Exactly three years have passed since the terror attack on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, on January 7, 2015. Three years – and it is clear that the global terror map in general, and that of Islamic State in particular, is totally different from what it was back then.
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At the time, a small number of jihadists lived and operated in Europe, receiving their orders direct from ISIS. In addition, ISIS was at the height of its powers in Iraq and Syria, and included thousands of jihadi activists and volunteers. Hundreds of thousands more took part in online jihad (“e-jihad”) and the jihadist discussion that spread on social media.
Three years on, the power center of global terror and the caliphate in Iraq and Syria has been eroded by a war of attrition against the international coalition. But ISIS still retains over 30 small- to medium-sized power centers – ISIS-inspired “franchisees” that operate independently and are trying to establish local Islamic states. They are scattered among failing and weakened countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, the Philippines, Somalia, Tunisia, Mali and Nigeria.
The caliphate has collapsed and ISIS has shrank territorially, but at the same time there has been a significant increase in the number of jihadist individuals, groups and organizations acting as agents for the spread and influence of the doctrine of global jihad. The activity of these groups, which share the same ideology, is also fueled by competition among themselves for resources, prestige and political power. Consequently, there has been an increase in the complexity and intensity of the threat of global terror.
According to Western intelligence estimates, there are currently about 50,000 jihadists living and operating in Europe who support the extremist ideology. These include local residents, as well as combatants returning from Iraq and Syria who underwent military and ideological training under the ISIS regime. They are a “ticking bomb,” and at the same time serve as a role model and inspiration for the younger generation in the communities where they live.
There are an estimated 18,000 jihadists in France, with about 4,000 of them defined as a direct security threat. Most jihadists operate independently, as lone wolves (like the Manchester Arena attack last May by a British terrorist), as groups (the vehicle-ramming attack in Barcelona last August by Spanish Moroccans), and as local organizations (the terror activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Mali).
Most are young people aged 20 to 24, Muslims and converts to Islam who are suffering an identity crisis stemming from the fact they are members of the second and third generation of immigrants from African countries such as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. They are cut off from their country of origin and their culture, and are not involved in secular Western culture. For the most part, they are also suffering from a socioeconomic crisis, the result of changes in the global economy and technological developments.
This phenomenon is global. Recently published data shows that 13 percent of youths aged 15-24 are unemployed (about 71 million out of 550 million). Moreover, there are about 25 million Muslim refugees and migrants across the world, who fled the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Some of them live in Europe, in socioeconomically weak communities.
These groups of youths in crisis and refugees and migrants are destined for radicalization and extremism. They constitute fertile ground for the growth of new terror organizations.
One of the repercussions of the decentralization of power and the geographic dispersion of global jihad is the transition from a relatively small number of horrific and well-planned terror attacks to a large number of relatively small terror attacks (like New York, London, Manchester, Turku and Stockholm) carried out independently by untrained individuals using simple means like a knife or a vehicle.
The international coalition has decimated ISIS in Iraq and Syria over the past three years. However, none of this has led to the disappearance of global terror. Three years after Charlie Hebdo, the global terror map is dispersed, decentralized and continues to develop in a way that makes it hard to track, monitor and combat.
Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom is a researcher and expert on global jihad