With the assaults on the Islamic State (IS) strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, underway, it appears the group we know today is facing its last days. This is not to say it will disappear completely, but the organization will look very different in a year or so.
This begs the question: what comes after the Islamic State? Does the organization evaporate and become absorbed into some other group, or does it rebrand itself in a different social context and continue its efforts? It is impossible to state definitively what will occur in the future, but there are some scenarios that are more likely than others. These scenarios are presented from least likely to most likely based on the political and social factors at play in the region and within the IS.
The first scenario is the IS begins to search for a new theatre in which to establish a presence. Egypt, a state under increasingly authoritarian rule since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power after a successful military coup in 2013, could potentially become a new front for the IS.
On Apr. 9, two suicide bombings took place inside Coptic churches, killing 44 individuals. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, continuing a bloody, but sporadic, tradition of discrimination against the Christian minority in Egypt.
The targeting of Christians is a strategic decision; a decision motivated by more than sectarianism. The Sisi regime relies on the support of the Christian minority. As a result, threats against Christians are often met with a further consolidation of power by the regime. For example, critical social media posts may be grounds for being taken to court.
If there is one lesson to be learned in the modern Middle East, it should be that authoritarianism is not a sufficient response to tackling terrorist organizations. In the Egypt case, this increasingly autocratic state structure has not necessarily translated into increased security against attacks, and it is easy to imagine this coming to a boiling point.
There is a significant issue with this theory, however. As has been noted earlier in this blog, the IS thrives off sectarian and communal tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The demographics for this type of conflict are not as prevalent in Egypt as they are in Iraq and Syria. As you can see from the map below, Iraq and Syria have demographics more fitting to a sectarian conflict. There are so few Shiites in Egypt that it would be difficult to sustain a large enough campaign to draw in recruits into IS.
Another possibility for the future of the Islamic State is a total collapse of the organization. Politically and strategically, IS has put itself in a dire position. Obviously, the organization has antagonized the great powers of the world, so this is a point I will not explore.
IS has not only made enemies in the West but also within the jihadist movement. As Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and contemporary Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, explains in his book “ISIS: A History,” the radical Salafi movement the IS is rooted in has decried its reckless and barbaric strategies.
Individuals like Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, noted by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point as “the key contemporary ideologue in the Jihadi intellectual universe,” have backed jihadist groups strategically opposed to IS. These include groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda linked group that has melded itself into the Syrian opposition.
The point here is IS has alienated itself on multiple fronts, be it with the West, regional powers, the states whose territory it occupies and even the ideologues who fostered the environment that developed IS. That is not a sustainable practice, and IS may very well evaporate because of it.
The most likely of these scenarios, however, is the prospect of IS going underground and metamorphosing into a new entity. As has been discussed earlier in this blog, IS has its roots in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), formed in 2003. AQI found itself little sympathy in Iraq due to its sectarian tendencies. This situation led the central authority of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, to attempt to put a leash on the leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Following Zarqawi’s death, the organization was hanging on by a thread. As has been a common theme throughout this history, however, organizations like AQI, and the subsequent Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), consume political and social chaos like oxygen.
To illustrate, it was primarily due to the corruption and sectarianization of Iraq’s Maliki administration, as well as the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, that facilitated the growth of the organization we know today as the IS. It is not like this organization came out of nowhere; it laid essentially dormant until the political and social fractures in the region allowed for it to rear its head.
We could easily see this same phenomenon happen again in the future. For example, if the Syrian or Iraqi state structure totally collapses, potentially due to inefficient management of places like Mosul and Raqqa that are in the process of being liberated, IS could find an opportunity to reemerge.
It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly will happen with the IS. A common theme through each scenario presented is political and social crises. A constant state of emergency in Egypt is not conducive to a healthy governance. The existence of other organizations that serve as moderate foils to the IS provide opportunities for jihadis to pledge their loyalty to a more sustainable group. The continuing strife in places like war-torn Syria and Mosul provide ample frustration to those looking for vengeance. The IS is dying, but if we do not take care to minimize the negative effects of these scenarios, it could bring the organization new life.