The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  According to Google, this famous phrase was uttered either by Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke or former Minnesota governor and ex-WWF wrestler Jesse Ventura.  I’ll go with Burke.

What is more disconcerting is when we forget our history that happened, say, 4 years ago.  Remember the death of Usama bin Laden?  Remember the celebration and the hoopla and the feeling of justice served?  All deserved, but then everyone saw this as the great victory in the ill-named “war on terror”.  As the old saying goes, don’t count your chickens.

That Al Qaeda group that was supposed to be defeated?  Well, apparently they are again establishing camps in – you guessed it – Afghanistan (see story here).   True, these camps are not the sophisticated ones we saw in the 1990s, but these guys were supposed to have been relegated to the history books.  Dead men don’t make camps, so I’m guessing that AQ ain’t dead.

And now we are hearing of the beginning of the end of Islamic State in the wake of the Iraqi army retaking of Ramadi (see that claim here).  Yes, commentators and military officials are being cautious, saying that the capture of Mosul will be much more complicated, but there is still this sense that maybe the tide has turned and IS is on the run.

Side note: if true and IS is defeated in the next year or so it will rank as one of the world’s shortest-lived empires (or caliphates or whatever).  From July 2014 to, shall we say, July 2017 is underwhelming to say the least.  By comparison, while the Third Reich did not last quite a thousand years (it only came up 988 years short!) it at least saw the odometre tick over two significant digits.

On the other hand, terrorism scholar Rohann Gunaratna is less sanguine about the demise of IS.  He predicts that 2016 will see much more violence by the terrorist group and its affiliates, especially the 4,000 or so followers it has in North Africa (see his predictions here).

So what should we make of all this?  First and foremost let’s not pay too much attention to future forecasting.  It has not been very successful to date and even with the advent of Big Data it will be limited.  Secondly, and much more importantly, the players are not as important as the play.  Actors change and fall out of favour (what ever happened to Star Wars’ Mark Hamill aside from his non-speaking appearance in the vastly over-hyped recent film, The Force Awakens?).  The play goes on and on and on as the actors change (well, in the case of terrorism they get killed).  Today’s IS was yesterday’s Al Qaeda  – and tomorrow’s IS just might be AQ again!

As we focus on people and groups and spend less time on ideology we just leave the field open for more of the same.  People die.  Groups disband or are eliminated.  Ideology, if left unchallenged, just sits there waiting to entrench itself in the next bunch that comes along.  It’s kinda like a virus that kills its host only to find a new one.

So let us take pride in putting the boots to IS.  But let us not pretend that this is the end of anything yet other than perhaps that of an extremist organisation which in all likelihood will be nothing more than an asterisk on a footnote in the annals of the history of our planet.




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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