The Future of the Islamic State
In mid-March, the last Syrian territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant was liberated by the coalition-supported Syrian Democratic Forces. However, this does not mean an end to IS. Terrorist organizations across the globe have pledged allegiance to self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakar al-Baghadi, from Boko Haram in western Africa to the Maute Group in the Philippines. With safe havens stretching from the tribal regions of Yemen to the coastline of eastern Libya and sleeper cells dispersed throughout Iraq and Syria, IS still retains the capabilities to launch devastating attacks on its perceived enemies. IS affiliates in Sri Lanka launched such an attack on Christians worshiping during Easter in the commercial capital of Colombo and other cities throughout the country. Local jihadists, members of a relatively unknown cell, carried out a coordinated strike on multiple targets, catching Sri Lankan security forces by surprise. This type of decentralized action, planned and coordinated without direct orders from IS’s central leadership, will likely be the group’s modus operandi in the future. This development is worrisome, as thousands of former IS fighters have returned back to their home countries from Syria, each of them holding the potential to carry out lone wolf attacks across Europe and Asia.
Combating this new strategy will require a multifaceted approach, in which direct military action from Western powers plays only a minor part. To properly combat the underlying Salafist (a fundamentalist sect of Islam) ideology motivating IS’s fighters, the international community must make concrete efforts to rebuild the Middle East’s economic and social infrastructure and take steps to improve international military cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Years of war and civil unrest have destroyed much of the industries present in the Middle East, other than the extraction and refinement of oil and natural gas. This reliance on the energy sector puts many governments in the region at the mercy of fluctuations in the market. Corruption and reliance on tribal hierarchies also sap the economic strength of many of these countries. The region’s youthful demographics, combined with high unemployment and low economic prospects, creates a fertile recruiting ground for well-funded jihadi outfits. Many IS fighters in Syria were convinced to join in large part due to the promise of steady high wages. Economic development, funded by Western nations and their Gulf State allies, will be critical in eliminating this pool of recruits and bolstering democratic governments throughout the Middle East.
Rather than engaging in direct action against terrorists, Western military forces should continue their strategy of developing and supporting regional allies to carry out missions against jihadist groups in their respective nations. The global war on terror has not led to a diminishment in the strength of terrorist organizations. Rather, each direct Western intervention has been used as a recruitment tool by the very organizations they wish to combat. Even a military intervention with limited troops on the ground, such as the NATO intervention in Libya, was seen as an imperialist campaign and failed to increase regional security. In fact, the bombing campaign coordinated by the French, British and American militaries led to the eventual capture of the cities of Sirte and Benghazi by IS forces. This was due in large part to a lack of coordination with local armed groups. Rather than choosing a powerful faction to back, NATO forces gave uncoordinated support to a hodgepodge group of anti-Gaddafi forces. The model for success in anti-terrorist actions can be found in the current campaign in northeastern Syria. Rather than sending large numbers of conventional troops to eliminate IS positions, NATO forces used special forces, coordinated artillery strikes and superior airpower to assist and support unified partner forces without alienating the native population. This relatively small military presence allows NATO’s local allies, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, to maintain a large degree of operational independence, bolstering their credibility. This strategy also has the advantage of exposing only a small number of Western troops to the dangers of combat. Military action against IS and other such terrorist organizations will have to continue for years, if not decades, to come. A campaign with low levels of casualties will be much more palatable to Western citizens tired of years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Additionally, in order to maintain peace in war-torn Syria, still rife with IS supporters and underground cells, the NATO-led coalition will have to cooperate with the Syrian government and accept that President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the influence of both Russia and Iran, key allies of the Assad regime, has grown throughout the region. Their cooperation will be critical in establishing long-term stability and ensuring IS does not reemerge. America and her allies will be unable to secure this cooperation unless they cease all attempts at fomenting a regime change and allow the Syrian government to reintegrate into the international community. If the United States and its allies continue in their efforts to undermine the sovereign government of Syria, they run the risk of creating a power vacuum, similar to the one in Libya, in which IS and other jihadi elements will reemerge, plunging the region once again into chaos and violence.
Since its proclamation of a worldwide caliphate in 2014, the world has faced the unrestrained savagery of the Islamic State. Eliminating this threat, and ensuring future generations will not have to deal with such terror, must continue to be top priority for international community as a whole.