ISIS reaches ‘third age’ and goes global
BEIRUT - It was a grotesquely bad year on the terror front as the Islamic State (ISIS) went global, spreading its predatory tentacles from its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria as far afield as Bangladesh, North Africa, Western Europe and even the United States, with attempted attacks in Australia and Canada.
But worse may be to come amid reports of ISIS penetration in Thailand, Malaysia, Somalia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, as it steadily absorbs other jihadist groups in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. ISIS appears to be making a determined effort to extend the caliphate to energy-rich Libya, a cauldron of jihadist violence since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, and the rest of North Africa — a springboard to southern Europe.
The bombing of an airliner filled with returning Russian vacationers on October 31st over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula that killed all 224 people aboard was probably, for ISIS, the high-water mark of the year.
The massacre drove Vladimir Putin to declare war on the group, joining the United States, Europe, Iran and much of the Arab world. That was exactly what ISIS, with its populist apocalyptic credo, wanted because, in the eyes of its leaders at least, this gave the group and its caliphate, to whose authority all Muslims should bow, the stamp of legitimacy as the protector of Islam worldwide.
The number of foreign fighters with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the main battlefronts in the swelling war against the caliphate, has more than doubled in the last year, to at least 27,000, with an upper margin of 31,000, according to a December 8th report by the Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence consultancy headed by former FBI counterterrorism specialist Ali Soufan.
“The foreign fighter phenomenon in Iraq and Syria is truly global,” it observed. “The Islamic State has seen success beyond the dreams of other terrorist groups that now appear conventional and even old fashioned, such as al-Qaeda.
“It has engaged tens of thousands of people to join it and inspired many more to support it… evidence that efforts to contain the flow of foreign recruits in Syria and Iraq have had limited impact.”
France, with decades of conflict with Islamic extremists behind it, bore the brunt of the Islamic State’s expansionist operations in 2015. These were bookended in Paris, with the Charlie Hebdo episode that left 17 dead in January and the November 13th attacks in which 130 people were killed and 400 wounded.
That came less than two weeks after the Sinai bombing, followed by suicide bombings in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Baghdad and Beirut — a combined death toll of nearly 450 — and demonstrated with barbaric force how even as ISIS was under growing pressure in Syria and Iraq, it was still able to orchestrate such carnage.
ISIS struck across the Middle East as well: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Turkey and Lebanon. Tourist resorts and Shia mosques were among the targets.
This surge of savagery appeared to be ISIS’s response to the military pressure it was under in Syria and Iraq: a show of strength and long reach for a group that had been centred in the heart of the Arab world and to emphasise the West’s strategy of containment.
Some counterterrorism analysts suspect that if the caliphate starts to seriously shrink because of Western intervention, ISIS will unleash an even more ferocious onslaught against Western nations.
There are signs that ISIS now has the United States in its cross hairs. In October, ISIS — or Daesh, its Arabic acronym, as it is now widely known — posted a link to a 63-page manual in English entitled Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen on Twitter.
The manual urges supporters living in the West to carry out lone-wolf attacks, extremely difficult to detect because single operatives leave few if any traces, or create small cells, preferably family-based, and provides guidelines for maintaining security.
The manual, which seems to be an adaptation of a terrorist handbook produced years ago by al- Qaeda, was supposedly the work of three former officers in Saddam Hussein’s highly effective intelligence service who dominate ISIS’s command core.
In recent years, the Islamic State, an outgrowth of al-Qaeda that has eclipsed the organisation built by Osama bin Laden, unilaterally declared an Islamic caliphate in the traditional heart of the Arab world that spans western Iraq and north-eastern Syria. That entity is under constant attack by the West, Russia and most Arab states, which has triggered ISIS retaliation against its tormentors.
Michael W.S. Ryan, a Middle East security expert and a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation think-tank in Washington, says the online publication of the new ISIS manual indicates it “may be laying the groundwork for terrorist attacks within the United States, Canada and other English-speaking countries using local recruits…
“Although these guidelines are based on al-Qaeda doctrine and tactics,” Ryan noted, “they have been updated to include the latest technology and thinking.” ISIS has “demonstrated its intention to create a new hybrid war weapon in its arsenal against the United States — a hidden weapon designed to be difficult to trace operationally back to the jihadist organisation or to detect before an operation is executed.
“In the wake of the Daesh attacks in Paris… the United States and other English-speaking allies would do well to consider the instructions contained in this terrorist manual as another significant warning,” Ryan said.
The San Bernardino slaughter in California on December 2nd was a classic small-cell attack involving a self-radicalised American-born Muslim and his Pakistani wife, who evaded security radar by posing as everyday suburbanites living the American Dream before killing 14 people — right out of the ISIS manual.
Analyst Hassan Mneihmeh says the Sinai airliner bombing marked the “third age of the Islamic State” following the mid-2014 blitzkreig in Iraq that led to the proclamation of the new Islamic caliphate under ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the establishment of so-called wilayat (provinces) of the Islamic State in Sinai, Libya, Yemen, West Africa, the Caucasus and Afghanistan.
This “third age” is one “in which expansion is redefined as planned acts of terrorism in new locales,” Mneihmeh, of the Fikra Forum think-tank, observes. “The definition for ‘expansion’ has thus been further adjusted: The Islamic State will be lasting and expanding as long as its branded terrorism reaches new lands.”
Despite setbacks in Iraq and Syria, he noted that “today’s Islamic State can afford a wide margin of loss. Being a lone David facing the many Goliaths of the world suits its new ideology well.
“It is not the survival of territory but the survival of its claim to Divine support that is of paramount importance to maintaining its structure. Success in killing the innocent in Paris and potentially elsewhere — cynically cast as retribution for the killing of Muslims — provides the Islamic State’s new narrative proof of Divine support.”
On a more prosaic, and arguably more dangerous, level, ISIS has provoked the United States and Europe into potentially fatal overreaction against Islam that could have far-reaching effects by giving a major boost to right-wing nationalist parties.
In France, the far-right National Front scored major gains in regional elections on December 6th that boded ill with elections in France and Germany in 2017 amid growing opposition to absorbing a tidal wave of Middle Eastern refugees. This is certain to accelerate rising anti-Muslim sentiment — another recruiting boost for Daesh.