The so-called Islamic State has lost its last scrap of land in Syria, but the group remains active across the Middle East and North Africa and still poses a threat to the West. The West cannot afford to declare victory yet.

The origins of the so-called Islamic State can be traced to George W. Bush’s ill-judged, illegitimate and ill-conceived invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, the subsequent Sunni backlash against the newly enfranchised Shias, and the appalling civil war in Syria.

The United States and Britain wanted to overthrow Saddam and rebuild the Iraqi State. Instead they destroyed it, unleashing a sectarian civil war – Sunni against Shia against Kurd – that alienated the entire Sunni population from the Shia-dominated Baghdad government. It led the Sunni tribes in the North to greet the so-called Islamic State as liberators, only to discover too late that liberation was enforced with rape, torture and beheadings.

The so-called Islamic State movement was the product of a long-running dispute among jihadists: whether to take on the “far enemy”, the United States, as Al-Qaeda did in 2001, or the “near enemy”, that is Arab States in the region (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere). 

Related to this, was the question of how much brutality should be applied, particularly against the Shias. The so-called Islamic State’s answer to this was unremitting: maximum bloodshed and savagery. They were the “professionals in terror”.

On June 10, 2014, 6,000 Sunni fighters, hardened by years of battling against the Americans in Iraq and against the Assad regime in Syria, captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Soon their numbers were swelled by as many as 15,000 radicalised foreign fighters flocking in from London, Paris, Sydney, New York and other western cities.

By the end of 2014, IS had erased the border between Iraq and Syria and had consolidated control over about six million people in a self-proclaimed “caliphate”, the size of Great Britain. For the first time in modern history, liberal democracies, as well as authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, were facing Islamic terrorists in possession of defensible territory, heavy weapons, oil revenues and the grandiose vision of recreating the sweep of empire of medieval Islam. 

The collapse of state order in Syria and Iraq, the consolidation of a terrorist “state” that threatened all its neighbours, and the emergence of a malign objective, the “caliphate”, which drew Islamic malcontents from every corner of the planet, constituted a geostrategic convulsion. By 2014, the group had expanded into Syria, aided by an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters drawn to its medieval ideology. Meanwhile IS-trained and inspired fanatics carried out a string of terrorist attacks across the West.

It has taken a global coalition of 79 countries and international organisations five years to defeat IS at a cost of hundreds of thousands killed and millions of displaced people. Victory over the self-proclaimed caliphate has been hard-won. It is seven years since IS first emerged as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda.

Five years ago, the self-proclaimed modern day caliphate of Islamic State controlled 34,000 square miles of territory and laid claim to an area half the size of Great Britain. Today, it can claim what it likes, but controls nothing at all. 

The battle for Tripoli could lead to hundreds of IS fighters escaping jails and joining waves of migrants fleeing the Libyan capital in boats across the Mediterranean

But it is too soon to celebrate complete victory, despite President Donald Trump having declared the end of Islamic State almost 20 times since last December. (The US plans to withdraw its forces at the end of this month). 

In Iraq, where the jihadists were supposedly defeated in December 2017, IShas “already substantially evolved into a covert network” according to the UN secretary general in a recent report to the Security Council. “It is in a phase of transition, adaptation and consolidation,” he said. The same may happen in Syria.

Meanwhile IS affiliates are active in Yemen, the Sahel, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Somalia. A group calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province controls hundreds of square kilometres in Nigeria and Niger. Moreover, many of the conditions that made the Middle East such fertile ground for IS remain. 

Islamist ideologies have flourished in failed states where it has been able to tap into deep frustration of corrupt and repressive governments, sectarian discrimination, weak justice systems, population pressures and limited employment opportunities.

On Malta’s doorstep, in Libya, Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army is attacking the largely powerless UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, potentially opening up fertile opportunities for IS cells to infiltrate. The battle for Tripoli could lead to hundreds of IS fighters escaping jails and joining waves of migrants fleeing the Libyan capital in boats across the Mediterranean. 

Chaos could release scores of jihadists on Europe as well as leading it to suffer the consequences of desperate migrants seeking asylum. 

Malta’s geo-strategic position and its proximity to North Africa, within 300 kilometres of Libya and Tunisia and on the main route through the central Mediterranean, make us especially vulnerable. It would be foolhardy to think that the kind of terror attack that has happened elsewhere in Europe cannot happen here.

As pertinently for western governments is the issue of tens of thousands of foreign fighters, including thousands recruited from Europe and the United States, former Jihadis who may wish to return. Western governments will need to decide what to do about them lest victory over IS in the battlefield turns into terrorist defeat at home.

The West needs to maintain its vigilance against radical Islamist ideology. That means maintaining the fight against IS in the Middle East to ensure that it is unable to regroup. It also means finding ways to prevent IS re-emerging in other parts of the world.

It needs to think hard about how to address the underlying sources of instability in the region – of which Libya is a prime example – to try to bring an end to the chaos of state dysfunction, desperation and economic hardship that has fuelled support for IS.

Islamic State no longer has a foothold in Syria and Iraq, but Libya remains Europe’s Achilles Heel. The West should remember that IS rose amid chaos and a vacuum. When the vacuum returns, it could, too.             

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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