Caliphate’s Days Are Numbered. Long Live ISIS?

Iraqi soldiers fire toward ISIS militants in western Baghdad.

In 2015, three British schoolgirls left London for Turkey and then joined the Islamic State in Syria, illustrating the power of the extremist group that could radicalize gifted girls who danced to punk music.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama argued that it was the so-called caliphate that inspired many otherwise moderate Muslims into extremist groups. He made the destruction of ISIS his number one foreign policy priority since its existence lured thousands of Muslims from around the world.

Following years of sustained coalition attacks led by the U.S., ISIS is failing. The group has already lost about 65 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, and its so-called caliphate continues to disintegrate.

As the Iraqi troops proceed with their offensive on west Mosul and the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) moves to completely isolate ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital Raqqa, theories spring of what will be next for the group that is all but doomed on the battlefield.

Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said on April 17 that ISIS initiated talks with another terror group, al-Qaeda, discussing a merger as the Iraqi military closes on its fighters in Mosul.

Mr. Allawi said he got the information about the discussions from local and regional contacts familiar with the situation. However, experts dismiss the idea of such an alliance.

Dr. Ahmet Yayla, former Turkish counter-terror chief, told The Globe Post that the merger wouldn’t happen.

“There are no indications [of it] in their publications or in their social media accounts,” Mr. Yayla, who tracked radical groups in Turkey for years, including ISIS, said. “I don’t see how they [can be] together after ISIS killed thousands of al-Qaeda members.”

In 2015, head of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri declared war on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and denounced their brutal methods in crushing those they deem as enemies.

At present, according to Mr. Yayla, it is mostly ISIS that kills al-Qaeda fighters who they consider infidels or non-believers.

Professor James Gelvin from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) told The Globe Post that the merger between the two groups is “next to impossible.” At the same time, he noted that members could shift allegiance from one group to another.

“Al-Qaeda and ISIS have different ideologies, have different strategic interests, and are, in fact, competitors. There have been a number of times when the two groups have come to blows,” he said.

Mr. Gelvin thinks that ISIS’s caliphate is finished, and after the group loses Mosul, the next city to fall will be Raqqa. “But this doesn’t mean that ISIS as an ideology or even as an organization is finished,” he underscored.

When Mr. Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, he inherited an Iraq that was devastated after years of civil war and a daunting task in Afghanistan. To deliver his promise to wind down wars, he pushed for a troop surge in Afghanistan, with a goal to finish Taliban and al-Qaeda and get out of that country faster.

The war in Afghanistan didn’t turn out as he wanted and Taliban captured, even more, territory since it was ousted in 2001. The Obama administration, however, was successful in targeting al-Qaeda’s leadership, including the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. As the U.S. crushed the leadership of the radical group, it popped up elsewhere, particularly in Iraq and Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria was al-Nusra Front in Syria, and it changed its name and distanced itself from al-Qaeda in the hope of receiving Western aid that never came. But what happened to al-Qaeda could be replicated in ISIS’s case too.

Mr. Gelvin said Islamic State will most likely turn to the insurgency, becoming a group like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

The other scenario is that some of its supporters “will continue to carry out terrorist operations in ISIS’s name for a while, until they realize the futility of it and simply melt back into society or find some other less dangerous criminal enterprise to involve themselves in,” Mr. Gelvin said.

Mr. Yayla thinks the remaining ISIS fighters will try to blend into the society after the battles for Mosul and Raqqa are over.

“They are already talking about it,” he said. “They are going to shave off their beards, cut their hair, and then come to the society, hide in different parts of the world, mainly in the Middle East and countries like Turkey and Libya. Based on where they are from, they will try to go back to their countries.”

Mr. Yayla suggested that after the defeat on the battlefield, ISIS will become a “real” terrorist organization.

“Now they are like a semi-conventional army. At least people who fight against them can see them as an army. But in the near future we are going to have a real terrorist organization inside the societies,” he stated.

As an actual terror group, ISIS will have more opportunities to conduct attacks in different countries, according to Mr. Yayla.

“The danger is going to be dispersed. Right now it is mostly in Syria and Iraq, and against the Iraqi and Syrian people. Once they are defeated, they are going to disperse… The threat is going to be moved from Syria and Iraq to other places,” he concluded.

A US defense official told reporters in March that some 15,000 ISIS operatives remain on the territory of Iraq and Syria. The official added that after their defeat in Mosul and Raqqa, Islamic State’s hard-core elements would likely revert to a low-level insurgency.

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