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Why IS will continue to pose a threat ― Rohan Gunaratna

JANUARY 9 ― Four significant developments will characterise the global threat landscape this year. First, it is likely that the so-called Islamic State (IS) will transform from a caliphate-building entity into a global terrorist movement. In a manner similar to Al Qaeda, which had dispersed from its Afghanistan-Pakistan core in 2001-2002 to conflict zones worldwide, IS will refocus on consolidating the distant wilayats (provinces) to serve as bastions of its power.

Second, the deaths of either IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi or Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri may lead to a collaboration between or possible unification of these two powerful terrorist groups. The discord between IS and Al Qaeda now is a leadership dispute and not ideological in nature.

Third, IS, Al Qaeda and their associates will compensate for their losses in the physical space by expanding further into cyber space. Despite governments and tech firms collaborating to monitor cyber space, the battle-space of threat groups in the virtual communities will continue to operate and grow.

There is a fourth significant development which has emerged in response to IS. This is the rise of far-right, ethno-nationalist and anti-Islamist populist movements, particularly in the United States and Europe. The response of governments and their societies to these movements within their countries and ethno-nationalist challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere will determine the threat levels in the future.

Insurgency, terrorism and extremism will continue to characterise the international security landscape in 2017, exacerbated by the campaigns of the populist far-right movements. Against a backdrop of intermittent threats and attacks, US President-elect Donald Trump is seeking to expand the coalition to include other partners to dismantle IS and Al Qaeda and take out their leaders.

Mr Trump’s target-centric approach of eliminating the enemy and its infrastructure will replace outgoing President Barack Obama’s population-centric approach of engaging and empowering communities while adopting militarised responses. In the scenario that Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin collaborate, the terror groups will suffer further loss of territory and operational capabilities.

However, a growing pool of supporters and sympathisers will replenish the losses, allowing groups such as IS to fight back and recover. IS will transform into an operation-based movement. With the renewed global focus to destroy its infrastructure in Iraq and Syria, the goal of forming a caliphate will linger and live on in cyber space and resonate among IS followers. Some will hark back to its brief history and others will strive to recreate it.

Contrary to popular opinion, IS will remain a threat as long as its ideology lives on in the cyber and physical realms. IS will also continue to supplant Al Qaeda’s influence operationally and ideologically. IS, Al Qaeda and their associated groups are likely to remain potent global actors in the domain of violence and extremism. The groups will frame the fight as a response to attacks against Islam and Muslims.

Decentralisation of threat

IS will compensate for the loss of territory by expanding horizontally and strengthening its existing wilayats (provinces) while declaring new ones.

The wilayats are considered the “Pillars of the Caliphate” by the self-declared caliph, Baghdadi. In November, he referred to Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yemen, the Philippines, Somalia and West Africa as some of the wilayats.

The distant wilayats will serve as bastions of IS power and future launching pads for attacks against enemies. However, the regional wilayats in Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan support the neighbouring IS structures. The shifting focus of IS towards its wilayats became evident when Baghdadi urged supporters of the caliphate to migrate to Libya instead of travelling to Iraq and Syria. However, the group has now been defeated, and ousted from Sirte in Libya as well.

In a further demonstration of the emerging decentralised threat, Baghdadi’s message was preceded by his associates urging supporters of the caliphate to migrate to IS wilayats and enclaves. For South-east Asian fighters, the regional hub is in Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

The global pool of foreign fighters with expertise and experience is likely to gravitate to wilayats, home countries and other countries with familial links. In addition to the persistent IS threat in Muslim-minority and majority countries, the dispersal of the IS core will threaten coalitions fighting the group. Directly and through proxies, IS will target coalition equities in the Iraqi and Syrian theatres and other countries.

From 2015 to 2016, multiple coalitions targeting IS contributed to the group’s loss of territory. With Russian airstrikes, Syrian ground forces took back Palmyra in March last year and US-supported Kurdish and Arab groups attacked Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS last November. US-supported Iraqi and Kurdish forces attacked Mosul in October last year.

Both Raqqa and Mosul were used by the external operations wing of IS to plan, prepare and execute attacks.

In his speech last November, Baghdadi called for “attack after attack” in Saudi Arabia; he also urged his fighters and supporters to “unleash the fire of their anger” towards Turkey.

The overall terrorism threat landscape is unlikely to change as the ground situation in Syria will not alter dramatically in the short term.

Contrary to assessments by some, IS will survive as long as civil war persists in Syria, and will remain a growing threat to the West and other countries confronting the group. ― TODAY

*This is the personal opinion of the author or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

**Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technology University. He is also Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at RSIS. This first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

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