Ido Levy has a BA in government specializing in global affairs and counter-terrorism from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Herzliya, Israel. He is currently pursuing a Master in Public Policy at Georgetown University. He has researched Middle Eastern Affairs at the Institute for National Security Studies and radicalization at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, where he has publications on the subject. He is an editor at Georgetown Public Policy Review and has written op-eds for Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and Times of Israel. He can be found on Twitter @IdoLevy5. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of Current Efforts to Fight the Islamic State
Date Originally Written: September 15, 2018.
Date Originally Published: October 22, 2018.
Summary: International and regional forces have all but deprived the Islamic State (IS) of its territory, yet its apocalyptic ideology allows it to continue fighting despite these losses. IS’s goal to prepare the world for the end times does not require territory and will serve as a justification for its surviving members to maintain insurgencies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Text: As of mid-2018, IS has lost most of the territory it had conquered four years ago. At its height, IS controlled a territory about the size of the United Kingdom made up of areas of Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul. As of April 2018, IS maintains small enclaves in southern and eastern Syria. IS continues to carry out sporadic attacks, using borderlands, mountains, and deserts as havens. Syrian, Iraqi, and Russian military forces, Kurdish militias, Shi’a militias, and forces of a U.S.-led international coalition are now continuing the fight to defeat IS permanently.
In many of its former territories, IS has transitioned to an insurgent campaign. Over the past year, IS has conducted many attacks in northern Iraq, as well as Baghdad and Mosul. The Iraqi military, together with predominantly Shi’a militias collectively called the Popular Mobilization Units, has responded by launching several operations in northern Iraq and training elite forces to guard the border with Syria. Iraqi forces have made incursions into Syria to strike IS targets.
A mostly Kurdish militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is leading the fight against IS’s enclaves in eastern Syria. U.S. and French special operations are supporting SDF efforts while Russian forces carry out their own attacks against IS. Another terrorist organization, an al-Qaeda offshoot called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is also fighting IS in Syria. At the same time, IS’s former capital, Raqqa, has seen an upsurge in attacks by IS.
In sum, although IS has begun employing insurgent tactics in its former territories, anti-IS forces have almost defeated the “territorial caliphate.” One authority on IS, Graeme Wood, has claimed that IS “requires territory to remain legitimate.” Indeed, as William McCants has noted, many did join IS to fulfill the reestablishment of the caliphate, the Islamic empire governed by sharia, or Islamic law. Through this lens, it is only a matter of time until IS loses all of its territory and disintegrates.
Despite the collapse of the territorial caliphate, the aspirational caliphate is still alive and well. In their expert accounts of IS, both McCants and Wood note IS has differentiated and perpetuated itself within the jihadist movement through its intense awareness of an imminent apocalypse. Al-Qaeda, another organization seeking the restoration of the caliphate, scoffed at apocalyptic notions, maintaining that the gradual buildup of an Islamic army and embedding of jihadist agents around the globe toward slowly reestablishing the caliphate was the paramount endeavor. The founders of IS, convinced of the nearness of Judgement Day, contended that there was no time for gradualism, that rectitude demanded swift and bold action in the present (this also serves as justification for IS’s particularly brutal tactics). For IS, the caliphate became the bridge between the present and the end times, a place where “true” Muslims could live righteous lives free of corrupt un-Islamic influences in the present. At the same time, these soldiers of Islam could work to expand the empire, inspiring greater numbers of true Muslims and petrifying nonbelievers. This forceful division of the world between the righteous and the evil could prepare the world for Allah’s judgement.
IS’s vision suggests it does not need territory to remain viable. Ori Goldberg, a scholar who researches Islamist ideologies, notes that the pursuit of an Islamic empire “in its own right” is “particularly difficult” with regard to IS. He claims that IS rather seeks the “hollowing out” of the world, or to cause people to be so terrified that they abandon their “convictions” and live in fear. In essence, while sowing fear among the nonbelievers is one half of IS’s creed, the other is to cement the believers’ righteousness. This two-pronged endeavor does not necessitate holding territory, though territory can help advance it.
In practice, this view entails that IS can continue to function ideologically and materially in the absence of territory. Those IS members who believe in the group’s apocalyptic creed will fight to the last. Those who emphasize the group’s territoriality may second-guess their participation, though might also believe they can retake their lost territories. Of course, there are many other reasons people joined IS – attraction to violence, grievances against a home country, excitement, money. However, the apocalyptic core survives with or without territory and will serve as motivation to carry on insurgencies in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
Overall, the ground war against IS is advancing steadily toward completion while IS insurgencies are gaining momentum in former IS territories. These insurgencies will hinder efforts to rebuild Iraq and Syria while straining their security forces and budgets. IS’s apocalyptic vision will serve as the basis for insurgent morale.
 Johnston, I. (2014, September 3). The rise of Isis: Terror group now controls an area the size of Britain, expert claims. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-rise-of-isis-terror-group-now-controls-an-area-the-size-of-britain-expert-claims-9710198.html
 McGurk, B. (2018, May 10). Remarks at Herzliya Conference. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.state.gov/s/seci/2018/282016.htm#Map
 Sly, L., &, Salim, M. (2018, July 17). ISIS is making a comeback in Iraq just months after Baghdad declared victory. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/isis-is-making-a-comeback-in-iraq-less-than-a-year-after-baghdad-declared-victory/2018/07/17/9aac54a6-892c-11e8-9d59-dccc2c0cabcf_story.html
 Schmitt, E. (2018, May 30). Battle to stamp out ISIS in Syria gains new momentum, but threats remain. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/world/middleeast/isis-syria-battle-kurds-united-states.html
 Reuters (2018, June 23). Iraq says it bombed a meeting of Islamic State leaders in Syria. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/23/world/middleeast/iraq-syria-isis.html
 Sengupta, K. (2018, July 3). Amid a fractured political and military landscape, Isis are quietly regrouping in Syria. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-syria-regrouping-islamic-state-assad-a8429446.html
 See McGurk.
 Wood, G. (2015, March). What ISIS Really Wants. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
 McCants, W. (2015). The ISIS apocalypse: The history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
 Goldberg, O. (2017). Faith and politics in Iran, Israel, and the Islamic State: Theologies of the real. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.