Although the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) project collapsed after losing control over land (larger than Britain and eight times bigger than Belgium and thirty times bigger than Qatar) and the killing of ISIS Chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdady by the US forces in October 2019, a million-dollar question persists over the future of terror in the region. ISIS organizational collapse and the loss of its chieftain does not mean the threat is over. Conversely, it may announce a precarious and more treacherous threat.
Al Qaeda testifies that ISIS 2001 collapse is not conducive to the ultimate death or abating threat of the organization, but it branched out all over the world and promoted – and is indeed still promoting, terror, intimidation and violence such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in Africa, etc. Despite the demise of Osama bin Laden, he was survived by Ayman Al Dhawahry who took on the job.
Accordingly, one result expected from ISIS collapse is the emergence in many countries of local branches with the same dogma, if not more dangerous than the mother organization. And instead of facing one single organization, the world will have to deal with a large number of off-shoot terrorist organizations.
Tracing the evolution of terrorist organizations in the region over the past decades leads to the fundamental fact that the collapse of one organization begets another more militant organization in what could be dubbed as “terror cycle”. The emergence of Al Qaeda after the collapse of Al Jihad organization in Egypt brought about more poisonous ideologies. ISIS was just born by Al Qaeda and with more extremist ideologies. It follows that ISIS collapse may beget another more dangerous and extremist organization in the forthcoming period.
Though losing control over land in Iraq and Syria ISIS’ presence could still be felt in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Yemen, African coast, Libya and elsewhere, citing loose security, lack of control and rampant internal civil wars, be it religious, ethnic, sectarian or political. ISIS finds tension and conflict-packed regions, as the case with Yemen, Libya, etc., a perfect environment to act and prosper.
Though defeated in Iraq and Syria, ISIS’ comeback remains a possibility for the following considerations: First, possible pullout of US troops from Iraq following Iraqi Parliament’s decision to terminate US military presence. Second, continued turmoil and security, political and sectarian turmoil and tensions in Iraq. Third, Attempts by some regional and global powers to use ISIS card for managing struggle on the Syrian front, especially Turkey.
Moreover, ISIS collapse gave rise to a serious security issue for almost the whole world; namely “Syria and Iraq Returnees” – just as “Afghanistan Returnees”- after the end of Jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1990s. Professional organizations estimate that 40,000 elements representing 110 nations went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS after proclaiming “Caliphate State” in 2014, and that 5,600 elements came back home after ISIS collapsed”.
Those coming, or expected to come, home pose a serious security threat citing possible individual terrorist attacks in what is commonly known as “lone wolves”. A “lone wolf” is hard to track or monitor because he could be a normal non-extremist, non-violent community individual who turns renegade all of a sudden, thus the largest possible damage is inflicted.
Though ISIS turned vulnerable after the collapse of its project and the death of its leader, this cannot be translated into regional and global stability. It rather serves the interests of another rival organization: Al Qaeda which is expected to become more powerful in the forthcoming period for two reasons: First, many ISIS members would possibly join al Qaeda after the collapse of ISIS which is basically an off-shoot. Second, ISIS “state” project collapse supports Al Qaeda which saw premature declaration of the state inappropriate.
In this context, US Institute for Economics and Peace Global Terrorism Index 2019 indicated that the Taliban 2018 attacks were more intense and perilous than those launched by any other global terrorist organization with ISIS included.
Despite ISIS-spilled blood bath and the dangers the organization has posed since emergence it may be generally less dangers than Al Qaeda citing the quality of enthusiasts. Experts say ISIS documents indicate that only 5% of recruits who hail from more than 100 nations maintain a thorough knowledge of Islam, and that only 70% have a “basic” understanding of religion. This contradicts Al Qaeda followers who maintain a strong hold of ideology based on deep faith in given Islamic interpretations, So, Al Qaeda’s expected growth, triggered by ISIS collapse, carries a big risk for global security.