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The Future of ISIS
Colin P. Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corp., and Amarnath Amarasingam, senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, recently had a piece in Defense One on the future of Islamic State.
With IS reeling in Iraq and Syria, “The focus, then will shift to what ISIS’s foreign fighters – who at their peak numbered tens of thousands from dozens of countries – will do next. There are several possibilities.
“When a conflict ends, either through force or negotiated settlement, transnational terrorists are likely to disperse in numerous directions. ISIS fighters are unquestionably capable: Dug in to their positions, they have skillfully used tunnels and subterranean networks to move men and materials, and have perfected the production and deployment of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices to keep their adversaries at bay.
“The ‘hardcore fighters,’ especially the foreign ones within the inner circle of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his top commanders, will likely remain in Iraq and Syria, and look to join the underground resistance of an ‘ISIS, 2.0.’ In all likelihood, these guerrilla insurgent shards of ISIS will congeal into a clandestine terrorist organization. Besides conducting sporadic raids, ambushes, and, perhaps, spectacular attacks using suicide tactics, these ISIS fighters will rest, rearm, and recuperate.
“During this time, the militants may switch their allegiances between a smattering of groups on the ground, including ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham (already a loose coalition of Islamist and Salafist units), and will actively seek out ungoverned areas still beyond the writ of either Syrian or Iraqi government forces and their allies.....
“A second group of fighters are those potential ‘free agents’ or mercenaries who are prevented from returning to their home countries. They can be expected to form a cohort of stateless jihadists who will travel abroad in search of the next jihadi theater – Yemen, Libya, West Africa, or Afghanistan – to protect, sustain, and expand the boundaries of the so-called caliphate. These are the militant progeny of the original mujahideen, or transnational jihadists that once filled the ranks of al-Qaeda and fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and in Chechnya and the Balkans. ISIS affiliates and local Sunni jihadists in these places would likely welcome an influx of battle-hardened comrades.
“And then there is the third group of foreign fighters: ‘the returnees.’ This is the cohort that most concerns those in counterterrorism circles. These fighters may attempt to return to their countries of origin, like Tunisia or Saudi Arabia, or go further afield to Europe, Asia, or North America. States with more robust national defense structures – well-trained border police, world-class intelligence services – stand a better chance of blunting their impact. But all Western security services are not created equal: Some will inevitably have a tougher time containing this threat than others. Further complicating the issue is the inability among nation-states, especially those within the European Union, to even agree on the definition of ‘foreign fighter.’....
“For the West, countering these different groups will require a range of strategies. The hardcore fighters who remain in Iraq and Syria must be killed or captured by Iraqi Security Forces and the rest of the coalition battling ISIS. Taking on the roving bands of militants calls for continued efforts to build the partner capacity of host-nation forces in weak and fragile states – training and equipping military and security forces, strengthening the rule of law, and promoting good governance and a host of other medium to long-term objectives.
“While the EU is distracted with the fallout from Brexit and Russian meddling in national elections, militant jihadists will be streaming back into Europe, some of them determined to strike. And while transnational terrorists will undoubtedly flock to Libya and Yemen, the real challenge will be preventing further attacks around the globe, including in major European cities.”
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