By Nirupama Subramanian
April 1, 2019
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
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
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
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 Vote [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, is 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.
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.
Rukmini Callimachi explains: What the
fall of the last ISIS village in Syria means
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
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
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
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
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
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.