Islamic State has lost an enormous amount of territory in both Iraq and Syria and many of its leaders are dead. Yet even as the terror group appears to be breaking apart, attacks are being carried out in its name in Europe. What's next for IS?
Few in the West are familiar with the city that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered to be invaded 10 days ago. "You either surrender, or die," he said in a televised speech, a combative appearance during which he wore the black fatigues of the notorious anti-terror units. The town is called Tal Afar, located west of the recently liberated city of Mosul, and it is one of the last Islamic State (IS) strongholds in Iraq.
Tal Afar is essentially one of two IS hometowns, having produced several high-ranking members of the terrorist organization. Even under Saddam Hussein, the city was something of a laboratory of hate. The Turkmen majority here mistrusted the Arab minority, yet the Turkmen community included both Sunnis and Shiites, allowing Saddam to play them off against each other. Sunnis, for example, were allowed to pursue a career in the secret services and enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors.
When IS conquered Tal Afar in June 2014, the group murdered or expelled all Shiites. In response, notorious Shiite militias have been insisting that they be allowed to fight on the front lines during the battle for the liberation of the city, where around 10,000 of the once 200,000 residents are still holed up.
The war, in other words, is also a battle for revenge. And Tal Afar is the next round.
Islamic State's "caliphate," which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in July 2014 and which once stretched from al-Bab in northern Syria to Tikrit in Iraq, is now history. The area under the terrorist group's control has shrunk dramatically. IS has lost Mosul in Iraq. It has been pushed out of Sirte in Libya and lost control of almost all of its oil wells. Soon, the group will also be forced to surrender Raqqa in Syria.
Between 80 and 90 percent of the group's top leadership is dead, having been neutralized in the last three years primarily by U.S. drones and missiles. Among the dead are the five most important IS commanders who, starting in 2012, planned and carried out the conquering of northern Syria. Today, the group no longer has a centralized military chain of command -- each unit is fighting on its own. Unsigned orders are jotted down on slips of paper and delivered via courier.
No Verifiable Connection
In Europe, meanwhile, more terror attacks are being committed in Islamic State's name, and in Islamic State's spirit, than ever before. In this year alone, there have been attacks in London, Manchester, Paris, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg and Istanbul. And that was before 15 people were killed and almost 100 injured in the attacks earlier this month in Barcelona and Cabrils. IS claimed responsibility just hours after the violence.
As upsetting as each individual attack is, it is grotesquely simple to drive vehicles into crowds of people, fire a Kalashnikov into dancing crowds or stab people with knives. The Barcelona attackers were so unsophisticated that they weren't even able to use gas bottles as bombs.
There is, in other words, no comparison to Islamic State's 2013 ability to import hundreds of tons of explosives from around the world into Syria across the Turkish border.
Furthermore, there is no verifiable connection between the perpetrators in Spain and the IS leadership in Syria or Iraq, and IS claims of responsibility have not included any proof of such a connection. The group has long since set in motion a wave of terror, and Islamic State is no longer necessary to keep it going. But the intended effect of the attacks is consistent with the IS mission: that of stoking hatred and resentment against Muslims in the West as a way of driving a wedge into European societies -- and driving Muslims in Europe into the arms of the terrorist group.
Thus far, Europeans have proven to be astonishingly resilient to the terror, even if the end is not yet in sight. Nobody has yet figured out, after all, how to put a stop to this wave of attacks, given that the only thing attackers need to strike the West is a vehicle of some kind.
The increase in attacks in Europe is far from surprising. The more quickly IS loses territory, the less the group has to lose. It can now launch terror attacks at will.
More Experienced and More Competent
Does this, then, mean that Islamic State is facing its demise? One should be careful with such a verdict. Islamic State seemed to be at an end once before. Seven years ago, the U.S. military along with Iraqi security personnel had almost completely destroyed the organization's leadership. In June 2010, U.S. generals announced that the group, which at the time was still called Islamic State of Iraq, had been devastated. But the Americans had merely accelerated a generational change among the group's leadership, paving the way for the organization to become the monster that began terrorizing the world in 2014.
The group's new leaders had been part of the IS chain of command for some time and were both more experienced and more competent than most of those who had been killed. Until then, though, their rise had been blocked by a flaw they all shared: They had all been officers in Saddam Hussein's intelligence services and military. They were experts in military leadership, intelligence agency structuring and strategic planning. In short, they were the kinds of people who knew how to build up a state.
The terror militia's rapid advance in 2014, extensive planning for which had been conducted in secret, was their work. Islamic State's ideological façade may be similar to al-Qaida's, but the two groups are fundamentally different. The core of the successful IS strategy in Iraq, Syria and Libya was infiltration, lightning attacks and, afterward, keeping a tight grip on the conquered territory by terrorizing the populace. Islamist propaganda was merely the means chosen to legitimize the incursions and to attract volunteer fighters from around the world.
Their strategy would have worked if IS could have managed to hold on to the territorial gains it initially made. What, though, might follow the group's most recent collapse?
Expert predictions range from the premature proclamations of victory coming from the Iraqi prime minister to assumptions that IS will continue to operate as a terrorist group and focus its violence on attacks in the West. There is even a theory that the group consciously accepted the Mosul defeat as a way to recruit new followers.
Even if IS has lost control of its largest cities, which had functioned as symbols of the group's strength, it still rules over a significant swath of territory. It is currently fighting on around 11 different fronts and is not withdrawing from any of them without putting up a powerful fight. In Syria, it is still holding on to the fertile and densely populated Euphrates valley between the city of Deir al-Zor and the Iraqi border, an area to which many IS leaders are thought to have withdrawn.
Down on the Agenda
The narrow valley would actually be easier to conquer than the cities, but it is located far from where Kurdish militias are operating as they attack Raqqa with U.S. support. Furthermore, the topography of the valley is advantageous for IS: Both sides are flanked by steppe land and desert, making it easy for the terrorist group to quickly pull back.
Perhaps most importantly, though, fighting Islamic State is well down on the agenda of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, despite all their claims to the contrary. The jihadists have simply been too beneficial to Assad, allowing him to appear as the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the world.
In Iraq, too, the terrorist army continues to maintain its hold on a vast territory beyond the now embattled stronghold of Tal Afar: the district of Hawija, a region of more than 40 square kilometers of fertile land located southwest of Kirkuk, home to several towns, around 100 villages and tens of thousands of residents.
Hawija was one of Islamic State's first strongholds in Iraq -- and will likely be the last one to fall. The district is a microcosm that reveals both the terror organization's decay as well as its resilience. DER SPIEGEL informants in the region have been supplying information for months, including reports of the erosion of discipline among fighters and leadership in addition to massive disputes between competing factions.
The Hisbah morality police, which conducts patrols in IS-held territories, and the group's secret service organization Amniyat both try to prevent civilians from fleeing the region, for example. Without a human shield, after all, it would be more difficult to defend the region. IS fighters on the front lines and observation posts, by contrast, earn significant sums of money by allowing civilians to pass through or by smuggling them through the minefields themselves.
"There were 200 of us in our group," recalls one person who fled the IS-controlled area. "The IS man who took us out embraced the guards at the checkpoint. They knew each other." In the towns and villages, say eyewitnesses, IS members organize the smuggling operation even as IS commandos immediately take people into custody on even the slightest suspicion that they are preparing to flee.
Despite all of that, Islamic State continues to have a tight grip on Hawija. When the security chief for the town of Abbasi was murdered at the end of June, IS fighters made hundreds of arrests and killed seven of their own people, including two town commanders. The end of IS control in Hawija still seems a long way off, but even here, the group's demise doesn't lie too far into the future. Cities and villages will be destroyed and women and children will likely be sent as suicide bombers into Iraqi lines -- while Iraqi troops are likely to shoot prisoners dead. IS leaves behind scorched earth -- if it goes down, everything else must go down as well. It is a taste of the apocalypse, consistent with the constant claims being made by IS propaganda.
That doesn't, however, mean that the entire IS is interested in perishing. Islamic State is made up of diverse groups: In addition to the devout and the "martyrs," who would rather die fighting than give up, there have always been the opportunists, who were more interested in money and power. For as long as IS continued to win on the battlefield, these fault lines remained largely invisible. Now, though, amid growing pressure, the situation is changing. In Mosul last fall, it became apparent that many IS fighters were leaving the city even as others were arriving, knowing full well that they wouldn't escape with their lives.
IS could have surrendered Mosul, saving both the city and the lives of thousands of its own fighters. But it didn't, instead accepting military defeat in order to further stoke the hatred between Sunnis and Shiites. Doing so made Sunnis the targets of revenge attacks and placed them under a general suspicion of all being terrorists.
Now, the same Shiite militias who liberated Mosul are systematically destroying Sunni towns like Diyala, Babel and Tuz Khurmatu. They are abducting young men, who are never seen again, driving out their families and stripping down factories. Even those who fled Islamic State are finding no protection with the group's enemies. Many of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people are prevented from traveling to Baghdad or southern Iraq. They are stopped at the heavily guarded district borders and left to vegetate in miserably supplied camps.
Dysfunctional and Corrupt
The investment in hate and retribution is a strategic constant for the Islamic State. Even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, which preceded Islamic State, began targeting the Iraqi Shiite majority with terror in 2003 instead of seeking to attack far-flung enemies in America and Europe. The calculation is a simple one: Shiite reprisals would drive Sunnis directly into the arms of Islamic State. And that is exactly what happened in 2014. In Mosul, Tikrit and elsewhere, many Sunnis welcomed the IS invaders as liberators.
This time, nothing will stand in the way of the victors' excesses following their defeat of the terrorist group. Particularly given that in recent years, the Shiite militias have transformed into a frightening, multinational shadow-army that fights in both Syria and Iraq and is made up of recruits from Pakistan and Afghanistan in addition to Hezbollah supporters, all controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, on the other hand, is so dysfunctional and corrupt that it can't even provide for its own people, much less the Sunni population. In one of the most oil-rich countries on earth, one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and the state can't even afford to pay many of its civil servants. There likewise aren't plans or money yet for the reconstruction of Mosul. And that will ensure that hate will survive, as will the thirst for revenge. A new generation of jihadists will emerge -- there is, after all, no shortage of rage.
One thing, though, is irreplaceable: the entire generation of military and secret service leaders that IS made more powerful than ever before. At the peak of its powers, the organization controlled 100,000 square kilometers of land with several million residents. A vast apparatus kept this new empire in operation.
But the proclamation of the caliphate also made Islamic State vulnerable. Its visibility turned it into a target. In August 2014, when Washington finally joined the battle against the terror organization, an escalation began that the IS could only lose. The execution of American and British hostages along with the terror attacks in Europe and Turkey did nothing to discourage the countries belonging to the anti-IS coalition. On the contrary. Declaring war on the entire world may have been good for IS from a PR point of view, but the caliphate had no response to the airstrikes that followed.
Taken Out of Harm's Way
Some have nevertheless continued to fight. But others have not. Shortly after the beginning of the year, a group of junior commanders and small elite units vanished without a trace. Islamic State declared many of them dead, saying that they had fallen victim to various airstrikes. But Western intelligence agencies know from sources deep within Islamic State roughly where some of the terrorists are. "We know of at least two or three cases where the person in question wasn't present at the site where they allegedly died," says one European intelligence officer. That would seem to indicate that they were discretely taken out of harm's way.
In late March, the IS news channel Aamaq sowed panic among the residents of Raqqa when it announced that the Tabqa Dam upriver from the city had been bombed by the Americans and was about to burst. All residents were called on to flee immediately, which they did. The city emptied out within just one day. Just hours later came the order to return: The dam, it was said, wouldn't break after all. IS knew that the dam wasn't in danger of breaking, so why did it knowingly spread the false rumor?
According to an IS fighter from Raqqa who fled in early April, the mass evacuation was a well-planned diversion. "It allowed the leadership to leave the city without exposing them to drones," the man told DER SPIEGEL at the end of May. The evacuating civilians had been used as a human shield.
As early as the turn of the year, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was to be brought to Syria by way of the village of Asaviyah, southwest of Hawija. IS had already assembled a number of fighters there at the end of October. The trip was made in secret, but IS bragged afterwards that they had brought their leader to safety.
The U.S. government confirmed Baghdadi's departure from Iraq weeks later. But when Baghdadi's death was reported for the umpteenth time in early July, the news was based on just a single source: Within IS, rumors were circulating that the Islamic State leader was no longer alive. The report could be accurate -- or it could have been purposely planted to relieve pressure on Baghdadi.
Biding Its Time
So, what comes next? For as long as the group has enough jihadists willing to fight to the death and enough kidnapped child soldiers, it will likely continue to let one village after the next be destroyed in murderous battles. But IS has long since evacuated parts of its leadership, its elite fighters and its immense gold reserves, much of which was plundered in 2014 from Mosul. It has done so in order to continue fighting where it has always been most mobile: underground. There, it will reorganize, bide its time and then pop up under a different name and perhaps with a different profile.
The decisive trigger for IS to once again begin operating in the open in 2013 was the prospect of establishing its own state. How good are the chances, then, that it will return once again? The Islamic State brand has been exhausted, but it is still useful for propaganda purposes. Nothing triggers U.S. drone attacks as reliably as the black-and-white IS flag.
Furthermore, the conditions in the Middle East -- the deep distrust between Shiites and Sunnis, the wars and the lack of state control -- are perfect for the rise of a new group of Sunni fighters. Starting in 2010, IS leadership had the patience, the ideas and the discipline to take advantage of those conditions to create the most powerful terror organization in the world.
Today, that leadership no longer exists. As such, the decisive question is: Has a sufficient number of competent commanders and planners managed to stay alive, or are there enough able replacements, to keep IS together underground?
If so, then one European intelligence agent -- a man who intensively monitored the climb of Islamic State even before 2014 -- might ultimately be right. "They always had a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D," he says. "There is no reason why they won't surprise us once again."
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