The liberation overnight of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the “capital’’ of Islamic State’s self-declared Caliphate, is a profound blow not only against ISIL, but against the toxic ideology is espouses. Ever since it fell to the militants in 2014 Raqqa has been used as a symbol of Islamic State’s strength and power.
At the height of its influence ISIL claimed control of territory stretching from Syria across northern Iraq and encompassing the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. ISIL’s propaganda machine pumped out thousands of images depicting life in the Caliphate as idyllic, prosperous and pious. Hospitals tended to the sick, schools educated the young, the markets brimmed with produce.
The city of Raqqa was the centrepiece of this vast exercise in myth-making. More than any other city, Raqqah came to embody the towering ambitions and brutal excesses of Islamic State. For three years, it was home to many of the group’s leaders, a place where foreign captives were imprisoned and killed, where Yazidi women and girls were sold into slavery and where attacks were launched around the world.
And mythmaking is what it was. ISIL’s power was hugely overstated and life inside its caliphate was a far cry from the religious idyll it portrayed. But the myth worked. It attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters to ISIL’s cause and allowed ISIL to displace al Qa’ida as the leader of international jihad.
It also completely reinvented the business model for Islamic terror. Large scale, intricately planned attacks were mostly abandoned in favour of small, spontaneous, primitive assaults that were much harder to detect and disrupt.
Now, the defeat of Raqqa is symbolic of something else: the rapidly collapsing fortunes of Islamic State. Having been kicked out of Mosul, having being kicked out of Raqqa, Islamic State is on the run. Already it is morphing back into the regional insurgency organisation it began life as. Islamic State will continue to inspire attacks in the West, and counter terrorism authorities are bracing for a new wave in Islamist violence as its fighters flee the battlefield. Its regional outposts in lawless areas of Libya, the Philippines and Afghanistan are now the emerging fronts in the ongoing fight against Sunni militancy.
But just as has ISIL’s power been badly discredited, so too has militant version of Sunni Islam that inspired it. ISIL’s Salafist ideology — an ideology broadly shared by al Qa’ida and a host of other Islamist groups — has shown itself to be utterly useless at anything other than destruction. In three years ISIL built nothing, achieved nothing, left nothing.
This is no surprise to most analysts who saw ISIL as a militant Salafist group driven by ideology and a thirst for power. But to many in the Muslim world, particularly the young, ISIL’s promise was real. They saw ISIL’s military success as evidence off its strength, rather than the weakness of the Iraq state and the Syrian armed forces. They saw its Caliphate as a source of Sunni chauvinism. And they saw ISIL’s influence in the region as a powerful response to rising Shia influence in Syria and particularly Iraq.
These problems all remain. But now, hopefully, fewer Muslims will look to ISIL for the answers.