ISIS Is Not a Dead Parrot
A specialist on apocalyptic Islam warns where ISIS may crop up next.
A month ago, President Trump declared the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria defeated, its caliphate finished. This is a major achievement. At the height of its power in 2015, ISIS controlled thousands of square miles of Iraq and Syria. President Obama had promised to “degrade and destroy” the brutal Islamic State. But as usual with Obama, his actions never matched his words. Toppling ISIS ranks as one of Trump’s major achievements. It’s just ahead of befriending North Korea and defriending Iran. The region and the world are better off now.
But is that the end of ISIS? Latest estimates say its jihadists number at least 35,000. It’s also rich, with hundreds of millions of dollars hidden away. And ISIS thrives in countries besides Syria. According to the US State Department, it’s in Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Algeria, as well as Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and Egypt. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimates ISIS is also in Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Turkey, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. And these cells aren’t just hiding in caves. Today, ISIS in Nigeria claims to have killed 13 government soldiers. Will ISIS set up another caliphate? Or will its supporters choose another path?
Three Possible Paths for ISIS
Paul Staniland wrote an article on ISIS’s future in 2017. He studied many prior separatist groups and found that most fought until they were defeated, collapsed or absorbed. Then he suggested three possible paths for ISIS. One was fighting to the death. Another was containment and collapse. The third was the destruction of ISIS’ fighters, and loss of population centers. (Exactly what Trump’s policies did.) But this last option included a likely return to guerrilla warfare.
ISIS may turn back into a low-level insurgency in Syria. But US, Kurdish, Syrian government, Russian, Iranian and rival jihadist forces oppose it. So the group will look abroad, probably to north Africa. Yet no one has looked at the history of similar Islamic groups there. This is because of the stubborn belief that ISIS is new in its “extremism.”
A Little History
In the early Middle Ages, an Isma’ili Shi`i sect spread throughout north Africa. The Fatimids conquered Egypt in 969, ruling it for 200 years. They fought with Sunni states, yet allied with Crusaders. But they also favored the Assassins, fellow Isma’ilis who killed or threatened Sunni leaders as policy. Eventually, Salah al-Din overthrew the Fatimids and restored Sunni Islam. The Ismai’ilis outside Egypt split into several branches, which still exist.
Centuries later, the Mahdists of Sudan followed Muhammad Ahmad, who declared himself the messiah (Mahdi) in 1880. Ahmad led an apocalyptic revolt against Ottoman Egyptian forces. He also attacked their British allies and General Charles Gordon, of Khartoum fame. The Sudanese hated lax Ottoman Egyptian Islam. They also despised British-backed interference with the slave trade. This Mahdist State, following Muhammad Ahmad’s teachings, imposed harsh Islamic law and belief in him as Mahdi. He died five years later and his “caliph,” Abd Allah, ruled until conquered by British forces in 1898. In the 20th century, one of the Mahdi’s great-grandsons, Sadiq al-Mahdi, became an important politician. This movement even formed the basis of the National Party in Sudan.
ISIS shares a number of traits with both these movements. All three began as outsider, insurgent groups which came to power via preaching and war. All three were eschatological, in claiming to be sparking the End Times. (For ISIS beliefs in this regard, see my Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps.) ISIS has much in common with Sudanese Mahdism in terms of Sunnism and the imposition of strict shari`a law. The state version of the Isma’ilis, the Fatimids, were tolerant of non-Shi`is. (Logical, as the majority of Egyptians remained Sunni.)
But ISIS does share with the non-state Isma’ilis, the Assassins, love of suicide operations. Note that only raw military power ended the most aggressive phase of each movement. Salah al-Din’s army overthrew the Fatimids. The Mongols ruined the Assassin fortresses. British imperial forces, as Churchill explained, rolled up the Mahdists. And US plus allied SDF forces, unleashed by President Trump, have demolished ISIS’ caliphate.
After the double loss of their major (Egypt) and minor (Syrian) states, the Isma’ilis eventually abandoned violence and became a moderate sect of Islam. But this took centuries to occur, and only because Mongol subjugation was followed by Twelver Shi`i persecution. The Sudanese Mahdists are now one of several mainstream political parties in that country, stripped of their apocalyptic zeal. But it took some 60 years after the founder for that to happen, and only after a crushing military defeat by the British.
ISIS Doesn’t Need Real Estate
Sudanese Mahdism was largely a mystical form of nationalism. ISIS is not. It’s pan-Islamic and not tied to any particular real estate. (It didn’t control its territory long enough to create geographical loyalty.) Thus, the most likely path for ISIS is the Isma’ili one. Although the former is Sunni and the latter Shi`i, they share the same enemy across space and time. It’s the Sunni establishment. The Isma’ilis detest it because they are Shi`i. ISIS does so because they think the establishment has sold out to the West.
ISIS has lost its caliphate, as the Isma’ilis did when the Fatimids were overthrown. But the non-state version of the latter continued for many years as dispersed, violent cells. (ISIS clearly resembles the Isma’ilis in this regard.) President Trump, with help from the Syrian Democratic Forces, has played the Mongol role. But other outposts of ISIS will remain for years to come. It will require constant vigilance to prevent the rise of another such caliphate in, say, Libya. Meanwhile, ISIS terrorists will bedevil the world, like al Qaeda and its ilk.
Allow me to paraphrase the master strategist of Middle-earth, Gandalf the White. “Other evils there are that will come; for ISIS itself is but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”