After Raqqa: The Islamic State and the War on Terror

by Maximilian Beauchene

On July 4, 2014, the first Friday of Ramadan, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi climbed to the pulpit of the Great Nur al-Din Mosque in Mosul to announce his self-proclaimed caliphate. His declaration was a historic milestone in the post-9/11 U.S. fight against terrorism in the broader Middle East. After more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars given to shore up the Iraqi government in the wake of the 2003 invasion, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) was able to capture the country’s second city in less than a day. U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces dropped their weapons and abandoned their positions in the face of the invasion, and IS delivered a humiliating blow to the facade of security that the United States had worked so hard to build in post-Saddam Iraq. The failures of the United States and its allies in Iraq were suddenly laid bare, providing U.S. involvement in the Middle East a renewed purpose.

Now, just three years after al-Baghdadi’s infamous sermon, IS militants have demolished the historic mosque that birthed the world’s most dangerous terror organization. Mosul has been declared liberated, and the U.S.-led coalition has now squarely set its sights on Raqqa, the de facto IS capital in Syria.

It is all but certain that the operations forcing IS out of its traditional territorial holdings will continue to see success. But as these ground campaigns come to an end, the question arises: what comes next?

View from the Battlefield

The operation to retake Raqqa will usher in a new chapter in the war against IS. But if the battle for Mosul is any indicator, the effort to retake Raqqa will be a slow, arduous affair. IS fighters were able to hold Mosul’s old city for a considerable period of time, and the Iraqi forces leading the offensive into this area of the city sustained heavy casualties. The push to retake Raqqa will most likely produce a similar battle, characterized by urban warfare, a heavy reliance on suicide attacks, and a brutal war of attrition that will only end after coalition forces have killed or captured every IS fighter holed up in the city.

The length and brutality of this fight, as well as the symbolic significance of Raqqa, ensure that the international community and domestic audiences in the United States will focus squarely on the fight once it begins. Because of this focus, the U.S. military will not rest until it can confidently say that the city has been liberated from IS control.

The battle for Raqqa will not mark the end of the ground war against IS in Iraq and Syria. More strategically important will be the battles in Syria’s eastern oilfields, which are still under IS control and remain a major source of revenue for the group.

But this is beside the point. The fall of Raqqa and the subsequent mop-up of remaining pockets of IS resistance in Iraq and Syria is coming soon. Likely to follow will be the flag-waving, militaristic, and nationalist outpourings that will accompany the Trumpian victory speeches.

… and Then What?

Let’s fast forward to the announcements that will undoubtedly accompany the news that Raqqa has been secured, and the U.S.-led coalition has effectively routed IS forces in Iraq and Syria. Donald Trump will address the American people and claim to have secured a victory that eluded his predecessor. There will be praise heaped upon the military, the intelligence community, and the international partners who assisted in the eradication of an evil force from the war-torn region. Foreign policy wonks will argue about how to best govern or administer the newly liberated territories. And across the Western world citizens and policymakers alike will bask in the glow of military victory in a region that has produced setbacks and quagmires for the past decade.

Although surely a cathartic time for those living in the United States and Western Europe, this period of elation brought about by victory will likely soon fade from the public consciousness. Reports of low-intensity engagements with IS holdouts will trickle into the evening news, and suicide attacks will likely continue to be carried out under the group’s name. Similar to the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency following the U.S. invasion in 2003, these smaller-scale engagements will do little to tarnish the declarations of victory over the greatest international terror threat to the United States, and the period after the fall of Raqqa will likely be one of American triumphalism.

The campaign targeting al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 followed a trajectory similar to what anti-IS operations will likely look like after the fall of Raqqa and the dissolution of the so-called caliphate. In the beginning there were clear targets and key individuals whose elimination would deal measurable damage to al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities. However, the decapitation strategy followed by the Bush administration’s anti-al-Qaeda campaign motivated a radical restructuring within the group that de-emphasized a centralized control structure in favor of a cell-based, franchise organization. This transformation made al-Qaeda exponentially more difficult to combat than they were in the early 2000s, for they moved deeper into the shadows and spread themselves out across the Middle East, northern Africa, and beyond.

This is the shape that post-Raqqa IS will most likely take, and they are frankly much better prepared to undergo such a restructuring than al-Qaeda was in the mid to late 2000s. IS has already cultivated franchises in Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Philippines, and beyond, all of which have the capability of sheltering high-ranking members of the organization and carrying out international attacks under the group’s banner. The fall of Raqqa and the subsequent disbanding of the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria will not mark a decisive victory over the group but instead usher in a new era of warfare. The U.S. military will become actively involved in an increasing number of battlefields in an effort to deny IS safe haven outside of its original territorial holdings.

What Is to Come

In recent years, the U.S. military has transformed itself. The heavy reliance on airstrikes (manned and unmanned), the expansion of CIA drone programs, and the emergence of Joint Special Forces Operations Command (JSOC) as the United States’ primary on-the-ground fighting force raise the troubling prospect of a global war against IS after the retaking of its major holdings in Iraq and Syria. As IS disperses itself and begins to rely more and more on its franchises, the U.S. military will continue to expand its counter-terror operations targeting the group across the globe.

Of course, the U.S. military has been preparing for such a conflict for the better part of the past decade whether through the expansion of drone bases in Africa (and the recent increase in kinetic actions being carried out by U.S. forces on the continent), the new powers given the CIA to carry out assassinations outside of conventional battlefields, or the rapid expansion of signals-intelligence gathering technologies. Couple these developments with the Trump administration’s willingness to use JSOC operators in increasingly high-profile ways and the Pentagon may pursue an even “hotter” global war on terror against a more decentralized IS. The shadow wars that began under former President Barack Obama are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is to come as part of ramped-up anti-IS operations.

IS currently has nine official provinces in Algeria, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan. These areas of influence range in terms of their size, scope, and operational capabilities. Already IS in Egypt and Libya are proving to be formidable fighting forces, and those in Yemen and Afghanistan are not far behind. Once IS is no longer focused on holding and administering its territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria, these provinces will likely become a major focus for the group. Increased IS activity in the Sinai, Libya, and Afghanistan could prove to be a major destabilizing factor in those already fragile areas.

Egyptian security forces have so far been unable to defeat IS-linked fighters who have been systematically attacking Christian populations and carving out an area of influence in the country’s northern region. Libyan IS affiliates have been on the defensive since militias, backed by a massive U.S. bombing campaign, pushed the group out of its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte at the end of 2016. But the chances of its reemergence still run high in the North African nation. The lack of a centralized government able to provide a stable security climate, coupled with continued warfare between rival militias on the streets of major Libyan cities, has created a vacuum that IS could fill. Similar concerns exist in Afghanistan, as security forces are failing to contain the reemergence of the Taliban while simultaneously losing control of vast swaths of territory.

Although these nine wilayats offer safe haven, experienced fighters, and the prospect for waging serious insurgencies in a number of different countries, IS influence ranges beyond these strongholds. Militant groups across the world aligned with the group have yet to become full-fledged provinces, but are operationally and ideologically linked with IS. In Southeast Asia, the group has footholds in Indonesia and the Philippines, and just this week IS-linked militants carried out a large-scale offensive in the Philippines that security forces have had difficulty containing.

After the fall of Raqqa, IS will have multiple safe havens across the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. The dispersal of IS fighters, leadership, and ideology will usher in a new era of warfare that will likely involve the United States and its allies in an expanding number of conflicts across the globe. IS will only become harder to locate, target, and eradicate as it digs into more and more countries. In turn, the U.S. military will become even more of a global fighting force than it already is today.

Maximilian Beauchene is a recent graduate of Hampshire College where he wrote his thesis on the relationship between international interventions and the evolution of militancy in Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. He is currently writing about U.S. military policy in the Middle East and Africa, with a focus on the expanding role of special forces. 

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