Beware the Islamic State's Staying Power

"American military power, though formidable, cannot vanquish IS, and even its efficacy against terrorism is debatable."

Does Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have cause to worry? A crude allies-versus-adversaries tally would suggest he does. But appearances can be deceptive. The Islamic State (IS), of which Baghdadi is the Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), has taken some hits lately, but it’s in no danger of being knocked out.

The array of foes that IS faces is certainly formidable. And they are coalescing to destroy the Caliphate Baghdadi and his acolytes have created in swaths of Syria and Iraq. The United States, Britain, France, Australia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, and Russia have come to agree that the Caliphate must be put out of commission. The Kurds of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey agree.

Together, these states and communities possess formidable resources. The United States alone has reportedly spent nearly $9 million a day since starting its anti-IS air campaign last fall.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are bombing IS’s bastions in Syria. American, British, French, and Australian warplanes are doing so in Iraq. Jordan’s jets have struck IS sites in both Syria and Iraq.

Aside from this combined air campaign, the Caliphate is under attack on the ground. Shiite militias trained and equipped by Iran, and attached to the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) collective, have pushed northward into its Sunni-majority territories, as has the U.S.-backed Iraqi army. Kurdish fighters from Syria (the YKP, People’s Defense Units) and Iraq, and more intermittently from Turkey, have moved against its northern flank.

IS has suffered some significant setbacks as a result. Kurdish fighters (Syrian as well as Iraqi) have expelled its forces from Kobane (aka Ayn al-Arab) and Tal Abyad, adjacent to the Turkish border. In Iraq, IS soldiers have been driven from Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold and source of oil wealth, which also happens to be Saddam Hussein’s birthplace. Though the Caliphate continues to hold Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, which it seized in June 2014, it forfeited the Mosul dam two months later.

If nothing else, these reversals punctured the aura of invincibility that the image-obsessed, media savvy Caliphate has created and used as a tool for recruitment and sowing fear. Though IS embraces a Salafist-inspired doctrine rooted in an idealized conception of Arabia’s 7th century Islamic community, it runs a 21st century, Internet-driven, PR machine.

Despite its losses, IS’s destruction is scarcely imminent. Though damaged, it retains important sources of strength and resilience, even appeal.

To begin with, unlike al-Qaeda, it has by any reasonable definition established a state. With its capital in Raqqa, Syria, and a population of about eight million, the Caliphate extends from northwestern Syria to the western approaches of Baghdad and protrudes northward toward the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. Estimates of its size range from 11,000 square miles (equivalent to Belgium) to an implausible 81,000 square miles (approximating Britain minus Northern Ireland), the variance depending on what’s counted: populated lands in Syria and Iraq, or those plus uninhabited terrain in these two countries and the dozen or so other places further afield where militant Islamist groups have aligned with IS. But even the smaller approximation is impressive given that IS emerged only in 2013 and Baghdadi proclaimed his Caliphate a little more than a year ago.

IS has also created governing institutions, central and provincial, that run the gamut. Shari’a law is interpreted and enforced (aided by blood-chilling forms of punishment). Taxes are collected. Schooling—based on Wahhabi precepts—is provided, as are various social services. Intelligence is gathered, soldiers recruited and trained. An apparatus of horror is tasked with kidnappings, beheadings and forced amputations, mass atrocities, and sexual slavery—all justified by bizarre theological pronouncements.

But the Caliphate would never have achieved what it has were it led by a small band of sociopaths that relied solely on brutality to extract obedience. There’s more to IS than its horrendous cruelties would suggest. In anarchic, violent Syria and Iraq, it has acquired a social base by providing people—more precisely, those who adhere to its draconian theological rules, don’t rebel, and refrain from aiding and abetting its enemies—security, functional institutions, and basic economic necessities. Many of those living under IS rule doubtless have no choice, but others are drawn to its mission of building an Islamic polity and restoring the pieties and glories of old.