ISIS: Disintegration or Metamorphosis

From State back to Guerilla Warfare

As the year 2017 nears its end, the governing structures which ISIS has erected in the past three years are also nearing a complete destruction under both the blows of the international coalition and its own internal fissures. The last audio message by ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, titled “Our Lord is our Sole Guide and Support” and disseminated by ISIS’s official media agency, al-Furqan, on the evening of September 28, 2017 confirms these suspicions.

The title itself betrays a sense of loneliness in the face of overwhelming forces. On one hand, ISIS has lost most of the urban centers that used to be under its control, such as Ramadi, Iraq, in February of 2016 and Mosul, Iraq in July of 2017. As for Raqqa, Syria, ISIS’s capital and the last of its strongholds, losing it is just a matter of time. On the other hand, during the last year, ISIS has witnessed vehement internal debates concerning its ideology as well as its military strategy.

The ideology and the state

During his audio message, al-Baghdadi focused on the core concepts of ISIS’s ideology, namely countering the two-pronged attack on Islam and the true Muslim Umma (i.e. community or nation) in order to save its sole and identity: from one side the “Western colonial Crusade” to eradicate Islam, and from the other side the Iranian, Shii expansionism aimed at subjugating Sunnis and/or converting them to Shiism. According to the ideology of ISIS, an Islamic state, of which there can be only one and which is equated with the Islamic State, is the shield that protects Sunnis, also identified with the Muslim Umma, from attacks to their existence by two historical enemies, the “polytheistic, Christian” West and the “heretical” Shiism. The battle field of this cosmic struggle between good and evil is Iraq and Syria. The West is viewed in this battle as a conniving agent that undermines Sunni authority and hegemony and thus allows Iran to infiltrate the state, take control of it, and use it to oppress and isolate Sunnis and then to slowly convert them to Shiism. As for the Arab or Muslim states in the region and around the world, they strayed away from the straight path of Islam either by accepting the secular ideas of the West which led them to adopt its non-Islamic form of government, or by accepting alliances with the West against other Muslims, especially the Islamic State and the movement of international Jihadism. In both cases, these Muslim countries, who claim to represent Sunnis, failed to stem the Iranian, Shii onslaught. A special place is always reserved for Saudi Arabia as the “imposter” who claims to champion the Sunni cause, and who is in fact a “puppet” to the West. 

Although ISIS is the latest stage in the development of international Sunni Jihadism, which is a byproduct of militant Sunni Salafism, the events of the last two decades have helped crystallize the aforementioned ideology of Sunni victimology. The American invasion of Iraq launched a project of state- and nation-building which started with a massive deBaathification of the Iraqi state followed by a system of sectarian quotas which favored the Shia sect. The deBaathification dismantled the majority Sunni state apparatus and left overnight half a million members of the Iraqi military and intelligence services unemployed. The quota system also left the Sunnis of Iraq feeling excluded and disadvantaged. It is ironic that the Sunnification of the Iraqi state under Saddam, which started after the Gulf War in 1991, was replaced after the American invasion in 2003 by an equally sectarian system that favored Shia. This process, intentionally or not, replaced the old Shii victimology with a Sunni one, and thus played right into the hands of al-Qaeda. These unemployed, Sunni ex-officers joined forces with al-Zarqawi to form the Islamic State in Mesopotamia, a parallel state for Sunnis that mainly operated in the so-called Sunni triangle east of Baghdad. The Islamic State in Mesopotamia, as a consequence, was a new type of terrorist organizations that recruited members with professional bureaucratic and military skills; that aspired to become an independent state; and that had the appropriate ideology for it, namely Sunni nationalism revolving around a victimology based on a theory of international conspiracy. The situation in Syria, whether we put its starting point in 2011 or before, produced an environment that mimicked the situation in Iraq, namely a Shii-dominated state that targeted the Sunni communities under its rule. It was quite logical for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Mesopotamia to relaunch their operations in Syria; the latter separated from al-Qaeda and morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The end of the state and the regression to guerilla warfare

In his latest message, al-Baghdadi also signaled the end of an era and the beginning of a “new” one: “Soldiers of Islam and supporters of the Caliphate everywhere in the world, [I call upon you] to intensify the blows; make among your targets the media centers of the infidels and their houses of intellectual war; who [amongst you will target] the scholars of immorality, the preachers of evil and sedition; so continue your Jihad and your blessed operations. Woe to you [soldiers relenting in your effort] lest the Crusaders and the apostates enjoy sweet living and peaceful abode in the midst of their land while your brethren are tasting bombardment, killing, and destruction. Far from the classical, state-run military campaigns, al-Baghdadi is aware that times have changed when he calls for a change of tactics and a regression to guerilla warfare. It is a first for a Jihadi leader to single out media centers and think tanks as targets of attacks. It is however in tune with the concept of “a war of identities” with the West that ISIS has adopted as a center-piece of its ideology.


Al-Baghdadi’s message implicitly acknowledges the new reality on the ground; namely that the state project has failed, or is no longer capable of sustaining governing and military structures within thriving urban areas such as Mosul or Raqqa. He is reverting to an old mode of operation where a secret organization, held together by a righteous ideology, conducts a war of terror and attrition against its enemies through a network of small terrorist groups within an area controlled by a weak state and inhabited by a sympathetic population. We expect that ISIS would retreat to the Sunni triangle in Iraq, its birth place, in order to launch operations against its enemies in Iraq and Syria; namely the regular Iran-supported Iraqi Army, the regular Russia-supported Syrian army, and the US-supported, Kurdish-led Democratic Syria Forces. If ISIS, in its bid to form a state, has had to oppress local, Sunni actors; its regression to the old Jihadi models of either terrorist attacks or guerilla warfare would regalvanize the local Sunni populations around the old “champion” of their cause. It would not be difficult for ISIS to rebrand its new tactics as a war of liberation of Sunnis against the Christian West and the Shii Iran; all while waiting for another opportunity to relaunch the state project.

Defeating or Ending ISIS

Defeating ISIS is simply winning a battle, but ending ISIS requires the elimination of the conditions that gave rise to this phenomenon; namely the failed states of the Middle East and the rise of Iranian imperialism in the form of a Shii takeover of the state apparatus in neighboring Sunni-majority countries. In the absence of the international community’s will to tackle these two pressing issues, “ending” ISIS is nothing but wishful thinking that is not grounded  in any objective reality. To illustrate our claim we can simply contrast the ease with which ISIS took over the Sunni city of Mosul in June of 2014 and the difficulty with which the Iraqi Army recuperated the same city two years later in October of 2016. A small number of lightly equipped ISIS fighters chased away within days several thousand heavily equipped regular Iraqi soldiers. At that time, the loss of Mosul was not considered a defeat of the Iraqi state but a defeat of Shiism that necessitated a call for a holy Jihad by the top Shii clerics in Iraq. This call for a specifically Shii Jihad  then resulted in the formation of the Popular Mobilization, an Iranian supported, Shii paramilitary militia that later helped the regular army retake the city. After two years of preparations it was not the regular Iraqi army who dislodged ISIS and retook Mosul, but a large coalition that consisted of American jet fighters, Iranian forces, contingents of the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Popular Mobilization militia, in addition to large sections of the regular Iraqi army. These forces were preceded by lengthy aerial and artillery bombardment campaigns that left the city in ruins.


Therefore, the answer to the pressing question “will defeating ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa bring the end of this phenomenon?” is a resounding no. We must remember that killing Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi did not end the organizations they have created, but helped the rise of a new generation of International Jihadi organizations. We can confidently state that defeating and eliminating the fifty thousand fighters concentrated in Mosul and Raqqa will only disperse them and cause the rise of many terrorist cells in the West and around the world. Tackling extremismmust start with the political context that produced it, namely the context of marginalization and exclusion. The Sunnis of Iraq must be given access to the state and its resources. The ten million Sunni refugees and internally displaced in Syria must also be given justice against the oppression and political marginalization perpetrated by the Iranian supported Assad regime. Speaking in less sectarian terms, the peoples of the Middle East must be given a chance to rid themselves of the brutal and entrenched dictatorships that have been governing them for more than half a century.


The Arab Spring started with peaceful demands for transitions toward democracy. This course of events was then reversed by regional and international players who supported the old regimes within each country. The success of the revolutions in Egypt and Syria would have been an efficient antidote to the ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The peaceful transition toward democracy by means of these peaceful movements would have undermined the basic premise of International Jihadism, namely that any change in the Middle East is impossible without violence. Six years after the Arab Spring, it is clear that the rise of Jihadists and non-state actors is not the only trend. The other trend is supporting dictatorial regimes in the name of international stability. These regimes are the ones responsible for creating the dynamics that led to the rise and thriving of ISIS. The sectarian regime in Iraq led to the rise of Zarqawi and the Islamic State in Mesopotamia. Moreover, the unchecked brutality of the Assad regime in Syria helped transform these organizations into ISIS. It seems that Egypt is also following the same route; only the future can tell.

 It was also published on Zenith in November, 2017. Click here