Global terrorism will continue to pose the pre-eminent national security threat to the world next year.
With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June last year, the world faced an unprecedented and an ever-expanding global threat. Throughout this year, ISIS' operational capabilities and influence spread worldwide from its epicentre in Iraq and Syria.
Next year, ISIS is likely to expand its reach to Africa and Asia, creating satellite provinces of the caliphate known as wilayats. These provinces will seek to implement the ISIS rule of beheadings, mass executions, destruction of historical sites and pillaging that the world witnessed in Iraq and Syria.
Also in the coming year, ISIS will inspire, instigate and direct attacks in Muslim and non-Muslim countries. In battlefields, ISIS will hit hardened targets and, off the battlefields, ISIS will hit soft targets. To exercise and expand control in Muslim lands, ISIS will collaborate with local groups and individuals to hit Shi'ite and Sunni coalition targets. ISIS will seek to strike targets outside the core area in the new year. Most governments are in denial of the ISIS threat, unprepared or underprepared to deal with the looming threat.
A new global terrorist threat landscape will emerge next year. The Al-Qaeda-centric threat landscape is being supplanted by an ISIS-centric threat landscape. ISIS rival Al-Qaeda has not disappeared off the global terrorism screen, but it has diminished in size, strength and influence. Ideologically, both groups are similar, but ISIS is more brutal and barbaric, especially against fellow Muslims who have resisted it, thus turning most Muslims and their governments against the militant group.
ISIS is likely to grow despite military, diplomatic, political, economic and information operations against it by coalitions led by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The sectarian and geopolitical rivalry between Saudi-Iranian and US-Russian coalitions in Syria created the opportunities for the rise of ISIS. While the West, with Turkey and Sunni states, oppose the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Shi'ite-dominated Iraq and Lebanon support it.
Ideology, legacy and politics preclude a victory against ISIS and compound the threat. After losing their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Western nations are reluctant to deploy ground troops. Despite the looming threat, ISIS' cruelty and terrifying threats have deterred Arab countries from fielding ground troops. Except for the weakened Syrian and Iraqi armies, the only ground forces effectively fighting ISIS are the Shi'ite militia, and Kurdish and Turkmen fighters.
UNDERSTANDING ISIS STRATEGY
Today, ISIS is a global movement of hundreds of thousands of followers and supporters, with an estimated 80,000 in the eight branches in the principal theatre. According to Western security and intelligence estimates, ISIS grew from 30,000 last year to 50,000 fighters in the core area of Iraq and Syria this year. With ISIS' declaration of new provinces, the number of branches will increase and membership will grow next year.
After reclaiming territory and proclaiming the caliphate, the ISIS strategy is to govern the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria with strict Syariah law and expand in Muslim territories from Morocco to the Philippines. ISIS declared the branches after accepting pledges of allegiance from local groups. With over 30 groups pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Africa and Asia, ISIS is likely to accept and declare more branches in North Africa and South-east Asia next year.
Today, the ISIS HQ in Al Raqqah supports eight branches.
Of the ISIS branches, Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya (North Africa) is the strongest with 9,000 members, while ISIS Wilayat al-Haramayn (Saudi Arabia) has about 100 members.
Between November last year and September this year, the British authorities recorded ISIS having staged 270 attacks. Of these, 117 were in West Africa, 47 in Libya, 58 in Sinai, 28 in Yemen, six in Saudi Arabia, one in the Caucasus, eight in Khorasan and five in Algeria.
ISIS' iconography spread both in the virtual and real world, creating pockets of self- radicalised and militarised supporters worldwide.
ISIS' strategy is to firstly establish control of territory and administer the caliphate; secondly, expand the caliphate into liberated areas; and thirdly, exploit and destabilise areas. By establishing the caliphate concept, ISIS is promoting the idea to generate more resources, including manpower. By either undermining competing groups and co-opting like-minded others, ISIS is creating support, resources and capability for future expansion.
ISIS co-opted like-minded groups and inspired individuals to attack both coalition and domestic targets. With challenges to foreign recruits travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the caliphate, its strategy next year will be both vertical and horizontal, from building the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, to global expansion.
MAPPING DEFENCE STRATEGY
National security agencies in partnership with the law-enforcement authorities and military forces should map the threat in the immediate (1-2 years); mid- (2-5 years) and long term (5-10 years); craft national, regional and global strategies; and guide governments on how to fight the threat. Today, to protect their own countries, security and intelligence services are overstretched. They are diverting a bulk of their resources to preventing attacks.
Britain's Security Service director-general, Sir Andrew Parker, said in October that in the past 12 months, Britain had thwarted six plots domestically and seven plots overseas. The heightened threat led to one-fifth of MI5's 4,000-strong staff being focused on preventing attacks.
Although the mandate of internal services has been traditionally limited to operating on domestic soil, it is essential for all services to function worldwide to counter the networked and globalised threat. Most affected nations doubled the numerical staff strength of their services to fight Al-Qaeda after the terrorism attacks of Sept 11, 2001, in the US.
Considering the trajectory of the growth of ISIS and its influence this year, concerned nations should double their existing budgets next year and increase the strengths of counter-terrorism officers in the next decade. In preparation for a long war, governments should create counter-terrorism divisions in their foreign ministries and justice departments.
While national security agencies should be at the forefront of initiatives to fight the threat, governments should strengthen government-community partnerships to protect communities and build public-private sector partnerships to protect infrastructure as well.
Rohan Gunaratna is head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
This article is forthcoming in RSIS Commentary.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2015, with the headline 'Global expansion on the cards for ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.