Photo by Oliver Trapnell
Having bought a book about this subject over two years ago, I approached this subject with an obvious question and answer - Is the threat of Islamic State over? - to which I instinctively answered 'no'! But, through my research, and eventual finishing of that book which took me two years to read, I've concluded that perhaps the subject is not that straight forward.
The news of Donald Trump declaring victory against Islamic State in December last year certainly came as a uncalled-for surprise, considering that the conflicts in the Near East have been happening for more than 20 years. His decision forcing the withdrawal of US troops from Syria also came as a huge surprise in light of the fact that IS forces are still prevalent in the area, and that whilst the united forces have recovered significant swathes of territory, they are still far from a 'complete victory'. Trump is a fool if he truly believes he "won against ISIS". Capturing IS leadership can certainly be called a small victory, but it will never be possible to call the threat of Islamic State over.
What's happening to IS?
This is a difficult question to answer. After a slew of battles, IS territory has slowly been pushed back into smaller and smaller areas of control. As of this year, the amount of IS controlled territory has shrunk to a confined area in Eastern Syria. Until Trump's decision to pull back the troops, the united front of nations against IS had been pressuring Islamic State members deep inside their own territory. The momentum supplied by the US has been reduced since the decision to withdraw, but has still been an encouragement to the Syrians who are combating Islamic State.
How much territory do they have?
The attrition between IS and the united efforts of multiple countries has been happening for many years. It should come as no surprise that after fighting for this long, that momentum on each side is failing. Casualties on both sides of the conflict during the major battles have certainly decreased morale for the troops, and is understandably an awful tragedy for both the families of the dead, and the innocent people witnessing the conflict who have been forced to become refugees.
Strategic attacks and the pressure exerted by the united forces have been a deterrent insofar that significantly less Islamic State militants have joined the caliphate in the last few years. With such a tremendous pressure on the group, their territory has been gradually decreasing year upon year. At the peak of their control, Islamic State claimed to hold a territory of more than 282,000km², due to the constant efforts of multiple nations, this territory has been reduced to an area of around 1.6km².
What’s the next move?
From the perspective of the US backed SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the 'final battle' against the last bastion of IS began in the middle of February 2019, with hopes to capture the remaining leadership and scatter the remaining forces. In mid-March, more news was released from the front lines of the conflict suggesting that many women, children and militants surrendered as the SDF advanced on the IS stronghold. Despite the name of a 'final battle', estimates from officials have proposed that as many as 30,000 followers and fighters of Islamic State still exist in Syria and Iraq, meaning that even after this battle is over, it will still take a tremendous effort to stabilise the area as the power vacuum left behind by Islamic State grows.
How does the worldwide community plan to keep fighting?
If the final assault against Islamic State is successful and the leadership is destroyed, what then? Well, it may not be as easy as claiming "we won" like Trump has. Rather, it will take a continued effort from the SDF and governments in and around the area to monitor and eliminate threats as they arise. This continued form of combat will certainly take a tremendous amount of cooperation, time and money, all of which will need to be aggregated somehow. Perhaps a council of neighbouring countries and states could supply the necessary framework for allowing the continued fight against IS, but at this stage it is too early to discuss future plans.
Furthermore, a leaderless Islamic State is no less deadly than they were before. Rather, without a leader to guide them, we may expect to see a rise in individuals taking actions on their own, or the formation of a new form of Islamic State under a new name. A leaderless group may be more dangerous than ever, since structureless groups have the capacity to operate anywhere in the world without supervision or strategic planning. Therefore, these individuals may become opportunists in their country of residence. No matter what happens in the coming months, there appears no end to the threat of terrorism in the Near East in the years to come.