Recently, there has been plenty of speculation and projection about the post-ISIS future of Iraq. ISIS are far from the potent military and political force they once were in Iraq or Syria, and are gradually, if rather bloodily, being rolled up in the region. ISIS rushed in to fill the massive power vacuum in Syria, and in a destabilised Iraq. As their ‘safe space’ is reduced and ISIS forces in the region are constantly harried, ISIS beginning to look to abroad in order to secure a post-Iraq future for itself. Although the Caliphate may have fallen, a destabilised ISIS may prove to be an increased danger, particularly to those in the West.
ISIS is now seeking to upstage long-established al-Qaeda affiliates in destabilising North Africa. The highly volatile situation in nations such as Libya and Tunisia have allowed ISIS-affiliated groups the space and time needed to establish themselves in the region, and North Africa has proven a fertile hunting ground for ISIS operations and recruitment. It is not just North Africa, however — ISIS has a range of affiliates across the entire continent, including a sizeable presence in some worryingly unstable nations such as Somalia and Nigeria. Although these groups are supposedly affiliates of ISIS, the truth is that these African groups have mostly regional goals — yet this is still a danger. As ISIS fighters return from the Middle East into the complex web of Islamist groups in the region, they are more likely to push existing groups to a more ISIS-like stance, or even splinter into their own groups adhering to ISIS viewpoints. This would have a number of security implications. The first is that it raises the spectre of an African Caliphate. Although no individual ISIS-affiliated group is currently strong enough to gain as significant an amount of territory as ISIS itself, and most groups are currently locked in a battle with localised al-Qaeda groups for supremacy within the Islamist movement, a significant number of returning fighters could potentially tip the balance of power in their favour. Once ascendancy against other terrorist groups is secured, it is quite possible the establishment of a pacified area under strong control could act as a draw for African jihadists — just as the Iraqi lands of the Caliphate has done. In the shorter term, however, the struggle for regional control between al-Qaeda and ISIS groups will threaten African security — these battles take place in some of the continent’s weakest and most historically unstable areas, and an upsurge in violence may prove too much of a challenge for embattled government forces.
One of the reasons for the enmity between the two groups — and why a destabilised ISIS poses such a threat to the West — is that a key part of its strategy is to attack the West directly and, by means of attrition, wear down their opponents.As the group continues to be locked in a losing struggle in the Middle East, ISIS’ mastery of the internet, particularly the darkweb, will become a particularly thorny issue. Rather than draw in new recruits to its holdings, ISIS will instead seek to carry out atrocities in the West, using home-grown radicals. The recent spate of attacks across continental Europe and Britain is evidence of this. In the West, ISIS may withdraw into a non-physical, but very real, force for attacks, serving more as a director, rather than as an actor. The sheer number of returning fighters alone however, combined with the highly unplanned and low-tech nature of ISIS attacks, means that the group’s capacity, both in scope and duration, to mount terrorist actions in Europe is unlike almost any group previously seen.
The truth is that the ISIS-affiliated groups are just that — affiliated. Many predate ISIS, and none of these allies rely on the embattled group for operational or strategic assistance, funding or fighters. Their ideology, however, is far more dangerous to African — and world — security. In the West, the fight against ISIS will take the form of significantly increased security, both to stymie the recruitment efforts of the group, and to stop the flow of blood onto major European cities.