Below is an extract from ASPI’s newly released publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL.
There’s no doubt that the rapid rise of ISIL in Syria and especially Iraq caught the international community by surprise. The group had been monitored by governments in the region and the West and was considered to be a risk, but deemed not to be of strategic concern. However, the speed of its military success, which no Islamist extremist group had previously matched, meant that the international community was playing catch-up in its understanding of the evolving threat the group presented and what the appropriate responses might be.
Around 15,000 people from at least 80 nations have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups. Of those, it’s estimated that around 80% have joined ISIL, in which foreign fighters—including at least 2,000 Westerners—make up half the fighting ranks. Most of the foreign fighters come from Arab nations, such as Tunisia (3,000), Saudi Arabia (2,500), Jordan (2,089) and Morocco (1,500), but smaller contingents come from nations as far away as France (412), Belgium (296), Indonesia (60) and Australia (150). Those are the official numbers of those who are known about, but the real figures may well be much higher.
The conflict in Syria and Iraq has drawn in foreign fighters at a faster rate than any past Middle Eastern conflict, including the Afghan War of the 1980s or recent US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a report released by the UN in October, the speed at which people from outside Syria and Iraq are swarming into the territory is unprecedented: ‘numbers since 2010 are now many times the size of cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010—and are growing.’ Following ISIL’s declaration in June that it had established its Islamic Caliphate, recruitment of foreign fighters was said to have surged.
Rather than having a strategy of directly targeting Western nations, as al-Qaeda does, ISIL has wanted to build a caliphate as the basis for strengthening its organisation, ideology and finances. Despite that apparently inward focus, there’s no doubt that beyond its ‘state building’ phase ISIL presents a threat to Western nations, as al-Baghdadi’s globalist ambitions have never been hidden. With the onset of coalition airstrikes, ISIL has begun to sharpen its focus on Western nations, and attacks in Canada and Belgium and foiled plots in Australia, France and the UK (among other countries) demonstrate the growing internationalism of the group. Its chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has increasingly called for attacks on the West, including to defeat both Washington and Rome.
However, ISIL hasn’t sought to carry out large-scale attacks in Western nations, such as those launched by al-Qaeda’s networked terrorist cells in the past. The former US Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, stated that ISIL has no cells in the US, and that it ‘is not al Qaeda pre-9/11’. However, degrading its capability now, rather than waiting for it to grow and have the capacity to develop such networks, is a prudent approach.
ISIL has pushed for its supporters to carry out attacks using low-level weaponry in their own nations, filming those attacks to promote ISIL and draw more supporters to its cause. Networked cell-structured groups are more likely to be detected by counter-terrorism forces due to their need to communicate, potentially hold physical meetings, and move among a large number of people who might report suspicious behaviour. But an individual working alone is more difficult to detect and can be more unpredictable in their actions, creating considerable difficulties for government counterterrorism agencies, especially when those agencies aren’t well developed.
It’s likely that ISIL will continue to push for international attacks by its followers, especially as it comes under increasing pressure from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but the direct threat that the group poses to those nations closer to its centre of gravity is far greater. Nations such as Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Morocco and Indonesia, significant numbers of whose citizens have been drawn to ISIL’s ranks as fighters, must all be supported to cope with the spread of the ideology and the repercussions of fighters returning home.
Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. He is a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image courtesy of US Department of Defense.