The caliphate is off the map for now, but will evolve in dangerous ways
The so-called Islamic State (IS) recently lost its last remnant of territory in Syria, but observers were quick to remind the world that the war against the organization is far from over.
In the face of its evolution, it may seem like maintaining IS in a contained geographic pocket would have been better than eradicating its primary territorial base altogether. With its defeat on the ground in Syria and Iraq, however, IS and its offshoots will have a more limited capacity for recruitment, indoctrination, and growth.
Territorial control allows armed groups to force local populations into compliance and conformity with their ideological outlook. Since its inception, IS understood that its radical “Islamic” community does not locally exist. Instead, the organization set about creating it.
Under IS, spectacles of brutality and violence were a key part of this. Public executions involved people being incinerated, stoned, decapitated, and thrown off towers. Staged in front of local people, these executions were carefully choreographed, and meticulously documented and disseminated.
IS explicitly claimed that these acts of brutality were intended to create a vacuum.
Data personally collected between 2012 and 2014 shows that many living under the rule of radicalized groups such as IS judge these groups based on their own immediate day-to-day conditions rather than the organization’s overall performance or outlook. If administrative structures function and people have access to food and basic services, local populations may overlook the occupying force’s ideology.
The 2014 executions of members of the Sunni Arab al-Sheitaat tribe, in Deir el-Zor, Syria, are a case in point.
Such atrocities were examples of IS consolidating its power through the elimination of rivals and the suppression of potential or real dissent within its area of control. Faced with this, local populations had no choice but to imitate expressions of religiosity as defined by IS and to demonstrate compliance
The question of how IS’s methods impacted local populations in the long run is yet to be answered. A lot will depend on what happens next in its former territory and to those living there now.
Either way, while IS is badly incapacitated, it certainly is not finished. It will most likely splinter into new organizations which might try to establish territorial control elsewhere. In the meantime, IS will continue to try to nurture its virtual communities and seek new audiences online.
Harout Akdedian is Carnegie SFM Postdoctoral fellow, Central European University. A version of this article originally appeared in The Conversation UK.