Why there won’t be an ISIS 2.0


By Seth J. Frantzman, opinion contributor — 12/22/17 07:30 AM EST 63  THE HILL

After decades of confronting ever-increasing terror threats from Islamist extremists, there is widespread consensus that after Islamic State another global extremist threat will emerge — the so-called ISIS 2.0. Some consider the recent terror attack in New York City to be evidence of this threat. But what if the cynics and doomsday predictors are wrong?

Iraq and Syria have declared victory over ISIS. In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, devastated by nine months of fighting Islamic State, there are signs of hope. Thousands of books have been donated to the libraries; Doctors Without Borders is helping to rebuild the city’s hospitals; and Sufi festivals have returned. All of this is symbolic of a city seeking to create a fresh face after years of cruelty under ISIS.The way in which the Iraqi insurgency gave rise to al-Qaeda affiliates, which in turn gave rise to ISIS, is presented as argument for how a new extremism will emerge. The ingredients exist, including poverty and anger over the sectarianism of the central Iraqi government, for example. More evidence for ISIS 2.0 might come from the experiences Somalia, Afghanistan, Niger, Mali, Libya and other states have suffered over the years as the threat from jihadist groups does not diminish.

Yet there are signs this troubling period might be ending. ISIS attempted an uprising in the Philippines between May and October and was defeated in Marawi. Islamist extremists have encountered setbacks in North Africa, and they have not gained a foothold in central Asia or the Balkans. They failed to ignite Lebanon or Jordan. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have put together a comprehensive religious challenge to them. From the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas, political Islamist parties have not fared well when in governance or they have been overthrown.

Over the past two decades since al-Qaeda planned the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a lot has changed. ISIS sought to take al-Qaeda to the next level by creating a landed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Now it has settled for encouraging lone wolf attacks. Lone wolves inspired by ISIS are a growing threat, but they may be a passing phenomenon. A series of uncoordinated attacks that do not give rise to something greater also may continue.

Extremist terrorist ideologies indoctrinating young people via social media have been successful in that large numbers of foreign volunteers joined ISIS. The Times of London reported in May that “intelligence officers have identified 23,000 jihadist extremists living in Britain.” However, the last major attacks in Europe happened in Manchester in May and Spain in August. These groups have exhausted their recruiting power with each iteration trying to be “new” and more extreme than the last. ISIS likely was an end result, not just another group. Security services are getting better at tracking and stopping terrorist groups.

The Mosul model is emblematic. The atrocities of ISIS and its predecessors have led to widespread revulsion in the Middle East and elsewhere. The 2017 Arab Youth Survey found that “the rise of Daesh” and “threat of terrorism” ranked second and third, behind unemployment, as the biggest obstacles facing young people in the region. Sixty-one percent of respondents also said ISIS was getting weaker.

Still, terrorism and jihadist groups such as Boko Haram remain a major threat across the Sahel in Africa. They exploit weak states to travel across borders. The death of four American soldiers in Niger in October, and the revelation that there are more than 1,000 U.S. personnel in Niger and neighboring countries fighting terror, point to a greater extremist threat in that region.

What Thomas Barnett termed the “non-integrated gap” in his 2004 book, “The Pentagon’s New Map,” remains a concern after ISIS. Gen. Raymond Thomas III revealed in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in May that, on a daily basis, around 8,000 U.S. Special Forces are deployed to 80 countries around the world. The model perfected in Iraq against ISIS, often termed “by, with and through our partners,” is becoming successful elsewhere. The U.S. is present in more countries, fighting more low-level conflicts than at any time in history, pursuing a global strategy.

States suffering decades of terror and instability are fatigued. That which gave rise to ISIS — globalization, the breakdown of the Syrian and Iraqi states, access to abandoned military equipment, a ready pool of angry recruits, foreign extremists with expertise in social media, and veteran officers from previous wars — no longer exists in the same form three years after ISIS reached its peak. If the international community continues its efforts to reduce extremism, using a variety of methods, the chances of ISIS 2.0 emerging will evaporate.

Seth Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC Herzliya.  www.mesop.de