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Diana Dikhanbayeva. Islamic State 2.0: Potential Threats and Possible Scenarios

The current decade for the Levant countries was marked by such powerful cataclysms as the «Arab Spring» and the merge of international terrorism with politicization of Islam. Both phenomena were the result of complex political, cultural and socio-economic processes that led to the global changes in the Middle East. The events of the «Arab spring» allowed terrorism to learn new forms and methods of adaptation to social changes, corresponding to the new processes in the region, which led to the formation of the international terrorist organization «Islamic State» («IS»).


Post-Syrian IS transformation: new forms and directions

Today it can be argued that four years after its appearance, the IS is defeated in its original form. Thus, in late November 2017, Iranian President H. Rouhani announced the defeat of the IS in Syria and Iraq [1]. Later, Iraqi Prime Minister H. al-Abadi also confirmed that the IS was defeated in the country [2]. Nevertheless, is it worth expecting the complete demise of an Islamic pseudo-state on Muslim lands? Will this lead to the final disappearance of the IS phenomenon or will it take virtual forms? The latest developments in the Levant do not give a direct answer to these questions.

The recent attack on the al-Rawda mosque in the north of the Sinai peninsula shocked the whole world with its scale and cruelty. The victims of dozens of extremists carrying the IS flag were 305 mosque worshippers who performed Friday prayers [3]. Subsequently, the president of Egypt, A. al-Sisi, expressed concern about the mass escape of IS fighters to Egypt. According to him, the liberation of vast territories in Syria and Iraq from the IS will inevitably lead to transfer of IS forces to Libya, and thence to Egypt and then to East Africa [4]. Indeed, at the moment the IS poses a serious threat to Libya, which has no unified national government since 2011.

The Afghan franchise «Khorasan Province» («ISIL-KP») is also of a major concern. In November 2017, ISIL-KP carried out three terrorist attacks involving suicide bombers. The terrorist organization seeks to settle in Afghanistan, and the activity of its militants is primarily directed against the Kabul government. IS members are actively migrating inside Afghanistan: in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar, in northern Jowzjan, Balkh, and Sar-e Pol, as well as in northwestern Badakhshan.

Struggling for sources of income and spheres of influence, IS fighters are strenuously competing with the Afghan Taliban, and the fact that the Taliban views ISIL-KP as their main rival for influencing the Afghans [5] suggests that the armed supporters of the IS are not going to leave Afghanistan. Thus, according to the information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, a network of terrorist camps connected with the IS and Al-Qaeda has been established in northern Afghanistan, in which there are many militants from the post-Soviet countries [6]. At the same time, the tendency towards the interaction of the IS and al-Qaeda structures with the Taliban is very dangerous.

According to the Head of CIS Anti-Terrorism Center A.Novikov, the activity of the IS in Afghanistan suggests that the strategic task of the group in the medium term is to expand its presence in the north of the country with access to areas near the borders of the Central Asian states and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in PRC [ 7].

The destabilization of the IS socio-political situation in Afghanistan raises concern in neighboring Tajikistan. For example, Minister of Defense of Tajikistan Sh. Mirzo said: «Due to a number of factors, the main spectrum of challenges and threats to collective security continues to be concentrated in the north of Afghanistan, where the presence of representatives of radical terrorist and extremist organizations and movements is increasing … The armed forces and law enforcement agencies of Tajikistan are able to duly respond to existing challenges and threats» [8].


Interreligious and intra-confessional vectors of extremism

The flight of IS fighters from Syria and Iraq to other countries is not the only reason for further concern. There is a great fear over network technologies and an ideological core that allows IS to continue to attract like-minded people around the world [9], which might lead to a further evolution of terrorism.

For a long time, the main direction of the Al-Qaeda and then the ISI (later – ISIS, IS) ideological struggle of terror was the «external enemy» – the West, Israel and secular Arab ruling regimes. The «external» vector continued to dominate right until the start of the decisive turning points in the Syrian civil war. Before the Russian troops entered Syria at the request of B. al-Assad government, the Western and Arab media represented events as a democratic uprising of the Syrian masses against the dictatorship of the Assad clan. However, as the government troops and their allies liberated parts of the territories seized by the ISI and al-Nusra (later – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), the interethnic and interdenominational aspects of the conflict – the Sunni-Shiite contradictions and the Kurdish problem – were brought to the fore. Now, the main direction of the struggle is the «internal enemy» – the «infidel» Muslims.

This turn in the intra-Syrian struggle was profitable both for international terrorists from the IS and for the West. Thus, it had to formally deprive Russia and its allies of the main argument that legitimizes their direct participation in the conflict – the containment of international terrorism. However, the plans of the IS were not destined to come true. Thus, in early November, after 3-year-long blockade the Syrian army liberated Deir Ez-Zor with the support of the Russian Armed Forces, the last city stronghold of the IS [10].

In case of military collapse, the IS can change the paradigm and turn once again to the «external» vector. The terrorist attacks in Europe and the USA reflect the return to the previous vector. Giving Islam a bloody image, the leaders of the IS try to intimidate Europeans, stir up anti-Muslim sentiments and «privatize» Islam to manipulate it for their own purposes. Increasing number of the IS attacks in the West is very disturbing. In particular, the Director-General of the British Security Service Andrew Parker says that his department increasingly faces the growing threat of terrorism emanating from the IS, and it becomes more difficult to detect it [11].


Digital «caliphate»

Now, when the «Caliphate» is crashing in Iraq and Syria, propaganda for the IS becomes more important than ever. The terrorist group, which previously showed the capacity for transformation, undergoes a new stage of evolution. Once a group of rebels, later self-proclaimed «state» is going through a transition to the global terrorist network, which is conducting a propaganda war on the Internet and in social networks.

Indeed, with tangible losses of human and financial resources, the strategy of the IS has radically changed. This is confirmed by changes in the nature of the terrorist messages in information resources. Earlier, the main message of the IS ideologists’ preaching was the creation of a «state of pure Islam» in the Middle East, and it was necessary to get to Iraq and Syria in order to build it through armed jihad. Now the IS ideal is a secret jihadist network, «umma», which is ready for self-sacrifice. IS continues to call on its supporters to declare armed jihad, but now as lone-terrorists. For the years 2016-2017 lone jihadists committed terrorist attacks in New York, Barcelona, London, Manchester, Berlin, and Nice.

A.Novikov reported on the formation of a new type of terrorist activity – low-budget terror associated with the entry of militants from international terrorist organizations into new states, including the influx of refugees into Europe, and remote recruitment by terrorists of citizens who had not previously traveled to combat zones [12]. According to the final report of Europol for 2016, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels showed that the terrorist networks controlled from Syria can count on the help of sympathetic persons in Europe, who themselves have never been to Syria [13].

The virtual space, which continues to own the IS, raises fears of the West. For example, Thomas P. Bossert, President Trump’s Homeland Security, and Counterterrorism Adviser said: «We spend an inordinate amount of time and resources as the United States, but also as our partners, trying to not only defeat ISIS and their control of the physical caliphate but their virtual space that they own… They’re proselytizing. It’s troubling» [14]. If the physical «caliphate» is close to ultimate destruction, then the struggle against the virtual «caliphate» continues to remain unresolved.


As the analysis of the situation shows, unfortunately, even the cessation of the physical existence of a pseudo-state does not mean its ultimate destruction. Being displaced from the original territories, the fragmented, but linked groups of terrorists continue to commit high-profile terrorist attacks.

In conditions of explosive growth of network and information technologies, the main activity of the organization is likely to be transferred to terrorist «outsourcing». The basic operations will be carried out by sleeping cells, autonomous groups or by «lone» militants. IS will take responsibility for the actions. It is possible that the IS will use such tactics both in the countries of the Middle East and in the Western countries.

Forces interested in the relevance of international terrorism phenomenon will likely try keeping this issue on the priority list, taking actions that attract the attention of the world community. As a result, it is possible to expect an increase in the intensity of terrorist acts in Western countries, which cause more media coverage in the world media than any terrorist attacks in the Middle East.

In a world where international terrorism has become a new kind of art of war, the words of the expert B. Jenkins, spoken more than 40 years ago, acquire particular relevance: «Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not the actual victims» [15].


[1] Iranian President touching on his visit to Russia //https://www.pscp.tv/PressTV/1YqxoawwBwaGv?t=5.

[2] Abadi announces military defeat of ISIS in Iraq //http://www.nrttv.com/en/Details.aspx?Jimare=17593.

[3] Напавшие на мечеть в Египте несли флаги «Исламского государства» //http://www.bbc.com/russian/news-42122347.

[4] Египет опасается наплыва боевиков ИГИЛ //http://islam-today.ru/novosti/2017/10/24/egipet-opasaetsa-naplyva-boevikov-igil.

[5] «Исламское государство» остается в Афганистане //http://afghanistan.ru/doc/116542.html.

[6] Перенос активности ИГИЛ в Афганистан и Центральную Азию //http://www.fssb.su/islam-terror/3352-perenos-aktivnosti-igil-v-afganistan-i-centralnuyu-aziyu.html.

[7] Андрей Новиков: ИГ* бежит из Сирии в Пакистан и Среднюю Азию //https://ria.ru/interview/20171005/1506195727.html.

[8] Минобороны РТ: ВС Таджикистана способны дать отпор силам ИГ из Афганистана //http://ru.sputnik-tj.com/defense_safety/20171117/1023924687/ig-hochet-destabilizirovat-obstanovku-v-afganistane-i-zakrepitsya-tam-zayavili-dushanbe.html.

[9] Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees //http://thesoufancenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Beyond-the-Caliphate-Foreign-Fighters-and-the-Threat-of-Returnees-TSC-Report-October-2017.pdf.

[10] Сирийская армия полностью освободила Дейр-эз-Зор //https://ria.ru/syria/20171103/1508128818.html.

[11] MI5 boss Andrew Parker warns of ‘intense’ terror threat //http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-41655488.

[12] Ibid.

[13] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017. https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/…/tesat2017.pdf.

[14] ISIS, Despite Heavy Losses, Still Inspires Global Attacks //https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/08/world/middleeast/isis-syria-iraq.html.

[15] Jenkins,Brian M. International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare //https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/papers/2008/P5261.pdf

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