ISIS has largely been removed from its territorial claims in both Iraq and Syria, but that does not mean that it has been completely eradicated.
There are many groups throughout the Muslim world who have previously pledged allegiance to the “caliphate” and which continue to operate under that label. And there are, of course, many ISIS fighters who have escaped the Levant before the collapse of the organisation there and have moved to other theatres.
In both cases, the losses the group has suffered in the Levant will not have dampened their radicalism, or their violence. Quite the opposite: in order to remain relevant in the global militancy pecking order, those affiliated with the group will feel compelled to continue and, if possible, escalate the levels of brutality typical of their brand.
And there remain plenty of areas in and around the Muslim world where that brand of political violence will flourish.
Libya remains a broken country with a viable ISIS enclave thriving in between the territory of the two belligerent sides of that civil war, the Philippines’s Muslim areas have seen plenty of recruits in a political climate which normalises large scale, arbitrary violence for political purposes.
And of course, as always, the volatile cocktail of tribalism, sectarianism and Islamism that is Pakistan is also proving fertile ground.
For all the Islamist poison in Pakistan’s political discourse it is worth noting that political violence has been on the decline in the past three years after the military crackdown on radical groupsDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Attack on Christians
In recent news, ISIS in Pakistan has claimed responsibility for attacks on Christians. Of course the targeting of religious minorities such as Pakistan’s Christians and Shiite Muslims has been par for the course for many of the country’s other extremist Sunni groups.
But even in the Pakistani swamp of radicalism and violence where the Taliban and many others like them fester freely, there is genuine concern over the rising influence of ISIS. ISIS affiliates in the country could number anywhere between hundreds and a few thousands recruits, and they are beginning to stamp their influence in the wider ecosystem of Islamism.
The concern is not necessarily that these relatively small numbers of committed terrorists will become the dominant group in the country, but rather that their presence and example will compel other more established groups in the country such as the Pakistani Taliban, groups with established infrastructure and clearly defined political aims and means, to ratchet up their activities as well as the levels of violence in order to continue to dominate the discourse.
This could set off something like an “arms race” between the established groups as each vies for a greater share of the attention economy in Pakistan’s poisonous political environment, in the hope of radicalizing and recruiting new fighters to their respective causes. And it is indeed worth noting that some of the more extreme elements of the Taliban are already on record welcoming these developments.
For all the Islamist poison in Pakistan’s political discourse it is worth noting that political violence has been on the decline in the past three years after the military crackdown on radical groups in the wake of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre.
Even as political leaders continue to cynically exploit ethnic and sectarian tensions for personal gain, there has been an broader understanding that ostentatious displays of violence will attract the attention of country’s notorious military and intelligence agencies, along with their typically uncompromising manner of crackdowns.
This has kept the levels of violence in check, and the volatile tussle for power between the various extremist groups had to be fought by other means – for example by disrupting the country’s infrastructure during organised political protests.
The increasing presence of ISIS, who have no regard for such subtleties, threatens to upend this recently established, delicate power play between the established players and plunge the country once again into an orgy of violence.
And it is not yet obvious whether the military and the intelligence agencies are either willing or able to snuff this trend out before it becomes entrenched.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.