What happens to Islamic State after Mosul?

What happens to Islamic State after Mosul?
Comment: IS looks set for defeat in Mosul, but they don't need to raise the black flag to have an impact, writes James Denselow.
6 min read
04 Jul, 2017
Members of Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service on the offensive to retake Mosul, 2 July 2017[AFP]

Three years in the making, the final throes of the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) by the Iraqi military was marked by celebration, relief and uncertainty as to the future.
Iraq's second city has paid a heavy price. We don't yet know the full human cost to those who endured IS governance for years, with its deadly justice, extortionate systems of taxation and a curriculum that forced kids to count in grenades.

The longer term fallout of life under IS has been a secondary concern over recent months, as the battle intensified and Mosul's civilians faced the terrible choice to stay hunkered under the bombs or try to flee across deadly front lines.
Hundreds of thousands fled and most remain displaced, uncertain as to what home they may have to return to. Indeed the long signposted Baghdad-led offensive to take back the city saw the road to Mosul run through cities such as Ramadi, where 80 percent of the city was destroyed in order to 'win it'.
Huge reconstruction challenges lie ahead with the cost for putting together an effective infrastructure astronomical and the expectations for quick wins equally high. Mosul's residents will remember how neglect from the capital helped to sow the seeds for IS capturing the city in the first place. They want jobs, schools to be reopened and a commitment that lessons will be learnt from the city's recent and tragic past.

IS has thrived on the politics of grievance

What is more, IS has not disappeared, and it, or a mutation of it, will remain a serious threat to Prime Minister Abadi's more unified vision for the country. New evidence collected by the Combatting Terrorism Center based out of West Point, New York, revealed that there have been 1,468 reported IS attacks in 16 cities in Iraq and Syria that have been liberated from the groups direct control.
Those who remember their history should recall how the defeat of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was grossly overrated.

Indeed in 2007 the success of the US-led surge to co-opt local groups - the "sons of Iraq" - against AQI reached such a point that US generals briefed the media that the group had been dealt a blow it "couldn't recover from".
The theory was that forcing AQI from urban strongholds would lead to a "cascade effect" of wider collapse. Instead, as attention moved away from military confrontation and political reconciliation stalled, "sons of Iraq" were unpaid and felt that a sectarian agenda was being pursued by then Prime Minister Maliki, focused on their exclusion from an Iraq of the future.  

Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian
population has made for an extremely difficult fight [AFP]

IS has thrived on the politics of grievance and any future incarnation of a extremist Sunni force will rely on the perception that it offers solutions to problems both real and perceived. Once a military force has removed IS from schools, mosques and the checkpoints in cities such as Mosul, it will likely revert to a more virtual form operating in the shadows and amongst the civilians of the cities it once controlled. 
Good policing that can represent good governance, both local, regional and national is the starting point in keeping IS in check. However all across the world from London to Paris, preventing all high profile terrorist attacks has proved impossible.

Instead they can focus on hammering away at Iraq's community cohesion that has yet to recover from the civil war that followed the 2003 US-invasion

Already IS' successes in attacking and killing people in liberated cities show that they don't need to raise the black flag in order to make an impact.

Instead they can focus on hammering away at Iraq's community cohesion that has yet to recover from the civil war that followed the 2003 US-invasion. Cycles of violence, particularly ones that target peoples places of worship or of historic importance, can create a momentum that is hard to stop and there are no guarantees that international support in the coalition against IS will be maintained once iconic cities have fallen and the threat appears to have reduced.

All these scenarios demonstrate the scale of the challenge for Iraq alone and the more global consequences of ISIS's evolution are even more concerning.

Read more: Mosul's destroyed Grand Nuri Mosque: Perfect for IS propaganda

Already we've seen IS-affiliates in the Philippines causing havoc and the attacks in London and Manchester this summer showed how self-radicalised "lone wolves" divorced of any real command and control from a Caliphate can carry out operations.

Better understanding of this threat is much needed and a recent RUSI report was right to highlight how 58 percent of lone wolf attacks failed to cause any injuries.

Cycles of violence, particularly ones that target peoples places of worship or of historic importance, can create a momentum that is hard to stop

Yet concern over the threat of individuals has already been used by the president of the United States to justify a controversial travel ban, and the attacks in the UK were followed by spikes in hate crime. These are the exact responses that the ideologues behind IS' strategic vision could hope for - stoking grievance and identity politics to radicalise its next generation of cadres. 
However the analysis to date is predictive on both the behaviour of the past and the actions of the present. Predicting where IS would evolve is hardest in imagining methods and strategies we've not even seen yet. Who, after all, could have predicted how the group would be so effective when it came to communication using modern technologies, and branding itself so well that it encouraged hundreds of people from across the world to flock to join them?
The unknown unknowns are what still keep counter-terrorism officers awake at night, as they wonder what next for a group that has inspired citizens to attack civilian targets with knives and trucks.
Yet there is a final scenario that is worth entertaining.

It could be the case that the brutal overreach that was symbolised within the rise and fall of the IS declared 'Caliphate' will serve as a future warning to others as to the terrible ends of such nihilistic means.

Conventional oppositions willing to raise grievances within formal political processes that respond to them accordingly may be political science 101, but it remains a vision worth fighting for. 

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.