ISIS Will Become ‘Al-Qaeda On Steroids’ Says Counter Terrorism Expert

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Many commentators are hailing the recent successes of U.S. led forces in Mosul as the ‘beginning of the end for ISIS’.

They were defeated almost one month ago on June 29, after a U.S-supported attack on the Iraqi city.

This was followed by an announcement by Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, a military spokesperson for the Iraqi authorities, in which he claimed ‘their fictitious state has fallen’.

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Some analysts are less optimistic, including director of the Counter Terrorism Group Lahur Talabany, who claims ISIS are primed to become ‘al-Qaeda on steroids’.

To get to the bottom of this complex issue, UNILAD spoke to Dr Rizwaan Sabir, a lecturer in Criminology who specialises in counter-terrorism.

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He said:

[ISIS] aren’t defeated – and the reason why is that an armed militant group doesn’t require territory to operate.

The best case-study of that is al-Qaeda who spread throughout the world. ISIL holding territory in Iraq and Syria is actually an exception, there’s nothing in the rule book that says they need territory to operate.

The group’s origin can be traced back to al-Qaeda and the 2003 Iraq war, although the group disowned the so-called Islamic State in 2014.

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Recent high profile attacks including those in London and Manchester have been claimed by the extremist group, however just last month militants were forced to retreat from their Mosul stronghold, destroying the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri to prevent the allied forces from having a ‘symbolic victory’.

Even so, Dr Rabir remains sceptical of Lahur Talabany’s assertion that this will cause such an aggressive response.

He said the picture is not so clear, and that the threat of ISIS has to be looked at from different perspectives. Namely, those of West and East.

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Only in doing that, he said, can we properly look at what is happening in a complete and comprehensive way.

He assesses that in the West there are a number of factors making it a more ‘attractive’ target and that on top of that, ISIS may feel they have ‘more to prove’ following the heavy defeat at the heart of the caliphate.

He told us:

I’ll speculatively say that they might engage in more armed activities… Whether five or ten attacks occur depends entirely on geopolitical factors.

But what we do have to consider [is] that it might be more attractive for the group to attack places where they know the media will react.

We all know the attacks in Manchester and Westminster get coverage, but the attacks in the East don’t get mentioned in Western media.

This concern was echoed by Renad Mansour, a Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. However, he highlighted that the banner of ‘ISIS’ does not cover a single, coherent group.

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He says that ‘terrorist incidents’ pop up all over the world with the name ISIS merely attached to the acts of violence.

He said:

Even in the Phillipines you have attacks. What we’re seeing is people using the brand of ISIS to give ‘legitimacy’ to their local grievances.

Whether people in the UK will commit more attacks to promote the brand ‘ISIS’? That could happen.

Renad stated that territory is actually quite important to ISIS. He told us that if you look back at the history of ISIS, it is born out of Iraq. (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or the Levant).

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So here we can see, said Renad, a clear link to the territory that it has just lost.

This does not by any means make it the end of the fight though, Renad said, as ISIS is a very ‘dynamic and durable’ group and he believes they will move back toward their origins.

He said:

At the local level in Iraq, they’re diminished. Many local Sunni’s and Shiites are cautiously optimistic that they don’t have to live under such difficult circumstances anymore.

So there’s cause for celebration there. But they’re going to go underground, they’re going to go back to insurgency tactics.

ISIS are thought to be the richest terrorist group in history, meaning this defeat might not mean the end for them.

Normally, terrorist groups suffering such a military loss would be unable to sustain momentum – but it may not be the case this time.

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Renad told UNILAD that his sources suggest the group are trying to ‘diversify’ their cash sources through both legal and illegal methods, providing relative stability during a time of turmoil for the group.

He said they will probably rest for a short while, but expects they will come back in some shape or form.

In the long-term then? How do we pick up the pieces of what’s left in Iraq? Both experts agree this is a complex problem.

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Dr Sabir believes that a complete re-think on foreign and security policy is needed. While we have counter-terrorism covered in the short-term through policing and surveillance infrastructure, a look at the long-term is a lot more bleak.

He said:

We’re not asking the serious questions, as it means that many Western governments will have to give up overseas interests.

It’s also worth noting that terrorists in the U.K. and France have been largely homegrown since 2003, supporting the statement by Renad that most terrorist actions are an expression of local frustrations.

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Renad also alludes to the complications in Iraq itself, and the turmoil it is in.

He said:

We’re trying to figure it out, there are so many differences. There are militia that are recognised by the government but that don’t answer to them or provide intel.

Then there are departments within the government that don’t trust each other. It’s not going to be easy.

Despite what is no doubt a major victory in Mosul over the past weeks, it is clear this conflict is far from over.