By Robin Wright
December 12, 2016
Last May, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the second most powerful leader in the Islamic State, hinted that the caliphate was crumbling. “Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authority, or that victory is measured thereby, has strayed far from the truth,” he said, in a long audio message that was released to fellow-jihadis. He also suggested a shift in strategy. “It is the same—whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare, open desert, displaced and pursued.”
Adnani, a thirty-nine-year-old Syrian, ran the organization’s propaganda shop and a secret foreign-operations unit that recruited, trained, and assigned élite forces to the toughest missions. He orchestrated the terror attacks at the Bataclan theatre, in Paris, last year, and at the Brussels airport, in March. By this summer, though, he was on the run, hiding for months in an apartment building with hundreds of civilians in Raqqa, a city in northern Syria that dates to antiquity and serves as the Islamic State’s capital. The United States had picked up his trail, but had to use “tactical patience,” a senior Pentagon official told me, to avoid heavy collateral damage. “He just didn’t budge,” a senior U.S. official added. “We waited.”
Adnani finally emerged in August, after Syrian rebels drove the Islamic State out of Manbij, a small city that was a hub for its foreign fighters and a supply route to Turkey. The battle was decisive, costing the organization at least two thousand of its best fighters, including combat-hardened Chechens. In late August, Adnani left the apartment and sped west in an unmarked sedan to rally his forces in al-Bab, the city closest to Manbij. A U.S. drone picked him off with a laser-guided munition.
Since the Vietnam War, the U.S. military has shied away from body counts as a barometer of success, but Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, estimated in August that forty-five thousand fighters had been “taken off the battlefield” in the Islamic State. Although that count may be high, other U.S. officials told me, the Islamic State’s losses have been staggering. It has surrendered fifty-seven per cent of its territory in Iraq and twenty-seven per cent in Syria—more than forty per cent of its total caliphate.
The Islamic State is now fighting to hang on to its two most valuable properties. On October 17th, Iraqi forces launched the long-awaited offensive to liberate Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control, with two million residents. On November 6th, rebels in the Syrian Democratic Forces launched Euphrates Rage, an operation to free Raqqa, a city of some two hundred thousand. American airpower is backing both campaigns with daily bombing raids. Hundreds of additional fighters have been killed. The Islamic State’s de-facto news agency, Amaq, boasted that in the first six weeks of the Mosul battle a hundred and fifty-seven suicide bombers leaped into explosive-laden cars and drove straight into oncoming Iraqi troops. It posted an infographic showing the types of vehicles used in the attack.
The Islamic State’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, first announced the creation of the caliphate in June, 2014, from the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand Mosque. It was based on a utopian vision, dating back to Islam’s founding, that was modernized by the Muslim Brotherhood a century ago, hijacked and militarized by radical ideologues, and globalized by Al Qaeda. The Islamic State rejuvenated the jihad after the United States forced Al Qaeda in Iraq underground, in 2007, and killed Osama bin Laden, in 2011. It blitzed across Syria and Iraq, and then recruited tens of thousands of Muslims, from five continents, to govern and protect the new caliphate.
As a physical entity, the Islamic State’s conceit was probably never sustainable, at least at the pace and scope it attempted. Within eighteen months, it began to lose territory. Nevertheless, the quest for a modern caliphate continues. The brand is entrenched.
In Adnani’s final audio message, he described a fallback plan, which was reflected in the Islamic State’s media this fall. Its slickest publication had been Dabiq, a magazine named for a Syrian town where, in the seventh century, Armageddon was prophesied to play out in an apocalyptic battle with infidel forces from the Roman Empire. Symbolically, the village was a potent recruiting tool, even though Dabiq today is of no strategic value, with only three thousand residents. It fell, in October, to the militia now advancing on Raqqa. The organization renamed its magazine Rumiyah, or Rome—an allusion to the prophecies foretelling the fall of the West and a signal that the Islamic State operations may increasingly shift from inside the caliphate to outside.
An article in the November issue, accompanied by a photograph of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, urged Jihadis to attack outdoor festivals, markets, political rallies, and pedestrian-clogged streets: “The method of such an attack is that a vehicle is plunged at a high speed into a large congregation of Kuffar”—non-believers—“smashing their bodies with the vehicle’s strong outer frame while advancing forward—crushing their heads, torsos, and limbs under the vehicle’s wheels and chassis.” The article provided a list of vehicles best suited to killing. Next to a picture of a U-Haul, it said that the ideal truck is “double-wheeled, giving victims less of a chance to escape being crushed by the vehicle’s tires.”
In his message, Adnani appealed to the faithful to launch lone-wolf attacks. “Determination! Determination!” he urged. “The smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here.”
On November 21st, the State Department issued an international travel alert, warning all Americans that “credible information” indicated “the heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Europe.” The alert will be in effect for the next three months. Four days later, France announced the arrest of five Islamic State operatives who were planning an attack for December 1st. The targets reportedly included the Champs-Élysées and the Disneyland park outside Paris.
Adnani also envisioned an Inhiyaz Ila Al-Sahraa, a retreat into the desert. The term was meant in the strategic sense of regrouping in order to return to the battle. There is a precedent. After the U.S. troop surge in 2007, the jihadis slipped away into the remote plains, villages, farmlands, and, particularly, the vulnerable “seams” along the borders of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. The movement rebuilt, recruited, broke into prisons to bolster its ranks, and prepared for the surprise sweep into Syria and Iraq seven years later.
“O America,” Adnani said. “Would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa? . . . Certainly not! We would be defeated and you victorious only if you were able to remove the Koran from Muslims’ hearts.”
On a balmy autumn day, I drove through Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley toward a front line with the Islamic State. The valley is Wild West territory, ruled by armed clans largely unchallenged by the government. For miles and miles, farmers were harvesting the willowy, thin-leafed stalks that make hashish, a mainstay of the local economy. From the valley, I headed north, on narrow, winding roads, to the Qalamoun Mountains, a voluptuous but rugged range near the Syrian border, known for its apricot trees and chalky limestone quarries. It is now a hub for more than a thousand militants—some locals claim the number is at least twice that—who have burrowed into the brown hills, bringing with them the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Fighters from the Islamic State and its rival, an Al Qaeda franchise, began infiltrating the area two years ago. Both groups have launched raids and rocket attacks on Christian towns along the border with Syria. They have fought each other for turf, too.
This year, the assaults on Christian cities near the border became more brazen. In one town I visited, Qaa—normally a sleepy place—eight suicide bombers struck the central square in a single day last June.
I couldn’t get into the city of Arsal, a mountain enclave whose name is Aramaic for “God’s throne,” because the Lebanese Army has cordoned it off to outsiders. A predominantly Sunni city, it was seized in 2014 by isis and Al Qaeda fighters. They were eventually forced back to the outskirts, but both groups took dozens of Lebanese police and soldiers as hostages. A few were executed; after a year, several were released in a swap; some are still being held. Plagued with bombings and assassinations, the city, once known for its handmade carpets, is now better known as the underground channel for fighters, weaponry, funds, and supplies crossing into Syria. The goods include Captagon, an addictive amphetamine, produced in the Bekaa, that generates euphoria and enables fighters to endure long battles and painful injuries. Like the rest of Lebanon, Arsal has been flooded with refugees, more than tripling its population. One of every five people living in Lebanon today is a Syrian. An equivalent number of refugees in he United States would be sixty-five million.
On the approach to Ras Baalbek, a Christian town of some eight thousand, I heard artillery fire echoing nearby. Rifaat Nasrallah, the owner of a local quarry, was anxious and tired when I arrived at his mountainside home. A thickset Catholic businessman with silvering hair and bloodshot eyes, he was wearing a loose denim shirt. A revolver was tucked into the back of his jeans. He sat on the edge of a beige floral settee.
“How can I not be worried?” he said. “They’re around the corner from me now.” isis rockets had struck a church during a wedding in Ras Baalbek. Nasrallah’s quarry was raided. Several of his employees were abducted. He has scars on his back from a mortar attack.
“The minute they showed up with this crazy ideology in Iraq, we felt the threat,” he said. “To them, we all deserve the knife.” To prevent the Jihadis from taking over the town, Nasrallah formed a local militia. “We have churches here that date back to the beginning of Christianity. Even our wives and kids will grab guns and fight.”
Nasrallah had little confidence that the escalating U.S.-backed campaigns against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda—or any other actions by Western powers against extremists—would make much difference. “Look what happened in Brussels and in France,” he said. “They can’t even protect themselves.” He was particularly angry at the Vatican for abandoning Christians in the Middle East. “The Pope never thinks about us now,” he said. “The Vatican has done nothing for us. I am more Catholic than the Pope.”
Near a fox pelt on a wall in his house, Nasrallah had placed a picture of Lourdes, the pilgrimage site, and on the fireplace mantel he’d put a larger photograph—of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah (no relation), the leader of Hezbollah. Across the Middle East, the current complex of wars has spawned unlikely alliances. Lebanon’s Christians historically had a political and social edge over other sects; Sunnis came in second and Shiites a distant third.
Now Nasrallah’s Christian militia is armed, trained, and supported by a Shiite militia that has been on the U.S. terrorist list for two decades. “Hezbollah has done more for us than the Vatican,” Nasrallah told me, adding that the Hezbollah leader promised that “these are Christian villages, and we will protect them better than Shiite villages.”
I climbed a steep rocky path to the militia’s main lookout, on a ridge above the town with a towering Madonna-and-Child statue. The Jihadis were entrenched in the hills just across the way. From the lookout, using infrared night-vision equipment, the locals can spot fighters moving toward the town and call in Hezbollah artillery and rockets. Devout Mountain Catholics now view militant Shiite Muslims as their protectors.
Across the Middle East, the political kaleidoscope is spinning at a vertiginous speed. The Islamic State has been both a cause and an effect. Wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen wrack the region, and virulent forms of extremism threaten all the other states. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are confronted with unprecedented humanitarian crises. From the Mediterranean to the Gulf, countries are fragile, regardless of the size of their security forces and arsenals. In the century since modern borders were delineated, the premises of power and politics—various forms of Arabism, oil wealth, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—have been upended. The big secular ideologies, from Nasserism to Baathism, are defunct.
The Palestinians, whose factions offered a variety of ideologies, have been sidelined. Intellectual energy has been sapped on campuses, in parliaments, and in what little is left of public discourse. A demographic surge has produced a generation with limited job opportunities; up to a third of the young people across more than twenty Arab states are unemployed. Instability over the past six years has left a region in severe economic distress—costing Arab economies more than six hundred billion dollars, the United Nations reported in November. After past wars, societies eventually absorbed the shocks and got back to business. Now the long-term sustainability of some Arab states is in question.
Traditional warlords are at a loss as well. “The Arab world is desolate,” Walid Jumblatt, a Druze chieftain (and a member of Lebanon’s parliament), told me when I visited his family estate, a historic limestone manor in Moukhtara, an hour from Beirut. Jumblatt had been a pragmatic kingmaker, capable of brokering deals with Christian politicians, Sunni parties, Shiite Hezbollah, and even Syria’s Assad dynasty. Now he rarely leaves Moukhtara. The Islamic State has threatened to kill him; so have others. Security around him is intense. Rifles, vintage and new, were lined up along a wall of his study. Jumblatt’s main companion these days is an arthritic Shar-Pei named Oscar. In an anteroom, old maps reflect the region’s shifting frontiers and masters. Even if borders remain the same, Jumblatt said, they may define different entities. “We will live in this mess for a very long time.”
The Islamic State, which is run by a deviant strain of Sunni fanatics, has been a disaster for all Sunnis across the region. Sunnis account for as much as ninety per cent of the Arab population and almost a fifth of the global population. They ruled Arab lands for most of the fourteen centuries since the faith was founded. Their dictators and absolute monarchs dominated the modern Middle East. Now their world is in ruins. They have suffered the largest losses in lives and property and make up the largest percentage of refugees. They are under attack from other sects and have little to fall back on politically, despite their numbers.
“Sunnis believe everyone is against them,” Omar el Sayyed, a correspondent for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation in northern Tripoli, told me. Tripoli is the bastion of conservative Sunni power in Lebanon. “Are we the only bad people in the world? Sunnis want to trust someone.”
Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the traditional poles of Sunni power, are distracted by their own problems. Saudi Arabia is going through an awkward political transition, made more vulnerable by a costly war in Yemen and plummeting oil revenues. In Egypt, which accounts for almost a quarter of the Arab world’s four hundred million people, the value of the currency fell by almost half in November? Staples like sugar are in short supply. Tourism and investment have dried up. Under the increasingly autocratic government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, tens of thousands of Egyptians—dissidents, journalists, lawyers, bloggers, human-rights activists, feminists, students, workers, and businessmen—have been detained or tortured or subjected to “enforced disappearance.”
Sayyed said, “Do you want me to believe Sisi will help me when he’s killing my brothers in Egypt?”
A few weeks after Adnani’s death, I called on Nabil Rahim, a portly sheikh with a greying beard and a prayer mark on his forehead, who heads public relations for Irtiqaa Way Radio, an FM station in Tripoli. Irtiqaa means “elevation,” as in elevating life to a higher state. The station airs continuous religious programming to promote Salafism, the ultraconservative interpretation of Sunni Islam. A video of pilgrims at the Kaaba in Mecca was playing on a large high-definition television on the studio wall.
“Daesh has distorted the image of Islam,” Rahim said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. “Everything it’s done—its videos of beheadings, burning prisoners alive, drowning them, the destruction of churches and places of worship—all of this has nothing to do with Islam. But I don’t see any country or leading figure coming in and offering new breath for the Sunni world.
“It makes me very sad,” he went on. “This is what makes me fear that Daesh may be defeated politically and militarily but the idea won’t die. If the region were stable, there would be no place for Daesh to reëmerge. But it isn’t stable. The same thing that happened in Syria or Libya could happen in Algeria or Morocco or someplace else in this chaos.”
The turmoil has been a boon for Al Qaeda. As the Islamic State contracts, Al Qaeda is attempting to reclaim its primacy at the vanguard of global jihadism. The two groups were for many years part of the same movement, but they fell out over strategy. Al Qaeda advocated educating Sunnis to its message before building to a caliphate. “If our state is not supported by the proper foundations,” bin Laden wrote in 2010, “the enemy will easily destroy it.” Al Qaeda has exploited popular uprisings from North Africa to the Caucasus; it embedded senior leaders once based in Pakistan or Afghanistan with local movements to guide or direct them. The Islamic State had no patience for gradualism. Under Baghdadi, it raced for territory in Syria and Iraq, and was willing to coerce, rather than persuade, Sunnis to join its realm. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden in 2011, repeatedly tried to rein in Baghdadi, to no avail. The Islamic State was so aggressive, so bloodthirsty, and so defiant—so fast—that Al Qaeda severed ties and disavowed it in early 2014, shortly before the caliphate was declared.
“What made our hearts bleed,” Zawahiri said in 2014, “is the hostile sedition, which has intensified among the ranks of the Mujahideen of Islam.”
The rival movements now compete for franchises. In two years, the Islamic State has won the allegiance of thirty-seven provinces, or Wilayats, in eight countries. Pledging and gaining allegiance, or Bay’at, is a formal process in the world of jihadism. Some provinces—in Egypt’s Sinai and Libya’s Sirte—gained fame and controlled territory. The Sinai Province shot down a Russian Metrojet airliner in 2015. The Islamic State claimed its Libyan province as the caliphate’s first colony in 2014, although it recently lost most of its land there, too. Other cells, notably in Yemen, are weaker or dormant.
Al Qaeda, for its part, has for more than a decade cultivated five transnational branches—in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, the horn of Africa, and the Levant. The struggle for the soul of Sunni jihadism is one of at least five different wars playing out in Syria, and it is there that Al Qaeda may prove its long game. It has already wrested the allegiance of a group started by Baghdadi. In 2011, the Islamic State in Iraq sent seven fighters to Syria to facilitate logistics. The cell grew into the Nusra Front, in 2012. In 2013, it broke with Baghdadi, in a dispute over goals. Its priority was ousting the regime of President Bashar Assad, the first step in creating conditions for a caliphate, and it was willing to temporarily work with other Syrian rebels. The Islamic State has always been exclusivist, demonstrating less interest in Assad’s future. The Nusra Front shifted its Bay’at to Zawahiri.
Nusra became Al Qaeda’s most successful model—and the dominant rebel force in north-western Syria—with almost ten thousand fighters. Last year, Zawahiri instructed Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, to “better integrate” within the Syrian revolution and to build “a sustainable Al Qaeda power base.” In Idlib Province, Nusra established Islamic courts and started providing basic services, including water and electricity. As its support base burgeoned in Syria, its reputation soared across the Sunni world.
Salem al-Rafei, a popular Sunni sheikh in Tripoli, told me, “It’s not like Daesh—it has not destroyed the image of Islam. It is a Syrian organization to liberate the Syrian people.”
In a kind of jihadi shell game, this summer the Nusra Front rebranded itself as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or J.F.S., which means the Front for the Liberation of Sham, an area that includes Syria and parts of neighboring countries. It announced that it no longer had ties with any external group. Al Qaeda publicly concurred.
“We direct Nusra’s central command to move forward in a way that preserves the interests of Islam and Muslims and protects the jihad of the people of Syria,” Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr, said in a statement. “We have taken this step and call on the jihadist factions in Syria to unite around what pleases God.”
In jihadi-speak, this is known as “marbling”: local groups variegate their formal ties with global movements when strategically or financially convenient. In Syria, the separation was an expedient fiction. Al Qaeda had already embedded two dozen senior personnel. U.S. air strikes this fall killed two top Al Qaeda operatives there—Abu Afghan al-Masri, an Egyptian who served as a judge in a J.F.S. court in Idlib, and Haydar Kirkan, who was Al Qaeda’s senior terror-attack planner for Turkey and Europe and had ties to bin Laden.
To Sunnis, the J.F.S. now seems less extreme than the Islamic State. Hundreds of Sunni youths from Tripoli, romanticizing its mission, have joined its ranks. “Its allegiance with Al Qaeda was a mistake,” Rafei told me. “It has active members who understand Islam. They are good people.”
On November 18th, which happened to be the day that the Trump transition team arrived at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reflected on the world that President-elect Trump will inherit. A large chunk of Indiana limestone, found in the rubble of the Pentagon after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks, was on his desk—handed down to every Secretary of Defense since 2001. The top priority, Carter said, will be finishing off the Islamic State. (The next four: containing Iranian influence, deterring North Korea, preventing Russian aggression in Europe, and encouraging stability in the Asian Pacific, in that order.)
U.S. policy is basically to eliminate all Jihadis. “We will kill as many isil as we can in the Mosul and Raqqa battles,” Carter told me, using another term for the Islamic State. “If they try to get out of town, we’ll try to kill them. If they go somewhere else, then we’ll continue to destroy them. So they may fight to the death, and they may try to survive, but we’ll be after them in either case.”
The initial purpose of the American re-engagement in Iraq was to avert genocide of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority trapped on barren Mt. Sinjar. “As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq,” President Obama vowed in 2014. But the mission quickly expanded across Iraq and, within a month, to Syria. The United States now has five thousand troops in Iraq and several hundred Special Operations Forces in Syria. The first American death in Syria occurred last month. U.S. warplanes have carried out more than twelve thousand air strikes—seven thousand in Iraq and more than five thousand in Syria. The cost averages $12.6 million a day.
The air strikes have eliminated some hundred and twenty leaders of the Islamic State, but U.S. intelligence estimates that there are still at least eighteen thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria. The number of new foreign fighters arriving has sharply diminished, partly because of the difficulties in getting there, but some are still showing up.
“We’re going to destroy the idea that there is an Islamic State,” Carter said. “They’ll see that, before their eyes, it’s not a place for foreign fighters, because there’s no place to go. There’ll be no training there. There’ll be no welcome there. And that magnetism that two years ago brought many foreign fighters—there’ll be no magnet left.”
He acknowledged a major catch: “My principal concern at this stage of the campaign is that the stability, reconstruction, and political rehabilitation will lag behind the military campaign.”
They are already—perhaps incurably—behind schedule. This has happened before. In 2006, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously warned the Bush Administration that a surge of troops to beat back Al Qaeda in Iraq could produce bigger problems after the troops withdrew. The military also feared that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government would fail to enact reforms to address the grievances and alienation of its Sunni minority. Today, thirteen years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the government in Baghdad has still not found a formula to share power among its disparate sects and ethnicities.
Instead, on October 22nd, five days after the Mosul campaign began, the Iraqi parliament passed a law banning the sale of alcohol. A month later, it passed a law conferring legal status on Shiite militias accused of extrajudicial killings and widespread abuses of the Sunni minority. The same militias, which now exceed a hundred thousand men, armed with tanks and heavy artillery, were tied to the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers during the eight-year U.S. intervention. The government, more broadly, suffers from political paralysis. Some say that corruption is worse than it was under Saddam.
“Iraq is not where it needs to be,” a senior Administration official told me. “But did anyone expect that there will be this moment where Iraqi politicians suddenly transform themselves?”
Syria is even more complex. The Al Qaeda franchise there flourishes. “The new President coming in,” the senior U.S. official told me, “will hear that this is the largest core Al Qaeda safe haven we have had—and I mean hard-core Al Qaeda.”
The Islamic State could eventually lose control of Raqqa, but it is expected to regroup in remote areas, such as Al Bukamal and Al Qaim, along the Syria-Iraq border. The movement may be disrupted, but U.S. officials concede that it will be almost impossible to totally dismantle it. An end to Syria’s wider six-year war—in any way that both stabilizes one of the most important geostrategic countries in the Middle East and favors U.S. interests—also seems increasingly remote.
And the quest for a caliphate goes on. “Al Qaeda might lay claim to it for a moment, and the Islamic State may lay claim to it, but there’s always been this dream of recapturing and bringing back the caliphate,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told me. “Who’s going to tap into that next?” ♦
Robin Wright is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and has written for the magazine since 1988.