Since it shot to prominence by taking the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, much has been made of the threat posed by the group currently calling itself ‘Islamic State’. This is not unfounded – the organisation’s success in taking and holding territory in Syria and Iraq has bolstered its credibility in Jihadist circles as a contender for the next caliphate. Similarly, IS’ use of visceral media products has made it appealing not only to the ‘old jihadist crowd’ – those people who got their start fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Africa, or running assassinations in Egypt – but also to those disenfranchised, unstable, or vulnerable people seeking to assert or reinvent themselves with a supportive in-group. This sort of threat has led to a panicked reaction from observers in the West, particularly for those on the right who see the combination of ISIS and Muslim immigration as a ‘barbarians at the gates’ scenario, which precedes the end of days, or at least, the end of civilisation as we know it.
Fortunately, the reality of Islamic State is that it – and organisations like it – will not destroy civilisation. On the contrary – it is losing ground within Syria and Iraq, its leadership is being hunted by US-led forces, the people it attracts to carry out operations abroad are not the most intellectual of souls, and security services are getting a feel for the methods of the organisation.
But with every good there is bad, and despite these positive signs there are still problems which the organisation can pose. One is that the environment which allowed it to recover from its post-Zarqawi slump will not go away. The Syrian civil war continues with no end in sight, while Iraq is a failing state which is becoming a battleground between Iran, the US, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and itself. As long as the parties concerned fail to take the measures necessary to stabilise Iraq and Syria, the conflicts therein will be the incubator for an entire generation of terrorism. All the rollback of the organisation will be for nothing if Iraq and Syria provide an environment for it to recover and rebound.
Another concern is the character of the threat – as the uppermost ranks are “trimmed” the organisation will become increasingly aggressive. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi may lead an organisation known for its brutality, but he rose to the top due to his ability to think and compromise, not through attrition. The sort of figures who rise up to replace Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, Wail Al-Fayad, and eventually Al-Baghdadi will likely be less-restrained, and more eager to make their mark as leaders while they can. If that means focusing on carrying out more mass-casualty attacks in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, or even Sydney and risking an aggressive Western response, then so be it.
But perhaps the biggest hazard is the way in which an ill-considered reaction can impact society in Australia, the United States and Europe. One of the most difficult challenges – that of Europeans, Americans, Australians, etc joining the Islamic State – has been made worse by a failure to consider and address the interests of vulnerable communities. The rage of the far right and the condescension of the far left have only made this worse, by making certain demographics feel like they are rejected or seen with contempt, respectively. Just as the fragile situation in Iraq and Syria leaves Islamic State with an environment for a rebound, and targeting ill-considered leadership will lead to a more-aggressive organisation, the failure to properly address the grievances and vulnerabilities of the persons who go to fight, or carry out attacks, will leave us with a persistent insider threat.
The takeaway from this is that Australians shouldn’t lose a week’s sleep over the threat of Islamic State, but they should at least understand that even as the group is degraded, it will not cease to be a problem anytime soon.