Bursting the Balloon

The Asymmetric Threat from Islamic State

Islamic State (IS) continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq this amounts to nearly fifty percent of the ground they once held including the key cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. In Syria they have lost around twenty percent and Raqqa itself is now under threat from a coalition of anti IS forces. As well as ground, they have lost valuable oil revenue and conditions inside IS held areas are deteriorating with shortages of basic supplies becoming common.  If Raqqa falls IS will lose not only its symbolic capital and centre of leadership but its main logistics base.  So how will IS respond to this change in fortune?

When conducting counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan we used to talk about squeezing the balloon. You put pressure on the Taliban in one district and they would simply withdraw only to re-emerge elsewhere. And so it went on like a balloon half filled with air. We would bring pressure to bear in one tactical space but the Taliban threat would simply be displaced to another as we lacked the resources to apply pressure equally across the whole of Helmand Province.

So what will happen to the displaced fighters from those areas in Iraq and Syria lost to IS? Will they simply be displaced within the IS balloon inside Iraq and Syria or will the balloon be squeezed so hard that it bursts, scattering these fighters further afield and if so where will they go and what sort of threat will they pose?

A former Metropolitan Police Commander has recently warned of “Raqqa Scatter”; the potential flight of IS fighters from their strongholds in Syria and Iraq into the wider world where they might carry out revenge attacks, thus morphing from an insurgent to a terrorist force engaging in asymmetric warfare. While the west and other anti IS forces continue to fight a conventional campaign on the ground in Iraq and Syria, IS might respond by conducting a parallel campaign attacking western targets in third party countries using terrorist tactics.

So if we squeeze or even burst the IS balloon is this likely? In order to try and answer this question it’s important to differentiate between intent and capability; the desire to follow a particular course of action and the actual ability to do so. We know that IS have for the past two years had that intent and have been developing their international terrorist networks and ability to conduct IS directed attacks in across the globe, much like Al Qaeda before them.  They also aim to inspire sympathisers to take independent action. Abu Mohammed al-Adani, IS’s Head of intelligence recently called for so called lone wolves to commit attacks in their home countries during Ramadan.

So the intent is clear and they have already demonstrated capability not just in their near-abroad in Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but further afield reaching into Western Europe and even inspiring followers in the United States. Hence the asymmetric threat and an increase in attacks in response to recent events is already a clear and present danger.

But will squeezing or bursting the balloon increase this threat? Developing terrorist networks, recruiting facilitators and re-training insurgent fighters as covert terrorist operators takes time so this re-focussing of effort will not happen overnight. However, bursting the balloon may well increase IS’s emphasis on terrorist tactics and a move away from conventional fighting, thus leading to an increase in such activity over time.

The key point is that success against IS on the conventional battlefield in Iraq and Syria might not actually reduce the wider terrorist threat from the group but conversely it may in the short to medium term increase it.

A second concern is where might these attacks be targeted? As the UK and other western governments further develop their counter terrorist capabilities thus creating increasingly non-permissive (hostile) environments  for terrorist cells IS may decide to focus their efforts on western targets and nationals further afield, in locations where it’s easier to conduct operations. The US Embassy attacks in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi by Al Qaeda are a prime example of this tactic.  Previous attacks on Western tourist locations in Egypt and Tunisia and more recently the attacks in Bangladesh are others.

So the evidence says yes it might which means countering the terrorist threat within the UK and elsewhere in the West may conversely lead to an increased threat to UK interests in other countries. Locations that provide a target rich environment but where there is a less effective local counter terrorist capability and are therefore more permissive (less hostile) operating spaces for the terrorist are of particular note.

All in all this means that we must remain alert to developments regarding IS and ensure that we are cognisant of the wider implications of their potential responses.  We must monitor events across the globe in order to obtain evidence of any change in emphasis, methodology or targeting strategy, always bearing in mind that success at one level may in fact lead to an increased threat at another.

David Curran MA FCIPD MSyl