The Trump administration has set the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) as its highest priority foreign policy goal. United States Defense Secretary James Mattis is due to deliver the military plans to accomplish this objective to President Trump by July 1. As a result of U.S. determination, capability and coalition support, we can reasonably expect that within a year or so, the last ISIS fighters now inside their capital of Raqqa will be dead or captured. With it, the last remnants of a state structure for ISIS will be eliminated.
As the military campaign succeeds, there are at least three troubling questions that the Trump administration and its coalition partners must answer:
- What will the impact of this military defeat be on the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of sympathizers and supporters of ISIS around the world?
- What will the impact of the military defeat be on future directions of political and military conflict where ISIS-affiliated armed groups now operate: elsewhere in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines?
- Regardless of what U.S. military forces can achieve against this Islamic State, what form will the next revolutionary Islamic State take and in what geography will it establish itself (Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Qatar or Saudi Arabia)?
All three questions are worth lengthy analysis, and all coalition members owe it to their fighting men and women, and their citizens, to provide such assessments. This short commentary focuses on the third question, while providing observations concerning the first two aspects.
The Next Islamic Revolutionary State
The idea of an Islamic State is one with which many Muslims can identify. The religion was defended in its earliest days by the creation of an organized state that declared sole allegiance to, and superiority of, the one religion. In this, Islam was little different from the political history of other great organized faiths of the world. The first Islamic state was not interested in a secular conception of governance or separation of powers between state authorities and religious ones. This first state became a revolutionary one, seeking to overturn past religious practices and political orders. In that context, there are quite a number of Islamic states in existence today, such as Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Some are monarchies and some are republics. Others are or have been revolutionary states.
The world has no choice but to live with Islamic states (or Jewish and Christian ones) if that is how politics in certain regions evolve. Indeed, we all can benefit from the existence of religious states. This is only true, however, as long as such states observe the necessary regard for peace, human security and economic prosperity. The great mistake of ISIS was not that it declared statehood but that it pursued a violent and revolutionary ideology (albeit fundamentalist to its core), while directly attacking foreign citizens in the most brutal and inhuman manner.
The sustained success of ISIS, and one that remains largely in place to this day, has been its ability to create an international network of support by relying on the diaspora of radicalized co-religionists, leveraging modern forms of communication that have inherent appeal to key age cohorts.
Looking forward, the next manifestation of Islamic State will learn from the mistakes and successes of ISIS. The emergence of a new radical avatar of ISIS is virtually guaranteed, because of the success of ISIS in global mobilization. The current U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, acknowledged this outcome, though with little detail, in his confirmation hearings before the Senate where he commented that following successful elimination of the territorial control in Syria by ISIS: “they will morph to something else.”
There are many other circumstances that will contribute to the early rise of an ISIS follow-on. Apart from the fact that ISIS affiliates remain undefeated in other countries and in some cases are growing in strength, the deeper social drivers and enablers of the alienation and nastiness of ISIS adherents and ideologues are seemingly getting worse.
These drivers have been succinctly summarized in a study by the U.S. Congressional Research Service published in January 2017 just days before the President was inaugurated. They included:
- The interdependent nature of conflicts and political crises in Iraq, Syria, and other countries;
- Intervention by and competition among regional and extra-regional actors, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf States;
- Limited international counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation; and
- Easy availability of weapons.
One of the most important drivers that looks set to intensify, but which the report did not mention explicitly, is the significant impact on the radicalization of Muslims of the sustained military campaigns by the United States and its allies, often in support of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, against radical Muslim armed groups.
ISIS tore up the old maps and created a spatially dispersed global movement. The next radical Islamic State may emerge exclusively within an existing state but this is highly unlikely. One geography more susceptible than most will be the Muslim areas that straddle the Indonesia-Philippines maritime border, as reporting in the New York Times last month suggested. The follow-on group need not commit to a specific geography and will be more successful if it can, much as international communism did, establish small highly disciplined cells in key countries.
What is the U.S. plan?
Tillerson is right. But we all need to pay much more attention to his prediction. Much policy attention has been focused on ISIS fighters escaping to return to home countries. However, that is not the biggest problem we will face. We need an assessment of what the next Islamic State looks like and determine the means by which to contain it. The conduct of final military operations against Raqqa and all diplomacy from here on out must be shaped by a new strategy of containment of the inevitable revolutionary reincarnation, or successor, of ISIS. Recent comments by UK Prime Minister Theresa May to the escalating terrorism in the British Isles and across the globe is accurate: “enough is enough,” but her hint of stripping back human rights protections is not a plan. We need to devise a plan for the containment of the next revolutionary Islamic State because military defeat of this millennium old idea is not possible.