BEIRUT: A conventional military defeat of Daesh (ISIS) seems to be on the horizon in Syria and Iraq, but analysts warn of a persistent danger posed by the group, with speculation it could regroup in Libya.
The foreseeable losses of Mosul and Raqqa might strengthen some Daesh branches elsewhere, such as in Libya, which has been suggested as a possible alternative for Daesh’s principal leadership to relocate to, Mara Revkin, an Islamic law fellow at Yale University, told a conference in Beirut held Monday by the Issam Fares Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung entitled “The Future of Islamic State Provinces and Affiliates.”
Daesh’s peripheral branches, outside its core bases in Syria and Iraq, differ in importance based on natural resources, smuggling networks and strategic locations for staging attacks.
In Libya, Daesh was able to create a proto-state in the coastal city of Sirte and impose social and economic systems ranging from tax collection to running public offices and services.
“Libya is arguably the greatest asset for ISIS as it is the only province where [the militant group] has come even close to replicating its governance,” Revkin said.
Revkin said Daesh had dispatched a senior member to Libya to assist in capacity-building for the new organization setting up in the north African country.
“ISIS is known to rotate personnel between different provinces of Syria and Iraq to facilitate the standardization of procedures and share lessons learned. It is possible that similar personnel movements are happening between the core and Libya,” Revkin said.
Daesh briefly controlled two oil fields in the city of Sirte, located between the capital and the oil crescent, and at one point had control over 250 km of Libya’s coastline. The militant group was ousted from Sirte last year by U.S.-backed unity government forces, after a seven-month-long battle.
Other potential scenarios are emerging, meanwhile, about how Daesh could continue its terrorist activities long after its defeat, one of which is the group’s shift from the concept of territorial control toward a strategy centered on terrorist attacks in the region and the west.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a researcher on Islamist militancy at the Middle East Forum, said that evidence has been found that as Daesh expects to lose its core bases, the group has moved its narrative away from the idea that the “Islamic State constitute control of territory and administration of major cities.”
The Daesh document Tamimi referred to was found in a town west of Mosul and is entitled “Al-Khalifa Lan Tazoul,” or “The Caliphate Will Not Vanish.” The publication quotes Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, former Daesh spokesman killed in August 2016, on the idea that losing Mosul, Raqqa and Sirte does not spell the end of the “Islamic State,” Tamimi told the conference.
In a glimpse at the militant group’s future plans, Tamimi said the document also quotes the Daesh shura council as saying the group will still have the supporters it cultivated in the West who will carry strikes in their home towns.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean the returning fighters as much as an expectation that their supporters in the West who can’t come to the ISIS territories in Syria and Iraq will be a real strike force in the future,” he said.
Echoing Tamimi’s scenario, Revkin said Daesh’s loyal members will continue to engage in terrorist activities either in their home countries or in Syria and Iraq.
“Even if ISIS doesn’t survive under the banner of the caliphate we can expect some sort of rebranding to happen [in the future],” she said, alluding to the history of Iraqi-based insurgencies that have continually resurfaced under new names.
However, such a narrative, detached from ground control, might pose a challenge for Daesh as its legitimacy is put in question when it loses its territories, which are a major appeal for potential recruits.
Revkin noted that in a competitive field of global Islamist militancy, Daesh supporters might be encouraged to defect to rival militant groups that can offer alternative state-building projects. Others might demobilize from militancy altogether.
“It’s a question of whether or not the ISIS ideology can remain preferable in the absence of territorial control, given that the ideology hinges so centrally on a state-building project that’s anchored in control of territory,” Revkin added.
The question facing Daesh is whether or not it would be able to adjust its ideology to be “a virtual caliphate that exists in people’s minds and not actually on the ground,” which, she said, might not be as attractive.
Another challenge to the group, as Revkin suggested, is that an apparent failure of the “caliphate” might push leaders in peripheral provinces to dispute the group’s strategies, leading to infighting and power struggles, which according to documents found by Tamimi might already be happening.
With different scenarios on the table, the conference’s panelists seemed to agree on the idea that the threat posed by Daesh will still exist, albeit under a different formula that is yet to be determined.
Abdullah bin Khaled al-Saud, visiting research fellow at King’s College London, said that in Saudi Arabia, with recent security and intelligence successes achieved by the kingdom’s institutions, the threat of Daesh attacks has been reduced.
However, he cautioned that a defeat of Daesh would lead to “more scattered, random and probably more brutal attacks.”
Tamimi, for his part, suggested that the Iraqi province of Diyala, recaptured by the Iraqis in 2015, presents a good model for the Daesh activities after its defeat.
Tamimi said in addition to IED-related incidents and raids on security forces often taking place in the province, there are still areas in Diyala that have had to be repeatedly cleared of Daesh militants.
“Exploiting difficult terrains seems to be something that, post-territorial control, the ISIS insurgency wants to take advantage of,” he said.