Aaron Y. Zelin
State (also known as IS, ISIL or ISIS) was dealt serious blows with the loss of
its territorial caliphate in March 2019 and death of its leader, Abu Bakr al
Baghdadi, in October 2019. How have IS members and affiliates responded to the
For IS, the
loss of territory was not necessarily a shock. Since 2016, it has had a plan to
survive the loss of its caliphate that drew on lessons from setbacks between
2007 and 2009. In a speech in May 2016, then IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al
Adnani prepared the group’s supporters to endure another tactical defeat.
“Victory is the defeat of one’s opponent,” he said, “Were we defeated when we
lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? And
would we be defeated [if we lost] Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa? Certainly not! True
defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight.”
prepared its followers for the possibility that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi would be
killed. In November 2016, Baghdadi warned, “Know that if some of your leaders
are killed, then God will replace them with those who are equal or better than
them. God will not neglect you, so do not be disheartened. Truly, God is with
hardcore IS supporters are unlikely to be deterred by these setbacks. However,
the loss of territory has hampered its ability to recruit new followers locally
and globally to the same degree witnessed in 2012-2015, when their message of
winning and momentum propelled them to new heights on top of the Caliphate
How has IS
dealt with the losses in its messaging?
2019, when IS was losing the Syrian town of Baghuz, its last sliver of
territory, then spokesman Abu al Hasan al Muhajir declared, “By God’s grace,
the sons of the Caliphate continue to prove that they are the firm and solid
rock on which will break the alliance of infidels...They will retreat...in
disgrace and shame.” He said this in the context of explaining that the loss
was just a test from God to help purify the group’s ranks: “Victory comes with
patience, comfort comes with suffering...With patience comes certainty in the
responded to the loss of territory in his April 2019 video message, which was
only the second time he showed his face during his nine years as leader of IS.
He praised those who fought in the way of God against what he described as the
“brutality of the Crusaders.” He reiterated that the current fight “is one of
attrition” that will hinder the “enemy” in the long run. Abu Bakr also
highlighted the activities that its external wilayat (provinces) were
undertaking outside Iraq and Syria to illustrate the continued resolve of the
organization and that the loss of territory was not the end to IS. He said it
was just a new phase.
the losses affected IS’s ability to recruit fighters—or keep its forces intact?
aftermath of IS’s territorial losses, it started a video campaign entitled “And
The [Best] Outcome Is For The Righteous” to reaffirm pledges of allegiance to
al Baghdadi. The purpose was for affiliates within IS’s global network to show
that they remained with the organization. The campaign garnered support from
core branches in Iraq, Syria as well as outlying provinces and supporters in
Bangladesh, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Somalia,
Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Philippines, Egypt
Baghdadi’s death, IS again launched a picture essay campaign showing fighting
forces in its “provinces” pledging baya (religious oath of allegiance) to the
new IS leader Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurashi. They included branches in
Egypt, Bangladesh, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Tunisia,
Nigeria, Philippines, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina
Faso, Iraq, Libya, Indonesia, and Azerbaijan.
the campaign for two reasons. First, pledges are leader-specific rather than
group-specific and thus need to be renewed with each succession. Secondly, it
was a way to legitimize al Qurashi’s rule and create a media event so that the
group could promote itself as it transitioned to a new phase. The process was
important for the legitimacy of its leadership and to weed out potential
insubordination before it manifested into something larger, as it had when IS
rebelled against al Qaeda in the past.
any evidence of ISIS splintering or defecting to other groups, including al
has not been any evidence of this thus far.
the Pentagon estimated that 14,000 to 18,000 IS fighters remained in Iraq and
Syria. What are they doing? What are their goals?
continued to operate as an insurgency in both countries. They are biding their
time to try and breakout prisoners and potentially retake territory. Through a
war of attrition (istinzaf), they believe they will wear out their enemies.
They are also taking advantage of any spaces that are out of the reach of the
central government or sit on political, ethnic, or religious fault lines, which
they hope to exploit
fall of Baghuz at the end of March 2019 and December 12, IS claimed
responsibility for more than 1,500 operations in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, it
in Deir al Zour,
129 in Hasaka,
37 in Homs,
and 3 in
the group claimed:
54 in Salah
and 27 in
might seem impressive, but the group is not nearly as active as it was at its
height from 2014 to 2016. As of November
2019, the number of monthly attacks in Iraq was at its lowest since the U.S.
invaded Iraq in 2003, according to Joel Wing, a specialist on Iraq.
they most active? Are there new bases of operations or concentrations of
IS has been
most active in Deir al Zour province in Syria and Diyala province in Iraq. The
group has taken advantage of areas with weak governance and used them as bases
to rebuild. IS outlined its insurgent strategy goals in a series of articles in
its weekly al Naba newsletter in late spring 2019.
been focused on:
Enemy Forces In Weak Areas
And Disappearing At Will
locations for short periods of time for supplies and executing enemies (village
elders, tribal leaders, those working with their enemies)
spoils of war after inflicting harm on the enemy
of those being sent in as reinforcements via improvised explosive devices
(IEDs) and ambushes,
safe withdrawal methods and knowing the proper exits
to safe shelters.
known about Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al Hashemi al Qurashi? Are there
any other leaders of note emerging?
known about IS’s new leader except that he is a member of the Quraysh tribe
(the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad), which provides him lineal credibility to
become a caliph. Abu Ibrahim is described by Abu Hamzah al Qurashi, IS’s newest
official spokesperson, as a religious scholar (‘alim min al ‘Ulama) who “fought
against the protector of the Cross, America,” probably in Iraq. His religious
and military background provides credibility among IS supporters. There are
rumours that Abu Ibrahim could be the nom de guerre of Amir Muhammad Sa’id ‘Abd
al-Rahman al-Mawla (Hajji ‘Abd Allah), although it has yet to be confirmed.
How is ISIS
financing its operations, paying its staff, and buying materiel given the loss
of assets and control of Syrian oil fields?
longer has as many expenditures since it’s not running a state. But the group
“is left with significant residual wealth, estimated to be as much as $300
million… [and] encouraging increased financial self-sufficiency throughout its
[Wilayat],” according to a U.N. report in July 2019. Since it lost its last
stronghold in Baghuz, IS has reinvested its funds in legitimate businesses,
such as real estate and car dealerships. A number of them have been in Turkey,
according to the U.S. Treasury, which has designated IS individuals and
transfer/exchange companies. In September 2019, Turkey broke up some of these
IS has also
maintained extortion schemes through kidnapping-for-ransom; taxing human
trafficking and oil supply line routes; selling different assets on the black
market; taking advantage of corruption from reconstruction efforts in western
Iraq; and requiring zakat (obligatory religious almsgiving tax) payments from
locals when they take over towns for short periods of time.
Headline: After Losses, Islamic State Plots Comeback
Source: The Washington Institute