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The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State | Post-Caliphate copycats and cyberterrorism

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In this conversation on the future of the Middle East after the Islamic State (IS), we bring together experts to debate the prospects for reconstruction and governance in IS-held territory, the future of the Jihadi movement, how to mitigate against the return of IS fighters, and the future regional security framework. We ask the experts what policymakers need to start thinking and planning after the territorial defeat of the most dangerous terrorist group to date.

“We need to become better at predicting future threats,” Dr Eitan Azani of the International Institute for Counter-terrorism said in June 2017. Historically, governments have been slow to adapt to the rapidly changing dynamics of terrorism; while jihadism became a global threat in the 1980s, international counter-terrorism cooperation only started after 9/11. When Islamist militants declared a so-called Islamic State in 2014, Western countries were taken by surprise. By the time Twitter and Facebook started suspending ISIS-related accounts and contents in 2016, the group had already moved its propaganda activities to end-to-end encrypted apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp.

To effectively prevent radicalisation and counter terrorism, it is necessary to detect novel trends and strategic junctions. Syria is the central arena for many of today’s conflicts: international superpowers, regional hegemons, Sunnites and Shiites all compete for power. “What happens in Syria will influence the world,” according to Chagai Tzuriel, Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence. Therefore anticipating and preparing for possible post-caliphate scenarios will be vital for the security and stability both in the Middle East and in the West. What will happen when the battle in Syria is over? Will ISIS operatives continue to pose a threat to the Middle East and Europe even without holding any territory? Which other groups could benefit from emerging power vacuums? And most important, how can governments prepare for potential post-caliphate threats?

ISIS’s territorial defeat won’t signal its ideological defeat

It is unlikely that ISIS’s loss of territory will mean the end of the organisation, and even unlikelier that it will signal the end of international jihadism. History teaches us that the military defeat of a terrorist group is a temporary victory. After Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011 politicians, counter-terrorism experts predicted that the heyday of international jihadism was over. Yet, less than three years later, ISIS emerged as a new threat of unprecedented scale. While ISIS in its current form can and will eventually be destroyed physically, the ideologies and motivations that led to its successes will not be eradicated militarily. Future threats may arise from a post-caliphate evolution of ISIS operatives as well as from the strengthening of other groups. Al-Qaeda affiliates such as AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and the al-Nusra Front have benefitted from the US-led coalition’s exclusive focus on defeating ISIS. Likewise, the Taliban continues to grow stronger, as they have become occasional tactical allies for the Afghan government in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, ISIS has braced itself for a game-changing transition period. It has started to mutate from a de facto state system into decentralised structures by establishing secondary cells. ISIS is likely to continue operating both locally in the Syrian deserts and abroad through outposts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and the Egyptian Sinai. In fact, some experts suggest that the organisation may even pose a bigger threat after its territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, ISIS’s intelligence and external operations branch Emni, which is responsible for exporting terror, does not depend on the organisation’s military capabilities and may become more active in the post-caliphate period. As ISIS’s ‘unique selling proposition’ of a caliphate wanes, it enters into direct competition with other jihadist groups. The exodus of foreign fighters in Syria and their defection to other Jihadi groups in the region may prompt ISIS to resort to more mass casualty attacks to attract international attention and support.

The recent wave of self-starter attacks across the UK, Europe and the Middle East demonstrated that ISIS has successfully maintained its ideological global appeal despite losing ground to coalition forces. In May 2016, the group’s spokesperson Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani encouraged worldwide supporters to carry out acts of terrorism in their home country instead of migrating to Syria to join the fight there. Since then, ISIS’s shift from the “close” to the “far” enemy and its gradual decentralisation process have been facilitated through social media, something al-Qaeda did not have at its disposal when it dispersed its members and fighters in late 2001.

Low-tech, high-impact attacks will rise

A high degree of internet savviness coupled with skilful manipulation of traditional media have allowed ISIS to outmanoeuvre Western efforts to crack down on online radicalisation. Its “propaganda of the deed” invites sensationalist reporting, provokes disproportional political reactions and deepens societal rifts. Based on the Management of Savagery strategy, ISIS’s goal is to generate a local backlash against minority communities to ultimately spark a global Muslim insurgency that can destabilise Western democracies.

Unpredictability is terrorists’ most effective tool to spark societal fear and accelerate the spiralling hate torrent between Muslims and non-Muslims. Therefore low-tech high-impact attacks with targets and weapons picked at random are likely to increase. Furthermore, they are easy to imitate and hard to prevent: the use of everyday objects such as knives and cars makes copycat incidents more feasible, while low degrees of coordination and communication render detection close to impossible. As shown in recent attacks in front of mosques in Finsbury Park, Avignon and the Parisian suburb of Créteil, the easy successes of these tactics may also inspire anti-Muslim terrorist attacks. Sensitive radicalisation prevention programmes and higher degrees of societal resilience will therefore become more important than ever. But an effective, comprehensive response to rising threat levels from both Islamist and far-right terrorism will also require a combination of public vigilance as well as rapid, coordinated response systems across Europe.

After the London Bridge attack, the Met police was praised for its fast response. It took eight minutes from the start of the attack until armed officers had killed the three attackers. While this operation is cited as a best practice in Europe, “eight minutes would be considered as a failure in Jerusalem,” according to Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld. Israel has known low-end assaults since the start of the stabbing intifada in 2015. Over the past few years, security forces have therefore optimised their ability to respond to improvised knife and truck attacks. While the Met Police’s emergency response systems are excellent, Israel’s sophisticated intelligence management systems and real-time information sharing tools could provide inspiration for enhancing inter-agency cooperation in the UK and in Europe.

Digital jihadi expertise may generate cyberattacks

In addition to a heightened number of low-end attacks, the post-caliphate scenario may see more severe cyberattacks in Western countries. For Europol, cyber warfare and cyberattacks against critical infrastructure are a key future terrorist threat. Although non-state actors’ current capabilities are limited, Europol warns that terrorists could exacerbate the consequences of real world attacks when coupled with cyber-attacks, even if small in scale.

With the emergence of the “internet of things,” devices become increasingly inter-connected without having higher security protections. According to John Mallery, a cyber security expert at the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, increasingly globalised information and communication technology has accelerated what he calls “the cyber insecurity crisis”. The fragility of critical infrastructure, in especially in the financial sector, may be exploited by tech-savvy non-state actors. Among the new generation of jihadists, digital literacy and cyber capabilities are especially advanced. In contrast to al-Qaeda, ISIS came into existence at the height of the digital era. This shows in their sophisticated online propaganda that has caused “bedroom radicalisation,” facilitated long-distance recruitment and inspired self-starter attacks. As early adopters of technology, terrorists may also exploit new developments in the digital space to stage cyberwar operations. Their hacking capabilities and strong knowledge of the “Dark Net” could enable them to use underground communication channels and anonymous currencies like Bitcoin to plan and carry out attacks with consequences for both the online and offline world. Experts have already warned that ISIS has been building capacity on the “Dark Net“.

206 days is the mean time to identify a cyberattack and it takes an average of 69 days and US $3.8m to contain an attack. In order to protect critical infrastructure from cyberattacks it will be necessary to build robust and resilient systems and to install cutting-edge protection mechanisms. While the context for counter-terrorism operations differs from country to country, cyber security is borderless. Therefore advancing the international exchange of best practices and learning from market leaders will be crucial to prevent ISIS from staging more surprise attacks.

This blog is part of the BICOM research series The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State. You can read the other entries in the series here.

Julia Ebner is a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and author of the book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism.