Of all the questions Western intelligence agencies might like to ask the senior leaders of Al Qaeda and ISIS is head and shoulders above the parapet. Que Vadis, where are you going? Knowing their direction of travel, what their strategy is and what targets they intend to target and attack in the future would be so helpful. It would enable those currently planning the end game for those engaged in what can broadly be described as Islamic extremism to be more effectively targeted.
As the President’s clock to come up with a new strategy to combat Islamic extremism ticks down, building this dynamically evolving plan — in the absence of someone being helpful and actually telling us what the plan really is — is like trying to second guess how it evolves from here. Nostradamus would no doubt agree that prediction is a fool’s game. But, given the serious nature of what the Western world faces, it is one that must be attempted.
The first piece of this elaborate picture that is emerging is obvious. Whereas Islamic extremism has always found an immediate sanctuary across borders to rest up and get back into the fight later, the situation in Iraq and Syria is making that difficult. While in Iraq ISIS has been conducting suicide attacks in Baghdad and using some freedom of movement that it retains in the Al Anbar Province to attack the Iraqi Army, its overall ability to continue the fight in Iraq is increasingly being squeezed.
In Syria, its freedom of movement around Raqqa is also rapidly diminishing. To the north of Raqqa, Kurdish forces have completed a virtual encirclement of the city. To its south and west resides the forces of the Assad regime. Byany stretch, ISIS will soon lose its de-facto capital. It will no doubt be a bloody fight, but its time will come. Just like the story of the emblematic town of Dabiq, lying to the north of Aleppo this was supposed to be the site of the final battle between Islam and the West. Prophesised by the Islamic State as part of their attempts to draw people to Syria, its loss to the Kurdish fighters has seen ISIS rapidly adapt.
What was supposed to be the battle to create the conditions for the onset of Armageddon is no more. Similarly, the significance of Raqqa will soon be consigned to history. The theologians working at the heart of ISIS will have to go back to basics and re-build the story that justifies their brave new world of the modern Caliphate.
For ISIS, this will be yet another defining moment. It will retreat into the depths of the Dark Net. A physical caliphate will be replaced by a virtual one. Cyberspace, a place where ISIS has had a significant presence in the past two years, will become its sanctuary.
In reality, this sanctuary will provide a veneer of elaborate and sophisticated communications between forces that have been dispersed from Syria and Iraq to the corners of the planet. Those estimated to remain alive from the 50,000 foreign fighters who journeyed to fight for the Caliphate and the vision announced by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in Mosul will now be deployed to new locations — places like Wilayats, where ISIS is trying to create a new beginning for a physical Caliphate. This could see upwards of 20,000 fighters on the move across Europe and out to the Far East.
Those places include, inter alia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, India, Thailand, Morocco, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt and Libya. These are places where ISIS believes security vacuums exist where they can regain some freedom of maneuverer and enjoy respite. The intent is clear. The sanctuary of the virtual Caliphate is designed to be a brief one. For their continued existence and to maintain the support of their fighters, ISIS needs to have a physical presence on the ground somewhere, and quickly.
Of all these locations, the situation in Southern Libya is perhaps the most troubling, at least for security in Western Europe. It is also the area rapidly emerging at the top of the American to-do list. As Russia seems to want to get engaged in Libya, the United States also needs to pay attention to what is happening on the southern border of Libya and its western borders with Algeria and Tunisia, and to the south into Niger and Mali. This is where it’s possible to suggest the new Caliphate will emerge — joining up Boko Haram in the South with the various groups that have declared allegiance to ISIS in the north.
Three things indicate the United States is taking this area seriously. The first is the recent dispatch of two B2 Spirit bombers from their base in Missouri to bomb targets in southern Libya. The second is a series of alterations to the deployments of Predator drones in the region. New sites are being activated to increase the coverage over the area. Lastly, intelligence agencies are re-orienting their national technical means of collection in the area to overcome the paucity of information that currently exists.
Given the inflow of 50,000 foreign fighters into Iraq, an estimated 6,000 of whom came from Tunisia, it is not unreasonable to speculate that this area in North Africa is a new location for what might be a second attempt to build a physical Caliphate.
But what of the other fighters returning home, such as those making their way back into Western Europe? It is not difficult to believe the total number retuning is greater than 3,000. This headache only multiplies the problems that the security services in France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom are currently having to address from indigenous sources.
The sanctuary in cyberspace ISIS is creating will allow them to maintain contacts with ideologically committed colleagues who have been through the fighting in Syria and Iraq and now want one simple thing — revenge for the actions of the West in destroying their dream of a Caliphate.
Understanding what the potpourri of tactics, capabilities and plans that this combination might unleash is arguably the priority for Western intelligence agencies. What is coming next in Western Europe could eclipse events to date in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and London.
At the heart of these concerns is the potential for ISIS to unleash their expertise in improvised chemical weapons. This capability has been steadily emerging in Syria and Iraq. Mustard Gas, Sarin and Chlorine weapons have all been deployed by the chemists of the Islamic State. The rapid pace of the development of these chemical weapons and the mastery of the weapon technology — no doubt down to recruitment of key individuals from Saddam Hussein’s own weapon of mass destruction program — means this is a serious threat. Add to that the emerging of an indefinite ban on the transport of a wide range of electronic devices on aircraft traveling to the United States and United Kingdom.
Since Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) first tried to send printer bombs in packages through parcel post to a synagogue in Chicago, and the so-called “underwear bomber” having tried to bring down an aircraft on Christmas Eve on landing approach at a Detroit airport, they have been widely regarded as the most dangerous of all the Al Qaeda affiliates.
The recent attempt by Al Shabab in Somalia, another Al Qaeda affiliate, to bring down a plane taking off from Mogadishu in February 2016 suggested that groups that had previously worked alone where now actively cooperating. That event showed an explosive device big enough could be smuggled onto an aircraft to cause a large hole enough in the aircraft that the bomber was sucked out. Remarkably, the aircraft landed safely.
The latest warnings about bombs on planes no doubt stems from another development in the jihadists’ arsenal of bomb-making experts led by Ibrahim Al Asiri. Causality also suggests the Special Forces raid on an Al Qaeda compound authorized by President Trump produced valuable pocket litter pointing to an emerging threat.
This arsenal has also recently widened to include a world-wide community of volunteers who have been crowdsourced. The arrest in the outback of Australia of a person alleged to have been involved in this world-wide effort to develop the next generation of bombs that can be smuggled on planes shows the seriousness of the problem. The deliberate targeting of the Khorasan Group in Syria at the start of the United States bombing campaign in September 2014 provided another piece of a complex evolving intelligence puzzle. The United States intelligence agencies were clearly worried.
In such a dynamic environment, it is quite understandable that intelligence agencies make mistakes. Those prone to point the finger should in all honesty think before they act. With so many people on watch lists, so many different individual identities, groups swearing allegiance to ISIS proliferating all over the world and the next generation bomb technology being crowdsourced from a worldwide coterie of ad-hoc supporters happy to volunteer their expertise to support the ideology expressed by Islamic extremists, combating these evolving treats at any point in time is difficult.
Answering the question of how Islamic terrorism evolves from here is therefore not easy. But it does seem to involve a combination of geographic, technological and tactical developments that will in time afford it the opportunity to remain one step ahead of intelligence agencies.
While Trump has set forth an ambitious goal of destroying the threat from Islamic extremism, he may find his options for completing that mission are somewhat limited.
Dr. Dave Sloggett is a Senior Contributing Editor and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.