The self-proclaimed caliphate is over. But what about the thousands of fighters who still pledge allegiance to the terrorist group?
Scenes of jubilation in a city of ruins marked the fall of IS on 17 October 2017, as US-backed Kurdish and Arab militias celebrated their liberation of Raqqa after a bloody four-month battle.
Raqqa, in northern Syria, was the militant group's nominal capital, and one which they held for more than three years. Its fall is a hugely symbolic victory over the jihadis who ran the first reign of terror in the social media age.
Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force of Operation Inherent Resolve - the US-led coalition fighting IS - didn't hold back when he was asked about the prospect of victory following the successful Raqqa operation.
“Overall, ISIS is losing in every way," he told reporters.
"We’ve devastated their networks, targeted and eliminated their leaders at all levels. We’ve degraded their ability to finance their operations, cutting oil revenues by ninety per cent. Their flow of foreign recruits has gone from about fifteen hundred fighters a month down to near zero today. ISIS in Iraq and Syria are all but isolated in their quickly shrinking territory.”
But the celebrations on the ground have been tempered elsewhere.
“The capture of Raqqa by US-backed forces is the end of the Islamic State's caliphate but not the end of Islamic State,” Dr Lina Khatib, the Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London told SBS News.
That is because, Dr Khatib said, “IS militants and leaders remain at large and will likely transform the organisation into an insurgency similar to al-Qaeda to compensate for having lost territory.”
“As long as Syria has a regime that oppresses its own citizens, grievances that caused people to seek revenge on the state through collaborating with IS will continue," she said. "Paving the way for a resurgence of IS or groups like it in the future.”
“Eradicating IS is about more than military action alone; it is about addressing the political, social and economic root causes that led to its creation in the first place.”
Apocalyptic death cult or global insurgency?
The physical state, or caliphate, was a potent symbol of the rise of IS, for both its recruits and its enemies, but Deakin University professor Greg Barton, a terrorism expert, said the group's ambitions did not stop there.
“Islamic State was always planning to have a global insurgency. Some analysts would argue they never intended to hold the physical caliphate indefinitely in Mosul and Raqqa, they understood that was not possible. But the physical caliphate was a launching pad for a global insurgency which was always the long-term aim,” he told SBS News in the wake of the Barcelona terrorist attack in August.
Iraq declared victory over IS forces in Mosul in July 2017.
Understanding the terror group's ultimate aims have proved challenging for security forces, Professor Barton said.
“Islamic State is a strange amalgam, a strange hybrid. It’s partly an apocalyptic cult but it also has former Baathists [Arab nationalists] in Iraq who are cold, clear, clinical tacticians and strategists, military people, intelligence people. So... creating chaos and getting people to believe they're at the end of the world, that this is the great Armageddon struggle at the end of time, works to their ideological position.
“But strategically, the idea of luring a regional and western coalition into the Middle East to fight them and [fatigue] them is something that worked for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We don’t really know but it seems that there is a strategic purpose here beyond just some sort of mad apocalyptic cult element.”
The rise and collapse of the caliphate
IS, also known as Daesh, formed in Iraq in 2003 and re-emerged as a major threat in 2012 with its “breaking the walls” campaign that freed hundreds of imprisoned Sunni jihadis from earlier campaigns.
As Syria became engulfed in civil war, IS pushed into new battlefronts in Iraq. By the end of 2013, IS militants had taken control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi.
In early 2014, al-Qaeda cut ties with IS after it captured Raqqa and declared it the capital of the IS caliphate. Mosul in Iraq fell in early June 2014.
At its peak, thousands of foreign jihadis flowed in to fight for IS. It controlled territory housing 8 million civilians and was “routinely conducting torture and public executions to maintain control over the terrorized population”, as the US-led forces command put it.
As of October 2017, there were around 110 Australian fighters still in Syria and Iraq. Around 80 have been killed.
In August 2014 President Obama authorised the start of the US-led coalition airstrike campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria, Operation Inherent Resolve.
Middle East expert Dr Rodger Shanahan from the Lowy Institute in Sydney said that the highwater mark of IS’s power was the capture of Mosul and the twelve months following, as it unleashed a brutal and stunningly effective propaganda campaign marketing its atrocities, including the beheading of Christians, foreign journalists and aid workers.
Over the next year, IS-inspired or directed terrorist attacks left scores of people dead in countries including France, Libya, Egypt, Tunis, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Spain, the UK, the US and Australia, while the fighting continued in Iraq and Syria.
“The US had to retrain a whole raft of the Iraqi military that collapsed in the middle of 2014, before the momentum decisively shifted,” Dr Shanahan said. “Once it shifted it’s never gone back in Iraq. In
“Once it shifted it’s never gone back in Iraq. In Syria it’s more complicated because the landscape of armed elements is much more complex.”
Following the liberation of Raqqa, the Command Joint Task Force of the coalition forces acknowledged the ongoing fight in a sober statement.
“CJTF-OIR’s efforts to defeat Daesh have made significant progress but are not yet over, with an estimated 3,000 to 7,000 Daesh terrorists continuing to fight in Iraq and Syria. The liberation of Raqqa will be yet another milestone in our partners’ achievements, but there will be more work to do to defeat Daesh.”
The problem remains not just in Iraq and Syria. Data collected by the The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland shows IS remained a lethal force in Libya as well as Egypt and parts of Afghanistan in 2016.
IS in Southeast Asia?
Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop, speaking after the liberation of Raqqa, confirmed that the Australian Air Force played a supporting role in the operation and called it “a significant milestone in the fight against terrorism.”
But she pointed out that Australia’s mission was a contained one, and did not extend to navigating the broader quagmire of Syria.
“Our focus has been to defeat ISIS because that is in our national interest to prevent terrorism spreading from the Middle East to our part of the world,” she said.
Australia is more concerned about a resurgence of IS activity in its own neighbourhood and has provided limited military support to the Philippines, fighting IS forces in Malawi.
Dr Shanahan, for one, believes it is unlikely the Philippines will become a new hotspot for Middle-Eastern IS fighters who see Syria and Iraq as the historical heartland of the caliphate.
"If you’re a desert-dwelling Bedouin Islamic State fighter you’re not really going to want to hump your way to the southern Philippines to sit in the jungle with Filipino Muslims. I don’t think you’re going to get large outflow to those areas,” he said.
Not all IS leaders are dead, and it has demonstrated highly effective propaganda capacity, even if that is undermined by its territorial and military losses.
“You could argue that with social media, the ability to send out messaging that creates a narrative that attracts people to these causes is still alive and well,” Dr Shanahan said.
“In the broader scheme of things we’ll still continue to see some form of radical Islamist terrorism for some time to come... All the necessary conditions like poor governance, poor education, education systems not aligned with labour market requirements, and the identity issues that it's able to draw upon are still around, and will be for the foreseeable future.”