The Terrorism Landscape in 2016

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna

2015-12-29
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151230-SA-SEA-Paris-1000 People cover a body near the Café Bonne Bière in Paris, following a series of coordinated attacks claimed by the Islamic State extremist group, Nov. 13, 2015. A terrorism expert predicts that IS will attempt more Paris-style attacks on targets outside Syria and Iraq in 2016.
AFP

The Islamic State (IS) will pose the single biggest terrorist threat to the world in 2016.

The new year is likely to bring five significant developments in that area:

First, IS will expand its territories beyond Syria and Iraq and into parts of Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Asia.

The extremist group, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is actively recruiting in the western Balkans, including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro, where it intends to mount attacks.

Similarly, the group is actively recruiting in Southeast Asia with the intention of declaring a Wilayat (province) in Eastern Indonesia or the southern Philippines next year.

This past year, a Syrian-based commander of Katibah Nusantara (Archipelagic Battalion), IS’s Malay-speaking combat unit made up of recruits from Indonesia and Malaysia, instructed groups back home in Southeast Asia to attack both domestic and international targets in 2015-2016.

With IS recruiting Chinese Muslims in northeast Asia, the group is likely to declare a Wilayat in Western China as well, where nearly 1,000 Uyghur recruits and their families from Xinjiang have joined both IS and its rival Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

Expect more external attacks

Second, IS will strike against anti-IS coalition targets, using its newly constituted external operations wing staffed by foreign fighters.  As shown in last month’s attacks in Paris, an external IS operations wing now complements its internal operations wing.

The Paris attacks demonstrated an IS capability to collaborate with locals to strike overseas.

Wearing explosives-laden suicide belts and armed with assault weapons, the terrorists aimed to kill and die. They hit a variety of mostly unprotected targets. After trying to assassinate the French president, IS aimed to kill a maximum number and arouse fear.

The Paris template, a copycat of the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, is likely to be repeated. Like al-Qaeda's 9/11, the IS external operations wing is likely to stage spectacular and synchronized attacks against its enemies in 2016.

Other factors

Third, refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict zones are susceptible to the IS message. The group is likely to exploit such vulnerable people in targeting its enemies abroad. If refugees from Iraq and Syria are not integrated into their host cultures, they may pose an immediate, mid- and long-term strategic threat.

Fourth, IS online messaging platforms will recruit, radicalize and militarize vulnerable segments of Muslims, both in Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Among territorial, migrant and diaspora communities, the IS ideology of hate seeks to replace mainstream Islam.

U.S. and European servers, in fact, host about 80 to 90 percent of social media sites that transmit IS propaganda. The threat will persist due to a lack of leadership, political will, and strategy among governments and partners tasked with counter messaging, taking down IS platforms and degrading IS strategic communication.

The threat will proliferate as long as IS social media sites stay intact.

Fifth, the respective U.S.-led, Saudi-led and Russian-led coalitions fighting IS will not unite to fight their common threat. However, they will exchange intelligence, sharpen existing capabilities and develop new ones needed to contain, isolate and eliminate IS on all fronts.

Territories under IS influence

This is the outlook for 2016, but IS already has grown territorially where states have failed to govern their populations effectively.

In Afghanistan, after Ashraf Ghani became the country’s leader in September 2014, the Taliban attacked multiple districts in close to 13 provinces and occupied 15 districts of northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province.

Once the Taliban were dislodged from Kunduz, they launched a military offensive and annexed Sangin district, in the southern province of Helmand. While the Afghan Taliban split into factions after their founder Mullah Omar's death, a local branch of IS was created in this vacuum, calling itself Wilayat Khorasan.

Multiple provinces remain under the Taliban’s influence, but IS occupies Nangarhar province, which is adjacent to the tribal areas of Pakistan. The group operates from more than eight districts in the province, and is now expanding its influence.

With the draw-down of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in the immediate term, IS is likely to emerge as a dominant force that will threaten the Taliban over the mid to long term.

In Libya, after Western-backed opposition forces killed strongman Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011, extremist and terrorist groups took root in the North African nation.

Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (the Islamic Youth Consultative Council) and a faction of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and IS, by creating Willayat al-Barqah, Willayat Fizzan and Willayat al-Tarabulus.

In addition to consolidating control in the declared provinces, IS likely will expand farther afield in Libya and destroy iconic historical sites. A backup capital for IS, Sirte serves as a base today for operations, logistics and training.

In northern Nigeria, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi by creating IS West Africa (also known as Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya). In Algeria, IS created Wilayat al-Jazair;  in Yemen, Wilayat Sanaa; and in Saudi Arabia, Wilayat al-Haramayn.

Apart from mounting attacks in Algeria, IS conducted and claimed attacks against the Houthis in several provinces in Yemen.

On March 20, 2015, IS targeted two Zaydi mosques in Sana’a and a government facility in Sa’ada, killing 137 and injuring 345.

IS has designs on neighboring Saudi Arabia too. The group would like to seize Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, before attacking Israel and taking control of Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud, IS has carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia's Najd Province and Hejaz Province. After deepening its influence in the kingdom and in neighboring Yemen, IS cells are likely to attack both Saudi rulers and coalition targets in 2016.

In June, in another corner of the globe, IS proclaimed Wilayat Qawqas in the northern Caucasus under the leadership of Rustam Asildarov (alias Abu Muhammad al-Qadari).

The terrorist groups in the four republics under al-Qaeda's Islamic Emirates of the Caucasus work with IS.

In Egypt, after the country’s most violent group, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi by creating IS Sinai, it carried out some devastating attacks on Egyptian security forces. In retaliation for Russian support for the Assad regime in Syria, IS Sinai on Oct. 31 bombed a chartered Russian passenger plane, killing 224 on board.

In 2016, the Islamic State and its various branches and associate groups likely will hit Western, Russian and Shia targets.

The response

IS today presents a multi-faceted threat for most governments, through its core operations in Syria-Iraq, its branches and affiliates in other regions and its online operations.

To counter this threat, new capabilities are needed that cut across military forces, law enforcement authorities, and national security agencies.

These would range from expanding elite counter terrorism tactical units; increasing the numerical strength of national security services; developing a robust legal framework on preventative detentions; raising units dedicated to mounting cyber attacks; and integrating capabilities through collaboration in counter-terrorist efforts.

An increase in intelligence-led military capabilities for killing or capturing IS leaders, dismantling their support bases, and disrupting their operations will be at the heart of dismantling the IS core in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere.

An air campaign alone will not achieve the desired outcome. Both special and general-purpose ground forces, supported by an air campaign, will be essential to degrading and destroying IS.

But in order to engage IS in a ground war, political will is key.

Without another mass fatality, mass casualty attack reminiscent of 9/11, it is unlikely that there will be public support to deploy ground forces. Without containing, isolating and eliminating IS in the physical space, counter radicalization and de-radicalization initiatives will have limited impact.

The key to preventing IS from making inroads and declaring areas as its provinces is for governments to take legislative and executive action. After proscribing entities and personalities that advocate, support or participate in IS activities, these should be investigated, charged, and prosecuted.

To preempt IS from declaring any given area as a province, the strategy should be to target the group’s core as well as its satellite and intermediary links.

The tempo of IS attacks in Iraq and Syria has created momentum for spawning and sustaining groups associated with it outside the theatre of war. To prevent this threat from growing bigger, it is paramount to focus on the core area and satellite provinces, and disrupt the nexus between them.

Both a real and virtual threat

The IS operational threat manifests itself in physical as well as cyberspace.

In parallel to an anti-IS ground campaign, governments should work toward preventing the group from influencing Muslims in the virtual space, by firmly regulating the internet through a robust legal and governance framework in order to prevent its misuse.

To counter IS’s pull through social media messaging, government should also build partnerships with the business firms, civil society and community groups. To the end of fighting IS’s sophisticated exploitation of technology, governments should build trusted networks with academia and technology companies.

In addition, governments should pursue a twin track of countering radicalization both online and offline, and implement de-radicalization programs aimed at rehabilitating those people who have already been radicalized.

Failure to craft a multi-pronged response will lead to the disruption of relations between religious and ethnic communities. In turn, this will affect global, regional and national harmony that are essential for prosperity.

Rohan Gunaratna heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.

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