The chapter devoted to ISIS in the history of the Middle East is drawing to a close, concluding a fascinating saga of the rise and fall of a fanatic and violent organization that leaped from the early middle ages directly to the modern world of individual rights and social media. Before it shrinks into a footnote in the history books, a few accretions of this organization still need to be dealt with. Some of these accretions are territorial while others are implanted in the minds of believers who were captivated by the radical ideology.
ISIS is gradually fading away as a territorial entity and will probably disappear completely within about one year. In Syria, it is rapidly losing control over expansive areas, including the major cities it had dominated, like Manbij and later this year it is expected to lose its capital, Al-Raqqah. The war against the remnants of ISIS has evolved into an aerial and artillery shootout from several directions by an unlikely coalition – Russians, Americans, French, British, Kurds, Sunni Syrians and Alawite Syrians and probably Turks as well.
In Iraq the situation is completely different. The rapid success of Sunni ISIS during the initial phases of its emergence triggered a response by the Shi'ite majority in Iraq. The predominately-Shi'ite Iraqi military and the hastily-recruited Shi'ite militias have recovered and are currently marching toward the Sunni centers (Ramadi, Fallujah and Al-Anbar governorate, in the general direction of Mosul).
The primary objective of the territorial ISIS is its continued survival within Sunni population concentrations in Iraq, its main source of support. In the near future, we can expect internal tensions developing within the organization against this background. These tensions will be reflected in power struggles between the primary elements of ISIS and the foreign volunteers. In all probability, we will also witness reciprocal killings between those elements.
ISIS will evolve into an Iraqi Sunni organization, preoccupied with survival and terrorism confrontations opposite Shi'ite militias and rival Sunni tribes. This will put an end to the Muslim caliphate escapade. The more serious problem, however, will involve the task of dealing with the destructive fervor ISIS had planted in the minds of youngsters worldwide.
The ISIS rhetoric captivated the minds of hundreds and possibly thousands of frustrated Muslim youngsters in western countries. This may be attributed to numerous reasons, which will provide fertile ground for academic analysis projects in the coming years. Ideologically, ISIS is not different from such organizations as al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, each one of which, in its turn, had routed that frustration in radical, violent directions.
The unique characteristic of ISIS is the fact that it was intelligent enough to take advantage of individual liberties, democracy and the free media of the western countries to spread its teachings openly and recruit activists from the fringes of the societies where they live.
The images broadcast around the world, of the elimination of ISIS strongholds and the ridiculing of ISIS warfighters, will severely undermine the motivation and faith of many of those youngsters, but there would still be those aspiring to take revenge on the Christians/crusaders/infidels/evil coalition and fight "to the end" by staging terrorist attacks in the centers of European and US cities.
Moreover, the ability of ISIS to stage attacks at the heart of the European capitals could constitute a model for other radical organizations that would follow in the footsteps of ISIS and attempt to route the frustration, anger and vengeance of Muslim youngsters, members of the second generation of immigrants to Europe.
In the face of this challenge, improving the intelligence gathering potential and enhancing international cooperation between intelligence agencies, along with unrestrictive legislation as a tool for fighting the perpetrators of such attacks – are a precondition, but even this is not enough to effectively block and optimally locate individual terrorists or locally-organized, isolated cells.
There is a glass ceiling which intelligence agencies, as efficient as they may be, are unable to breach without a fundamental revision of the way they address incitement and the support for it among the Muslim communities.
The individual attacker phenomenon calls for activity in a field which is beyond intelligence. ISIS succeeded in recruiting massive amounts of Muslims owing to its exceptional ability to exploit the media to create a violent and potent image. Youngsters, both male and female, were captivated by the combined messages of the restoration of the days of ancient glory intertwined with the mass killings of the distant past. The beheadings and other atrocities, like setting fire to victims or drowning them, the aggressive speeches by activists in various languages, using a uniform threatening tone, were effectively absorbed by the Muslim youngsters and became the object of reverence. The counter activity must also be widely publicized and convey sharp, clear messages that would deter anyone who considers taking this path.
The European leaders and legislators will learn the hard way – a way paved with terrorist attacks and deaths – that statutes, provisional decrees and emergency ordinances must be enacted to enable unrestricted handling of movements and circles that incite to radicalism and intolerance, including unrestricted use of such measures as the denial of citizenship and deportation of extremist activists back to their countries of origin.
Any form of support for a radical organization, declared as such through those emergency statutes, should be forbidden and lead to arraignment. Mosques preaching radicalism should be closed down and the preachers should be denounced. Such radicals should find themselves behind bars or being deported back to their countries of origin. Activists possessing a risk potential should be arrested using administrative orders for long periods of time or deported back to their countries of origin. The Muslim communities, from which the attackers hail, must renounce those terrorists in a clear and unequivocal manner and the leaders of those communities should have them banished. The social media should be monitored. Indications of radicalism, solidarity with extremists and support for them should be treated promptly by the security agencies.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Hannan Gefen served for 32 years in the Israel Defence Forces. He is an expert in ISR and C2 systems.