Blowback from fighting ISIS should come as no surprise

Friday 11/03/2016

The bloody confrontation between Tunisian security forces and armed terrorists trying to establish an Islamic State (ISIS)-style “emirate” in the country’s south illustrate the predictable risks as well as the surprising developments that can spin out of the war against ISIS militants.

Militants believed to be associated with ISIS tried to seize control of the town of Ben Guerdane on March 7th. At least 50 Tunisian extremists were involved. Four weapons caches were later discovered, part of the legacy of years of armament smug­gling since the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

About three weeks earlier, US fighter jets struck an ISIS target in Sabratha, a small Libyan town not far from the Tunisian border where militant training camps were being reinforced with new recruits. The 50 people killed in the strike were apparently prepar­ing to perpetrate terror attacks outside of Libya.

Similarly, in the Jordanian town of Irbid, near the Syrian border, heavy clashes broke out in March between Jordanian forces and jihadists. As in Tunisia, weapons, explosives and munitions were seized from the militants.

“We live in a neighbourhood that is full of terrorist organisa­tions,” Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani told Reuters.

Blowback from the war on terror is likely, especially as efforts of the international anti-ISIS coalition have taken their toll on the organisation during the last few months in Syria, Iraq and Libya. ISIS has taken a beating but has not been beaten and is capable of expanding and hatching plots outside its original territory.

Unable to establish a viable “Islamic State” in the Levant, ISIS launched “spectacular” attacks in Europe and the Middle East, in October and November. It has tried to establish an alternative base in Libya by exploiting the power vacuum there.

London Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said he expects ISIS to try to carry out “enormous and spectacular” attacks similar to those that cost the lives of 130 people in Paris.

The international community has also lessons to draw. US and NATO forces should learn from their 2011 campaign against Qaddafi’s regime, which led to the collapse of the Libyan state and the creation of a political and security vacuum that facilitated jihadist encroachment in Mali and triggered vast arms trafficking across North Africa and the Sahel. Ill-conceived exit strategies tend to have that effect.

Western powers should know by now that an extended war on ISIS in the Levant and Libya would have serious consequences across the region. Squeezed out of their bases, jihadists will start trickling towards home, if they haven’t already. Their countries of origin will be most at risk of terrorist blowback.

In the face of probable additional episodes in this inevitable war, Arab countries must reconsider their own strategies and develop regionally coordinated approaches. North African or the Middle East countries should be aware that none of them is immune from the ripple effects of this protracted war.

To continue foiling terrorism threats, Tunisia and Jordan — likely to be perceived as weak links by jihadist groups — need international support to help shoulder the burden of military and security expenditures as well as the cost of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Such support should be seen as a key component in the war against terrorism.