As the pick-up trucks and black-clad soldiers of Daesh overran the city of Raqqa in northern Syria and declared the establishment of a new ‘Caliphate’ in 2014, the world watched in astonishment. Some were taken in by the emergence of this shadowy group, seeing it as the new saviour of the Muslim world, daring to do what the monarchies and regimes in the Middle East had been too afraid, apathetic or sold out to do. They declared that the regional countries were “Zionist puppets” and so the task had passed to this new group to establish the long-awaited Caliphate. Others were more sceptical of Daesh and its supposed legitimacy, and rightly so.
Opinions aside, Daesh moved rapidly, seizing both urban and rural strongholds in Syria and Iraq. At its peak, it controlled an area roughly the size of Britain, and media outlets took great pleasure in saying that the group controlled “large swathes of territory”.
Western air strikes along with Russian support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces have taken their toll on Daesh. It was pushed back gradually to just a few rural outposts and two major urban strongholds, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
In early July, the Iraqi army declared victory over Daesh in Mosul after months of gruelling street by street combat. What was once the group’s stronghold and capital in Iraq is now a city in ruins. It resembles Berlin in 1945: ruined and desolate, with unimaginable amounts of its cultural heritage lost, its people massacred mercilessly in the name of crushing the remnants of the defeated group. Just as the Soviets spared no one in the German capital, the Iraqi army and its Shia militias have the same disregard for innocent human lives after years of struggle and frustration.
With the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) surrounding it and US air strikes killing militants and civilians indiscriminately, a similar fate is expected for Raqqa. According to reports in July, around half of the city has been retaken; the battle to take the rest is expected to last for months.
Despite the defeat of Daesh in its heartlands, it would be foolish to believe that it is dead and buried. All it has done is move elsewhere.
It has always been Daesh’s ambition to expand over the whole Muslim world, as well as any lands that were once under Muslim rule, such as Andalusia in modern Spain. Over the past two years, it has surfaced in another war-torn country, capturing Sirte in Libya. This was its first and only major urban stronghold in the country, and it was to be short-lived; after a year of total control, Daesh was defeated and pushed out last December. Earlier this year, it was reported to have shifted to the Libyan desert to wait for an opportunity to gain a new foothold.
Another target of Daesh in recent times has been Egypt; its affiliates have attacked Egyptian security forces, particularly in Sinai, ever since the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the subsequent weakening of the centralised authority. In 2014, the main militant group in the area, Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to Daesh, turning it into “Wilayah Sina”, the “Islamic State’s” very own Sinai Province. Since then, there have been a multitude of attacks against Egyptian security forces and the country’s Coptic Christian population.
The region where Daesh has made its presence most strongly felt, however, is beyond the Middle East in Asia, which it calls “Wilayah Khorasan”, Khorasan Province. The militants have established an operational branch on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and have found fertile ground among the existing terrorist groups which operate there. The growth of Daesh in Afghanistan has, unsurprisingly, alarmed Islamabad at this new threat on its border, as the group has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in Pakistan since 2015. In July, the Pakistani army launched a huge offensive against Daesh militants in the north-west of the country. The “Khyber 4” operation marked a new chapter in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism.
An Afghan friend of mine visited his country recently and told me that he found himself standing less than a kilometre away from a Daesh checkpoint. Many members of Daesh are former members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups who left due to alleged infiltration by Pakistani intelligence. Daesh, it seems, is now the enemy at the gate of Pakistan, and with it the region as a whole.
This has far-reaching consequences, for not only do the countries it feeds on have to fight a virulent, energetic and ruthless new terrorist group, but they will also have to face the pressure of Western foreign intervention. The US is no stranger to using “terrorist hideouts” and “safe havens” as an excuse to invade a country; this is, after all, a major strategy of the global “war on terror”.
America will, in the near future, intervene directly or indirectly in these countries under the pretext of fighting Daesh and its affiliates. Libya has already been subject to intervention and looks ready to take another round; Egypt is not yet completely vulnerable; and Afghanistan and Pakistan are at the top of the US hit list.
Not only is the US using the Daesh presence in such countries as an excuse for its own military intervention, but many also believe that Washington is responsible for allowing the militants to reach their destinations. Back in April, the former President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, claimed that the Americans “not only knew, they watched” as Daesh militants moved in and terrorised villages close to one of the biggest US military bases in Jalalabad. He also cited reports by locals that helicopters regularly came and dropped supplies to the militants, begging the question as to who those helicopters belonged to and how they could possibly fly unnoticed when all of the Afghan airspace is in under US control. Karzai described Daesh as a “tool” of the US, and now, months later, we are beginning to see the effects of that tool.
US President Donald Trump’s decision last week to maintain and expand America’s military presence in Afghanistan – a country already ravaged by sixteen years of the “war on terror” – shows that the Americans have every intention of overstaying their welcome. Add to this Trump’s absurd threats to Pakistan for allegedly not doing enough to fight terrorism, as well as his wooing of its rival India to encourage New Delhi to intervene in Afghan affairs, and we can deduce that the US is successfully laying the foundation for further instability in the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.