The Islamic state has been all but banished territorially from Mesopotamia, though the remaining fighters will remain a constant threat to the Iraqi, Syrian and wider Middle Eastern societies, especially since many of them have melted back into the shadows amid the chaos. The question therefore remains: where does the Islamic State, or its successor go from here? Indeed, whilst some fighters have established themselves in Afghanistan and are causing a relative nuisance, Afghanistan will not become the next venture for this brand of Islamism. Rather, the only theological and “state-building” evolution has to be the establishment of an Islamic State in Africa.
The Islamic state has been reduced to a shadow of its former self in its “original heartlands”
There is no question that the Islamic State (ISIS hereafter) has been decimated territorially when compared to the large of swathes of land that it acquired during the 2012-2014 timeframe. Today, pockets of ISIS remain around the Euphrates (Hajin notably). Their “capital” has fallen, but not before several thousand fighters were allowed to disperse into the surrounding countryside. ISIS had explored other territories that it considers ripe, most notably Afghanistan. After several failed attempts to make inroads in Afghanistan, the ISIS leadership learned from its mistakes by appointing Afghan ISIS leaders and conducting an effective campaign to buy out or neutralize local Taliban commanders. The higher echelons of the Taliban leadership(s) have been acutely aware of this dangerous rival for some time, which has emerged at a time of relative weakness and infighting. Their responses have so far allowed them to contain the ISIS threat if only in the short and medium term – eventually, the Taliban will have to reevaluate their ideological and strategic positioning with regards to ISIS. Hence, though ISIS is no longer territorially as strong as before in the “Sham”, it has already moved on.
However, the Islamic state signaled a marked evolution in the Islamist world in comparison to Al Qaeda.
ISIS undoubtedly has taken the Islamist current to a new level of organization in comparison to Al-Qaeda (AQ). ISIS, though touted as less ideologically pure by AQ and its offshoots (think back to the criticisms made by AQ and Al Nosra with regards the filmed execution scenarios, the systematic rape of Yazidis and the extortion of ordinary Muslims living in ISIS-controlled areas, the lack of theological and legal training of its leaders) has demonstrated what AQ was never able to undertake: the capacity to create an administrative and executive body to “rule” a territory. AQ innovated by franchising the Islamist movement globally. ISIS showed an ability to organize the apparatus to a high degree – ISIS has/had, (for lack of better terminology), a judicial apparatus, a revenue and tax-collection service, intelligence (foreign and domestic), some form of social security and health services. Whereas AQ is reliant primarily on donations for its day-to-day running, ISIS accumulated wealth. This in turn makes it very dangerous indeed, since it will easily morph into organized crime and survive on its sizeable war-chest.
Afghanistan, though currently favoured by ISIS veterans, will not allow the movement to progress
As stated previously, Afghanistan is currently the most visible ISIS hotbed – however, in the long run, ISIS will not be able to compete with the current crop of Islamists on Afghan soil for several reasons: the Taliban are long established in the country and neighbouring Pakistan, they benefit from a certain degree of local support, theological backing, have laid their hands on the lucrative drugs-trade and have the patronage of part of the Pakistani military establishment and even some Iranian contacts. One would argue that the Taliban have a better understanding of the anthropological and societal make-up of Afghanistan than ISIS and above all, will not hesitate to appear as the “reasonable party” and hint at negotiations with Kabul in return for the elimination of their ISIS rival.
Furthermore, the Taliban already have their “global Islamists” in the form of AQ (though AQ is relatively weak in Afghanistan at the moment). The only hope for ISIS is that a powerful faction of the Taliban, due to infighting, unilaterally transfers its allegiance and eventually takes over ISIS in the Afghan-Pakistan region – however, even then, there exists a risk that Pakistan destroys ISIS to protect the Taliban still “answering” to Islamabad.
Finally, in terms of public image, ISIS has little to gain from trying to rebuild in Afghanistan. Indeed the aura of the Taliban and AQ in Islamist circles was largely built on their role during the Soviet campaign – ISIS knows it cannot compete with that legacy, nor will it gain any prestige by treading where others have trodden before and trying to supplant the original Islamists.
The “next level” could be the establishment of an Islamic state in Africa
ISIS can only progress one way – by demonstrating that it can take and “administer” a new territory. South-East Asia and Africa come to mind – however, the former region has a level of governance too formidable for a newly minted-group to combat and defeat comfortably. The African continent possesses certain attributes making it attractive to ISIS: Islam and Islamism are very present and have seen some success (think back to Ansar al-Din and the MUJAO in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, the Shebab in Somalia). The porousness of frontiers and the lack of government make the seizing of large territories relatively easy. Finally, the strategic importance (drug and migrant routes, mining concessions) of the areas potentially “suitable” for ISIS could tempt its leadership and next-generation of fighters to relocate. Let us not forget also the presence of non-Muslim minorities in the area – quite apart from being pre-identified enemies for ISIS and potential sources of income, ISIS would not incur the same criticisms from the rest of the Islamist movement for extortion practices as it has done in the past in Afghanistan and Syria. Africa must therefore be firmly on the radar of the international community as the next hotspot for an advanced form of ISIS.