After ISIS* lost almost all of the territories it controlled in the Middle East, was decapitated and dramatically reduced its online propaganda, it is time to think about possible scenarios following the final defeat of the group in Syria and Iraq. The negative ones include resurgence of Al Qaeda after several years of decline, emergence of new hotbeds of terrorism around the world and new forms of “individual jihad” in the West.
Since the death of Osama bin Laden and the appointment of Al-Zawahiri, ideologically savvy but extremely uncharismatic and militarily inexperienced leader, Al Qaeda practically ceased to exist as an “international terrorist organization.” In recent years, the most serious Al Qaeda terrorist attacks have been organized only in territories where regional leadership was held by influential ideologists and field commanders. Today, we observe this in North Africa, where a large Islamic coalition was formed under the banners of Al Qaeda a year ago, or in Yemen, where despite several years of rivalry with ISIS, the terrorists of Ansar Al-Sharia not only continue to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks, but also keep some territories under control.
The Al Qaeda organization also associates certain hopes for a renaissance with the appearance on the stage of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. Many jihadists see him as the potential leader of the terrorist organization, which will be able to regain Al-Qaeda’s former power and resume confrontation with the United States. Since early 2017, Hamza Bin Laden regularly appears on Al Qaeda’s propaganda videos and makes statements confirming his readiness to continue the line of his father.
The Al-Qaeda leadership reacted to the defeat of ISIS in Syria quite unambiguously. It intensified its propaganda and appealed to its supporters to “close ranks” and rally in the fight against the West. Such appeals also found some response in the ranks of Sunni groups in Syria, which have in recent months renewed attempts to form new alliances and coalitions.
It is worth remembering that the rapid growth of ISIS in 2013 was caused by a number of factors: Al-Baghdadi’s coming to power in Al Qaeda’s Iraqi “branch” in 2010, withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and the revolution and civil war in Syria, actively supported by local Sunni factions. The territorial control, which ISIS had established in vast territories in Syria and Iraq in several months, enabled it to proclaim the Islamic Caliphate and to summon thousands of supporters from all over the world under its banner. The “revolutionary” strategy of ISIS on social networking sites became one of the main mechanisms for recruiting and popularizing the terrorist organization around the world.
Today, ISIS has lost almost all of its territories in Syria and Iraq, and its online propaganda, first of all propaganda on social networking sites, has been reduced by 90 percent. With the loss of territorial control and access to the media, ISIS, still being a terrorist group in the Middle East, has almost ceased to exist as an international terrorist organization.
Fighting ISIS Across the Globe
ISIS continues to exert an influence outside Syria and Iraq, through direct attacks organized by the group or its affiliates or by inspiring and encouraging attacks. See Valdai Club infographic
Anticipating such an outcome, ISIS undertook a series of attempts to proclaim “alternative zones of the world jihad” in the Philippines (Marawi) and Egypt (Sinai Peninsula). Members of the ISIS leadership were evacuated to the Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan. Attempts to establish control over the territories in Libya, Egypt, the Philippines and Nigeria did not succeed. Although terrorist organizations are now operating in these countries, proclaiming allegiance to ISIS and organizing terrorist attacks against the local population, in 2017 it was only in the Philippines that Islamic terrorists managed to capture and retain control for a few months over an area, Marawi. The seizure of Marawi was covered by the ISIS propaganda as actively as the operations in Syria and Iraq and the successful end of the anti-terrorist operation in Marawi in October 2017 was another defeat for the ideological apparatus of the ISIS.
Today, the authorities of Russia, the United States and Western Europe are seriously concerned about ISIS supporters, their wives and children coming back from the Middle East, potentially representing a terrorist threat for several decades. However, we should remember that the terrorist attack in Brussels on March 22, 2016, was the last attack carried out by terrorists returning from Syria, while all subsequent terrorist attacks in Western Europe were carried out by ISIS supporters, who had never traveled to Syria or Iraq and were radicalized by online propaganda or by local ISIS ideologists. This trend is partly due to the fact that since the second half of 2016 ISIS has increased calls for its supporters in the West not to try to join the Caliphate in Syria, but “to make jihad at home” by all means available.
Since the second half of 2017, when most of ISIS media structures were destroyed and the Caliphate lost its ability to control the information field, the terrorist organization proposed a so-called “Munasirun” strategy, i.e. in fact giving at the discretion of Caliphate supporters the opportunity to create and post online ideological materials and threats on behalf of ISIS. Most of the statements and posts threatening Europe, the United States, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, distributed on the web in recent months, were created and posted by ISIS supporters, and not by the official media groups of the Caliphate.
The concept of “universal autonomous jihad,” popularized by ISIS ideologists, today continues to exist on the Internet almost independently of the Caliphate. Terrorist attacks involving cars and cold steel, which shook Europe in 2016-2017, were in most cases committed by completely autonomous ISIS supporters who did not coordinate their actions with the terrorist organization. It is this “individual jihad” that is actively promoted by ISIS supporters online. With the Caliphate practically beheaded and rapidly losing its positions in the Middle East, this type of terror will pose the greatest threat in the coming years.
*Al-Qaeda and ISIS are terrorist organizations banned in Russia by court order.