What Is the Islamic State Without a State?

Oct 24, 2016

By Uri Friedman

Territory is arguably both ISIS’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The land the group seized in Syria and Iraq, which at its peak was thought to be as large as the kingdom of Jordan, enabled the Islamic State to aspire to its grandiose name by declaring a caliphate, drawing recruits from around the globe, and distinguishing itself from the world’s stateless terrorist and insurgent groups.

But that land has also served as a big, fat target for ISIS’s enemies, who have been pummeling the organization from the air and on the ground. By one estimate, ISIS has lost 16 percent of its territory so far in 2016, after losing 14 percent in 2015. It has recently retreated from the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, the Syrian-Turkish border, and the Syrian town of Dabiq, where ISIS members once prophesied a literally apocalyptic battle with infidel armies. This week, a motley crew of forces launched a massive assault on ISIS’s last Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.

Each square mile lost chips away at ISIS’s reason for being. As my colleague Graeme Wood wrote last year, “Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement.” What exactly is the Islamic State, if the “state” all but disappears?

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3 comments on “What Is the Islamic State Without a State?

  • This bunch has never had a ‘State’, nor will it EVER. It will exist as a fragmented group of deluded thugs under ever-increasing pressure that will increase hostility to all muslims in western free societies, with every atrocity it commits. This is a self-defeating strategy that they are too stupid to acknowledge. Their death cult is headed for oblivion.

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  • Territory is a secondary asset to ISIS, though desirable, of course. The religious ideology is far more important to preserve. They are opportunist land-grabbers and will seize any chance to occupy territory where political, social and military stability has failed and shows a consistency of failure. Democracy – even in a basest form – is anathema to Islam, and for as long as Islamic countries base their culture, economics, education and politics on their religion, democracy (read “normality”) will never be a feature in these regions. They will forever be vulnerable to fragmentation and sectarian conflict. ISIS will wait in the wings and leap at any opportunity. Everywhere in the Mideast is vulnerable. Saudi Arabia is a prime candidate for the next round.

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