Dr Marcin Styszyński
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies,
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan (Poland).
The ongoing offensive against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as neutralization of jihadist leaders such as Abu Muhammad al-Adnani or Abu Omar al-Shishani in the Arab-Muslim world, beg the question of post-ISIS and future jihadist threats in the world. The following points demonstrate some prognosis in this context.
Strategic withdrawal of ISIS insurgents from cities like Mosul or ar-Raqqa concerns relocation to backwoods, less populated regions or deserts and mountains in order to avoid direct fights with governmental forces and Western allies. However, the withdrawal enables to conduct terrorist activities and create political and social unrest in the country. The similar situation could be observed after the defeat of jihadist groups in Sahel, Maghreb or Yemen where insurgents have left cities and populated territories in order to conduct guerrilla in the wild.
Current failures in Syria and Iraq encourage ISIS fighters to strengthen local branches in the Middle East and Africa, especially in countries like Egypt (Sinai), Sahel, Libya, Yemen and Maghreb. This strategy enables to invert attention from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. However, the last failures in Sirte and withdrawal of jihadists from Libyan territories show diminution of this strategy.
The defeat of ISIS and conquer of Sunni territories in Iraq and Syria by Shia forces affected local Sunni populations, authorities or representatives. Shia domination in the region will increase sectarian conflicts between rival religious communities like it happened before establishment of Iraqi jihadist groups, which took advantages of the situation after the collapse of the Sunni government represented by Saddam Hussein.
It concerns former militants trained in jihadist camps in the Middle East or those who participated in battlefields of Syria and Iraq. It is evident in the case of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was responsible for a series of bombings in Paris in 2015, and Najim Laachraoui, the member of the group responsible for the attacks in the airport and the metro station in Brussels in March 2016. They both were trained in ISIS camps and participated in direct fights in the Middle East. The attacks demonstrated efficient coordination of activities, appropriate choice of means and methods, as well as convenient logistic and financial support needed to organize synchronized actions in several places at once.
However, this kind of threat will decrease in the near future. In fact, security services and legal authorities will be more and more effective, careful and cautious with regard to individuals who will plan to return to their own countries. Besides, last terrorist attacks and intensification of migration crisis has mobilized police, border guards, consular services or institutions such as Frontex or Europol. They will be forced to strengthen protection of borders, verification of documents as well as surveillance or monitoring of people circulation, including displacement of suspicious individuals and previous jihadist fighters. Another factor regards financial limits caused by recent bombings of refineries, warehouses and vaults controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, most authorities own lists of suspects and particular numbers of ISIS militants who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Moreover, cross-borders and free movement including logistic capacities will be more and more difficult.
This category reflects increasing threats caused by young generations of new Muslim converts who were born in the West or those who live in Western countries from their childhood. They usually hold European citizenships or identity cards and they live in European countries among multicultural societies. Besides, they are not devout believers widely known to majority of local Muslim communities and imams. Their radicalization relies on propaganda materials as well as online conversations with extremist scholars, who present conceptual misunderstandings of Islam and selected values that change their objectives and perspectives in everyday life. However, radicalized Muslim converts do not verify their concept of the faith with other believers, religious representatives or families.
Moreover, radicalized Muslims from the West did not participate in direct combats in the Middle East or training camps. They feel an obligation to contribute in jihad like their colleagues who travelled to the battlefield in the Middle East. Besides, the increase of Islamophobia and growing popularity of right-wing organizations and parties in Europe will affect radicalization of alienated Muslim converts.
The leading jihadi organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have expressed their support to the idea of the Lone Jihad considered as essential way to fight the enemy in the Western countries. For instance, ISIS spokesman, Mohammad al-Adnani, encouraged sympathizers to resign from travel to so-called Caliphate and to carry out attacks in the West.
This type of insurgents corresponds with brothers Carnajew, responsible for attacks on the Boston Marathon in 2013, Rizwan Syed Farook, responsible for the shooting in San Bernardino in December 2015, or Tameen and Omar, who attacked gay club in Orlando. The profile also refers to Larossi Abballa, who stabbed a policeman and his wife in their own home on 13 June 2016, or Mohamed Lahouiaej Bouhlel, responsible for the Nice attack, and Muhammad Riyad, who headed the assault on train in Würzburg in Germany.
The Western jihadists freely choose means and goals within their own opportunities. They use limited logistic and financial support from ISIS and establish a small group of fighters or they act alone with cold steel, trucks or homemade bombs. For example, Said Mohamed Lahouiaej Bouhlel worked with other members of ISIS, who provided necessary weapons and funds. Besides, the group couldn't prepare sophisticated attacks based on explosives or a car bomb. Using a large vehicle, which targeted peoples on the promenade in Nice was much easier for the inexperienced, newly recruited fighters.
Neutralization of ISIS will create a gap in the worldwide jihadist movement. Defeated ISIS fighters will look for new challenges and ideas like it happened after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, when al-Baghdadi became a new leader for abandoned fighters.
It should be pointed out that al-Qaeda still holds its own structures in Maghreb, Sahel, Yemen or Somalia. After the collapse of ISIS caliphate al-Qaeda will be forced to redefine its strategy and start new forms of terrorist activities.
Children of ISIS fighters is one of the biggest threats for the future. It should be pointed out that many insurgents travelled with their children to Iraqi and Syrian territories controlled by ISIS. Besides, a lot of women married local militants and gave births.
The children were forced to learn ISIS school programs and they were indoctrinated from a tender age. They represent a huge danger for the future because, contrary to their predecessors, they will be prepared for future fights without fears or doubts. The appointment of the new Al-Qaeda leader, Hamza bin Laden, is a good example in this context.