Just a few years ago the Islamic State (IS) was only too real. Spread across Syria and Iraq, It covered more than 34,000 square miles and controlled millions of people. Its revenues came from oil produced in the areas it had overrun, sold at bargain prices to dealers in Turkey and elsewhere, augmented by taxes levied on its population, the sale of stolen artifacts, ransoms from kidnappings, smuggling and extortion.
At its height IS had set up a system of government that in many aspects paralleled that of a modern state. The ruler – the self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – headed a central structure of advisory councils and administrative departments that were replicated regionally, and then right down at local level. These departments oversaw a range of functions and services including health provision, education, a legal system, security, finance and media – services which came with a clear ideological orientation, particularly the religious and educational institutions it set up in newly acquired territory.
Once an area fell under its sway, IS focused on getting the utilities and sanitation systems up and running, and distributing food supplies, often providing better services than many of the populations had previously enjoyed – and consequently sometimes winning their support.
IS reached its apogee at the end of 2014. By February 2015 it had been driven out of the Syrian border town of Kobane by Kurdish Peshmerga forces; in April of that year it lost the Iraqi city of Tikrit. From then on, facing a military coalition bent on its destruction, it began to disintegrate. Gradually but inexorably, as its forces suffered defeat after defeat, its territory shrank Finally on Friday March 22, 2019, following a lengthy battle around the small Syrian town of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates, IS lost its final stronghold.
Al-Baghdadi’s dream of establishing a Muslim caliphate spanning the Middle East was dead. His caliphate had lasted less than five years. But the period of IS’s territorial decline also witnessed an increase in Its global appeal to young Muslims, both male and female, who came in their thousands to join the organization. Some, no doubt, have since become disillusioned by IS’s military defeat, but many have not. They will be aware that although the real on-the-ground caliphate has been obliterated, the virtual Islamic State has remained as potent as ever.
Throughout the period 2014-2018 Islamic State conducted or inspired a continuing series of terrorist activities across the globe. The TV network CNN, which maintained a running tally, recorded more than 70 such operations conducted in some 20 countries, resulting in a death toll of nearly 12,000 people. In 2018 alone there were 25 IS-inspired terrorist attacks, and the massacre of 2463 people.
Within a month of IS’s final defeat on the ground, and as if to proclaim that a virtual version of the organization was fully functional, IS claimed responsibility for the horrific killing campaign in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. In a coordinated operation by suicide bombers that simultaneously targeted three churches and three hotels in Colombo, no less than 359 people were slaughtered and more than 500 injured.
What motivates this merciless determination to attack, bomb and massacre people?
The progenitor of the modern Islamist movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. Before becoming the leaders of IS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of al-Qaeda), all belonged to the Brotherhood.
In founding the organization Al-Banna declared quite simply: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”
The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its goal, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. Mustafa Mashhur, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 1996 until 2003, set out its underlying philosophy in his 1995 book “Jihad is the Way”.
“Jihad and preparation for Jihad are not only for the purpose of fending-off assaults and attacks against Muslims by Allah’s enemies, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state, strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world.”
Islamic State strongly supports the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood. At its heart is a ruthless obsession with imposing its extremist version of Islam on the entire globe. If it cannot achieve its aim by territorial conquest, it will do so by sowing ideological dissension within societies that will not accept its concept of Islam. This purpose, in its view, is of such paramount importance that its achievement must not be deflected by normal human sentiments. The end justifies the use of any means, however extreme.
During the period that al-Baghdadi held his territory, he used it to provide thousands of young recruits from around the world with a radicalizing education, combat training and experience. To this, as far as the male recruits were concerned, he added a taste for rape, ultra-violence, and martyrdom.
The danger these recruits pose does not end when they leave Iraq or Syria, or because the caliphate has been destroyed. The threat of terrorist violence by returnees, by local terrorist groups that affiliate with IS, or from individuals radicalized online by the group’s jihadist propaganda remains a toxic global threat.
Meanwhile the virtual Islamic State lives on. On top of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, IS recently claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, an attempted attack in Saudi Arabia, and on 18 April the IS news agency claimed that its soldiers had assaulted a military barracks in the democratic Republic of Congo, killing eight people.
As one US news site put it: “The Caliphate is defeated, but Islamic State is just getting started.”