What's Next for Islamist Terrorism Globally?

Hi from my first speech (on tech's impact on global risk) at NY's UN General Assembly Hall, Readers,


In 2017, we heard certain leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iraq’s Hadir Al-Abadi and America’s Donald Trump, declare a military victory over ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In fact, according to the Peace Tech Lab’s Story Map, the number of Islamist terrorist attacks declined from 1,439 in 2016 to 1,212 last year with fatalities notably dropping from 14,635 in 2016 to 8,096 in 2017. This sounds like progress. Then again, we also saw the rise of ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks in the US and Europe, while ISIS offshoots and al Qaeda affiliates kept very active elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. In 2018, this pattern has continued, though a weaker ISIS is still managing to launch attacks in both Syria and Iraq.

So, what else might we expect of Islamist terrorism globally going forward?

1) ISIS 2.0
a) Returnees Attack At Home? Yes, some foreign fighters are lingering in Syria and Iraq while others are joining active ISIS affiliates (e.g. in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Philippines, Libya). But the threat to watch is the one posed by foreign fighters returning home to countries like Turkey, Russia, Tajikistan, Finland, France, among others. Some fighters are already being rehabilitated or imprisoned. But could other returnees launch new attacks on their home turf or even inspire others?
b) Targeted Recruitment: Facebook, Twitter, hackers and even AI are working hard to remove ISIS-linked posts. But ISIS’ “virtual caliphate” will still manage find new recruits, including women, children and refugees. Women are increasingly being targeted in recruitment material, with some already fighting in Syria and Iraq. Also look for ISIS to try harder to exploit the global refugee crisis, even recruiting children from camps (as has been observed in Jordan and Lebanon and speculated in Malaysia).
c) Creative Funding: Yes, ISIS revenues – at one point $6 million a day – have been plunging for awhile. But the group has been creative in moving its funds (almost $400 million) out of Syria and Iraq for awhile as well – and this will persist. ISIS has recurrently used EBay, bitcoin and Paypal in Europe and the US to transfer its funds. It continues to exploit loopholes in foreign exchange operations, sells stolen artifacts, gold and jewelry and will keep leveraging the Syrian and Iraqi black market to make more money.

2) Al Qaeda 3.0
a) The ISIS Edge: We all know the decline of al Qaeda was epitomized by the US killing of Sept 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden back in 2011. But al Qaeda 2.0 kept terribly busy post-2011 through its affiliates in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Now it will exploit the perceived ISIS weakness globally – in fact this has been happening since 2017. It will also lure away more ISIS fighters to join its ranks after an al Qaeda re-radicalisation program.
b) Renewed bin Laden Brand: Al Qaeda has a new but familiar symbolic leader – Osama’s son Hamza bin Laden. We first saw Hamza at 10 years old in a 2001 video in which he warned America that: "its people will face terrible consequences if they chase [his] father.” But now almost 20 years later, he is looking to revive the terrorist group and his family name, encouraging followers to avenge his father’s death.
c) A Stronger Political Voice: Yes, al Qaeda frequently calls for jihad against the West for their historical role in the Muslim world. But now it is sounding a lot more political. Hamza’s demands for regime change in Saudi Arabia – specifically the overthrow of the monarchy because of its Western ties – have escalated. Zawahiri has called for Egyptians to topple their government before the upcoming election. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Khalid Batarfi criticized President Trump’s Jerusalem decision. The group’s political voice is growing amid changing geopolitics.

3) A Battle Between Religious Extremists
a) Al Qaeda 3.0 vs ISIS 2.0: The two groups are not formerly aligned. In the past, al Qaeda has clashed with ISIS in places like the Syria-Lebanon border, Yemen and parts of Africa. Al Qaeda’s Zawahiri has recurrently declared that ISIS is simply "too extreme" with its “madness and lies”. Hamza, however, hasn’t been too negative about the rival so far. Could his leadership and family legacy later create some form of unity for al Qaeda and ISIS globally?
b) Boko Haram/ISIS vs Al Shabaab/al Qaeda: Nigeria-based Boko Haram allied with ISIS early on, while Somalia-based al Shabaab is an al Qaeda affiliate. Both African groups have earned a “global terroristdesignation by the US government for their gains against US forces (e.g. in Niger). Could they become a global threat? Ok, unlikely. But the ongoing ISIS-al Qaeda rivalry and their alliances with these African groups could develop into a more pronounced conflict between terrorist groups on the continent.
3) Islamist Extremists vs Buddhist Extremists: The usual Islamist extremist suspects – the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, ISIS and al Qaeda – have all called for jihad in recent years to avenge the deaths of Rohingya Muslims killed by Buddhist extremists in Myanmar. But, since 2017, there is a Rohingya-linked armed group on Burmese soil – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – fighting the army. ARSA has since publicly distanced itself from Islamist terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS but speculation continues of alleged training from Pakistani militants. Regardless, expect more clashes between ARSA and Buddhist extremists. Buddhist extremists are also attacking the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka – could Islamist extremist groups call for jihad there too?

Prof Aziz

NYC: My first speech at the UN General Assembly Hall

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