As the coronavirus has swept the Middle East and the rest of the world, a once-notorious terrorist group has all but disappeared from the headlines. In the years since an international coalition led by the United States crushed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has resembled al-Qaeda: a fractious network of cells across the Muslim world with little reach outside their countries. The militants who made a name for themselves by conquering cities, implementing religious law, and striking at the heart of the Western world no longer have that newsworthy claim to fame.
In 2017, ISIS lost its Iraqi stronghold in Mosul to the Iraqi Security Forces. That same year, the militants abandoned their Syrian capital in Raqqa after a summer offensive by Kurdish militias and their American patrons. In 2019, the Kurdish fighters announced the “total elimination of” ISIS in the wake of the militants’ “territorial defeat” in Baghouz, ISIS’ last foothold in Syria. The terrorist group that billed itself as al-Qaeda’s successor flew too close to the sun.
While ISIS started as al-Qaeda’s military branch in Iraq amid Iraqi insurgents’ campaign against Western soldiers in the country throughout the 2000s, ISIS exercised a unique level of autonomy and pursued its own brand of militancy. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan focused its reign of terror against the West―a vision championed by Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11. ISIS, however, also attacked Muslims who failed to follow its medieval interpretation of Islam. Shias in particular fell victim to suicide attacks and ISIS’ other tools of political violence.
In a 2004 letter, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the second in command of al-Qaeda, pleaded with ISIS to avoid further attacks against Shias. Al-Zawahiri worried that Muslims would begin to see the militants as targeting them rather than American troops in Iraq. ISIS, operating under the banner of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” back then, ignored al-Zawahiri and in 2006 planned a suicide attack on one of the holiest mosques in Shiism, the al-Askari Shrine. A second bombing followed in 2007.
ISIS’ streak of independence culminated in 2014, when the terrorist group broke from al-Qaeda and declared a caliphate.
ISIS’ streak of independence culminated in 2014, when the terrorist group broke from al-Qaeda and declared a caliphate. Whereas al-Qaeda had a history of working with like-minded militants in the Taliban and other terrorist groups, ISIS’ establishment of a caliphate, a world government for all Muslims, implied that every other group of extremists aspiring to an Islamic state lacked legitimacy. Al-Zawahiri, in turn, distanced al-Qaeda from ISIS’ stunning announcement.
The leadership of ISIS wasted little time putting its words into action. The militants’ declaration of a caliphate only came after a military sweep in which they captured a third of Iraq, providing ISIS an opportunity to execute its vision on what amounted to a captive audience. The militants horrified the international community with their ultraconservative approach to religious law as they beheaded Shias, burned captives, stoned adulterers, threw gay men from rooftops, and even tossed children into combat. ISIS’ tactics had few precedents among militants.
The world’s best-known terrorist group accompanied the rapid expansion of its territory in Iraq and Syria with headline-grabbing suicide attacks against targets in the Middle East and the West. A 2015 strike on Paris, a plot that few Westerners thought ISIS capable of engineering, killed no fewer than 130. The same year, an ISIS bombing in Beirut led to 43 dead and more than 200 wounded. ISIS’ caliphate wanted to demonstrate the extent of its influence.
Since the 2000s, al-Qaeda had failed to conduct the kind of head-turning attacks that generated enthusiasm among militants intent on building an Islamic government.
Since the 2000s, al-Qaeda had failed to conduct the kind of head-turning attacks that generated enthusiasm among militants intent on building an Islamic government. ISIS, on the other hand, fast gained a following across the world among extremists inspired by its territorial growth and global reach. ISIS established cells from Libya to the Philippines, where ISIS loyalists captured the city of Marawi in 2017. Even Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group long seen as loyal to al-Qaeda, pledged allegiance to ISIS’ reclusive first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
As of 2020, ISIS no longer boasts the military and political infrastructure that once allowed the terrorist group to differentiate itself from al-Qaeda. Last year, American soldiers managed to kill al-Baghdadi after finding him hiding in the Syrian countryside. Al-Baghdadi’s ignominious death highlighted how far ISIS had fallen from the relevance that it enjoyed prior to 2017. By then, the terrorist group neither held territory nor plotted major attacks outside the Middle East.
ISIS has in many ways come to resemble al-Qaeda, which has struggled to control its franchises. In 2016, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing split from the organization to pursue its own path, a devastating blow when ISIS left just two years earlier. In a similar fashion, little evidence suggests that ISIS has any meaningful control of its branches in Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries. For its part, Boko Haram never integrated itself into ISIS’ wider structure, and the Nigerian insurgents have in fact resorted to infighting between anti- and pro-ISIS factions in recent years.
ISIS’ new commanders seem to have lost their appetite for organizing strikes against the West themselves.
Just as al-Qaeda’s leadership has outsourced the execution of suicide attacks beyond the Muslim world to otherwise autonomous offshoots such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ISIS’ new commanders seem to have lost their appetite for organizing strikes against the West themselves. Though ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing in Sri Lanka that killed 269 last year, nothing indicates that the terrorist group did more than inspire the unaffiliated bombers.
Today, ISIS looks like al-Qaeda, a brand that other militants cite to advance their own causes in their own countries. Though ISIS’ leadership is still waging a sputtering insurgency in Iraq and Syria, the news media pays the terrorist group little attention. The handful of headlines that ISIS does receive seem far more likely to provoke laughter than awe or fear: “ISIS, Weakened, Finds New Bombers: Cows Wearing Explosive Vests.” If even The New York Times is mocking ISIS, the terrorist group might have fallen into the ash heap of history. Al-Qaeda already has.