Raqqa is surrounded. The self-proclaimed capital of ISIS is being assaulted by a multi-ethnic coalition, largely comprised of Kurdish and Arab fighters. The fighting is brutal, house-to-house urban warfare, of the sort seen in Mosul before ISIS was pushed out of that city. It’s a chaotic mix of suicide bombs, snipers, and civilians being used as human shields.
Progress is slow but steady. Inch by bloody inch, the so-called caliphate is being ground down and ISIS is losing the territorial gains it so stunningly achieved in 2014. The question is starting to turn to what happens next. When ISIS has been defeated militarily, will the group melt away and cease to exist? Or will they go on fighting using different methods?
We had a comment from Oliver, who is pretty sure that ISIS is on course to lose all its territory in the Middle East. If so, what happens next? Will ISIS fighters flee to other countries, destabilising the region even further? Will they try to sneak into Europe to inflict atrocities there? What happens next?
We put this comment to Dr Simon Mabon, a lecturer in International Relations at Lancaster University. What would he say?
[…] It seems inevitable that ISIS will lose control of this territory. Now, what I think will happen is that it will still lay claim to grievances and maybe an implicit informal degree of control over some parts of cities. Now, that won’t obviously be a real regulatory control, like we’ve seen with the establishment of the so-called caliphate. But what it might be is something where they have some degree of informal control and regulation; maybe a small area of a city wherein that sort of value set is particularly receptive. Where those sort of values are found amongst groups of people. Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily going to happen, but that’s the sort of thing that we could see. Because, as well as defeating the group militarily, we also have to engage with the ideology and the questions about belief, and why people started to support the group.
Now, the beliefs, justifications, and reasons for joining ISIS are not going to go away with the military defeat of the group. So, I think that’s the much bigger challenge that anyone that’s looking to defeat the group has got to engage with. And, accepting that, is going some way I think towards asking the right sort of questions about what the group will morph into. I think that what we’ll see is a continuation of the sort of thing that we have been seeing in the past 6 months, where we will see ideology being used as a means of mobilising people, as a means of inciting people to try and commit violent attrocities across the world. And I think that’s the sort of thing – we’ll see the group morphing into more of an insurgent, terrorist-type organisation. Not necessarily holding or regulating territory, but wanting to commit attrocities across the world and then inspiring other people to do that sort of thing.
So, I think that’s probably the most obvious change that we’ll see. But then we could also see these little pockets and enclaves of support, be it in the Middle East or somewhere like Belgium like we’ve seen in the past couple of years, where there are perhaps areas which are more receptive to this kind of ideology as a consequence of their social integration. So, I think that’s probably what we’ll see, and identifying and acknowledging that is going some way towards actually dealing with the problem.
So, how do we defeat ISIS after it has lost its territory? Will conventional military force be effective? Or will we need to turn to a “hearts and minds” approach? We had a comment from Maia, who wondered how we can we counter the ideology of a group like ISIS. What would Dr Mabon say?
[…] I think what we start to see is there is a real existential crisis happening, either within the self or within the community. I think it’s a case of people struggling to find a sense of belonging and their place within society. This can take a number of different forms. It could be that people see on the news that their sectarian or religious kin are being killed, massacred, or blown up across the Middle East and they feel compelled. They feel guilty that they’re sitting in a particularly comfortable place while their sectarian kin are being murdered, with brutal atrocities that we’re seeing through a range of different media outlets. They feel compelled to go…
But perhaps the most serious reason – and this has caused a lot of debate when I’ve presented these ideas in the past – is that people are struggling to find their place within society. People are struggling to find a sense of belonging. This is far more worrying, but I think it’s perhaps one of the more compelling reasons, in the sense that if you look at what’s happening within Western societies, you’ll see that there’s rising Islamaphobia, rising anti-Muslim rhetoric, be it from politicians, be it in the press, be it within society. You see that in the wake of any terrorist attacks committed by violent and extremist Muslims, you’ll see that anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks have spiked. There is data to show that this is taking place. And if that’s happening on a regular basis, then it’s easy to see how people would start to feel a sense of dislocation from the community that they’re in. Struggling to see: well, hang on. Maybe this isn’t my home? Maybe I don’t feel a sense of belonging here. Maybe I shouldn’t have this sense of loyalty if I’m going to be persecuted by political elites, by the police, by security agencies.
Of course, I’m not saying this is everyone. But this is what we’re starting to see when we look at some of the data. This sense of an existential crisis, combined with the desire to go and help and fight for their sectarian kin. And that’s starting to pull people to go and join in these causes. That, I think, is where we can do something. Where we can stand up and start to speak out against these instances of Islamaphobia, where we can speak out against what Johan Galtung called ‘Structural Violence’ – the types of language and policies that are pretty much discriminatory against people. If we do that, then we can start to create a much stronger sense of belonging and togetherness. Because, I think, fundamentally if you feel like you’re part of a particular project, if you feel that you’re a member of something, then it’s going to be increasingly difficult for you to leave that. So, if you’ve got that membership and belonging, then I think that’s a really good way of defeating it. I think that’s where we all have a role to play, in speaking out against these things and standing up and saying ‘No, this is wrong’ when we see instances of it on the street or in our daily lives, or when we see politicians and political elites doing this type of debate. I think it’s obviously a fundamental question within political debate broadly…
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What happens after ISIS falls? Will the ideology continue, even after the group has lost its territory? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!