December 23rd, 2015
By Julie Lenarz -Executive Director
Isil’s grip on Syria and Iraq will not last forever. Western campaigns will roll back its territory while maintaining pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will retain influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north and sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet as long as there is a theological justification, Islamist violence will continue. Ending it would require a wide-ranging Islamic reformation, detaching religion from politics and de-literalising interpretations of the Qu’ran. It is unlikely that any such radical transformation will take place in the short term, or even the medium term.
In the meantime the “old orders” put in place by former colonial powers – such as the Sykes-Picot agreement which helped establish Syria’s modern borders – will continue to dissolve under the pressure of political turmoil. And so the problem of ungoverned spaces and failed states will grow, even as the existing nation states fall apart.
These ungoverned spaces will provide increasingly fertile ground for terrorists to recruit, propagandise, fund-raise, plan, and carry out attacks. With globalised communications and ever-cheaper travel, more and more people will be radicalised online and lured to these places to swell the ranks of terrorist groups. Then they will come home, hardened and trained. These hardcore terrorists will certainly employ cyber-warfare and may use chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons on major civilian populations and critical infrastructure.
But even if such ambitious attacks don’t occur, or fail, we will see a rising tide of lower-tech murders using guns, knives, cars, and whatever else is to hand. These will be carried out by amateurs, often self-radicalised, without any formal affiliations to terrorist groups. And in the end, that may be what scares people the most, because it is so hard to stop: all you need is a grievance and a smartphone.
In response, governments will try to deploy more sophisticated surveillance as well as screening and travel restrictions. Their challenge will be ensuring civil liberties aren’t eroded – either by too much security, or too little.