Opinion: 'Islamic State' may fall, but will not vanish

The "Islamic State" has now almost lost all the territory it once controlled. But assuming this development means the scourge of jihadism will end is premature, writes guest contributor Rainer Hermann.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) is nearly defeated, militarily speaking, thanks to the determined efforts of the international community.

However, one should not be fooled into thinking that everything will return to normal once the last IS stronghold is conquered and the last fighter has surrendered. This is merely one step in a larger struggle against jihadi terrorism. 

Insurgency looms

One reason to be cautious is that jihadi Salafism has become the driving ideology behind Islamic terrorism. Which, of course, does not mean every adherent of Salafism who wants to live as ancient Muslims did is automatically a terrorist. Indeed, there are plenty of apolitical Salafists. But there are also those who believe their Muslim utopia can and must be realized through violence.  

IS may be on its last legs, but its ideological underpinnings are not. Followers of a militant Salafism could rise up once again. Experts say some 30,000 IS fighters have already gone underground in the past two years.

While some may want to return to regular life in their home countries, other may just be waiting for a fresh opportunity to wage an insurgency, which could present itself when warring parties inadvertently create a military vacuum, or when the US withdraws its troops from Syria. Jihadi fighters would quickly seize such an opportunity, just as they did in 2014.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

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.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

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.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

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.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

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.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

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.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

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.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

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.

Past rebirth

IS, and the organizations that preceded it, have repeatedly been underestimated. When IS was defeated in 2008, few had any idea how many of its militants had gone underground in Iraq.

Three years later, the organization came back with a vengeance, as its leader had learned from previous mistakes and adapted to the new environment.

It will be no different this time. Then, like now, the militants will resort to typical guerrilla warfare, carrying out terror attacks and sowing fear. And they will attempt to terrorize the West as well. So we must be vigilant.

Read more: Germany to strip 'IS' militants of citizenship

Youth need a brighter future

There is only one effective method for combating terrorism: younger generations must enjoy better living conditions, must be given a voice and treated fairly. Otherwise, without a promising future, young people can resort to extremism and terrorism.

Having retaken great swaths of land once under IS control is one step in this direction, as the group can now no longer entice desperate youth to live an "Islamic" life in its so-called caliphate.

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Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

The Shammar tribe

The Shammar tribe's militia, the Al-Sanadid forces, control swathes of land in north-eastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border. Until recently, they were part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and at present the Shammar belong to the Kurdish-led civilian leadership in northern Syria.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Friday prayers

In the compound of Shammar leader Sheikh Humaydi Daham al-Hadi, tribesmen from the surrounding villages attend Friday prayers. Former IS members are also known to be in attendance.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Tribal connections

Former IS members fled the group after hearing the Sheikh’s call to defect. Once accepted by the Sheikh, the detainees are transferred to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where they are imprisoned and subsequently put on trial. Only then, are they allowed to re-join the tribe.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Tucking in

Guests eat a traditional lamb and rice meal. According to Sheikh Humaydi, the Shammar do not take in former IS fighters. However, the Shammar communications official Abdulhamid Al-Askar contradicted that and claimed Al-Sanadid forces have also incorporated former fighters.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Mediation efforts

In the evening, the Sheikh hosts guests and mediates between local disputes. "This national conflict will end one day, but the religious one will continue," said Sheikh Humaydi. "We have the same goal as the west — the fight against terrorism; now we’re mediating between the former IS fighters, and those who suffered under the group."

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Cross-border tribal network

Shammar tribesmen greet guests from Iraq. "There are those [in Syria] who joined IS only because of pressure from their leaders," said Sheikh Humaydi, "and because we have tribal influence, they come back to us."

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Strict hierarchies

Once they defect, former IS members blend back into the rural and strictly hierarchical society. Shammar leaders, on the other hand, maneuver to position themselves as crucial peacemakers in the region. According to the Sheikh, British and US delegations have recently paid a visit.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Staying incognito

Abu Hassan did not want to reveal his real name for fear of IS reprisals. He claims to have never fought for IS, and only joined the group in 2015 to be able to continue working as a school teacher. "We thought IS would bring justice, as we suffered so much under the [Assad] regime," he said in an interview during which the Sheikh’s son and two Sanadid militiamen were present.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Successful rearguard action

Bandar Humaydi, commander of Al-Sanadid Forces and the son of Sheikh Humeydi, led a successful defense against IS fighters in 2014/15, when their village was almost completely surrounded by advancing IS forces.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Games without frontiers

Shammar youths and under-age Sanadid militiamen play a chaotic game of football; a decrepit train track connecting Syria and Iraq lies abandoned nearby. At present, hundreds of IS members have taken the tribal route out, according to the Sheikh, although the exact numbers are not disclosed.