The first terrorist group having attempted to build a State – the Islamic State – has almost lost its territorial war. With the fall of the Syrian capital of the Caliphate, Raqqa, and without Mosul in Iraq, the Islamic State has been reduced to ashes by the Western coalition and the Kurdish contingent. Raqqa, which had a strategic importance for the establishment of the caliphate, has fallen and the Islamic State has lost its centre of power. But the war against the terrorist organisation is not entirely over. Without Raqqa and Mosul the Islamic State has been severely weakened but not entirely defeated. Now the jihadists are fleeing south of Syria, at the border of Iraq, where they hope to make new territorial gains. In Iraq, they still hold armies ready to die for ‘the noble cause’ of jihad. Moreover, some African countries could become potential safe haven for Islamic State fighters, who could try to rebuild their capabilities from behind the curtains of some corrupted countries. But what does the territorial loss of the Islamic State mean? Does it mean that the terrorist organisation did not represent an absolute, global and existential threat of chaos and invasion? I would be more careful and remember that the Western coalition has achieved a partial strategic victory against an enemy that is resilient and still strong in certain territorial areas and also online.
Indeed, the threat posed by Islamic State fighters – about 15,000 – remains extremely serious. Since they no longer have a territory, it is possible that jihadists will try to use migrant boats to reach Europe and direct their attention there. Clearly, this was not such a serious problem when the Islamic State held swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, since it focused its attention on state-building and territory expansion. Now that these two countries are more difficult to conquer, Libya could serve as a key territory from where Islamic State fighters could move to reach Southern European shores. Here, the shortsighted Western choice to remove Gaddafi, certainly a cruel dictator but one that the West could control, created a power vacuum that has resulted in a fertile and exploitable ground for jihadist groups in Libya.
Now that the Islamic State is only an illusion, terrorist attacks in Europe might become a more serious occurrence, and one that Western governments will need to monitor seriously. Therefore, the role of intelligence agencies will be crucial to ensure that the correct individuals are identified and tracked before they are able to commit atrocities, such as the recent attacks in France, Belgium, United Kingdom and Spain. Similarly, we might see an increase in law enforcement activities related to pre-emptive arrests at borders, something that will also risk alienating the very large sections of the Muslim community that are entirely peaceful. Moreover, cutting off the financial supply of terrorists – in this case jihadists in both the Muslim world and in Europe – will very important to weaken their capabilities. This is a tactic that has been used succesfully in the fight against another type of serious crime, that is organised crime, especially in Italy.
It is true that the Islamic State is territorially almost dead. However, it maintains a very strong media apparatus that is able to radicalise people across the globe without the need of a strongly hierarchical organisational structure. The challenge for the anti-Islamic State coalition will be removing the media power of the terrorist group. Cyber-terrorism is and will remain a threat, even if the Islamic State has lost its territories. Cyber-crimes could also be used to raise terrorist funds. The so-called ‘electronic jihad’, conducted through social media, often coincides with physical acts of terrorism and protest, while jihadist forums distribute hacking manuals and tools to promote and coordinate cyber-attacks – another 'weapon' for the Islamic State. Therefore, the Internet can serve as the conduit for terrorist recruitment and propaganda, enabling highly decentralised networks to work in small groups without central control.
On this topic, the Italian Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti has been very clear: we need big communication companies, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to help avoid the spread of atrocious and hateful content online. Monitoring forums and financial sources, denying terrorists access to the internet, disrupting operations and undermining objectives, and conversing with jihadists to challenge their beliefs will be very important. In the end, the aim is to draw people out of the movement and to deter potential recruits. The goal is to deradicalise those foreign fighters who might return to Europe, ready to recruit new people and launch attacks either in small cells or as lone wolves. Again, the role of intelligence agencies will be very important to make sure that extremists and potential terrorists are identified and ‘disarmed’ before they commit a terrorist attack. The Islamic State might have lost territories but is far from being entirely dead.
This article was originally published in the newspaper La Razón on 22 October 2017.