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Here's what happens after ISIS is defeated — and it may create a new era of global jihadism
Global jihadism has been around in its current form since the 1990s.
Back then, few could have predicted that it would become a permanent feature of our new world order – and, some would argue, the greatest threat not just to the West per se but to the Western-dominated global system of nation states.
How did this happen? It is due, I think, to a remarkable combination of ideological and strategic consistency with incredible tactical flexibility and creativity.
The end goal is the destabilisation and ultimate destruction of non-Muslim power in the world as a precursor to the “rebirth” of “Islamic” geopolitical dominance. The means: whatever works best at any given time.
Al-Qaeda was the first organisation to dominate the movement. Its tactical approach has been to draw the West into unwinnable wars in the Middle East.
These wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, may not have led to the collapse of the West in any meaningful sense, but they have certainly overextended the West militarily, and its position in the global balance of power is now greatly diminished as a result.
Yet in the past 10 years or so, the West would no longer be dragged into such conflicts. Libya, Syria, post-insurgency Iraq, and even post-withdrawal Afghanistan: the West would not allow itself to be dragged into land wars it understood it could not win and stood nothing to gain from. Nor would the West be goaded by waves upon waves of terror attacks and attempted attacks on its home soil.
When this approach stalled, al-Qaeda lost much of its momentum. As a result, from the ashes of so many failing states, a new organisation came to the fore of global jihadism – the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with a brand new tactical approach.
Isil contended that the “rebirth of Islamic hegemony” must start with the foundation of a new, “morally pure” Caliphate (incidentally, a move quite common in Islamic history, such as for example the Islamic revolutions of the Abbasids or the Almoravids).
This new “Islamic” state was to make concrete the jihadis’ alternative vision of the ideal society as a challenge to the Western global order. And sure enough, that got everyone’s attention.
Isil has dominated much of the international political discourse for the past four-five years, it has recruited tens of thousands of fighters from all over the world, and has had many other Islamist groups pledge allegiance to it. It almost succeeded in dragging the West into yet another war in the Middle East as well – though instead they caught Russia in the spider’s web.
This tactical approach worked extremely well for furthering the global jihadist movement – for a while. For the past few months, however, things have become palpably different.
For one, the most important propaganda asset Isil had was military momentum: the way in which it seemingly came out of nowhere to control large swathes of Syria and Iraq, and took important cities and oil fields. That momentum is now lost.
Meanwhile Assad is being bolstered by Russia, the Kurds are being bolstered by the West and Shia Iraq is supported by Iran. All these alliances are progressively beating Isil back.
The likely outcome is that from now on Isil will simply be eroded with a long war of attrition, until the group are no longer be able to recruit enough fighters to sustain its gains. At which point, it is likely it will collapse. It will not be easy, and it will not be pretty. But as things stand this is the direction in which the situation is heading.
This seems to have motivated a tactical change, yet again, from the jihadists: a large part of Isil propaganda has now shifted away from trying to recruit people for the “paradise” of the Caliphate, back towards the original al-Qaeda approach to inspire self-starter terrorist actions abroad, to destabilise hostile countries.
If and when the “Caliphate” collapses, expect a wave of Isil fighters to spread all across the region and beyond. In the meantime, local self-starter cells are preparing the way with attacks such as those in Indonesia, Paris, and the US.
Perhaps for a brief period of time, the most enthusiastic jihadists genuinely believed that they could just set up a state out of the rubble they left behind while fighting Assad and Malaki, and maybe even that they could fight a war on all fronts against virtually the entire world from this base in the Levant.
But much of the Isil top brass are former army and intelligence officers from Saddam’s regime. And these people, in particular, are not stupid. By now, they must have realised that they have run out of runway. The question they face now is “what next?”
Given the grossly disproportionate balance of power in this conflict, where the jihadis’ only advantage is superior resolve and motivation, reverting back to guerrilla tactics seems like the only logical next step. In other words, expect all the manpower and logistical resources at their disposal to now be redirected towards classic terror attacks.
The targets will be the fragile regimes in the Middle East, and perhaps none more than Saudi and Egypt, but also the West. Europe in particular is likely to be hard-hit, since many of the jihadis can be expected to move in with the flow of refugees.
The so-called “Islamic State” may be on the way out – but global jihadism is only getting started. And with it, further terror attacks and political instability.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College .