An ISIS Comeback Is Increasingly Likely

In politics, as in life, the urgent always trumps the important. The urgent question about ISIS these days is the fate of thousands of foreign former fighters now languishing in limbo in makeshift prisons. The countries these militants come from are reluctant to take them back. Not surprisingly, the Syrian Kurdish forces who did most of the legwork against this murderous cult are frustrated by the lack of gratitude and have threatened to release the ISIS prisoners they hold. The problem is certainly urgent and needs attention. The less urgent – but much more important – challenge, however, centers on a very different question: is an ISIS comeback possible?

The short answer is “yes.” There is no doubt that the so-called caliphate has been defeated at the military level. But military defeats rarely equal strategic victories when it comes to fighting jihadist groups. Eradicating the ideology of violent jihadism is much harder than physically decimating its foot soldiers. Most crucially, the political and economic conditions that led to the emergence of ISIS, have not been addressed.

Western analysts were wrong to overstate the apocalyptic vision of ISIS. To be sure, there was an obsession with the end-of-days. But the people in charge of ISIS did not spend all their time debating eschatology, and preparing for the “final battle” does not explain why they were able to take over so much territory and gain social, economic and political ground so quickly. In analyzing the root causes of ISIS, the key is less religion and more about politics.

In post-invasion Iraq, the antecedents of ISIS broke with Al Qaeda to focus on a sectarian agenda. The strategic priority became the “near enemy” – mainly Shia Muslims – rather than the “far enemy” represented now by the American occupation. But they could never have pursued that strategy without nurturing a sense of victimhood among Sunnis as the Iraqi state collapsed. And rather than a presentiment of the apocalypse, it was the American invasion of Iraq and then the civil war in Syria that plunged Sunnis into unprecedented trauma, despair and resentment, which proved to be a perfect environment for ISIS to thrive in. And when large swathes of ungoverned land opened up in Syria, ISIS, with its ability to seize and hold territory, reinvented itself as a state-builder.

At its core, the ISIS ideology has always been based on this sense of Sunni disempowerment. Faced with an existential nightmare in their country, millions of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria simply turned inward to their clan, tribe and sect for protection and survival. The yearning for an idealized Islamic utopia came second to the imperative of Sunni survival, protection and governance. It is within this larger context that ISIS “replaced victimhood with bloodlust,” as the terrorism expert, Alia Brahimi, puts it. It became obsessed with moral purity as it murdered tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, including large numbers of fellow Sunni Muslims for “apostasy,” and created a cult of violence that eventually attracted Western attention.

As a state-building project, ISIS was bound to fail. Yet the conditions that created it – Sunni victimhood and two failing states – are still there. At the local level, Sunni grievances in both Iraq and Syria have not changed. In fact, the sense of sectarian victimhood in both countries is getting worse. Sunni tribes in Anbar province are still traumatized and continue to see the Iraqi state as an enemy that sponsors Shia militias. Notorious Shia security forces are now represented in the Iraqi parliament and the worsening prospects of confrontation between Iran and the United States is tightening Tehran’s grip over Baghdad. None of this bodes well for peace, the rule of law and stability in Iraq.

In Iraqi territories liberated from ISIS, such as Mosul, Sunni communities are subjected to a vicious cycle of violence inflicted on them by Iraqi security forces and Shia militia bent on revenge. Some of the killings, such as the hurling of ISIS prisoners off cliffs and all manner of brutal vigilante justice, mirror the methods and violence of the so-called caliphate. With rampant systemic torture, atrocious conditions in prison camps and endless abuses, the seeds of the next conflict are being planted. A new generation of jihadists – grieving, suffering massively and with legitimate complaints – is around the corner. The drivers of Sunni radicalization and recruitment are stronger than ever.

Similar dynamics are at play in Syria. The Assad regime has consolidated power but only after the near destruction of the country. Its forces are now targeting the last bastion of Sunni Islamist resistance in Idlib. The Assad regime defines success as regime survival. But winning Idlib may still mean losing Syria, especially if the conditions that created ISIS are not addressed. There is no strategic victory against jihadists if defeating them militarily produces only more Sunni trauma, victimhood and radicalization.

There are, in fact, already clear signs that ISIS fighters are re-emerging from desert hideouts, as they did in July last year when they massacred more than 200 people in the Druze community of Sweida in southwestern Syria. ISIS has also resurfaced in the Anbar and Nineveh provinces of Iraq, where its sleeper cells have retrieved the cash and weapons buried in the sand to mount car bombings and night operations in rural villages. And of course, ISIS affiliates have never disappeared in Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan, and they are spreading throughout the Muslim territories of Africa and East Asia.

Finally, ISIS is also certain to exploit the rise of the extreme right in the West. The Islamophobia behind the attack in New Zealand only validates the victimhood narrative of Muslims being under siege in the West. All these factors should lead us to the obvious conclusion: rumors about the demise of ISIS are indeed highly exaggerated.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.