Long shadow of the Islamic State’s crumbling caliphate falls upon Egypt

November 26, 2017
Persistent threat. An Iraqi soldier holds an Islamic State flag from a building during a battle with Islamic State militants in Al-shuqaq neighbourhood north of Mosul, last January. (Reuters)

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.