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Where Is ISIS Headed? Just Link the Dots

By Syed Ata Hasnain

Oct 14, 2017

Attending the World Counter-Terrorism (CT) Summit at Herzliya in Israel was a pleasure for someone like me who thinks CT 24x7. Although ISIS (Daesh) was the flavour of the season, the event did not sufficiently focus on its future because its defeat at Mosul and the final stand at Raqqa appeared to create more concern about what would happen afterwards in the Middle East. There wasn’t too much concern about where else Daesh could gravitate to.

The summit was an excellent exposition primarily on the Middle East and marginally on Europe. Other areas seemed to matter less. That should sound strange given the large presence of Americans and the Trump administration’s supposed review of its Afghan policy, which has also had a spin-off effect on its perception of Pakistan. There is a reason for this. With the defeat of Daesh, or at least the dilution in its local effectiveness, the threat perception to our hosts in Israel multiplies manifold. The perception prevailing in some excellent deliberations by Israeli intellectuals appeared to point out that Daesh’s impending defeat only meant victory for Iran. That would result in an almost unbroken chain of influence for Iran, through the Levant from east Iran and north Iraq to Lebanon, where the Hezbollah presence gave it an out of proportion advantage. Israel’s threat perception dictated and remained the focus of this conference and I am told does so year on year. Most delegates in private discussions had the same perception, that the excessive emphasis on Iran and Israel’s security related to it was diluting the universal worth of the conference as there were many areas of the world insufficiently focused upon. That prevents a more realistic analysis of where Daesh will gravitate to in the future.

First, is the displacement of Daesh from the Middle East accepted as inevitable? Israel has been relatively secure even as the Syrian civil war rages and the Iraqi Army remained focused against Daesh, while the Syrian Army is involved with a maze of terror groups. Even Iran’s priority lay in its long-term objectives of domination of the Levant. Among many of the Arab countries the notion of Israel being an enemy has apparently dwindled in these times. Can Daesh take advantage of the diffused status of enmity between states and entities and continue to thrive in the Middle East?

Considering the spectacular success of its social media campaign, the same could continue from anonymity anywhere on the globe. It would need well-networked savvy operators supported by some deep researchers. It already has that capability and to perform large-scale terror acts even without “an address” is always possible. What made Daesh different from Al Qaeda is the fact that it held territory and was not a guest entity like Al Qaeda was of the Taliban; Daesh also had finances, which it does not have today.

If finance and territory be the consideration for Daesh’s effectiveness and ability to strike at will, then it may not be Africa to which it will gravitate, nor to Libya and the Sinai, although the absence of effective government control in these areas could be a temptation. Daesh has been doing a “reconnaissance in force” in the AfPak region for the past two years but found effective bulwarks against its advance. There are enough terror groups in Pakistan to compete for space and not cooperate to form a caliphate; the same is true as far as the Taliban is considered which hasn’t developed its power base just to allow another group to ride on its back towards wielding actual power of a supposed caliphate. The attempts to look north towards energy-rich Turkmenistan and its fragile neighbourhood in Central Asia have not succeeded with the inability to first make inroads into AfPak. Daesh’s idea of exploiting the drug conduits and extracting finances for itself through that has obviously not succeeded forcing it to look much further east.

While Daesh may not yet be completely down and out in the Middle East, holding on to some bastions in Syria, its focus does seem to be shifting towards Southeast Asia. In that focus the choice could have laid just about anywhere — Indonesia, Malaysia, Southern Thailand or the Philippines — all are nations or sub regions where a large segment of Islamic population resides. It seems Daesh has placed its focus on the Philippines — beginning its campaign from the Mindanao region, where fighting erupted in late May 2017 leading to the capture of Marawi city by approximately 600 Islamic fighters with allegiance towards Daesh. It appears that the Daesh leadership in Syria had sent considerable money to militants in the Philippines over the last year, which has resulted in aiding their spectacular seizure of the southern Philippines city of Marawi.

Why did Daesh select Mindanao in the Philippines? The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), an armed insurgent group, was created with commitment towards establishing an independent entity composed of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. Over the successive years, MNLF splintered into several different groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which aims to establish an Islamic state within the Philippines. MILF appears a suitable surrogate with a longstanding struggle. Local conditions like economic marginalisation, the root cause of Muslim dissatisfaction, remains a major influence on the situation in Mindanao, where most of the violence related to this rebellion takes place.

It appears Daesh will attempt to reframe itself in two entities: a virtual one with extensive networks spread in Middle East, Europe and to an extent Africa where its other surrogates exist, Al Shabab and Boko Haram. It will continue to rally support for the caliphate, create and retain the radical space within Islam and sponsor terror attacks wherever possible. The second entity will be the physical one so necessary for retention of status as against that of Al Qaeda, which till today remains without territory. Perhaps another reason for Daesh to focus more closely on Mindanao well before its eviction from Mosul was the suspicion that Al Qaeda could have its eyes on the same region.

While the Philippines Army has struggled to vacate the Daesh intrusion on its territory and may succeed in finally doing so from Marawi, there is reason enough to perceive that Daesh may have succinctly established bases in other islands. From there it could operate in the future and pin its hopes on exploiting the piracy in the region to become a source for its future income. There is considerable concern among Southeast Asian nations about their future security given the other problem, of Rohingyas in Myanmar, which has let flow a stream of refugees who could also be exploited for the Daesh cause. Daesh would at some stage wish to signal its arrival on the regional stage through a spectacular event, and that could be a lone wolf attack in any of the major capitals. A developed nation such as Singapore has reasons enough to be worried as messaging of capability with such events is a known strategy of terrorists across the world.