The United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Almost immediately multiple insurgencies sprang up. Then Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQIM) appeared .to make things still worse by fomenting a brutal civil war between the Shi’ite majority and the Sunni minority. Eventually, Iraqis and Americans came to their senses. Together, they destroyed AQIM and killed its leader Zarkawi. The few survivors of AQIM slunk away to neighboring Syria. Here they found safety as it was a foreign country plunged into a civil war in which neither the Americans nor the Iraqis wanted to engage themselves. The Syrian civil war radicalized some of its participants. Some of these joined with the remnants of AQIM, which re-branded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Eastern Syria is thinly populated in comparison with the western parts of the one-time country. Government forces were stretched thin as well. ISIS established its rule over the area. From this base it invaded Iraq in 2014. An Iraqi army rotted by corruption and sectarianism in the years after the Americans had withdrawn collapsed. ISIS proclaimed a “caliphate.”
It was not to be, not for very long anyway. ISIS fielded highly-motivated irregular soldiers without heavy weapons. They could win where they were out against weak and distracted armies like those of Syria or Iraq. They could never prevail against well-armed conventional forces like those of Turkey or Iran (or Israel if they made too much progress in that direction). Iran sent military advisers and “volunteers” to help direct the Shi’ite militias, and called in Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. The Americans re-entered the fray with Special Forces. More importantly, they mobilized the Kurds against ISIS.
Now ISIS has been effectively destroyed in both Iraq and Syria. However, if ISIS is defeated, “ISISism” is not. During its brief run of successes, ISIS won the loyalty of other radical Islamist groups in places as far apart as West Africa, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. The dame factors that attracted Islamist volunteers from all over to Syria and Iraq still seem to draw new volunteers to the new hot spots. Then there is the potential for “lone wolf” attacks.
In May 2018, several families (with children in tow) attacked churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, while a young Chechen ran amok with a knife in Paris. The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan has been launching attacks on civilians, rather than concentrating on military or government targets. Four American soldiers were killed in a fire-fight with Islamists in Niger.
Is an organizational or institutional approach to this problem really helpful? Before there was ISIS, there was Al Qaeda. Before there was Al Qaeda there were the “Arab Afghans” who went to fight the Soviets. There are subtle variations in radical Islamist ideology and there are ambitious, unhinged men eager to claim the mantle of leadership.
What seems to matter most is not the particular group or leader. Rather, it is vital to understand and address the basic conditions that turn a relatively small number of people into serious problems. For the sake of discussion, consider whether one source for the adherents of radical Islamism are the awful failed governments and societies across much of the developing world. For the sake of further discussion, consider whether it is in just such places that the radicals have the best hope of operating. Eventually, both questions lead to Pakistan—and its nukes.
 Yaroslav Trofimov, “Faraway ISIS Branches Grow as Group Fades in Syria, Iraq,” WSJ, 18 May 2018.