Foreign Policy Essay

Is the Islamic State Defeated?

By Jacob Olidort
Sunday, March 17, 2019, 10:25 AM

Editor’s Note: Whether the Islamic State is out as well as down is hotly debated in the terrorism world. President Trump believes the group is defeated, but most analysts argue that it remains a major threat. How to measure defeat, though, is not given much consideration. Jacob Olidort of American University argues that the president basically has it right: If you look at a broad range of measures, the Islamic State is defeated and U.S. policy should reflect this win.

Daniel Byman


President Trump has insisted in recent months that the United States has defeated the Islamic State. “We just took over 100 percent caliphate,” he told reporters on Feb. 28. “That means the area of the land. We have 100 percent.” He has made similar claims for months, tweeting in December, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria.” Others, including senior government officials, have disagreed with this characterization. In January, former presidential special envoy for the Counter-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk said that “ISIS is not defeated” and that the administration’s new policy of reducing U.S. troop presence in Syria would give the group “new life.” Citing the terrorist attacks committed in the Islamic State’s name, most analysts argue that the group has not been entirely eliminated and cannot be considered defeated.

This is wrong. The Islamic State, as an organization and as a brand, is bound up in its concept of a caliphate, a territory-holding state. Without territory to govern, what is left of the Islamic State is fracturing internally and facing new competition from rival groups, and it is clear that the U.S. national security conversation is moving on.

When the Obama administration intervened against the Islamic State in Syria in 2014, it did not define what the organization’s “defeat” would look like, and failed to explain what kind of end-state it was seeking to realize in Syria (in part, perhaps, because its initial goals for Syria were connected to the attempted ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and not the Islamic State). These ambiguities have led to a basic disjointedness between the military campaign against the Islamic State’s territorial hold and the mission of stopping terrorist activity committed in the group’s name, which continues to the present. Indeed, they raise an obvious, but rarely discussed, question: How do we know when a group like the Islamic State is truly defeated?

The two most common measures of defeat for a terrorist group like the Islamic State are territorial control and terrorist attacks. But this must be understood in relation to other evidence, such as what the group’s members say about it, how the group relates to competitor jihadist groups in its principal area of operations and the messaging of other groups operating in its neighborhood. This larger context suggests that, while not every member of the Islamic State has been killed and not every inch of its territorial control has been eliminated, President Trump has it right: The group is “defeated enough” with respect to the threat it poses to the United States and its allies.

Studying the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in its regional and ideological contexts offers hints that the group is grappling with its turn of fate. New fissures within the group have opened over the past two years, with grievances ranging from issues of authenticity and ideological purity to organizational and bureaucratic failures. The Islamic State’s ideologues have acknowledged its changed circumstances and offered explanations for the defeats and loss of territory since the fall of Mosul. But these defenses haven’t been persuasive for some of the organization’s adepts, who have begun questioning why the Islamic State is experiencing a decline. The critical assessment extends beyond the group’s own internal debates; parts of the U.S. government intelligence and security world are also describing the group in terms that suggest defeat.

In addition to the Islamic State’s own communications, one can find evidence of its collapse by looking at the surroundings in which it operates. Defeat is also suggested by an environment of greater competition from other jihadist groups, which are challenging its media and territorial control. In recent weeks, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has consolidated control over Idlib and has formed alliances with a number of other groups. Its weekly newsletter, al-Iba’, offers political and social commentary on the state of the Syrian conflict and on the statements and policies of the United States and its partners, with comparatively fewer mentions (if any) about the Islamic State and other jihadists. In other words, HTS has claimed the narrative of the Syrian conflict.

This competition from HTS and others is a challenge to the Islamic State’s very brand, and it remains to be seen how enduring the damage will be. The Islamic State has presented itself as the most authentic and most legitimate originalist interpretation of the faith, but now other Sunni jihadist groups are threatening that message and vying to claim the Islamic State’s status.

The national security community has begun to view the Islamic State in a markedly different way that looks beyond the threats the group may pose. Official documents stress the organization’s threat as a terrorist organization, one of many, rather than as a proto-state and magnet for international recruits. The text of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) reflects this. “Despite the defeat of ISIS’s physical caliphate, threats to stability remain as terrorist groups with long reach continue to murder the innocent and threaten peace more broadly,” the strategy states on its first page, and, later, “Terrorism remains a persistent condition driven by ideology and unstable political economic structures, despite the defeat of ISIS’s physical caliphate” (emphasis added). The NDS authors’ word choice points to the lingering threat from “terrorism” and “terrorist groups,” though not specifically the threat posed directly by the Islamic State.

In the opening statement of his Annual Threat Assessment in front of Congress in January, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats was similarly careful in the words he used to describe the threat from the Islamic State. The group’s cameo appearances in the 20-page transcript are brief, and Coats framed his concern in terms of broader terrorist threats. “Remaining pockets of ISIS and opposition fighters will continue to stoke violence,” he warned, noting the group’s diminished capacity. In a discussion of “global threats,” Coats adopted language similar to the NDS to note that “terrorism remains a persistent threat and in some ways is positioned to increase in 2019.” He also explained that the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have “generated a large pool of skilled and battle-hardened fighters who remain dispersed throughout the region.” However, he did not single out the Islamic State as a particular concern. When he did mention the group, he noted that it “has returned to its guerilla-warfare roots,” is “continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide,” and “is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.” Noting the Islamic State’s intentions is important, and the fact that it commands fighters in a regional conflict is helpful context, but these factors do not indicate the relative threat it poses.

The fact that the Islamic State is defeated does not mean that it does not intend to resurface or to plan attacks against Western targets. Nor does any of this have any relation to U.S. objectives vis-a-vis al-Qaeda, which has operated differently from the Islamic State in ways that have influenced U.S. policy. The U.S. approach to combating al-Qaeda focuses squarely on its operations as a covert organization and is not muddled by conversations of caliphates and territorial control.

What this means is that President Trump is correct in assessing that the Islamic State is defeated—particularly insofar as U.S. national security priorities are concerned—and that perhaps there is less daylight between him and his national security advisers with respect to the threat emanating from the Islamic State than reported. In light of these observations, Trump is correct in calling to reassess our objectives in Syria. Not doing so could risk further enmeshing the United States in local conflicts at the expense of a clear foreign policy agenda.