The so-called Islamic caliphate, Daesh (ISIS), is considered a leap in the world of global terrorism. Even after military defeat, the prominence of the Daesh model and the harsh reality on the ground, make the return of Daesh, or a Daesh-like group, a likely possibility in the future.
Daesh’s model maintains prominence among the global jihadi movement, with its unprecedented levels of recruitment, specifically of foreign terrorist fighters, sophisticated use of media, expanded role of women and children, established territorial foothold, and abundant financial resources. Therefore, it will not subside with the group’s mere military defeat, even if this defeat was coupled with territorial loss.
In both Syria and Iraq, Daesh emerged to fill a security void and correct perceived injustices leveled against Sunnis. Three years after the declaration of the so-called Islamic Caliphate, these phenomena have only widened, with the disenfranchised and vulnerable feeling the greatest impact.
Citizens currently living under the caliphate have experienced a move from an ordinary, albeit difficult, life to one of arbitrary terror and fear. They have lost their careers and homes, and lagged behind on education. When Daesh reached northern Iraq, the whole region was turned pitch-black; hundreds of factories were damaged and destroyed, food production dropped as a large number of farmers were pushed outside their fertile farmland by Daesh, and as a result of the military offense against Daesh, all basic services – electricity, water and communication were interrupted. The region, and much of the country, was left in ruins.
This harsh reality bodes well for what Daesh has proven adept at: reinventing itself, building new strategies and tapping into local, national, and regional circumstances to serve its project.
Three years ago, when damage was not as severe, internal displacement was more muted and the conflict seemed somewhat salvageable, Daesh shocked the world in how quickly and efficiently it established a foothold over large swaths of territory. Its principal assets – the savvy use of online communications technology and diverse sources of income – underlines its resilience and flexibility.
Indeed, current circumstances provide even more fertile ground for Daesh than in 2014. The region’s legacy of weak governance, social injustice, coupled with the deep ethnic, and sectarian and tribal splits, are more pronounced than ever before.
This implies a disturbing trajectory. Certainly, military defeat will undermine Daesh’s influence by halting its advance and control over land and civilian population groups. But it is unlikely to extinguish the group or its influence, nor prevent it from dispersing itself in new locales. It is also plausible that loss of territory will push them to increase their activities online (recruitment, cyberattacks, fear-based campaigns etc.). In parallel, the group may resort to activating sleeper cells across the region and beyond.
The rationale is quite simple. The socio-political conditions that drove Daesh’s evolution have not changed, and its evolution has created a new political and social reality in the Middle East. This reality manifests itself through a highly complex and fragile environment whereby factors such as the political fallouts from the national Kurdish question, the prolonged conflict in Syria, the crippling sectarianism in Iraq, and broader Sunni-Shiite strife in the region are all at play.
Indeed, Daesh is an idea, and this idea is proving to be bulletproof, even if the bullet takes the form of an international coalition with unmatched militaristic capability and resources. Disarming the hearts and empowering the minds is a battle the region is yet to wage. Hence, it is naive to say farewell to the Daesh 1.0 model, for conditions on the ground suggest that Daesh 2.0 is a not so distant probability.
Barik Mhadeen is a researcher at the WANA Institute, specializing in Human Security and Countering Violent Extremism.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 07, 2017, on page 7.