How important was territory to the IS, and what does the loss of that territory mean for it?
ISIS has been in Iraq since the 2000s. For a long time it held no territory at all. But it was a no less deadly or destructive force then. In many ways, the Caliphate period is an anomaly, an outlier if you look at the arc of the group’s history. Starting in 2014, it took large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, and that was the time when it declared itself the Caliphate. At one time, it was literally the size of Great Britain.
It collected taxes from millions of people and that allowed them to become the world’s richest terrorist group. It used that safe haven to make a number of innovations including learning how to manufacture their own weapons, their own rockets and mortars. That made it self-sufficient. So territory was crucial to the height they reached as a terrorist organisation.
The loss of territory means they no longer have the ability to collect taxes, they no longer have the most visible symbol of their brand which allowed them to recruit tens of thousands of foreign fighters.
But ISIS lives on and today it is much stronger than it was in 2011, when American troops pulled out of Iraq and the group was considered defeated. At that point, CIA estimated that the group had just 700 fighters. Now according to General Joseph Votel [the top US general overseeing military operations in the Middle East], it has tens of thousands of fighters, and is present as a physical insurgency in Iraq and Syria and remains as deadly and as destructive a terrorist forces as it was.
When I was in Syria in February [to report on the battle to liberate Baghuz, the last piece of land under ISIS control], we had to travel 100 miles over a highway that had been liberated years ago to reach Baghuz. And yet every week, there are ambushes and IED attacks on that road by ISIS. My driver was more scared to drive that highway that had been liberated than he was of going to the frontline in Baghuz.
When the coalition forces liberate an area, there’s a honeymoon period when ISIS fighters retreat, and there are no attacks. But after coalition forces withdraw, it becomes an area of insecurity, it becomes an area that is under threat from the ISIS. They may not be able to hold a city, but they threaten a city; they may not be able to hold a road, but they threaten a road.
In December of 2017, the Prime Minister of Iraq declared ISIS had been defeated. In just the 10 months since then, there have been over 1,270 attacks in Iraq.
What reaction from ISIS can we expect to this loss? A regrouping to take back territory? Is it capable of that? Or does it decide now that it is far easier to be an amorphous organisation with members, franchises all across the world?
In the way people seem to think about ISIS, there is this dichotomy — that ISIS is either territory, or it is an idea in people’s heads. That misses the piece in between. ISIS continues to exist as a physical insurgency, in Iraq and Syria.
It has lost its territory but it still has thousands of ISIS fighters just in Iraq and Syria. And that’s not counting their presence outside Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s Khorasan province, its province in East Asia in the Philippines, ISIS’s West Africa province, are not ideas in the heads of people. These are groups that are robust on the ground and there is enough evidence to suggest that there is connective tissue between the affiliates and ISIS’s core group in Iraq and Syria.
A claim of an attack in Afghanistan put up by ISIS’s affiliate uses the same template as a claim of attack by ISIS in Iraq or Syria. That shows that ISIS is at a minimum coordinating the media output of its far-flung branches.
Where is ISIS strongest now outside of Iraq and Syria?
ISIS’s presence is strong and growing in Afghanistan, in the Philippines and in West Africa. Anecdotally we are seeing evidence of some foreign fighters travelling to these outposts instead of Iraq and Syria, suggesting a pattern. The estimates we have in Afghanistan is that they have 2,500 fighters, according to a recent United Nations report. They are present from Nangarhar to Kunar and Kabul.
Where is all the money that ISIS collected?
No one really knows, but some of the ISIS operatives that were caught fleeing ISIS’s last territory in Syria were carrying huge amounts of cash, like $20,000. There are also reports that ISIS has invested some of its cash in local businesses.
And where is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and how strong is his hold over ISIS now?
No one really knows where Baghdadi is but the working theory is that he is somewhere in Iraq and Syria. He is the Caliph of the Islamic State, and he is the person to whom every fighter pledges his allegiance and so he remains an important symbol for the group.
Is it correct that ISIS not been able to grow in Afghanistan because of a pushback from the Taliban? And in a situation where the Taliban may well be in power in Kabul, are governments now dependent on the Taliban to keep Daesh out of Afghanistan?
I am surprised that you think ISIS has not grown in Afghanistan. Remember, in 2011, according to the CIA there were only around 700 ISIS fighters in Iraq. There are several multiples of that in Afghanistan today. The Taliban and ISIS are groups that are at odds, and the Taliban has been fighting ISIS for some time. This is not a new development.
What about India? The country has the third largest Muslim population in the world, yet it has managed to keep ISIS down to less than 100. Do you think in its post-territory phase, ISIS would be looking at India?
India is in many ways an example of countering radicalisation. You have close to 200 million Muslims and less than 100 persons have travelled to join the group in Iraq and Syria. Compare that to Tajikistan, a country that has a Muslim population of 9 million. And over 1,300 of them have travelled to join ISIS.
There have been of late numerous acts of violence against Muslims in India as well as the BJP rhetoric against Islam — which creates fertile ground for radicalisation, but to me the low numbers clearly point to the fact that despite the difficulties, the country still seems to be doing something right. It speaks to the plurality of your society that the ISIS message has not seeped down.
There have been frequent arrests of ISIS suspects…
There were media reports of arrests made late last year [in December] and though I have not read the intelligence reports on that, the plot had a sophistication that suggested that the Khorasan province must be looking at India.
You have written about how the so-called lone wolves arrested in India in 2016 were not really so, but were being mentored and guided extensively down to arranging weapons by their online recruiters.
The style of the attacks that were being plotted in Hyderabad was entirely remote-controlled, by ISIS operatives based abroad. That style of attack seems to have been contingent on a safe haven in the Islamic State somewhere in Syria. It was a low-risk, low-cost manoeuvre. How the loss of territory affects that kind of operation, we have yet to see. We have evidence that they have moved resources to Khorasan and Libya. Is the remote-controlled style of attacks going to find another safe haven somewhere else?
There is also the Rohingya issue which must be attractive to ISIS…
ISIS is always pushing a narrative of Muslim victimhood, but one of the ironies is that their message has been most receptive amongst Muslims that have experienced little or no discrimination themselves. Take Huzayfah, the Canadian recruit profiled in Caliphate, who explains that he and his family were treated well in Canada, and yet he decided to join the group. By contrast, Muslim communities that have experienced real trauma and true discrimination have been almost immune to ISIS recruitment. I do not know of a single Rohingya Muslim that has joined ISIS and the number of Uighur Muslims from China that have joined ISIS are miniscule.
This is where I think ISIS propaganda falls flat. So while the Rohingya and the Uighurs are experiencing great suffering and hardship, I have not seen anything to suggest that ISIS has made any real inroads there.
How serious is the ISIS threat in Kashmir? There have been ISIS flags on occasion, but also the feeling that Daesh does not pose a threat in Kashmir…
In most of the countries that have had an ISIS attack, local authorities initially deny the ISIS presence. Take Bangladesh. The attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka was by the Islamic State and we know this because as the attack was ongoing, the militants were able to send photos from inside the venue directly to ISIS’s central media apparatus. The wholesale denial of ISIS’s role by Bangladesh, even though the attackers were posting in real time on ISIS’s official media, is just ludicrous. On the Telegram chatrooms that I am in — these are authentic ISIS chatrooms — I have seen the ISIS flag being displayed in Kashmir. While the extent of ISIS’s support in the Valley is unclear and the amount of coordination they have with ISIS’s central organisation is unknown, I think denying the presence outright would not be correct.