Mosul. Photo: Getty
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What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

Any predictions of Islamic State's demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can't be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of "lone wolf" or "failed traveller" attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri's attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group's violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group - although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group's core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group's leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards. 

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God's greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’

Photo: Getty
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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.