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Friday, September 30, 2022

SPECIAL ANALYSIS: The Evolving Islamic State

SPECIAL ANALYSIS: The Evolving Islamic State Homeland Security TodayAs Iraqi Special Forces and their American and international allies drawn fromacross the world pick their way carefully through the myriad of streets and settlements that make up Mosul, one thing is clear, the violent tenure of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in holding this culturally significant Iraqi city is coming to an end.

While they may well choose to defend it to the last man, already the leadership of IS has called for many of its European fighters to return home. For the leadership of IS, as one phase of their plan to create a Caliphate comes to an end, another starts. This is the one where their specific deadly brand of terror will continue to be exported to the streets of Western Europe.

As the end-game plays out in Mosul and their problems in Syria mount, and with international forces building a plan to also seize Al Raqqa, the notional capital of the Caliphate, IS has moved to change its geo-strategic narrative. Whereas once the little town of Dabiq in Syria to the north of Aleppo was going to be the location of the final battle between Islam and the West, that “end of days” scenario has been “deferred.” Whereas once Dabiq was the name of the multi-lingual magazine published by IS, that has now changed to Rumiyah, the classic Arabic name for Rome.

What is clear is IS has started to prepare for life after the fall of both of its current centers of gravity. Sadly, however, this will not mean the end of the terrorist movement. It will continue to exist. Darwin’s ideas apply to terrorist groups as well as to nature. IS will simply evolve and take on a new form, a viewpoint backed by United States lawmakers, analysts and Western European security officials.

However, instead of evolving – which suggests an orderly or gradual change in the organization – a better description of this process is that IS may transmogrify, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “transform in a surprising or magical manner.”

It is possible to make this suggestion as an entirely new form of terrorist group may emerge — one that is centralised (as per Al Qaeda), and has a structure that is federated and devolved. This combination of three forms of structure may increase its organizational resilience,giving it an innate degree of operational security.

Consequently, this will make it harder for intelligence agencies to map out the networks and disrupt the new form it takes. The use of the metaphor of metastasis to describe the spread of Al Qaeda’s ideas across the world that were prevalent a few years need to be revisited.

This is not a situation where outbreaks of the cancer suddenly occur in different locations around the world. This is a systematic approach to forming a Caliphate. What arises from this poses a new set of challenges for the intelligence services; creating an increased risk of new attacks occurring in the near future.

While the centralized part may be weak, its tentacles reach out over any countries across Western Africa into the Caucasus, with all the dangers this poses for Russia and to the far reaches of South East Asia. Franchising its brand, copying Al Qaeda, such an approach creates a new form of virtual Caliphate, one that does not depend on specific territory. It’s a global movement that has a looser set of federated relationships and not dependent upon a single symbolic piece of territory. A viewpoint borne out by analysis of the rhetoric now emerging from IS on-line publications.

While IS will maintain a capability to exploit the long-standing sectarian divisions in Syrian and Iraqi society to maintain an asymmetric threat to both countries, they will no longer pose the existential threat that was feared when IS moved into Iraq in 2014.

As it swept southwards, there was a brief moment of real danger that Iraqi itself might be subsumed into the Caliphate, with global implications. Few analysts addressed what might have happened if Shia militias had not rapidly mobilized to save the capital. The implications for international security would have been profound.

Beneath this flexible mix offederated and centralised leadership, the “empowered” lone wolf exists. It is the part that facilitates the radicalization of the vulnerable. Through the Internet, it creates opportunities for people to act spontaneously. Responding to calls from the leader of IS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi on November 10, 2014 when he visited the main Mosque in Mosul to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” these vulnerable people pose a specific threat.

Recent attacks across the world in the United States, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and France provide clear evidence of the existence of this threat from single individuals. The two most extreme examples of this being the attacks in Orlando and Nice in France.

This phenomenon was further illustrated recently in New Jersey when a US Marine fun run was targeted by a single individual with proven links to IS, and when a Somali-born Ohio State University student (Abdul Razak Ali Artan) ploughed his car into a group of pedestrians on campus before emerging and trying to stab people to death with a butcher’s knife.

As we approach Christmas, concerns are rife across Western Europe that further lone wolf attacks will occur. Ironically, at the moment IS looks like it’s being militarily defeated in its strong holds, so the risks to the populations of the West dramatically increases.

Such an analysis chimes with that emerging from Western European intelligence services. Their view that IS and its likely descendants has given rise to an almost universal acceptance by those that are members of the Club of Berne (the heads of European intelligence agencies) that we are facing a generational struggle against this social movement.

It is possible that as IS transmogrifies, it may move closer to Al Qaeda. While the current leadership of the two groups can hardly be said to get on a pragmatism based upon the idea that my “enemy’s enemy is my friend” may arise, the centralised leadership of the organisations may not approve of such closer working at the federated-franchise level may well emerge. Such a development will add yet further complication into the workload of Western intelligence services.

All of this means that the prognosis is not looking good. As a social movement, IS may well be losing ground in Iraq, and in the near future in Syria. However, as an idea, a source of inspiration for those feeling marginalized by society, it will still continue to exist – albeit in a very different and arguably more complex form that simply makes the problem of terrorism that much more difficult to solve.

One nightmare vision is that it becomes embedded in future society, and its consequences become a new norm — one society at large has to accept cannot be eradicated.

Dr. Dave Sloggett, Contributing Writer, has more than 40 years’ experience analyzing international security issues and supporting law enforcement and military organizations in the United Kingdom and US State Department and Department of Defense. His most recent books are, Focus on the Taliban and Drone Warfare.


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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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