The “mini-empire” that ISIL built in Iraq and Syria is collapsing, which fuels a sense of triumphalism in the West. The logic is simple: ISIL made itself simultaneously global public enemy number one and the most vibrant magnet for global Salafi jihadis, thanks to its control of territory and claims to having established a caliphate. The group also publicly declared that it aimed to “remain and expand,” taken to be a reference to its territorial presence in the region. So, the logic goes, once ISIL’s territory is gone, its claims to a caliphate will evaporate. Salafi jihadis who flocked to or cheered for ISIL because of its ability to hold and govern territory in the name of the caliphate will, per this logic, start to see the group as incompetent. Therefore, many in the West believe that while ISIL may remain a threat in terms of conducting terror attacks abroad, its failure to “remain and expand” on its own territory will eventually deal a decisive blow to its reputation.
This is the wrong conclusion to draw from ISIL’s military defeat. ISIL will most likely frame its military defeat as a victory of some sort. While Western analysts may be tempted to interpret this as a cop-out mechanism voiced by a clear “loser,” it is also likely that ISIL’s allure in the eyes of Salafi jihadis will not diminish as much as many in the national security community expect it to. ISIL plans to market defeat within a narrative of hardship, heroism, martyrdom, and “temporary” withdrawal from its territory.