What next from Islamic State?
Islamic State (IS) in Syria as a territorial entity has effectively been defeated. As a result, over 30,000 fighters and families have been displaced with many being held in Kurdish camps including some foreign fighters. Al Baghdadi the organisation’s leader has responded by making a rare video appearance. His message, I am still here and so is Islamic State, our focus has changed but we are still leading the struggle. He refers to the long battle ahead and to affiliates across the globe, specifically acknowledging the recent attacks in Sri Lanka as an example of a partnership in terror.
Sitting on the floor cross legged, with a short barrel AK 47 at his side in a pose mimicking that of Usama Bin Laden in footage after 9/11. Baghdadi, casting himself in the image of a guerrilla leader and IS as an insurgency movement rather than as the established Khalif of an Islamic State, as he did when he last stood before the cameras in Mosul five years ago.
A reminder that the threat from Islamic State is multifaceted and global and still represents the primary international terrorist threat. Its perhaps illustrative that the US governments price on Al Baghdadi’s head is now twenty-five million USD, while Usama Bin Laden’s son only commands a mere one million.
Creating a populist universal brand
Islamic State has morphed over time from its origins as Al Qaeda in Iraq under Zarqawi, then its takeover of Al-Nusra or AQ in Syria, despite opposition from the leader of AQ Zawahiri. Followed by the declaration of Islamic State and breaking its ties with AQ. IS has gone on to develop its own “brand” of jihadism, more fundamentalist and uncompromising, more literal in its interpretation of the Koran, more populist and untainted by modern influence. Proclaiming itself as pan-Muslim rather than a pan-Arab no doubt in response to a perception amongst some that AQ was first and foremost an Arab dominated organisation.
Build and they will come
The taking and holding of territory provided Islamic State with a sense of place, the Caliphate made real, a physical rallying point and magnate to draw in aspiring jihadis, an achievement that no other group has accomplished. They created local administrative structures and a tax regime. Fighters were well paid, and widows looked after through a rudimentary welfare system. But it was tough love, punishments were harsh for those who broke the rules. In each town square executions and other punishments would be carried out. Severed heads left on poles and each square hosted a cage where those who committed minor infractions would be held for several days at a time as a reminder to all.
Islamic State grew strong in terms of recruits and revenue and through its exploits established itself as the most high-profile jihadi organisation in the world
A triple track global strategy
While IS was building its Caliphate, it was in parallel developing a wider global strategy, no doubt mindful of its own fallibility in Iraq and Syria. With an eye towards potential safe areas elsewhere and its wider aspirations to become a global brand. There were three key elements to this strategy:
Firstly, developing their own independent ability to deliver complex attacks in third countries such as those in Paris. IS have over the years attempted to head hunt international planners and facilitators from AQ in Pakistan and established a Foreign Department to plan and manage overseas operations and sleeper cells. Some of these seeded with IS trained operatives from Iraq and Syria being played back into their home countries to bolster these networks.
Secondly, realising that IS would only ever be capable of directly planning and delivering a limited number of complex attacks worldwide and that these would be vulnerable to disruption from local security services, they worked on their global network. Re-assembling a wider alliance that AQ had attempted to establish but had fallen into disrepair in recent years.
This network now consists of over thirty associated groups who have declared allegiance to IS, drawn to its global brand and pan Muslim image. This network continues to grow particularly across Africa; Daesh Sinai in Egypt, IS in the Levant in Libya, Al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, across the Sahel and now of course in India and Sri Lanka. Thus, providing IS with new potential safe areas beyond Eastern Syria and Western Iraq as well as a proxy international network. Allowing IS to take credit for third country attacks with limited IS input or guidance, relying on local, existing networks or cells to carry out the operations.
Thirdly, IS worked hard to develop an effective PR machine exploiting its global brand and encouraging self-starters to go out and conduct simple attacks in its name often without any direct contact let alone control. An enabling ideology for the frustrated and angry looking for a cause in who’s name they can vent their anger.
After the 2015 attack in San Bernardino a study of the perpetrator’s internet activity showed years of passively viewing AQ and Al Shahab propaganda. Then shortly before the attack they began to follow IS, started planning their attack and ultimately declared allegiance to the group. It seems the IS brand and propaganda was the enabling ideology needed to take them to the next level.
Its interesting to note that a study on the extent of IS involvement in attacks which bore their name during a twelve-month period at that time found that in only 5% of cases was there any direct contact with or direction given by IS’s Foreign Department.
The new battlespace
So, for IS the battlespace is changing from the deserts of Syria and Iraq to the internet and a war of ideas from conventional fighting to insurgency in Iraq and Syria and as an enabling ideology for terrorism abroad often through proxy groups or self-starters.
For the IS leadership a strategic change their focus moving from defending territory to developing a pro-active insurgency and a terrorist campaign carrying out attacks directly and through its affiliates across the globe. Thus, conversely seeing the conventional defeat of IS in Syria lead to an increased third country threat across the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
David Curran MA CSyP Chartered FCIPD MSyl