The battles to take back Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS have given rise to very important questions – What happens to ISIS as they physically disperse? Where do they go? What do they do?
As ISIS loses geographical control of its territories to the coalition forces, the world must prepare for the repercussions as terrorism explores new rules of engagement. The effects of the depleting control over geographical regions of ISIS have already become evident. From Yemen to Turkey, from Egypt to Somalia and Nigeria, towards the end of 2016, the world witnessed the demise of 142 lives in 5 cities of 5 countries across two continents within 48 hours. Most recently, almost 80 lives were lost in Pakistan in a suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS).
It would be unwise to treat this most recent series of terrorist attacks as isolated or disconnected incidents.
The Changing Scenario of IS
In the last few months, the coalition raids have unarmed and paralyzed the Islamist State terrorist groups. For the first time since the terror group claimed regions of Iraq and Syria, it does not have a direct route to Europe. Towns and villages near the Turkish border are devoid of black flags and the fighters of the self-proclaimed caliphate are being routed out. The aftermath of defeating ISIS territorially might be a spike in terrorist attacks in the West or other regions similar to the ones that took place in the countries on Saturday and Sunday. According to Pentagon’s latest report, the number of new foreign fighters has gone down to approximately 200 in 2016 from an estimated 2,000 a year before. ISIS’ ranks of foreign fighters have dropped to about 25,000 from a peak of 35,000. The return of former IS fighters to their homelands could have other long-lasting challenges for global security and intelligence authorities.
Extremist terrorism has moved from territorial or geographic influence to decentralized modes of operation. For that purpose, IS has moved the war to a different frontier – cyberspace. This frontier poses none of the boundaries of the traditional terrestrial battles, it is seamless, open, and beyond the control of any one intelligence authority. This is a sign that the era of traditional warfare is over and it is time to devise strategies that will tackle the modern face of online radicalization.
The dispersed and defeated returning militants may work as lone wolves, wreaking havoc in their domains. This could range from small-scale attacks like the killing of the French priest in July, or they could be more destructive, like the Sufi shrine attack in Pakistan.
The experienced, yet distraught fighters are likely to organize small sections in other countries to carry out consistent and organized attacks, both large and small, like the coordinated attacks in Paris last November that killed 130 and wounded hundreds more. This scenario has the potential to permeate and bring pandemic instability to the US, Europe, and Asia.
The virtual presence of IS or other extremist groups work meticulously and professionally to target new recruits online. This is apparent in the nearly 46,000 active Twitter accounts spreading radical and jihadist messages. Their propaganda and communication materials are of Hollywood quality and often untraceable. Their target groups also now look vastly different; extremism now defies all previous notions.
The world is missing a unified front in tackling cyber-terrorism. While the law makers of the world contemplate measures, militant groups have already ensured their prolific presence in the virtual sector. The international intelligence architecture needs to be revised and redesigned to account for the changing nature of terrorists and their methods.
Global cyber-battle techniques need to be consolidated to encourage and increase the common intelligence sharing among countries. The shared platform will create a safety mechanism so that developed countries like Germany, Middle Eastern country like Yemen, or even a developing country like Bangladesh can contain the threats of online radicalization.