Collapsed caliphate? Understanding the Islamic State in 2020

 

Good afternoon and welcome. Thank you for joining us on this webinar on the Islamic State.

I am joined by four fabulous panelists whose expertise varies from Africa all the way to Southeast Asia.

We have two recent authors of a book the
isis reader along with the third
co-author
and cole bunzell joining us from
california just to introduce you briefly
to our panelists we have cole bunzell as
i mentioned who is a research fellow at
the hoover institution
and an editor of the blog jihadica he’s
currently working on
a book on the history and doctrine of
wahhabism emily estelle is a research
manager for the critical threats project
at aei
she’s a senior analyst and leads the
africa research team
and coordinates with the institute for
the study of war on the salafi jihadi
team
and then haro ingram is a senior
research fellow with the george
washington university’s
program on extremism he’s conducted
field research in the middle east south
asia and southeast asia and as i
mentioned is a co-author of the isis
reader along with craig whiteside
who is an associate professor at the
naval war college at the post-graduate
school
and is also a fellow at gw’s program on
extremism and at the international
center for counterterrorism at the hague
today if you are looking to submit
questions to our webinar please use the
hashtag
isis future and uh
email jaclyn dirks whose email you can
find on the event webpage that you
registered at
we are going to be discussing how the
islamic state came to be
how we should have understood the
organization based on its writings and
its statements
and what it has been doing on the ground
and then talking a little bit about
what’s coming next with the islamic
state
and whether the united states has
actually declared victory against this
organization
too soon so the big policy question that
we’re trying to answer
is whether we the united states and and
frankly the west
should be understanding this group a
little bit differently in terms of what
victory against it means
uh when we’re trying to decide what
resources we should be putting against
it so six years ago around this time abu
bakr al-baghdadi delivered his first
sermon
as caliph in the newly minted islamic
state we now have a new caliph in place
uh he has taken the the robe of baghdadi
though he is much less
visible as a leader and people talk
about that as a vulnerability today
and when we’re talking about the islamic
state it actually stretches now across
the muslim world
a far change from what it was in 2013
when the islamic state was first
declared
and even a greater geographic expanse
than the islamic state had at the height
of its power
in 15 and 16.
the challenge that we’re facing is the
u.s and the west are looking to draw
down on counterterrorism against the
islamic state and there’s
certainly a shift in the american
military posture and the posture of our
partners abroad
along with the resources that we’re
dedicating to this problem
meanwhile the islamic state talks about
its victory much different
differently than we do and when members
of the islamic state talk about victory
they either talk about achieving their
their goals or dying
that’s very very different from from
what the united states says where we’re
looking to simply
defeat the threat from it from the
organization and then
preserve our resources and move on to
the next problem
so i wanted to start actually with with
cole here
and ask him to set the scene for us
because the islamic state
didn’t simply arrive in 2013 or 2014
when the rest of the world started
paying attention
um or even in 2003 when al qaeda in iraq
began to operate um cole you’ve written
at length about the ideological
underpinnings of
of the group the islamic state and also
of the broader salafi-jihadi movement
where does the islamic state come from
and what makes it so different
hi katie and thanks for having us um
so i think they’re kind of two ways to
look at the history of the islamic state
there’s an organizational level and an
ideological level so
organizationally the islamic state
traces its own history and this is
in its own discourse back to october
2006
when it declared the founding of what
was known as the islamic
state of iraq
which was founded by both al qaeda in
iraq the group at the time that was led
by
abu musab actually muslims kawaii had
just recently died
and a number of other jihadi groups so
when you listen to these speeches of the
islamic state’s leaders
and you read their their media outlets
they often talk about their history
going back
uh to 2006. and even though a lot of
western analysts and middle eastern
analysts tended to refer to the islamic
state of iraq by the
name al-qaeda in iraq uh in fact the
group
according to its own messaging had
deemed al-qaeda in iraq to have
disappeared beginning in
october 2006 having been replaced by the
islamic state of iraq which was
as it put it a kind of state hood
project
and it also had at the very beginning uh
this anticipation to become
the caliphate it cast itself as the
colonel of a future caliphate that would
ultimately expand and dominate
across the globe although that was a
very delayed expansion
when the islamic state of iraq expanded
into syria as they
understood it to have happened in april
2013
of becoming isis that was sort of the
fulfillment of the original
idea behind the islamic state of iraq
and then when they declared the
caliphate in
june 2014 a year later that was the
further fulfillment of the original
mission
to become the caliphate so that is sort
of
one way to look at the history the other
way is uh with regard to ideology and
in my opinion the um the man who was
sort of the ideological forebear of
the islamic state was abu musab zarqawi
who was the jordanian jihadi leader
of al-qaeda in iraq he represented a
more severe
more hard-line version of sunni jihadism
or what we call
jihadi-salafism or sadafi jihadism it’s
a movement this is a movement that
admits of a range of theological
ideological tendencies and he
represented the most
severe the most unforgiving version of
it so for example
um he he believed that the shia were not
muslims
whereas the leader of al qaeda told him
no they actually are muslims who are to
be excused on the basis of ignorance
and and these sort of of differences so
he
in um kind of articulating a more
um theologically exclusivist version of
jihadism he hearkened back to the
wahhabi tradition in saudi arabia as it
was originally
kind of marketed in the 18th century
which was very focused on the doctrine
of techfear excommunication
and kind of forming a very small tent of
muslims whereas al qaeda
has especially recently been been kind
of selling itself
as a pan-islamist group that believes in
a big ten jihadism where just you know
all kinds of groups can be
um can be admitted including the muslim
brotherhood for instance whose
leaders it has celebrated um
so that’s that’s the main element i
think of its ideology is the theological
exclusivism that sets it apart from
al-qaeda but there’s also
i think he alluded to this the the
barbarity and the extreme violence
of the group that’s also something that
differentiates it from al qaeda
um and that was all a method i believe
that was pioneered by
zarqawi as well who appeared in in a
video beheading an american journalist
so he he pioneered a lot of this uh
emphasis on
gruesome videos something that al qaeda
has dismissed as a kind of
hollywoodization
of of jihad and then thirdly the
real pillar that has emerged in the
ideology
of the islamic state is the islamic
state itself the idea that it is the
caliph
the caliphate and that all other
organizations jihadi organizations are
are invalid and that all muslims are
obliged to
to pledge fealty or baia to the group
so you bring all those things together
you have a kind of theological
exclusivism and an organizational
exclusivism and that’s how you get isis
thank you and you know just to follow up
briefly i think
you know you know this well but just for
for the public that’s listening
um you know when you’re talking about
the ideology
we we refer to the islamic state as
being more extreme more radical
than al qaeda but in framing it that way
it tends to make al qaeda seem more
moderate
um but from my understanding especially
from from your work they are
aiming at the same same goals right
yeah when i say that al qaeda is
relatively moderate it’s not to say that
they’re
better um they’re just is evil and in
fact it could be
you know a greater threat by being say
less extreme with regard to theological
differences between sunni and shia
so these are you know terms and i borrow
these terms also from their own
discourse they use words like
extremism um and harajuism to to define
and differentiate themselves so
um yeah it’s no credit to al qaeda to be
a little bit to the left of
isis super so harare
cola has laid out kind of the the
ideological underpinnings
uh that have differentiated the islamic
state from al qaeda and from the rest of
the salafi-jihadi movement
writ large um and from your research
uh i know that you know this well but
how did the group start to
operationalize its ideology
and what made it become so successful so
quickly
and then you know how are you seeing the
group talk about it successes and
failures
sure well um yeah again you know thank
you for the opportunity
to speak to all today and look there is
a there’s a range of ways i guess that
uh we can kind of try to answer uh that
that
that question and you know you speak
different people with different kind of
perspectives that they’re going to
provide a different angle to this and i
guess
from from from my perspective and
perspective that we took
for the isis reader there’s really
something to this movement’s
culture and its strategic kind of
practice
that i think is really important
are largely abstract kind of ideas and
notions
in the ideological kind of just
credential kind of realm
and the kind of things that you’re going
to need to do on a day-to-day act
on a day basis to try to achieve that
and kind of bring them together and this
is where
that strategic mechanism um is is really
important and i guess what we’ve kind of
traced and we really like to trace this
um
with with the book was how this
how strategic practice evolved
over a period of decades how that feud
fueled the kind of a strategic culture
uh within the movement that is how
individuals and how teams approach these
questions
and it kind of gets you kind of stuck
into this loop really that that
that the culture helps to inform the
practice but the practice helps to
reinform
um inform the strategic culture
that that emerges how do we take
these high abstract ideas
and with actions and messaging that we
engage in
in the short to medium term to try and
achieve these larger
these larger goals and i think that that
mix of um
strategic culture and practice um is
really important so kind of broadly
what’s kind of characterized
uh at this within the islamic state
well obviously um the the kind of
concepts which
are really important there’s also this
this idea
is this idea of methodology for
achieving that that is really central to
how it thinks about strategy how it kind
of
calibrates and steadies the ship through
through the tough times and then kind of
looks
to take advantage um during those
periods those very fleeting short
periods of
success and so what what
what we noticed um throughout kind of
kind of
tracking tracking this tracking this
movement
um from from the 90s is
just they are surprisingly frank about
how they assess
not only their capabilities and capacity
but
also uh that of their adversaries
um they’re surprisingly self-critical
um i say surprising because it’s kind of
a weird bar to kind of use but
you may not really expect them critical
and reflective
um at times particularly when times are
bad as
as they are they demonstrate
a relatively methodical approach to
assessing risk and threat but also
the environment different players
in this context how do we use both
violence and brutality
that is timed and decisive but also how
we use politics
top-down politics how do we reach out to
um um local leaders um local tribal
leaders
um in the case of i’ve seen in in
southeast asia leading um reaching out
to business leaders either
how do we use governance in in a
bottom-up kind of sense
um how do we exploit uh vulnerabilities
and leaders and those and those levers
but how do we also
assess our strengths compared to our
adversary strengths
um there also appears to be this real
appreciation
not just for um tactical and operational
aims and even strategic aims in
a strict sense but also the way that
actions and messaging can be calibrated
in
such a way to change the conditions
to contain to change the conditions
within which the group is seeking to
operate and i think this is really
important
it’s really important to understand that
they don’t
kind of have this idea of this pursuit
of
say perfection in operations or
perfection in strategy but rather
that we need to despite the rhetoric um
but
that we need to out-compete our
adversaries and so
as we track the movement um through
through the book
you know this this emerges is quite
clear it’s hard to avoid when you look
at for example their internal doctrine
and communicators
you look at zakawi’s letter to al-qaeda
leadership that was captured in january
2004.
you know you see this surprising degree
of patience you see this appreciation
either directly from him or him and his
inner circle
that a window was closing that there was
this opportunity and it needed to be
exploited
in a timely and decisive fashion um
uh you you see an appreciation
in that letter for the role that
messaging plays to amplify actions but
also to nullify
the effects of adversaries
advice for the leaders and commanders
and soldiers of the islamic state
um a 2007 or eight document you see
there an appreciation for how strategy
can’t just be this thing that leaders
talk about that command talks about
it’s got to go all the way down to your
people on the ground
it has to be operationalized in a very
tangible um
real kind of sense that root to fruit
kind of idea
the fallujah memorandum is a great
example really a blueprint document for
how
how the movement is to re-emerge again
um the speech is by its leaders
um you know we feature a lot of these
speeches in those speeches
you you see the way that strategic
culture and practice
it isn’t just implied and hinted to it’s
kind of demonstrated in the way that the
group tries to
inform its audiences you know whether
it’s baghdadi’s declaration
um that the group had moved into um
syria whether it’s adnani’s
um that they live by proof which
essentially defines how the group
thinks about success and success and
failure
um or even baghdadi’s final
final speech where you know this was a
lot more than just a proof of life video
this was the proof of
engagement it was a proof of of his
awareness it was a proof of his
um of of his kind of strategic thinking
now
i don’t want this to be misconstrued in
any way
you know uh these aren’t strategic
geniuses
as we say quite a bit they’re strategic
plagiarists
um you know they are far from perfect
they make mistakes they are hypocrites
and perhaps later on we can talk about
how we can be much better at exploiting
those weaknesses
but but i really think it’s it’s it’s
important for us to
think about the way that strategic
practice
and the culture around that practice has
evolved over time and how important it’s
been
for for turning abstract ideas and
concepts
um in into reality
thank you i think that’s fascinating to
think about um especially
as we’re looking at um kind of what’s
coming next
so um harare you mentioned this in your
remarks just now but the fallujah memo
you know i i read craig in your book
along with i guess charlie winter was
also a co-author with it
um but the fallujah memo is is a
document that really
stood out to me as an analyst because
when i read through it and having now
um you know i’ve got 2020 hindsight
right and you see
the islamic state literally talk about
its strategy for the upcoming phased
campaign
uh and it played it out very very uh
closely to what it had said it was going
to do and so
you know craig i understand that the
premise of the reader
the isis reader is really to kind of
take a step back and try to understand
the islamic state as an organization
through its own words
the same way that we’ve seen individuals
try to go back and look at al qaeda and
what it has been trying to achieve
through the statements of its leaders
uh the three of you tried to pull
together the same sort of compendium for
the islamic state um and you know the
collusion memo was written you’re going
to correct me about 2008 or 2009
and posted on a jihadi forum and you
know i
hadn’t heard of it until i had seen it
posted or published in your book
um you know should the united states
have taken that sort of framing more
seriously
and what does that mean for some of the
discussion and statements that we’re
seeing today that we’re so
ready to dismiss saying that you know
the islamic state or other groups like
it don’t have the capabilities to
achieve that
but they’ve laid out a strategic vision
and plan to do so
craig do you want to unmute yourself
it had to happen thank you sorry of
course uh
so the flush of memorandum is is is a
good reflection of
of uh what herrera was talking about
about that strategic culture that
evolves and
you’re right it’s easy now in hindsight
to look at this document and say well
they you know they
actually had a plan um i’ll i’ll start
my thoughts on this on this document and
an isis reader
with our perceptions right um the the
period of 2008 that 13 is really ignored
uh by
by a lot of scholars books on the on the
movement’s history it kind of jumped
from zark
cowie all the way to you know 2013 and
the caliphate
and um you know i’d say with the
exception of maybe brian fishman who was
writing articles at the time saying you
know the attack data still says
there’s a viable insurgency going on in
iraq and it’s the islamic state of iraq
and it looks like
they’re at least at some kind of uh you
know status
quo or some kind of status level
um you know my own experiences as a
practitioner before i became an academic
i was
helping tribal awakening units defeat al
qaeda in iraq
actually the islamic state of iraq is
cole mentioned by 2007
and you know what i what i realized
reflecting back on my own experience is
that
these were really fractured tribes that
were
aligned with resistance groups that were
turning against
al qaeda but mostly because they feared
its power it was a really
tenuous alliance so it didn’t seem like
it had a lot of
staying power and when you look at how
the u.s military looked at these
particular tribal awakening units during
the surge
it was certainly a means to their own
ends but not necessarily a lot of
concern of what would happen to them
after the u.s
kind of transitioned out which it really
shortly starts to do
at least in a combat role um
so there’s a lack of curiosity of what
happens with sunni politics with the
iraqi islamic party which this
fellowship memorandum document
talks quite a bit about them being a
primary rival
and someone that the the islamic state’s
quite fearful of
uh as well as the other resistance
groups and and
you know our mistakes on analyzing this
stuff really do start in 2008 not
not after that um in the in the interim
i’ve studied
the uh islamic state of iraq’s
counter saw or tribal awakening
assassination campaigns
done some research on that to understand
what they were trying to do
they’re trying to win according to the
floating around they’re trying to win
the tribes over but at the same time
they have a pretty
discriminate assassination campaign
against tribal leaders that won’t work
with them
i’ve also studied their propaganda
campaign and look well how do they
message the fact that they’re attacking
sunni iraqis more
than they are shi iraqis during this
particular time period
and all of this is late the rationale
for it is laid out
in in the fellowship memorandum um
so when you look at when you look at the
the fallujah memorandum it starts with
politics which is
that the islamic states got to work
harder do better
to uh kind of unify the sunni resistance
against the iraqi government especially
many of their rivals who haven’t stopped
fighting the government
they might have stopped fighting the
coalition but they weren’t they weren’t
ready to
really um you know join the government
in any fashion and that
that space there which you could argue
could still exist today
is where the islamic state was able to
make a lot of headway in iraq
um and even though they are more
successful in syria
uh in 2013 it’s it’s
that kind of fools people to think that
you know the group didn’t exist in iraq
and they went to syria and they got
strong and then they came back to iraq
which i don’t
the attack data the activities the the
fallujah memorandum all of these
documents
kind of triangulate to tell us that
there’s a picture out there that we
still
really as researchers and analysts
should should pay more attention to
really
really get back into it it’s this it’s
this focus on politics
and to me it’s not even simply the
sectarian
aspects are angles but it’s it’s also
uh the fact of what is the political
objective of the islamic state it’s to
carve out a separatist state
and there are there’s a lot of support
for that from
certain iraqis who are not interested in
reconciling with the government
and that’s something we we need to pay
attention today and documents like
fallujah memorandum can help us with
that
so just to circle back on that you know
the
we are talking at ai which is a public
policy institute
and you know i think what i’m hearing
from you is that the islamic state
recognized the friction between um
some of the military actions the united
states was taking and the political gaps
that we had that
and this tracks a little bit with our
policy that we’re we’re in there and
assisting militarily with security
forces and security assistance
um but the local politics the regional
politics you know the united states has
been very hands-off
because it’s fundamentally not our
problem and
is that problematic in how the us is
framing it should we be more involved
should we
um be trying to tie our security
assistance much more to a political end
state or at least conditions
you know i think it’s uh it’s a serial
problem uh
from a strategic cultural perspective
it’s a serial problem of the united
states that we
we focus not overly on the military
aspect these are military
problems but then once we’ve used our
substantial power to
create opportunity for something else to
happen that’s not militarily
we really don’t have uh
an understanding of how that operates or
that it’s even or who should be doing
that and so until we figure that out and
it goes back to even larger issues
larger than jihadism
the the nature of this uh the strategic
dilemma the united states has which is
we don’t want to focus
a lot of our power on main you know
containing these these particular groups
we want to focus them on great power
competition
but if we don’t if we don’t learn from
this
experience with dealing with really
smaller threats we’re going to have a
lot of trouble when we
try to work with friendly countries or
partners that are looking for us
military assistance or security
assistance
or training and um we’re oblivious to
the politics of why they might
want it or what it will do for them and
and that it’s going to apply to great
power competition just like it does in
how do we prevent yet another iteration
of the islamic state so i think
i think you’re exactly right super so
that leads me to
to emily whose research focuses on
africa and when
um the islamic state’s predecessor
al-qaeda in iraq was defeated
back in 2007 eight nine time frame
there wasn’t really another part of it
that was
strong but this time around when the
united states
and its partners particularly the iraqis
and then the
um the syrian defense forces and the
kurds uh defeated the islamic state in
iraq and syria
the islamic state had branches elsewhere
and the strongest ones were in africa
and so we saw
a shift uh from from both the islamic
state in terms of its emphasis
on its african branches and also frankly
um
from the rest of the world as we’re
looking to defeat the islamic state
and looking at the african branches um
how did the islamic state
discuss the african theaters before 2018
2019 when it was defeated
and then how is it talking about them
now what is it doing now inside of
africa
thanks katie i appreciate the
opportunity to talk about the
uh africa perspective on the islamic
state and i think
africa and the other more external
theaters that outside of iraq and syria
can be an interesting prism for looking
at you know how isis’s strategic culture
plays out in different contexts how
things change as you get further away
from the core
um one useful way to look at isis in
africa is to think about
its relationship to isis’s overarching
goals around legitimacy and
um africa has been a place for isis to
demonstrate the effectiveness and the
attractiveness of its brand within the
salafi jihadi movement
to try and build some resilience against
its losses elsewhere
and also to challenge al qaeda so
referring back to what cole talked about
a bit
the relationship between isis and al
qaeda
in competition to be the vanguard of the
global salafi jihadi movement
so going back before 2018 2019
when isis was reaching its peak at least
in this
iteration of isis so looking at 2014
you started to see the presence in
africa as
isis was trying to move from from being
focused in iraq and syria to being more
global so after the announcement of the
caliphate in the middle of 2014 and then
to the end of that year um and late 2014
was when
isis started to accept the pledges of
bayat
from external branches so a few of those
were in africa and then they kind of
added some over the years
since then um there is a spectrum of
investment you know
how much isis core was interested in
giving a lot of resources or leadership
or guidance
to these branches at that point so
2014 through 2016 uh the highest level
of investment went to the branch in
libya which became
the group’s more famous african branch
at that time
um so taking us back to 2015 um
isis was controlling a city in libya
that they marketed as the third capital
of the caliphate alongside raqqa and
mosul so that was a big elevation
for one of their peripheral branches and
it was discussed
so the libyan city of cert that isis
controlled at the time was discussed as
a fallback
option um for potential loss of of mosul
or of raqqa
at the time and especially in hindsight
that was an overstatement
of how realistic it was that the isis
project in iraq and syria could really
fall back
um to libya for reasons of of
distance and different conditions and
all sorts of things
but the idea of a fallback option was
rendered moot pretty quickly
um in by end of 2016 when isis lost
the the city in libya and since then
there’s been a decreased emphasis in
isis media on
on libya which had been a focus um
broadening out a little bit i also look
at at africa as a theater for
competition between
isis and al qaeda so if you look at
where isis established
affiliates it naturally followed from
where there was already a salafi-jihadi
presence and they had a
mixed record of success with trying to
build up affiliates or wind affections
from
al-qaeda groups um one challenge that
isis has faced in in the african space
is that the stronger of the al-qaeda
affiliates
so al-qaeda and the islamic maghreb aqim
in north and west africa and al-shabab
and somalia
were resistant to changing teams
essentially so
isis was able to get some splinter
groups on onto its side but didn’t
have move the bigger affiliates over
um even with that limitation though
um isis was able to kind of proliferate
affiliates across africa that really
amplified its
its appearance of strength at the time
um
playing the clock forward a couple years
um
it’s it’s interesting to see you know
which of those affiliates
have withered and which have have
strengthened so for example the
algerian branch has almost stopped all
activity where the branch in the sahel
in mali has gotten increasingly active
so some of the seeds that that ice has
planted have flourished and others have
not
looking at the situation 2018 to now
um isis has started to use its african
branches as a counterweight to its
losses elsewhere
and has also started to renew even just
in the last couple of months
an emphasis on competing with al qaeda
in africa
so on the first point there’s a lot of
media production coming out of
isis’s african branches especially the
west african branches that are
are very active um it’s interesting to
see
actually the isis reader book talks
about baghdadi’s speech
uh in april 2019 when he
actually spoke in a fair bit of detail
about the isis leader in the sahel and
about the libya group
um and he was demonstrating that he was
still connected and leading actively but
that was also a big elevation for
how much you hear about those groups in
isis media
um african african affiliates of isis
have continued to participate
in coordinated media campaigns so this
past ramadan they were joining in
um a campaign called the battle of
attrition that isis claimed
has claimed for the last few years um
and last summer
isis announced a new province in africa
the central africa
province which includes fighters in
mozambique and the drc which was
a way of taking local groups that
had had pledged and using them to show
continued expansion remaining and
expansion on isis part
i can i might talk more about mozambique
later but it’s an interesting case where
there’s an isis affiliate that’s
actually following
what appears to be some of the group’s
older methodology and appears to be
having some success starting
to contest control of of cities and
towns
um the other major piece to watch right
now
is the fighting between isis and
al-qaeda militants
al-qaeda linked militants in the sahel
so there’s the aqim affiliate there’s
the isis affiliate
they’ve cooperated in the past and have
actually been pretty closely related but
the last several months there’s been a
lot of sustained fighting between those
groups
and that’s reflected in isis media too
so a recent statement from the
isis spokesman focused on revenge
against al qaeda in
in mali and the reasons for that range
from local territorial
disagreements to the bigger issue of
isis and al-qaeda’s competition
so um the al-qaeda group in that area is
trying to
pursue a model that al-qaeda is pursuing
elsewhere in part um
mimicking the taliban deal in
afghanistan that’s a problem for isis
if you know as its model appears to be
declining with the loss of the
territorial caliphate
if the al-qaeda model is rising and so
africa is one place where that dynamic
is playing out
leading to more emphasis on isis’s part
on africa than we had seen previously at
the same time
some of the isis groups in west africa
are also starting to adopt more of the
brutality in attacks and in media that’s
associated with isis
as far as isis being kind of the more
extreme
[Music]
of you know among the extremist groups
so that theater of west africa is going
to continue to be important among
the different places where isis and
al-qaeda can compete as they enter
the next phase of leadership of the
global salafi jihadi movement
thanks so her i know your research has
been in southeast asia as well
and when the islamic state took over
mindanao and philippines that was front
page news but now i don’t hear about it
at all
um are you seeing islamic state
attention to
its branches out in southeast asia
or you know what what are you seeing is
the islamic state actually declining
globally or is it just in iraq and syria
where we’ve seen the pressure militarily
where it’s declined
yeah well so so many of the dynamics
that emily has kind of spoken about
there
you know i’ve i’ve seen kind of
uh to varying degrees um over in
southeast asia in the philippines so and
in the philippines in particular uh
where i spend most of my time i mean
until
code is kind of traveling there every
every six
months or so and um just a
little bit of background um i don’t
publish it all on the work that i do
over there
and um but most work is focused on
capacity building
um uh working in in communities so i’ve
been traveling there since 2017
spent a lot of time in places like um
illigand
and cotabato over in zamboanga uh these
are these three
really crucial channels of pro-islamic
state group activity
in india and so you have through that
sula archipelago
um that kind of those who kind of
were aligned with the aspf
and the reason i provide that background
is
because from a distance people kind of
saw marawi
and they saw it as isis central
reaching out into into asia that was
part of this global expansion you know
there’s almost this imperial power that
was kind of moving around the world
that i have a lot of a lot of these
dynamics is very much from a local
perspective um just given the time that
i’ve um spent there
and from a local perspective uh this was
very much seen
as a kind of a
locally generated bottom-up exploitation
of something that was going on over
there that the mountain haplon
we’re taking advantage of and
it continues an ongoing kind of peace
process uh in mindanao
that these were these young upstarts
trying to
um offer an alternative to
the frankly very elderly uh leadership
of the old revolutionary groups um
over that way that they were exploiting
um organizational fractures
that those old allegiances and pledges
to
to aq for example in natural archipelago
that this was a way for young
up-and-comers to kind of distinguish
themselves from
from the um from that older school
and so from the locals perspective it
was seen very much as kind of a
a locally generated phenomenon that was
that was actually exploiting
um larger um um transnational
kind of dynamics now the reason why i
think this is so important
is because the way that we
understand this phenomenon and the way
that we think about
on how to support our um
our partners in different regions has to
reflect that reality
it’s it’s it’s it has to acknowledge um
these local dynamics um
and kind of see that there is a
bottom-up and a top-down
um interplay that that’s really
important here
moving forward uh this is a relatively
new issue for the islamic state to deal
with
that is managing its
transnational kind of network and
it’s new for islamic state and happens
to be new for strategic policy and
academic
thinkers as well and i suspect that um
that there are a lot of kind of errors
and missteps in the way that
um the field had thought about
al qaeda in this regard and i would hope
that we can kind of
reflect on some of those lessons some of
the things that i think were misdirected
and and and not just kind of um lazily
apply the aq template to what
isis is trying to do in a transnational
sense but at the same time
not necessarily take isis history and
use that as a template
for how it is going to try to manage
this
this this transnational network given
where the group is at given the problems
that
it has had um it’s global network
it gives it a lot of opportunities but
there is a lot of risks and from a
policy
strategy perspective we’ve got to work
out ways to maximize those risks
and undermine those opportunities for it
and not necessarily as a one-way kind of
street
thank you cole as we’re looking at the
islamic state going global and and
developing much more
local routes there inevitably introduces
the problem of the ideology and
ideological
purity if you will um you wrote recently
about how
some of the idiot ideological challenges
within the group
actually weakened it and so i’m
wondering whether if you’re looking
ahead
um how is the islamic state going to
deal with
you know preserving its own ideological
standing
as it expands into a broader movement
both globally and deeper into
populations
yeah so it’s interesting because um the
way i see it the islamic states actually
become
more kind of ideologically purist than
it has been
in the past i think you talked to me
over email about um
the the period of uncertainty and
turmoil
from sort of 2007 to 2011 having
radicalized
uh the group ideologically and i think
that’s pretty much true and when the
when the split came with al qaeda in
2013 2014 i think a lot of that just
sort of opened the floodgates to
uh to ideological um extremism so you
saw for the first time
um the islamic state declaring that the
taliban was a group of unbelievers where
before it had been
something that was celebrated as a good
jihadi movement even by zarqawi by the
way so there are differences even
between
isis kind of 2014 2013 onwards and
zarqawi
it’s become more extreme and beginning
in 2016 2017
when the islamic state began to kind of
decline territorially in iraq and syria
i think that that exacerbated a lot of
internal tensions in the group
and one of those had to do with ideology
particularly this doctrine of tech fear
or excommunication which stipulates that
true believers
must as a rule pronounce tech fear on
those considered unbelievers and that
those who fail to do so are themselves
to be
pronounced as unbelievers which it
sounds a lot better in arabic i promise
so basically the scholarly class in the
islamic state tried to
introduce a more nuanced position on
this so that people like
hyman zawahiri leader of al qaeda um
could be understood as muslims and those
failing to pronounce tech fear on
zwahiri were not themselves to be
labeled unbelievers
what happened though eventually is that
um though there was a kind of back and
forth and a push-in and pull
the the scholars lost and they were
either killed
or they left the group of their own
volition and they try to make some noise
but
ultimately they’re not that i think
influential today in the group
uh so the people who are left the
remnant in the islamic state are very
much the most ideologically extreme
and that probably will have
ramifications for for the future
of the movement i’m not exactly sure how
it would seem that if it’s going to
appeal less broadly it’s going to appear
more narrowly to the most extreme type
of salafi muslim
in the world that that would kind of
hurt its appeal
on the other hand i see a lot of kind of
whispering in the in the jihadi
world that isis is actually becoming
more popular
and that groups like al qaeda are fading
in popularity and so
kind of the most extreme version of
jihadism is
is on the up and up so i i don’t see any
reason to be
um to be happy about that um but it will
possibly limit its appeal among
a kind of more nuanced thoughtful
uh sort of um potential recruit
thank you um so in the interest of time
i think we’re going to
to open up a little bit to questions and
we’ve got um
a couple now from jeff selden who is the
national security correspondent with voa
news
um and jeff has a series of questions
and i’ll open them up to the panel so
you can jump on these but i i think
craig might be best positioned to answer
most
um and the first one is
uh both about the iraqi military and the
sdf
um which have been conducting a steady
stream of operations against islamic
state sales and operatives
uh are these operations impactful
um given the u.s estimates that the
islamic state still has between fourteen
thousand and eighteen thousand fighters
inside of iraq and syria how much do we
worry about the women and children
in places like our whole and the the
camps
um where um we have kind of large
clusters of true believers being kept
together
and and then i’ll follow up with the
last question
yeah i’ll jump in on the first part
which is the military operations
i think you know they look like they’re
making an impact
uh it seems a little belated because
we’ve seen a slight rise
in active isis activity in syria
in iraq so it’s a little reactionary and
i think
uh i’m sure that it’s
it’s going to be effective in containing
the group
but certainly it’s not going to do
what some people might hope that it’s
gonna you know
gonna destroy the organization it’s
gonna eliminate it that’s that’s just
not gonna happen at this point one
because they’ve routinized over time
they’ve become
a very they’ve they’ve really got their
organizational practices down
through this ebb and flow that we
discussed in the book their leadership
succession has gone on flawlessly
they’ve managed to hold on to these
affiliates outside which helps
give them some legitimacy in inside in
iraq and syria that that everyone hasn’t
abandoned them
and then finally they transitioned to to
this kind of uniform insurgency a lot
earlier than we understood
and we were focused on the reduction of
the caliphate for political objectives
correctly
but um we’ve got to be able to do two
things at once which is reduce the
caliphate while you’re
also preventing them from reseeding an
insurgency which we
we kind of it seems like they were
successful
in in retrospect it seems like they were
successful in doing right
in pushing cashiers out and re-seating
important people in important places
and being able to now restructure on the
fly
this organization to continue the fight
which is
what all good insurgents do not not all
insurgents but good insurgents
figure out a way to perpetuate the fight
until
the political contradictions in the
societies and regions around them
collapse on themselves so this is these
operations that jeff
is you know he covers these pretty
regularly and they’re
they’re they’re they’re producing
results but they’re not going to be
they’re not going to be at the end you
know substantial enough to do
what we we want them to do again it’s
the question is going to be the politics
and then taking his second question and
and putting it out to all of you
um can you talk about the islamic
state’s legacy so
i think that we’ve got a pretty good
picture of the world right now uh on
this panel so
what is the islamic state’s legacy um
has it scarred the region
sufficiently so it’s difficult if not
impossible to move the region beyond the
radicalism and violence
and whether it’s under the islamic state
or something else
and so just talking about how the
islamic state has
going back to harare’s point the
beginning actually started to shape the
environment and change the conditions
what’s what is it left behind and what
do you see going forward
why don’t we start with emily and then
harara and begin with craig nicole
sure um look i i looking at the
questions i think
there are a couple interrelated things
one piece
on isis’s relative brutality and
the way it’s kind of playing out in
competition with al qaeda i think it’s
most likely that
what isis does in in west africa in
particular is
cause that kind of burst of activity
initially but then
ultimately help legitimize al qaeda as
the relatively more moderate
alternative and i’m extra concerned
about that basically because
the al-qaeda groups are are exploiting
they’re kind of in a niche between two
extremes now there’s
a government that seems or multiple
governments seen as as ineffective in
local community
dynamics that the group kind of tries to
present themselves as solving
um and then if you have isis moving to
the far side seeing as more brutal
um i’m concerned about in the longer
term
you know large swaths of both eastern
and western africa where
telefiji haiti groups are effectively
governing and putting their their model
in place at a level that falls a bit
below
western policy attention but also serves
as
a base for um the components of the
selefijihadi movement that do seek
to attack externally as well so i’m
worried about that longer term and to
the question that jeff also asked about
women and children i think there’s a
generational concern
about communities that are growing up
under
like with salafi-jihadi governance as
the model and the problem-solving
mechanism
and so i think we have to start getting
our heads around like the long-term
implication
of that as the model that has become
familiar through the work of these
groups to exploit
the breakdown in local societies
yeah i mean there’s a tendency i think
for people to kind of
saying as craig will um
uh well i’m sure i’d be happy to uh
mention
uh you know as they did in say 2008
789 to say oh look they’re too extreme
they’re too brutal they failed too much
never again you know that that this this
movement doesn’t have a
this movement doesn’t have a chance look
at what happened in 2014 15 16 17
it’s just not going to happen again well
um those people are in for a really
nasty surprise
because this is a movement that has
that that i think what’s really crucial
here is that
is this idea of competition and this
idea of understanding that
there isn’t some perfect strategy
this isn’t some idealized perfection
that
needs to be reached you’ve just got to
out compete your competition
and because of all the dynamics which
emily craig and paul have spoken about
throughout this
throughout today’s panel um because of
so many of those
um dynamics and frankly the failure of
the islamic state’s adversaries
perhaps particularly um those of us in
the in in the west to continue
the suppose the non-violent fight the
political and the governance
um struggle um but also the the
complex equally important psychological
and social
um um struggle after the fight uh
it creates room for this movement to
to settle itself once again and to
and and to exploit
they’re very very clear really in their
definition of success
and it is a commitment to the manhattan
it’s a commitment to
this ongoing um struggle and application
you know and
at least in his final speech was very
very clear about that
so do you really think that you defeated
us
when you pushed us out about a decade
ago
do you think you’re going to defeat us
again when you push us out of these
cities and back into the deserts again
and you pursue us again again i don’t
want to sound like an isis propagandist
but the answer that question
as far as that nani was concerned was no
um because we will remain committed
and so what happens is is that the group
tends to
re-emerge where it emerged previously
that those same communities it it it
re-emerges
again now there’s very obvious human
strategic reasons for that they know
that their networks are embedded in
there they know the streets they can
um apply opera their operations with
more confidence just
because you know the you know the area
but i also think it’s important to
recognize that
um there’s a nostalgia lever that
the group kind of pulls um
when we and when our partners fail
in the post-fight struggle the political
and the governance um um in the
political and governance theaters
and so it ends up kind of rewriting
this history which again was brutal and
and horrible and
violent um but through messaging and
through those activities through
building those networks again
they reshaped the way the population
thought about that time i mean i i saw
this in
marawi months after the siege had ended
already there were these narratives
about oh imagine if we had been
successful imagine
imagine this imagine that and as the
development
inevitably fails the reconstruction
rehabilitation
fails that messaging um continues to
to gain resonance and then it’s
reinforced by action
and before you know it um we find
ourselves
in in this same position again
craig do you have a quick reaction
real quick cause i know we’re short on
time and i’d rather listen to cole who’s
who’s pretty smart on all this stuff
plus he’s got that key to
kind of whether i think you know based
on his past comments well you know the
future
of this movement going forward is really
dependent a lot of times on their own
their own issues their own baggage so
um i would offer that be happy to answer
a lot of the great questions that i
that i saw on the chat on on your tag
on your offer to continue the discussion
on twitter so i’d be happy to
to jump in and answer some of those
questions if you if you’d like to engage
in that way
um you know the the thing i’ve gotten
wrong about this group
in in a lot of my research is is how
politically astute they are and and
politically it’s not it’s not a way
people want to look at this group a lot
of times they look at it
from a terror perspective or military or
governance or whatever
oh sharia the the
the interesting thing the interest what
i’d look really careful at
is how how do they scoop up the remnants
of groups that are failing in syria
and iraq let’s say tribal militias that
are no longer of any use to the iraqi
government that’s happened before
uh who are working in hashtag or
something like that
they are pros at picking up these cast
offs and then reincorporating them which
shows a level of pragmatism because
these people do not pass any kind of
ideological tests usually
so that goes back to to cole’s point
right is if they can
they can maintain you know bite their
lip which is what i’ve seen them do in
the past bite their lip and be pragmatic
and expand
then they can be more successful in the
future if they can’t if they’re
if they gets locked in the ideological
box as cole talked about
they’re done so i’ll pass it off to cool
but i will definitely
engage on twitter with all of these
great questions that came up that we
just didn’t have time for
call thoughts uh yeah i just wanted to
uh address something i think jeff seldon
mentioned about
whether isis has scarred the region
sufficiently to kind of forestall a
comeback
i think it’s worth bearing in mind it
isis isn’t the only group
in the region that’s kind of brutalizing
the populations so i think a lot of the
particularly uh the sunnis in in iraq
they see the
hashtag the pmf militias and and they
see
that is a greater threat to them and
their livelihoods and their way of life
than isis um and similarly some of the
people in eastern syria they don’t want
to be
living under a group that’s dominated by
a kurdish militia
so i think that there is a lot of room
for isis to exploit
kind of grievances and it’s crazy to
think that the islamic state hasn’t
sufficiently scarred
uh the region but um i’m not sure that
you know the the option isn’t
necessarily for a lot of these people
political normality in the way that we
enjoy it here in the united states
thank you so i will reiterate craig’s uh
note i’ll i’ll post some of these
questions on the isis on the isis future
um so that so that we can engage on that
and and you can see it as well we’ve got
a little bit under five minutes so i
just want to
do a lightning round through the panel
of what’s coming next right we’re in the
middle of coronavirus the islamic state
has to deal with that
um as to others and we have a new
islamic state caliph who has been absent
so does who’s in charge really matter at
this point um or is it the idea and the
ideology that’s driving this board
and how much is the local in uh
interacting with the transnational
um so 60 seconds to to respond to all of
that
and work backwards so cole starting with
you if you want to pick a quick response
to wrap
up oh gosh um
so i think the issue of the caliph is is
very interesting
the man whose name we only know as abu
ibrahim
al-hashemi who i believe is
known according to u.s government and
iraqi government sources
as muhammad saeed
who is of turkmen origin and so it’s
interesting that
the united that uh that isis is not kind
of personalizing the caliphate in the
way that they originally did around
baghdad
so they’ve definitely tried to um to
lower
expectations around whoever is the
leader and
not to to center the organization around
any one individual
and i think that’s strategically sound
it is a little odd that he hasn’t given
a speech yet
um and that that that duty seems to have
devolved uh
exclusively onto the speaker of the
islamic state
of the new speaker the islamic state abu
hamza
whose identity i don’t know so
and the fact that that hasn’t hurt the
islamic state and that we’ve actually
seen
um its expansion during that period
around the world and an increase in
attacks in iraq and syria during that
time
uh leads me to think that perhaps we
need to kind of reassess
um the the importance of of these
individual leaders
um it may be that they aren’t that
important um
but it may be that behind the scenes
these are actually quite astute uh
strategic thinkers i’m not sure
all right in 30 seconds
sorry i used up my 30 seconds trying to
get the cursor across um look i i i
think that there
that that that there is a there are
great opportunities here against
uh the islamic state um as with any
opportunity that
there are also risks i i my concern is
that there is um
there’s a lot of distraction um that’s
going on you know
we’re looking in different directions
and and the key issue
here is that i think particularly from a
policy perspective is that we have to
come to terms with how we deal with
these types of threats
within the context of the great power
kind of competition which is inevitably
going to be the focus
um and and i think that’s a big part of
this and i hope that perhaps the book
may help
um people to kind of think about those
issues in that context
great emily
just to build on that point i think one
thing to watch for is
how the pivot to great power competition
not only takes focus away from
these counterterrorism issues but also
can actively get in the way so
i’ll i always have to flag libya as one
of my favorite things to talk about but
the way that that war is playing out
makes it not just difficult but
in in some cases counterproductive to
pursue counterterrorism so
um we shouldn’t be surprised when when
we see
groups that we thought were so weakened
by counter-terrorism pressure that they
wouldn’t come back
actually start to resurface in those
kind of chaotic environments in the
coming years
and craig last word of wisdom yeah just
um the leadership aspect leadership is
is tremendously important to
insurgent groups militant groups and um
you know again the looking back at the
history of this organization
you you see this pattern developing on
leader succession which
you know cole hit on but he’s kind of
questioning why would anyone do that and
this group
has done this with their previous
leaders who were
important people in their organizations
but ended up to us they’re anonymous and
we don’t and they
deliberately depersonalize the position
in order to make the position much more
important and herrera and i written
about that a lot but it’s fascinating to
watch it
play out and let and and as cole
you know notes how they can get away
with that in an age that seems very much
about personalities right
uh so that’s that’s really interesting
from a strategic leadership perspective
i think and that’s
that’s i think it contributes to the
longevity and it’s something we should
try to better understand
because we don’t i mean you can tell we
just don’t get it and we don’t
understand why abu bakr i think went two
years
before he gave his first speech as the
leader of the islamic state of iraq he
gave a
a brief a bitch or a brief eulogy for
osama bin laden
and it was very short see we you know if
pattern holds we will not hear from
abu ibrahim for quite some time until
they start seeing
some success well
thank you all for your time that wraps
up an hour on the islamic state i think
we all could have stayed here
actually all day and talked further
about this and i look forward to
engaging with you on the hashtag isis
future um thank you to our panelists
craig cole hararo and emily for joining
us here at aei
um and thank you for your time thanks
for being a great host
it’s a privilege thanks katie
thanks katie