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Counter Terrorism Today – 28/01/16

Three experts joined Counter Terrorism Today to discuss ISIS’s March from Syria to the Sinai: Is ISIS becoming a regional and national strategic threat, or is it an intransigent insurgency limited to Syria and Iraq?

Mr. Ehud Yaari, a prizewinning Israeli journalist and Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel Two television, talked about the growing ISIS threat on Israel’s borders. Ambassador Dr. Dimitar Mihaylov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bulgaria to the State of Israel, illuminated how ISIS is part of a wider Salafist jihadi trend in the region. The third guest was Mr. Nadav Pollak, the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation fellow at the Washington Institute who commented on shifts in the dynamics of regional jihadi movements. Mr. Pollak also talked about the role that foreign fighters from Western countries play within ISIS.

Mr. Yaari began the discussion by addressing Israeli concerns over ISIS’s growing presence on and near the Israeli border. He argued that much territorial loss suffered by ISIS in Iraq and Syria recently means that, “Israel is not a priority for the Islamic State at the moment.” When asked about ISIS’s established province in the Sinai close to Israel, he replied that the ISIS military is on the defense, not the offense in the area – ISIS in the Sinai is busy fighting off Egyptian forces, particularly air forces. Mr. Yaari sees a shrinking territory trend, and appears optimistic: “I think that during 2016, we will see an [successful] attempt to wrestle control from ISIS over strategic territories like Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.”

Will ISIS’s “territorial overreach” result in “territorial contraction”? Ambassador Dr. Dimitar Mihaylov was not as optimistic as Mr. Yaari regarding a short-term defeat of ISIS. He argued that if ISIS loses territorial integrity and is forced into the shadows where other jihadi groups operate, it could make the group even more dangerous and unpredictable. Mr. Nadav Pollak gave his opinion over the phone from Washington DC. He sees a mutation of ISIS’s power rather than a decline or growth: “A few days ago, ISIS conquered posts in South Lebanon. In the same time frame it lost some territories in South Syria.” Mr. Pollak argued that while ISIS may lose grasp of its quasi-state in Iraq and Syria at this moment, it also gains traction in Libya and the Sinai.

Mr. Pollak introduced the question of foreign fighters in ISIS’s ranks: who are they; where do they come from; why do they come; how does ISIS attract them; and why is ISIS’s call for a caliphate such a big draw? As much as it is a security dilemma, it is also a sociological phenomenon. We see first, second, and third-generation Muslim immigrants in Western countries turn towards ISIS: do they embody two conflicting ideologies and ways of life? Ambassador Dr. Mihaylov noted a social problem seen in many Western cities where immigrants from Muslim states live in separate neighborhoods. “They live on the margins and not in harmony with Western society. The biggest illusion in multicultural Europe is that European soft power could attract [Islamists] and put them in the melting pot.”

Mr. Pollak answered, arguing that American authorities are doing a much better job recognizing and stopping foreign fighters. Since 2014, 71 US citizens were charged with ISIS related activity in the US (56 in 2015 alone). The average age was 26, contradicting the common view that ISIS attracts only “disgruntled youth” as foreign fighters. Rather, Mr. Pollak said that at this age in their lives, many men look for a purpose and a framework in life. ISIS’s propaganda provides a perfect answer: as foreign fighters, they can join a close community; find a wife; start a family; and have a work “with purpose”. Mr. Pollak admitted that for reasons of distance and logistics, it is easier for American authorities to stop foreign fighters. But he maintained also that American authorities do a better job than their European counterparts in recognizing ISIS’s propaganda instruments, and tackling this use of soft power.

Ambassador Dr. Mihaylov used his concluding remarks to bring awareness to the growing chasm between Sunni and Shia Islam, which he believes will affect ISIS and regional power dynamics. He argued that the chasm between these two branches of Islam has not been this wide since the 13th Century defeat of the Fatimid Caliphate. Ambassador Dr. Mihaylov therefore warns against seeing ISIS as operating in a territorial or ideological vacuum. He views ISIS as one strand of a radical jihadist Salafist movement that is intertwined with other such strands.

Perhaps it is fitting to end this recap with an earlier moment in the discussion: to explain present-day Syria and Iraq, Ambassador Dr. Mihaylov quoted Thomas Hobbs: “Bellum omnium contra omnes” – “The war of all against all.”

Audio version:

– Image of Mr. Nadav Pollak from the Washington Institute:
– Image of Mr. Ehud Yaari from the Washington Institute: