Anticipate a Globalized Islamist Virtual Gangster Cult

BEIRUT — Ever since the “Islamic State” (IS, or Daesh) proclaimed itself two years ago in Raqqa and Mosul as the nucleus of a modern Islamic caliphate, it has told its followers that it will endure and expand. I have always seen the IS territorial phenomenon, to the contrary, as transient and temporary. It would only last until its many enemies coordinated military attacks against it, as has now begun with multiple military attacks on IS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The “state” in “Islamic State” will collapse — but IS will not disappear.
This is because territory might not be the most profound dimension of IS in the long term, as it has been in its inaugural past two years; rather, it might be the power of identity and the related issue of geographically dispersed political allegiance. In other words, what matters to IS and will allow it to persist for some time is the shared mindset of a large number of people around the world — from hundreds of thousands to perhaps a few million — who have lost confidence in their existing political, religious, and socio-economic institutions, and find in IS the alternative that gives meaning to their lives now and in the ever after.
IS came into being in several different forms and names during the past ten years. Henceforth, it might persist in the form of many diverse and dispersed followers who operate in a highly personalized and decentralized manner around the world. No longer a formal caliphate with state institutions, IS may soon operate as the world’s largest Islamist virtual fringe gangster cult.
Troubling signs keep emerging around the world of how IS is decentralizing and anchoring itself in small groups that operate locally, often with little or no knowledge of each other, as we learned in Europe recently. A new NBC television news report quoted a senior Belgian official saying that around 100 IS fighters have returned to Belgium after battlefield experience and training in Syria, and they may be planning new terror attacks.
A parallel sign of concerns in Europe was this week’s news that 82 workers hired to strengthen security systems for the Euro 2016 football championships this month reportedly were found to be listed on French terror watch lists. If this is true, and even just a few of those on watch lists are activists with IS or other violent groups, this spells trouble ahead. The European Union’s top police officer, Europol director Rob Wainwright, anticipates a “high threat” of an IS terror attack at Euro 2016.
The challenge of identifying and containing IS members in Europe or elsewhere who may be planning terror attacks is much more difficult today than was the (ongoing) counter-terrorism fight against Al-Qaeda during the past quarter century, for two main reasons. Deteriorating economic and political conditions in dozens of countries expands the pool of recruits, and, thousands of European recruits who have been thoroughly trained, indoctrinated, and given battlefield experience in the “Islamic State” return home with greater capabilities than earlier waves of terrorists.
One operational key for them is to operate in small groups that are not necessarily linked to larger networks, it seems. In Lebanon last week it was revealed that three small groups of IS operatives were detained in three different parts of the country before they could carry out planned attacks. Each cell reportedly did not know of the existence of the others, which means other cells probably remain in place. The good news is that Lebanese and international intelligence and police surveillance systems are becoming increasingly efficient.
This is a global problem. The Singapore Defence Minister said this week that in the past three years IS has recruited more militants in the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) than Al-Qaeda did in the previous decade. He estimated that over 1000 fighters from ASEAN have been to Iraq and Syria, and many who return home maintain ideological links with IS.
Radical local groups like Abu Sayyaf have operated in ASEAN lands for decades, and reports from the Philippines talk of the likelihood of another IS “emirate” being declared there soon. IS affiliates operate across parts of central and north Africa. How will thousands of members of such groups in vulnerable regions of the world react when IS’s heartland in Syria-Iraq is dismantled soon? Will they emulate Al-Qaeda’s ability, after its bases were shattered in Afghanistan, to persist and occasionally expand in propitious local conditions of chaos and warfare?
This long war will not be won through military defeats of the enemy. It will be won when we give hundreds of millions of people an opportunity to live a decent life in their home communities, without corrupt domestic dictators, neighboring colonizers, or foreign armies attacking them. No appreciable progress has been made on this critical front of the real war on terror, which attacks and removes terrorism’s roots, rather than smashing its symptoms to only scatter them around the world where they sprout again in fertile lands, watered by dictators, colonizers, and invading foreign armies.
Rami G. Khouri
is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri
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