With the entry of Iraqi forces into the eastern neighbourhoods of Mosul and preparation for the battle for Raqqah in Syria, Daesh has become fragmented. The time of Daesh being in charge of its self-declared “state” appears to have come to an end. The most important question beyond the current military situation is whether or not the extremist organisation’s terrifying ideological influence will also fade away, and if the phenomenon of lone-wolf operations will stop, or even decline significantly following the political dismantlement of the group.
For answers we can look to the historical experiences of similar movements whose military defeats and setbacks did not lead to their extinction. Instead, the complete opposite happened. In many cases, such movements return stronger than ever; this happened with the Taliban after the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Al-Qaeda after the Sahawat (“awakening” of tribal leaders in Iraq) in 2008. Of course, this does not refer to the main Al-Qaeda movement, but rather other “jihadist” groups which retreated and folded back onto themselves, as in Egypt with the Islamic Movement and what has remained of the Islamic Jihad after the leadership left.
As such, there are two variables that could dictate the future of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. The first is the political situation, especially for the Sunni community, and the extent of their feelings regarding the failure of the current model — or the exact opposite for those who support the status quo — and their relationship with the social milieu in which they find themselves.
The second point is linked to the uniqueness of Daesh in comparison to all past movements, including Al-Qaeda. Daesh constituted a real “leap” in the world of jihadi Salafism, reaching the point whereby mainstream theorists are openly against the movement, fearing the serious shift it has caused. The group declared its state and a caliphate, and used Islamic symbols efficiently in order to provoke the imagination of thousands of jihadist and Islamist youth in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and even in the West.
Daesh managed to create a brutal (but strong) image that the youth were missing; an image in stark contrast to the weakness and strategic vacuum in the Arab world. It put itself forward as the protector and defender of the Sunni identity, speaking a clear yet explicitly factional language. All of these characteristics are what made the movement attractive to thousands of people.
This analysis demonstrates that answering the question surrounding the attractiveness of the movement, despite its current decline, is difficult and complicated and requires further analysis and discussion. There are, though, two possible approaches to a reading of the situation.
For a start, Daesh is not the only or ultimate means of creating an Islamic “utopia” and generating support for itself, but it is a means of opening the door to this. Many of the youth will not abandon the ideology or aspirations for such a utopia just because the military branch of the group has been defeated; there will be thousands of Daesh supporters still in the region. In addition, the conditions that drove them still exist. Indeed, perhaps the “Sunni tragedy” will be even more severe after Daesh’s defeat in Iraq and Syria, when there could be an overwhelming sense that Sunni Islam is being targeted. This would allow all of the justifications for Daesh as an “ideological organisation” to remain intact.
We then have an analysis that is basically the opposite of the first, in that the failure of the Daesh experience in establishing an Islamic state will have a negative impact on a large number of youth who had high hopes of the entity as promised. They were assured of victory and expansion, remember, and used the slogan “remaining and expanding” which motivated them to join the group, be active and carry out operations to support “the new project”. However, once the dust of the battle settles and the youth realise that the project was improvised and unrealistic, its attraction will also die down. In such a scenario, they will quite possibly then turn to other options such as Al-Qaeda, or even look entirely beyond the jihadist context.
Translated from Arabi21, 3 November 2016
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