3 years ago, the elusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared a self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. For a period, this entailed an increase in territorial power, as the Islamic group capitalised on the regional instability and embarked on a mission of domination. The vacuum that manifested in Iraq following the invasion in 2003 paved the way for the formation of various groups and their political ideologies to flourish, and no group prospered more than ISIS.
What developed was a group with restricted morality and a yearning for power and dominance. Indeed, ISIS were at the forefront of many of the atrocities that took place in the Middle East, as sectarian tensions rippled across the region.
Additionally, not only did ISIS play a major part in the warfare that ravaged the Middle East, as they were central figures in the Iraq and Syrian civil wars – but they also played a significant part in prompting terror in the Western world too, as part of their quest for supremacy. Their noteworthy attacks include Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, Manchester and London Bridge.
What allowed them to gain prominence in this period were their hubs and de-facto capitals in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria.
Loss of territory
However, since the summer, ISIS have lost both these territories to the Iraqi pro government forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) respectively. Reports this week reinforce the decline of ISIS as they lost even more territory, with the Iraqi government declaring the recapturing of Al Qaim, which was the last stronghold that ISIS had in Iraq. Likewise, in Northern Syria, ISIS recently lost out to the Syrian army in Deir Az Zor. This emphasises the tightening grip of the Syrian Army, and simultaneously highlights the deterioration of ISIS.
The loss of the two cities, Raqqa and Mosul, which were integral to the establishment of a ‘caliphate’ for ISIS, and were two cities which ISIS fought robustly for, appear to have kick-started the loss of territories for ISIS, and resultantly, signify the loss of influence.
So, is this is the end of the road for ISIS?
It appears they are running out of authority, land and ideas. Principally, they have not been eradicated completely, but their finances have been slashed, their media operations crippled and their high ranked soldiers and leaders killed or captured. Essentially, they have taken a substantial hit and are a shadow of the force that was once deemed the biggest threat to global security.
Likewise, allegiances have been switched and the diminishing of ISIS has played into the hands of long term enemy Al Qaeda as it believed some members that previously fought for ISIS have re-evaluated their loyalties. The Al Qaeda linked movement in Syria, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), previously known as Jabhat Al-Nusra, has augmented in the time ISIS has weakened and in the process gained control of the Idlib province in North West Syria.
HTS has for a while been one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria, and now have up to 30,000 experienced fighters. Importantly, as the Al Qaeda linked movement is a long-term adversary of ISIS, it is unlikely members from the upper echelons made the transition, but those in lesser positions, who for years learnt their arts at a carefully crafted and prudently developed organization, and made the transition, will certainly be an asset to HTS.
Whilst the end of ISIS appears to be on the horizon this does not spell the end of terror, certainly not in the Middle East. The Syrian Civil War is still ongoing and the Iraqi question remains in the air, with the Kurdish fight for independence now adding a new dimension.
All this whilst the situation in Yemen exacerbates and globally, ISIS’s ideologies and blueprints remain influential, as palpable with the latest truck bomb attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, executed by the group Al Shabab, which demonstrates, terror extends beyond ISIS.
Many will rejoice at the decline of a group that gave violence a whole new meaning and played a monumental part in the increase in civilian casualties across the globe. But this is not the end. ISIS have merely handed over the baton, and it remains to be seen who finishes the race now.
Hence, terror will remain rampant, even if ISIS aren’t.