Posts Tagged ‘Mosul’

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.

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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.

fighter-w-gun-mosul

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

torygraph_oct-2016

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