In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.
Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.
What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.
With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.
You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.
But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.
The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.
Raffaello Pantucci is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.