The military offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS') stronghold of Mosul is of both strategic and symbolic significance. It was in this Iraqi city that the terrorist group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of a global caliphate in 2014. It has since then served to anchor his delusional but determined bid to draw fellow religionists into the ruthless confines of a state governed by fear and indoctrination. Unfortunately, that propaganda, based on mediaeval theocracy, lured thousands of foreigners willing to fight despite his perverted manipulation of religious beliefs.
Not only the Arab world but also Africa, Europe and South-east Asia have provided misguided fodder for that cause. More than 36,500 foreign fighters - including at least 6,600 from Western countries - have travelled to Syria from more than 100 countries since the conflict began in 2012. More than 1,000 Malaysians and Indonesians and several Singaporeans are said to have joined the ranks of the millenerial terrorists. Rebels and misfits made their way to ISIS-held territory to inhabit the geographical heart of an envisioned larger order avowedly destined to suppress the "infidels" of the secular world. Mosul, the largest urban centre under ISIS control, was crucial to that murderous enterprise. The recapture of Mosul would help to undermine the plans of ISIS and its ragtag band of global desperadoes.
But therein lies a danger too. In coming to terms with their situation, Mosul's occupants disillusioned by the reality of ISIS rule would welcome their liberation, while fence-sitters would accept the fait accompli of a new dispensation. Diehards, however, would be tempted to continue their struggle by returning to where they came from, trained in both military and psychological warfare. Worryingly, ISIS branches constitute a global network that advances the group's goals by exacerbating local sectarian tensions. Militants from Katibah Nusantara, a group comprising Malaysians and Indonesians fighting on ISIS territory, have declared war on South-east Asia.
It is a matter of time before covert intentions turn into coordinated local action. The return of ISIS fighters bent on revenge must be prepared for, now. Practical steps to be taken include watching out for any supply of weapons to terrorists, from small arms and light weapons to deadly material to build explosive devices. Given the limits of what can be done to block Internet access to terrorist propaganda, experts have called for the development of convincing "counter-narratives" - arguments that will make the impressionable pause and think again before joining a terrorist group or becoming lone wolves. Counter-terrorism cooperation among Asean countries must be also stepped up and sustained as deadly threats seep out of Mosul and creep closer to home.