How can a terrorist organization that seems to have declared war on the entire world hope to survive? ISIS, already the best-funded, best-equipped, and most technically sophisticated terrorist organization in history, won’t add much to its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2016, but it will not only survive but extend its international influence. There are several reasons why.
Its enemies are divided over how best to attack. It draws support from disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Its access to cash and command of technology continue to help. But its biggest advantage over militant groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban lies in its promise to recruits. It offers much more than a chance to fight a distant enemy in a long war toward an uncertain future. It provides a plan to build something tangible and new–an Islamic empire with borders drawn by Muslim warriors, not Western politicians.
With each new ISIS atrocity come pledges in Europe and America to take the fight directly to its commanders in Syria and Iraq. But dismantling ISIS means fighting them on the ground. They can’t be destroyed from the air. No one–not the Americans, French, Russians or anyone else–will accept the cost in blood and treasure that such an operation would demand.
Even in the air, the group’s most powerful enemies are at cross purposes. The US will drop many more bombs, but President Obama has no intention of returning US troops to a ground war in the Middle East. Russia wants mainly to bolster its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, by attacking US- and Saudi-backed rebels. It has done little to target ISIS. Turkey will focus its attacks on Syrian Kurds, and the French have no coalition to lead. Iran’s fighters are outgunned, and Gulf states have no ground troops.
In Iraq, the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad won’t have real success against ISIS until it offers Iraq’s Sunnis a stake in their country’s future and a reason to fight for it. When US forces removed Saddam Hussein from power, they sidelined his Baath party supporters, including in the military. Only ISIS has given these Sunnis a means to fight back. Until that problem is addressed, ISIS will maintain its grip on Sunni-dominated Iraqi territory.
In addition, ISIS and its imitators have more than enough ground on which to operate. To varying degrees, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan are failed states. All offer ungoverned expanses of territory that serve as safe havens and training grounds for militants. In northeast Nigeria, northern Mali, and Egypt’s Sinai, more militants are learning their craft. Sprawling refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon offer fertile ground for recruiting.
ISIS also has more than enough cash with which to enlarge its ambitions. Thanks to spot selling of oil from captured wells, kidnaps for ransoms, confiscations, taxation of local populations, financial support from friends in the Persian Gulf, and the looting of banks in captured Iraqi cities, the organization has amassed reserves of more than $1 billion. It has also mastered the use of social media and encrypted messaging to dramatically expand its network.
Most importantly, ISIS offers a global idea that regional players like the Taliban and al Qaeda can’t match. The Taliban remains a movement of ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has little appeal outside its core territory. Al Qaeda’s vision is apocalyptic. It’s harder to recruit followers into a death cult than to an organization that promises an empire and has seized large swaths of territory in two countries to make those promises credible. Its sales pitch is compelling. “In Syria and Iraq, you have no future. In Europe and America, they exclude you because they hate you. Come build. Join the first generation. We welcome you.” This appeal, not simply the opportunity to murder non-Muslims, continues to find success.
Where does all this lead? Ultimately, the construction of the Islamic State is the primary ISIS vulnerability. No one can fully eliminate terrorism, because it only takes one determined individual willing to die to add to the group’s international reach. But ISIS’s many enemies have more than enough power to prevent the organization from keeping its promise to build a functioning state. The bombing in Syria has only just begun.
In the meantime, however, ISIS has more unpleasant surprises for the rest of the world. In 2016, its influence can only grow.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, the global political risk consultancy, and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. Find him on Twitter @ianbremmer.