In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?
Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.
The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.
But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.
In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.
These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.
Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.
It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.
This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.
How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.
For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.
Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.