ISIS Could Rise Again

What Its Last Resurrection Says About Its Future in Iraq and Syria

Smoke rises after explosions hit the Syrian city of Tartous, May 23, 2016. SANA via Reuters

“The dream of a liberation is now a reality,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed last week, when his forces drove ISIS from a few final strongholds. Abadi’s declaration of victory did not seem unwarranted. After three years, Iraqi and Kurdish fighters, backed by an 80-country U.S.-led coalition, have reclaimed all of the territory ISIS once controlled in Iraq and the key cities it held in Syria. The Islamic State no longer has much of a claim to calling itself a state at all.

But the victory is incomplete—and not just when it comes to the challenges of ISIS-inspired lone-wolf attacks, foreign fighters returning home from Iraq and Syria, and  the persistence of ISIS franchises elsewhere. While such concerns are real, a more dangerous scenario also deserves some attention: ISIS could resurrect its caliphate where it was born, in Iraq and Syria. It has been planning for such a resurrection since at least 2016, and quietly preparing since well before losing Raqqa in October.

Most ominously, ISIS has a tried-and-true playbook for bringing itself back from near death. Just a few years ago, it managed to resurrect itself after apparent defeat. And the history of that resurrection should serve as a warning of what may be coming now.


What is ISIS today was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2003. (It has gone by several different names over the years.) Its organization has been changing according to need ever since: from nascent underground jihadist movement to guerrilla insurgency to proto-state to state-like caliphate whose territorial expansion sprawled across much of Iraq and Syria. But this change has not been linear. ISIS has expanded and contracted as circumstances dictated while pursuing an end-state goal of restoring a Muslim caliphate as glorified in its theological texts. After losing its twin capitals, Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS is contracting once again. But its strategic aims have not changed. 

In recent statements, ISIS leaders have drawn an explicit analogy between its situation today and

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