Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

What next in the IS saga?

As its self-proclaimed caliphate crumbles in Iraq, the focus has shifted to what the Islamic State terror group will do next, writes Salah Nasrawi


What next in the IS saga?
What next in the IS saga?

In its heyday following its blitzkrieg in summer 2014 that allowed it to seize control of a third of Iraq’s territory and the declaration of a pseudo-caliphate, the Islamic State (IS) terror group was estimated to have as many as 100,000 fighters as part of its overall manpower.

Thousands of foreign fighters and sympathisers were thought to have also crossed the borders to join the group in Iraq and Syria, some to fight there and others to receive indoctrination and training to conduct terrorism elsewhere.

With the recapture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the preparations to get rid of IS militants in other pockets they still hold, attention in Iraq is turning to the future, including finding out where the militants will go from here.

The US estimated in February that more than 60,000 of the terrorist groups’ fighters had been killed in Iraq and Syria. The commander of the Iraqi security forces that liberated Mosul said his troops had killed some 10,000 militants in the nine-month operation.

Despite conflicting accounts of deaths among IS terrorists, images of corpses on the battlefields have backed up the veracity of the claims. Remnants of the IS forces have either been taken prisoner or have fled the scene.

Russian and Iranian official reports and reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO, have said that IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has also been killed, which if true it would signal a severe blow to the group.

The news of Al-Baghdadi’s death comes after the group has lost so many members of its senior leadership and has so few strongholds left that the suggestion is that it is finished as a political and military force.

But while reclaiming the remaining territory from IS may indicate that the group is indeed close to the end, there are still huge questions about the future of its fighters, and there are several scenarios for those terrorists who escape death or imprisonment.

With the prospect that some of the militants may move to other places after the collapse of their “caliphate”, attention is likely to turn to the need to end the broader threat of terrorism in Iraq.

Although the Iraqi security forces have been able to control Iraq’s western borders, foreign fighters have still been able to cross into Syria. Their activities now will depend largely on how the war against IS in Syria will unfold and if they can manage to cross into other countries.

Some terrorists in Iraq have reportedly been trying to escape into Turkey and Iran through Kurdistan. Reports last week suggested that dozens of IS militants in Hawija, still under their control, have tried to sneak out through Kurdish-held territories near Kirkuk.

There is also the possibility that the group, in disarray since its defeat in Mosul, will now splinter and other terrorist organisations may arise to take its place.

Last week, members of the group in Tal Afar announced that this north-western city in Iraq is now an independent state of the “caliphate.” The group’s leaders in Tal Afar have reportedly threatened to punish anyone who does not obey their orders.

Another possibility is that the militants who managed to flee Mosul by mixing with local people fleeing the war will now spread into the larger population in order to regroup again.

In this scenario the group will be able to continue as a movement and tap the financial and organisational networks that were available to it before, in order to develop a new structure and strategy.

Last week, the London-based Al-Arab newspaper reported that many of the IS fighters had been able to infiltrate through the Iraqi security lines by mingling with the exodus of fleeing civilians.

It quoted Iraqi officials as saying that the security measures used for screening the displaced were inadequate, and that this could open the door for the fighters to move to other Sunni cities in Iraq.

Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of a powerful Iraqi militia, warned on Saturday that IS sleeper cells in other parts of Iraq might resume their attacks if the government did not make more “intelligence efforts” to track them down.

Given the track record of the jihadists in Iraq so far, the military defeat of IS in Mosul and the deaths of many of its leaders may not be an end to the group itself.

For IS to vanquish, Iraq’s leaders will need to build on the crumbling of the “caliphate” in order to defeat the group in its entirety and wipe out any support it might still enjoy within the disgruntled Sunni population.

Beyond the military defeat, there is also a need for political and economic solutions to be found for the problems which fuelled the Sunni disenchantment and gave rise to IS.

Such an endeavour can only begin if Iraq’s leaders look beyond the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions and find ways to work together to face the full nature of these problems.

While working on a national level to maintain the political role of the country’s large Sunni minority, efforts should focus on addressing the root causes that led to the rise of IS and immunise the liberated areas from falling back into the hands of extremists.

One essential element in such a strategy should be to reach out to the Sunni population in these areas in order to make them feel that they are the real representatives of their provinces.

In order to address grievances of exclusion and marginalisation that were used by IS to launch its insurgency against the Shia-led government in Baghdad, powers should be devolved to the predominantly Sunni Iraqi provinces through a decentralised government system.  

The government has already promised that national and local elections will be held next year, but it should also work to ensure that credible leaders emerge instead of corrupt and greedy politicians who are either associated with IS or with the government.

In addition, a national strategy should be worked out to address the problems of crimes carried out by IS militants, especially the atrocities carried out against civilians.

Existing measures to deal with IS abuses are believed to be inadequate, and there is now a growing consensus that the victims must be at the heart of any transitional justice process.

However, it is not yet clear whether the government has a strategy for all these issues, which will largely determine the fate of IS and sectarian violence in Iraq.

If the government fails to meet these challenges, many Iraqis fear that this will set things back, including by resuscitating the IS insurgency. Some even say that IS is already back in business.

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