’s conclusion was predestined. That it would be a jihadist entity was not. That was a result of a third variable: a vacuum of leadership in the Muslim world. It was this vacuum that al-Zarqawi sought to take advantage of. He was not the first to dream of reclaiming the caliphate, but he was one of the first to create an organization that would seek to resurrect the caliphate through violence. But the group he spawned would not have been as successful if Abdul-Mejid II, the final caliph, had not been put on that train to Paris in 1924.
Nor would it have been as successful had it not been so strong – or so resilient. Years of insurgency had proved the group’s strength. Adopting the name al-Qaida in Iraq in 2004 made it all the more imposing. But the true measure of a group’s mettle is adversity, not strength, and the group would soon encounter plenty of it.
In 2006, when al-Zarqawi was killed, a man named Abu Ayyub al-Masri took his place. AQI was still alive, but it was hardly thriving. Sunni Iraqis who had initially embraced AQI chafed under its fundamentalist teachings and brutal tactics. Wise to the growing hostility, al-Masri changed the group’s name twice, first to Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin, a purported Iraqi jihadist coalition, and when that collapsed after a few months, to the Islamic State of Iraq. In addition, al-Masri appointed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, to a top leadership position. The cosmetic changes didn’t work. By September 2006, ISI had so angered the Iraqi Sunni population that 30 Sunni tribes joined forces to defeat them. This was known as the Anbar Awakening, a loose tribal alliance backed by the United States that sought to expel ISI from Iraq.
For the next five years, ISI barely avoided destruction. The U.S. Department of Defense reported in June 2010 that 34 out of ISI’s 42 top leaders had been killed, including al-Masri and al-Baghdadi. Moreover, ISI lost direct contact with the core al-Qaida organization. It continued to carry out terrorist attacks, but it was weak and isolated.
Such was the organization Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi inherited when he rose to power in April 2010. His goal for the next year would be only to survive. And the organization survived just long enough for the political environment in which it operated to change, enabling ISI not just to survive but to thrive.
Change came first to Iraq. Like most Middle Eastern countries, Iraq as we now know it was created by foreign powers. The political divisions they drew were incongruous with Iraq’s natural divisions, which created bitter rivalries among the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and others. Al-Zarqawi had always intended to exploit these rivalries, but once he exploited them his group was largely unable to manage them effectively.
It turns out they didn’t need to be managed. They just needed a spark, which came in 2010 as Iraq held a contentious round of parliamentary elections. The Iraqi National Movement, a political coalition of Sunnis, Shiites and secularists, won, earning 91 seats in the 325-member parliament. Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, dominated by the Shiite Dawa Party, fetched 89 seats. In a parliamentary system, the largest vote-getter is generally given first chance to form a governing coalition unless it is deemed impossible for that party to cobble together enough support. By all appearances, the Iraqi National Movement had enough support from other parties to form a majority coalition.
But the movement was denied its chance. Instead, after a series of objections, court rulings and negotiations the United States helped to broker, al-Maliki’s party was given the mandate to form a government. The Sunnis were furious. They had been fighting ISI on the frontlines for four years and, despite their own misgivings, had participated in Iraq’s electoral process in good faith. The results seemed to indicate that the Sunnis had won a narrow electoral victory, and yet the party they chose was not going to be allowed to govern. And the United States, heretofore its benefactor, announced it would soon withdraw troops from Iraq.
Little did they know, though, that even more profound changes were happening nearby. In December 2010, a Tunisian vegetable salesmen lit himself on fire to protest his humiliation at the hands of a female police officer. Within a month, social unrest had swept the Arab world. The Western press dubbed this the “Arab Spring.” At long last, the Middle East was rising up against its dictatorships and embracing Western liberal values.
Or so the narrative went. Some of the protesters were indeed liberal democrats. But most were not, and those who were had no political organization to speak of. The most organized parts of the Arab world were Islamist political parties, which rushed to take advantage of the opportunity. The “Arab Spring” quickly became a broad, multifaceted Islamist uprising. Jihadists had been waiting for this moment for decades. The revolution that bin Laden had hoped to inspire, the one al-Zarqawi had given his life for, came about largely on its own, a consequence of the region’s broken politics.
Among the countries most affected by the uprisings was Syria, which is still mired in civil war. Like Iraq, Syria had all the trappings of a prime target: It was created by the West; it was ruled by a secular regime constituted by Alawites, a minority within the Shiite sect, which is already a minority population; and, most important, it bordered Iraq. The two countries that account for much of the ancient Fertile Crescent were descending into chaos, and ISI, though weak, was still alive. The necessary conditions for ISI to conquer and hold territory were beginning to emerge.
Al-Baghdadi did not squander the opportunity. He sent ISI fighters to Syria to train and to recruit new followers. There, ISI linked up with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida franchise that had formed to fight the government of Bashar Assad. Though their partnership was tenuous and would collapse three years later, it gave ISI the foothold in Syria it needed at the time.
More important things, though, were happening in Iraq. Under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, ISI slowly began to recuperate. At first, it confined itself to its usual assortment of terrorist attacks – suicide bombs and booby traps. But in 2012, it began a campaign known as “Breaking the Walls,” which had two main goals: to provoke sectarian violence and to refill its ranks through a coordinated series of prison breaks.
It achieved the first goal without even trying, thanks to the help of the Iraqi government. By 2012, protests had erupted among the Sunnis of Anbar province. The government, which was dominated by Shiites, dispatched security forces to quell the unrest but managed only to aggravate tensions. Iraq became engaged in a low-level civil war thereafter.
The second goal required much more work, and ISI, having been decimated just a few years earlier, proved equal to the task. Over the course of one year – from July 2012 to July 2013 – ISI conducted 24 major terrorist attacks and eight major prison breaks. It sprung more than 500 prisoners from Abu Ghraib alone during its final mission. This gave ISI three reliable sources of recruitment: disgruntled Sunni Arabs in Syria, disgruntled Sunni Arabs in Iraq and large numbers of highly trained fighters liberated from poorly guarded Iraqi jails. Its ranks began to swell.
Before the end of the campaign, though, al-Baghdadi made a fateful decision: He moved his base of operations from Iraq to Syria, believing the civil war there offered an even better opportunity for growth. In an audio recording he released April 8, 2013, al-Baghdadi announced yet another name change. Henceforth, ISI would be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, commonly abbreviated as ISIS or ISIL, depending on the translation. Importantly, he also said that ISIS would formally join forces with Jabhat al-Nusra but would oversee its operations. (Like al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi didn’t play well with others.)
Jabhat al-Nusra and its parent organization, al-Qaida, disputed al-Baghdadi’s statement, rejecting the notion that they had merged with ISIS or intended to take orders from al-Baghdadi. The two groups continued to coordinate activities in the Syrian civil war for a few more months, even managing to drive the Syrian military out of Raqqa in November 2013. But hostilities eventually broke out, and the two groups fought fiercely for control of the city. ISIS won and Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew, opting instead to focus its attention on western Syria, where it maintains a stronghold today.
Notably, ISIS never would have been able to take Raqqa, the city that eventually became its capital, had it not been for the indifference of the United States. Shortly after the city’s seizure, U.S. President Barack Obama gave an interview in which he famously called ISIS amateurish, comparing the group to a jayvee sports team. Security analysts may have differed. In September 2013, four months before Obama’s interview, Jessica Lewis, a top analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, published a report in which she said that ISIS “has reconstituted as a military organization capable of planning, directing, and resourcing attacks.” But the U.S. had so badly mangled its response to Arab unrest in 2011 that it was now trigger-shy and unwilling to commit U.S. forces to intervene directly. Rightly or wrongly, the policy enabled groups like ISIS to act with relative impunity.
While ISIS was getting settled in Raqqa and advancing elsewhere in Syria, it continued to mount new operations in Iraq. The “Breaking the Walls” campaign was so successful that it was followed by a campaign dubbed “Soldier’s Harvest.” Whereas “Breaking the Walls” had been meant to strengthen ISIS capabilities, “Soldier’s Harvest” put those capabilities to new strategic purposes. ISIS still conducted terrorist attacks in Iraq, but the attacks were undertaken to advance its military goals, not its political goals. Put simply, it intended to hold territory. It concentrated its efforts in two main areas: the border area with Syria and the area around Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul.
“Soldier’s Harvest” peaked in June 2014, when ISIS overran Iraqi Security Forces and took control of Mosul. Several factors account for its success: ISIS was aided greatly by killing local Sunni leaders who had collaborated with the mostly Shiite government, and Iraqi Security Forces were surprisingly ineffective. But whatever the reason, ISIS took the city in six days. (It would take security forces nine months to reclaim it in 2017.)
In 2011, the group that became ISIS was on the verge of death. Three years later, it occupied two major cities in Iraq and Syria, and was poised to undertake a major offensive that would give it direct control over the vast territory between the two. No one appeared willing or strong enough to stop it.
It was in this context that al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in the al-Nuri mosque and declared the Islamic caliphate reborn. The group formerly known as ISIS, ISI, AQI and JTJ would change its name one more time, now to the Islamic State. Al-Baghdadi called for Muslims worldwide to flock to the new country he was building and wage jihad just as the Muslims of seventh-century Arabia had for Muhammad. Most Muslims rejected him, branding him an extremist, but some heeded his call. IS had the advantage. Al-Baghdadi would press his advantage and seek to gain legitimacy the same way Muhammad had more than a millennium earlier: by force.
After al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the caliphate, his group undertook an offensive it had actually been planning for more than a year. IS fighters in Syria fought their way up the Euphrates River, all the way to the Turkish border, and solidified control over the areas south of Raqqa. This created a highly defensible core territory from which IS would not be easily driven. In Iraq, IS cemented control over a number of Sunni areas on the border with Syria so that it controlled a large swatch of the Syrian-Iraqi border, allowing IS to move fighters and materiel back and forth across the border at will. And it conquered additional territory around Mosul to strengthen its position there.
In other words, the Islamic State was in a great position. By September 2014, IS was in control of a territory roughly the size of Great Britain. Various open-source estimates of Islamic State financial resources ranged between $2 billion and $3 billion. And it controlled oil fields that could bring in an additional $1 million-$2 million daily.
But then something strange happened: The Islamic State started to resemble an actual state. It levied taxes, managed social services, hired police forces and established schools. It held territory not for strategic advantage but for direct administration. This was as much a religious duty as it was a strategic necessity. If it were to conquer the Muslim world, it needed Muslims to flock to its banner. Fear alone would not be enough.
For the next few months, the Islamic State would continue to gain territory in Iraq and Syria. But never was it more secure or more confident than it was in July 2014. Its military acumen and its territorial holdings took nearly everyone by surprise. Many believed the Islamic State might target Baghdad or Damascus next – and might win.
That belief would be its downfall. Holding territory and conducting terrorist attacks in the far reaches of Syria and Iraq was relatively easy when global powers turned a blind eye. But the establishment of a caliphate holding territory in the Fertile Crescent immediately threatened the interests of countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and the United States, all of which could bring more power to bear than the dilapidated armies of Syria and Iraq. It would take nearly two years for these countries to mount a counteroffensive, and when they did, it marked the beginning of the end of the Islamic State.
The United States was among the first foreign powers to act, initiating airstrikes against the group. It also attempted to enlist Turkey in its strategy to combat it. It encouraged Turkey to halt the flow of arms and materiel to the Islamic State and to intervene in Syria. The U.S. also endeavored to train and arm Syrian rebels and to commit airpower to their cause.
The strategy failed. Turkey had no interest in intervening in Syria, and Washington couldn’t find any Syrian rebels who were not also jihadists. So the United States turned to the Syrian Kurds, who had carved out a small autonomous region for themselves in northwestern Syria during the civil war. In October 2015, the U.S. helped set up the Syrian Democratic Forces – a mostly Kurdish militia that was strategically renamed because Turkey is anti-Kurd – and, buttressing it with U.S. military advisers and air support, used it to conduct sudden attacks on the Islamic State.
The Kurds were too weak to defeat the Islamic State alone. The United States needed a stronger ally, and it found one in the most unlikely place: Iran. Washington and Tehran had been enemies since 1979. In fact, Iran had played an indirect role in the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. Tehran supported the Shiite government in Baghdad so that it could more easily control Iraq. The Sunnis’ response to the Shiites’ ascension to power years earlier prompted disillusionment in the west – disillusionment that IS used to its advantage. Iran was eager to defend its newfound influence in Iraq and so was willing to cooperate with the United States. The United States needed Iran too. In Mosul, the Islamic State had embarrassed Iraqi Security Forces, which clearly needed help if they were to defeat IS. Help came in the form of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias over which Iran exerted influence. The two sides signed an interim version of the Iran nuclear deal in November 2013, and, however tensely, began to coordinate the counterattack against IS forces.
Meanwhile, Russia likewise had begun to recognize the Islamic State as a threat. If left unchecked, it could overthrow the Syrian government, a key Russian ally that played an important role in Moscow’s strategy to keep Turkey bogged down in the Middle East. Russia also feared that the Islamic State’s success could embolden its own Muslim population. And so Russia entered the fray in September 2015, deploying a small but significant contingent of air forces to Syria. Some 70 Russian aircraft and 4,000 soldiers were sent there, and together they gave Assad much-needed air power to repel his enemies – starting with the rebels who had pledged to bring him down and ending with the Islamic State targets. Iran came to Assad’s aid too, deploying an unknown number of Iranian advisers and soldiers in Syria and forcing Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon, to also help Assad.
Turkey, having once demurred, eventually decided that it needed to shape the future of Syria too. The rise of the Syrian Kurds, significantly strengthened by the United States, created a distressing situation on Turkey’s southern border. Because of U.S. and Russian intervention, Turkey now faced two potential enemies on its border instead of one: a resurgent Assad regime and a Syrian Kurdish statelet with close ties to Turkish Kurds. Finally, in August 2016, Turkey committed troops of its own in Syria in what was dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield. For Turkey, the operation was about keeping the Syrian Kurds on the eastern side of the Euphrates as much as it was about pushing back against the Islamic State. But Turkish military forces, supporting anti-Assad rebels, pushed back against both, taking the city of al-Bab and enabling the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime to conduct a coordinated push on Raqqa.
It’s a testament to the skill of IS fighters and planners that they were able to hold out as long as they did. Central to their longevity was their mastery of tactical retreat. IS preferred to move to more defensible territory than to fight a superior enemy in pitched battle, for doing so preserved the lives of its fighters. (Martyrdom is all good and well, but it couldn’t defend the caliphate with martyrs.) But the tide eventually turned against IS, and by November 2016 the Iraqi military, aided by the United States and Iran, began its operation to retake Mosul. In Syria, the SDF and the Assad regime, with U.S. and Russian support, began operations to retake Raqqa.
Remarkably, it took the combined forces of the vast and disjointed coalition more than a year to dislodge the Islamic State. This gave IS the time it needed to move its financial resources away from key battlegrounds to affiliates around the world. Its soldiers melted back into the local populations. Its foreign fighters returned home or sought other places to continue jihad. Even with its major strongholds, the Islamic State continued to fight in small pockets of territory in the Iraqi and Syrian deserts, refusing to go quietly in the face of defeat. By 2018, it was no longer the threat it once was, and countries that had once cooperated against a shared enemy resumed their competitions against each other.
It would be a mistake to think the world has heard the last of the Islamic State. After all, it had been all but defeated during the Anbar Awakening – its senior leaders killed and its foot soldiers either scattered or imprisoned – but it soon returned stronger than ever. And it would not have been able to do so without a significant amount of public support. For all the group’s barbarity, it is also popular in some quarters, and it owes its existence as much to that popularity as it does to its military acumen.
It owes its existence, too, to the pragmatism of Islamic State leaders. Even in the best of times, al-Baghdadi knew how tenuous his position was, so he drew up contingency plans against the inevitable counteroffensives. His group began to sponsor franchise groups throughout the world. It attacked members of the U.S. coalition against it, including France and the United Kingdom. It capitalized on the chaos of countries with large Muslim populations, including the Philippines. The more pressure the Islamic State’s enemies exerted on its fledgling state, the more resources IS would pour into its traditional jihadist operations. This is less a short-term tactic and more a long-term strategy of a group with a clear understanding of its imperatives.
That’s not to say it intends to abandon the territorial gains it has made in Iraq and Syria; it would not have endeavored to claim them if they were unimportant to its goals. But territory is a luxury, not a necessity. From the Islamic State’s perspective, there are two wars to be fought. One in is a civil war in the Muslim world, with a front between the faithful and the secular and a front between the sects of the faithful. The other is a war against the domination of foreigners, who had humiliated Muslims for far too long. The restoration of the caliphate was, in effect, a restoration of Muslim dignity.
All of this hints at what the Islamic State’s next targets will be. The Islamic State has always focused on the fight in the Muslim world. Unlike with al-Qaida, attacking Westerners was a secondary concern. Enter Saudi Arabia, the steward of Islam’s holiest sites. The country is religious; women must be accompanied by men in public and must cover their faces, and punishments for crimes are derived from Islamic law. But if you’re a fundamentalist, it’s hard not to question Saudi piety. The royals who govern the country live lives of opulence. They drive expensive cars and host debauched parties, rife with alcohol and attended by prostitutes. The Islamic State looks at Saudi Arabia and sees a bunch of hypocrites.
It also sees weakness – and opportunity. Declining oil prices have called into question Saudi Arabia’s continued stability. Younger generations of Saudi citizens have grown frustrated with what they see as antiquated notions of governance and economic management. Saudi wealth, moreover, is predicated on oil, most of which is located in eastern areas populated not by ruling Sunnis but by subjugated Shiites, who occasionally rise up against their masters. That Saudi Arabia is a known exporter of jihadism only helps the Islamic State’s cause.
More important, though, are the larger geopolitical dynamics at play in the region. Now that the Islamic State is in retreat, Iran, the de facto leader of the Shiites, is expanding its influence. Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the Sunnis, has framed itself as the dam that will stop the rising tide of Iran. The Islamic State has frequently and effectively used sectarian rivalries to its advantage, and there is no bigger sectarian rivalry in the region than the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Expect the group to act.
To that end, it will increase its attacks on Iranian and other Shiite targets in the Middle East to expedite the Sunni-Shiite conflict. (In fact, it coordinated suicide bomb and gun attacks outside Iran’s parliament in June 2017.) It will also enhance its presence in Afghanistan, as lawless, mountainous and remote a country as it was when al-Zarqawi trained his first fighters there, and also, not coincidentally, a border state of Iran. The continuing Yemeni civil war, which has pitted Iranian proxies against Saudi proxies and has also long been a hotbed of jihadism and al-Qaida activity, offers an additional arena in which IS might attempt to inflame the region’s larger sectarian rivalry. And Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-dominated provinces offer perhaps the most attractive target of all.
There’s no reason to believe the Islamic State will “invade” Saudi Arabia or Iran anytime soon. Indeed, the group never “invaded” Iraq either. But it looks at Saudi Arabia and sees the same cracks that allowed it to seep into Iraqi society. It looks at Iran and sees an opportunity in its regional ambition. It’s a pragmatic approach, and for all the Islamic State’s ideological purity, it is nothing if not pragmatic. It will shift its resources and focus to where its best opportunities for success arise. That’s why it went to Iraq. That’s why it went to Syria.
But the Islamic State is also an ambitious organization. IS knows what it wants its caliphate to look like, and it knows that, however far-fetched its dreams may be, they are no less so than those of the founders of the original caliphate. Expansion, or at least the attempt to expand, is inevitable.
Ambition does not guarantee success, and ultimately, IS does not possess the requisite force necessary to conquer the Middle East. Anytime it gains too much power, a regional power like Turkey or Iran, or a foreign power like the U.S. or Russia, will intervene and cut IS back down to size. Even if they don’t, IS ideology is simply too radical to attract enough people to sustain it indefinitely. Still, the Islamic State will not disappear quickly or quietly, nor will the desire to rally behind a Muslim political identity. Islam is the only thing that has ever united the Arabs into something resembling a nation. This Islamic State may not last, but its very existence suggests the possibility of a future Islamic State in the Middle East.