Are we defeating IS? Does it matter?

Every day we seem to read about yet another terrorist attack attributed to Islamic State.  Whether or not the group claims the event – and there is a lot of analysis over when it does and when it doesn’t – there is no question that in the minds of most people IS is the world’s most lethal and most important violent extremist organisation.  In that regard it surpassed what we used to think was our biggest problem, Al Qaeda, long ago (more on that later).

So it is a big deal when reports surface that IS appears to be losing some of its influence and power projection.  Over the past few months it has lost a quarter of its self-styled Caliphate.  The number of Twitter accounts associated with the group has plunged by 45%.  And, at least in the eyes of some, all the recent attacks in Istanbul, Baghdad, Medina and Dhaka are signs of weakness, not strength.  All told, it seems that the ill-named “war on terror” is finally succeeding and that the barbaric practices of IS may be relegated to the history books.

Any measure that takes away from IS personnel or materiel is undoubtedly a good thing.  But it is both premature and inaccurate to say that by reigning blows on IS we are winning in the grander scheme of world events.  It was not that long ago – five years to be precise when Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden was killed – that we were talking about the end of Al Qaeda.  Much to the chagrin of those who pay attention to what is really happening, AQ is again on the ascendant.  In this light, we pronounce IS’ impending death more out of hope than based on facts and careful analysis.

Terrorism in the vein of groups such as AQ and IS manifests itself on three fundamental levels.  The core of any organisation is small and most vulnerable to disruption: take out a senior figure and you can do some real damage (although it is disconcerting how quickly dead terrorists in positions of influence are replaced).  Affiliates are those groups that align with the core but have varying degrees of connectedness. These are widespread geographically and much more diffuse, often thriving in failed or near-failed states that are hard to target.  IS and AQ affiliates are doing well these days.  But it is the third tier that is most worrisome.  It is here that those who are IS- or AQ-inspired dwell.  Vastly outnumbering the other two tiers combined, terrorists who act in concert with a group’s ideology can work under the radar of law enforcement and security agencies, obtain their materials locally and do not rely on communications and instructions from the centre.  You do not have to be a card-carrying member of IS to think of yourself as an IS terrorist and while your attacks may not be as large as one planned by the core they can certainly have a disproportionate effect on a nation (think of how two such attacks over two days in October 2o14 affected us here in Canada).  It is this tier that is the future of terrorism in my view.

Furthermore, we need to learn that eliminating individual terrorists, or even whole terrorist groups, is an insufficient way to eliminate terrorism.  People and groups come and go, they fall in and out or favour and they are susceptible to both internal strife and external attack.  Ideology stays.  If a given group disappears, the ideology can find a new home – that is exactly what happened in the handover from AQ to IS a few years ago.

We are focusing almost exclusively on killing people and undermining the resources of groups but failing to tackle underlying ideology.  More depressingly, some of our actions to achieve the first two actually feed the third.  If we continue to only use a military hammer against terrorism we will create more nails.  The best response is always a multi-level one.

The desire for good news in the struggle against terrorism is understandable. The situation is already bad enough without seeing negative reporting on a daily basis.  Optimism is not a guarantee of success however.  We need to be realistic in our analysis so that we can create effective programming – military, social and societal – to truly see this conflict to an end.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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