Munich Security Report 2017

Jihadism: Cornered Rads

“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” then-US President Barack Obama said in September 2014.1 In Iraq and in Syria, the campaign against the group – “Daesh” in a loose Arabic acronym for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” – is under way and largely successful. A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries has stripped Daesh of large swaths of its territory. According to the US, more than 50,000 Daesh fighters in Iraq and Syria, about 75%, have been killed as a result of the coalition war.2 

“The number of battle-ready fighters inside Iraq and Syria is now at [the] lowest point that it’s ever been.”5 

BRETT MCGURK
13 DECEMBER 2016 

But as the jihadist “caliphate” in the Middle East physically diminishes, the immediate dangers of terrorist strikes in the West have increased significantly, as attacks from Nice to Berlin have shown. Actual and prospective militants are no longer asked to join the fight defending dwindling Daesh territory in the Middle East. Instead, they are to focus on attacks in their countries of origin. “Revolt everywhere!,” a spokes-person of Daesh requested of its followers last year. Looking at Germany alone, for example, the number of jihadists joining the fight in Syria and Iraq has dropped precipitously: in 2014, hundreds of fighters emigrated to the “caliphate” (and some to join Jabhat al-Nusra). Today, that flow has all but stopped, and some have even returned from the Middle East. Thus, more potential attackers are in Germany. In addition to those terrorists directed by Daesh, those inspired by the group but without direct links have also become a growing challenge (in Orlando and in Nice, for example). For security services, these are even more difficult to prevent. 

Only by further stepping up EU anti-terror cooperation and capabilities will European states be able to rise to what will likely be a long-term jihadist challenge. Main reasons for this include the growing potential recruitment pool in Europe; more jihadist entrepreneurs and local network builders, including an increasingly strong crime-terror nexus; the ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world which can be used for recruitment and propaganda; and the clandestine communication opportunities the Internet provides.3 

“The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would do if you were with us [in Syria/Iraq].”6 

ABU MUHAMMAD AL-ADNANI (DAESH SPOKESPERSON)
MAY 2016

But not just in Europe, much work on the way to crippling Daesh (and jihadism, in general) remains to be done. Recently, Daesh’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reminded his followers that there was a “wide path” available for them to act – beyond the West, Iraq, and Syria – in other proclaimed Daesh provinces, e.g., in Nigeria, Libya, or Afghanistan.4 So while the loss of its main sanctuary in Syria and Iraq would mean a major setback for Daesh, its militants will not just disappear. Moreover, without enhanced efforts toward stabilization, reconstruction, and political progress, the military advances in Iraq and Syria will be insufficient. And, finally, with Daesh under pressure, other jihadist groups, not least Al Qaeda, are geared for a resurgence. Even without a caliphate and a state, jihadist groups will continue to inspire youths to join their cause. 

Footnotes

  1. Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on ISIL,” The White House, 10 September 2014, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/statement-president-isil-1
  2. Kevin Liptak, “US Says 75% of ISIS Fighters Killed,” CNN, 14 December 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/14/politics/white-house-isis-numbers/
  3. Thomas Hegghammer, “The Future of Jihadism in Europe: A Pessimistic View,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 1, No. 6, 2016, http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/566/html
  4. See endnote 9. 
  5. See endnote 2. 
  6. “Islamic State Calls for Attacks on the West During Ramadan in Audio Message,” Reuters, 22 May 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-islamicstate-idUSKCN0YC0OG
  7. German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), German Federal Office for the Protection of the Prosecution (BfV), Hessian Information and Competence Centre against Extremism (HKE), “Analyse der Radikalisierungshintergründe und -verläufe der Personen, die aus islamistischer Motivation aus Deutschland in Richtung Syrien oder Irak ausgereist sind,” 7 December 2016, https://www.bka.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/DE/Publikationen/Publikationsreihen/Forschungsergebnisse/2016AnalyseRadikalisierungsgruendeSyrienIrakAusreisende.html. The data is based on a total of 784 persons who, as known by German security authorities, have left or attempted to leave Germany to join jihadist forces in Syria or Iraq until June 2016. Those marked as “deceased” or “returned” in a quarter have left Germany during this time, but not necessarily returned or deceased in the same period. Those who have left Germany several times are only counted once (the quarter of their most recent departure). 
  8. Map provided to MSC by IHS Conflict Monitor. This map is not to be cited as evidence in connection with any territorial claim. 
  9. See MEMRI’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, “ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi Responds to Military Campaign to Retake Mosul, Urges ISIS Soldiers to Remain Strong, Calls for Attacks on ISIS’s Enemies,“ 1 November 2016, https://www.memri.org/jttm/isis-leader-al-baghdadi-responds-military-campaign-retake-mosul-urges-isis-soldiers-remain; William Reed, “Islamic State Calls for Attacks on Civilians in Europe and America,” The Clarion Project, 21 August 2016, http://m.clarionproject.org/analysis/islamic-state-calls-attacks-civilians-europe-and-america; “Just Terror Tactics,” Rumiyah, No. 3, November 2016, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/rome-magazine-3.pdf, p.10; “Just Terror Tactics,” Rumiyah, No. 2, October 2016, https://www.clarionproject.org/factsheets-files/Rumiyh-ISIS-Magazine-2nd-issue.pdf, p.12.
  10. Institute for Economics and Peace, “Global Terrorism Index 2016,” 16 November 2016, http://economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Global-Terrorism-Index-2016.2.pdf.
  11. START, “Global Terrorism Database,” as of 12 January 2017, https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd. Calculations by Institute for Economics and Peace.