Is the Imminent Defeat of ISIS the End of Islamism?

Shabak fighters undergo training before the upcoming battle to recapture Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS on September 19, 2016. Even if ISIS is ultimately crushed, any celebration should be short-lived, Michael Rubin writes. reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

As U.S. forces, the Syrian Kurds, the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga close in on the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria, much is being made about the apocalyptic ideology and symbolism of the looming battle, especially if the showdown is around Dabiq, Syria. There, many Islamists have predicted there will be a battle against infidels that will herald the collapse of Western civilization.

A showdown on ground so symbolic to Islamists might actually play in favor of those opposed to the vision espoused by radical Islamists. After all, a crushing defeat of ISIS on the plains of northern Syria might go a long way to neutralizing the mythology that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has created.

The late Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden famously observed, "Everyone loves the strong horse" and noted how weak the United States appeared after its 1993 withdrawal from Somalia.

If Baghdadi suffers an ignominious defeat, then the idea of a new Islamic caliphate triumphing over the West and ushering in global Islamic rule would be shown empty and misguided. Or would it?

Here's the problem that the United States has yet to confront: ISIS has sowed the seeds for the creation of new caliphs and caliphates with its teaching and its own carefully constructed mythology.

Put aside the fact that, for the first time in nearly 100 years, Baghdadi has managed to re-insert the idea of the caliphate into the realm of reality and spark the popular imagination about its feasibility. Nothing else explains how ISIS managed to attract more than 30,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries.

But the issue goes beyond the passive ramifications of Baghdadi's hopefully short-lived caliphate. Journalist Graeme Wood noted in 2014:

The Bahraini cleric Turki al-Bin'ali cites a saying attributed to Muhammad that predicts a total of twelve caliphs before the end of the world. Bin'ali considers only seven of the caliphs of history legitimate. That makes Baghdadi the eighth out of twelve.

Bin'ali, also known as Abu Sufyan Al-Silmi, is the grand mufti of ISIS. If Baghdadi is only the eighth of 12, then there could be four other caliphate before Islamic year 1500 (A.D. 2076).

It is all well and good for U.S. policymakers to talk about the looming battle for Iraq's Mosul or Raqqa in Syria. There is much less discussion about who and how those cities will be held and administered once ISIS disburses and its members seek to fade into the woodwork.

And there is even less discussion about how the eventual defeat of Baghdadi and his caliphate also plays into mythology that both have promoted.

Even if ISIS is crushed, any celebration should be short-lived. New would-be caliphs will seek to emerge, each espousing even more radical ideology. To show their strength, the brutality of these new would-be caliphs will make ISIS look like a Quaker summer camp by comparison.

Alas, even with such an ideological challenge looming, there appears to be no strategy in place among Western states and moderate Muslim allies to neutralize the theological exegesis driving Islamist apocalyptic thought.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official. His major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.