With the impending fall of the self-declared ISIS Caliphate and a reversion to terrorism and insurgency in Iraq and Syria commentators and analysts have returned to the long standing concern of ISIS inspired attacks in what the group terms the ‘far abroad’. In this region, outside of the Muslim lands, they seek to ‘attack and polarise’ by launching brutal attacks that will increase discrimination against Muslims and an increase in attacks on them, motivating the alienated and discontented to join the ISIS cause. This is a formula present in the strategies of terrorist groups and insurgencies throughout history, one that is inherently flawed as it encourages a strong counterterrorist response and governments are increasingly adept at differentiating between a terrorist and the people they claim to represent.
Concerns are generally about three types: the lone attacker, the returning fighter, and a group organised externally. These are not mutually exclusive (the returning fighter may launch a lone attack or form a group for example), nor are they a new threat, as countries in North America, Western Europe and Russia are well aware. Most of the attacks that have taken place, and which have caused serious harm and loss of life, have involved lone attackers, commonly called ‘lone wolves’, acting with little or no actual support and motivated by their own experience and ISIS propaganda. The recent attack near London Bridge in the UK was organised by three people but was still amateurish in its application, as a large number of attacks are.
The prospect of returning fighters and actual external support is an alarming one as they would be more capable of launching a sustained mass casualty attack, although it is far more difficult, but not impossible, for them to enter a country undetected. The problem of returning fighters is not a new one but has become an increasing concern as the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria and the demise in ISIS’s status means a potential temporary increase in volunteers returning home. This increases the chances of one returning home undetected and, if of the right mind, able to work quietly towards building a network or carrying out a well planned and executed attack. Security services across the world have varied capabilities and, more often than not, experience, but as a well worn adage goes: they have to be lucky all the time, the terrorist just once.
This leaves us with the potential threat coming from the lone attackers with little actual connection to ISIS, no direct support, and only the ISIS propaganda machine to guide them. Security services have become increasing capable at spotting plotters and extremists of all types as they inevitably leave a digital footprint and are prone to communicating their views long before they actually reach the point where they have been radicalised enough to carry out an attack. The problem has been with having the resources to monitor all the potential attackers and either identifying when a law has been broken or intervene through de-radicalisation programmes. Prevention is better than prosecution, and prosecution for encouraging or preparing a terrorist attack is better than dealing with the consequences of an attack.
Sadly, there is no guarantee that each and every terrorist attack will be stopped. No responsible counterterrorist expert or government would claim this to be the case, especially in the open societies of liberal-democracies. The Europeans in particular are aware of this and have faced a variety of types of terrorism from the far-right, far-left, ethno-nationalists, amongst others, over the years. Terrorism alert statuses and vigilance remain high because there is a clearly defined threat and people willing to commit terrorist acts in the name of a cause. There is no silver bullet to stop this but the threat can be reduced through constructive prevention strategies, de-radicalisation programmes in the community and prisons, clamping down severely on the preachers of hate, and targeting robustly those who advocate or plan to do harm.
This four part series has focused on ISIS in the context of its impending demise as a proto-state sprawled across Iraq and Syria, projecting its future as an organisation. While clearly weakened ISIS is not done yet. There is still a lot to be done in Iraq and Syria and the group has maintained a presence in other countries by establishing provinces, accepting allegiances, and motivating people in the ‘far abroad’ to carry out attacks that it can claim despite little actual input. ISIS is also but one group amongst many that espouse a jihadist ideology and seek to hold territory or carry out attacks in a complex global conflict environment. Nor is it guaranteed to remain as the preeminent jihadist terror organisation. It is possible that Al-Qaeda may return to prominence as they also have a strong global footprint, or another group may emerge to fly the jihadist flag and espouse an ideology that draws foreign fighters to them.
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Dr Carl Turner,