In his 24-minute end of year audio message Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told his followers that the caliphate was doing well and that the Russian and US airstrikes had failed to weaken the group. But he also acknowledged the growing strength of the coalition opposing him: “If we are killed and the wounds are numerous and the problems amassed against us and the hardships are great, then it is no surprise either,” he said.
As Baghdadi knows all too well, while many Sunnis may see him as their most effective protector in the neighbourhood, his hard won territory in Iraq and Syria is under real pressure. The Kurds have kicked IS forces out of Sinjar and the Iraqi army has removed them from the symbolically important city of Ramadi. In Syria too IS has been forced on the defensive.
Faced with these significant reverses, Baghdadi used a version of the spin George W Bush once relied on when things were going badly in Iraq. Bush spokesmen explained US defeats with something along the lines of: ‘our enemies are intensifying the fight because they are so desperate.’ In his audio message, the Baghdadi version of that line went like this: “The more intense the war against the Islamic State, the purer the Islamic State becomes and the tougher it gets.”
The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, sees it rather differently. Speaking in Ramadi a day after his government declared the liberation of the city he said: “2016 will be the year of the big and final victory. We are coming to liberate Mosul.”
Even if that remains a distinctly optimistic view, there are signs that the IS leadership is now seriously concerned about its situation. Its decision to ban satellite dishes is an indication of just how much pressure Baghdadi is under: he does not want his followers hearing more bad news about defeats. The once sky high morale of IS volunteers can no longer be relied on.
So what will 2016 hold for IS?
It should first be clearly stated that the challenges facing the anti-IS coalition are enormous. Many parts of it still have different objectives. The US wants to bring down Assad. The Russians want to defend him. The Kurds want to carve out their own territory. The Turks want to stop them. Iran wants to confront Sunni power. Saudi Arabia wants to confront Shia power. And all the while the Iraqi and Syrian governments have their own interests and try to restore their writ. The number of external actors filling the political vacuum in Iraq and Syria has created a highly complex geopolitical situation.
But even if the deep divisions in the anti-IS coalition are real, Baghdadi’s biggest frustration has been his failure to entice a significant number of Western soldiers into IS-held territory. Two things could change that. A major IS attack on US soil could force Obama to abandon his policy of avoiding the deployment of a significant number of US ground forces in the Middle East. But any such attack on the US would have to be spectacular. The San Bernardino shootings, for example, may have killed 14 people but they were not enough to put serious pressure on the White House into making a strong militaristic response.
The second factor – the US presidential elections – will not become an issue before 2017. For as long as Obama is still in office he will do everything he can to continue with his policy of containing IS with airstrikes rather than confronting it directly with US soldiers on the battlefield. His successor may take a different view. Having said that, the current Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, has made it clear that he would not want to get dragged into a ground war in the Middle East and would much rather leave the heavy lifting to Russia.
Taking all these considerations into account the course for the next 12 months seems set: even if the caliphate is unlikely to be wiped from the map, Baghdadi will find the defence of his territory increasingly difficult.
But what of the situation elsewhere? Will IS be able to inspire greater numbers of jihadis in the West, North Africa, South Asia and maybe Central Asia to carry out more attacks in its name? The unending chaos in Libya amounts to a great opportunity for IS. And Libya would be a great staging ground for an assault on the far bigger prize of Egypt.
And then there is Europe. The cancelled New Year celebrations in Paris, Brussels and Munich show just how rattled Western authorities are. From the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris a year ago to the San Bernardino shootings last month, IS has shown its capacity to drive immigrants unable to adjust to Western lifestyles to murderous rage.
Compared to the situation in their own territorial heartland, then, Islamic State’s ‘foreign’ fronts look more promising than its internal situation. But there are real obstacles to IS making deep inroads in either Pakistan or Afghanistan.
True, several militants have pledged allegiance to IS. But there are already well-established militant groups quite prepared to use extreme force to defend their turf: Al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and Lashkar-e-Taiba have all been critical of the Islamic State. In South Asia IS lacks the historical and institutional roots that a fully-fledged insurgency needs to succeed.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.