As U.S.-led forces seized control of ISIL’s last outpost in Syria late last month, pundits were quick to caution against premature declarations of victory. The so-called “caliphate” may have been dismantled, they said, but that did not necessarily mean an end to the threat the jihadi group and its adherents posed around the world.Weeks later, suicide bombers carried out a series of attacks at churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing about 250 people and injuring hundreds more. Though investigators are still examining what links the perpetrators may have had to ISIL’s central command, there is broad consensus they were at the very least inspired by the militant group.Terrorism analysts say the attacks signal a pivoting away from ISIL’s diminished core to its periphery — and that its brand is finding new life and energy in its far-flung branches.Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, said there have been rumours of sleeper cells circulating in several countries for some time. Made up of returnees from the battlefield and individuals who have trusted relations with what’s left of the ISIL command structure, these networks are a genuine threat and will become more important and influential, he said.“I think it’s fundamentally true we will be encountering much more than lone wolf attacks in the coming years.”Asked who he meant by “we,” Amarasingam replied: “Canada and beyond.”I think it’s fundamentally true we will be encountering much more than lone wolf attacks in the coming years
ISIL first proclaimed a virtual state, or caliphate, in Syria and Iraq in 2014. It drew thousands of Western fighters from dozens of countries — including Canada — to its frontlines, lured, in part, by a heavy online propaganda machine spewing end-of-the-world messaging.Even as an international military coalition succeeded in erasing ISIL’s footprint in that region, a U.S. government report in October warned that ISIL’s global reach remained “robust” and its branches and networks continued to thrive in theatres across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.“The group has certainly been decimated in terms of territorial ownership but the ideology is … thriving,” said Phil Gurski, a former senior strategic analyst with Canada’s spy agency, CSIS.“The Islamic State affiliates, wannabees, inspired, are still around and they’re going to do what they can, whenever they can.”
Relatives cry at the graveside during the funeral of a victim of the Easter Sunday Bombings at a local cemetery on April 24, 2019 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
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A report in November by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated there were as many as 230,000 Salafi-jihadist and allied fighters around the world in 2018, about a 270 per cent increase from 2001, when the 9/11 attacks occurred. These fighters belonged to one of four broad constituencies, according to the report: ISIL, al-Qaida and its affiliates, other Salafi-jihadist and allied groups, and inspired networks and individuals.The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were one more manifestation of ISIL’s opportunism and intent to spread its terror campaign to “whatever venues are available,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, wrote in a column this week for The Cipher Brief.“The fact of the matter is that (ISIL) suffered grievous setbacks in Western Iraq and Syria. But severely damaging a terrorist group is not the same as undermining its ideology or destroying its raison d’être. Revenge and retaliation for the lost caliphate has now infused (ISIL) with new-found purpose and energy,” he wrote.Anne Speckhard, who heads the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism think tank, was even more blunt, telling Foreign Policy magazine that attacks on soft targets will be the “wave of the future.”It’s business as usual here in Canada
“I think that what our security systems have to really get on top of is that, if you have small groups … they can mobilize quickly nowadays. It’s such an interconnected world, and once they believe this poison, it’s very virulent.”What does the new phase of ISIL’s existence mean for the national security landscape in Canada? Here, Gurski is more circumspect and cautions against jumping to conclusions.“We have a tendency to think that current events dictate future events. But I see nothing to suggest this is the new normal,” he said of the Sri Lanka attacks.“It’s business as usual here in Canada.”The risk of violent extremism is much greater in the non-Western world, said Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at Royal Military College of Canada. Access to global intelligence is not as great, plus there can be problems with sharing of intelligence for political reasons, as was the case in Sri Lanka.
Civilians evacuated from ISIL’s embattled holdout of Baghouz wait at a screening area held by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on March 5, 2019.
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That doesn’t mean, however, we should be complacent, said Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.His concern surrounds the battle-hardened fighters who have returned to Canada with skill sets they didn’t have before — including how to kill and how to use weapons.“We have to be worried about those who have come back. Are they prepping the next generation of young Canadians to their cause?” he said.“Have they given up their world views? I’m not too sure.”According to CSIS, about 190 “extremist travellers” from Canada are known to have gone abroad — about 100 to the Syria-Iraq region. As for the number of returnees, CSIS would only cite the 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada, which said close to 60 had returned, though not necessarily from Syria-Iraq.CSIS spokesman John Townsend said in a statement that extremists inspired by terror groups such as ISIL and al-Qaida remain the “No. 1 national security danger to public safety in this country.”“(ISIL) has lost significant amounts of territory due to the military actions of an international coalition which includes Canada. It has now shifted away from a focus on statehood to rebuilding its capacity and influence, and conducting insurgencies in both Syria and Iraq, and CSIS assesses that (ISIL) will continue its efforts to inspire and encourage operations abroad,” he said.“The phenomenon of radicalization to violence, both offline and online, remains a great concern to Canada and its allies,” he added.So how does Canada and its allies go about addressing these ongoing threats? Leuprecht suggests that while coalition forces were able to destroy the caliphate, the best it can do is to “contain” ISIL’s affiliates and branches. Matthews says we can’t rely solely on military firepower and drone attacks. “The real battlefront,” he wrote in a recent column, “is on the ideological level.” To that end, Canada and its allies must be more aggressive in prosecuting ISIL fighters, both domestically and in the form of an international tribunal.“Only by prosecuting these extremists will the world be able to marginalize those who carry out violent acts and those who give credence to their ideas,” he wrote. “By holding the perpetrators to account and exposing what they have done, the world will send an important signal that all countries, cultures and religions stand united against these extremists.”Kamran Bokhari, director of the Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C., and lecturer on national security issues at the University of Ottawa, worries that all the emphasis being paid to ideology and radicalization may be causing intelligence analysts and law enforcement to lose sight of another key element: tradecraft.It’s not just vile ideas that spur individuals to commit atrocities, he says. There’s a whole “middle management layer” and funding stream operating behind the scenes that intelligence analysts have not yet fully comprehended.Comparing ISIL to a big corporation that has a bunch of subsidiaries and departments, Bokhari said “we haven’t mapped out the ISIL creature, this entity. … We don’t have a good map of who’s who. We don’t know how this thing operates.”In addition to developing a more sophisticated way of conceptualizing terrorism groups, we also need to gain a more nuanced understanding of the underlying social, political and economic conditions that led to the rise of ISIL.Without such an understanding, we’re destined to keep playing a game of “whack a mole,” he said.“Were dealing with a sophisticated enemy. It’s frustrating so many years after 9/11 we’re still talking as amateurs.”• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: dougquan