In the coming time, contrary to popular beliefs held not just by certain Western analysts and governments but Indian analysts as well, just because a US declaration pronounces the end of the Islamic State and Russian bombings of the same, which were at their peak in 2017, does not mean the organization has taken the defeat in its stride and retired into history.
If anything, the post-geography Islamic State is perhaps even more dangerous than the one that ruled over land, people, and resources. Controlling territory meant that there were set targets to attack against the terror group. While they flew the black flag over government buildings across Syria, and took over administrative work, set up ecosystems of policing and so forth, these structures that ISIS captured became easy targets for drone strikes and other means of air power.
Islamic State, as a state, was a driving force for recruitment. Between 2014 and 2015, people’s movements in and out of Syria and to a certain extent, Iraq, were fairly lucid. At some level, it is worth accepting that if most analysts and those fighting ISIS directly knew that the proto-state will fall as fast as it rose, so did Islamic State itself. The inflow of foreign fighters from across the world was a globally covered event, however the outflow, after the collapse of the proto-state was mired in confusion with the whereabouts of thousands of ISIS fighters remaining unknown. From fighting in Syria to returning to states such as France, Britain and so on, melting back into life as if nothing had happened and often succeeding in doing so.
Today, Islamic State stands tall as a brand, a popular T-shirt that appeals to many of the youth, and one that many still would like to try on for size. The example of DR Congo is an example that personifies this strategy, as security establishments tighten the noose around pro-ISIS activities in Europe, the group’s affiliates in other regions such as Southeast Asia, the African Sahel, the ISKP, Libya and so on continue to fester. The weakening of its hold on Syria means it may look to bolster its affiliates even more. Conducting attacks in Africa, other parts of the Middle East, Afghanistan and new targets such as Sri Lanka helps it build a narrative that suggests that its global reach is ever expanding despite losses in the Middle East.
The attacks in Sri Lanka will give a new lease of life to brand ISIS. The fact that their ‘fighters’ conducted one of the largest ever terror attack under their brand umbrella gives them immense global mileage, an aspect of their strategy which is very important to them. How to get on the front-pages of global newspapers and prime time of international news networks has been the group’s modus operandi since the beginning. With Sri Lanka, ISIS achieved exactly that. It got that one big attack under its belt which was required to regain some of its lost sheen, and to signal that this is not the end of it, and more may be in the offing.
After Bangladesh in 2016, and Sri Lanka in 2019, South Asia needs to revisit its individualistic approach to counterterrorism. Transnational jihadist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda have got largely a free pass from both governmental approaches to counterterrorism and regional apathy. While the term ‘South Asia’ appears in political and geopolitical discourse as some sort of entity with unity at the core of it all, the realities are starkly different. In the coming years, the threat of terrorism will remain one step ahead of the current countering measures in place unless critical understanding is sought of how groups such as ISIS have evolved the act of committing terror. The way we gather intelligence, act upon the said intelligence and even how we identify threats has to go through a metamorphosis.
While for India, Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terror remains the biggest security and counterterrorism challenge, it must also not lose sight of the fact that while Pakistan-based terror groups may be trying to infiltrate the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir or the international border in Punjab, others such as ISIS have created direct access using the power of modern communication tools, the internet, and so on to get access to our living rooms. The questions in counterterrorism now being asked are how ‘social’ is social media, or how to spot radicalization and radicals living amongst us in the online sphere. How to equip our law enforcement to spot those propagating violence and extremist ideologies while sitting at a day job in the country’s IT capital. And even how much an effect these organizations are having, successfully, to change our pluralist, democratic and globalist architectures of society and forcing them to shift towards populist, authoritarian and ones organized around fearmongering under the guise of national security and fear of violence from the ‘others’.
These changes in the wake of the Islamic State are visible in Europe, where right-wing anti-migration politics has taken on a new life; in India, where a general anti-Muslim sentiment is seen increasingly visible in society; in Sri Lanka, where after the attacks, the minority Muslims would fear repercussions in an already fragile ethnic ecosystem and so on.
Ultimately, fighting ISIS today is not a military strategy any more. It is about fighting an idea, which is the most difficult kind of battle to win, where bullets, jets, tanks and so on fall short of achieving the aim. It is about fighting a thought, a presence that has fighters but no geography, a motivation and a battle of narratives. We have seen across examples, from Afghanistan to Syria and now Sri Lanka, that what ISIS propagates cannot be destroyed militarily, but has to be countered by society as an inclusive concept itself. Communal tensions, divisive politics, religious whataboutery to justify violence, any violence, and so on, play into the hands of organizations such as the Islamic State, which thrive in societal discord.
The Islamic State is no more, but ISIS has shown resilience. Despite the narratives that it has been defeated, the question that needs to be asked is what ‘defeat’ means. In his video appearance, Baghdadi has congratulated ISIS fighters for their resilience, the media operators for spreading the propaganda ever so efficiently, and new groups who pledged allegiance to him from places such as Burkina Faso and Mali in Africa. He has thrown his weight behind ISIS provinces beyond Syria and said that he expects more attacks on the West by his fighters. ISIS may be defeated geographically, but as an idea it persists. This persistence will have no easy solutions, and the world has a long battle against an idea in front of it.