Long shadow of the Islamic State’s crumbling caliphate falls upon Egypt
Tunis- As the death toll mounts from what appears to be the latest terror attack by the Islamic State (ISIS), on a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai, the world is again presented with overwhelming evidence of the terror group’s unerring determination to live beyond the span of its collapsing caliphate.
With savage clarity, the attack upon Sinai’s mosque has spelled out that the loss of territory has done little to diminish ISIS’s hunger for destruction. Defeated and scattered across the lands it once ruled, the shrinking of ISIS’s physical reach also carries for it the existential threat of lost meaning, relevance and identity. However, the evidence is mounting, not least in Egypt, that the group is not simply adapting to the shift from Islamic state to Islamic insurgency; it may, in fact, have anticipated it.
According to a recent report from Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC), the process may have been under way for at least 12 months before the devastating attack in Egypt. Between October 2016 and September 2017, ISIS conducted 5,349 attacks worldwide, resulting in a total of 8,139 non-militant fatalities, the centre reports. Significantly, while those figures represent a 38.3% increase in the total number of attacks over the previous 12 months, they also represent a 21.8% decrease in the number of non-militant fatalities. This, according to Jane’s, is evidence the group has already adapted to the transition from waging conventional warfare in Iraq and Syria to conducting a near global campaign of terror and insurgency under the auspices of a new shadow state, free from the restrictions of any geographical location.
“ISIS don’t need people in a territorial headquarters,” the report’s author, the head of the JTIC, Matthew Henman, told The Arab Weekly by telephone. “They still have people on the ground.
They’ll still be able to assassinate, coerce and threaten anyone who opposes them.”
Though the physical buildings that once housed the architecture of their caliphate may have fallen, the infrastructure of ISIS itself — facets of the group that cut to the heart of its identity — remains. For those who live within the territory freshly liberated from its grip, ISIS remains active and it remains a tangible daily presence. “They still have the ministries, the departments and the security apparatus that they always did,” Henman said. It’s within these very territories, as the various members of the international coalitions tussle for influence, that room remains for ISIS to fester and grow.
“In Syria especially, between the Kurds and the regime, there’s room for ISIS,” Henman added. “Basically, they just need to tell people that neither of these parties cares about you. Neither will fight for you. We’ll stick up for you. We’ll represent you.”
That the Islamic State must remain present and remain a tangible force is central to the group’s mythology of a caliphate rising and falling over centuries, leading inexorably to a final climactic battle with the West. In the meantime, the group’s propaganda machine continues to call upon its followers, wherever they may be, to “take revenge upon its enemies,” as Henman phrased it.
Central to this additional layer of threat is the presence, both real and imagined, of ISIS’s foreign fighters underground and waiting amid the relative security of North Africa, Europe and the West. “I think the clearest signs that the ISIS threat is changing is that ISIS is less concerned with holding on to territory and more preoccupied with the survival of its fighters, some of whom have gone underground, others who have scattered abroad in the Middle East,” Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said via e-mail. “There have been reports that many of the surviving militants are attempting to reconstitute in Libya.” Europe, specifically, Clarke said, remained a concern.
“I think Europe is in a bad position, vulnerable from both angles. Not only is Europe vulnerable to the threat of directed plots emanating from places like Turkey or Libya, but it is also under siege from homegrown violent extremists and individuals who snuck into the continent posing as refugees, as evidenced by the arrests this week in Germany,” Clarke added.
Critically, as the West enters the holiday season, ISIS’s propaganda machine looks to be ramping up its rhetoric, with online memes spreading like viruses, either threatening attacks upon Rome or claiming to have schooled its adherents in the different methods of poison. “I think the threat inevitably increases over the holiday period,” Clarke said, “because one of the hallmarks of major terrorist attacks is symbolic significance, which is always heightened with holidays like Thanksgiving and, on a more global level, Christmas.
For the families of Egypt’s Sinai as they mourn their dead, much of this will carry little meaning. However, as the attacks continue and the death tolls mount, the world is learning that, irrespective of its loss of territory, ISIS’s presence in the lives and, principally, the imagination shows no sign of receding.