The global terrorist and extremist threat is likely to persist in 2019 as the Islamic State (ISIS) goes through a phase of readaptation and decentralization.
The group has established clandestine and underground structures to survive in Iraq and Syria. Its ideology is still intact and continues to be propagated in cyberspace. In the provinces, groups, networks, and cells which have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi are radicalizing Muslims and conducting attacks.
Harnessing both the physical and virtual space, ISIS continues to present an enduring threat worldwide. Although the apex of ISIS leadership and many of the directing figures are on the run and might be eliminated in 2019, the penultimate leadership enabling the fight and supporting the infrastructure will continue to operate in the shadows as they become agile and more cunning.
The ISIS and Al Qaeda-centric threats are likely to remain given the lack of an effective global counterterrorism plan and strategy, the continuance of superpower and geopolitical rivalry, and the failure to resolve the underlying causes of extremism and terrorism.
The global threat landscape in 2019 will be dominated by 3 major developments.
First, the ISIS is entering a new phase in global expansion. With the depletion of its rank and file in Iraq and Syria from about 60,000 to 5,000-6,000 combat fighters, the ISIS territorial control in its main theater has shrunk to 1%, east of the Euphrates River.
In any case, outside of the physical "caliphate," the groups, networks, cells, and personalities loyal to Baghdadi are growing in their ideological and operational spaces. These local entities are reinforced by ISIS virtual caliphate and emboldened by the dozens of ISIS affiliates and franchises known as wilayats or the external provinces of the caliphate.
Driving the globalization of IS is the media operations and battle-hardened Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) returning home armed with jihadi ideology, active combat exposure, expertise in explosive-handling, and links with underground networks.
Worldwide government counterterrorism databases today list about 40,000 ISIS personalities in 102 countries operating in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. Presenting a preeminent threat, ISIS and al Qaeda will continue to mount most attacks in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Similarly, radicalized personalities and cells of diaspora and migrant communities will strike in North America, Europe and Australasia.
Second, Afghanistan is emerging as an alternative theater for foreign and local fighters in 2019. With the disruption in the flow of fighters to Syria and Iraq, and the dispersal of fighters from the ISIS core to the periphery, multiple centers of terrorism and extremism are emerging in the Middle East (Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt), Africa (West Africa, East Africa), Western Balkans, Caucasus, and Asia.
However, the ISIS theatre is more pronounced in the Af-Pak region with the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) threatening the Afghan Taliban, the Afghan government, and Pakistan. In addition to the impact on Central Asia, the threat is moving from tribal Pakistan to mainland Pakistan, Indian-held Kashmir, Xinjiang in western China, and Iran.
The intermittent terrorist attacks in Kashmir, Xinjiang, and Iran are likely to continue. Given the ongoing geopolitical rivalry, the flow of weapons and finance to, and the training acquired by the Afghan Taliban and ISK, Afghanistan is turning into a new epicenter of regional and global terrorism.
Between December 2017 and March 2018, as many as 69 members of IS core, and between 200 to 300 fighters from Iraq and Syria have relocated to Afghanistan, and this trend is likely to continue through 2019 as well.
Third, with the rise of ultranationalism, ideologies have come to the forefront. Communities based on ethnicity and religion are becoming more polarized, therefore making their peripheries vulnerable to hatred, and inciting hate in their core. It is not only the jihadists but political parties, threat groups, and personalities driven by extreme interpretations of their respective religions that threaten their opponents, communities, and governments. The intermittent communal clashes, riots, and attacks in India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka demonstrate how Hinduism and Buddhism have been exploited by religious and political leaders and groups.
Additionally, Islamophobia continues to rise in the West and even in countries with Muslim majority and minority populations. Similarly, Sunni-Shia relations are further strained especially with the growing anti-Iran and anti-Shia rhetoric in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world.
While conflict between the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is likely to be mediated in 2019, it is likely that reciprocal intolerance, exclusivism, extremism, and terrorism in both physical and virtual spaces will affect global peace and security. It is therefore crucial that world leaders make a concerted effort to unite divided communities.
Since ISIS declared a caliphate in June 2014, multiple coalitions have been fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. While the Iraqi, Syrian, and Kurdish forces bore the brunt of battle, US, European, Russian, Iranian, Turkish, and other Arab countries embarked on a sustained campaign to contain, isolate, and eliminate ISIS.
After 4 years of combat in theater as well as global efforts to disrupt the flow of FTF, the threat in the ISIS heartland has relatively subsided. With ISIS combat forces receding in its battlespace of Iraq and Syria, ISIS intelligence services are coming to the forefront of the theater of conflict. Amn al Dawla (State Security), Amn al Dakhili (Internal Security), Amn al Askari (Military Intelligence), and Amn al Kharji (Foreign Intelligence) are building clandestine and underground networks to survive and endure their losses in physical territories.
In 2019, ISIS is planning a 4-phased strategy – hunting "black birds" (killing betrayers and traitors), "tower revolution" (surveilling, identifying, selecting and recruiting), fighting inside cities (sparrow teams targeting government and coalition forces), and "great battle" (fighting in built-up areas and open confrontation). To mount pressure on coalition partners to withdraw, ISIS is directing, enabling, and inspiring attacks against their own homelands.
ISIS considers its battlefield defeats in the Levant as temporary. To compensate for the losses in its heartland, ISIS seeks to expand globally both physically and virtually. ISIS is likely to dispatch their Iraqi veterans much like how the Al Qaeda dispatched Egyptians to key positions. This is already happening in Afghanistan and north Africa where some of ISIS core members have relocated.
To staff the far-flung provinces, the leaders and experts will include FTFs, especially veteran Arabs. ISIS' internal and external wilayats are actively waging both a media and a military campaign. While the media campaign seeks to radicalize the community and generate recruits, the military campaign is providing training for combat skills, manufacturing weapons, casing targets, and enabling the operators to strike.
In addition to its virtual presence instilling hatred and inciting violence, the current and emerging wilayats serve as bastions to draw from ISIS experience and expertise and fight back. Those with difficulties traveling to conflict zones will mount attacks in their own homelands. Unlike Al Qaeda's modus operandi where they plan for months and years, ISIS' style is to conduct simple and modest operations.
While ISIS presents a high order threat, the threat posed by Al Qaeda and its associated groups has not diminished. Al Qaeda-centric groups mount operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, China, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Puntland, Kenya, and Somalia.
A breakaway group of ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, which was renamed as Hay'at Tahrir al Sham works closely with Al Qaeda and its associated groups in Syria. The most battle-hardened Al Qaeda centric group, Tahrir al Sham, poses a long-term regional and global threat. Determined to impose an Al Qaeda-style rule, these groups agreed to a temporary truce. With over 30,000 fighters, including 10,000 FTF (mostly Chinese Uighurs, Chechens and Central Asians) in Idlib, Tahrir al Sham and its associated groups present a strategic threat comparable to IS. Tahrir al Sham has a global infrastructure from charities to propagation. If incumbent Al Qaeda head Aymen al Zawahiri is killed, Tahrir al Sham's leader Abu Mohammed al Jolani could be the new Al Qaeda chief, considering the influence exercised by Tahrir al Sham.
In addition to Tahrir al Sham, other Al Qaeda centric groups, such as the Afghan Taliban, Al Shabab, AQAP, and AQIM present the greatest threat. They will mount attacks in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Some of the groups will revisit targets and others will seek new targets.
In November 2018, Al-Shabab attacked Sahafi Hotel adjacent to Hayat hotel in Mogadishu killing 39 and injuring 40 others. In the suicide attacks on the fortified hotel, a favorite modus operandi of the terrorists, they intended to gain access and kill guests – especially officials. The same hotel was attacked earlier in 2015 killing the owner; the latest attack killed his son. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists are likely to revisit aborted, failed, or disrupted plots in 2019.
The renewed threat
Just as Al Qaeda endured the loss of Afghanistan and the death of Osama Bin Laden, ISIS organization and ideology will survive and, in fact, revive. Despite the territorial losses and the arrest and deaths of its senior commanders, operatives, and supporters, ISIS will persist in 2019. As it expands from the core to the periphery, ISIS will seek to replicate its practices from stoning and beheadings to assassinations and bombing operations outside Iraq and Syria.
The existing wilayats are located in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Caucasus, Nigeria, Somalia and, the latest, in the Philippines.
Following the suicide bombing in Lamitan, Basilan by a Moroccan on July 31, 2018, ISIS declared a wilayat in the Philippines through an operational claim. With the returnees, future wilayats are likely to be declared in the Western Balkans, Bangladesh, Indian-held Kashmir, Xinjiang in China, and Indonesia. Unless governments take preemptive and proactive measures, the threat will spread, with the physical threat manifesting in the form of attacks and the ideological narrative affecting vulnerable communities.
With the return of the motivated, resourced and skilled FTF, ISIS will target symbolic, strategic and high-profile targets, including civilians (both Muslims and non-Muslims) and critical infrastructure. Off the battlefields, aviation industry (airlines and airports), tourists (cafes and hotels), international organizations (most notably the United Nations' subsidiaries and INGOs) and diplomatic missions of countries that fought against ISIS will be potential targets. Classic ISIS operations from vehicle-moving to knife attacks, bombings and armed assault, arson and even explosives-laden drone attacks are likely with the proliferation of ISIS methodology and technology.
About 70-80% of the fatalities and injuries by the terrorists will be from explosives, their weapon of choice. Both IS and Al Qaeda will use the gun and the bomb, and very rarely, unconventional weapons. As demonstrated recently, with disrupted plots by lone terrorist actors and lone-actor groups to produce Thorium, Ricin, Anthrax, and Botulinum, there will be growing interest in chemical, biological, and radiological weapons in 2019.
Harmony within Muslim communities has suffered due to the infiltration and influence of jihadi (as defined by the terrorists) and takfiri (ex-communication from Islam) ideologies. After promoting discord between Sunni and Shia communities and conducting provocative attacks, ISIS has attacked Shia targets.
Rivals of both ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shia threat groups are fighting in conflict zones and beyond. Hezbollah has built networks worldwide primarily to attack Israeli and Jewish targets. With IS targeting Shia groups and communities, Hezbollah may further expand its range of targets. In addition to Hezbollah, the most capable Shia militia in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere are organising themselves to defend their interests and attack their enemies. Although some plots have been disrupted, the Shia groups are becoming sharper.
Within the spectrum of countering and combating terrorism, the world has focused on building kinetic and lethal capabilities. Although such capabilities are effective in the immediate term, they may not always be efficient in the long term. The use of overwhelming force breeds suspicion and prejudice, anger and resentment, animosity, and hatred. Intelligence, law enforcement, and militaries need to work closely to manage both the downstream and upstream threats. In addition to sharpening their combat skills especially in urban operations and in cyber space, it is vital for them to collaborate with partners in preventive and counter violent extremism (P/CVE) programs. The single most important set of capabilities that needs to be built is both in community engagement and terrorist and extremist rehabilitation (custodial and community rehabilitation).
To meet the FTF challenge, governments have not yet gained mastery of rehabilitation mechanisms. Although complex and difficult, investing in both custodial and community rehabilitation is a vital necessity. Worldwide rehabilitation capabilities differ and are uneven. Most countries have visions for developing rehabilitation, others have ad hoc programs (unstructured) and a few have structured programs.
The governments and partners with robust capabilities (structured programs) to deliver rehabilitation should help to enhance others with underdeveloped programs. The end objective is to build comprehensive rehabilitation programs both to tackle returnees and more importantly homegrown extremism and terrorism. The events in Syria and Iraq, the resulting propaganda, and returnees are creating a huge homegrown threat that requires greater rehabilitation capabilities.
More attention also needs to be given to the resulting rise of homegrown extremism, exclusivism, and intolerance. The strategy to combat terrorism is to engage in interfaith dialogue to counter intolerance, develop integration programs to counter segregation, and promote moderation to counter extremism.
The recently announced withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria and the possible drawdown of 7,000 troops (out of 14,000) from Afghanistan have been compared to past US military withdrawals that were exploited by terrorists.
The ISIS had capitalized on the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 to expand its presence and influence in the Levant. Likewise, terrorists and insurgents benefited from the drawdowns of US troops in Afghanistan. Adequate security preparations will therefore be necessary to prevent terrorists from gaining any advantage from troop withdrawals or drawdowns.
Muslim insurgent and terrorist groups will dominate the threat landscape and mount attacks worldwide both in the battlefields and off the battlefields. The geography of the global terrorism map will not change dramatically with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, India, and Libya being the most violent theaters of conflict. Due to interstate rivalries, the threat will persist and even grow. Similarly, the ultranationalistic rhetoric by politicians will polarize communities making some vulnerable to greater radicalisation and violence.
The centre of gravity of ISIS will be its wilayats and the fragmented cyber caliphate, the ISIS cyber wing reemerging regionally. Despite government and technology firms working closely with each other, ISIS' virtual presence will endure and grow, compensating for the lack of presence and operations in the physical space.
A decentralized ISIS will present a far greater threat than a centralized ISIS. The group's operatives and supporters will continue to mount attacks and attempt to radicalize Muslim communities worldwide. Counterterrorism efforts must therefore continue to include not only effective kinetic measures and P/CVE programs, but also a determined political effort to resolve underlying causes of extremism and terrorism. – Rappler.com
Rohan Gunaratna is professor of security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He can be reached at ISRKGunaratna@ntu.edu.sg.