Western governments and international media have rushed to declare the collapse of Islamic State over the past few weeks. The collapse of ISIS in Mosul, and soon in the organization’s capital, Raqqa, too, along with the defeats ISIS has met in the past few months in the outlying cities and provinces it conquered over the last four years, reflects a major military collapse.
- Backed by Iran and Hezbollah, Syrian forces fight to oust ISIS from last central bastion
- Stranded ISIS convoy symbolizes militants’ stalled campaign
- U.S. warplanes block ISIS convoy being evacuated from Lebanon-Syria border
Yet the gap between the physical, military dimension of ISIS in the face of its territorial shrinkage and the operative, perceived dimension of ISIS because of the growth in the scope of its terrorist attacks in the West, and in Europe in particular, reflects an anomaly and the exact opposite trend.
The weaker the organization grows militarily, the more manpower and material resources it loses, the greater its power to inspire and influence, and the stronger the threat of global terrorism. Moreover, the volatility and spread of the extremist jihadi ideology it champions stands out even more against its diminishing military power and loss of control in Iraq and Syria.
Western intelligence agencies express great worry over this continued trend of rising terrorism, mostly in Europe, based on the significant growth in the threat and frequency of terrorist attacks there by ISIS and other global jihadists.
Since January 2014, some 150 terrorist incidents have been recorded in 15 countries, led by France, Germany, Britain and Belgium. The trend that began with 15 incidents a year has grown over the past three years. In 2015, considered the peak of ISIS’ power and growth, about 40 such incidents were reported. In 2016, some 60 such incidents occurred, and so far this year about 50 similar incidents have occurred, mostly in those same four countries. Such a rise in the frequency of jihadist-style terrorist attacks represents a global security challenge today and most likely in the future.
ISIS’ military collapse and territorial shrinkage does not eliminate its unique source of power and strength: its ideology. The terrorist organization continues to function and serve as a model for imitation despite – or possibly because – its “manufacturing plant” in Iraq and Syria being gravely damaged and the reports (which are inconclusive) that its CEO, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed.
The organization’s change of strategy has been expressed in calls to increase terrorist attacks in Europe against “soft targets,” in other words civilians, with knives, axes and trucks, against Muslims and others, during national events and religious holidays, in public squares and rock concerts, and in new countries such as Spain and Finland. All this has been made possible through the use of the internet, social networks and a growing use of encrypted applications.
The number of terrorist attacks ISIS has inspired is growing steadily. There is not necessarily any need for the CEO to give specific orders; encouragement, general direction and inspiration to carry out terrorist attacks are enough, all of which can be done online. As a result, the proportion of terrorist attacks involving young people, ages 18 to 25, has risen to 25 percent. Similarly, the percentage of women in these assaults has risen to 17 percent. Also, mostly since 2016 and especially in Germany, more and more immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa (15 percent) have been involved in terrorist attacks.
Google is the terrorist’s new school and ideological training camp, as well as the place to meet and share materials, messages and ideas. Jihadist ideology has also become an attractive brand for individuals and groups that didn’t necessarily start out as Islamist or even religious, but who are in distress and in search of an answer. Ironically, it is easy for them to be drawn to this seemingly avant-garde culture without being dependent on any specific organization such as ISIS, and certainly not any particular leader such as al-Baghdadi.
There are many voices in the West and international media declaring ISIS’s loss of power and presence, and who mistakenly think that the influence of global jihad in international affairs is on the wane. But they are wrong. Global jihad is a powerful strategic threat that will remain with us for many years to come.
Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom is a researcher and an expert on global jihad and terrorism.