Mosul Falls: What's Next for ISIS?
By Robin Wright
By Robin Wright
Exactly three years after it was declared, the Islamic State is now near defeat. The Iraqi Army has liberated Mosul, the largest city under isis control, while a Syrian militia has penetrated the Old City section of Raqqa, the capital of the pseudo-caliphate. But it is far too soon to celebrate. Since the rise of jihadi extremism four decades ago, its most enduring trait, through ever-evolving manifestations, is its ability to reinvent and revive movements that appeared beaten.
Osama bin Laden slunk out of Afghanistan in disgrace, in 1989, after his miscalculations contributed to the deaths of thousands of Arab fighters. He was expelled from Sudan and lost his Saudi citizenship in the nineteen-nineties. He reëmerged to carry out the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but then was forced to flee Afghanistan. He abandoned his own fighters at Tora Bora, to go into hiding. A decade later, he was killed in a lightning raid by Navy seals. His body was dumped at sea.
isis has followed a similar pattern. In its first iteration in Iraq, the group was “on the brink of collapse in 2007 and 2008—its senior leadership either dead, in hiding, or in prison,” Soufan notes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi tribesmen, backed by the United States, had turned on it. Its jihadi ranks were decimated to a few dozen men forced into the underground. Within seven years, however, its new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had reorganized and rebranded his group. By 2015, it had attracted more than thirty thousand fighters, from a hundred countries, to fight for the first modern caliphate. Despite an appalling death rate on the battlefield, of roughly ten thousand fighters a year, thousands more kept coming.