The Islamic State is losing its grip in its self-proclaimed caliphate, which, at its zenith included sizeable portions of Iraq and Syria. Credit for this turn goes to the U.S.-supported campaign to re-take regions of the nascent state (most recently Fallujah in Iraq) and return them to lawful government control. But as the grotesque terrorist attacks of the last week (in Istanbul, Bangladesh and Baghdad) confirm, gains in one aspect of the ongoing war against ISIS are offset by losses in another.
As its ability to govern and to establish a military defense of its territory has weakened, it has turned into a terrorism-spawning entity. And the terrorist attacks of the last week may well represent the kind of horror it will create throughout the Middle East and beyond. But before everyone in the United States (and the rest of the world for that matter) succumbs to the fear these attacks (and the threat of them) are intended to provoke, let’s put things in perspective.
Even if the rate of the kinds of terrorist acts we have seen escalate to as many as one a day, the likelihood of any single individual becoming a victim of one will be less than the likelihood that anyone in the United States will die in a motor vehicle accident. So, if you’re going to fear terrorism and hole up somewhere like a hermit or start to avoid travel because of the “increased risk,” just realize that the same kind of defensive living would keep you off of the nation’s roadways as well.
Perspective is critical, in no small part because ISIS is seeking to invoke the kind of collective fear that causes free societies to tighten up on those freedoms. Perspective won’t make the wanton death and destruction that these attacks cause any less horrible, but it will keep us all from acting irrationally and looking for either quick-fix solutions (e.g., “nuking them,” as if that could ever be accomplished without completely destroying civilization) or dramatic policy initiatives (like banning all Muslims or putting them all in concentration camps, a sure way to make the country into a fascist state).
The reality is that we are in a new normal. We are facing the likelihood that terrorist attacks that hit soft targets, such as those that were hit last week, will become far more commonplace (which is not the same as saying that they will ever become acceptable). They will be generated from one of five different initiators.
Some will be initiated by ISIS central, that is, from the caliphate itself (or what ends up being left of it). These can be contained only when the caliphate is destroyed and the remnants of it are emasculated much as al Qaeda was at the point that Osama bin Laden was left holed up in a compound in Pakistan. Yes, there will still be a command structure of sorts at that point, but it will far less effective at ordering terrorist attacks (and at having them carried out).
In the meantime, we can expect that the ISIS brain-trust (such as it is) will continue to plan and initiate attacks on soft targets that claim the lives of hundreds of innocent people. And, as several commentators have suggested, those attacks are likely to increase to offset the battlefield losses ISIS will continue to suffer.
Other attacks will be directed by regional cells that are ISIS affiliated. Such cells are developing in greater numbers even as the caliphate weakens. It is a natural progression for the movement. Much the same pattern developed (and still exists) for al Qaeda. These cells do not have constant communication with ISIS central, and they often will become completely autonomous (while still holding to the same overall strategy). Central ISIS probably grew out of such an al Qaeda cell (al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in Mesopotamia were its names at various points). Regional ISIS cells will ultimately become more dangerous and more potent than central ISIS. The regional cells will have more of a guerrilla presence than ISIS central; thus they will act more furtively and be harder to apprehend and destroy.
A third source of ongoing terrorist attacks will be ISIS inspired. In all likelihood, we have already seen some of these. The San Bernardino attack last year may have been one. So might last week’s Bangladesh attack. These will be very difficult to prevent, since they will not be identifiable through normal intelligence methods. The best way to deter them will be by discrediting ISIS and the ideology it exalts: a perverse and radical form of Islam that is represented by the Taliban in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and the Wahhabi beliefs and practices that are dominant in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region.
The fourth source of terrorist attacks will be the lone-wolf attacks that are best represented by the recent Orlando nightclub attack. These can be the most dangerous because they are almost immune from deception. They can be deterred by community vigilance, but most lone wolves don’t readily broadcast their terrorist plans. They may speak to intimates of their terrorist thoughts, maybe even of their plans, but many of those they speak to won’t think they are serious or, as was the case with the wife of the Orlando killer, will try to dissuade the action rather than report the plans to law enforcement personnel. The lone wolf actor can be inhibited by tighter controls on the acquisition of weaponry, but we all know what we’re dealing with on that score: NRA resistance, which equates with legislative cowardice.
The last of the sources of future terrorist attacks will be the copy cats. These are disturbed individuals who are angry at the world and use the model of the more sophisticated attacks to act on their anger. These actors can best be contained through enhanced mental health awareness and treatment and, again, by restricted access to weaponry.
These five sources of terrorism constitute the new normal. And they will all be with us for the foreseeable future.