As Defeat In The Levant Looms, The Islamic State Hunkers Down In Libya, Sinai, And Elsewhere [Opinion]

The bombing of a mosque in Sinai is the sign of a shifting doctrine for the Islamic State.

Iraqui troops advance to the desert to root out the remaining IS militants in the country.
Osama Sami / AP

The bombing of a mosque in Sinai is the sign of a shifting doctrine for the Islamic State.

Back in 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, hereby referred to as the “IS,” rose to prominence as its forces pushed Iraqi and Syrian troops away from key cities and locations. Such gains were accompanied by brutal terror tactics and video executions of prisoners.

During the three years that followed, the organization gathered more than a few enemies. The U.S.-led coalition of somewhat loose allies that included antagonistic factions like the Kurds or the Turkish concentrated efforts against the IS, while Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government made the organization one of many targets.

In the eastern side of this campaign, the Iraqi forces carried the brunt of the campaign, although their performance was erratic at best. However, the IS never had the material nor the manpower required to sustain such a long campaign. During the last months, the Iraqi military pushed the organization out of the last key towns and cities.

According to Reuters, this week Baghdad launched a campaign to root out the last fighters hiding in the deep desert.

This happens just a few days after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared the defeat of the IS in Iraq and Syria on live television, the Independent reports. While militarily defeated in the Levant, the IS may be just transforming into something else that would allow the organization to survive for a while longer.

The recent bombing of a mosque in Sinai proves this point.

A burnt out truck looms in the streets after the terrorist attack in the Sinai.
More than 300 people died in the attack on the Al Rawdah mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed, including 27 children. [Image by Tarek Samy/AP Images] Tarek Samy / AP

The Middle East and the African coast of the Mediterranean have been a conflict hotspot for a long time. The dawn of the Arab Spring and the chaos that followed allowed for a surge of violence as a myriad of small groups rose to take the power voids left by shuddering local governments.

This situation was further complemented by the colonial legacy of the current national borders, which were defined by the European powers until as recently as the 20th century. As such, many groups find greater kinship to elements that are outside of the state, such like tribes or trans-national organizations like the Islamic Brotherhood.

Thus, many countries in the region have been falling apart, sometimes from their inception, and the process has only accelerated since 2011. In this context, terrorist organizations can find a niche and prosper.

In Libya, after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the disparate factions that fought the regime turned against each other, and the fighting continues to this day.

According to the website War is Boring, the civil war involves not only the two competing governments and other regional players but has also drawn in foreign forces, like the U.S. and Egypt.

It is a chaotic situation. Furthermore, Libya is a vast territory, with large deserts and many hiding places. In this kind of situation, an organization like the IS can reorganize and re-establish itself.

The Sinai Peninsula, in Egypt, is another case where chaos and growing lawlessness may allow the IS to survive.

The region is strategically important, as it effectively connects Africa to Asia. Israel and Egypt fought bitterly for it in the past. More recently, the region became known for its tourism industry. However, local populations are still marred by poverty.

In such circumstances, extremist organizations can find the kind of support that allows them to take root. This is what allowed al-Qaeda, itself led by Egyptian nationals, to establish itself in the Sinai, The Guardian reports.

Al-Qaeda is not the only terrorist organization operating in the area, though, and it is known that the IS has been there since the 2014 expansion. The local IS-affiliated group, Wilayat al-Sinai, has been targeting mostly Christian communities. They were also responsible for the downing of a Russian airliner back in 2015 and the deaths of all 224 people aboard.

This Friday’s bombing of the mosque in Bir al-Abed, which killed more than 300 people, was attributed to the group for a good reason: it fits the IS’s modus operandi quite well.

The targeted mosque belongs to the Sufi sect of Muslim faith, with is frowned upon by others elements of the religion. The Sufis themselves have been actively persecuted throughout the ages. The IS identifies itself with this approach, especially given its puritanical view of Islam.

Moreover, the al-Qaeda in Sinai targets mostly military targets, as it intends to win over the local populations. This doesn’t mean that al-Qaeda is necessarily tamer than the IS, only that it is more pragmatic.

The setting for a bloodier conflict is thus set, and in the midst of the chaos, the Islamic State may yet find the opportunity to thrive. Albeit militarily defeated in Syria and Iraq, the organization has proved to be resilient and opportunistic. It still caters to those who believe in a more extremist and violent approach to Islam. Furthermore, those who oppose it tend to also be mutual enemies, which creates the necessary openings for the organization to recover from any missteps.

This means that the IS will probably follow the same path the al-Qaeda did and return to terror tactics while it regains its strength. Then, maybe, they’ll be able to try to forge a new caliphate somewhere else.

[Featured Image by Osama Sami/AP Images]