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Why proclaiming end of ISIS would be a flagrant error

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Over the last few weeks, ISIS has suffered a series of defeats and setbacks in Syria and Iraq. The new offensive launched last Sunday by Iraqi forces on Mosul recorded early successes and should lead to the fall of the last urban bastion held by the terrorist organization in the country.

In Syria, governmental forces recovered, last week, the control of Palmyra which they had failed to protect against the ISIS last December. As for Raqqa, the Arab and Kurdish alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces also moved within a few kilometers of the city… Day after day, the ISIS records new losses on the ground.

Yet, proclaiming the near end of the ISIS would be a flagrant error. In the Levant, it will take months to reclaim the remaining territories under its control and several years at best to prevent its return. Moreover the organization remains active in several other regions. Despite losses on the battlefield, terrorist attacks ordered by the organization will continue to strike civilian populations around the world.

A number of attacks as well as dismantled plots have already been recorded this month, sometimes in regions where the fundamentalist threat has only recently spread. In European countries already stricken by the ISIS terror, several new attacks have been narrowly avoided. Early March, gas canisters were found in the back of a truck in Brussels. In Germany the police nearly avoided a plot of suicide bombers in malls in Essen.

In France, the police arrested two teenagers who prepared an attack on the Eiffel tower on the day of their wedding. This grisly nuptial ceremony plot from two immature outcasts, recently converted online to Salafism from their remote French villages, demonstrate that the ISIS ideology can pervert anyone.

Other countries did not avoid bloodsheds however. In Kabul a military hospital was under siege last week for six hours leaving more than 30 dead, mostly patients and doctors. Damascus was stricken by twin bombings which killed dozens of civilians. Pakistan still grieves the February wave of terrorist attacks and the explosion of a bomb among crowds at the shrine to Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

Spreading tentacles

The novelty is that terrorist ideology inspired by the ISIS now spreads its tentacles to new regions. In China, the fundamentalist group strives on the resentment of Muslim communities from the Xinjiang region who are regularly victim of repression from the Beijing government. On February 27, the ISIS released a propaganda video of Uighur fighters – including children – in a training camp, calling for terrorist actions against Chinese forces.

This propaganda aims at increasing the ISIS’s reach in new regions for recruitment purposes. ISIS also wants to compete against already well established terrorist groups who have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, such as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the only well-structured Uighur jihadist organization who organized a car bomb attack on the Chinese Embassy in Kirghizstan last year. The TIP and other ISIS-inspired terrorist organizations are currently engaged in the Syrian conflict. But if Raqqa falls, their return to Central Asia could mean a recrudescence of attacks and a violent outbidding between rival terrorist organizations fighting over supremacy.

The likely increase of terrorist attacks in the near future is facilitated by the shortsighted blind repression against minorities. These Al Qaeda and ISIS vassals feed on the persecutions from undemocratic or contested regimes. Only by addressing the causes of these feelings of ostracism and injustice can the war against terror be effective. A military answer is only a Band-Aid that at best hides deeply rooted scars and frustration. It can cover up the wounds and temporarily protect but has no positive impact on the healing process and needed collaboration, quite the opposite.

The Africa problem

The problem is identical in Africa where terrorist organization from the Sahel – AQIM, Ansar Eddine and Al Morabitoun – recently united their deadly forces. The French intervention was successful in protecting Bamako but regional economic development and institutions are needed to provide a lasting shield to terror. If the developing military collaboration within the G5 Sahel or the creation of the Military joint Task Force against Boko Haram were blatantly needed, they cannot be the only answer and need to support a political strategy of social inclusion and a support to local liberalization.

As such the modern reforms promoted by the Emir of Kano in Nigeria should be applauded and supported. The second highest Muslim authority in the country proposed the instauration of a progressive family code. The repudiation of wives and their children who end up struggling in poverty represents a boon for drug traffickers and terrorist organization recruiters. By accelerating a progressive inclusion of Islam into modern societies, policymakers will make greater progress against terrorism than repression alone. Similarly the demonization of refugees by extreme right movements around Europe and Donald Trump are gifts for ISIS propaganda machines.

The victory against terrorism will not be achieved through only military strikes and walls but with modern institution building and a reduction of the discrimination against Muslim minorities in Western countries or the abuse against minorities in undemocratic regimes. The Chinese authorities who answered the ISIS propaganda video by a large military display and martial tone will worsen the feeling of rejection from the Uighurs instead of integrating them to secure peace.

The coalition forces – eager to leave the Levant after a potential fall of Raqqa and Mosul – will only plant seeds of future attacks if they are not replaced by regional development programs. Only this will address the roots of what makes the strength of ISIS: a capacity to abuse naïve minds from alienated or abused minorities. If military answers and victories on the ground are important, a more holistic answer to the spread of the terrorist ideology is needed for a sustainable victory.

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