What Happens When ISIS Goes Underground?

A view of Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of a tunnel near Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani

Defeating the Islamic State could be the marquee foreign-policy accomplishment of the Trump administration. Doing so, however, will require more than just forcing the caliphate underground.

January-February 2018

“Lone wolf” attacks will likely continue. The trend towards “lone wolf” attacks has grown: although the absolute number of attacks remains low, the scholar Ramon Spaaij found that the number of “lone wolf” attacks since the 1970s grew by nearly 50 percent in the United States and by more than 400 percent in the other countries he surveyed. The Internet and social media explain part of this increase, as both aid the Islamic State in inspiring individuals to act in its name. The October 2017 attack in New York was lifted straight out of the Islamic State’s propaganda organ Rumiyah, which called for using vehicles to mow down pedestrians and then for the attacker to exit and continue to attack. Would-be fighters who do not travel pose a danger as well: according to one 2015 study of the terrorist plots in the United States, 28 percent of returned foreign fighters participated in a plot, but a staggering 60 percent of those who considered but did not attempt to travel became involved in a terrorist plot. As travel to Iraq and Syria loses its luster or becomes infeasible, frustrated jihadists might attack at home. As one French jihadist told the scholar Amarnath Amarasingam, “We believe that even a small attack in dar ul-kufr [the land of disbelief] is better than a big attack in Syria. As the door of hijrah [going to the Islamic State] closes, the door of jihad opens.” Over time this frustration will decline, as would-be fighters no longer have firsthand contact with friends or family who went to fight, but the short-term danger is quite real.

Although the Orlando attack suggests that “lone wolf” attacks can be bloody, most “lone wolves” are incompetent; they are unlikely to succeed compared to trained foreign fighters who return to their home countries. But “lone wolves” have a strategic impact by altering politics in the United States and Europe, thus shattering the relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities that are so vital to counterterrorism and to democracy itself. “Lone wolf” attacks increase Islamophobia in the West. After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, concerns about terrorism spiked. In the weeks following the Paris attacks in November 2015, London’s Metropolitan Police Service announced that attacks targeting Muslims had tripled. Meanwhile, in the United States, assaults against Muslims have increased to nearly 9/11-era levels.

This Islamophobia can also begin a dangerous spiral. As communities become suspect, they withdraw into themselves and become less trustful of law enforcement, which results in providing fewer tips. In contrast, if a community has good relations with the police and society, fewer grievances exist for terrorists to exploit and the community is more likely to point out malefactors in their midst. Even though he was never arrested, the attacker in Orlando came to the FBI’s attention because a local Muslim was concerned by his behavior and reported him.

Such problems risk fundamental changes in politics and undermine liberal democracy. Far-right movements are growing stronger in several European countries. In the United States, Islamophobia and fears of terrorism—despite the less-than-anticipated number of attacks on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks—have fueled the rise of anti-immigrant politics.

THE TRUMP administration continued the Obama administration’s military campaign against Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, and has loosened restrictions on military commanders and deployed additional forces to Syria—nearly doubling the number of previously deployed forces in the fight for Raqqa. Additionally, the administration has maintained the coalition of states and local actors that the previous administration cobbled together. Furthermore, the aggressive global intelligence campaign begun under President George W. Bush and continued under Obama remains robust. Taken together, such efforts have hindered Islamic State operations and steadily forced it underground.

In his first year in office, however, the president has taken several steps that may impede the struggle against jihadist terrorism. First, in his campaign rhetoric and through actions like Executive Order 13769 (the so-called “Muslim ban”), the Trump administration demonized American Muslims and damaged relations between religious communities—a traditional source of American strength, pride and values. Such actions increase the allure of the Islamic State and other groups claiming that the West is at war with Islam, while also adding credibility and legitimacy to their ideas. In addition, these actions increase the likelihood that Muslim communities will fear the police, the FBI and other government institutions, and thus be less likely to cooperate with them. This enables “lone wolves” to remain undetected and offers fodder for Islamic State virtual recruiters trying to convince Muslims that the West is the enemy.

Overseas, Trump embraced the Saudi perspective of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is an important counterterrorism partner, and relations with the Saudis became strained under Obama. Though Trump’s efforts to strengthen ties should be commended, the Saudi government continues to fund an array of preachers and institutions that promulgate an extreme version of Islam, enabling the Islamic State to recruit and otherwise gain support around the world. In addition, Saudi Arabia promotes an anti-Shia agenda that harms regional stability and fosters sectarianism, a key recruiting tool of the Islamic State.