By Peter Hartcher
March 12, 2019
It began on the weekend. It's expected to be the final assault. Even if it proves to be one of several final assaults, the very last vestiges of the so-called "caliphate" are about to be wiped out. A few years ago the caliphate covered an area the size of Britain, measured in tens of thousands of square kilometres. Today it's last fighters defend an area the size of a suburban shopping mall, down to its final hundreds of metres.
The barbarians of Daesh, who prefer us to honour them with the title of Islamic State, established their killers' kingdom in anticipation of the glorious Koranic End of Days when they would vanquish the evil unbelievers for all time. Instead, it is their caliphate facing the end of its days. Daesh's third-world theocracy is dying with the same nobility in which it was born - the remaining fighters reportedly are using civilians as human shields.
The infant son of Shamima Begum, a British teenager who left London to join the Islamic State group in Syria, has died.
By contrast, the hard-fighting Kurds who are burying the last shreds of the "caliphate" under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been painstaking in avoiding killing civilians, halting fighting to allow some 40,000 of them to flee safely in recent weeks, and even offering safe passage to Daesh fighters who wish to leave. It is a degree of humanity that Daesh has never shown.
The creation of the "caliphate" was a significant achievement. It occupied large swaths of Syria and Iraq and, at its peak, contained some 9 million people and embraced the once-great city of Mosul. It was an electrifying moment for the jihadi movement because it was the first time that a caliphate had existed since the Ottoman Empire.
Daesh's leader, whose nom-de-jihad is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dressed like an imam and speaking from a mosque, sought to mobilise Muslims worldwide to his cause. "O Muslims everywhere," he said, "raise your head high, for today – by Allah's grace – you have a state and Khilafah [caliphate], which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership." Of course, there was nothing dignified about the butchery it practised on everyone it could, including real Muslims, in its government by gore.
But if it had stood, the "caliphate" would have remained a powerful rallying point for the violent extremists and a potent threat against civilisation and security worldwide. Its armed fighters, a force peaking at more than 50,000 men, would have continued to grow, and Daesh's ambitions with them.
So we should take a moment to celebrate its defeat. It was achieved through international co-operation and it took nearly five years. The anti-IS coalition is led by the US and contains 79 countries.
But only a moment. Because Daesh and its "caliphate" are merely the most recent recrudescence of a much older idea of a vengeful revival of Islamic glory. They will not be the last. Islamist terrorism changes its form but does not lose its virulence. It's now entering its fourth transformation in contemporary times. It is in a rapid phoenix cycle of defeat and rebirth that has been underway for a quarter century.
The Taliban rose and occupied Afghanistan. It was subdued but begat al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda rose and bombed US cities. It was subdued but begat Daesh. Daesh rose and declared a caliphate in the Middle East. Daesh's caliphate was subdued but begat terrorist attacks worldwide and set up a new attempt at a sub-caliphate in South East Asia, based in the Philippines, until it, too, was crushed.
It is not a group but an idea. A shape-shifting movement of individuals, groups and governments is continuously forming, disbanding and reforming around that idea. The movement is now more widespread globally than ever. The world awaits the full result of this latest transformation.
Why is it so persistent? Because it is a desperate effort to solve a real problem: "What the Middle East needs right now is a secular force that dreams a secular dream. At the moment, the only 'dream' is the caliphate," writes the chair of the Quilliam think tank, Maajid Nawaz, a reformed extremist who went on to advise British prime ministers Labor and Tory alike on counterterrorism.
But until that happens, the disaffected and desperate will continue to be drawn to the ideology of Islamist fundamentalism. And some power-seeking clique, Daesh or another, will be happy to embrace them.
An over-exuberant declaration of "mission accomplished" would be a mistake. In December, Donald Trump declared Deash defeated and announced the withdrawal of all US forces from Syria. His defence secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned in protest. Under pressure from the US Congress and the Pentagon, Trump has since realised his error. In recent days he is reported to have agreed to keep a small US stabilising force in Syria to guard against a Daesh revival.
His commander for the region, General Joseph Votel, told a Congressional hearing last week: "The ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.
"We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organisation."
Including to Australia's north. The Daesh-inspired takeover of the Philippines city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao in 2017 was eventually defeated by the Philippines army, with some help from Australia. In fact, Australia stands as one of only three countries to assist in the defeat of Daesh in the Middle East and the Philippines, together with the US and UK.
The Philippines national government agreed to give the region some limited autonomy and a new local government was elected in January, but it's an unsteady effort facing great difficulties. "ISIS has left behind the ideal of an Islamic state," regional terrorism expert Sidney Jones tells me. "For some Muslims in Mindanao that can be an attractive option if this current experiment in autonomy fails. We hope it doesn't happen but it's now on the table as an option. It didn't exist before."
The caliphate is dead. Long live the caliphate.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.