Members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) hold upside-down the flag of the Islamic State (IS) group, in the Old City of Mosul, June 30, 2017. (Getty/Fadel Senna)

The defeat of ISIS will not bring the end of terrorism — more likely a new beginning

Although the Islamic State is close to a decisive military defeat, its apocalyptic ideology isn't going anywhere


Phil Torres
July 2, 2017 3:00PM (UTC)

Terrorism often emerges when disempowered communities attempt to combat what they perceive as injustice and oppression in the world. The result is what is often called "asymmetrical warfare" between state and non-state actors, whereby the non-state group violates international norms of conflict by, for example, targeting civilians and exploiting the resulting media exposure to convey a message and, in the process, cast a miasma of dread over an entire population.

As a means to accomplishing a political or politico-religious goal, terrorism is generally ineffective. One analysis of 457 terrorist campaigns beginning in 1968 found that a 94 percent were unable to achieve a single political end, while none managed to overtake a state actor. Another study concludes that “the twenty-eight groups of greatest significance to US counterterrorism policy have achieved their forty-two policy objectives less than 10 percent of the time.” Notable exceptions are the Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah, which took over “southern Lebanon in 1984 and 2000,” and the Marxist Tamil Tigers, which controlled regions of Sri Lanka from 1990 to 2009.

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This is why the apparent fall of the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, is no surprise to terrorism scholars. After losing the small but important (to ISIS) Syrian city of Dabiq last October, the group recently demolished the 842-year-old al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq, the same mosque where the “current” caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only public appearance. Recent reports suggest that Baghdadi himself may be pushing up daisies as a result of Russian missiles launched from a warplane.

So it appears that this may be the end of the line for the Islamic State. Or maybe not. To weigh in on this question, let’s look back at how this group emerged and evolved over the years. The first observation to make is that apocalyptic beliefs were not widespread throughout the Middle East before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This military incursion radically changed the landscape of eschatological ideologies, resulting in a wildfire of apocalyptic ideology within both the Sunni and Shiite communities. I have elsewhere referred to this well-documented phenomenon as the apocalyptic turn in the Middle East, which also encompasses groups that were once largely secular, such as Hezbollah.

One Salafi jihadist caught up in this groundswell of apocalyptic thinking was a bloodthirsty madman named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Although Osama bin Laden was uncomfortable with Zarqawi’s brutal tactics (including the targeting and beheading of Shiite Muslims), Zarqawi became the leader of al-Qaida’s affiliate positioned in Iraq. Zarqawi was also an apocalyptic extremist, whereas bin Laden had less grandiose views about an imminent end to the contemporary world. For example, before his assassination by the U.S. in 2006, Zarqawi famously said that “the spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

That later became the opening quote for ISIS’ primary propaganda magazine (that is, until recently), which is appropriately called Dabiq. It refers to what is essentially Islam’s version of Armageddon: a “grand battle” between the “Romans” (identified as the West in general and the U.S. in particular) and the Muslim armies in or around Dabiq. According to prophetic hadith, the Muslims will defeat the Romans, although only one-third of their army will stand triumphant at the end. This group will then proceed to supernaturally conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul) by chanting “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is Great.” After this the Antichrist will appear ,followed by Jesus, who will descend to Earth over the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Jesus will then chase the Antichrist to the Israeli city of Lod and kill him. These events will initiate a cascade of apocalyptic dominos that will ultimately culminate with a bodily resurrection of the dead and a final judgment of humanity.

After Zarqawi’s death, a man named Abu Ayyub al-Masri with close ties to al-Qaida took over its operations in Iraq. During his tenure as leader, the group was rebranded the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). For Masri, a primary apocalyptic focus was the appearance of the Mahdi, i.e., the end-of-days messianic figure of Islam who will, some believe, lead the Muslim army into the battle of Armageddon in Dabiq. Consequently, Masri made a number of strategic decisions based on his eschatological convictions — decisions that ultimately backfired, since, of course, the Mahdi was never coming to begin with. Masri was actually criticized by some of his own colleagues, to which he stubbornly responded, “The Mahdi will come any day.”

Not long after he took control of the Islamic State in 2010, Masri was killed near the Iraqi city of Tikrit. Taking his place was the aforementioned Baghdadi, an Islamic scholar who earned a Ph.D. in “Quranic sciences” and claimed that his ancestry could be traced back to the prophet Muhammad himself. In 2013, Baghdadi unexpectedly announced that another al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, namely Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front, was now under ISI’s control, thus yielding the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Both Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida (central) categorically objected to the merger, yet Baghdadi was insistent about the expansion of his organization. It was this defiant act along with ISIS’ increasingly barbaric tactics that led al-Qaida to repudiate the ISIS organization. As its general command declared in an official statement, al-Qaida no longer has “an organizational relationship with [ISIS] and is not the group responsible for their actions.”

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Almost exactly a year later, ISIS announced that it was forming a caliphate — the first since the Ottoman Empire, although ISIS never recognized this “caliphate” as having been legitimate. The result was simply the Islamic State, or IS. From the perspective of its apocalyptic ideology, what’s interesting is how IS’ focus changed after Masri’s death. One might think that the failure of the Mahdi to appear in Iraq, as Masri anticipated, would weaken the eschatological beliefs of the Islamic State's fighters and supporters. Such was not the case: Rather, they simply shifted the focus to other prophetic hadith, such as one that says the caliphate will re-emerge before the Last Hour. Consequently, under Baghdadi’s leadership, IS began to prioritize the creation of an actual “state” with its own territory, taxes, healthcare system, laws, courts and so on.

Since the apocalyptic targets of IS have changed in the past, it’s entirely possible that they will change again. The irony of apocalyptic movements is that their future actions are both quite predictable — for example, it was to be expected that the IS franchise would go to great lengths to control Dabiq, despite the town’s military-strategic insignificance — and entirely unpredictable — rather than failed prophecies leading to less apocalyptic fervor, history show they can sometimes lead to more excitement, if the narrative is tweaked a bit.

For instance, when IS first began to lose territory, it simply changed its strategy from inward state-building to outward foreign attacks by lone wolves or small groups. This initiated a current of terrorist incidents around the world, from the bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 (a flight from Cairo to St. Petersburg) to the recent vehicle attack on London Bridge.

Similarly, although IS recently lost Dabiq and quite likely its beloved caliph, this may simply result in a new apocalyptic vision for the future — just as the failure of the Mahdi to appear during Masri’s reign resulted in a new emphasis on the caliphate. In fact, according to Graeme Wood, IS considers Baghdadi to be the eighth of 12 caliphs who will rule before the apocalypse, and believes the 12th caliph’s name is already known to be Muhammad ibn Abdullah. It follows that IS fighters could argue that Baghdadi’s death means the Last Hour is even closer than it was before, a prophetic exclamation that could incite further enthusiasm for the group’s urgent mission to “destroy the world so God can save it” (the fundamental belief of apocalyptic activists).

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Yet another reason for concern is that IS has been adamant about inculcating its extremist ideology into younger generations, which they call “Cubs of the Caliphate.” This process of inculcation will no doubt have residual effects lasting decades or longer. Indeed, many IS fighters today are quite young, having grown up in a region where the incessant rumbles of war and shrieks of gunfire are all they know as “normal.”

One may be reminded here of studies conducted years ago that warned of the long-term mental health effects of the Iraq War on children in the region. Not only did the Bush administration fail to have an “exit strategy” in the region —after making catastrophic mistakes during the occupation that opened up power vacuums in Iraq — it failed to think deeply about how Western intervention might permanently harm the psychological adjustment of young people who might one day grow up to shout “Death to America” with Kalashnikovs thrust into the air.

This is, indeed, on top of an already extensive list of political grievances that jihadist fighters often cite. For example, the Sykes-Picot Agreement that enabled the West to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I is frequently mentioned by both the leadership and foot soldiers of IS. Osama bin Laden made clear that the foreign military presence in Saudi Arabia was a major source of his enmity toward America. Bin Laden also identified American sanctions on Iraq as a cause for his hatred, as these sanctions resulted in an estimated 500,000 excess childhood deaths, according to a 1999 UNICEF report. For an even more poignant example, one IS fighter said this to Vice News in an interview: “God willing the Caliphate has been established, and we are going to invade you as you invaded us. We will capture your women as you captured our women. We will orphan your children …” at which point he begins to choke up, “… as you orphaned our children.” He then begins to cry.

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Although some critics of Islam, such as Sam Harrishave insisted that history is unimportant to understanding the current tidal wave of Islamic terrorism around the world, most scholars would disagree: One simply cannot make sense of what’s going on without a strong sense of Islam’s political and religious past, dating at least back to the First Crusade.

Finally, while the bursting of bombs and burning of cities is releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to anthropogenic climate change, a growing number of experts believe that climate change could worsen terrorism in the coming decades or centuries. This has been explicitly acknowledged by high-ranking U.S. officials like former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former CIA director John Brennan, as well as the Department of Defense itself. There have also been peer-reviewed scientific papers linking global warming with the Syrian civil war. The significance of this is that IS was, at the time, a flailing organization in the wake of Masri’s death. Yet the heightened chaos and violence of Syria circa 2011 created an environment conducive to the reformation of IS, which was arguably the largest non-state terrorist organization in all of human history, as of 2014 or so.

The crucial point here is that climate change isn’t going away anytime soon — thanks in part to the decisions of the Trump administration. As I write this article, the Baghdad forecast indicates a high temperature of 121 degrees. Scientists tell us there will soon be heat waves so intense that no human could survive them, even standing naked in the shade in front of a giant fan. Terrorism scholar Mark Juergensmeyer recently published a chapter in which, drawing from his book "Terror in the Mind of God," he argues that climate change in particular could severely exacerbate apocalyptic terrorism. This is worrisome because just as religious terrorism has proven to be more lethal and indiscriminate than past forms of “secular” terrorism, apocalyptic terrorism is the most dangerous form of religious terrorism.

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Terrorist groups come and go. The ancient roads of history are scattered with eschatological enthusiasts who tried to use violence either to bring about the apocalypse or to foment the necessary conditions for the apocalypse to unfold. IS is just the latest addition to the large museum of failed prophecies. Yet it could very well undergo yet another recrudescence — a comeback, as fighters reassess current affairs through the lens of different prophetic hadith, or different interpretations of the same hadith. Even more worrisome is the possibility that the ongoing disaster in Syria — which some have plausibly argued is the beginning of World War III — could fertilize entirely new and even more violent groups hell-bent on “destroying the world to save it.”

Until the West decides to directly confront the root causes of terrorism — Western intervention, global climate change and religious extremism — we will perpetually fail to neutralize the threat of Islamic terrorism.


Phil Torres

Phil Torres is the founding director of the X-Risks Institute and the author of "Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks." He’s on Twitter @xriskology.

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