Over the past week, Syrian government forces have recaptured the city of Aleppo and Iraqi forces have pushed deeper into Mosul. But the Middle East remains insecure, unstable and ungovernable. Those factors will enable Islamist extremists to remain even after the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate falls. Iraq and Syria need to be prepared for that, as do we in the West.
While some commentators are calling for our troops to return home once Mosul is liberated, in my ASPI Strategy paper, After Mosul: Australia’s strategy to counter the Islamic State, released today, I argue that Australia should make a long-term commitment to the Middle East because it’s in our national interest to do so.
IS won’t be defeated once Mosul is liberated, so we need to be prepared for a longer-term engagement in the Middle East.
IS draws strength from four critical enablers:
1. environmental factors that provide a safe haven
2. military capability, including conventional combat power
3. information operations that inspire, radicalise, recruit and expand a ‘virtual’ caliphate, and
4. economic power to sustain IS operations.
If we consider IS as a system, Australia need to harness all instruments of national power in a layered approach—through the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Australia—to simultaneously target all four of the critical enablers. In the past two years, the government has taken proactive steps to prevent terrorist attacks and counter violent extremism (CVE) at home, but we need to better coordinate global counterterrorism (CT) efforts to more effectively target the entire IS system.
So what should we make of Mosul and what’s next?
The Mosul offensive will be drawn out over several more months at least. Attrition rates will be high—such is the character of urban warfare. Battle casualties will need to be replaced so that Iraqi Security Forces can remain combat effective, maintain momentum and ultimately liberate the remainder of the country, noting that IS still occupies a swathe of territory extending west from Mosul to Raqqa, the group’s de-facto capital.
IS will eventually lose control of Mosul, but will aim to retain the Caliphate’s ‘heartland’ in eastern Syria. It’ll remain heavily reliant upon its four critical enablers to do so. But there’ll be a tipping point, when IS reverts back to insurgent operations to ensure its survival.
I’ve previously written that ‘the military operation to liberate Mosul could actually prove to be the least challenging task. The humanitarian and political fallout will be significant, and will have lasting ramifications.’ That remains true, and the Iraqi response requires capable security forces to not only maintain internal law and order but also protect Iraqi borders and sovereign territory. To achieve that, Iraq needs a long-term commitment from its Western allies.
In Australia, attacks by IS-inspired individuals and returning foreign fighters remain the most likely threat to national security. IS will aim to continue expanding its virtual caliphate through information operations and will attempt to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to launch a chemical, biological or radiological attack or large-scale cyber-attack against the West. IS remains a very real threat to our national security.
In response, Australia’s CT strategy needs to target as many parts of IS’s complex, interconnected and global system as possible. To that end, Australia’s strategy requires a layered and integrated approach, drawing on all instruments of national power to counter the threat. Our approach needs to be holistic, connecting air-strikes in Iraq with CT capacity-building in Southeast Asia and CVE programs at home.
I recommend the Australian government conduct a first principles review of current CT actions to inform a new, integrated CT strategy that improves efficiency, cooperation and effectiveness in countering terrorism. The strategy should include the following actions:
Deep (Middle East): Address environmental factors in the Middle East through diplomacy, ‘peace building’ and humanitarian assistance. Continue ADF operations to build partner capacity and destroy IS military power. Disrupt IS information operations and degrade its economic power.
Close (SE Asia): Prevent further IS expansion into Australia’s near region through enhanced CT capacity-building and increased intelligence sharing, as well as collaborative efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorism financing.
Rear (home): Continue monitoring returning foreign fighters, review the ADF’s role in domestic CT, audit CVE programs and develop a strategic communication plan to counter IS information operations.
If Iraq fails, its territory will continue to be occupied by Islamist extremists who not only seek to retain an Islamic caliphate but also to spread a radical Islamist ideology that promotes terrorist attacks in the West. Without security and some level of stability in Iraq, it’ll remain a breeding ground, training area and safe haven for terrorists. Australian foreign fighters will likely continue to be drawn there as a result of the IS propaganda campaign. Those foreign fighters could one day seek to return home as trained, skilled and deeply radicalised individuals with a terrorist support network behind them.
IS represents a global terrorist threat that must be defeated militarily, economically and ideologically. Australia’s CT approach can’t be linear; actions must be coordinated, integrated and synchronised in the deep, close and rear.