The world’s most infamous terrorist organization is once again back in the limelight. The so-called Islamic State (IS aka ISIS or ISIL), known colloquially in the Middle East as Da’esh, is both on the defensive and offensive – staging complex prison breaks, as happened in January. The group is now nursing its wounds in the aftermath of the killing of its top leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Yet, there is no doubt that the terrorist organization will likely move quickly to select a new Caliph as it attempts to recover.
The group is now nursing its wounds in the aftermath of the killing of its top leader.
From the moment IS destroyed the sand barriers dividing Syria and Iraq with bulldozers in the summer of 2014, to its slow and punishing defeat at Baghuz in the Euphrates River Valley over February and March of 2019, the group has – against all odds – repeatedly demonstrated its ruthless determination and resourcefulness.
This has left many observers wondering whether IS can mount an effective comeback in the region that would allow it to pose a significant threat to security in Iraq and Syria. What can the United States and its international partners do to prevent IS from regaining strength in the long run? The complicated answer is to be found across various security, political, and humanitarian issues that must all be considered.
Unresolved Conflicts and the Changing Nature of Jihad
Even though the Islamic State no longer has control over the vast amount of territory that it once referred to as its Caliphate, it still has plenty of ungoverned spaces to operate in. At the heart of the issues surrounding the group’s ability to reconstitute itself is the political situation in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State cells in the Syrian desert have demonstrated their ability to not only hide and recruit but also to carry out a wave of deadly ambushes and assassinations on members of the Syrian regime and fighters belonging to the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.
In Iraq, the disputed territories that lie between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the central government in Baghdad, such as around Kirkuk, offer IS plenty of diverse terrains to hide and plan attacks. The wadis, gorges, caves, and the Hamreen Mountains are where the Iraqi security forces are being challenged to root out and destroy the terrorists’ presence.
IS has also been active in the Iraqi-Kurdish Makhmour region near Erbil and killed several members of the Peshmerga (Kurdish branch of the Iraqi Armed Forces) in December. While large-scale attacks on Iraqi civilians in urban areas are now rare, a double suicide bombing in Baghdad in January 2021 killed 32 and wounded more than 100 innocent people.
IS has suffered from numerous setbacks, but it is possible the group has new tricks up its sleeve.
IS has indeed likely suffered from numerous setbacks, but it is possible the group has new tricks up its sleeve that will take some time to fully play out. For instance, the last few years have seen an astonishingly new and more sophisticated type of jihadist emerge.
For example, in Syria’s Idlib Province, the powerful militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) severed ties with Al Qaeda in 2016 and since then has sought to establish positive relations with the West. The group has even put an emphasis on providing public services, security, and political pragmatism in order to foster a kinder and gentler image to the outside world.
HTS is currently waging a campaign of arrests against foreign fighters in Idlib. In the past, such moves have led some jihadists to question whether there is a tacit cooperation agreement between foreign intelligence services and HTS to remove some of the Islamist elements that have a more international operational outlook.
IS could begin to rebrand itself in a similar fashion in order to ease up the military pressure it faces and attract new recruits from other jihadist groups. Recapturing some territory and holding it will be paramount for the group to return to the former glory of its state-building prominence. It is also possible that women could play a stronger role in the group’s future.
IS could rebrand itself to ease up the military pressure it faces and attract new recruits from other jihadist groups.
As more of Islamic State’s veteran leaders from the post-2003 insurgency era are eliminated, younger and perhaps more dynamic figures will rise up through the organization. The IS we knew in 2015 could look very different from the IS we see in 2025. As long as the Syrian conflict remains politically unresolved and militarily frozen, IS will find opportunities to explore new avenues to rebuild its presence.
Prisons, Sanctions, and Shifting Alliances
One of the most important actions the United States and the international community should take is to make a concerted effort to resolve the issue of the prisons filled with IS fighters and their family members in the aftermath of the Caliphate’s collapse. Especially appalling is the large number of children being held in the refugee/detention camps – such as the Syrian camp Al Hol – in extremely dismal conditions. It is in this environment that the imprisoned youth are becoming the next generation to be exposed to IS’ ideology.
The militants are likely to continue staging attacks on prisons holding IS fighters in order to replenish their ranks.
These prisons are being left to the SDF who are overburdened and cannot maintain long-term control of a large number of dangerous prisoners. The militants are highly likely to continue staging new attacks on prisons holding IS fighters in order to replenish their ranks. European countries have been especially reluctant to repatriate their citizens who are IS suspects, along with any relatives they might have. That cannot go on.
The international community must take urgent action and send teams to the prison camps to document and identify each individual being held in order to facilitate a transfer back to their home countries where they can face justice or be rehabilitated into society. Shamima Begum, who traveled to Syria as a teenager in 2015 from the UK, is one such example the British government should return immediately.
In addition, the international sanctions that are currently in place on Syria – with the aim of punishing President Bashar al-Assad and his regime for the countless war crimes they have perpetrated – are in fact amounting to a brutal form of collective punishment for all Syrian citizens. Poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness will only further drive anti-regime Sunni Arabs to the ranks of IS.
Poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness only further drive anti-regime Sunni Arabs to the ranks of IS.
It is highly unlikely the United States and European nations are prepared to lift the sanctions unless a political transition in Damascus occurs, even as the rest of the region is moving towards normalization with the regime. In the short run, this Arab rapprochement is an unpleasant pill for the West to swallow. However, in the long run, permitting Syria to recover and alleviate its economic stagnation would do well to help curb the influence of the Islamic State.
The United States and its international partners will continue to be engaged in military operations against the militant group, as demonstrated recently. Enhancing intelligence capabilities and coordination between the various regional actors is key, but more must be done in order to confront a complex situation.
Ultimately, the future could see the Western countries attempt to form new alliances with unsavory actors, such as HTS or the Syrian regime, in order to keep the Islamic State off-balance in future phases of the Syrian conflict.
The ongoing tensions between the West and Iran, the struggle for power in Baghdad and Damascus, the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds, and the ever-evolving politics and ideologies of the jihadist groups will push policymakers to broaden their understanding on how to confront, contain, and protect the Middle East from the next major terrorist threat.
Promoting political stability, diplomacy, local reconciliations, economic recovery, and humanitarian interests must be tied directly to the fight against terrorism.