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'The physical end of "Islamic State" is approaching'

Nina Niebergall / sgbJuly 4, 2016

In Syria and Iraq, the "Islamic State" group has been losing ground for months but worldwide its attacks are becoming more effective. Middle East expert Udo Steinbach detects change within the terrorist militia.

Symbolbild Islamischer Staat
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

DW: Prof. Steinbach, within the last week, about 200 people were killed in an attack in Baghdad, along with at least 45 in Istanbul and 22 in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. Is "Islamic State" (IS) behind all these actions?

Udo Steinbach: Behind these actions are groups that have pledged loyalty to IS. I do not think we can speak here of a strategy that has been planned somewhere in Syria or in Raqqa, the capital of the so-called caliphate. IS now has sympathizers in many parts of the Islamic world and beyond, from Boko Haram in Nigeria, to Mali, to Yemen.

The latest attacks took place on three different continents. Is there at least some communication between the different groups?

These groups proclaim allegiance to IS simply because they are looking for a political framework for their activities. They are not formally connected to the "Islamic State" in Raqqa. This is a kind of propaganda with which they signal that they are more than a solitary cell in Mali, Yemen or Afghanistan. They suggest to the world: We are a whole, a state.

That sounds like a new al-Qaeda. Is IS developing from a regional power into an international terrorist network?

Islamforum in Duschanbe Udo Steinbach
Middle East expert Udo Steinbach: the terrorism networks of "IS" must be better monitoredImage: DW

This is apparently the case. Originally, the ideology of IS was to establish an Islamic polity - a caliphate. The aim was to establish a political existence in the Islamic world - and thus to make clear that the "Islamic State" is an alternative to the current states of the Middle East.

At first, IS directed its attention to the "near enemy." This is understood in Islamist ideology to mean enemies within one's own society. Now it seems to have undertaken a change in strategy to focus more on the "far enemy," the enemies outside the Islamic world, namely Europeans and Americans.

How can we explain this change of strategy?

There is a very fundamental discussion among Islamic terror groups: Should we first fight our own societies and convert them into an Islamic state, or should we fight Americans, the West and the "infidels" - as al-Qaeda did with the did September 11, 2001 attacks.

IS turned away from al-Qaeda to pursue its own strategy. This led to a split between the two terrorist groups. But since IS came under pressure in Syria and Iraq, the caliphate appears to be in danger. IS has turned to the "far enemy" and approached al-Qaeda again.

Does this fundamental turnaround damage IS' credibility among its followers?

If we look at the numerous Islamist groups, there has always been a high degree of flexibility in terms of their ideology. The ideological discussion of strategy is one thing, the pragmatism of warfare is another. They applied themselves where they saw the greatest opportunities and the greatest impact.

In Syria and Iraq, the group's room to maneuver and its area of influence are no longer as large as a year ago. What is known about its power base in the region?

IS faces an existential threat there. In Iraq, large areas have been lost. IS is still holding Mosul, but the Iraqi military is preparing to retake the city. In Syria, the opponents of IS, especially the Kurdish troops, have succeeded, with the support of the US, in occupying areas strategically important to "Islamic State." The end is therefore moving significantly nearer.

I believe the people of IS are aware of this - as are those who are carrying out attacks in its name elsewhere. The closer the physical end of the "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq, the greater the determination of the groups outside IS to strike throughout the world. The physical end of IS will therefore not be the end of Islamist terrorism.

How should states threatened by terror respond to the new IS strategy?

The German side supports, for example, the Kurds in their fight against IS. It is right to support the war against IS and it has been very effective. Second, we must be better able to monitor the IS terrorist networks. Third, we need to develop a kind of counterstrategy to deal with those who are willing to leave our societies to travel to the territories of the "Islamic State."

Islamic scholar Udo Steinbach founded the German Orient Institute in Hamburg more than 30 years ago. Today at the Humboldt Viadrina Governance Center in Berlin his research concentrates on the societies of North Africa and the Middle East.

The interview was conducted by Nina Niebergall.