On March 23, 2019, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces declared that the Islamic State (IS) had been removed from Syria, and that they had ‘defeated’ the militant group.
As glorious as this triumph may be, what actually is IS? Disregarding the manpower, money, access to arms and their proclaimed statehood, in its primordial essence, IS is an ideology.
IS is a Sunni jihadist group that looks to create a caliphate, an Islamic state under the control of a caliph–a religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad who claims religious authority over all Muslims.
IS grew out of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2011, they joined the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad and in 2014, IS seized numerous territories and proclaimed a caliphate.
At its peak, IS ruled almost eight million people, generated billions of dollars from oil and extortion and used its captured land to disseminate propaganda and engineer bloodshed. All of this originated from its ideology. Followers of IS reject peace as a matter of principle. They hunger for violence against ‘infidels’ and consider themselves a harbinger to the end of the world.
In 2014, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, one of IS’ chief spokespersons, called on Muslims in Western countries to find an infidel and poison them or destroy their crops. This was significant as the theological language used is congruent with their ideological teachings.
‘Destroying their crops’ refers to a passage from the Qur’an that states that you should leave well water or crops alone, unless the ‘armies of Islam’ were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the land of ‘infidels’ should poison away.
Al-Adnani and IS frame their rhetoric to make it sound like their words are derived from biblical teachings, which resonates with those who misinterpret the teachings of Islam and seek value in being part of a worldwide community.
Further, despite its canonical use of language, IS has moved with the times and uses social media to extend its reach. It is estimated that 40,000 people from 110 countries joined IS due to its strategic use of social media.
The internet and social media has shown to have growing influence on governance and stability, with an example being the 2011 Arab Spring, as well as regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
Increasing internet use in Africa and the Middle East – places with high concentrations of young Muslims who are highly dissatisfied with their governments – has given IS a huge new pool of potential followers to recruit.
Any time a terrorist attack occurs on the planet, it is easy for IS to instantly claim responsibility, with people unable to verify their claims. This creates the illusion that IS’ reach is omnipresent, and allows their propaganda machine to attract new followers.
It is for these reasons that claiming back land from IS in Syria – a feat that should not be discredited – is not enough to unequivocally ‘defeat’ IS.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not defeat Al-Qaeda, as leaders of these organisations are merely figureheads. Al-Qaeda has now taken root in Yemen, and there are jihadist groups in central Africa which seek to create an African caliphate.
Despite the ‘defeat’ of IS in Syria and Iraq, US officials believe there are still 15-20,000 armed followers active in the region, many of them in sleeper cells that will retreat and lay low while attempting to rebuild.
Therein lies the problem. Once an ideology exists, if it is recorded or disseminated in some way, how can it ever be stopped?
The only way to fight an ideology, is with another, more reasonable ideology. Killing will merely alleviate the surface problem, while broader structural factors and grievances remaining unresolved.
72,000 relatives of IS soldiers are being held in north-eastern Syria with one of the Kurdish administration’s top foreign affairs officials, Abdel Karim Omar describing the situation: ‘There are thousands of children raised according to IS ideology. If these children aren’t re-educated and reintegrated into their original societies, they are potential future terrorists’.
Deradicalisation is a potential solution to the thousands who believe in IS’ ideology. Deradicalisation works to change a person’s worldview and to discover what drives their radical thoughts, such as identity or self-esteem issues. By integrating those affected into communities with access to psychological help, together with like-minded people the process of deradicalisation could begin.
The war would be over if it were as simple as convincing all of IS’ followers to not believe in their cause, which is what makes IS so powerful. As long as there are those who believe, then IS will never truly be defeated.
George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics based in Adelaide.