Since the fall of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State (IS), in October of last year, declarations of the “defeat of the Caliphate” have dominated headlines across the globe. World leaders were united in applauding the victory. But does the territorial collapse of the Caliphate equate to the collapse of IS? Should those leaders presume the fight is over? The simple answer is, unsurprisingly, ‘no’. While the territorial defeat is unquestionably a victory, it is not a triumph – IS has not disappeared, but has transformed itself, producing a new and evolved form of terror. What can we expect from this new strain of homegrown terrorism and can we already see evidence of it? In sum – what will life be like for us post-Caliphate?
From foreign terrorist fighters to homegrown terrorism
The changing face of terror has not suddenly shown itself following the Battle of Raqqa. It has evolved over the past few years, in correlation with the waning influence of IS in Syria and Iraq. It’s seen most clearly in the tactical transition from the use of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) to Home-grown Terrorist Fighters (HTF).
The term FTF refers to individuals who are radicalised in their home countries and then cross international borders to join conflict zones in the Middle East. Once they have arrived, they receive military training, increasing their threat to their native countries should they return. Although we should expect a return of foreign fighters (given the defeat of the Caliphate in Syria), fears of a mass homecoming are unlikely due to the number of deaths and migration to Libya, the Sahel and Somalia.
In fact, FTF have not been responsible for terrorist attacks in Europe since the Brussels bombings on 22nd March 2016; all of the attacks since have been examples of homegrown terrorism – individuals who have not travelled to jihadist conflict zones but have remained on home soil.
Although these groups are comprised of the same individuals and work within the same networks, HTF have no military training and receive their instructions virtually. This has changed the nature of the threat, resulting in more low-tech, less-skilled attacks – and more of them.
Homegrown terrorism on a shoe-string budget
While highly-skilled and organised attacks, such as the Paris and Brussels attacks, are similar to the types of ‘old-school’ attacks committed by groups such as Al-Qaeda, often targeting large and symbolically important buildings and organisations, the recent wave of attacks are considerably less-planned, cheap and technologically-simple – though no less deadly.
An exception to the recent trend is the Manchester Arena Bombing on 22 May, 2017. Although the bomber, Salman Abedi, did not receive military training or fight in conflict zones, he spent time in Libya visiting family and was most likely exposed to jihadist operatives there. This would explain his ability to single-handedly construct a bomb and carry out the attack.
The attacks surrounding it, however, such as the Westminster, London Bridge and Barcelona attacks, are examples of the new low-tech yet high impact tactics of IS. The use of vans and knives not only make HTF attacks more difficult to detect, as governments cannot monitor the sales of white market items (openly available to anyone), but also make them easier to execute, as little skill or training is required.
Accordingly, policies are starting to change to fit this new face of terrorism; initiatives focussed on preventing radicalised individuals from leaving the EU (such as confiscating passports and criminalising FTF) have evolved into policies that work on the prevention of radicalisation (such as integration and education initiatives and working with vulnerable individuals).
Another important consideration is that the territorial defeat of the Caliphate does not equate to a virtual defeat. The internet remains a very powerful and influential tool. The transition from websites and popular social media platforms to hard encryption communication applications, such as Telegram and WhatsApp, further complicates the work of security agencies.
That said, some scholars have alluded to an overemphasis of the virtual component of the HTF threat, citing the difficulty in finding an example of someone who is purely radicalised online – the human presence and influence of charismatic leaders remains central to the process.
Similarly, the internet is everywhere, and therefore cannot explain pockets of radicalised people; even apparently uncoordinated attackers are usually linked to a wider cell (such as Abedi) and are radicalised through human interaction. Rather, the internet acts as a catalyst, facilitator and, ultimately, communication tool, as potential homegrown terrorists receive their mandate, instructions and guidance virtually. With the transition from foreign fighters to homegrown terrorism, the issue of online terrorism is not about to fade away.
Virtual guidance, however, can only continue if there are people to provide it. Again, the claims of the collapse of the Caliphate are misleading in as much as there remains a network of jihadists providing instructions, propaganda and leadership. They have not disappeared, they have simply migrated.
The Libyan breeding ground
Concerns of Libya becoming the new jihadist hub are not unfounded – the power void gripping the country since the revolution, coupled with its history of rebel groups and militias, has created an environment conducive to IS expansion; in June 2014, the jihadist rebel group Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI) pledged its allegiance to IS.
Four months later, in October 2014, IS loyalists announced the overthrow of Derna, with Sirte following suit in May 2015. Reports of human rights abuses and war crimes soon emerged, including beheadings (football stadiums played host to public executions), floggings and assassinations. Though IS no longer controls the Libyan cities of Sirte and Derna, there is widespread fear they will regain their influence in the region, as well as gain access to the oil crescent.
The remaining IS fighters in Libya (estimated to be around 1,000), shelter in the region of Sirte, overlooking Libya’s oil crescent. Should IS loyalists obtain access to these oil installations and Libya’s key port cities, they would tap into a near-steady flow of oil, money and migratory routes to Europe. Given the geographical proximity of Libya to Europe (just 425 miles between Benghazi and Syracuse, Italy), European governments are, unsurprisingly, concerned about the extension of IS in Libya.
Celebrations of victory are therefore premature – IS are not “raising their hands”, but are making tactical changes according to the local, regional and global context. The evolving jihadist threat poses a new set of challenges to Europe and beyond, and world leaders certainly cannot afford to assume the war is won.