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The grandiose dreams of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of Islamic State (IS) who envisioned a jihadist caliphate encompassing the entire globe under his leadership, appear to be crumbling. In parallel with Adolf Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” which in fact lasted barely twelve, IS’s initial period of amazing success and swift territorial gain has been followed by a slow but steady attrition of those early victories. It is estimated that since its heyday in mid-2014, IS has lost about half its territory in Iraq and some 20 percent in Syria. On 4 September 2016, IS was chased from the last of its holdings on the Syrian-Turkish border, depriving it of a key transit point for recruits and supplies.
Its leaders, moreover, are being eliminated, one by one. The latest, and perhaps most significant, loss was that of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on August 30, 2016. Adnani, the leading IS strategist, was the mastermind behind many of its spectacular terror attacks against Western interests. In September 2014 he called on Muslims in the West to kill Europeans wherever and however they could, warning foreign governments: “We will strike you in your homeland, especially the spiteful and filthy French.” And he urged them to do it in any manner they could: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”
Adnani was the most recent in the catalogue of leading IS figures tracked down and killed by the US-led coalition. Last year saw the elimination of Baghdadi’s right-hand man, Haji al-Mutazz, aka Ned Price; Abu Sayyaf; logistics expert Tariq al-Harzi; Junaid Husssein; extortion expert Abu Maryam; chief accountant Abu Salah; Abu Nabil; and chief chemical weapons expert, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari – nor is this an exhaustive list.
In 2016 those removed include Mustafa al-Qaduli, IS’s chief financier, and Omar al-Shishani, generally considered IS’s minister of war. “The stench of decay hangs over IS” in the words of Middle East commentator David Blair. In March 2016, in a stark illustration of a movement in the process of disintegration, Abu Ali al-Tunisi, commander of IS military operations in northern Raqqa, was killed at the hands of fellow IS militants.
“Al-Tunisi was attacked by a group of IS militants who used to fight under his command in the northern countryside of Raqqa,” reported local media activist Ammar al-Hassan. The militants apparently opened fire at their commander’s car on March 6, 2016, killing him and two of his escorts.
This assassination occurred amid escalating rifts within IS. Local disaffection among members has centered on a decrease in salaries resulting from the group’s loss of key resources, and on the promotion of a number of foreign jihadis to senior positions.
The caliphate that al-Baghdadi professed to be recreating harked back to the idea of an Islamic republic owing allegiance to one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The caliphate concept was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, but Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state that, at various times during the course of Islam’s 1,400-year history, ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and large parts of Europe.
As regards IS’s intention to do just that, in December 2015 the UK’s Guardian newspaper revealed the contents of a leaked internal IS manual showing how the terrorist group had been setting about building a state in Iraq and Syria complete with government departments, a treasury and an economic programme for self-sufficiency.
The 24-page document, entitled “Principles in the administration of the Islamic State”, set out a blueprint for establishing foreign relations, a fully-fledged propaganda operation, and centralised control over oil, gas and the other vital parts of the economy. It built up a picture of a group, according to the Guardian that, “although sworn to a founding principle of brutal violence, is equally set on more mundane matters such as health, education, commerce, communications and jobs. In short, it is building a state.”
Charlie Winter, a senior researcher for Georgia State University, believes that IS had “an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure behind it.”
IS’s subsequent loss of territory puts paid to these extravagant plans, much to the relief of substantial sections of the population which had languished under IS rule. When Manbij was recaptured by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 13 August 2016, mass jubilation engulfed the city. Women were seen ripping off their burqas and burning them; men were pictured cutting off their beards. Those subjected to IS governance will not forget the dread of living under an extremist version of sharia, the horrendous mass slaughter of “non-believers”, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and the glorification of inhumane beheadings, amputations and crucifixions.
Having suffered a steady loss of territory and continuous depletion of its leading figures, IS is down, but not out. It will doubtless put up an energetic rearguard action against the battalions arrayed against it – the UN-led coalition, the Russian-Iranian alliance, the legions of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and the Syrian Democratic Forces which encompass the doughty Kurdish peshmerga troops, the fighters who have proved the most effective against IS on the ground. But it will have lost status and prestige, especially among the vulnerable and impressionable Muslim youth worldwide, whom it has targeted in its recruiting drives. Loss of territory carries with it the stigma of loss of power.
Putting a brave face on IS’s succession of disasters, in May 2016 Adnani declared: “Do you think, America, that defeat is by the loss of towns or territory? No, true defeat is losing the will and desire to fight.”
He may have had a point, but there is all the difference in the world from the position IS had acquired in its heyday, and a stateless group simply concerned with promulgating terrorism across the globe – a sort of latter day al-Qaeda following the assassination of its leader Osama bin Laden, a movement rendered not toothless, but far less of a universal menace. That is very possibly the fate awaiting Islamic State.