The world is entering a new era in the battle against extremism. ISIS’s so-called caliphate has fallen, leading to significant shifts in jihadi movements worldwide; returning fighters are posing renewed questions for Western governments; and Iranian influence in the Middle East is causing great instability across the region.
The threat of extremism is evolving, and tackling it requires a nuanced policy response. However, categorising, detailing and reacting to extremist actions is a far more challenging task than many acknowledge. Understanding the diversification of actors and the developing trends that underpin the phenomenon is crucial to crystallising a multilateral policy approach to countering extremism.
Throughout 2018, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change will continue to monitor the activities of extremist elements and map extremism over time to produce empirical research that can contribute to evidence-based policies. Only through such objective means can we examine the factors that perpetuate extremism and devise policies robust enough to dismantle the structures that enable this problem.
In 2017, ISIS all but lost its territorial claims to a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In 2018, there will be a process of evolution and regrouping for ISIS and its overseas affiliates, with major implications for the global jihadi landscape.
The demise of ISIS’s model of a universal and expansionist caliphate will have considerable ramifications for both its tactics and its communications strategy. With the loss of a home base, ISIS’s archipelago of affiliates—including in Afghanistan, the Lake Chad Basin and the Sinai—is likely to move towards a franchise model more akin to al-Qaeda’s approach, with its branches in the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and the Islamic Maghreb. The demise of ISIS’s caliphate will also mark the end of the group’s fledgling governance project, as its propaganda narrative shifts towards reminiscing about the ‘golden age’ of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s proto-state.
Meanwhile, ISIS remnants will continue to foment pre-existing ethnic and sectarian conflicts globally, and concerns remain about the emergence of an ISIS 2.0 in areas liberated from the group. In Iraq, sectarian cleansing of precarious post-conflict Sunni communities by Shia militias risks inflaming the very grievances that ISIS manipulated to fuel its lightning expansion three and half years ago. Lessons must be learned from the apparent defeat of ISIS’s predecessor organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, after the death of its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.
The year 2018 may also see more attacks on soft targets by lone militants using low-tech, low-budget tactics.
The year 2018 may also see more attacks on soft targets by lone militants using low-tech, low-budget tactics. Recent attacks on places of worship in Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere are clear pointers to where extremist activity is heading. Such incidents may expand to markets, hospitals and refugee camps, and the use of biological or chemical weapons in these contexts is not impossible.
While focusing on bolstering the resilience of areas previously under ISIS control, counter-extremism policy must be agile with regard to other potential hotspots. In the Sahel, jihadi attacks have spiked across the region, and the recent merger of the four main al-Qaeda–linked groups there—al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitoun, the Macina Liberation Front and Ansar Dine—into a single entity increases the likelihood of further violence in 2018.
At the same time, violent groups may turn to Africa for recruits and safe havens. The continent has huge potential for this, with millions of aggrieved jobless youths and vast ungoverned territories that can be easily exploited. Similarly, extremists will seek to exploit vacuums in South East Asia and elsewhere presented by weak government, humanitarian crises, transnational crime and economic insecurity, presenting a potential powder keg for 2018.
Finally, elections, while constituting the cornerstone of any democratic system, are also known to be a trigger for violence in some countries. Forthcoming votes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and South Sudan may therefore be accompanied by greater tensions and violence in the year ahead.
The fall of ISIS’s caliphate had severe implications for Europe in 2017, and 2018 will likely bring further challenges. Islamist extremism, migration flows and returning foreign fighters are among the top challenges facing the security sector and governments in the West.
Groups like ISIS have called for followers to commit attacks in their home countries, using whatever means possible. Men and women who had never travelled abroad to join an extremist group were won over by an extreme ideology through a mixture of interaction with ideologues, exposure to propaganda and dissatisfaction with the status quo—a toxic combination that caused them to perpetrate acts of violence at home in the name of Islamist extremism. This individualistic and sporadic approach to terror attacks is extremely difficult to defend against.
Foreign fighters from the caliphate are gradually returning to their countries of origin
Foreign fighters from the caliphate are gradually returning to their countries of origin and will undoubtedly form one of the major counter-extremism challenges in 2018. While several countries, such as Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Yemen, established deradicalisation programmes after the 9/11 attacks, others, including the UK, have done so only recently. Countries have varied and context-specific approaches, which often depend on the availability of the state’s resources, the strength of its political institutions, and its historical approach to rehabilitation and reintegration. But how the punitive, rehabilitative and ideological aspects slot together to ultimately deradicalise an individual will be an ongoing learning curve for many governments this year.
As conflict and instability remain in various states worldwide, migration and refugee flows across Europe continue to be of great concern for many. Opening Europe’s external borders brings very real challenges, such as where to place migrants, how to integrate them and how to prevent extremists from entering Europe under the guise of vulnerable refugees. All these difficulties, alongside weakening economies and stretched resources, are increasingly causing the far right and populist movements across Europe to capitalise on crises to justify anti-Muslim rhetoric, among other extreme ideas.
Iranian influence in the Middle East can be charted on multiple fronts, but none is more significant for the region’s long-term stability than the multitude of armed militias that Iran continues to support. These militias are ideologically subscribed to Iran’s theocratic Wilayat al-Faqih doctrine, which maintains that Islam gives an Islamic jurist custodianship over the people, and are operationally geared towards serving Tehran’s interests. The year 2018 is likely to usher in additional dimensions of these groups’ presence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
In December 2017, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared victory over ISIS and announced that the country had been “fully liberated”. Concerns are now arising about the long-term role and presence of the country’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), which were formed after a call to arms to defend the country against ISIS. Iraq has made efforts to incorporate the Iranian-backed PMUs into the national security infrastructure, but worries remain about increasing sectarian tensions and whether these militias’ loyalties lie in Baghdad or Tehran. The popularity of the PMUs among Iraq’s Shia majority means their influence on Iraq’s landscape is likely to grow further.
The Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hizbullah played an integral role in tightening the Syrian regime’s control of the country last year.
The Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hizbullah played an integral role in tightening the Syrian regime’s control of the country last year. The presence of Hizbullah contingents near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights has prompted some military action from the Israel Defence Forces, including reported airstrikes on strategic locations around Damascus. With Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah claiming that the Syrian conflict is likely to end in the next year or two, there will be grave concerns about a reenergised, battle-hardened Hizbullah switching its attention back to its long-standing foe. The recent rapprochement between Iran and Gaza-based Hamas, and the ratcheting of tensions following the decision by the administration of US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, adds further cause for anxiety about Iranian influence.
Meanwhile, the conflict between Yemen’s Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Recent incidents of Houthi militants firing Iranian-manufactured missiles towards Saudi Arabia, the purported downing of a Saudi fighter jet and threats by the Houthis to target the important Red Sea shipping lane indicate the drawn-out conflict may take on different dimensions in 2018. A potential escalation could result in a greater frequency of attacks and increased targeting of economic interests.