The liberation last week of Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Marawi, its Philippine stronghold, is a triumph, but one marked by lingering shadows. The world was taken by surprise earlier when terrorist groups in both cases seized territory and proved to be very hard to dislodge.
Five aspects of the conflicts should be pondered. First, have national military organisations learnt from these lessons? Second, people that fell under the control of terrorists suffered unspeakable cruelty. That must be reiterated to counter ISIS recruitment efforts. Third, even though the recapture of terrain from terrorists makes the world safer, it also puts it more at risk. Terror groups will now revert to ad-hoc terror attacks and have a supply of battle-hardened militants to strike at soft targets around the world, including those in this region.
Fourth, having had a taste of functioning as a state, ISIS will not quietly fade away. In war-devastated swathes of Iraq and Syria, it governed sizeable territory, instituted a legal system that underpinned its political ends, raised taxes to finance an army, and dealt with states as if it were one itself. Indeed, it proclaimed a global Islamic caliphate with itself as the centre. The Marawi uprising replicated ISIS strategy in a restive area. That means others could also find themselves staring at the same fate if old wounds are allowed to fester in troubled spots.
Fifth, both Raqqa and Marawi bear witness to the destructive intentions of terror groups, whatever their religious pretensions. The cities reflect the physical and social rubble of occupation by the worst organised vandals of modern civilisation. All that terrorists have touched have been turned into ruins. These faces of devastation must be painstakingly captured for posterity.
Of all these concerns, it is the heightened threat of hit-and-run attacks that deserve the most attention. Countries must prepare for the inevitable aftermath of ISIS being reduced from a terrorist state to a terrorist outfit. Ousted from safe territory, its nefarious fighters will strive now to make the world unsafe wherever they can escape. A particular problem would be the return of ISIS warriors to South-east Asia, which it had visualised as a second front for its global struggle after the Middle East. Escaping rebels from Marawi would seek to melt into local populations and lie low till they find the organisational means to strike again.
Online ISIS propaganda will not disappear either because the virtual world remains open to terrorists. Self-radicalised men and women will keep joining the ranks of terrorists and use the medium to acquire deadly skills - like the recently arrested Malaysian teen who had learnt to make improvised explosive devices from the Internet. The world must remain on guard.