Beaten but Not Defeated Islamic State Plans Next Move After Loss of 'Caliphate'

In the desert between Iraq and Syria, mostly Kurdish forces have seized the last remaining pocket of the Islamic State's once sprawling dominion. But while the terrorists may have capitulated for now, many have gone underground to plan the next deadly phase.

Eddy van Wessel/ DER SPIEGEL

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The long brown cloak gave the man an antiquated look. His unkempt hair stood out from his head and his face was framed by an unruly beard. He slowly crept up the narrow mountain trail, and when he took a step with both crutches and moved his left leg forward, his right thigh swung slightly in the same direction. The man plodded along like this until he saw a stretch of path in the distance that was so steep it would have to be climbed.

He stood still for a while, let his crutches fall to the side and dropped down to the ground. He sat in the dust for a few minutes while bag-toting women, wounded adults and children shuffled past. Finally, he struggled to get up, grabbed his crutches and trudged at a snail's pace until finally disappearing in the crowd that had gathered at the base of the cliff.

If the end of Islamic State (IS) could be distilled into one scene, one individual and just a few minutes, it would be this one-legged man on one of the last days in March when people could still leave Baghouz, the final IS stronghold. His body maimed and exhausted, still he was apparently unwilling to become a martyr. At that moment, nothing seemed to remain of the brute strength and willingness to embrace death that for so long had characterized the so-called caliphate's most faithful acolytes. Just a cripple bent on survival.

The "Baghouz camp," the part of this village at the edge of eastern Syria where tens of thousands of extremists had entrenched themselves, is a hellish place. Every few days, when the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to make another modest advance and the fighting lulled for a moment, the Kurdish militias would allow a few journalists inside. There were no more people, but a smell still lingered from the months they had spent huddled together in trenches and burrows. Clothing, cookware and stuffed animals lay strewn among spent magazines, a partially filled children's notebook with spelling exercises and discarded explosive belts. Occasionally the air reeked with the stench of a forgotten corpse.

Historic Victory, Historic Defeat

A week and a half after the one-legged man dragged himself up the steep rocky slope, IS' "caliphate" was defeated. On March 23, Kurdish-led SDF, backed primarily by American fighter jets and British and French special forces, captured the last few hundred square meters of the village of Baghouz in a godforsaken corner of eastern Syria.

The fact that IS fighters continued to shoot from tunnels in the nearby rocky massif as the liberators conducted the official flag-raising ceremony, and the fact that Kurdish press officers had been promising since early February that victory was only "a few days" away, made it easy to lose sight of the historical significance of what was taking place.

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Not since tribal leader Ibn Saud's army of horsemen conquered what is now Saudi Arabia some 100 years ago has a group of jihadis managed to seize, hold and administer a vast area. In short: to govern. But IS did exactly that. Something al-Qaida and others only dreamed of.

It was a different story with IS, that Janus-faced monstrosity that portrayed itself in its propaganda as the devout executor of God's will. Meanwhile, it was being directed from within by engineers of power who placed little trust in a supreme deity and instead relied on highly intelligent planning, taking inspiration from the maze of tunnels built by the Viet Cong and the army established by Zionist Israelis with recruits from around the world.

Thanks to their experience as military and intelligence officers -- nearly every top-ranking IS commander had been one or the other in Saddam Hussein's Iraq until 2003 - as well as some astonishing creativity, IS was able to conquer large swathes of eastern Syria by summer 2014. In June, it began a blitzkrieg offensive, seizing Mosul, Tikrit and large parts of western Iraq.

Leaving the 'Caliphate' Behind

In July 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood in the pulpit of the Grand al-Nuri mosque in Mosul and proclaimed the so-called caliphate. It was a seemingly unfathomable triumph. At the height of its power, IS controlled an area the size of Jordan and ruled over millions of subjects. Now, nearly five years later, after countless battles and a seemingly endless reconquest, it's over.

But what kind of end is this? What do the final days of the "caliphate" tell us about the persistence of the IS myth? Did the sheer will to survive ultimately triumph over ideology? Or does IS have a plan to go back into hiding and secretly prepare for a new offensive?

The battle over Baghouz was not the suicidal finale that many expected. IS' disciples did not collectively don their suicide belts and charge enemy lines in order to ascend to paradise in a sea of flames. On the contrary: Tens of thousands of them emerged and allowed themselves to be captured.

No one who, like the one-legged man, waited until mid-March to flee Baghouz was an innocent civilian who had been held hostage. Since early January, the henchmen of the imploding "caliphate" were no longer preventing anyone from leaving.

Lucas Gläss, a convert from Dortmund who traveled to Syria in late July 2014 to join IS, surrendered to SDF forces in early January. In a building owned by the Kurdish security agency, Gläss told DER SPIEGEL about the loss of control in the rapidly shrinking area where IS had retreated. "Already in December, we heard every day about people slipping away and running off. The official line was still that anyone caught trying to flee would be arrested, perhaps killed. But 10 days after we had to retreat south from Hajin," the last major contested town, "they said that anyone who wanted to was free to leave the Islamic State. On Jan. 6, I set off with my wife and our two kids. At the last checkpoint, all they said was: Be careful! There are a lot of mines out there."

In late February, IS began getting rid of any extra mouths to feed, sending away anyone who couldn't or wouldn't fight, thus leaving the remaining provisions to be divided among fewer people. Women, children, the elderly and the wounded -- all the useless stalwarts who until then hadn't wanted to leave their delusional paradise -- left.

'Here Come the Fanatics!'

Judging by those who stumbled by on the last day that the Kurds allowed a few journalists in, it looked as if the gates of hell had been opened. For hours, an exodus of hunched, filthy and mute escapees lumbered up a narrow path to a low plateau, where they were searched with hand-held metal detectors and brought to collection points before being transported away.

It was a surreal sight. Journalists with TV cameras and telephoto lenses stood on rooftops and walls, while only 20 to 30 meters (65 to 100 feet) away, a stream of surrendering people shuffled by. Women laden with luggage and plastic bags stumbled on the precipitous, rocky ground. The one-legged man walked by. Injured people with blood-soaked bandages made their way supported by others. Two men carried a battered cot with an inanimate body on it. A girl, perhaps 13 years old, hair and face covered with the fine gray dust of a bomb explosion at close range, lurched forward as if in a trance and stared off into space. She stopped for a moment, walked back a few steps and didn't respond when spoken to. Kurdish fighters moved in and out of the line, lifted babies out of women's arms and carried them up the steepest stretches.

After much insistence, journalists were allowed to get as close as 2 to 3 meters from the line of people. But they were still not allowed to speak to any of the lurching escapees. "They're dangerous!" the Kurdish squad leaders shouted. "Here come the fanatics!" Even though nothing had happened yet.

A day later, it became apparent just how right they had been. Once again, hundreds of people passed through the checkpoint at the base of the cliff, between palm trees and ruins. This time no journalists were present. Around noon, a mother with two children blew herself up. Seconds later, a man dressed in women's clothing ran toward the would-be rescuers and detonated a second suicide bomb. A third attacker was shot and killed before he could trigger his explosive belt.

"We thought a woman with two children would be harmless," said one of the wounded SDF men, all of whom survived. One of the two children died instantly, the other was evacuated with severe burns. Were they even the woman's children, or was she taking care of them because their parents were dead? And what moves a woman, who has already given up, to want to kill herself, two small children and as many other people as possible as a final statement?

The 'Traitors' vs. the Fanatics

DER SPIEGEL was able to speak with a number of people who fled Baghouz in recent weeks. Their accounts paint a picture of sheer madness -- or, more precisely, of a murderous struggle between two camps, the "traitors" and the fanatics, those who intended to blow themselves up after capitulating and the many others who cast aside their suicide belts, which could be seen lying around everywhere. The conflict even continued in the prisons and detainee camps, which explains why nearly everyone who spoke with the "infidels" asked to remain anonymous for fear of being attacked at night.

"The hard core are a sect, completely insane," said one of the "traitors," a woman, describing the others before adding: "they call us idol worshipers and refer to themselves as Khawarij," a group whose members view themselves as the only true, albeit misunderstood followers of the Prophet Muhammad in accordance with early Islamic models. This deep divisions extend across all nationalities; men and women from Tunisia are included, so are those from Iraq, though less so those from Europe. A Swedish woman living with several children in an internment camp was quoted as saying that it was better for a child to starve in the Islamic State than "to be sent to the land of the infidels, where it will be raised by homosexuals." They are immune to all logic. They have walled themselves off in their utopia and the memories of the euphoric success of 2014.

Back then, they wanted to declare war on the entire world -- on the infidels, of course, but also on fellow Muslims who would be forced to first submit to pass the test of faith. Everything went according to plan, the gradual infiltration and conquest of northern Syria, the rapid attacks on western Iraq. It was all God's plan, they said. The conquered lands were predominantly inhabited by Sunni Muslims, the religious community that also gave rise to the extremists of IS. Hence not everyone there fled; at least part of the population remained. Without them, the self-declared state would not have been able to function.

But the jihadi military campaign was only successful as long as the world ignored this declaration of war. After the international community idly watched in dismay as Mosul was seized in June 2014, this led IS to make a decisive miscalculation two months later. In the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, the jihadis attacked the enclave of the Yazidis, an ancient religious community that, in addition to God, reveres seven angels, including one in the form of a peacock. In the eyes of IS, they fulfilled all the conditions to be enslaved and annihilated. And this community had the misfortune of living near the city of Tal Afar, where at least two of the most powerful IS emirs originated.

A Fatal Miscalculation

If the world didn't care about Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the other IS leaders reasoned that it probably wouldn't come to the Yazidis' rescue either. But with this attack, IS had suddenly threatened Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq. The almost biblical scene of tens of thousands of Yazidis on the plateau of the Sinjar Mountains, surrounded and dying of thirst, moved the hesitant U.S. government under President Barack Obama to intervene. It launched airstrikes against IS and forged an international coalition. The subsequent executions of American and British hostages by IS, some of whom had been held for two years without any signs of life, were intended to deter the aggressors, but had the opposite effect.

It was the beginning of the end. In open confrontation, IS stood no chance against sweeping phone surveillance, armed drones and precision-guided bombs that could unleash enormous firepower with an accuracy of several meters. The jihadis lost city after city, region after region, until finally Baghouz had also fallen. There, a Kurdish field commander gave a sober analysis: "They attacked us as a conventional force. That was their mistake. As a guerrilla force it would have been far more difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to beat them."

But why in the world did they choose Baghouz, this village on the border with Iraq? Was it merely the topographical consequence of an ongoing retreat, deeper and deeper to the south, to the most far-flung corner of the country, where the Assad regime's area of control and the Euphrates to the west ultimately run up against the Iraqi border? Where tens of thousands who retreated here and parked their trucks, pickups, cars and vans with all their possessions, dug trenches and transformed the final square kilometers of the "caliphate" into a huge, chaotic parking lot?

Or was there, again, some plan behind it all? SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin recounted how his people, approaching from the desert, had attacked Baghouz once before in late September: "The resistance was immense. We even lost some ground again. We retreated and from then on, only advanced from the north." The version that IS gave its supporters was the usual hocus-pocus: A small Iraqi boy reportedly dreamed the "caliphate" would lose town after town, but never the mountain near Baghouz. Here they would win their decisive victory, after all the hypocrites and sinners had left.

The Many Tunnels of IS

There is another possible explanation. Baghouz was once a smugglers' nest. Immediately behind the steeply rising hills at the edge of town lies the border and the desert of the Iraqi province of Anbar where, according to reports from multiple intelligence agencies, IS leader al-Baghdadi headed after he left Baghouz in early January.

IS was a master of long-term planning and tunnel construction. As early as 2014, the jihadis began digging sophisticated networks of subterranean passageways, some as deep as five or six meters, wherever they thought they might be attacked. They dug in towns like Raqqa, Tabqa and around Mosul. The tunnels had electrical wiring, infirmaries, storage warehouses, command centers, hidden exits and holes for sniper nests. The excavated material was hidden in mosques and houses. In 2016, Iraqi soldiers in Mosul even found specially designed tunnel drills: monstrous machines, several meters long, with huge milling heads and multiple motors. In the hills of Baghouz, the jihadis' final retreat, IS had also dug tunnels. By the middle of last week, it was still unclear whether they had been completely discovered, searched and cleared.

So far, the advancing forces have found none of the group's leading emirs nor any trace of the last three Western hostages held by IS. They also haven't found any gold or sign of the presumed reserves of between $50 million and $300 million (between 44.5 million and 266.7 million euros). According to an IS informant, some of the money is hidden in refrigerators buried in the Iraqi desert.

Baghouz is apparently not only the site of the "caliphate's" demise, the end of its territorial rule. It is also a gateway back to the underworld, to invisibility, where the military superiority of its opponents is meaningless. Terror attacks, murders, racketeering: All the things IS was doing in Iraq before it suddenly overran Mosul -- it's all much easier than maintaining control over an entire state.

Racketeering Is Easier Than Governing

IS has long since resumed its underground existence; in some regions, it has returned, in others, it never really left. Like the fertile district of Hawija, west of Mosul, an area crisscrossed by two rivers with banks covered with thick vegetation, where IS fighters retreated in 2017. Here, they were never truly beaten and have been terrorizing the population ever since. It helps that fighting between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdish forces has flared up again, since the frontlines of that conflict create a wide no man's land in which the jihadis can operate virtually undisturbed.

In southern Syria, a region that dictator Bashar al-Assad's troops recaptured last year, several IS groups seemed to disappear into thin air. For years, roughly 1,200 IS fighters were entrenched in the Yarmouk Valley in the southern province of Daraa. After Daraa was seized last summer, more than 500 surrendered and, according to several sources, 80 of them were recruited by the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian army. The military intelligence agency brought the remaining IS fighters to the desert, near the city of Sweida, in the Druze region.

For years, the Druze minority had refused to allow their sons to serve in the army, endeavoring instead to remain as neutral as possible and protect only their own region. In late July, the same IS militants who had been transferred to the area took part in a devastating attack on Druze villages that left nearly 240 dead, after which the Druze leaders dropped their resistance to Assad's rule over their region.

After years of discreet collaboration and hostility with Assad's intelligence services, IS remains a useful enemy for the Syrian dictator, who presents himself to the West as a bulwark against the beheaders. To this day, hundreds of IS combatants continue to operate undisturbed in the desert region east of Sweida, and several emirs from Daraa were released after being only briefly detained by the Syrian authorities.

'Wilayahs' Around the World

In other countries, where IS has honored affiliated terror groups with the coveted cachet of "wilayah," meaning an administrative division of a caliphate, a distinctive pattern can be discerned despite the disparate nature of the various movements:

In Libya, probably IS' most important project outside its core region, the group may have lost control over the city of Sirte, but little is known about the number of sleeper cells that exist in the cities along the coast and in the south of the country, where the government has little influence.

In the Sinai, where in November 2014 most of the already existing terrorist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis allied itself with IS, Egyptian troops may not have been able to break the resistance, but they did manage to keep it in check. It has helped Cairo that the former alliance between Hamas in Gaza and the IS group in Sinai has descended into open hostilities fueled by opposing interests. Hamas is now cooperating with the Egyptian government to prevent the complete obstruction of its smuggling tunnels. Meanwhile, IS has mobilized some 2,000 supporters to fight against the Egyptian state, feeding rumors that Israel is using the jihadis as a tool against Hamas.

In Afghanistan, the IS offshoot "Khorasan Province" has occupied an unexpected political niche and operates primarily in Nangarhar Province in the eastern part of the country, where it fights not only U.S. troops and the Afghan army, but also the Taliban, who seek to eliminate their ruthless rivals. The more the Taliban lean toward negotiating a settlement, however, the more attractive IS becomes for those Taliban who categorically reject all negotiations.

Most alarming of all, although it has gone almost unnoticed by the world, is the situation in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring countries. The Boko Haram terror group, under its unpredictable leader Abubakar Shekau, was successfully fought with international assistance. Even IS criticized the indiscriminate massacre of civilians by its offshoot in 2016 and revoked its "membership." But ever since IS gave its blessing that same year to a faction that had split off under the more savvy leadership of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who now heads the "West Africa Province," this new group has managed to massively expand the territory under its control and now rules over it like a state -- without ever proclaiming one. Markets and trade routes are taxed and protected, even large military bases are attacked, and the government in Abuja appears powerless against this enemy that is far more elusive than Boko Haram.

None of the countries concerned offer their citizens a dignified existence in a society where everyone enjoys the same basic rights, which would be the surest way to eliminate the breeding grounds for groups like IS. But at least in places where a central state government exists, such as in Egypt, it's possible to stop the further spread of IS, which feeds on the loss of control, collapse and withdrawal of the state like a parasite living off its host. Indeed, the jihadis first operated within the Syrian rebellion clandestinely, then openly, as early as late 2012 -- ignored by the West because they did not (yet) threaten it.

IS Is Not Defeated

It's this narrow, shortsighted perspective that poses a risk, especially with the demise of the so-called caliphate: the belief that the Islamic State has been defeated merely because its visible manifestation has disappeared. To wit, there are tens of thousands of jihadis from Baghouz, and the villages that were captured shortly beforehand, who find themselves indefinitely detained in camps and prisons run by a Kurdish administration that is overburdened by the task. Roughly 70,000 women, children and elderly alone are held in the Al Hawl refugee camp, while the fighters are detained in prisons and military bases scattered across the region.

The ongoing threat has even been confirmed by the U.S. regional commander in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, a man who sounds far more pessimistic than his president: "What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization," as Votel testified before the House Armed Services Committee, "but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge." "Baqiya wa tatamaddad," Arabic meaning to remain and expand, has been the organization's cryptic rallying cry for years -- and is just as applicable to victories as defeats. IS supporters hastily graffitied the word "baqiya" on numerous walls before they retreated. Two circles and three dots in Arabic encapsulate the ultimate threat: to return as an underground terror network and a source of endless fear.

Iraqis, especially those from Mosul, Tikrit and Baghdad, have been familiar with this fear for a decade and a half. They have been living a powerless existence with no protection against indiscriminate terror and targeted murder because the police themselves are threatened or have been bought off. It remains to be seen what consequences the defeat in Baghouz will hold for IS. The actual existence of the "caliphate" is already being romanticized by many in the internment camps. Fictitious, dazzling prophecies are making the rounds with predictions that the demise of this first "caliphate" was merely a test before it returns -- and remains -- as an even greater power.

The Logic of Identity

History has seen a number of devastating militarily defeats that ultimately engendered tremendous power as myths for centuries thereafter: Masada for the Jews of Palestine, Karbala for the Shiites, the Alamo for the Texans. The logic of identity does not necessarily follow the rational pattern of military successes and defeats. On the day of the victory in Baghouz, it only took a few hours before the mood turned again among the SDF fighters as well as the Kurdish interpreters and drivers. In the early afternoon of March 23, the improvised "Comrade Rostom" media center at the edge of the village was nearly deserted when the driver for the U.S. broadcaster NBC entered the storage room on the ground floor. He was killed on the spot by an explosion that even destroyed the floor above him and the minibus he had parked outside.

In the weeks preceding this deadly attack, boxes of potatoes, tomatoes and bread had been stored there, while uniformed officials and members of the TV crews regularly entered the building to grab something to eat. No believed in a coincidence or in the negligence of the soldiers who assured that they had personally checked the empty room on the ground floor in early March: "There was nothing inside, no wiring, no cabinets, only walls, a window with no booby-traps, the floor."

"We shouldn't stay here," the drivers and interpreters said. Everyone believed that IS sleeper cells had been deployed to strike back. On the evening that victory was declared, the teams from CNN and DER SPIEGEL were the only ones that remained in Sousa, Baghouz's neighboring village, and they were practically alone there, since the three military bases of the Kurdish fighters had also been cleared of personnel, with the exception of a few men and two women. Driving at night would have been suicidal. The journalists decided to leave at the break of dawn. Alan, the driver, slept in his shoes.

The next morning, they drove through the quiet, mined villages along the river valley, then headed through the desert to the administrative complex of the Omar oil field, which is home to a heavily guarded SDF military base. In Busaira, the first inhabited small town directly thereafter, Alan suddenly accelerated to over 100 kmh (62 mph), racing through the streets and recklessly passing other vehicles.

Why? "This is all IS territory, full of sleeper cells and extremely dangerous."

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