For the past several years, the jihadi terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS) has been in decline in its original territorial base of Iraq and Syria. Though continuing to posture as a state-building enterprise—indeed, as the restored caliphate whose caliph is the ruler of all the world’s Muslims—it has failed to establish control anywhere in the region since early 2019. Where IS survives here is as an insurgency with cells that carry out assassinations, ambushes, and bombings of security forces and civilian targets. In this sense the group remains alive, but the momentum is not with the insurgents, as recent reporting has shown. Emblematic of the decline is the failure of IS this year “to launch its annual [Ramadan] offensive” in Iraq—a tradition going back almost two decades to Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq. In Syria, meanwhile, the IS leadership has been under relentless assault from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which seems to announce a special operation targeting a senior IS leader almost monthly. Syria has ceased to be a reliable haven for IS leaders, including the “caliph,” of whom two were killed this past year. The pseudonymous Abu al-Husayn al-Husayni al-Quarashi, who was announced as the new caliph in November 2022, appears more or less powerless—if he has not already been killed as Turkey recently claimed.
Where IS has succeeded in the past several years, however, is in spreading its ideology to the more far-flung areas of Africa and Central Asia, where thousands of militants have taken up the cause of the caliphate to the great detriment of local populations. While one may question these local militants’ fidelity to IS as a centralized organization, the group does well in projecting organizational cohesion in its propaganda. In late 2022 and early 2023, for instance, hundreds of militants in these locales were pictured pledging bay‘a, or fealty, to the new caliph, despite being in complete ignorance of his identity or qualifications. The caliphate idea lives on, and especially in Africa, which together with Afghanistan features the most dangerous and active IS affiliates.