At its height, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was more than just a self-proclaimed caliphate spanning an extensive part of the Middle East, it was an international sensation with a clear vision.
Its rapid, violent sweep across two of the most symbolically significant nations in Islamic history appealed to tens of thousands of supporters from around the globle. In recent years, however, the tables have turned on ISIS and its gains have been largely reversed. With money, territory and manpower quickly running out, why does the jihadist dream live on for thousands?
Losing ground is a particularly severe issue for ISIS, but perhaps not fatal. After the group's split from Al-Qaeda and its rise in 2013, ISIS distinguished itself by seizing and holding on to massive swaths of territory, something its guerrilla predecessor hadn't managed.
A number of hardline Sunni Islamist groups sought to establish some form of an Islamic state to evoke a nostalgic version of the region's past, but only ISIS actually managed to create the workings of a pseudo-government, including its own taxes, currency and agencies. While building such a nation is a crucial element to ISIS’s ideology, counterterrorism expert Michael S. Smith II said the group’s notoriously harsh commitment to the ultraconservative, militant Salafi-Jihadist branch of Islam has become its key to maintaining credibility as its territory disappears.
"What’s equally important is the perceptibility of Islamic State being more dedicated to the cause of punishing the so-called ‘enemies of Islam’ than Al-Qaeda and all other Salafi-jihadist groups which have refused to merge with it," Smith told Newsweek.
"Ultimately, provided that Islamic State can continue mobilizing terrorist attacks against these groups’ shared enemies in the Muslim world, while also executing more attacks here in the West than Al-Qaeda, Islamic State will continue to be perceived by aspirant jihadis as a legitimate enterprise that deserves their support," he added.
The group—spawned from Al-Qaeda in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent military occupation of Iraq—not only rejects competing jihadist movements, but actively mocks them, even as its own numbers thin. Like Smith, Dr. Mia Bloom of Georgia State University is at the forefront of tracking ISIS's social media footprint and actively follows the group on encrypted messaging application Telegram. She explains a couple of ways the group’s ethos manages to survive a resurgent Al-Qaeda, campaigns led by international powers, the Syrian and Iraqi militaries and other forces working to destroy it.
First, she said the group doesn’t routinely admit to its followers that it’s losing. While pockets of ISIS resistance in Iraq are shrinking due to U.S. airstrikes and ground offensives led by the Iraqi military, Kurdish forces and majority-Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iran, the group’s presence in Syria has yet to completely cave in. U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds and their allies fighting under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as the Syrian military and its Russian and Iranian allies, are still actively engaged in vicious battles with ISIS militants. ISIS routinely publishes casualty counts, war maps and propaganda images of collateral damage inflicted on civilians by its enemy’s campaigns during these confrontations.
"Basically, they’re taking the same positions you’d expect from the alt-right," Bloom told Newsweek. "Any idea that they’re losing they’ll refer to as 'fake news.'"
She also stated that, by its very nature, ISIS embraces death. Die-hard followers of "the apocalyptic death cult," as she described the group, are not shy to fight to the bitter end because bringing about the end of times is one of their core tenets. Even when Syrian rebels managed last year to capture the town of Dabiq, where ISIS prophecized they would trigger Armageddon in a final showdown with the armies of "Rome," the group persevered. Similarly, ISIS does not seem to be phased by the suspicious absence and possible death of its founder and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But cracks have appeared in ISIS’ foundation. In a fashion Smith said is typical for organizations that fear imminent collapse, ISIS supporters have begun to turn on one another, launching accusations of being a murtadd (apostate), kuffar (infidel) or jasoos (spy). She called this process "self-cannibalization" and said that, despite its public steadfastness, ISIS may decaying from the inside out.
Central Command's Combined Joint Task Force—Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), told Newsweek last month the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria stands somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000. About a week later, Associated Press cited U.S. officials placing this number closer to 11,000 fighters, with up to 8,000 more salaried supporters. Most of what used to be a contiguous stretch of rule, however, has broken up into outposts of jihadist influence. With ISIS having lost its most populous city of Mosul and clinging on to only about half of its de facto capital of Raqqa, leading academic Dr. Vali Nasr said the idea of sustaining a so-called caliphate is dead, but that the global risk posed by its supporters will likely remain for some time.
"It may actually disappear in its current form altogether, the more important question is what happens to its fighters?" Nasr, who is the dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said to Newsweek.
"You don't have to have ISIS as a massive, juggernaut caliphate to be a threat," he added.
In losing its central areas of governance in the Iraq and Syria, ISIS's "command and control" is likely to branch out to other vulnerable nations, such as Chad, Libya, Mali and the Philippines. In former ISIS territories, however, the combination of deep sectarian divisions, anti-imperialistic indignation toward the West and bitter dissatisfaction with local governments will likely inspire jihadists to continue fighting under other banners, including Al-Qaeda. Nasr said the schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, fueled by warring Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, continues to provide fertile ground for extremism and will continue to do so until both sides recognize major concessions have to be made.
"The Shiites will have to give more to the Sunnis, but the Sunnis will have to accept Shiite rule over Iraq," Nasr told Newsweek, noting the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria and the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq.
He emphasized, however, that quelling the deep-rooted suspicions between religious and ethnic majorities and minorities in Iraq and Syria is not as simple as overthrowing a government and installing a new leader. He uses the example of U.S. efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who he said "may be a bastard" accused of human rights abuses, but who many fellow Syrian Alawite Muslims, as well as Shiite Muslims, Christians and other groups, have flocked behind in fear that they would end up like Iraq's minorities after the U.S. toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Fourteen years later, the U.S. has still not established a steady foothold in Iraq, and even the Pentagon's own leaders have questioned its long-term mandate in Syria.
Ultimately, Nasr stressed that the only effective way to halt the stream of groups like ISIS from emerging in the region would be finding common ground among local actors—something that both the alliance of the U.S. and Sunni Muslim kingdom Saudi Arabia, and the axis of Russia and revolutionary Shiite Muslim Iran had to realize.
"Either you think there has to be a military solution to Syria, which looks like it's going to be very costly and not going to work very well, or there's going to have to be a deal reached," Nasr told Newsweek.
"Both sides still approach Syria as a zero-sum game," he added.