IS jihadism could live on
There can be no question that territorially, the jihadi state-building project of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (IS) has come to an end. Over the last several months, IS terrorists have suffered a number of crushing defeats at the hands of the Iraqi army and the Iranian-organized Shiite paramilitary alliance known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
The decisive turn in the fight against IS terrorism no doubt came with the massive bombing campaign carried out by the US-led coalition. This eventually laid the groundwork for the demise of the would-be "caliphate," albeit with high numbers of civilian casualties. But with the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria now recaptured, it is clear that the physical end of the IS "caliphate" in the Arab East is now a certainty.
Yet this "success" cannot hide the fact that IS' loss of territorial control in no way means that this vulgar terrorist organization will cease to exist, whether in Iraq or anywhere else in the world. A majority of IS jihadis have already gone underground - and are likely planning a grueling guerrilla war against Iraqi state actors.
Meanwhile, it is said that a large number of jihadis have also returned to Europe. Many of these fighters may have been reformed, but still others are likely ticking time bombs prepared to carry the fight of their supposed holy war into the Western states they call home.
The IS 'caliphate' is just a symptom
There is nothing, in terms of theology or the history of ideas, that can be used to legitimize the pseudo-caliphate either in the foundational texts of the Quran, or in Islamic history.
Rather, the group's visionaries, such as the self-proclaimed (and now likely dead) Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, represent an infantile break with civilization, crude promises of salvation and a heretofore unknown and demonic reign of terror, one that will probably bring forth a new generation of utterly primitive jihadis.
Although IS' ideas will live on, the greater danger that its potential reincarnation represents is not to be found in the attractiveness of its neo-Salafist ideology. No: The bigger problem is that the social and political circumstances that made its inception possible still exist.
It is well documented that the rise of IS is closely linked to the state disintegration of Iraq and Syria. Had it not been for the marginalization and systematic persecution of Sunnis carried out through the sectarian policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a complete lack of control over Shiite militias, the terror preachers of IS would not have been able to find support among the country's Sunni population.
Helping give birth to 'IS' jihadism
Sunni rage - indeed, utter desperation - over repression in Iraq and the terror of barrel bombs in Syria literally drove people into the arms of the jihadi sect. Today, most agree that the harsh anti-Sunni policies pursued in Iraq and Syria led to the birth of IS.
To get to the root of the problem of jihadism, regional and international actors will have to create real life perspectives for millions of displaced Sunnis now caught between Iraq and Syria. They must ensure that Iraqi Sunnis are afforded real political representation in an ever-disintegrating Iraq.
In order to make that possible, it is imperative that Iran's influence in Iraq be curtailed. At the same time, the Iraqi government must be buttressed to avoid a further fragmentation of the country, and keep it from spiraling downward into something akin to Lebanon.
But unless there is a fundamental change to the constellations of conflict in the Middle East, we can never be wholly rid of IS - not even if we create endless well-meaning education and prevention programs. Not to mention a compelling counternarrative.