As 2017 has come to a close, many recognize the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East as one of the most remarkable achievements of the year. While the expulsion of ISIS from Iraq and Syria is an admirable feat, it does not mean they are no longer a threat. Some experts believe that ISIS will remain an issue well into 2018. The caliphate may be reduced to nothing, but they still have an ideology to promote as their targets shift to the West.
ISIS gained recognition in 2004 when an al Qaeda splinter group was formed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A few months after al-Zarqawi’s death, his successor officially called the group the Islamic State in Iraq. This group absorbed a separate al-Qaeda militant group in Syria in 2013 called the al-Nursa Front. Since 2013, many have decided to call the group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The goal of ISIS was to create a caliphate or an Islamic state. It would start in Iraq and Syria and then move beyond. They became quite successful and by 2014, ISIS had taken 34,000 square miles between Iraq and Syria. This caliphate went from the Mediterranean Sea to the South of Baghdad. 2014 marked the height of ISIS expansion. It was also the beginning of an international effort to expel them from the Middle East.
Over 60 countries joined in the fight to stop ISIS. Most were led by the United States in an international coalition. By the end of 2016, the caliphate had shrunk from 34,000 square miles to 23,320 square miles. Syria and Iraq both announced the military defeat of ISIS by December of 2017 and the international community celebrated. The celebration was quickly followed by a discussion about who deserved credit and who was going to pay for rebuilding the area. While these discussions dominated the landscape, a few experts predicted that ISIS would remain an issue into 2018. The fight in 2018 will just enter a new arena.
The loss of a caliphate in the Middle East is certainly a blow to ISIS. For the last three years, they have been able to sell the idea of an actual Islamic state to young recruits. Despite the loss, many still believe that ISIS will remain a threat in 2018. The organization does not want to be viewed as defeated. They want to remain in the news so that they continue to be perceived as a threat. This means we will still see attacks in 2018. These attacks may be less lethal, but they will increase in number.
ISIS may become a larger danger in Western countries. Over the last several years, about 25,000 people from over 100 countries left to fight for the ISIS cause. According to a study from October of this year, 20 to 30 percent of those fighters from European countries have already returned home. Domestic authorities are doing their best to tag and track these individuals. There are those who believe travel bans are the solution. For example, U.S. President Donald Trump has been pushing for the implementation of a travel ban on six majority-Muslim countries. However, some experts believe preventing the physical movement of ISIS supporters will not solve the problem. It is the continuing recruitment process that authorities must understand.
An important aspect of recruitment is the ideology. It’s true the caliphate has been dismantled, but it was an ideology that started the caliphate. It was easy to forget that ISIS was fighting for something while the fighting was happening. Dismissing the ideology and instead focusing on the barbarous tactics they employed can distract domestic authorities from properly stemming recruitment. In 2015, Graeme Wood wrote, “We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.” It is not the physical movement of ISIS supporters, but the reasons they are moving.
Once we begin to understand the ideology of ISIS, it is easier to identify how they continue to recruit so well. What sets ISIS apart from other extremist groups is their presence on social media. With no geographic base, the group is now morphing into what many call a virtual caliphate. Their internet presence is an important part of making that possible. Any group is going to portray its successes over its failures to motivate recruits to join, and the internet has given ISIS an incredibly wide platform to do so. This means that an increased number of attacks in 2018 will be seen by a large number of potential recruits.
Finally, authorities need to focus on who ISIS is recruiting. While there are some common traits among the Westerners who leave to join ISIS, the most common is that they are looking for a personal identity. They are secular people and typically second or third generation immigrants. This means they don’t feel like they belong in the West or the Middle East. ISIS is not targeting the most religious people, but those that want a purpose in life.
ISIS ideology and recruitment is going to continue to make prevention of attacks difficult for domestic authorities. It is important to recognize that the danger still exists even though their geographic presence has diminished. The recession of ISIS is still something to be appreciated. However, whenever a void is created, there is usually something there to fill it. In this case, it appears al-Qaeda may be ready to do just that.
Many have forgotten that al-Qaeda is still in existence and very much active. Much like ISIS, America and its allies found success against al-Qaeda in the past. This does not mean they went anywhere. Recently, Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza has made his presence known by calling for attacks on Westerners. These messages increased in volume after Donald Trump’s naming of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
With so much focus on ISIS over the last few years, there have been blind spots for other terror groups to organize themselves. United Kingdom counterintelligence said that it was overseeing 500 live operations and 20,000 people on its counter-terrorism radar in October 2017. This was before President Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel in December. Many believe this will bring more conflict and allow for recruitment in the near future. While the physical arena for the conflict is disappearing, the fight is now about understanding the ideology that makes extremist groups so popular. That is how the battle is going to change in 2018.
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