By Badara Jeng
On March 23rd, United States-backed fighters eradicated the Islamic State’s territory in the Middle East as they lost their final enclave in Beghuz, eastern Syria. Consequently, many Islamic State militants emerged from their underground tunnels and hidings and surrendered to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
President Trump was then quick to announce on Twitter that “ISIS has been defeated.” However, although the SDF have regained control of all the territories previously occupied by ISIS, this arguably does not equate to the total defeat of the militant group; the SDF spokesperson instead claimed there has been the “100% territorial defeat of ISIS.” Over the years, ISIS, the Al-Qaeda splinter group, has been complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and former Sunni Muslims who renounced their faith.
ISIS’ tactics have constantly adapted over time to suit the current social and political climate. For example, following the invasion of Iraq, ISIS chose to break away from Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist group, al-Qaeda, for whom they had previously pledged allegiance, with the aim of gaining and holding their own new territory. Henceforth, whilst ISIS have arguably been defeated, the groups’ reconstruction to continue constituting a threat is a feasible reality.
ISIS began adapting to their shrinking foothold in Syria and Iraq last July when it announced the switch to guerrilla tactics. ISIS fighters emerged from desert hideouts and slaughtered more than 200 people in the Druze community of Sweida, southern Syria. The group has since resurfaced in the Anbar and Nineveh provinces of Iraq, where they have executed car bombings and night operations in rural villages. Local press reports of urban sleeper cells, cash, and weapons buried in lands around the region further the notion that ISIS is far from dead, with ISIS affiliates across the Middle East asserting themselves in Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan, also spreading farther afield, from the Philippines to Burkina Faso.
What’s more, the terrorist group is continuing to radicalise Western citizens and employ them as cells to conduct attacks in Western states, communicating with these individuals via social media. Coordinating these isolated attacks does not warrant needing any claimed territory, thus whilst ISIS may no longer present a territorial threat, they still have the capacity and means to conduct attacks from afar. Ultimately, the non-existence of a caliphate in a specific physical location does not negate the fact that ISIS has always used new media technologies to both recruits and spread its propaganda. Therefore, the death of ISIS is not perhaps going to be based on the extent of territory they control.