In 2014, ISIS racked up a series of stunning successes as it pushed through Iraq and Syria, gaining momentum and new recruits with each victory. But in recent weeks, Syrian government forces liberated the city of Palmyra from ISIS, signifying a broader retreat for the extremist group over the past year. Can ISIS survive the label of loser?
Who could have foreseen that within a decade, between 2004 and 2014, the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq would transform into ISIS, outline an apocalyptic vision of the End Times, reintroduce slavery, embrace war without limits, take on the world’s greatest powers, and conquer a mini-empire spanning swaths of Syria and Iraq—with spin-off affiliates infiltrating Libya, Nigeria, and elsewhere?
ISIS’s lightning advance may be partly explained by what psychologists call the “winner effect,” whereby the experience of victory raises the odds of further triumphs. In a wide variety of settings, success can have a catalyzing effect on champions. In mammals, winning actually affects the brain, boosting confidence and aggression, and potentially spurring more gains. Experiments have shown that when mice win a few fights against weaker opponents, their testosterone levels increase, and they become more likely to defeat stronger rodent adversaries. Similarly, with humans, winning can trigger a spike in testosterone for tennis players, wrestlers, and chess players alike, which can contribute to additional wins. Furthermore, success also has a positive impact on outside audiences. The “halo effect” refers to how people often view winning individuals or sports teams as bathed in an aura of virtue. People want to associate with a successful brand—for example, donors give overwhelmingly more money to elite universities than to other schools.
And so the secret of ISIS’s success is in large part winning itself. The extremists got on a roll, as victories drew recruits, demoralized opponents, and produced new triumphs. ISIS is, at its heart, a story, about a vessel of divine wrath cleansing a fallen world, propagated through the slickly produced magazine Dabiq, thousands of Twitter accounts, and the brutal propaganda of the deed. The group’s battlefield successes seemingly confirmed the narrative that the rise of ISIS was written in the stars by the hand of God. Winning made the incredible credible. For foreign fighters, the ISIS brand of faith, glory, fellowship, sex, murder, and torture, is far more compelling when glued together by victory. And as ISIS swept through northern Iraq, local fence-sitters prioritized their own survival and decided to back the winning team.
And then Islamic State’s Icarus flight suddenly stalled. By one estimate, since January 2015, ISIS has lost…