With the Islamic State (or ISIS) facing setbacks in Iraq and Syria, most observers believe that the group is crumbling. Indeed, just last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” from the group. Evidently, the U.S.-led coalition tasked with countering ISIS, well into the third year of its ongoing military campaign, has made progress. As a result of efforts in Iraq and Syria in 2016 alone, several high-ranking leaders have been killed or captured, the group’s finances have taken a serious hit, and it is hemorrhaging territory. Over the next few years, ISIS is sure to break apart further.
As it does, it will likely walk down one of two paths. In the first possibility, its disintegration could wind up giving more weight to the group’s center of gravity, even as it becomes weaker overall. Alternatively, it could follow the example of al Qaeda in the 2000s and break down in a way that will diminish the influence of its core in Iraq and Syria while providing momentum to its provincial operations in such places as Afghanistan, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, and Yemen.
ISIS could follow the example of al Qaeda in the 2000s and break down in a way that will diminish its core in Iraq and Syria while providing momentum to its provincial operations.
Some analysts, such as Clint Watts, see ISIS’ splintering as a potential win for counterterrorism, especially if it results in what he calls “destructive terrorist competition,” a dynamic that implicitly subverts the group’s ideology by pushing affiliates into provincialism and rotting the central core.
Others, such as Colin Clarke and Chad Serena, see the dynamic as more problematic, one that could possibly lead to the emergence of smaller, and potentially more extreme groups—thereby making an already long war even longer.
In this case, the example of al Qaeda may prove instructive. In the run-up to 9/11, al Qaeda had been a relatively hierarchical and cohesive terrorist entity. Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was complicated by al Qaeda’s spinning off into various groups, some closely related and others only tenuously connected to the core.
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