From East to West: the Islamic State's evolving global threat

The Islamic State may be losing territory but its ideology is growing globally.

A PERSON writes messages on a sidewalk at Las Ramblas in Barcelona on Saturday (photo credit: REUTERS)
A PERSON writes messages on a sidewalk at Las Ramblas in Barcelona on Saturday
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The rapidly shifting sands of the turbulent Middle East are casting a thick cloud across the globe to the West, where ramifications of the increasingly successful ground war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria are playing out in scenes of horror on the streets of Europe and the US
A report by the University of Maryland confirms this boomerang effect: Despite its continued losses on the battlefield, the organization has nevertheless become more lethal. While ISIS has lost some 75% of the territory it had conquered in Iraq and nearly 60% in Syria, the study found that in 2016, ISIS killed some 7,000 people in 1,400 attacks around the world—up 20% over the previous year.
The latest carnage played out last Thursday on the streets of Spain, where fourteen people were killed and more than one hundred injured in car-ramming attacks on Barcelona's busy Las Ramblas strip and later in the coastal town of Cambrils. Authorities admonish that had the 12-person terrorist cell managed to detonate a series of bombs at major tourist sites as it had planned, the devastation from which could have rivaled 9/11.
Speaking to The Media Line, Dr. Erin Miller, an expert on terrorism who authored the report, explained that "the findings may seem counter-intuitive but they are not. In the past, efforts to suppress terror groups have been met with an intensification of violence. It is paradoxical because the more you take action against Islamic State, the more it can solidify cohesion among its members and those inspired by it to act.
"ISIS will continue to evolve," she continued, "as it attempts to move into other areas. As it does, it will try to encourage so-called 'lone wolf' attacks against countries involved against it."
In fact, Dr. Miller's study noted an increase in ISIS-inspired attacks by individuals, whereas groups which swore allegiance to the group carried out an additional 950 attacks in 2016 that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths. The Islamic State repeatedly exhorts its supporters to carry out attacks, such as those that occurred in recent years in Orlando and San Bernardino in the US, as well as London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Berlin and Brussels, among other places in Europe. In these cases, Dr. Miller suggested "the degree to which there is command and control over the attacks is difficult to ascertain and varies from case to case. There is a lot of debate over the amount of directive isolated individuals or cells receive."
While hesitant to predict the future, Dr. Miller, who manages the Global Terrorism Database at START headquarters at the University of Maryland, predicted that "it is highly unlikely that the number of Islamic State-related attacks will decrease in the short term." Accordingly, she cautioned security agencies to conduct future counter-terrorism initiatives "extremely strategically and precisely so as not to inadvertently target innocents or hamper efforts to build cohesive communities that coordinate with law enforcement in order to identify threats…which is the best way to prevent attacks from happening."
In the absence of territorial strongholds, the Islamic State is in the process of reinventing itself: namely, from a structured group in control of a state that operates in strict accordance with fundamental Islamic law ("caliphate") to one with dispersed power centers which operates in a more decentralized manner. To this end, ISIS will continue to seek to carve out new spheres of influence in which to regroup, having already made significant strides in Libya and Afghanistan, in particular. The core leadership will also likely have to depend more greatly on its affiliates, some of which have had a measure of success, including in the Sinai Peninsula.
Known as Sinai Province, the local ISIS terror franchise was originally named Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM) and was aligned with Al-Qa'ida. After Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in 2013, his replacement, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, launched a major crackdown on jihadist groups in the Peninsula. A year later, likely with the aim of enhancing its stature and thus financing and recruitment potential, ABM pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Since November 2014, Sinai Province has waged a deadly insurgency against Sisi's government, having carried out large scale attacks not only on the Peninsula but even in Cairo.
Concurrently, the group has on numerous occasions launched missiles at Israel's south, which borders Sinai, where only last week a suicide bomber reportedly with ties to ISIS blew himself up at the Rafah crossing into Gaza, killing one Hamas member. The Islamic State, in general, has also attempted to infiltrate both Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank as well as Israel proper, where dozens of people have left the country join the group's fighters in Iraq and Syria. Others have been arrested by security forces for planning to do so.
According to Danny Yatom, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign spy agency, regarding ISIS, the Sinai Province is the foremost concern for Israelis and Palestinians. Yatom told The Media Line that, “its fighters are strong enough to have resisted the attempts by Egypt's army to defeat the group. And more than that, they have been able to hit and kill Egyptian officers [and civilians]." As per the Palestinian territories, he explained that, "ISIS is neither strong in Gaza - as Hamas does not allow any other terror groups to grow large enough to compete against it - nor in the West Bank because of the mutual cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israel Defense Forces.
"The security apparatus is working constantly," Yatom revealed, "to collect intelligence and execute operations against all groups and cells that are identified as threats." Therefore, he contended, "the Islamic State for now poses no significant risk to either Israel or the Palestinians."
But, he warns, this can change. Yatom points to Israel's northern border with Syria, along which ISIS affiliates are known to have operated. "If they become stronger in the Golan Heights, the area could be used as a launching pad to attack Israeli targets," he cautioned. Nor has Israel been immune from ISIS-inspired attacks: In January 2016, an Israeli-Arab went on a shooting spree in Tel Aviv killing three people and six months later two Palestinians shot dead four Israelis in the city's Sarona Market. Moreover, while Yatom believes there is a "low probability that attacks will come from Sinai Province in the south," he concedes that, "the possibility still has to be taken into consideration."
In this respect, Israel is mulling building an underground barrier to prevent the group’s Sinai branch from digging cross-border attack tunnels. Additionally, the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system has at times been deployed to defend the southern resort city of Eilat, which was targeted by rockets as recently as February.
While Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman thereafter brushed off the danger from Sinai as merely "annoying," these same "random amateurs" are believed to have taken part in, if not orchestrated, the downing of a Russian passenger jet in October 2015 which killed all 224 people on board. So whereas the immediate threat may indeed be minimal, one nonetheless exists. And as the Islamic State continues to suffer heavy losses in the Middle East, this threat will continue to evolve, posing a major challenge to security forces worldwide.
"IS will use the advantages it has," Yatom concluded, "and while it does not have this right now in Israel [or the Palestinian territories], in Europe the group has many people who have returned from battle in Iraq and Syria. They also have large Muslim populations there.
"This will be an easier target."