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Serious Losses For ISIS Could Pave Way For Resurgence From Adaptable Al-Qaida


As 2016 comes to a close, what is the state of the Islamic State? ISIS has lost more than a third of its territory that it once held in Syria and Iraq. Mosul, its most important city, appears ready to fall. Thousands of ISIS fighters have been taken out of action and a number of the group's leaders have been killed. But ISIS persists with terror and military attacks. We turn now to Robin Wright, a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She has spent the last two years traveling the region where ISIS is active and joins us in our studios.

Robin, thanks so much for being back with us.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you.

SIMON: How serious are the losses we describe?

WRIGHT: Enormous losses, so they're really in trouble. The problem, of course, is that ISIS can still create enormous problems for both the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government. And, of course, they complicate the war in Syria. They are likely, if they lose the two prime properties they have - Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa, it's caliphate capital in Syria - they'll move into the desert.

And they've gone through this before in a different iteration of Islamic extremism in 2007 when the U.S. sent its troops in. And the U.S. thought they'd beaten the al-Qaida branch there, but they also moved into the desert. They were all less than a thousand people, and, of course, they've come back in strength. So the idea that they'll lose the caliphate doesn't mean that the idea of the Islamic State or Islamic extremism will die.

SIMON: You have written, in recent pieces, that any contraction in ISIS has actually been good news for al-Qaida. That's not good news for the United States.

WRIGHT: One of the most interesting things that's happened is that al-Qaida has profited from the losses of ISIS. It has played the longer game. ISIS, probably, could never have held an Islamic state given the speed and the scope of its ambitions - too far, too fast, too brutal. Al-Qaida played a different game. It has embedded with local groups. It has built local institutions. It has five major branches and the most active, now, is in Syria. And looking down the road, its ability to adapt to the pressure from the outside world, the military campaign, is probably far greater than ISIS. And we may well find that, at the end of the day, ISIS is diminished and al-Qaida's made a huge comeback.

SIMON: The overwhelming impression I have from reading some of your recent pieces is the caliphate is an appealing idea in the region, whether you call it ISIS, whether it's al-Qaida, whether it's some group to be named at a later date.

WRIGHT: A caliphate is a state that is ruled by Islamic law. It dates back to the early time of Islam in the seventh century. But it also comes at a time in the 21st century when there is very little in the way of ideology or leadership in the Arab world. That creates an attractive alternative, that draws people to more positive outcomes.

There's a sense that everywhere that the Sunnis particularly, but Muslims in general, have been kind of abandoned to their own fate. And so many have turned to the caliphate because it reflects values of their lives. They think it will protect their interests, protect their families, even though it is, of course, an illusion.

SIMON: In your New Yorker piece, you quote Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader in Lebanon, as saying we will live in this mess for a very long time. How does he see the mess?

WRIGHT: Well, I think Walid's not the only one. There are a lot of people, a lot of the traditional leaders in the region, who feel that there are no obvious solutions to the bigger problems. And that is, again, the idea. You can deal with the individual military groups or militias, the terrorist groups. The entire Middle East is fragile right now. The borders are fragile. There are not strong political leaders who are inspiring Muslims. And as a result, we're likely to live with instability not just because of the military situation but because of the lack of political alternatives.

SIMON: Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thanks so much for being with us.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.