Q8 What will ISIS look like by the end of 2020 in the Middle East specifically in terms of strength and structure? Will it continue to be a degraded and simmering problem, eradicated, or reform into something more enduring and virulent?
New Year’s Eve 2019 Forecast (What’s this?)
I actually made this forecast back in 2016, at a conference in Europe where I was presenting on ISIS and what would happen if they were collapsed as an emerging-state actor. I describe some of that presentation in this link below, but the TLDR is that ISIS in the Middle East would revert to a clandestine terror group locally, while still remaining a global sponsor of terror and insurgency outside the Middle East. If actors in the local space (Syria, SDF, Iraq, Iran, US) took their eye off the ball, ISIS would return as an insurgency within 3-5 years and even return as an emerging-state actor depending on the level of instability in these areas.
2020 marks two years after the collapse and we can see this forecast is holding true. ISIS is still active as a terror group in both Syria and Iraq, the local actors have taken their eye off the ball instead focusing on one another. Turkey v. Russia v. Syria v. Iran v. SDF in Syria after the US withdrawal and Iraq v. Iran v. US v. Protesters in Iraq. ISIS has even begun to “reclaim the night” in certain northern portions of the Sunni triangle where there is weak state oversight.
One contingency to that forecast I gave at the time was the death of al-Baghdadi and how the process of offering allegiance in bayat to new leaders might reshape ISIS, just as it caused a major facture within AQ after the death of OBL. Given that al-Baghdadi’s death was recent, and these bayat struggles can play on for months, it’s too early to say definitively. But even though we’re limiting this to the ME significant ISIS holdings abroad (such as Boko Haram in Nigeria) have reaffirmed their allegiance to the new leadership, and ISIS-K in Afghanistan remains strong. It doesn’t look like there’s the free-agency chaos one might hope from the death of al-Baghdadi.
I therefore stick with my 2016 forecast now that several enabling conditions have been met. Continued instability and distraction in Syria and Iraq will result in increasing clandestine terrorism, growth of terror networks and reconstitution of ISIS. I don’t think we’ll see them in a large open-insurgency however until late 2020 or 2021 at the earliest. The contingency to that forecast is if there’s a general collapse in Iraq due to the protests and strife with Iranian forces, where they may emerge publicly earlier.