The Center for Global Policy has released its latest brief on the fight against terrorism, and it says safe havens present a critical challenge in dealing with the most virulent strains.
It says although al-Qaeda is no longer a priority for policymakers the terror group continues to thrive as ISIS has spread around the globe. The report stresses that unless governments engage in near-term preventative measures, both organizations are likely to re-emerge.
It says that safe havens have significance in order for terrorist factions to grow and thrive – for example, ISIS used a lack of governance in Syria to establish a base in Raqqa, a safe haven, where it could recruit foreign fighters, train new members and churn out propaganda. “Although ISIS has grown to boast global aspirants and affiliates, its genesis from al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq to its own, highly capable organization would have been unlikely without the territory it seized in Iraq and Syria,” says the report.
A further concern is the fact that many of these fighters have now left such safe havens and returned home – a study from previous conflict found that one in nine foreign fighters come back and commit attacks in the West. These fighters also tend to be more lethal – 67 percent of terrorist attacks in the West that caused fatalities were committed by a group that included at least one veteran foreign fighter. The report questions whether “these same fighters – now armed with the skills and networks they gained while in the Iraq/Syria safe haven – will follow the next group like ISIS that offers that inspiration.”
The report also points out that there were several factors that made it easy for jihadists to flock to Syria. The existence of a grassroots network and the use of social media facilitated recruitment and provided a communication platform for organizations such as ISIS. The study says that while all individuals drawn to violent extremism tend to share common characteristics, areas with weak governance or a lack of resilience tend to exacerbate these traits, making them vulnerable as a new safe haven for fighters.
The report also highlights how many fighters have switched allegiance between al-Qaeda and ISIS, and it states that as ISIS loses ground the next ISIS could be the reinvention of al-Qaeda. “The organization has been gaining political ground and territory in Syria, re-branding itself as Jabhat Fateh alSham and working with other violent groups in the area,” says the report. “This political and militaristic clout could comprise the seeds of resurgence.”
According to the study, the “virtual caliphate” should be a grave concern for policymakers as the online community can create the same circumstances for terrorist organizations to create a new safe haven, unifying efforts and furthering recruitment. U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel said that ISIS “will likely retreat to a virtual safe haven – a ‘virtual caliphate’ – from which it will continue to coordinate and inspire external attacks as well as build a support base until the group has the capability to reclaim physical territory.”
According to the Center for Global Policy, policy responses must be more proactive, preventing state fragility and investing in fighting terrorism online, particularly preventing propaganda and radicalization.
It states that one of the biggest challenges for policymakers is not a lack of knowledge about preventing the next ISIS, but the urgency to put necessary measures into place.
“Hard security measures are necessary in the near term, but those measures heal symptoms rather than causes — and they sometimes exacerbate the causes of terrorism,” the report states.