Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

A short response piece to the horrible incident that happened in Manchester for the Telegraph. The threat level has now been raised to Critical which means this incident is going to take a while to resolve. In the wake of the incident, spoke to CNBCGuardian, and National Press Agency about bombs, and separately to Guardian, Washington Post, and The Australian about the bigger threat picture. Also did interview that was recorded on ABC’s Lateline.

Cars and knives are easier to use, but bombs will always be central to terrorist thinking

Survivors of the attack sit on the pavement
The successful use of a bomb is unusual among recent terror attacks CREDIT: JOEL GOODMAN/LNP

 

Terrorism has a predictable brutality to it. And yet, the idea of a bombing is something that still surprises us when it happens. The attack in Manchester in some ways appears a flashback to a different time when the terrorists we worried about detonated bombs, rather than using vehicles as rams or stabbing people. The reality is that terrorism’s only constant is its desire to shock and kill. For any group or ideology, the fundamental point is to make yourself heard as dramatically as possible. Groups and individuals will use whatever tools they have to gain that attention.

Making bombs that you know will reliably work is not as easy as it might sound. History is littered with attempted bomb-makers whose devices detonated too early or failed to go off. Unless you have had some training or practice, it is difficult to know for certain that you are making something that will go off exactly when you want it to.

There have been examples of lone bomb makers in the past, but they are rare. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Oslo in 2010, and David Copeland and Pavlo Lapshyn, who respectively launched one-man extreme right wing bombing campaigns in London and Birmingham, are examples. But in all cases, lone bomb makers choose to leave their devices behind rather than die in the detonation. This separates them from the Manchester bomber, though the degree to which we can conclude this means he acted alone is unclear.

Isil’s claim of responsibility would seem to strengthen the idea that the bomber was linked to someone. But care has to be paid to understand exactly what their claim means. On the one hand, it could be the group is merely claiming something to which it has a very loose link. The use of a bomb can also add confusion to the picture, especially when we consider that the majority of the incidents we have seen in Europe linked to the group of late have been stabbings or using vehicles to run down crowds. Yet this narrative assumes that the group is not keen to launch explosives attacks. This is incorrect – from the group’s perspective, anything that fulfills their goals of gaining attention and sowing terror is desirable.

The shift towards knives and cars was something that the group had encouraged in part as it realised that making bombs is difficult and prone to failure. Telling your aspirant warriors to keep it simple seems a more effective way to ensure success. One need only look at issues of the group’s magazine Rumiyah to see how rudimentary some of the forms of attack being promoted by Isil are.

The smashed up car used during the 2017 Westminster terror attack
Vehicles have been used as weapons, as in the Westminster attack earlier this year, for their ease and simplicity CREDIT: GEOFF PUGH FOR THE TELEGRAPH

But the key point to remember is that these groups, and Isil in particular, are not very discerning in their methodologies for terrorist attacks. Their aim is to cause chaos, draw attention to themselves and kill as many as they can. This brings attention to their cause and shows their commitment to their ideology. It is intended to sow divisions in our societies and strengthen the narrative of anger that is central to breathing life into their beliefs.

So whether they use a bomb and murder children, massacre people at airports, gun them down in concert halls, or stab elderly priests in their churches, they are getting their job done. And if we shout in horror at the methodology they employ, they simply brush this away by pointing to atrocities that they see happening around the world, and which they see as setting a precedent for violence.

The key issue from the rest of society’s perspective is to realise this is their deadly intent, and to ensure to not rise to the bait and do the group’s job for them. Terrorism’s only constant remains its perpetrators desire to shock and murder: the manner in which they do so is only secondary.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at  RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

Slightly belated piece for the New Statesman to kick the year off looking at ISIS, tries to sketch out what is likely to happen with the group this year. Separately spoke to the Neue Zircher Zeitung about the threat that Germany faced in the context of the broader European threat.

What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

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Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’

Another piece for the Telegraph, this one made it into the paper as well in a shortened form, see the picture for the published piece. Spoke to a few media outlets, but can only locate this conversation with CNN. Separately, spoke to the Financial Times, Reuters, and the Washington Post in the wake of the Berlin attacks late last year, to the Guardian about the terror threat to the UK, to the Irish Times about UK and European security relations post-Brexit, and the Financial Times again about UK Asia policy.

Isil’s attack in Istanbul is a turning point – and more violence could follow

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The Islamic State group’s claim of the New Year’s attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul puts a cap on a grim year for Turkey. Hundreds have been killed in attacks by various terrorist groups during the year, but Isil’s  (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claim of responsibility of the attack nevertheless marked a new point in Turkey’s war on terrorism.

Until now, the group had only formally claimed one attack in the country with others merely linked to networks around the group absent a formal claim of responsibility. The question is what is presages for the year ahead.

The simple brutality of the attack has become the signature of Isil attack planning. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the group continues to aspire to launch more Paris or Brussels style attacks, but it finds itself increasingly constrained by the realities of aggressive counter-terrorism forces that expend every effort to disrupt plans at every turn. Numerous potential plots were disrupted in the run up to the end of the year, including potential attacks in the UK, France and Germany.

Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina
Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina

But some still get through. Prior to Istanbul, Anis Amre, slipped through the net and was able to drive a truck into the crowd at a Berlin Christmas market. A video later emerged linking him to Isil . The degree to which he was directed, instigated or self-started remains to be determined, but his attack showed basic simplicity that Isil encourages of its attackers these days. Cognizant that large-scale attacks are more likely to get picked up on and disrupted, the group has taken a more pragmatic approach.

The result is a spate of smaller scale incidents choosing seemingly random civilian targets using basic weaponry that is easier to obtain.

There is also likely an element of pragmatism within the choice of target in Turkey. Whilst the group repeatedly issued menacing warnings of attacks around the holiday period, the only successful incident in Europe was the atrocity in Berlin – likely a product of a more difficult operating environment. In contrast, in Turkey, the group has networks and access to weaponry.

On top of this, Turkey has increasingly turned its firepower against the group. Operation Euphrates Shield was launched by Turkish armed forces in August 2016 which aimed to fight both Kurdish and Isil groups in Syria. And within Turkey, authorities have taken an increasingly more aggressive approach. Earlier in the day of the Istanbul attack, Turkish police arrested eight alleged Isil members in Ankara who they suspected of planning a New Year’s attack. The men were part of a group of 63 that Turkish authorities swept up in the 3 days prior to the attack.

ISIS has responded with violence. In November, the group claimed its first attack in Turkey with a bombing in Diyabakir targeting security forces, something that came immediately after a speech by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in which he directly threatened the country.

In December it released a video which purported to show two Turkish soldiers being burned alive. In claiming the recent attack, it specifically linked Turkey to the ‘crusader’ alliance – placing Ankara on the other side of the clash of civilizations that ISIS sees itself in. But it is also clear these are not the first atrocities against Turkey – repeated previous incidents have been linked to ISIS networks in the country. For example, early intelligence showing up in the Turkish press has been linking the Istanbul attacker with the same network that attacked Istanbul’s international airport in June of this year. Whether this link will be proven in due course is unclear, but the possibility reflects repeated statements by Turkish authorities that have blamed terrorist atrocities in the country as the responsibility of ISIS.

None of this portends a positive immediate future for Turkey. While authorities have shown a capacity to disrupt networks within their country, they have faced numerous attacks in the past year. If Isil is turning it attention in a more focused way on Ankara, given the proximity to the group’s remaining Caliphate as well as the clearly substantial networks linked to the group that exist within the country, then it seems likely that more will unfortunately get through.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

And another new piece, again for the Telegraph this time looking at the wave of terror incidents around the world over the past days. Also spoke to the National press agency wire and Handelsblatt about the incidents.

This worldwide day of terror shows that in the age of globalisation, nowhere is safe

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Ankara, Berlin, Zurich, New York. In these cities on Tuesday four scattered but brutal events illustrated the diffuse and confusing nature of the terrorist threat we now face.

The murder of a diplomat, the driving of a truck into a crowd at a Christmas market, a shooting at a mosque and the conviction of an attempted mass murderer of Muslims in New York will all have different consequences and they involve very different groups and ideologies. Yet they are all part of the same phenomenon, both predictable and confusing at the same time. Together they show how acts of terror on random civilians now appear to have no borders, with events in far flung lands tied inextricably to our daily lives at home.

All four events are in their own ways forseeable. Anger has been building for some time across the Middle East over the siege of Aleppo, and Russia has quite clearly put itself at the forefront of supporting the Assad regime in crushing the rebellion. Such action always has consequences, especially when it is accompanied by a daily digest of civilian misery. Armed groups fighting on the ground in Syria – including the former Jabhat al-Nusra, whose slogan the Turkish assassin is reported to have shouted – they have shown they have the ability to launch asymmetric attacks behind the front lines too.

Even if the attacker only proves to have limited connections to such groups, it is not surprising that the anger stirred up by the Syrian war, only exacerbated by the apparent inability of anyone to protect its civilian population, would boil over into a lone attack. The Russian Ambassador in Turkey is, unfortunately, an obvious and relatively unfortunately soft target for such people to strike.

The full details of what has gone on in Germany and Zurich, meanwhile, are uncertain at the time of writing. What appears to be latest vehicle attack on a crowd of civilians – this time in Berlin – does not as yet have any clear attribution. But it comes after a history of such incidents, both brutally murderous like the incident in Nice in July 2016 and a series prior that were seen in the United States and in France around Christmas 2014. The idea of using a vehicle is one that has been championed by both Isil and al Qaeda (though it was rejected by the group’s leader Osama bin Laden as mass murder rather than considered terrorism); its simple horror makes it appealing. The shooting at the mosque also remains without attribution, though the choice of target suggests some grander motive than mere murder.

Finally comes a quieter but perhaps just as significant event. The sentencing of Glendon Scott Crawford of Galway, New York to 30 years’ incarceration for plotting to use a radiological device against Muslims in America shows how extreme right-wing ideologies are also growing in strength. His case is novel because he is the first to be convicted of “attempting to acquire and use a radiological dispersal device.” Yet his desire to strike minorities and the government, and claim some connection with the Ku Klux Klan, all have their roots far back in America’s history. It feels all too predictable in the wake of the hatred being stoked across the world today.

Yet what can be concluded from this roster of misery? That no place is safe – from art galleries to Christmas markets to places of worship, all are now targets for those eager to kill in the name of a cause. The reach of extremist ideologies and causes is a reflection of the intensely globalized world which we inhabit. And while distance has been shortened and international connections tightened, this brings troubles from afar increasingly into our homes and daily lives, either through news or terrorist action.

It is not clear that this new threat is more dangerous than previous ones, rather than just noisier. Some calculations show that terrorist casualties in the West are lower since the 1960s and 1970s, but we don’t know whether this means the threat is decreasing, that we are counting it differently, or that security forces have become more adept at preventing incidents. But the situation certainly appears more acute, and when dealing with a phenomenon like terrorism – for which the perception of menace and fear is essential – this can be enough.

Undoubtedly this will not be last brutal day in our time. Terrorist groups and those using terrorist methodologies to advance personal anger will continue to strike, each time more brutally, to get attention for their cause. The key question is how society responds. To respond too hard may damage the fabric of a free society, but to respond inadequately will let more people die and perhaps tear it apart entirely. This is a dilemma with no clear answer – but it is increasingly the dominant question of our time.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the defence think tank Rusi

New piece for Newsweek looking at the potential threat from ISIS post-Mosul (which has still not yet fallen). The piece was actually drafted a little while ago, but took some time to land. Separately, spoke to Politico about Italy’s approach to counter-terrorism and a presentation at a UK Foreign Office conference got picked up. Finally, my piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog got picked up and translated into 中文 for those who can read it.

How Big is the Threat to Europe from Jihadis Fleeing Mosul?

10_30_mosul_01Members of the Iraqi special forces police unit fire their weapons at Islamic State fighters in al-Shura, south of Mosul, Iraq October 29.  GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

There is a presumption that the fall of Mosul will result in a surge in attacks and terrorism back in the West. Europe in particular feels like it is in the group’s crosshairs, with the refugee flow potentially masking a threat that will only magnify as the group loses territory on the battlefield in Iraq and more fighters want to leave the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). But this presumption is based on a potentially flawed set of assumptions about what will happen next and an understanding of how the terrorist threat has been evolving. Europe may face some terrorist incidents linked to a failing ISIS or other groups, but this threat is likely to simply continue much as before. It is unclear why ISIS would have waited until now to launch a surge of attacks.

Historically speaking it is hard to know where to look for a comparison with what we see happening in Iraq, and therefore what a precedent might look like. The most obvious comparison is the conflict in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. In wake of Moscow’s defeat, there was a chaotic situation in Afghanistan from which a flow of trained and ideologically motivated revolutionary warriors headed around the world. This produced extremist networks that expressed themselves in attacks for years to come under the banner of Al-Qaeda as well as insurgencies and civil wars in North Africa.

Yet this comparison is not completely accurate for the case of ISIS post-Mosul. The group may be losing one its major cities, but it still has a battlefield in Syria into which it can flow. Its territory there may be in retraction, but even if it loses it, the ungoverned spaces in the country mean it will be impossible to completely eradicate. And to look at a micro-level the individual fighters may make a varied set of choices: some may try to head home; some may seek other battlefields to continue the revolution; and yet others may simply change sides and continue to fight against the Assad regime under a different banner.

But more convincing still is the question of why the group would wait until now to mount some sort of attack. The Paris and Brussels attacks showed the group’s capability and intention, and a number of subsequently disrupted plots show the group has been persistently trying, but so far seems to have failed to deliver any more blows. Instead, it has resorted to stirring plots from afar in the form of young people directed through encrypted communications to launch shocking low-tech plots. Some, like the murder of Jacques Harmel in Rouen, worked, while others, like the attempted attack outside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, failed. And while a lot of these appear to be in France (and in that particular set of cases, directed by the same Rachid Kassim), there have been incidents in Australia, Germany, Indonesia and the U.K. that have similarities.

All of this suggests that the group is having difficulty pulling off another large-scale spectacular like Paris or Brussels, and is having to resort to instigating things from a distance. These can be equally atrocious and it is not, of course, impossible something large might still get through, but it is a question as to why the group would have waited until now to launch such an attack.

During Ramadan, the highly significant moment in the Islamic calendar that historically has been a depressing magnet for terrorist atrocities, the horrors the group was able to muster were a brutal bombing in Baghdad, alongside an attack on Istanbul’s international airport. Horrors, yes, but in countries where they had substantial presence and ability to launch attacks—clearly something that they were unable at that moment to pull off in Europe.

Why the group is encountering this difficulty is likely a product of a number of things. In the first instance, it is clear that one of the attractions of the group was its success and strength on the battlefield. As this has waned, the number of those attracted has gone down. Second, coordination among security and intelligence agencies has likely gotten better; while there are still clear problems within some countries and coordination between their various security forces, they have also learned over time. Which of these is preeminent is unclear, but both will have an impact on the flow of fighters.

This is not to downplay the potential threat. One of the under-explored problems is the question of what to do with blocked travelers. As security authorities have faced the threat of terrorism from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, they have learned and developed a deeper understanding of the nature of the threat and the networks getting people there. This has led to a growing number of people being prevented from traveling. The dilemma, however, is what to do with them then. In many cases, these are individuals who are motivated enough to want to go and fight, but find themselves abruptly unable to. This pent-up frustration can express itself in violence as people feel they want to do something, but are incapable of doing it. A number of attacks around the world have been linked to this phenomenon, including incidents in Canada, Australia, and France. This aspect of the threat may become larger as time goes on and the group becomes more inaccessible, while trying to stir people on further, but again, this is a trend that has been underway for some time already and it is not entirely clear why people would be more keen to do something for a group that was in recession.

Of greater concern instead is the potential ramifications to terrorist networks in third countries, like parts of southeast Asia, central Asia, the Middle East or north Africa. While forces in some of these countries are also improving, this has not been uniform and some notable gaps remain. In these places, the relatively easier trip may mean more decide to head home (rather than seek other battlefields or change sides in Syria) and this could produce instability and attacks.

ISIS’s potential loss of Mosul is going to prove a significant moment for the group. But the threat from it is unlikely to change abruptly. Rather, the threat is likely to mutate and evolve, continuing to be a part of the fabric of the terrorist threat the world faces for some time to come.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

And a final short piece in a latest burst of commentary posting mostly around Mosul, this time for the New Statesman looking a bit more at the history of ISIS.

Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group’s grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

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The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group’s history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad’s fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group’s disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS’s grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com

Another piece for the Telegraph, this time after the fall of Mosul, looking in particular at the worrying consequences subsequently if attention is not paid to the fall out.

What happens after Mosul? Chaos – unless the West keeps its eye on the ball

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It has been a dramatic weekend for Isil. The symbolically significant town of Dabiq in Syria fell over the weekend, and then, this morning, the assault on Mosul, their capital in Iraq, has begun.

This likely heralds the beginning of a period of retrenchment for the group, as they find themselves in retreat and unable to project the same vision of power and victory and before. The consequences for the West are important.

Undoubtedly the threat from the group will evolve, and work needs to be done now to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We must lay the groundwork to properly eradicate the group, rather than let Iraq sink into sectarianism as it did in the past.

A major concern is what will happen now to the mass of foreign fighters who will be suddenly left without a home. Rudderless but with a sense of revolutionary purpose, this group will present a menace to security officials around the world for years to come. In terms of the numbers of fighters who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, it is hard to find an exact precedent. The closest is the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the mujahedeen rallied to fight the Soviet Union. This produced the beginnings of the network that later developed into al Qaeda, but also created a cadre of warriors who sensed an opportunity to use the battlefield experience they had honed in Afghanistan on overthrowing regimes in their home countries.

In some cases, the revolutionary fighters kept on going, seeking another struggle to join, be it in Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir or Bosnia. The war’s aftermath created clusters of militants with links to each other across the Eurasian continent, North America and Asia – cells that later turned into the base for al Qaeda plots for years to come.

How this will replicate now is difficult to predict. The speed and nature of the flow of fighters that went to Syria and Iraq to fight with Isil is different. But there’s a high probability of a threat and it will be a combination of things. There is an obvious risk of directed cells. Isil has shown a capacity to send individual fighters back hidden among the flow of refugees coming to Europe. This will likely continue, with a confusing mix of individuals returning home feeling that their fighting days are over, alongside individuals tasked with establishing networks or even launching attacks. Keeping track and understanding this flow, then preventing any plots emerging now or in the future will be a major concern to European authorities for some time.

Communities of Arab, South-east Asian, Central Asian, Russian and North African fighters may also decide to start heading home. In some of their home countries, the injection on a large scale of well-trained and battle-hardened fighters may become too much for authorities to cope with. This may lead to instability and violence which in some cases may be targeted against western nationals.

The fall of Mosul is likely to exacerbate this flow. As various reports appear to indicate, the numbers of disenfranchised fighters who are seeking to leave the Caliphate is increasing. The loss of Mosul will shatter the vision of the group as an all-powerful entity which controls a nation with major cities, something that will inevitably reduce its appeal as a destination for people to go to.

In many ways, however, it is exactly now that the longer-term danger rears its head. As the group is pushed back from Mosul, not only will its threat evolve, but there is also the possibility that western attention will drop off once again. Last time the West seemed to score a victory in Iraq, western powers rapidly lost attention and withdrew. The result was a sectarian mess in Iraq that provided the groundwork for Isil, creating  the environment from which it was able to grow. In addition, while the group is losing ground in Syria – as evidenced most recently by the loss of Dabiq – it is still a force on the ground and the brutal civil war there rages on.

The danger is now that with thi precipitous loss of territory, the rich world’s attention will wane. And in taking our eye off the ball, the stage may be set for Isil to re-group and re-establish itself. The pressure must be kept up on the battlefield, but also in terms of finding ways of rebuilding communities and cities that have been torn apart by conflict. All of this is a long-term struggle that the West has failed to follow through on in the past. It is essential to make sure that this same mistake is not made twice.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists