With the collapse of Islamic State’s (ISIS) dream of a Caliphate and severe depletion of Al Qaeda Central (AQ), the two icons of global jihadi terror, the focus is now shifting on the emerging landscape of global terror. ISIS which rose to fame in 2014 after being divorced by its parent organisation AQ, soon became the trend setter and poster boy of global jihad. While on the other hand, after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, AQ kept losing its sheen and gradually also lost the leadership of global jihad. Though they shared a common ideology, their differences grew larger and bitter with the rapid successes of ISIS overshadowing the rivalry between the two.
The golden era of the Caliphate announced by Baghdadi and his claim of being the Caliph, supreme leader of all Muslims of the world, has now become a part of history with its defeat in Syria and Iraq with virtual loss of all the territory it captured and its sudden collapse. But from all available inputs it is abundantly clear that ISIS has been defeated but not destroyed. Many of the ISIS fighters have returned to their native nations and others have redeployed in smaller groups by relocating themselves in different parts of the world thus spanning the wings of the terror group. However, the lure of foreign jihadists to fight for the Caliphate has almost ended. The iron hand control that was exercised by Baghdadi over ISIS fighters has diminished to a great extent.
On the other hand, AQ, known for its network of radicalised Islamic extremists and Wahhabi jihadists properly trained in terror training camps in Afghanistan, and virtual leader of global jihad and international terror till 2014, has been badly enfeebled leading to its decline. It has not carried out any major terror attack for almost a decade now. It has been badly decimated in Af-Pak region, its stronghold once. Its actions are limited to sporadic terrorist acts by its associated groups and Lone Wolf operations.
The rout of AQ has to some extent been compensated by its regional groups and allies like Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent, Taliban, Haqqani Network, LeT, JeM etc. who are effective in their respective regions.
While ISIS is transforming into a terror organization with a flat hierarchy, with cells and affiliates increasingly acting autonomously, al-Qaeda, despite the debilitation of Al-Qaeda Central, continues to exercise influence in several regions through its regional groups and allies. Despite suffering reverses, the hatred of both the terror groups’ for the West, non-believers, democratic regimes and apostate Islamic regimes has not diminished. There has been no significant reduction in the issues that led to the rise of global jihad terror groups.
On the contrary, the improved technologies have facilitated better integration between the global terror groups and local/regional insurgents spread across the globe. Growing solidarity among Muslims across the globe has given spur to regional resistance movements, like the one in Kashmir.
The fast spreading radical Islamic ideology has boosted the potential for catastrophic global terrorism. Though every radicalised Muslim is not an extremist, the educated, unemployed radicalised Muslim youth continues to be attracted towards jihad employing terror as a legitimate instrument of avenging the perceived injustice being done to the members of their community world over. They have entrenched belief in the fact that rule of Sharia is the panacea of all ills and discrimination facing the Muslims.
Though both the global terror groups have been weakened, the end of global jihadi terror is nowhere in sight. In the future, will they continue to operate with distinct existing identities or manifest in a different form?
There have been fervent appeals in the recent years for jihadists to unite world over. Some members of both organizations have been willing and able to support each other in the preparation of attacks.
In a recent statement, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged warring jihadists to “unite and agree and gather and merge and cooperate and stack together as one rank” as “this is the basis of victory and salvation.”Zawahiri told terrorists in a video last year that unification against the “international satanic alliance” on a global front was critical: “Communicate, link up with each other and extend a helping hand to your Muslim brothers in all Muslim lands. This is the surest way to victory.” Zawahiri’s recent audio message—urging jihadist groups and mujahideen, “Unite and close your ranks with your Muslim brothers and mujahideen not just in Sham [Syria], but the entire world, for it is a single Crusader campaign being waged against Muslims the world over,” indicates the urgency for unity.
In such a situation, the question that begs an answer is who will bear the mantle of leadership of global jihad or what will be its future? There are three likely scenarios. First, the total integration of all terror groups into a single “Super Terror” group or an ISIS-AQ ‘Frankenstein’ with unified central leadership and top-down control. Second, convergence of purpose at regional level with regional command and control but continue to maintain their separate identities. Third, the merger of the cadre of the two global terror groups with the local resistance movements in their respective regions/countries.
Given the vast differences and ego-clashes that exist today between the leadership and cadre of the two global groups there is less likelihood of the first two options seeing the light of the day. The third option appears more viable and likely emerging future of global jihad motivated by a common ideology of Universal Jihad. Universal Jihad will be directed against Kafirs, democratic governments and man-made laws which are against the spirit of a strict form of Sharia Law in a specified region/area. Distinct terror groups with regional identity and purpose spurred by a common ideology of Universal Jihad guided, financed and motivated through a core central global leadership is what we are likely to face in the coming years until the root cause of jihadi terrorism is addressed in all sincerity by the international community.
A new breed of Jihadists, radicalised and motivated through social media, ready to fight wherever they feel their Muslim brothers are under threat, will also be contributors to Universal Jihad. The fight will be ideology driven and geographical boundaries will be no barriers. Such groups will also rise within a nation-state. Thus, we in India will have to be prepared to face jihadists from other parts of the country joining their Kashmiri brethren and vice-versa. It would be major challenge for intelligence agencies operating at various level.
The likelihood of an individual not affiliated with any terrorist group to be able to inflict widespread loss of life through acts of terror will also increase. Internet will become the primary source of training, training materials, motivation, target nomination, technical knowhow and coordination of terrorist operations that would aim at mass causalities and high visibility. Fund raising will mainly be done online. Information Technology will be exploited to the hilt to enable connectivity with the core group which is unlikely to remain stationary.
The terror threats will manifest in form of Lone Wolf attacks, use of vehicle laden explosives, suicide attacks. “Terrorists probably will be most original not in the technologies or weapons they use but rather in their operational concepts—i.e., the scope, design, or support arrangements for attacks” according to a top US think-tank. One such concept that is likely to continue is a large number of simultaneous attacks, possibly in widely separated locations.
The likelihood of terrorists using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the biological weapons in particular, will increase. With a view to cause mass causalities, the danger of bio-terror and use of mini nuclear or radiological devices looms large. With highly educated and skilled youth joining the jihad, chances of a cyber- attack can also not be ruled out. The terrorists are also likely to resort to the use of advanced explosives and drones. The use of third dimension by the jihadi terrorists is a new challenge. Narco-terrorism is another challenge.
The new global war on terror will also get decentralised to a large extent. The success of counter-terrorism operations will depend on the willingness and capabilities of nations to fight terrorism on their own soils. The concept of “good” and “bad” terrorists will have to be sacrificed. Nations will have to ensure that their soil is not used for cross-border terror by organised terror groups. The global cooperation on counter-terrorism will include intelligence-sharing, training and capability building.
Thus India’s strategy of signing bilateral agreements with affected nations to fight terror is a step in right direction and in keeping with future challenges. However, a major overhaul in our internal security apparatus including capability and capacity building as well as issues relating to command and control, centre-state coordination and national consensus is urgently needed to meet the emerging challenges.