The “mini-empire” that ISIL built in Iraq and Syria is collapsing, which fuels a sense of triumphalism in the West. The logic is simple: ISIL made itself simultaneously global public enemy number one and the most vibrant magnet for global Salafi jihadis, thanks to its control of territory and claims to having established a caliphate. The group also publicly declared that it aimed to “remain and expand,” taken to be a reference to its territorial presence in the region. So, the logic goes, once ISIL’s territory is gone, its claims to a caliphate will evaporate. Salafi jihadis who flocked to or cheered for ISIL because of its ability to hold and govern territory in the name of the caliphate will, per this logic, start to see the group as incompetent. Therefore, many in the West believe that while ISIL may remain a threat in terms of conducting terror attacks abroad, its failure to “remain and expand” on its own territory will eventually deal a decisive blow to its reputation.
This is the wrong conclusion to draw from ISIL’s military defeat. ISIL will most likely frame its military defeat as a victory of some sort. While Western analysts may be tempted to interpret this as a cop-out mechanism voiced by a clear “loser,” it is also likely that ISIL’s allure in the eyes of Salafi jihadis will not diminish as much as many in the national security community expect it to. ISIL plans to market defeat within a narrative of hardship, heroism, martyrdom, and “temporary” withdrawal from its territory.
What can be referred to as “Muslim territoriality,” and particularly the concept of “Hijrah,” suggests that ISIL will have the ideological firepower, along with a sense of legitimacy that can be traced to the person of the Prophet and the “original” Islamic state born in 622, to save face even after its territorial control in Iraq and Syria collapses entirely. ISIL will present its struggle as the story of a righteous underdog that “remained” on its territory for more than three years. As I wrote more than two years ago, the group will argue that it “defied the odds until the bitter end and its “organizational martyrdom” should be cherished and applauded for its own sake.” ISIL will then frame its military defeat in terms of “Hijrah,” a concept that legitimizes strategic withdrawal and relocation when faced with extraordinarily overwhelming odds. Charlie Winter’s recent analysis of the changing patterns of ISIL propaganda, which shows that ISIL is coming to terms with its defeat in an extraordinarily “stoic” fashion, provides evidence that the group is attempting to re-brand its allure in the eyes of Salafi jihadis. This may look like desperation to Western eyes that define “win” and “lose” in very different ways than ISIL does, but the terrorist group has a sound theory behind its strategy, one that can be traced to its specific understanding of territoriality and the place of Hijrah in it.
Even though the network distinguished itself with its territoriality, there has been little discussion of the territorial logic of ISIL — what it really means for the group to be territorial or how its territoriality affects its short- and long-term strategy. Initial attempts to parse this out focused on ISIL’s apocalyptical propaganda. Most notably, analysts like William McCants and Graeme Wood drew attention to the focus that the group’s propaganda placed on Dabiq, a town in northern Syria with a unique role in the apocalyptic prophecies on which ISIL builds its public ideology — and also the name of its now-defunct online English-language journal. The propaganda highlighted Dabiq as the location for an epic battle between the righteous (ISIL, in the group’s cosmology) and the Roman army, a vague reference that likely stands for crusaders and/or Western states and their regional puppets (again, according to ISIL cosmology). Most notably, the group’s founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, famously noted in 2004: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify… until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”
Accordingly, both McCants and Wood warned policymakers to pay close attention to Dabiq, to which the group was supposed to have attached enormous importance. This prediction was far from what actually happened. In October 2016, a modest force consisting of Turkish special forces and the Free Syrian Army pressed the town, and ISIL withdrew hastily almost without a fight. ISIL’s response to the loss of Dabiq, the territorial epicenter of its propaganda, was telling: The group changed the name of its journal to Rumiyah and carried on. The Dabiq episode suggests that ISIL’s territorial strategies and priorities do not follow from its apocalyptical propaganda.
An alternate approach would be to examine ISIL’s territorial practices on two grounds: first, in the context of Islamic states of the past, which suggests significant differences from the Westphalian model on which the modern state system is built, and second, in terms of a strategic pragmatism that defies adherence to apocalyptic territorial objectives. Examining the territorial logic of ISIL through this lens shows that analysts are wrong to believe that ISIL’s military defeat will lead it to lose its appeal in the eyes of Salafi jihadis worldwide. Rather, ISIL will brand defeat as a test from God and a temporary setback, and will continue to inspire followers old and new. It is also likely that the group will watch existing conflict zones very closely, waiting for an opportunity to re-insert itself as a territorial actor.
So what does ISIL’s territoriality look like? As I wrote in August 2015, unlike modern states that legitimize their authority by “fixing” [Westphalian] borders and treating them as “impregnable shells,” ISIL professes “territorial flexibility.” Such flexibility was shared by many extra-Westphalian empires, including Islamic states of the past like the Ottoman Empire. These pre-modern empires emphasized not “hard” borders, but open and fluid frontiers. This approach allowed these empires to project an ideology of continuous expansion, while making it easier to accommodate strategic retreats and territorial contractions. Just like these empires, ISIL projects an expansionist ideology, but is much more comfortable with territorial losses than a nation-state would be.
Furthermore, unlike a nation-state, ISIL rejects “spatial specificity,” or the idea that a state should be defined in terms of a specific and pre-determined area. In this way, ISIL draws upon the pre-modern understanding of Muslim territoriality, which refrains from attributing centrality and specificity to any location but Mecca. The holy city hosts Ka’baa, an ancient structure believed to be the portal between “dunya” (the physical world) and “jennah” (paradise) as well as the geographical and spiritual center of “dunya” (which is why Muslims pray facing Ka’baa). Following the basic tenets of this early Islamic tradition allows ISIL to think of its territory as “portable.” The meaning the group attributes to its infamous black flags is illustrative. While a nation-state’s flag typically represents sovereignty over a specific piece of demarcated space, ISIL believes its geographical extent follows the flag: ISIL is where the black flags fly. Consequently, ISIL does not necessarily need the lands it has ruled over to sustain its claims to statehood. It merely needs some territory, somewhere, and it may well find that territory after a period of regrouping.
ISIL’s territorial flexibility and “portability” has a lot to do with the concept of Hijrah. Terrorism experts are familiar with the concept, which stands for emigration. Numerous jihadi leaders such as American-born propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki have invoked the concept, as has ISIL itself. The idea is to call on Muslims living outside “dar al-Islam” (land of Islam), especially in Western countries (accepted in jihadi geopolitics as “dar al-Harb,” land of war), to emigrate to lands of Islam to join Salafi jihadi groups, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the concept’s origins also have a distinctly spatial component, one that has generally been ignored in terrorism research.
Hijrah refers to a specific incident in 622, a date that is itself of tremendous importance for Islam. In fact, the Islamic calendar, called the hijri calendar, takes the “flight” as the first day of Year 1. That year, facing overwhelming pressure and threats from their enemies, the Prophet Mohammed and his followers were compelled to leave Mecca for Madina in a move that modern spectators would call a strategic withdrawal of epic proportions. The relocation of the infant “Islamic state” was fraught with numerous hardships, and the Prophet could return to Mecca only in 629, after numerous trials and tribulations. The psychological and physical suffering during Hijrah was interpreted as a “test” from God and the price for ultimate victory. This strategic contraction or relocation left a legacy for Muslim territoriality, rendering it not only acceptable but actually advisable for Muslims to relocate, or to contract territorially, when faced with overwhelming odds and threats.
Islamic states throughout history have legitimized similar withdrawals by pointing directly to the person of the Prophet, whose words and deeds are taken as the ultimate and unquestionable right path in Islamic thought. This precedent made it easier for subsequent Islamic states such as the Ottoman Empire to pragmatically withdraw from areas where they faced overwhelming military challenges, and do so without contradicting their claims to Islamic statehood.
Similarly, the concept of Hijrah makes it possible for ISIL to move operations elsewhere or temporality disperse. Paradoxically, the coalition of 60-plus nations that has been dealing a crushing military defeat to ISIL is also allowing the group to invoke the concept of Hijrah. The coalition may suffer from conflicts of interest and lack of coordination, but its combined resources far surpass those controlled by the group, giving ISIL the opportunity to market its struggle as “Caliphate versus the World” to its sympathizers.
ISIL has already signaled that its propaganda efforts are shifting in this direction. In 2015, former ISIL spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani publicly acknowledged that the group was expecting, or at least preparing, to lose its territory. More specifically, Adnani said, “Would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all of the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!” As Haroro Ingram and Craig Whiteside recently highlighted, as early as 2015, ISIL was aware that “its days were numbered” and preparing itself for what comes after its loss of territory.
Therefore, while ISIL’s territorial losses are most certainly hurting the group, such losses do not mean ISIL’s allure in the eyes of Salafi jihadis will diminish proportionally. ISIL will try to attract followers by highlighting that it was able to “remain” for more than three years against overwhelming odds and market its collapse as a temporary setback. ISIL will also put the blame for this setback not on its financial or administrative shortcomings, but rather on the aggressive measures taken by the multi-national coalition. ISIL’s likely narrative of victory in disguise will build on the precedent of the Prophet, who himself strategically withdrew from the geographical and spiritual center of the physical world in the face of overwhelming odds. Such a narrative also opens the door for a more “practical” prophecy, one that does not involve apocalypse: The Prophet returned to Mecca victorious after years of trials and hardships, which suggests that ISIL, if it “passes” this new test from God, may do the same in Iraq and Syria, or even somewhere else.
The Hijrah interpretation can also address a puzzle regarding ISIL’s strategy for territorial defense and withdrawal so far. Between 2014 and 2016, ISIL displayed a very pragmatic approach to defense, withdrawing from areas whenever faced with superior forces. However, it fought a seemingly suicidal set of battles in Mosul and Raqqa, despite the fact that the odds were overwhelmingly against the group. How can we reconcile ISIL’s earlier pragmatic approach with its suicidal defense in Raqqa and Mosul? One all-too-easy explanation is that the group’s leaders were strategically incompetent, and their earlier optimism and pragmatism was subsequently replaced by suicidal desperation.
Interpreting ISIL’s territorial strategy in terms of Hijrah tells us otherwise. The concept provides legitimacy for an ISIL withdrawal, but it also requires that ISIL show, in no uncertain terms, that it put up a fight and paid a price before retreating. Strategic withdrawal from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa would have postponed ISIL’s final military defeat somewhat, but it would also have undermined its claims to a legitimate Hijrah. Putting up a seemingly suicidal fight in its two strongholds before dispersing” was the only way that the group’s strategic narrative efforts could survive its military defeat.
In short, a territorial analysis should send a clear message to policymakers: ISIL may withdraw from or disperse within Iraq and Syria to set up shop elsewhere without contradicting its claims to Islamic statehood. It was control of territory that allowed ISIL’s rise, but taking away its territory, without making sure that the group does not have the same opportunity again, will not guarantee the ultimate defeat of the group. The national security community should be alert to the territorial threat ISIL may pose in the future and closely monitor not only Iraq and Syria, but also other potential target areas, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Until around late 2015, ISIL was commonly viewed with alarmism and pessimism. “Every time we think ISIL has appalled the world and sabotaged itself,” New York Times columnist David Brooks put it more than two years ago, “it [held] its own or gain[ed] strength.” As ISIL collapses in Iraq and Syria, policymakers should not trade excessive pessimism for excessive triumphalism. Being able to establish a territorial entity and “remaining” for more than three years was a major achievement for the global Salafi jihadi movement, and one most national security analysts could not have imagined in 2013. ISIL will do its best to market its military defeat as victory in disguise, a test from God and a price to be paid for ultimate victory. Meanwhile, it will prepare for the next iteration of experiments in establishing an Islamic state, somewhere, sometime. ISIL’s defeat is an event to celebrate, but its meteoric rise in the first place, in front of the eyes of many in the national security community, should serve as a reminder that we are better off taking the group’s strategic and ideological flexibility very seriously.
Burak Kadercan is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College and Inaugural Resident Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.