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CWA # 232, 26 February 2020

Strategic Forecast 2020
ISIS post Baghdadi: Will there be another Caliphate in 2020?

  Malini Sethuraman 

CWA Brief, February 2020

The world is in a state of transition- in all forms of counter-terrorism measures improving with each day, while the terrorist organisations scramble and yet attempt to adapt to the new, less-congenial or traditional operational environments in which it must exist in

Background 

Early 2014 marked the rise of the black flag over the Syrian city of Raqqa. The black flag was symbolic of a radical regional player that became a staple threat to the region, eventually transforming itself into a tyrannical threat to the world. ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, Daesh are all names of the same militant terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for hundreds of notorious terrorist attacks, not just in a specific region, but across the globe. Infamously known for its brutal violence, torture, executions, mistreatment of prisoners, hostages and or civilians, including women and children, and destruction of monument sites and heretics all over the Middle East, this group has gone so far ahead as creating a rogue state, one the approximate size of Britain. 

The belief that ISIS was the ultimate political body for the Muslims, it boasted and attempted to behave like the state (Zelin A. Y., 2014). Al-Baghdadi understood that in establishing a Caliphate, he also had to provide for their needs, which meant he went from establishing a judicial authority, but also an administrative bureaucracy that could tax people and ensured that there was an inflow of goods and services within the Caliphate. Photos of Cancer treatment for children, street cleaning services, etc. (Zelin A. , 2014) featured in its glossy publications. Al Baghdadi went as far as issuing a currency system as an attempt of freeing it from the corrupt global financial system. On one hand, if these were his administrative operations, he commanded the Muslims to move into the Caliphate and told them that it was a sin to live anywhere else (Dar al-Kufr), now that there was a true and pure Islamic state (Dar al-Islam). This formed the basis of Baghdadi’s strategy to attract soldiers from a foreign land. The ISIS’ hijra (the religious migration to the land of Islam) propaganda brought into the Caliphate numerous foreign fighters from over eighty countries. Most of these fighters joined the organisation. 

For the fighters unable to travel all the way to Syria, the Islamic State encouraged lone-wolf attacks by interpretations in their home country. With the growing number of such attacks, the Islamic State was ready to legitimise its next big strategy. This strategy was not restrictive but had broadened with the alliances and support it garnered from the rest of the world. This was a strategy of global expansion. In its quest for a global Caliphate, the rest of the world labelled it a non-state actor and a major global threat. But, first, it is important to define what a Caliphate is, to ensure the relevance of ISIS in the 21st century (Hoffman, 2003). Though the term Caliphate has been a subject of numerous interpretations, fundamentals of it are that it offers a just Muslim society, under the will of God. 

However, the ISIS’ understanding of a Caliphate is deep-seated in the belief that the Caliph is a reflection of God on earth, the head of which is almost divine and whose actions and conduct is free from blame. This, according to the ISIS is not a memory from the past, but a key strategy for its Islamic renewal and global expansion goals. This swiftly growing organisation at the height of its power had an estimated forty thousand recruits from a hundred countries. Rampaging across Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State left no stone unturned. It destroyed churches, shrines, and tourist sites, including the Roman city of Palmyra. It didn’t simply stop with this. It further went on to plunder areas for profits and targeted minority groups like the Yazidi, taking thousands of hostages and making sex slaves of the women and girls. With more territory in their reach, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which included territory that marked greater Syria. But, this terror was not restricted to its region. 

Major Trends in 2019 

The Islamic State and President Donald Trump dominated politics in 2019. But, the year was also notable for what all happened, what didn’t happen and how this could shape the coming years, particularly in 2020. 

US Troops Withdrawal From Syria 

The headlines of the New York Times last Christmas eve brought cheer to many homes, but chaos and anarchy to a region still reeling from the attacks that it had endured over decades. “Trump to Withdraw U.S. Forces From Syria, Declaring ‘We Have Won Against ISIS,” the New York Times read. This cheerful prognosis of the Trump administration officials and intelligence was reflected in their conviction that it was only a while before attacks were targeted across the globe. President Trump fulfilled his frequently expressed desire to bring back American troops from a chaotic entanglement in the Middle East. However, this meant bringing a sudden end to a defense campaign that managed and controlled the Islamic State, while ceding a strategically vital country to Russia and Iran. Abandoning US’ Kurdish allies to dangers from Turkey crippled future American efforts in gaining or maintain the trust of local fighters against counterterrorism operations, specifically in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The trend that emerged out of this move urged the Russian Foreign Ministry for prospects in creating political settlements in Syria’s civil war. 

Leaning toward South Asia and South East Asia 

Four weeks after the Caliphate was wiped out in Iraq and Syria – and four months post-President Trump’s declaration of the group’s defeat, the terrorist organisation reminded the world in a rather dramatic fashion that it was a major threat even when it possessed limited territory. The Sri Lankan Easter Bombings, one of the deadliest attacks carried out by the group, nearly twice as lethal as the Paris attacks stood as proof that ISIS was signalling its widening reach. (Azami, 2016) As this group is not a membership-based organisation, its capacity to reorganise and adapt itself to fit the evolving security landscape around the world is a trend that presents a challenge to the elimination of such an organisation in the future. (Taneja, 2018) Since 2015, ISIS has been into full-fledged recruiting and instructed its recruits to migrate to territory held by its overseas affiliates. The far-reaching nature of the ISIS is a result of the method in which the group pursues recruitment. Rather than creating a base of recruits from the scratch, it simply poaches members from existing terror groups or ends up recruiting the entire group itself. 

This trend of recruiting members was visible in most attacks in 2019 in the South and SouthEast Asian regions. One prominent example is the group’s recruitment of insurgents from Abu Sayyaf to carry out the Jolo Cathedral Bombings in the Philippines. Whole units of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have been swallowed by the ISIS affiliate in the state. One major trend that reeked through 2019 was ISIS’ open and loud nature of propaganda for the purpose of vengeance, across the world. In an 18-minute infomercial released by an Islamic media group, Baghdadi acknowledges that the attacks carried out in Sri Lanka that killed at least 250 people were carried out “in revenge” for the Caliphate’s losses in Baghuz. He also called out a number of the group’s leaders by name, mentioning fighters and operatives from Belgium, Australia, and Saudi Arabia, reflecting the multinational organization the Islamic State has become. The Islamic State was not frequent to use videos to create its cult of personality, the way Al Qaeda’s Bin Laden did. But, this year saw a new trend in the terrorist organisation emerge, and several counter-terrorism analysts believed it could be heading in that direction. 

The Imperative Of Individual Jihad For Alleged Collective Prosperity 

ISIS has constantly and consistently defined the importance of jihad as an individual responsibility that lies upon Muslims, across the world. This is probably a consistent trend that ISIS inherits and carried forward from its former organisation Al Qaeda, particularly Bin Laden, from which it split many years ago. Though it is increasingly tempting to dismiss this as anachronistic braggadocio, this trend might acquire a new form of resonance in 2019. This is particularly true of the continued use of “suicide bombers” who are willing to perform jihad for a belief that that might bring collective prosperity. 

Caliphate, A Global Project 

Despite its loss in the territory, the group continued to claim a caliphate that it pursued as its global agenda or project. Its propaganda audio-visual clips, the attacks it engaged in were all visible examples of the group attempting to widen its tentacles on the one hand, while glorifying its reach on the other. 

Forecasts for 2020 

It is plain to see that the world is in a state of transition- in all forms of counter-terrorism measures improving with each day, while the terrorist organisations scramble and yet attempt to adapt to the new, less-congenial or traditional operational environments in which it must exist in. Soft-targets will be the base of continued low-level attacks. There will be an extended emphasis laid on the exploitation of local causes with the overarching propaganda of the ISIS’ pan-Islamic ideology. 

Revival of Recruitment 

During the transition in leadership from Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi to Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi alQurayshi, an increase in recruitment targeting second and third generation diaspora Muslims in Asia, specifically South and South East Asia and North Africa will be witnessed. The ISIS in this way will seek to embed itself in and draw new resources and support from receptive groups or individuals. This way local groups that were not under any local or legal scrutiny will find their passage to shine, even if it is under the banner of a larger terrorist organisation like the ISIS. 

Elbowing Limelight 

Through Small Attacks As is obvious in the years, the ISIS does not stand alone as a terrorist group but is an enclave of set ideologies and concepts. At this point the ISIS has taken a huge hit with its sources of land (approx. about 42,000square miles), labour or manpower (close to 7.7 million people) and capital and funding (its sources of funds) have been cut out and thwarted. This leaves it in a poor place in terms of the image and reputation it brought itself over the years. In order to retain this reputation or image for itself, and to compete with other terrorist organisations, the ISIS will continue its attacks to promote its continued relevance in the world and for Islamic affairs. Staying in the news at all times will be one of its big plans for 2020. Violence and limelight will be key to ensuring its presence as an international force. If six to eight months from now, this promised campaign does not materialise even to an extent, and the world experiences no more terror attacks from the group, only then may we start writing the epitaph for the Islamic State. 

Targets for 2020 

The growth of ISIS in other countries and or regions is one to keep an eye out for. The effect of operative armies and sleeper cells across the world, and the death of its leader Al-Baghdadi makes the world a hot pot that is prone to an attack of large capacity- either in quantity or extent of the devastation, or perhaps both. The countries like Turkey, Syria abd Iraq are most volatile in 2020. In Turkey, the ISIS might carry out joined attacks with the Kurdistan Workers Party, though suicide bombing is unlikely. This is so because gathering material and equipment for the same is rather challenging. However, the threat cannot be overlooked. In Syria and Iraq, with the current base of ISIS in Iraq, it is self-evident that this region is not going to be free from terror any time soon. Despite the mobilisation of the US troops in the city, these countries become breeding ground of ascending threat and instability. 

US’ Political Game 

Though Baghdadi’s death under Republican President Donald Trump’s regime could not have come at a better time, the political impact of this victory is likely to be negligible. The impeachment inquiry and Trump’s extensive polarising opinion on the raid are not going to move the vote bank, in 2020. In addition, the media machines in the Middle East went into overdrive- either as they dismissed the demise of the notorious terrorist or sought some credit and claim for it. Drawing from these patterns, it is pertinent to watch out for the Middle East’s detachment from the United States and Russia’s attempt at seizing this opportunity to plunge into the territory. Russia is likely to gain many strategic gains with America’s retreat from the region. In addition, the US will take a relook at their relationship with the Kurds, following their willingness to pinpoint Al-Baghdadi’s location. The US owes its Kurdish allies much, and perhaps this US administration will try and re-strategize its comradery to a new extent. What the IS will look like in 2020 is a long-drawn, complex answer, however as for the Middle East- it will have the mark of three US presidents. The Islamic State is no longer solely responsible for the crisis that plague the Middle East, US’ entry into the region and its alleged withdrawal has left an unpleasant image of the Western-style of liberalisation, leaving behind massively destroyed infrastructure and sowing the seeds for an imminent resurgence of an existing or new adversary. 

Renewed counter-terrorism policies 

With the possibilities of the resurgence of a terrorist organisation like the Islamic State, the measures that state, particularly the ones with fertile terrains for an attack, might enforce would be two fold. First, the collective security and legal prosecution measures will be a key initiative for taking on groups like ISIS in 2020. Methods for legal prosecution and a high focus on Intel on the operations of ISIS will be added sources acting as preventive measures. Forces that are stationed in the areas infested by the ISIS will be trained with high-grade machinery and equipment for fighting and civilian protection, like sudden evacuations. Efforts for more adherence and coerciveness to counter-terrorism laws will be strictly initiated and enforced in regions like the Balkans, South and South East Asia. Second, the porous borders will be secured with increased security. Proactive measures will be taken to avoid the proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems, artificial intelligence, bio technology and cyber threats to limit the chances of future risk. A comprehensive counterterrorism approach must be taken to prevent both domestic and foreign threats from the group. Some regions are likely to focus on threat prevention in civilian dominated zones like schools, infrastructure, and houses of worship. A full breadth of law enforcement will focus on immigration, trafficking, travel security, and trade-based associations to prevent, identify, disrupt and dismantle threats from these areas. 

Use of affiliates for the return of ISIS 

ISIS has a large base that it will use against its nemesis to rise again. Here are its strongest affiliates, one of which might pose as stepping stone for the resurgence of ISIS. A few trends that are discernible in 2020 will be in countries like Afghanistan, Africa and South and Southeast Asia. In Afghanistan, the ISIS-Khorasan’s presence in this country has become one of its deadliest branches in the world. The casualties caused by the ISIS-Khorasan has been 2000+ in the past year. In Africa, while the extent of casualty in Afghanistan is high, the degrees of the lethality of their attacks is much higher in this region. Boko-Haram and ISIS-West Africa have been responsible for over 35,000 deaths since 2011. The past year has also witnessed the imposition of the Sharia law in areas under its control. Niger and Somalian ISIS have also conducted several attacks and assassinations. 

Another alarming threat comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, as they are slowly aligning themselves with the ISIS. In Egypt, the ISIS-Sinai is resolved on attacking targets in Egypt (mainland), particularly tourist spots and churches. The South and South-East Asia region is a victim of ISIS’ propaganda campaigns inspiring regional groups to commit acts of terror. Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia are the most vulnerable and volatile. These trends are only examples of attacks that could cause mass casualty. However, the growth of ISIS in other countries and or regions is one to keep an eye out for. The effect of operative armies and sleeper cells across the world, and the death of its leader Al-Baghdadi makes the world a hot pot that is prone to an attack of large capacity- either in quantity or extent of the devastation, or perhaps both. This forecast is presented on the basis that all other factors in the environment, political landscape, and economic and technological landscape remain constant. 

However, this forecast might be altered with the alterations in certain constants that may play out as variable wildcards in the New Year. Some of the wildcards might include three trends. First, the leadership potential of the ISIS’ newly crowned head and his role in the organisation’s functioning, resurgence, and growth. Second, the US elections in 2020 might affect the counterterrorism policies and the ways in which the US draws itself into the workings of the self-established Caliphate and the Middle East, as a whole. Last, the emergence of China as a regional or economic powerhouse might affect the ISIS’ effect on Asia with an equal influence by Russia and Turkey. In conclusion, the future, whatever it holds for the Islamic State, it seems to be indisputable that they have a seismic effect on the United States of America and the whole world (Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, 2019). The Islamic State is an organisation that can claim to have fundamentally changed the course of history. And, in that context, the epic battle that it launched is not over as yet. The planning period of all previous ISIS speculators alone suggests that it is too soon to write off the ISIS or its jihadists. The New Year, 2020, will stand witness to the unfolding of some new, and perhaps monumental operations. Indeed because of AlBaghdadi’s death and ISIS’ understanding that America’s “global war on terror” is against its ideas, a war on Islam, the movement’s purpose and commitment today are arguably greater than ever before.

References

  1. Azami, D. (2016). The Islamic State in South and Central Asia. Survival, 58, 131-158.
  2. Gulmohamad, Z. K. (2014). The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State. Global Security Studies, 5(2), 1-11.
  3. Hoffman, B. (2003). AL QAEDA,TRENDS IN TERRORISM AND FUTURE POTENTIALITIES: AN ASSESSMENT. RAND, 1-19.
  4. Simon, J. F. (2015). ISIS: The Dubious Paradise of Apocalypse Now. Survival, 57.
  5. TANEJA, K. (2018, January). The Fall of ISIS and its Implications. RF ISSUE BRIEF(220), 1-12.
  6. Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention. (2019, August 8). Retrieved from Department of Homeland Security: https://www.dhs.gov/
  7. Zelin, A. (2014, June 13). How the Militants Overrunning Iraq Win Hearts and Minds. Retrieved from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/the-isis-
  8. guide-to-building-an-islamic-state/372769/
  9. Zelin, A. Y. (2014, June). The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy and al-Qaeda for Supremacy. Research NOTE, 2-8

Malini Sethuraman is pursuing her Masters in International Studies from Stella Maris College, Chennai 

This essay was first published in the NIAS Quarterly on Contemporary World Affairs, Vol 2, Issue 1, January-March 2020

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