After ISIS falls, what's the next chapter?
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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is rapidly nearing a point of collapse. It has lost control of Eastern Mosul to a coalition comprised of the Iraqi military and Kurdish, Shia and Sunni militias supported by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

That same coalition, which has held together despite a very tenuous political consensus, is now penetrating Western Mosul. It has seized the airport and controls the remaining city bridges across the Tigris. It is expected that the rest of the city will fall in the next six to eight weeks.

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In Syria, progress has been slower. Syrian government forces, aided by their Russian and Iranian allies have focused on eliminating the resistance posed by the anti-Assad Syrian rebels and only secondarily on fighting IS militants. The ongoing clash between Turkish forces and those of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the latter largely consisting of Syrian Kurdish militias and both nominally US allies, has complicated the ground offensive against Islamic State. Nonetheless, IS forces are slowly retreating towards Raqqa.

 

It appears likely that within the next 9 to 15 months, the Islamic State will lose direct control of its current territorial domain. What then? Is this the end of the Islamic State? Unfortunately, no!

There are five distinct aspects to the Islamic State. First, the Islamic State is a state, albeit one that is not recognized by any other government. It has a defined geographic territory, even if those boundaries are amorphous. It functions like any government: it issues passports, collects taxes, organizes a military force and provides basic services to its citizens. It doesn’t do any of these things particularly well, but it does do them.

Secondly, Islamic State is an international jihadist movement. The organization has franchises and unofficial affiliates, including the United States, in approximately 50 countries. Both franchises and affiliates are organizations that have publicly pledged their loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Franchises have been formally accepted as part of the Islamic State while affiliates have not been. In the US, for example, an IS supporter identifying himself as Abu Ibrahim Al Ameriki claiming to lead an organization of 71 militants, pledged his loyalty to al-Baghdadi but was never officially recognized. In addition, there are “lone wolf” militants that have pledged their loyalty to ISIS but are not members of a local organization. Since 2014, Islamic State and its franchises and affiliates have conducted a total of 143 attacks in 29 countries that have killed 2,043 individuals.

Thirdly, Islamic State is an insurgency. It conducts such operations directly in Iraq and Syria and through franchises elsewhere. Among its better-known franchises are Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Boko Haram in Nigeria and a faction of al Shabaab in Somalia. All three of these organizations predated ISIS and joined the organization as franchises after it rose to prominence. In addition, ISIS franchises in Libya, Sinai, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been implicated in widespread, ongoing insurgencies in those countries.

Fourth, Islamic State is a budding international criminal organization. ISIS has smuggling oil and antiquities out of the territory it controls. In addition, it has engaged in kidnapping for ransom, and various forms of extortion. Over the last year, ISIS has become increasingly involved with the drug trade in Europe. Russian news reports that ISIS earns up to one billion dollars a year from the drug trade have never been substantiated and are probably exaggerated. The DEA however has confirmed that ISIS militants are involved with the smuggling of drugs across the Sahara and, usually through the Balkans, into Europe.

According to the DEA ISIS militants are providing protection to drug smugglers; similar to the role that the Taliban plays in the Afghan drug trade. When it was in power the Taliban destroyed poppy fields. Now it is facilitating both the export of drugs and the import of supplies essential to the manufacture of Afghan heroin.

The skill set required to be a successful insurgent and to carry out terrorist attacks lends itself readily to the conduct of international criminal conspiracies. As ISIS continues to feel the financial impact of its loss of territory, criminal activities will become an ever-growing source of revenue for the organization.

Finally, Islamic State is a powerful, seductive idea. Its slick, professional quality propaganda and its ability to exploit social media platforms have resulted in both financial support and a continuing stream of supporters. ISIS media has been responsible for radicalizing “lone wolf” attackers in both Europe and North America. Moreover, the ability of that media to continue to radicalize individuals continues even after its advocates have been killed. Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni Iman and al Qaeda leader who was killed by a US drone strike on September 30, 2011, continues to preach across the internet. In fact, his sermons are openly advertised on Google.

The collapse of the Islamic State “nation” will have a profound effect on the organization, its ability to stage terrorist attacks, the continued loyalty of its franchises and its international appeal to jihadists, but it will not eliminate its ongoing presence. Instead, IS will continue to demonstrate its ability to adapt, adjust and morph to its new reality. The loss of its Syrian and Iraqi territory will likely result in more insurgent activity in those countries and an increase in ISIS inspired terrorist attacks worldwide. Islamic State’s first chapter will close soon. It’s second chapter is just beginning.

Joseph V. Micallef is managing editor of Antioch Press and a regular columnist for Military.com. He's been a commentator for Fox News, Fox News Radio and CNN and has spoken extensively on military and international affairs around the world, including the Institute of Strategic Studies in London and the NATO Defense College in Rome.


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