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End of IS may see acts of desperation
Defeating the Islamic State militarily is necessary but insufficient to confront its brand of terror... and Europe is bracing for the blowback
In September 2015, in an elaborate war gaming exercise at the prestigious International Institute of Counter Terrorism in Israel, experts role-modelling different actors representing the US, Russia, Europe, Middle East and others, predicted that the Islamic State (IS) would initiate a string of terrorist attacks by foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria in Europe, starting with Belgium shortly. These attacks were to be conducted by foreign fighters who were already detected, identified and were under surveillance by intelligence agencies in Syria. They were to hit iconic targets in Brussels; that fact was established. The moral dilemma for Belgian decision-makers was whether to take out the IS members of the group in Syria before they returned to Belgium or wait out their return. Drone strikes and targeted assassinations in Syria were considered but ruled out due to ‘democratic, legal implications’. The concerned group was tailed till it returned to Belgium when trackers momentarily lost the trail. The attacks were carried out in November of that year in Brussels. End of war game.
In reality, the returned foreign fighters struck Paris on November 13, 2015. Instead of Belgium it was France. Last month, at its annual world summit, the Israeli Counter Terrorism Institute forecast an IS attack on the Vatican in the near future but more on this later.
Counter terrorism experts, analysing the future of IS as the Caliphate shrinks territorially in Syria and Iraq are expecting it to hold on till next year after which it would be a virtual Caliphate with overlapping networks extending from Mindanao in the Philippines to Marrakesh in Morocco. Its recent attempt to capture the Islamic citadel of Marawi in Philippines in a military campaign lasting four months reflects the efforts to acquire real estate as a launch pad to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Even today, as it has lost most of its assets in Iraq including Hajiwa and holds 60 per cent of Raqqa in Syria, its days are numbered. Although its treasury has depleted to less than USD 3 bn it is still able to recruit from around 100 countries prompting Jahangir Khan of UN’s recently established Office of Counter Terrorism to call the Caliphate “a UN of terrorism” and add: “only a network can defeat a network”.
Nick Rasmussen, US counter terrorism chief of NCTC testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee last month, noted that with its territory shrinking IS would reconfigure into a ‘covert operation’ able to inspire and conduct terrorist acts across the world. He did not believe that mere land holding in Iraq and Syria had any direct linkage to its ability to inspire external attacks. Aisha Ahmad’s new book Jihad & Co suggests otherwise. She says that IS will transform into a rag-tag insurgent group executing hit-and-run terrorist attacks and that without the aura of a Caliphate and the financial dividends it extracts it will lose its brand appeal.
The shock and awe of IS will diminish with the loss of physical territory and associated assets. Rasmussen indicates that IS will revert to its earlier incarnation — Al Qaeda in Iraq (2004-2008) — adding that defeating IS on the battlefield was a necessary though insufficient step towards eliminating IS threats to US interests worldwide. Overall, the decline of the IS brand is likely to make it and its Emir, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, less attractive to potential ‘suiciders’.
The most direct threat of the fall of the Caliphate and dispersal of foreign fighters and their families, coupled with migrant inflows will be to Europe. This combination could prove deadly. A trailer of this was seen across Europe in the last three years. As the counter terrorism network in Europe becomes more effectively integrated, the capacity of IS which is typically trained to carry out Mumbai-type spectacular attacks has dwarfed to more unpredictable and less discernible lone wolf attacks.
It is estimated that one third of the 5500 foreign fighters from Europe who have returned are being addressed with strategies of deradicalization and reintegration. The mission is focussed on preventing the next attack. In UK, while the community policing model has helped in blocking 13 attacks in three years, including preventing three youths from becoming suicide bombers, four attacks occurred in 17 weeks this year. Seventeen of the 51 attacks in Europe happened in France alone. Some 700 French adults, one third women and children, are still in Iraq with half of the 560 children born there. In sum, some 2000 French nationals had gone to Syria and Iraq of whom 230-250 have been killed. Nearly 300 Jihadis have returned to France.
Netherlands which has escaped IS attacks has recorded return of 50 foreign fighters with 55 reported killed on the battlefield. In Belgium, the widow of a foreign fighter killed in Syria tried to join the police force which has successfully dismantled the IS module in Molenbeck.
In Belgium alone 83 attacks in different stages of preparation were foiled. While 121 foreign fighters have returned, 120 have been killed and 160 fighters are still in theatre. In Germany, migration preceded the acts of terrorism. There are a record 10,000 Salafists in Germany with second generation Turks highly radicalised and ready to go. The IS threat picture in Europe appears all gloom and doom. As the Caliphate shrinks IS threat enhances.
The UK policy of Prevent, Pursue, Prepare and Respond is being followed in most of Europe. Strict preventive measures are in place — in UK for example, this year alone 200 suspects were arrested and 120,000 denied entry into the country. Early intervention — detection, deradicalisation and reintegration in case of foreign fighters — is the new normal.
The 2017 war game in Israel this September depicted Baghdadi holding a meeting of the IS military, intelligence, public information and Shura Councils, where he admitted that while it was the end of the Caliphate, it was not the demise of the organisation.
In unison the high representatives of the different councils demanded they inflict heavy damage on the infidels to show IS had lost none of its resilience — shock and awe. “Let us do something big,” they said in chorus. Several options were weighed but Italy was chosen as the country to be targeted.
Eventually it was Baghdadi himself who called for striking the Vatican with multiple suicide bombers. His target was the Pope, perhaps to ignite the 21st century Crusades.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)
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