Islamic Extremism Is Nothing if Not Protean

Whack the mole of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda will pop up. Pictured: Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Photo: Andres Pérez/ Flickr Commons)

Whack the mole of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda will pop up. Pictured: Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Photo: Andres Pérez/ Flickr Commons)

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the tide has turned in the war against the Islamic State. In the New Yorker, Robin Wright reports:

The Islamic State has recently lost ground—about forty per cent of the territory it seized in Iraq in 2014 and about ten per cent of its holdings in Syria. “Daesh is on the defensive. The Iraqis have gained momentum,” [Col. Scott] Naumann said.

Though, Nauman adds, ““Daesh is still motivated. The enemy gets a vote. It always does.” But what if, a few years down the line, the Islamic State is reduced to a rump state (the remnant of a once-larger state with a reduced territory)? Probably the same thing as when the Islamic State rose to fill the vacuum left by a battered Al Qaeda. And what might be foremost among those replacing the Islamic State as the premier international jihadist group? None other than the group that has long demonstrated a talent for gestation: Al Qaeda.

At the Daily Beast, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr write:

When 113 new documents recovered in 2011 during the fatal raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, became publicly available this month, perhaps the most noteworthy insight they offered was the extent of the strategic patience, to borrow a phrase from the Obama administration, possessed by al Qaeda.

… The record shows that the United States often has overlooked the extent of al Qaeda’s patient approach, sometimes mistaking its relative quiet for inactivity or collapse, and our failure to understand the group has helped it to gain critical operating space, and even worse, has sometimes caused us to blunder into its traps.

That stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State, which seems to have sealed its eventual fate by alienating the inhabitants of territories it captures with strict rule and heavy taxing, outraging the world with its torture-porn executions, and, most of all, incurring epic blowback in the form of massive airstrikes with its attacks in Europe and the United States that it plans or sanctions, or for which it accepts credit (blame to a saner group).