The Islamic State (IS) grew out of an insurgency in Iraq, and was affiliated with al-Qaeda until 2014. By that time, it had established a foothold in Iraq and Syria. In June 2014, in a spectacular series of military victories that awed and shocked the world, it seized more than 50 places, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city — demonstrating along the way brutality of an order rarely seen in the history of terrorism. From then through the end of 2016, the IS achieved military dominance in almost every province of Syria and across northern and central Iraq, drawing fighters from countries across the world. At its peak, the group ruled 127 important places in a territory the size of Portugal, which included dozens of cities and towns, collecting taxes and exercising control over military bases, border crossings, oil fields and dams.
From mid-2016, however, the IS began to suffer a steady stream of reverses. In July, the Iraqi government announced that it had retaken control of Mosul after three years of Islamic State rule and a brutal nine-month battle. Much of Mosul — which had huge symbolic significance for the IS as the place where the Caliphate was pronounced — was destroyed. Iraqi forces believed the IS game was over with Mosul’s fall, and soon afterward, they captured Tal Afar and Hawija. Last week, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed militia group made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs, announced they had seized Raqqa, the IS capital in Syria.
Is it the end of the Islamic State, then?
No, say analysts, its dramatic losses and the shrinking of its territory to a handful of outposts notwithstanding. An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 militants remain in Iraq and Syria, and still control vital areas along the Euphrates. For a while now, the IS has been shifting tactics and returning to its insurgent roots. Analysts say it will continue to have some local support and the ability to carry out attacks throughout the region. The networks will survive and the insurgency will continue in these areas, probably under a different brand, they say.
Outside of the Middle East, Afghanistan, where the government’s fight against the Taliban is floundering, has been seen as a potential IS base. And of course, the IS is expected to continue to be a threat to Western countries, perhaps chiefly in the form of militants who are inspired or enabled by the group to strike at home, as evidenced by the recent attacks in Britain and Barcelona. So-called lone wolf attacks overseas do not require the IS to control cities or vast territories.
As the IS is losing, what is happening to its fighters?
Over the past four years, American officials estimate, some 40,000 fighters from more than 120 countries poured into the battles in Syria and Iraq. Of the over 5,000 Europeans who joined those ranks, some 1,500 have returned home, including many women and children. Most of the rest are dead or still fighting, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s top counterterrorism official, has said. Some probably escaped to new battlegrounds in Libya or the Philippines.
Thousands have surrendered — some, like in Hawija, almost without a fight. Several hundreds surrendered in both Raqqa and Tal Afar. To Kurdish and Iraqi interrogators, many of those who surrendered claimed to be only cooks or clerks, or to have joined the IS only recently. In general, the IS’s famed ferociousness has not been in evidence in defeat in most cases.
Where is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS?
No one knows for sure. Baghdadi declared himself Caliph in the summer of 2014, on the back of the IS’s dizzying military victories and that July, a video emerged of him leading prayers at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul (above). His only available recent images are from this video — and he has escaped detection in spite of a $ 25 million reward put on his head by the US.
In November 2014, May 2015, and December 2015, IS released audios purportedly of speeches by Baghdadi. In November 2016, before the final battle for Mosul, he was heard telling his soldiers in a new audio that “holding your ground in honour is a thousand times better than retreating in disgrace”. Through 2017’s first half, as the IS suffered defeats, there was silence from Baghdadi. In June, with Iraqi forces poised to take central Mosul, Russia claimed that he may have been killed in an airstrike that it carried out in Syria on May 28. But the US remained sceptical, saying chatter levels on IS channels did not match up to news of such magnitude. On August 31, the seniormost US commander in Baghdad told reporters, “I really don’t know where he is… So, therefore, I believe he’s alive.”
On September 28, IS released a 45-minute audio on the al-Furqan media channel in which Baghdadi was heard mocking the US and declaring that despite losses, the Islamic State “remains”. At the time, US officials were quoted as saying they believed Baghdadi was hiding somewhere in the Euphrates valley, the last remaining bit of territory controlled by the IS on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
President Donald Trump claims he has done “far more against ISIS in nine months” than President Barack Obama did during his entire administration. Has he, indeed?
In January, when Trump took office, the IS controlled about 60,300 sq km of territory; in October, after the fall of Raqqa, this is down to 24,000 sq km. Operation Inherent Resolve, the war against the IS that Obama started in 2014, gained in ferocity after Trump loosened battlefield engagement rules to give commanders on the ground more authority in day-to-day decisions. That said, it was always anticipated that the war would ultimately reach this point, especially given the determination and bravery of local Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian fighters on the ground.