The Lessons of Islamic State
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Alexei Malashenko

Research Director of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Berlin, Germany; a member of the Research Council of the Carnegie Moscow Center and the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, a group that emerged in Iraq in 1999 and joined al-Qaeda in 2004, may be considered the precursor of Islamic State (IS). The new organization assumed the name “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” In 2006, it merged with several Islamist groups and assumed the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” It is also called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” and the abbreviation ISIL is frequently used in Russian media. On June 29, 2014, IS declared itself the Worldwide Caliphate.

The scale of the Worldwide Caliphate (up to 90,000 square metres in 2014), the relatively short time it has been in existence, and its capability to wage regular warfare has caused confusion around the world. IS was considered an isolated case, a deviation from the familiar geopolitical scheme.

In the meantime, IS was establishing its state structures: military, finance, taxation, healthcare, education, etc. Formally, IS became similar to such so-called self-proclaimed states as Artsakh, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The expert community even cautiously voiced the opinion that dialogue with IS was possible, especially since such a dialogue has long been conducted with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas in Palestine and, recently, the Islamist opposition in Syria. Somehow, IS has de facto become a subject of global politics.

We should point out a somewhat delicate point here: IS is also used by external actors as an object of world politics. Its “users” include the United States, Russia, Europe, Turkey, Iran and certain Arab countries. And each actor “uses” IS differently. For Russia, the existence of IS is the reason for its presence in the Middle East, and it also provides grounds for improving relations with the United States. Turkey views IS as a barrier blocking the expansion of the Kurdish movement and as an instrument for putting pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Iran uses the fight against terrorism, which is embodied by IS, as justification for its entry into Syria.

The emergence of IS was a logical consequence of the current development of the Muslim world, the culmination of that branch of Islam that is termed Islamism. Without a proper, sober-headed understanding of Islamism, it is impossible to comprehend the reasons for the emergence of IS and the consequences it has had for the Muslim world and for the global community in general.

In its ideology and practice, Islamism is a reaction to the economic and political failures of the Muslim world, to the failure of the imitational and national development models that existed in the 1950s–1970s and the failure of the ruling elites. Islamism offers to resolve all these problems by turning to Islam. The idea of building a society on the principles of Islam is a great civilizational utopia that can be criticized, but not ignored.

The Defeat of IS – What Next?

Islamic State suffered significant losses in 2016–2017. The territory it controlled shrunk. Its Iraqi capital of Mosul fell. And it seems quite clear that the organization will have to make a definitive withdrawal from its Syrian capital of Raqqa. Many IS leaders were eliminated, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose death IS acknowledged recently. It is estimated that IS has lost thousands of its fighters. Foreign mujahedeen are returning to their native countries. Because of the atrocities that IS perpetrates, the organization is losing the goodwill both of the local population and of Muslims around the world.

Two coalitions are fighting IS at the same time – one led by the United States and the other led by Russia, and each is made up of several countries. In terms of firepower and sheer military might, the IS forces pale in comparison. The defeat of IS is unquestionable. What next, then? This is the main question today, and it requires an objective and honest answer.

First, IS will never acknowledge defeat. Most likely, its ideologues will claim that it is IS that has in fact won, having proven its power and ability to oppose anyone. And co the fight continues.

Second, IS followers will remain in Syria and Iraq and, after a certain hiatus, they may continue their activities. And they will act just as harshly, or maybe even harsher, as they did before. A kind of revenge for their failures of the past. “Acts of revenge” will occur throughout the world, mostly in Europe. In addition, sleeper cells will appear, that is, groups of fighters who will resume their activities after a period of restructuring. By the way, sleeper cells have long existed in the former Soviet states.

Third, it is not known what the fighters who have returned to their native countries will do. Hundreds (maybe even thousands) of former IS fighters are already home, in particular, in Russia and Central Asia. Thus far, they have not shown their hand in any way. But how long will they remain silent? It is possible that they will become engaged in propaganda, recruit followers and carry on the fight as part of religious and political opposition. Given their combat experience and religious fanaticism, under the “right” circumstances – complications in the socioeconomic and political situation – these people may destabilize the situation in an individual region or an entire country.

Islamic extremism will go full circle. Having failed to preserve Islamic State, extremists will focus on punishing their “offenders” by returning to the methods previously employed by al-Qaeda. “Lone wolves” will also become more active, and the tactics of individual terrorism will become a strategy used by extremists. We are seeing such developments today.

Fourth, the idea of an Islamic State has not disappeared. It is still floating in the air, and the next attempt to put it into practice is only a matter of time and place. Potential candidates include Libya, Nigeria, Somalia and a handful of other African countries. The situation in Afghanistan remains tense. Sometimes, Central Asia is mentioned as well. The struggle to establish an Islamic state might begin in any corner of the Muslim world that is plagued by an endless systemic crisis and the growing dissatisfaction of Muslims with local authorities which are incapable (or unwilling) to take measures to qualitatively improve the life of the population.

The sad paradox is that the socio-political situation may detonate even if major reforms are implemented, since such reforms will be accompanied by significant losses for many people. And the reaction of a large portion of these people will take on a religious form.

The Weakness of Islamism

However, despite indisputable successes, Islamism has inherent weaknesses its adepts cannot (or almost cannot) shake off. Islamists are strong and popular while they are in opposition: criticizing the authorities in the name of Islam is always convenient and effective. However, once they are in power, they are unable to resolve social and economic problems quickly and effectively, as is witnessed by the (short-lived) stay in power of Tunisia’s Renaissance Party in 2011 and the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s puppet, Mohammed Morsi, in Egypt in 2012. Of course, their failure is largely due to a lack of time. On the other hand, there is the case of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, when, after decades in power, the ayatollahs still cannot overcome socioeconomic difficulties. Islamists suffer from a dearth of professionalism.

When handling current everyday problems, Islamists, particularly pragmatic Islamists, understand that Sharia law is not universal and cannot be effectively applied in all areas of life without exception. As a result, contradictions between Islamists are increasing, and Islamists as a whole are becoming less consolidated.

Today, Islamism clearly lacks charismatic leaders at the national, state and global levels. Al-Baghdadi, the dead leader of the Worldwide Caliphate, did not become such a leader; his influence could not be compared to the authority wielded by Osama bin Laden who became a household name. Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan comes closest to having the necessary charisma, but he does not consider himself an Islamist, and his popularity is limited to Turkey. A “new Khomeini” clearly will not appear in Iran in the nearest future.

Informal Pole of Power

Instability within the Muslim world and conflicts with the West serve to strengthen Islamism, which is sometimes called “political Islam.” In the course of the painful and unpredictable transformation of the system of international relations, as the new world order acquires its tentative shape, Islamism, including its radical and extremist branches, is becoming of one of the informal poles of power. And this circumstance may be considered a kind of “asymmetrical response” by the Muslim community to the emerging multi-polarity.

Attempts to establish total control over Islamists are pointless. They can be manipulated, but not to a great degree, because at the end of the day they are intractable and fixated on their worldview, which means that they will always act in accordance with their own interests. Such is the context for understanding compromises between Islamists and the United States, Europe and Russia.