ISIS: The beginning of the Caliphate’s end?

By Alice Martini

In the last months, the world has witnessed a new, massive escalation of violence as the terrorist organization IS has managed to carry out attacks in different countries. Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Paris, Medina, Nice, Baghdad are, unfortunately, just some reminders of the brutality and savagery of this terrorist group that, considered the high number of casualties and the general sensation of terror it managed to create, may seem stronger than ever.

However, even if the organization has tried to depict these attacks as a manifestation of its power, analysts have started announcing the imminent fall of the Caliphate.[1] In spite of the fact that the terrorist group’s fall does not feel like a victory, these acts have been interpreted more as desperate gestures, carried out to hide the organization’s weakness. In reality, it seems that IS is no longer able to resist the regional and international military pressure and that it is experiencing difficulties both inside and outside its territory, which may signify the disappearance of the Caliphate.

As a matter of fact, IS is not expanding anymore, and it has not managed to conquer or seize any important town since Hit, in 2014.[2] Nevertheless, in spite of the image the organization has tried to give of itself, the Islamic State has never been an “invincible armada,” and when it has managed to expand, it has usually done it through strategic moves. For example, both Caliphate main cities where conquered taking advantage of a vacuum of power: Raqqa following the withdraw of the al-Nusra Front, and Mosul after the Iraqi army fled the city.[3]

Contrarily, where IS had proven a greater ability was in maintaining control of the territories it occupied. As a matter of fact, once it had conquered an area and installed its government, IS usually became very difficult to eradicate. Nevertheless, in the last year, not only the Caliphate has not been expanding, but that it has been shrinking: only in the last year, it has lost 47% of its territory in Iraq and 20% in Syria thanks to the global military counteroffensives.[4]

Undoubtedly, losing territory represents a serious problem for the organization since territoriality has always been IS main goal, to the point that the slogan it adopted is “remaining and expanding.” Therefore, the realization and maintenance of this project, together with the image of being an ever-expanding and invincible power, is central to the ideological survival of the organization in its current shape.

Furthermore, its “legitimacy” is strictly linked to the creation of a Caliphate in the conquered territories, where a new, “Islamic” society may be established. And this political and theological project has been the feature that distinguished IS from other network-like terrorist organizations to the point that it militants consider the Islamic State an insurgency, more than a terrorist organization. Therefore, the territorial losses represent a major concern for the group that, contrarily to its stated aims, is neither expanding nor remaining.

In addition to what already mentioned, IS is also facing problems within its territory. The international coalition airstrikes targeted not only its military resources but also its financial ones, causing serious damage to its economy. The terrorist group is no longer able to sustain the system of governance it has created. Besides, to maintain its armed struggle – and, therefore, its existence–, it had to reduce the “social services” it was providing to the population, decrease its salaries and increase its taxes.

These issues, added to the fact that because of the organization’s bureaucratic mismanagements, many jobs were lost, highly alienated the Syrian and Iraqi conquered population and ideologically undermined the project of the Caliphate, displaying its unfeasible nature. Because of this, IS has also been dramatically losing attractiveness towards its militants, something reflected in the number of foreign fighters willing to join the group in Syria, a flow that seems to have diminished of 90% in the last year.[5]

It is because of all these difficulties that IS is experiencing that some of the Caliphate’s officials have started preparing their combatants for a possible defeat.[6] Clearly, even if everything seems to be pointing at it, it may be too early to eulogize the group, as this has already displayed a strong, resilient nature in the past. However, what it seems more plausible to predict, is that, even if the announced fall of the Caliphate took place, this would not mean the disappearance of IS as a whole, as its brand and its ideology are very likely to survive, as the terrorist group would probably reemerge, with different appearances. As a matter of fact, in spite of the fall of the Caliphate, it is likely that IS will continue to threaten the international community in a different – but not less dangerous – shape.


  1. Jones, Seth. “ISIS Will Become More Deadly Before It Dies.The Rand Blog. November 18, 2015.
  2. ISIS Count Down Begins, Terror Group Prepares foe End of ‘Caliphate.Alalam. July 13, 2016.
  3. Neurink, Judit. “Isis in Iraq: The fall of Mosul to the jihadists was less of a surprise to Baghdad than many were led to believe.The Independent. February 25, 2016.
  4. Thompson, Mark. “ISIS Attacks Spike Even As It Loses Ground at Home.Time. July 5, 2016.
  5. Gibbons-Neff, Thomas. “Number of foreign fighters entering Iraq and Syria drops by 90 percent, Pentagon says”. The Washington Post. April 26, 2016.
  6. Warrick, Joby and Mekhennet, Souad. “Inside ISIS: Quietly preparing for the loss of the ‘caliphate’”. The Washington Post. July 12, 2016.
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Alice Martini

Alice Martini is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies

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