Isis, a year of the caliphate: Where will the so-called ‘Islamic State’ be a year from now?

In the final instalment of our series, a panel of experts suggests most predictions don’t bode well for those opposing the group

Isis fighters during a parade in Raqqa, Syria
Isis fighters during a parade in Raqqa, Syria

Isis has grown in just a few years from being a minor rebel group to one of the most successful and dangerous terror organisations ever formed.

One year on from its declaration of its territories as a caliphate, it controls vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, receives new claims of allegiance on an almost monthly basis and inspires terror attacks around the world.

But where will it be in one year’s time? Here, we ask a panel of leading authorities on conflict in the Middle East if they think Isis will have shrunk, maintained its strength – or become more powerful than ever.

Shifted to an international focus

Daniel Koehler is the director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies (Girds)

Isis will need to transform into a more al-Qaeda-style global network structure. Within the jihadist ideology they will shift from the near enemy (Syria, Iraq…) to the far enemy (USA, Europe) and change their tactics to international terrorism.

Isis will not be able to hold this territory permanently, their finances are not sustaining governmental structures and they already have massive problems with hunger and disease.

Many parts of the population suffer under their occupation, although some parts of the Sunni tribes still see Isis as a better ruler than the Iraqi government for example. But this will also change as soon as Isis cannot provide for them.

Kurdish and Iraqi forces and Allied airstrikes will continue to take a toll on the fighting power of Isis. They will also concentrate more on Syria, as they can be more effective there. The only chance for Isis to survive on the long run is turning into a global terror network.

Greater virtual armies

Farah Pandith is a former Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the US State Department and senior fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics

When we look a year from now in June 2016, it really depends on the leadership of both state and non-state actors. They may or may not have the same physical footprint on the ground, but it’s the virtual footprint I am very concerned about.

The virtual armies will still be active in a year, we will not lose the content that Isis and other groups like it have put out there and the availability for millennials to see that ideology and to be inspired by it will still be present.

Already we are seeing Isis as a functioning state, one where taxes are collected, laws implemented, trade flourishing albeit of course through rule by brutality and fear. They will be looking to reinforce this further.

Spread to Southeast Asia

Charlie Winter is an analyst with the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam

It totally depends on what happens in terms of military efforts, but one thing that we can certainly expect is Isis becoming more international by the day – look at Chechnya, where they appear now to have an affiliate.

This time last year it was a lot easier to understand the idea of Isis, when it was focused on Syria and Iraq. But now it has spread across Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus.

I would expect it to expand next to open a franchise in Southeast Asia, so perhaps Indonesia or the Philippines. That will probably come in the next few months rather than the next year.

One thing Isis needs to do is look like it’s expanding – regardless of what happens in Syria and Iraq, it will try to continue to expand, establish new borders and project its menace further. It has to do this so it looks powerful, appealing and defiant in the face of the international coalition.

Still in business

Patrick Cockburn is The Independent’s Middle East correspondent

One year from now Isis is likely to be still in business - an important question is whether will it advance further and take big cities in western Syria.

Maintaining its size and strength

Hassan Hassan is the co-author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror and associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House

Isis will remain as we know it today for at least a year. Depending on how the strategy to fight it improves over the coming months, it is likely to shrink in some areas, especially in those bordering committed local forces such as near the Kurdish and Shia areas in Iraq.

But it is likely to expand in other areas, especially in central and southern Syria. By the end of year, the group will probably keep its size and strength but not in the current form.

Unlikely to implode like al-Qaeda

Dr Natasha Underhill is an expert on terrorism in the Middle East at Nottingham Trent University and author of Countering Global Terrorism and Insurgency

Organisations like Isis tend to become too extreme and brutal, even for those who see their cause as valid. This has happened in Iraq in the past, when the Awakening Councils essentially almost destroyed al-Qaeda.

But the difference between then and today is that there are no US troops to support such an Awakening, nor is the Iraqi government stable enough to push such a turnaround.

It seems that we have now gone a year and Isis is getting stronger and is still being supported both domestically and internationally by a steady flow of fighters only too willing to give up their lives for the cause.

Unless the group makes a massive mistake in terms of pushing the populations it targets too far with their tactics and strict interpretation of Sharia law, it would seem that the group may still be with us well into 2016.

Never mind just a year’s time

Joseph Willits is an official with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) and a former teacher based in Syria

In the short term Isis may continue to branch out into the domain of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. It will be looking to expand, bring other groups into the fold, and maintain this seemingly unstoppable momentum. But it would be a failing to simply look at the Isis phenomenon as a short term project, which in many cases the West has done.

Their ambitions of statehood aim to eradicate the borders of Iraq and Syria amongst others, and in the long term much further, is one for ten, twenty (or maybe more) years time.

We can see from their recruitment drives – attracting fighters from across the world for future conflicts, searching for doctors, engineers, computer programmers, and establishing states services such as a health care system – that their ambitions of statehood aim much further than the borders of Iraq and Syria, looking forward 20 or more years’ time.

Pushed back and undermined

Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, via a spokesperson

Overall, the Global Coalition is pushing back Isil (another name for Isis). The direction of travel is clear and we are committed to Isil’s defeat. We continue to discuss with key partners the military campaign and the Coalition’s efforts to cut off Isil’s finances, reduce the flow of fighters, undermine their brutal ideology, and stabilise areas liberated from Isil.

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