When the Iraq government announced the end of ISIS control over its territory on December 9, 2017, there were a few celebrations in Baghdad. December 10 was proclaimed a public holiday, and a military parade marched down the main streets.
But that was about it. The event was scarcely reported elsewhere. In the New York Times the report about the event was a small item obscured by more salacious reports related to Trump-dominated domestic politics.
ISIS was over. But no one seemed to notice.
Perhaps part of the reason is that few people are persuaded that ISIS is really over. They know that pockets of ISIS control have survived along the Euphrates River border between Iraq and Syria, and that sporatic violence continues in formerly ISIS-controlled regions; that areas in both countries that have been liberated from ISIS lie in rubble and their angry and restless residents are susceptible to returning to ISIS or turning towards other radical ideologies; and that individuals and groups self-identified with the movement are actively engaged in violent acts throughout the world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, and from Belgium to Manhattan.
The reason why ISIS survives in these different forms is that it was never a single thing. As I have argued elsewhere, ISIS has been both an organization and a movement, a network of political control as well as a decentralized popularist uprising.
The collapse of the political network associated with the geographic control of the Islamic State has liberated those areas of Syria and Iraq that it held. People who lived in Mosul are able to move freely, but they don’t have anywhere to go. The city is in shambles, and those trying to go elsewhere are herded into massive camps housing tens of thousands of refugees set up by the UN High Commission for Refugees in neighboring Kurdistan.
I visited some of these camps in recent months. I talked with a group of young men who were hanging out in front of their tents, smoking cigarettes in an act of defiance against the ISIS regime that would jail anyone caught smoking. They told me that they were relieved to be free from the region’s control—it was like “living in a prison,” they told me. At the same time, however, they were concerned that their city has been destroyed and their own futures were uncertain.
They were bitter towards the Iraqi government and its Shi’ite militia that were at the forefront of the military actions against Mosul. They felt that the liberating military forces did little to try to preserve the city in their eagerness to destroy ISIS, and that the Shi’a liberators treated the local Sunnis like “dirt.” “They think that we are all ISIS sympathizers,” they told me.
Many were, especially at the beginning of ISIS control, when they were seen as a Sunni vanguard that would provide dignity and jobs for the largely Sunni population of Mosul and other parts of western Iraq. Even now, the young men told me, there were many ISIS sympathizers embedded among the refugees, ready to reorganize and rise up when the time was ripe.
The time could become ripe soon if the Iraq government and international relief agencies do little to help repair and restore the city. Elsewhere in Iraq, in the Sunni-dominated cities of Fallujah and Ramadi that were liberated from ISIS control over a year ago, the movement has regained influence as the voice of Sunni protest against the Shi’a dominated Iraq government. It may be only a matter of months before an ISIS-influenced resistance movement rises in Mosul and in the large refugee camps nearby.
Then there are the ISIS-related incidents elsewhere in the world. Shortly after New Year’s Day in 2018, a suicide attack in a market in central Kabul, Afghanistan, killed 20. The Amaq News Agency of ISIS said that the movement claimed credit. They also gave ISIS credit for attacks in Nigeria and in Egypt a few days before. Earlier in the year a group of Muslim separatists said to be associated with ISIS took over a town in Mindanao, the insurgent region of Southern Philippines, and controlled it for months in a stand-off with the Filipono army. In November, 2017, a rented truck veered down a bicycle path in lower Manhattan, killing eight; the driver, as he abandoned the vehicle, left behind a note in Arabic that said, “ISIS lives!”
Whether or not ISIS lives is a debatable point. The fact that various groups and individuals around the world have identified with the ISIS brand name and its extremist ideology does not mean that there is an organizational connection between the old ISIS infrastructure and these various individuals and entities. When I interviewed Muslim resistance leaders in Philippines’ Mindanao, they told me that the groups using the name of ISIS were all local Filipino activists who were using the ISIS brand to make themselves look more formidable.
There is a fear that escaping ISIS operatives from Iraq and Syria might be headed to Mindanao and other parts of the world to continue their mischief, but there is no indication that they were involved in any of these recent incidents in the Philippines, Nigeria, and Egypt. So far these far-flung terrorist acts have all been linked with groups and individuals that have been well established in these local regions for some time, and the ISIS brand simply gives them a kind of extremist credibility.
What gives the illusion of a continuing global ISIS command is publicity. The Amaq News Agency has survived the downfall of Raqqa and Mosul, the main two centers of ISIS control. Since the agency exists in cyberspace, its creators could live anywhere—in France or California, for example. The agency continues to deliver press reports as if there were a continuing ISIS central command, and claims that all these disparate acts of violence are related. The glossy online magazine, Rumiyah, continued to be published as recently at September, 2017, and in January 2018 a new video posted by ISIS called on assassinations of world leaders from Putin and Erdogan to Trump and the Pope. My student assistants who have been monitoring ISIS-related chats in Twitter and Telegram tell me that the postings are as frequent and dedicated as ever, vowing to continue the struggle against the kafir anywhere in the world.
So in that sense, ISIS lives, since it never really died. It is the label for a virulent movement of resistance and unrest throughout the world, and will live as long as its brand name continues to inspire activists and strike fear in the hearts of those who oppose it.