The two-pronged strategy
In July 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Islamic State (IS) had been driven out of Mosul, the country′s second-largest city, which it captured three years ago. Then, in October, IS finally lost Raqqa, the capital of its self-styled caliphate – and the last true city under its control. Yet these defeats do not mean the downfall of IS, much less of Islamist terrorism, or even that the Middle East′s most acute conflicts will be resolved anytime soon.
To be sure, the fading dream of an Islamic caliphate will weaken the ability of IS and kindred groups to recruit disaffected youth. Already, the flow of foreign would-be jihadists crossing from Turkey into Syria to join IS has plunged, from 2,000 per month to about 50. Yet such groups still have powerful lures at their disposal. Most fundamentally, they are able to offer disillusioned young people a sense of purpose and belonging. The fact that this purpose entails murder, terror and mayhem may make it all the more appealing to frustrated and resentful youth.
Reasons to be wary
Despite recent setbacks, writing off the threat posed by IS is as unwarranted as it is premature. Consider the history of al-Qaida, which proves that even if a state that nourishes a terrorist group fails, a radical ideology can continue to fuel violence near and far.
The group′s leaders must simply adjust their methods, in order to continue attracting recruits and planning attacks from outside the borders of a friendly sovereign state. To that end, in Iraq, terrorist groups will continue to exploit sectarianism, which had divided the country long before the United States invaded it in 2003. More broadly, they can capitalise on escalating tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims to attract alienated young Sunnis.
This increasingly dangerous dynamic is apparent in the decision of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, owing to its alleged ties with regional terrorist groups and Iran, Saudi Arabia′s main rival for regional influence. It is also visible in the devastating proxy war in Yemen, which has become a key battleground in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.