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Why the West cannot afford to forget about ISIL

The central dome of the Al Nouri Mosque

On 4 July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi slowly climbed the steps of the pulpit in Mosul’s al-Nuri Mosque to preside over Friday prayers.  Having satisfied the required formalities, he proceeded to announce himself as the leader of the ‘Islamic State’, a new Islamic ‘caliphate’ stretching across Iraq and Syria.  With that announcement, al-Baghdadi confirmed the unprecedented evolution of a Salafi-jihadist insurgent group into a de facto state.  This ‘state’ went on to become a destination for foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) from right across the world.

For these travellers, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, or Da’esh), presented the prospect of an abundant and pious existence, free from the secular values imposed by Western powers and the ‘apostate’ regimes of the Middle East.

It did not turn out that way.  The events of July and August 2014 also triggered the next phase of global counterterrorism, drawing together an extraordinary array of opposition forces to bring about the territorial caliphate’s demise.  However, for reasons I explore below, this defeat is far from final.

Ten years on from al-Baghadi’s announcement, you can divide the ensuing decade into two halves – from 2014 to 2019, when the ‘Caliphate’ reached its territorial and military peak, before succumbing to a coalition of international powers; and from 2019 to 2024, when ISIL metastasised into a flexible and adaptive terrorist ‘brand’ that continues to inspire violence across the world.

At its height, the ‘Islamic State’ held territory equivalent to the area of the United Kingdom and distributed slick propaganda in multiple languages to attract wannabe jihadis from Barbados to Bethnal Green.  Never before had FTFs travelled in such numbers, and from so many countries.  ISIL also developed a sophisticated attack-planning capability and committed shocking terrorist attacks on the streets of Paris, Brussels and London.  Internally, the Islamic State imposed a brutal rule over its territories, committing appalling crimes against ethnic and religious minorities within its borders.  Perhaps most infamously, ISIL was responsible for a genocide of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, when thousands of men and boys were killed, and women and girls abducted and enslaved.

By 2015, ISIL had become the richest, most diverse and destructive terrorist group in the world, and it generated an equally diverse and destructive response.  The Global Coalition against Da’esh contained 87 countries, and forces from Russia, Turkey, the US and Europe joined local Kurdish and Iraqi militias to press them back.  After lengthy and intensive bombing campaigns, ISIL was driven out of Mosul and its Syrian ‘capital’ of Raqqa in 2017; the ‘Islamic State’ finally fell in February 2019.

Without the freedom to plan from permanent offices in Syria, ISIL failed to launch another significant attack against Western targets until the attack on the Moscow concert hall in March 2024.  Counter-Da’esh forces gradually thinned out from the Middle East, or re-focused onto Iranian proxies in the region.  The long-term challenge of China, Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, and the Coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan, created a precipitous down-grade of counterterrorism as a priority for Western foreign policy.

However, the Moscow concert hall attack shows that ISIL has absolutely not gone away.

Like its al-Qaeda forebears, ISIL has proved successful at exploiting local insurgencies and conflicts to find pockets of support, funding and capability, particularly across the African continent.  The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP, or IS-K) continues to defy Taliban pressure to commit significant domestic attacks, as well as daring external operations like the attack in Moscow.   As much as the West would like to forget about ISIL, it cannot, for two main reasons.

The first is that the ISIL ‘brand’ is not defeated.  Although the loss of the physical caliphate was devastating, ISIL will forever be the group that wildly over-achieved, going much further than Al-Qaeda ever managed.  Furthermore, the traumatic bombing of ISIL territory by Western and Russian forces has created a lasting narrative of grievance.  All guerilla narratives are based on victimhood, and the memories of ISIL’s brutal defeat, kept alive by the thousands of ISIL-affiliated detainees across the region, will ensure that it creates sympathy, solidarity and inspiration for jihadist movements worldwide.  Across the Sahel, ISIL-affiliated groups continue to attack state forces and civilians as part of local insurgencies; in Sudan, Somalia and northern Nigeria, ungoverned spaces could become the next destination for FTFs.

The second reason is that the West’s battle with violent Salafi-jihadism is a long-term one, and the ‘caliphate’ period constitutes only a single phase in a protracted conflict, starting many years before al-Baghdadi’s ascent.  The next phase may already be in sight: ISIL’s devastating decade created tens of thousands of child victims, through their ethnic cleansing in Northern Iraq, and by drawing thousands of them into Syria accompanying FTF parents.  Many simply had the misfortune of being born into the temporary ‘caliphate’.

In prisons and IDP camps across North-Eastern Syria, tens of thousands of ISIL-affiliated men, women and children now remain without a clear path to justice or rehabilitation.  Progress on repatriation of FTFs to Europe remains slow, and even the accelerated returns to Iraq are insufficient to stop these facilities becoming focal points of radicalisation.

Many of these children are now traumatised and displaced across the region or struggling to be re-settled in their former communities.  The disruption to their physical and mental development and education, the legacy of violence within their families and their lack of legal status, makes reintegration into society, and their path towards a stable and secure future, incredibly difficult.  For many, they are one of multiple generations of cyclical conflict, having grown up in families with a history of sectarian and insurgent violence.

This July, Wilton Park will host a dialogue on the effects of conflict trauma on children and adolescents across the Middle East.  Innovative, interdisciplinary research can show us how the impact of trauma on the adolescent brain might make those affected more prone to these cycles of violence.  Our hope is that by studying examples of mental health and psycho-social interventions among these populations, we can learn how to prevent future violence, and further childhood trauma.   Without sufficient attention and resource for these programmes, and solutions for transitional justice and reconciliation at the national level, ISIL will remain a threat to the region and the world.

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