In August, U.S. President Barack Obama reassured the Pentagon that the Islamic State will “inevitably be defeated.” U.S. government officials, generals, and pundits have been debating what could happen when the group is defeated in Iraq and Syria and have been hard at work penning ISIS obituaries. Based on my recent study, the first systematic review of over 150 Arabic language publications that the group has released since it announced a caliphate in June 2014 (which includes the nearly 100 textbooks it released last fall), it seems that ISIS as a lethal idea will stick around long after it will be driven out of Raqqa.
Put differently, while ISIS will eventually expire as a state, it will continue to “inspire” terrorism as an idea with lethal implications. Indeed, perhaps ensuring that the intellectual arsenal it is building outlives its territorial state, the group has published lengthy commentaries and manuals of religious guidance just as it suffered its greatest territorial defeats over the last few months. This is why the very idea of a promised caliphate will continue to inspire attacks when an actual one is no longer around.
Without its strongholds in Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, ISIS will not disappear but will splinter into territorial and terrorist offshoots. ISIS pockets could either regroup in unstable areas of the region, as has already been demonstrated in Libya, or stir trouble in places with symbolic resonance, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Further, these offshoots would market themselves as more purist than the territorial Islamic State had been to gain traction among jihadists.
However, where its brand will be distinct from that of al Qaeda affiliates is in its ability to inspire lone wolf attacks – a unique marketing strategy that it has pioneered by creating a literary canon around not just violence but more mundane aspects of the group’s exclusivist definition of Islam, as I have documented in my report. Where ISIS’s deliberate strategy of building a territorial caliphate-state will flounder, its emergent strategy will center even more heavily on how it manages and markets its image.
Meanwhile, the terrorist offshoots would further increase ISIS’ emphasis on mobilizing followers in the West and the Middle East to inspire attacks overseas on select sectarian and Western targets. All activity will be blessed by the group’s leadership under the broadest definition of ISIS’ guiding principle, namely “remaining and expanding.” The persistence and expansion of ISIS’ offshoots, combined with individuals becoming “self-radicalized” in the West, will promote the narrative of fighting on behalf of the ideal of an ISIS caliphate, with the aim of building a “caliphate 2.0” in whatever location offered the best combination of territorial instability and symbolic resonance – such as Syria or even possibly Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia under the right circumstances.
All of this begs the question: why does the idea of a caliphate matter so much for ISIS and its supporters? For starters, what the group promotes is both unprecedented and very specific – namely the combination of a Salafi (Sunni fundamentalist) apocalyptic ultraviolent caliphate-state. This contrasts with al Qaeda, which, although based on the same Salafi-jihadi DNA, has been principally interested in attacking the West and Western targets. Al Qaeda territorial projects in Yemen and Syria were no different in their imposition of harsh and literal interpretations of Islam but had neither expansionist aims nor claimed to be caliphates. To that end, ISIS goes to great lengths to control the religious justifications of its brand to keep its appeal alive for the doctrinally purist recruits (and therefore, one would expect, those most committed to act in its name).
Besides being a one-of-a-kind concept, the ISIS “caliphate” is practical and effective in its aims. ISIS’ pedagogical program that I have studied focuses on what they call a “jihadist generation.” The aim is to train everyone – from children to adults – to be both equally adept at memorizing texts and creeds as they are at coding computer programs and firing weapons, all in the name of “a caliphate on the prophetic methodology,” as is their slogan.
The propagation of this trajectory will remain ever more important for the group as it transitions following forthcoming territorial defeats. ISIS will market martyrdom, the targeting of Western capitals, and the terrorizing of civilian centers. And perhaps even more importantly, the group will continue publishing manuals of religious observance and commentaries on medieval theological tracts. In doing so, the group will maintain the intellectual arsenal it has constructed for providing the thought weapons for its supporters to follow.
Looking at what could happen in Iraq and Syria after ISIS, while a “whack-a-mole” strategy is essential for removing ISIS from the battlefield, it is only sufficient in derailing its deliberate strategy on the ground. Facing its emergent strategy will require understanding, exploiting and derailing its marketing campaign. To do this, it is not enough to simply counter, but to sow anxiety in what the group is selling and where it is doing so.
Sowing anxiety into the group’s message will require targeting not the message itself but rather the media that disseminates it. Social media, internet, and the cyber domain are all frontiers that ISIS, and soon other jihadist groups, use to pioneer a more relevant marketing campaign. It is by discrediting the trustworthiness of how and by whom the message is transmitted that our lines of effort can be most effective in stopping the new ISIS.