′Islamic State′: A post-caliphate future

'Islamic State': Will it survive a post-caliphate future?

Losing ground in its power base in the Middle East, the "Islamic State" militant group's future appears as open as ever. DW spoke to counter-terrorism experts and scholars to discuss the likelihood of its survival.

"I announce from here the end, the failure and the collapse of the state of falsehood and terrorism, which the 'Islamic State' declared from Mosul," said Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi after a months-long campaign to drive the militant group from the strategic city.

While the devastating military campaign to liberate Mosul and Raqqa from the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group proved successful, it has yet to spell the end for a band of militants that rallied together in 2006 and, a decade later, transformed into a global phenomenon.

In the wake of the victories in Iraq and Syria, international efforts have shifted to finalizing a military campaign against the militant group in Syria. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led alliance of homegrown combatants, have liberated IS' de facto capital Raqqa, but hundreds if not thousands of fighters have managed to flee towards the Syrian-Iraqi border and elsewhere outside the region.

The militant group rose to notoriety in June 2014, when it launched a vicious military campaign and captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, culminating in the occupation of Mosul. By the end of the month, the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate from the historic Great Mosque of Mosul.

"In my view, IS is at heart an Iraqi organization, so its defeat in Iraq will break its back, even if remnants continue here and there, or if violent individuals or groups in non-Arab countries use its name," Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center told DW, referring to the group by an alternative acronym.

Infografik Karte Syrien Irak IS Oktober 2017 ENG

'Decentralized jihad'

Despite its losses, the militant group continues to hold ground in parts of Iraq and Syria, especially near the border region. Tomas Olivier, counterterrorism and intelligence manager at the Netherlands-based Twickelerveld Intelligence and Investigations, told DW that even in the face of open conflict in Iraq and Syria, IS has managed to export its operational branches outside of the region to places in North Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia and Eastern and Western Africa.

"The most disturbing fact about the current IS organization is their flexibility in response, even after defeat, in which they apparently managed to establish a series of operational hubs throughout the Western hemisphere with the proven capability to - in military terms - strike 'on demand' or based on ideological motivation," Olivier said.

The former senior officer at the Dutch defense ministry added that while monitoring the group's latest online activity, he witnessed an increase in disconcerting messaging to commit attacks against the "crusaders" by any means necessary.

"IS is promoting a decentralized jihad with specific attention to lone wolf attacks in the West and against coalition targets throughout the world, from the streets of Manchester to Marawi in the Philippines," Olivier said.

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Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.

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Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.

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Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.

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How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.

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Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.

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What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.

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How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.

The prospect of criminality

In the wake of the militant group's rise in 2014, more than 5,000 European nationals traveled to the Middle East to fight alongside IS. With the loss of territory in the region, international authorities have warned of the potential fallout of foreign fighters returning to their home countries in Europe and elsewhere.

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A study published last year by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King's College in London showed that roughly half of all European foreign fighters had a criminal record prior to radicalization.

In its May issue, the IS magazine "Rumiyah" showcased terror tactics for supporters, calling on them to acquire weapons to commit attacks "by means of gun dealers and underground criminal networks - for those capable of attaining those connections." The article showed the group's willingness to use networks beyond its conventional or religious ones.

In fact, many of the militant group's members who committed attacks in Europe had a history of petty crime, including Berlin attack suspect Anis Amri and Salah Abdeslam, who handled logistics for the deadly 2015 Paris attacks.

Ian Oxnevad, a Middle East scholar at the University of California, Riverside, told DW that one counter-terrorism strategy to tackle the problem of returning foreign fighters is pushing them towards criminal activity by clamping down on their financial networks.

"For example, if you have former fighters with ISIS in a cell in northern Italy, but all the money they're using to sponsor terrorism isn't integrated into the financial system, they have to be able to maintain that funding. So they may turn to crime," Oxnevad said.

"If they're committing burglaries, bank robberies or black market auto parts trading, it increases their likelihood of being arrested as opposed to accepting donations."

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Ideology without end

While the prospect of IS' military defeat in Iraq and Syria has raised hopes for the militant group's end, the ideas that propelled it to notoriety continue to be accessible via social networks, digital repositories and online archives.

Oxnevad noted that even if the group is "gone off a map," that doesn't mean the ideology that propagates such extremism will cease to exist, especially given the statehood declaration made by al-Baghdadi in Mosul.

"You see it with neo-Nazi groups and the Third Reich, certain people in the American South and the Confederacy. Presumably you see the same thing in Russia with the Soviet Union," Oxnevad said.

"You have the idea of recapturing something that was lost, or at least recreating it. That is something that the world will just have to safeguard against in anyway possible."

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Hoping for help

Perwin Ali Baku escaped the Islamic State after more than two years in captivity. The 23-year-ld Yazidi woman was captured together with her three year old daughter. "I don't feel right," she says, sitting on a mattress on the floor of her father-in-law's small hut in a northern Iraq refugee camp. "I still can't sleep and my body is tense all the time."

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Tormenting flashbacks

When Perwin hears a loud voice, she cringes at the thought of her captors. She hopes for help at the newly established institute in Iraq, part of an ambitious project funded by the German state of Baden Württemberg that has already brought 1,100 women who had escaped Islamic State captivity to Germany for psychological treatment.

[Miscellaneous]

Kabarto refugee camp

Members of Germany's 100,000 strong Yazidi community reached out to help the women - and the Baden Württemberg state legislature approved a 95 million euro program over three years to bring women abused by the IS to Germany. Now, help is on the way on site in Iraq.

[Miscellaneous]

No trauma treatment - yet

As fighting rages between Iraqi forces and the IS in Mosul only about 75 km from Dohuk, the number of victims that make it to freedom increases daily. 26 psychiatrists work in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq with its population of 5.5 million and more than 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced people. None specializes in treating trauma.

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Hope on the horizon

German trauma specialist Jan Kizilhan, who has Yazidi roots but immigrated to Germany at the age of 6, is the driving force behind the new institute. The program will train local mental health professionals to treat people like Perwin and thousands of Yazidi women, children and other Islamic State victims.

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Training psychotherapists

The idea is to train 30 new professionals for three years and then extend the program to other regional universities: in ten years' time, there could be more than 1,000 psychotherapists in the area. Students will receive a double masters degree in psychotherapy and psychotraumatology according to German standards, and training from both local and German professors.

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Duty to help

Kizilhan has interviewed thousands of women in refugee camps - and more recently, prospective students for the program's inaugural class. "We are talking about general trauma, we are talking about collective trauma and we are talking about genocide. That's the reason we have to help if we can - it's our human duty to help them."