Is the Islamic State Unstoppable?
According to monthly updates from Amaq, the group’s official news outlet, the Islamic State was carrying out 50 to 60 suicide attacks per month in Iraq and Syria last November. Today the number of such attacks is 80 to 100 per month, an average of two to three operations a day. The trend peaked in March, with 112 members blowing themselves up in Syria and Iraq.
The Islamic State is shifting tactics, and not just on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The group is reverting to insurgency tactics it relied on before June 2014, when it took over Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and declared the formation of a caliphate. This operational change has been on plain display in recent weeks: Hundreds of civilians were killed in a spate of suicide attacks attributed to the Islamic State in Turkey, Iraq, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. In Baghdad last week, more than 280 civilians were killed when a car bomb exploded outside a shopping mall.
Some people have suggested that this is a sign of the group’s desperation and weakness. In fact, it demonstrates its strength and long-term survival skills. The Islamic State has known for years that it would suffer setbacks and have to find ways to adapt. In “The Management of Savagery,” a foundational text for the Islamic State’s ideology and strategy published in 2004, the author pointed out that in the 12th century, Muslims defeated the Crusaders with “small bands” and “separate, disparate organizations.” The group has not forgotten that message.
When the Islamic State’s leaders declared the formation of a caliphate, they opened a new phase in global jihadism. The promise of living in an Islamist utopia reportedly attracted new members from some 90 countries. In interviews, Islamic State members have joined because of the group’s military victories, its puritanical governance and its clear ideology.
Thanks to its claim as a caliphate, the Islamic State was able to overshadow Al Qaeda. Since then, the Islamic State’s ambitions have grown as it has tried to claim leadership of global jihadism, not only setting up foreign cells and organizing attacks from inside Syria but also encouraging sympathizers to carry out strikes in its name.
Still, the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria remain the Islamic State’s heartland. Even if Chechens are suspected of bombing the Istanbul airport, or Bangladeshi sympathizers took hostages in Dhaka, a majority of the group’s rank and file and leadership are still Iraqis and Syrians. A generation of young Syrians and Iraqis living under the caliphate’s rule has been brainwashed. The political, social and sectarian issues in these countries that gave rise to the group still exist. Some may even be worsening.
The government in Baghdad continues to use Shiite militias to fight in Sunni areas, pushing some Iraqis into the Islamic State’s waiting arms, or at least encouraging people to view the group as their sole defender. Meanwhile, Syria’s civil war rages on and new conflicts emerge within it, attracting fresh recruits. Even American officials have told me privately that the political changes necessary to stem the group’s appeal in Iraq and Syria are lagging behind the military advances. The number of members volunteering to blow themselves up is not a sign of a dying group.
The threat is not going away. The group’s ultimate goal remains unchanged: control of the Muslim world. The apocalyptic idealists who form the Islamic State’s core believe that they are ordained by God to accomplish this. And they will change their tactics as often as they need to in order to get closer to that goal, whether that means increasing the number of suicide bombers or shifting the front lines in Syria.