By Talmiz Ahmed
On Oct. 17, elements of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) paraded through Raqqa’s Paradise Square, declaring the end of Daesh’s control of its “capital” in Syria. This followed the capture of Mosul, Daesh’s capital in Iraq, by Iraqi forces in June. While there are still pockets of resistance in Raqqa and parts of Iraq, the so-called “caliphate” has ceased to exist, just over three years after it was proclaimed.
At its peak two years ago, Daesh controlled territory the size of Britain and a population of 9 million, similar to that of Jordan. It had an armed force of over 100,000, income of several million dollars annually from oil sales and ransom, and a functioning government. Besides its core cadres from Iraq and Syria, it had attracted 40,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries.
Daesh controlled Raqqa for three years, gaining notoriety for its grisly beheadings displayed on social media, and for its harsh rule. Fearing the spread of this menace, the US worked assiduously to put together a global coalition of more than 70 countries, and train and mobilize local armed forces in Iraq and Syria, under Operation Inherent Resolve.
The US rejuvenated the Iraqi Army, which was supported by American and Iraqi special forces and by Iran-backed militias. In Syria, the US opted to develop a composite army, the SDF, comprised largely of Kurdish militants with some Arab elements.
These forces have decimated the structures of the “caliphate,” and killed or dispersed most of its fighters. Raqqa was subjected to massive aerial bombardment that broke Daesh’s ranks, but also destroyed large parts of the city.
Brett McGurk, the US diplomat heading anti-Daesh operations in Iraq and Syria, said in July that the group’s capacity to regenerate as a military force had ended. But the continuing threat of extremist violence remains very real. Since the victory parade in Raqqa, hundreds of mines, explosives and suicide vests have been discovered, suggesting that the remaining extremists are well-equipped to inflict considerable damage on soft targets. The most likely targets will be countries experiencing civil conflict and a breakdown in state authority, such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, parts of Nigeria and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It is noteworthy that in Syria and Iraq, where Daesh has experienced significant setbacks, it is still able to carry out lethal bombings in Damascus and Baghdad. Civil conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya have destroyed the infrastructure of governance and civic life, leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced and destitute.
Several thousand residents of Raqqa are eking out a miserable existence in inadequately funded and poorly organized makeshift camps. While the US and its allies are focused on war, they have little interest in reconstruction and nation-building projects, so “liberated” towns are becoming recruiting spaces for new jihadists. Besides weak central authority in Arab states experiencing conflict, regional sectarian and ethnic divisions will ensure that extremist groups continue to attract youths propelled by a sense of grievance and victimhood.
For instance, in the ongoing fight against Daesh remnants in Iraq, a leading role is being played by sections of the Iran-backed militias, some of them using prominent Shiite symbols and slogans. This is bound to encourage some Sunni youths in the country to join extremist groups.
The most dangerous aspect of extremist violence is the role of lone-wolf actors who attack soft targets in various parts of the world, particularly Europe. Their earlier activities do not indicate any direct association with radical groups; they seem to be indoctrinated via social media. Though several lone-wolf attacks have taken place in the West, no clear profile of the perpetrators has emerged that would enable security experts to pre-empt their attacks. Two years ago, former CIA chief Leon Panetta was quoted as saying: “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war… one that will extend beyond Islamic State (Daesh) to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.” This seems to be a very likely prospect.
(The author Talmiz Ahmad,is a former Indian diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.)