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Overview: 

The “Islamic State,” or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), is a Salafi Islamist militant faction that traces its origins back to a jihadist group led in the late 1990s by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Moving to Iraq in 2002, the group got its start as one of several militias challenging the U.S.-led military presence in the country, eventually competing for leadership among the various mujahideen groups. Initially independent of al-Qaeda, Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004, and his group became The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers (better known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI). Despite al-Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, the organization continued on, becoming the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in October 2006 in anticipation of establishing an Islamic state in conquered territory modeled on the Salafi conception of the “pure” Islamic state that existed during the formative years of Islam’s ascendance in the 7th century.  This ambitious “Islamic State” project would be temporarily undermined by an increasingly successful American-led counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq from 2007 to 2010. 

In May 2010, ISI announced the selection of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its leader. As U.S. troops departed Iraq in December 2011, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assumed an increasingly sectarian character, deeply alienating the country’s Sunni Arab population. ISI then launched a series of successful raids to liberate captured members from Iraqi prisons and sent fighters to establish a presence in 2011 in Syria amid an uprising there against President Bashar al-Assad.

By April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi attempted to assert his control over the ISIS-al-Qaeda joint project in Syria by announcing the creation of ISIS, making the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusrah Front part of his organization. Fissures in the jihadist ranks deepened as ISIS’ leadership bid was rejected by both al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nusrah Front emir Abu Muhamad al-Julani. Yet, as jihadists increasingly joined the ranks of ISIS, the organization succeeded in taking the Syrian city of Raqqa in August 2013 from rival groups. Subsequently, continued unrest in Iraq opened the door for ISIS to take the city of Fallujah in January 2014. A disavowal of ISIS by al-Qaeda in February 2014 barely seemed to slow the momentum of the group in Iraq’s Anbar province.

The shockingly swift and easy June 2014 takeover of Mosul and much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab north propelled ISIS to the front and center of global media attention. Buoyed by an image of invincibility and authenticity, the ISIS propaganda juggernaut issued a call for Muslims worldwide to emigrate and build the nascent state. ISIS’s brutal treatment of religious minorities in northern Iraq led to the creation of a U.S.-led military coalition against it. ISIS began suffering losses, most notably when it lost control of the Mosul Dam in August 2014 and the besieged city of Amerli in September 2014. While more than 10,000 Coalition airstrikes slowed ISIS momentum in Iraq and parts of Syria, the organization demonstrated its potency by scoring major victories in Ramadi, Iraq and Tadmur, Syria in spring 2015. Meanwhile, its potent propaganda and revolutionary image of an idealized Islamic state reborn at the “End of Days” continues to attract a steady stream of new recruits and oaths of allegiance from substantial Salafi jihadist groups in Libya, West Africa, and Egypt, as well as pockets of fighters scattered throughout turbulent regions of the Muslim world. 

By 2016, ISIS was confronting an ongoing series of significant military reversals and defeats on the ground in its Syria-Iraq heartland. By October of that year, the long expected offensive against Mosul, the largest city held by ISIS, had begun and quick initial progress was replaced by a slow and deadly grind in urban areas culminating in a costly but clear victory by Iraqi Security Forces in July 2017.  ISIS was clearly reverting to its pre-Caliphate insurgent model in much of Iraq. Meanwhile Syrian Kurdish-led forces were closing in on Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria.  In retreat, facing enemies on every side and still implacable in its methods and ambitions, the Islamic State, both on the ground and in cyberspace, is ceding ground slowly and bitterly but has already revolutionized the world of Islamism. Since the beginning of 2018, ISIS has faced massive territorial defeat in both Iraq and Syria. In its retreat back to its pre-caliphate model of insurgency, the group has proven its ability to maintain a formidable Internet and social media presence, while seeking to expand membership and recruitment in Southeast Asia and the greater Middle East.  

History & Ideology: 

A few months after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, the al-Qaeda in Iraq-led Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). An October 15, 2006 statement announcing the new entity compared it in size to the 7th century state of Medina under the Prophet Muhammad, and called for Muslims everywhere to support the state, which would be the precursor to a resurrected Caliphate to be based in Baghdad.1 A month later, a 20-minute audio file by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, a veteran Egyptian jihadist who had replaced al-Zarqawi as emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, contained his pledge of allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Al-Muhajir pledged his “12,000 fighter strong Army of al-Qa’ida” to the new leader and called on other Iraqi jihadist groups to unite under Al-Baghdadi’s standard.2 While ostensibly still part of al-Qaeda, the new organization revealed a revolutionary agenda that would dramatically impact 21st century Salafi jihadism.

The announcement of the Islamic State did not emerge out of a vacuum. It was designed to mimic the most “authentic” Islamic state that existed during the time of the Prophet Mohammed and the idealized period of the Righteously Guided Caliphs (622-661 A.D.). Al-Qaeda, by contrast, focused on prioritizing the conflict against the West and especially the United States, and saw the creation of the Caliphate as an eventual goal, to be pursued when conditions improved and there was consensus among the Muslim umma (community of believers). 

The image of what ISIS would become was visible in August 2007, when the group orchestrated its bloodiest attack to-date in Iraq: a series of truck bombs in the Yazidi towns of Kahtaniya and Jazeera which killed between 500 and 900 people and injured 1,500 more.3 While the group remained active in killing and bombing, U.S. and Iraqi counter-insurgency operations, aided by the increasingly effective U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq or “Sahwa” (Sunni tribes armed to fight al-Qaeda), was taking its toll.  

The Islamic State’s “Minister of War,” Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, resurfaced in October 2008 with a revealing 44-minute interview. Al-Muhajir explained that establishing the Islamic State had always been a dream of Iraqi jihadists, but that conditions had been ripe for the establishment of an entity that would embody and protect Iraq’s (and the region’s) Sunni Arab Muslims. He seemed to make clear that the decision to try and establish a “state” was only made after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He also revealed that the military commander of the Islamic State had been a former Colonel in Saddam’s army, and that the point of jihad was to secure a State in order to enforce God’s law following the precedent of Muhammad in Medina.4

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi marked the second anniversary of the Islamic State in October 2008 in a defiant speech, given the increasing success of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) at the time. He boasted that it was better to kill one rafidah (Shia) than a hundred Crusaders.5 The election of a new American president in November 2008 engendered still another speech directed at the President-elect and at the Christians more broadly, calling on them to purge their religion of the “corruptions” instituted by Emperor Constantine at Nicaea.

Despite increasing success by the ISF, the Islamic State continued to strike out with its deadliest operation of the year on April 23, 2009, a dual suicide bomb attack that killed around 130 in Baghdad and Diyala. A June 2009 communique followed, expressing frustration at the nationalist orientation of some Sunni jihadist groups, which had still refused to join ISI.  

Leveraging intelligence provided by a high-ranking ISI prisoner, U.S. and Iraqi forces succeeded in killing both ISI War Minister Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi on April 18, 2010.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called it a “potentially devastating blow” to the group. A subdued statement on May 16 announced the naming of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new leader of the Islamic State of Iraq.

While the Islamic State of Iraq was announced in 2006 at a period that seemed to be especially propitious for success, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (real name Ibrahim Awad al-Badri al-Samarrai) took over an organization in disarray, with its top leaders killed, disunity in the ranks of Sunni Arabs, and the seeming growing success of both the Iraqi Security Forces and the Sunni Awakening Movement in Anbar Province. 

On August 25, 2010, a string of suicide bomb attacks hit Iraqi cities from Mosul to Basra during the month of Ramadan. The coordinated attacks were described by ISI as an “earth-shaking wave” carried out by “battalions of monotheists” for the sake of the “blessed prisoners.” These actions were led by the “Commander of the Faithful, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” The ISI statement also included a mention of support to jihadist Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia.6 An even higher-profile attack occurred October 2010, with the massacre of Christian worshippers attending a mass at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad.The Islamic State press release that followed sought to tie the killing, which may have been a failed hostage taking, to events in Egypt involving the supposed conversion of some Coptic women to Islam.8   

Al-Baghdadi’s profile remained low while ISI continued to carry out terrorist attacks in 2011. One particularly notorious attack, however, targeted Iraq’s best-known Sunni mosque in Baghdad during Ramadan.9 With the American military departure complete in December 2011, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to unravel some of the hard-won gains in forging a multi-sectarian consensus,10 and terrorist actions claimed by the Islamic State began to grow. In January 2012, large scale attacks against Shia civilians struck during the Arbaeen rituals in three Shia holy sites.11 

The growing popular revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 led to the outbreak of increasingly savage and sectarian fighting there. The first al-Qaeda fighters, sent from the Islamic State in Iraq, arrived in Syria that year and began organizing. The new Syria-focused organization, the Nusrah Front, was announced in January 2012 and was led by a veteran Syrian jihadist named Abu Muhammad al-Julani who had spent years fighting in Iraq. According to one source, al-Julani came from a middle-class family in Damascus and the “Al-Julani” kunya referred not to the Golan Heights of Syria but to the Al-Julani neighborhood of Fallujah where he had distinguished himself.12 

Blessed by al-Qaeda Central’s leadership and ISI, al-Julani grew his organization, often working in concert with other Islamist rebel factions. By April 2013, the Islamic State sought to reassert its control over the Nusrah Front, which it claimed to have funded and created. This assertion of control was rejected by al-Julani, and by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Battle-tested and ruthless, the now newly-renamed ISIS took the major Syrian city of Raqqa, not from the Assad regime but from other rebel groups, including the Nusrah Front.13 With Raqqa swollen with internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, for the first time the Islamic State had full, uncontested control over a major population area. Jihadists, both Arab and foreign, flocked to the group, among them the famed Chechen jihadist Abu Omar al-Shishani and his hardened fighters.14

ISIS launched eight separate attacks on Iraqi prisons from July 2012 to July 2013, two of which resulted in the release of at least 600 prisoners.15 The successful attack on the Abu Ghraib facility in July 2013 released, among others, the ISIS Minister of War, Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi.16 The group’s new military campaign, announced in July 2013 and entitled “Soldiers Harvest,” aimed at intimidating and wearing down Iraqi Security Forces, especially in Sunni majority areas of Iraq that ISIS sought to control. ISIS spokesman al-Adnani claimed that the operation actually began in Syria but also seemed to focus on Iraq’s Ninewa and Northern Diyala areas.17 Overall, the situation in Iraq steadily deteriorated, with the level of violence in 2013 reaching levels not seen in five years.

In December 2013, ISIS succeeded in entrapping and killing the leadership of the Iraqi Security Force’s 7th Division in a synchronized attack involving multiple suicide bombers near Rutbah.18 That same month, seemingly oblivious to the storm brewing, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on Sunni critics in Anbar province.19 In January 2014, a resurgent ISIS rapidly took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah.20 This major ISIS achievement, coming after its overall resurgence and success in Syria, was dismissed by President Barack Obama as “various local power struggles and disputes” by rival jihadists.21 By this time, however, the number of foreign fighters in Syria, most of them part of ISIS, exceeded the number that had gone to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets.22

While ISIS videos featured all sorts of telegenic European and exotic recruits from Chile or Cambodia, the group’s leadership remained overwhelmingly Iraqi and Syrian, except for notable field commander Al-Shishani.23 A core of that leadership came from the officer corps of Saddam Hussein’s former army.24 One other prominent exception was the firebrand ISIS cleric from Bahrain, Turki al-Bin’ali, who aggressively confronted the enemies of the Islamic State among the regional ulema (group of Muslim scholars).25 

ISIS’ encounter with Syria, and its friction with al-Qaeda’s sclerotic leadership, led to a revolution in the way it produced propaganda. Previously, much of its video production was focused internally on events inside Iraq.26 While the elements of soaring ambition, extreme sectarianism, and vivid violence had always been hallmarks of ISIS propaganda, this was now coupled with polished technical means and an expanding social media network. Many of the themes encapsulated in ISIS propaganda were not new, but their impact grew substantially the deeper the organization embedded itself in the Syrian conflict.27 The Islamic State’s media campaign first dealt at length with Syria in January 2013.28 Its long running series “Windows Upon the Land of Epic Battles” ran from 2013 to 2014, documenting the organization’s growth and success and its melding of the battlefields of Iraq and Syria into one.

The February 2014 disavowal of ISIS by al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri seemed to slow the organization down. A loose coalition of Islamist rebels succeeded in driving ISIS away from the Idlib and Aleppo areas shortly thereafter.29 Al-Qaeda now fully realized that ISIS was nakedly challenging it for supremacy of the worldwide jihadist movement, and doing so on the highest profile of all battlefields.30 ISIS’ propaganda and military objectives dovetailed in “Clanging of the Swords, Part IV,” a lengthy video exercise in psychological warfare preparing the ground for a military offensive in Northern Iraq by terrifying ISF recruits.31   

On June 4, 2014, an ISIS operation to take Mosul was launched under the command of former Abu Ghraib detainee Abu Abdurahman al-Bilawi, who ended up being killed early in the fighting. Within a week, the city had fallen and several ISF divisions had disintegrated. Tremendous stores of U.S.-supplied weapons and materiel were captured. Determined and ruthless ISIS fighters, outnumbered 15 to one, had gained an astonishing victory.32 Subsequently, the northern town of Tal Afar fell, as did much of Anbar Province, including several key border crossings. Mosul’s ancient Christian community was extinguished in one fell swoop as all Christians were expelled en masse.33 As many as 500,000 Iraqi citizens from a variety of religious and ethnic communities were displaced by ISIS victories. Tikrit and the oil refinery town of Baiji also fell as ISIS forces moved south toward Baghdad, but intervention by Iranian-supported militias prevented the fall of the strategically significant city of Samarra.  

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then took the fateful step the Islamic State had repeatedly hinted at since 2006, restoring the institution of the Caliphate and declaring himself Caliph over all the Muslims. In a unique appearance for the cameras at Mosul’s Nuri Mosque on June 29, 2014, “Caliph Ibrahim” called for Muslims to join the new Caliphate. 

The ISIS media package was now complete. A call to emigrate to, defend, and build an Islamist utopian state, strongly associated with apocalyptic discourse, was coupled with an emotional appeal to righteous violence and an austere, rigid and fierce identity attractive to modern youth looking for purpose in life.34 ISIS’ use of social media even included professionally-produced anasheed, or a capella songs by male voices permitted by the traditionally-intolerant Salafi Islam.35

As resistance to the ISIS offensive in central Iraq stiffened in August 2014, ISIS succeeded in massacring hundreds of Sunni tribal fighters who fell into its hands in Anbar province,36 and then turned its attention to northern Iraq, largely populated by Iraq’s Kurdish minority. ISIS advances against Kurdish Peshmerga (militia) and evidence of genocide practiced against the Yazidi religious minority in the Sinjar region eventually drew the United States into the conflict with a campaign of air strikes carried out as part of a new strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.37  

As ISIS military advances in Iraq slowed and were even reversed in some cases (the strategic Mosul Dam was re-taken from ISIS, the threat to the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil was eliminated, and the besieged Shia town of Amerli was relieved), the group turned its attention, and its new military equipment, toward Syria. An August 2014 uprising by the Sunni Arab Shaitat tribe in Deir ez Zour was brutally suppressed, with ISIS killing nearly one thousand men in a graphic warning to Arab tribes in the region.38

In September 2014, an ISIS offensive to take the Syrian town of Kobani, controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), on the Turkish border dragged on for months and eventually led to an ISIS defeat in January 2015.  The fighting and multiple airstrikes aimed at helping Kurdish fighters, however, reduced most of the city to rubble.  While checked in its advance on Baghdad, ISIS succeeded in massacring hundreds of captured Sunni Tribal fighters in Anbar province in late 2014.39

Meanwhile, ISIS responded to new U.S. and Coalition operations by orchestrating a series of high-profile beheadings of Western and Japanese hostages, including journalists and aid workers, over the next few months.  Beginning with the beheading of American journalist James Foley in August 2014 and ending with the killing of two Japanese hostages in January 2015, seven individuals were killed in polished video productions aimed at projecting an impression of power and vengeance.  

The group’s encounter with Christian populations led it to revive the practice of the jizya tax on non-Muslims as part of a plan intended to humiliate “protected” religious groups.40 As it slavishly sought to imitate aspects of the period of formative Islam, it also boasted about the revival of sex slavery, principally of Yazidi girls and women, adding that “we will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women."41 

The image of ISIS as a jihadist colossus “here to stay and spreading” or “remaining and expanding,” was powerful in continuing to attract foreign fighters and the allegiance of jihadist groups scattered throughout the Muslim world.  A 2014 UN report claimed that more than 15,000 foreigners from more than 80 countries had joined ISIS “on an unprecedented scale.”42 On September 24, 2014, an Algerian jihadist group that had pledged loyalty to ISIS beheaded a French hostage.43 ISIS-affiliated groups claimed actions in its name in Lebanon, Gaza and Libya.

While oil production and smuggling into Turkey and Syria proved to be major sources of financing for the group, other, less well-known, streams of revenue existed as well. These included kidnapping and looting, including the sale of pilfered antiquities and personal property, combined with new tax revenue schemes in the burgeoning ISIS empire.44 Given ISIS’s relative recent decline in late 2016 and early 2017, these revenue sources have become less fruitful than they have been in the past.

The principal message of ISIS to Muslims elsewhere continued to be that they should immigrate as soon as possible to the Islamic State, as long as borders remained open. Failing that, foreigners should pledge allegiance (give bayat) to the ISIS Caliph and carry out lone wolf attacks.45 A spate of such attacks was indeed carried out in Western Europe, Canada, the United States and Australia throughout 2014, receiving high-level publicity.46

By early 2015, the physical borders of the Islamic State seemed to have stabilized, stretching from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria down to central Iraq. The group controlled two large cities, Raqqa and Mosul, and many smaller towns. Several million people, mostly Sunni Arab Muslims, lived under their black banner, and the nascent State worked aggressively to promote an image of success. It also sought to prove its capacity to build a functioning state that could implement Islamic law literally, whether through public punishments or acts of charity and governance. Much of this was discovered through detailed court records which included Sharia punishments enacted against citizens of the Caliphate, as well as religious police (or hisbah) internal documents. 

Thousands of Coalition airstrikes exacted a toll on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, making defeat possible where there were counterforce units on the ground, such as Kurdish Peshmerga or Iraqi Security Forces and militias. Yet foreign fighters continued to flock to ISIS-controlled Syria in a steady if not overwhelming stream.   

While much of its propaganda focused on building rather than destroying, ISIS sought to continue to manipulate the news cycle by producing unusual or visually arresting “morality plays” that would attract attention, even if negative, by documenting acts such as the killing of gay people by throwing them off of buildings or the burning alive of a Jordanian Air Force pilot.47 

The continuing potency of ISIS in its heartland of Syria and Iraq was graphically underscored in May 2015, when the group succeeded in seizing the historic Syrian town of Palmyra, where it wantonly vandalized much of Palmyra’s famed antiquities.48 Shockingly, given Coalition airpower and ISF attention, ISIS also managed to seize the capital of Anbar province in Ramadi. The military victories disrupted a budding narrative that the group was at least contained, if not in decline.  

Despite those victories, ISIS was unable to prevent advances by Kurdish forces in Northern Syria, which succeeded in taking the key gateway city of Tel Abyad in June 2015, thereby making it somewhat more difficult for recruits to reach ISIS in Syria.50 Kurdish fighters backed by coalition aircraft also tightened their hold on the region of Kobani and the city of Al-Hasakah. In response, ISIS sought to expand south and west towards Syria’s largest cities and rampaged through Eastern Homs province.51

The online appeal of ISIS continued despite the enhanced efforts of Western governments and social media companies to blunt it. One prominent U.S. media account related in detail how ISIS supporters in Europe and the Middle East were able to “turn” a young American woman living in isolated, rural Washington State through the use of social media.52 And a detailed study of the organization’s media activities in April 2015 found ISIS releasing 123 different media items in Arabic in a given week, portraying the group as “winners, competent and pious.”53 An aggressive media campaign in June 2015 pushed the creation of the new ISIS gold dinar as a blow to Western capitalism and the U.S. economy.54 

ISIS efforts in 2015 to expand its scope in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf were underscored by suicide bomb attacks on Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The organization called for Shia to be killed anywhere possible in Saudi Arabia.55 Saudi authorities arrested hundreds of ISIS supporters inside the Kingdom, supposedly disrupting other terrorist plots.56

The high-profile crisis created by a flood of refugees desperately seeking to enter Europe, most of them Muslims and many of them from Syria, provoked a flurry of ISIS messaging against the phenomenon in September 2015. Portraying it as a betrayal of Islam, ISIS spokesmen and fighters vehemently called on Muslims to turn immediately to the “Land of the Caliphate” rather than to the “House of Unbelief,” where they run the risk of being humiliated or converted to Christianity.57 Similar campaigns from ISIS tried to take advantage of events in areas outside its rule with varying degrees of success. A series of videos supporting Palestinian knife attacks against Israelis seemed to have had no discernable impact, but a similar string of polished video material from various ISIS states encouraging the Somali Al-Shabaab to switch allegiance from Al-Zawahiri to Al-Baghdadi did presage a change in loyalty in at least one Al-Shabaab faction in October 2015.58

Global Reach: 

ISIS’ own ranks were augmented by an informal network of online Salafis, operating in Western languages and in Arabic, which had already been growing. ISIS’ embrace of the social media platform Twitter in 2013, to a degree al-Qaeda had never entertained, enabled the organization to reach larger populations faster.59 The number of pro-ISIS Twitter accounts almost doubled from 2012 to 2013, and then more than doubled again in 2014.60 As ISIS expanded into Syria, it presented more material in various languages, including English, German, French, Russian, Azeri, Kurdish, and Chechen. The group’s Al-Hayat Media Center (HMC), dedicated to producing propaganda in languages other than Arabic, eventually even produced material in the Uighur dialect of China.61

ISIS’ battlefield successes turbocharged its media appeal, leveraging a wave of enthusiasm among Salafi-jihadists worldwide despite the condemnation from most mainstream Sunni Muslim clerics, as well as by supporters of al-Qaeda.62 Influential Islamist cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, conservative Sunni leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and even the pro-Caliphate movement Hizb ut-Tahrir all criticized the establishment of the ISIS Caliphate.63 The organization, however, was undaunted. A new online English-language magazine, Dabiq, recalling the apocalyptic battlefield of Islam’s past, appeared.64 Its first issue trumpeted the return of the Caliphate. The publication promised to focus on the key ISIS themes of tawhid (monotheism), manhaj (truth-seeking), hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war) and jama'ah (community).”65   

The seeming success of the ISIS caliphate has reverberated worldwide throughout the ranks of jihadist movements, with many pledging allegiance to the organization. The network’s supposed 33 provinces stretched at its height in 2015 from Africa to Pakistan, although more than half are within the confines of historic Iraq and Syria and some existed only on paper. In December 2014, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, operating out of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and increasingly challenging the Egyptian military, pledged its loyalty.66 In March 2015, Boko Haram, in the midst of a major insurgency against Nigeria and neighboring countries stretching back more than a decade, formally announced that it was now the caliphate’s West Africa Province.67 

ISIS supporters in chaotic Libya had real success on the ground in 2015. After eventually being driven by rival jihadists from Derna, the group was able to take over the region of Sirte including Muammar al-Qaddafi’s home town of the same name, where it sought to both govern and expand by building on the framework established by previous groups like Ansar al-Shariah.68 ISIS in Libya supported two major terrorist attacks in neighboring Tunisia, at the Bardo Museum in March 2015 and at seaside resorts in Sousse in June 2015. Both attacks sought to kill foreigners and deliver major blows against Tunisia’s economy. 

The ISIS Libya branch was involved in two more media massacres, a February 2015 video showing the killing of 21 Coptic Christian workers, ostensibly in retaliation for alleged Coptic mistreatment of Coptic women who had supposedly converted to Islam (the same excuse used in the October 2010 attack on the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad) and the April 2015 killing of 30 Ethiopian Christians.69   

ISIS also scored an important advance in the Russian Caucasus with the announcement of the Kavkaz Wilaya (Caucasus province) of the Islamic State in June 2015. A non-Chechen, Rustam Aselderov, an ethnic Dargin from Daghestan, assumed leadership of an entity aimed at fighting the Russian government and its local allies and also in rivalry against a rump pro-Al-Qaeda Caucasus Emirate.70 This reality mirrors the situation in Syria, with rival factions of fighters from the Caucasus, mostly Chechens, pledging loyalty to bitterly opposed rivals in both ISIS and the Nusrah Front and serving as one more pretext for Russian military intervention in Syria as of September 2015.71

As pressure increased in its Syria-Iraq heartland in 2015-2016, the Islamic State sought to respond by highlighting the work of potential franchises and outlets in South and Southeast Asia. ISIS focused on the work of local jihadists in Bangladesh moving towards its orbit who launched a wide-ranging campaign against religious minorities, secularists, and Muslims seen as insufficiently pious or Sunni.72 Considerable efforts were also extended to prepare for a newly branded ISIS Wilaya in the Southern Philippines, again by absorbing and reorganizing existing jihadist fighters under the ISIS banner.73 ISIS global organizing was accompanied by an ongoing high profile, high volume media campaign across multiple platforms, geographic areas and languages.74

Recent Activity: 

By late 2015, several obvious trends began to emerge that would reshape the development of ISIS as a movement. Military pressure on the ground from various actors began to shrink ISIS rule in its heartland in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Arab Army, reinforced by massive Russian support and that of Iranian-supported units (including Hezbollah), succeeded in relieving the long-besieged airbase at Kweiris, east of Aleppo, in November.75 This was followed by an offensive in early 2016 that recaptured most territory lost by Assad forces in eastern Homs to ISIS in the summer of 2015, including Palmyra and Al-Qarytayn.76 

Mostly Kurdish forces under the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also included some Arab, Turkmen and Syriac Christian militia fighters, pressed their advantage against ISIS in northern Syria. After advances in Al-Hasakah, U.S. airdrops of weapons helped in the taking of Al-Hawl (November 2015), the strategic Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates (December 2015), and Al-Shahhadah (February 2016). By August 2016, an SDF offensive had captured the key town of Manbij (which once had so many foreign fighters that it was dubbed “Little London”)77 and threatening the last remaining open supply corridor for ISIS to the Turkish border. Continued military pressure and economic losses also led ISIS to halve its soldiers’ salaries and take other emergency financial actions in 2016.78 

In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces, including a large and controversial Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) militia element, slowly expanded operations to retake Anbar Province from ISIS.79 By December 2015, the heavily damaged provincial capital of Ramadi was back in government hands.  The ISF took the towns of Hit (April 2016), Al-Rutbah on the Amman-Baghdad highway (May 2016) and, finally, the highly symbolic city of Al-Fallujah (June 2016), which had been held by ISIS for more than two years. The ISF then shifted to areas south of Mosul, eventually taking the Qayyarah airbase in July 2016 after a months-long offensive. Also lost in July was the Islamic State’s most famous foreign commander, Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was killed in an airstrike. ISIS spokesman and the key head of external operations, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was killed the next month.  

Sirte, Libya has long been bruited as a potential backup caliphate site, should ISIS lose control of Raqqa and Mosul. Anti-ISIS forces launched an offensive against Sirte in April 2016. The campaign was a slow and bloody one, but anti-ISIS forces retook Sirte in December 2016. As of 2018, the country still remains a theater of jihadist activity.80 

But if military progress has been slow but steady on the ground against the “physical” caliphate, ISIS as an idea and a way of violence still seemed powerful and resilient. An ongoing, in depth study of ISIS supporters in the United States launched by George Washington University in December 2015 documented relatively small but still unprecedented levels of ISIS mobilization among Americans.81 This research was underscored in the popular mind by high profile ISIS inspired terrorist attacks in San Bernardino (December 2015) and Orlando (June 2016). In both cases, following an ISIS template, the perpetrators pledged loyalty to ISIS “Caliph” Al-Baghdadi during the actual attack. The Orlando shooting was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001.82   

While the online “virtual” caliphate is more contested than ever before (by social media companies, civil society, and government), and the scope of some ISIS amplifiers has been scaled back as a result, the group’s propagandists still have the ability to surge in the media space at will and get their message out. The group has even weathered some ideological challenges from within which see it as insufficiently pure and rigorous in its pursuit of infidelity.83 As pressure has increased on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the Islamic State and its defenders have found effective alternative online safe havens such as Telegram, Justepaste.it and Internet Archive. And despite real progress in this field by anti-ISIS forces, the virtual ISIS footprint is still relatively massive if much reduced from its heyday in 2014.84

Moreover, if ISIS military victories have become increasingly scarce, a spate of spectacular terrorist operations have to date maintained the perception that the Islamic State is still both viable and lethal. In the Middle East, the toll has been stunning. From the downing of a Russian Metrojet flight over Sinai in October 2015 to repeated attacks in Istanbul and Ankara in 2016 to constant, multiple suicide bombings in Syria and Iraq against government forces, other rebel groups, and religious and ethnic minorities, the Islamic State has ably used these operations as the caliphate’s own version of heavy artillery, airstrikes, and high profile media events.85 

Attacks beyond the Middle East have garnered the group even more attention, mostly distracting from bad news of military reverses in Syria and Iraq. It is now clear that the Islamic State did use the massive refugee flows from Syria to smuggle in operatives into Western Europe.86 But while the planning and structure of attacks in Paris (November 2015) and Brussels (March 2016) may differ greatly from seemingly more individual, inspired efforts in Orlando or Nice, France (July 2016), the extensive media attention and the spike in fear and anger are the same.87

Particularly noteworthy was the month of carnage that was Ramadan (roughly early June to early July) 2016. Al-Adnani’s call for Ramadan attacks in a May 22nd audiofile was resoundingly answered.88 By the end of the month, after successful high profile attacks in Orlando; Magnanville, France (where an ISIS killer livestreamed his murders); Istanbul; Dhaka, India; Baghdad, and Medina and a score of thwarted attacks elsewhere, ISIS officially claimed to have killed or injured more than 5,200 people during Ramadan (almost 2,000 of them Shia Muslims).89 Ramadan 2017 was less bloody but with a similar series of high profile attacks including at a Manchester pop concert, another attack in London, another in the heart of Teheran, a bloody offensive in the Southern Philippines, and a spectrum of lesser attacks and failed plots worldwide.90    

The long-awaited offensive against Mosul, the largest city held by the Islamic State, was launched on October 17, 2016 and was able to quickly regain the Nineveh Plain area and enter the Eastern suburbs of the city.91 By the end of 2016, the two-month offensive by Iraqi Security Forces had brought them deep into Eastern Mosul but they encountered fierce resistance, including repeated ambushes and waves of suicide bombers.92 Final victory in the city against ISIS by July 2017 came at a tremendous material and human cost, not least to that of key Iraqi Security Forces units.93 Both in Mosul and in Northern Syria, where Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces had sealed off the city of Raqqa and were slowly advancing, ISIS was clearly losing. However, it was losing slowly and continued to fight savagely and with tremendous persistence. ISIS tactics in Iraq, especially in the reconquered Sunni territories it had lost, resembled its pre-Caliphate insurgent model circa 2012, focusing on hit and run operations, IEDs and ambushes. And it continues to prepare a fallback “third capital” in its largely intact Wilaya al-Furat on the Syrian-Iraqi border.94

But if ISIS in the Middle East was reverting to a successful past model that ensured its military survival at a reduced tempo, worldwide it still had a considerable impact through past propaganda and an enduring brand. The same day that Mosul’s fall was announced, the FBI arrested a U.S. Army soldier in Hawaii for pro-ISIS activities.95 An extensive June 2017 report focusing on Europe and the United States over the past three years documented an “unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks perpetrated by individuals motivated by jihadist ideology.”96 And while ISIS military victories and the declaration of the Caliphate were key parts of this wave, the reversals of the Islamic State in the region have seemingly still not fully blunted this global appeal.97   

By December 2017, the Pentagon reported that ISIS had lost over 97% of its territory.98 The last remaining ISIS strongholds are in Iraq’s Anbar province, and several small towns along the Euphrates River in Syria.99 In May 2018, the Syrian Democratic Forces launched “Operation Roundup,”, an offensive intended to eliminate remaining pockets of ISIS fighters near the southern Euphrates River Valley and near the Iraqi border. The Pentagon reports that several hundred ISIS fighters remain in the territory the Islamic State has managed to hold along the Syrian-Iraqi border.100 While coalition forces have captured or killed many of the Islamic State’s most experienced commanders, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains active, despite numerous, unverified reports of his death since 2015.101 Alongside military victories, smaller, more symbolic victories have also recently been won. One such success came when Kurdish forces announced that they had captured Adrien Guihal, a French jihadist that claimed responsibility for the 2016 attacks in France.102 Although some analysts contend that the Islamic State been collapsing since mid-2017, American officials remain adamant that ISIS still poses a threat.103 The group was recently described by retired Air Force General Don Bacon, in a May 2018 hearing before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, as still able to “reassert themselves at any point.”104 Since the end of 2017, fighting has remained fierce in the 15-mile stretch of the Euphrates River Valley, and the Islamic State has been able to regain some territory to the west of the Euphrates River in areas formerly controlled by Syrian and Russian coalition forces, including the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, which ISIS retook in May 2018.105 

Facing significant territorial losses, the Islamic State has begun revisit its original identity as an insurgency group. This includes the group’s infamous propaganda machine, which has thus far been able to withstand government and social media companies’ efforts to dismantle it.106 The first weeks of 2018 saw an outgrowth of pro-ISIS social media accounts.107 In January 2018, Amaq News Agency, an ISIS news outlet, issued its first statements in English since the fall of Raqqa in October 2017.108 West Africa and Afghanistan have also seen outgrowth in pro-ISIS social media.109 The Islamic State has also begun to expand into Southeast Asia. In May 2018, ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks on three separate churches in Surabaya, Indonesia.110 On May 25, 2018, in response to growing ISIS attacks, Indonesia passed a new “anti-terror law” intended to combat the growing Islamic State threat.111 The Philippines has also become a center of ISIS activity, most notably in the southern island city of Marawi.112 In May 2017, pro-Islamic State fighters occupied several of Marawi’s neighborhoods.113 Philippine security forces did not retake the city until October 2017.114 In early 2018, the U.S. State Department added ISIS Philippines to its list of designated terrorists.115 

The Islamic State has also recently begun recruitment and expansion efforts in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Niger. In April 2018, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in an Afghan voting center, which killed 60 people.116 Just a month later, in May 2018, the Islamic State took credit for another slew of attacks, this time targeting the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul.117 Furthermore, ISIS has also been able to take advantage of the civil war in Yemen. In December 2017, a CENTCOM intelligence report assessed that ISIS Yemen had “doubled in size over the past year,” despite US efforts.118 Meanwhile, ISIS fighters in Niger killed four U.S. soldiers in October 2017.119 Footage of the ambush was posted online by the Islamic State in March 2018, intended as a recruitment video.120 

Today, the Islamic State’s collapsing “core state” is indeed under intense pressure, with its leadership increasingly targeted and successfully eliminated. But, though wounded, ISIS remains deadly. The group is capable of counterattacking ferociously and repeatedly lashing out at its many enemies.  Furthermore, the issues of Middle East sectarianism and poor governance remain largely unresolved. Thus, declaring total defeat of the Islamic State may still be premature. 

Citations: 

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[2] Nadia Abou el-Magd, “al-Qaida in Iraq Claims 12,000 Fighters,” Washington Post, November 10, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/10/AR2006111001624_pf.html.
[3] Michael Howard, “’They won’t stop until we are all wiped out.’ Among the Yezidi, a people in mourning,” Guardian (London), August 17, 2007, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/aug/18/iraq.topstories3.
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[5] Pascal Combelles Siegel, “Islamic State of Iraq Commemorates its Two-Year Anniversary,” Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, October 15, 2008, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/islamic-state-of-iraq-commemorates-its-two-year-anniversary.
[6] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Spokesman’s Remarks about Petraeus’ New Propaganda Machine,” Jihadology, August 29, 2010, http://jihadology.net/2010/08/page/2/
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[12] Comments to the author from a journalist at a pan-Arab media outlet  to Alberto Fernandez, June 2015.
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[32] “Terror’s new headquarters,” The Economist, June 14, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21604160-iraqs-second-city-has-fallen-group-wants-create-state-which-wage-jihad.
[33] Jonathan Krohn, “Has Last Christian Left Iraqi City of Mosul After 2,000 Years?” NBC News, July 27, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/iraq-turmoil/has-last-christian-left-iraqi-city-mosul-after-2-000-n164856.
[34] Charlie Winter, “The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy,” Quilliam Foundation, July 2015, http://www.quilliaminternational.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FINAL-documenting-the-virtual-caliphate.pdf.
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[36] Martin Chulov, “ISIS kills hundreds of Iraqi Sunnis from Albu Nimr tribe in Anbar province,” The Guardian, October 30, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/30/mass-graves-hundreds-iraqi-sunnis-killed-isis-albu-nimr.
[37] Mark Landler, “Obama, in Speech on ISIS, Promises Sustained Effort to Route Militants,” New York Times, September 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/world/middleeast/obama-speech-isis.html?_r=0.
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[41] Allen McDuffee, “ISIS is Now Bragging About Enslaving Women and Children,” The Atlantic, October 13, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/isis-confirms-and-justifies-enslaving-yazidis-in-new-magazine-article/381394/.
[42] Spencer Ackerman, “Foreign jihadists flocking to Iraq and Syria on ‘unprecedented scale’ – UN,” Guardian (London), October 30, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/30/foreign-jihadist-iraq-syria-unprecedented-un-isis.
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[65] Harris, The Islamic State’s Magazine.
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[88] Maher Chmaytelli, Stephen Kalin and Ali Abdelaty, “Islamic State calls for attacks on the West during Ramadan in audio message,” Reuters, May 22, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-islamicstate-idUSKCN0YC0OG.
[89] Lisa Daftari, “ISIS claims 5,200 victims in Ramadan campaign of terror,” Fox News, July 13, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/07/13/isis-claims-5200-victims-in-ramadan-campaign-terror.html.
[90] Scott Peterson, “The state of ISIS: shrinking territory, expanding reach,” Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2017, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2017/0612/The-state-of-ISIS-shrinking-territory-expanding-reach
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[95] Jack Moore, “ISIS in Hawaii: U.S. Soldier pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, Wanted to ‘kill bunch of people,’”Newsweek, July 11, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/isis-us-soldier-hawaii-pledged-allegiance-634710
[96] Lorenzo Vidino, Francesco Marone and Eva Entenmann, Fear Thy Neighbor: Radicalization and Jihadist Attacks in the West, June 2017, https://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/FearThyNeighbor-RadicalizationandJihadistAttacksintheWest.pdf
[97] Graeme Wood, “The American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS,” The Atlantic, March 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/the-american-leader-in-the-islamic-state/510872/.
[98] Joseph V. Micallef, “An Assessment of the Islamic State in 2018,” Military, June 11, 2018, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/06/11/op-ed-assessment-islamic-state-2018.html. 
[99] Bendaoudi Abdelilah, “After the Almost 100 Percent Defeat of ISIS, What About its Ideology?” Al Jazeera, May 8, 2018, http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2018/05/100-percent-defeat-isis-ideology-180508042421376.html.
[100] Abdelilah, “After the Almost 100 Percent Defeat of ISIS, What About its Ideology?” 
[101] “Conflicting Reports on IS Head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Fate,” BBC News, April 21, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32405643.
[102] Eric Schmitt, “Battle to Stamp Out ISIS in Syria Gains New Momentum, but Threats Remain,” The New York Times, May 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/world/middleeast/isis-syria-battle-kurds-united-states.html.
[103] Eric Schmitt, “Battle to Stamp Out ISIS in Syria Gains New Momentum, but Threats Remain,” The New York Times, May 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/world/middleeast/isis-syria-battle-kurds-united-states.html.
[104] Schmitt, “Battle to Stamp Out ISIS in Syria Gains New Momentum…” The New York Times
[105] Joseph V. Micallef, “An Assessment of the Islamic State in 2018,” Military, June 11, 2018, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/06/11/op-ed-assessment-islamic-state-2018.html.
[106] Larry Greenmeier, “When Hatred Goes Viral: Inside Social Media’s Efforts to Combat Terrorism,” Scientific American, May 24, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-hatred-goes-viral-inside-social-medias-efforts-to-combat-terrorism/. 
[107] Joby Warrick, “ISIS Steps Up Online Propaganda War After Defeat in Raqqa Warning, ‘We Are in Your Home,’” The Independent, January 23, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-propaganda-war-online-raqqa-defeat-telegram-terror-threat-islamic-state-extremism-a8173456.html.
[108] Warrick, “ISIS Steps Up Online Propaganda War…” The Independent.
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[112] Sharyl Attkisson, “The Philippines: Islamic State’s Next Stronghold?” The Hill, March 24, 2018, http://thehill.com/opinion/international/380099-the-philippines-islamic-states-next-stronghold.
[113] Oliver Holmes, “Explainer: how and why Islamic State-linked rebels took over part of a Philippine city,” The Guardian, May 29, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/29/explainer-how-and-why-islamic-state-took-over-part-of-a-philippine-city.
[114] Roli Ng and Manuel Mogato, “Philippines declares battle with Islamist rebels over in Marawi City,” Reuters, October 23, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-militants/philippines-declares-battle-with-islamist-rebels-over-in-marawi-city-idUSKBN1CS0F5.
[115] Attkisson, “The Philippines: Islamic State’s Next Stronghold?” The Hill. 
[116] Scott Worden, “ISIS Attack on Afghan Voting Center Aims to Sow Ethnic Division,” United States Institute of Peace, April 24, 2018, https://www.usip.org/publications/2018/04/isis-attack-afghan-voting-center-aims-sow-ethnic-division.
[117] “ISIS Claims Deadly Attack on Key Afghan Government Compound,” CBS News, May 30, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/afghanistan-interior-ministry-attack-kabul-isis-and-taliban-continue-assault/.
[118] Jared Keller, “The US Campaign Against ISIS Is Entering A Deadly New Phase in Yemen,” Task & Purpose, December 21, 2017, https://taskandpurpose.com/us-military-isis-yemen/.
[119] James Gordon Meek, “US Soldiers Killed in Niger Were Outgunned, ‘Left Behind’ in Hunt for ISIS Leader,” ABC News, May 3, 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/International/us-soldiers-killed-niger-outgunned-left-hunt-isis/story?id=54909240.[120] Seth J. Frantzman, “Jihadi Video Sheds Light on ISIS Ambush on US Troops in Niger,” The Jerusalem Post, March 6, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/International/Jihadi-video-sheds-light-on-ISIS-ambush-on-US-troops-in-Niger-544299.