Confronting the Coming Terrorist Diaspora

Islamic State has held Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, for more than two years. The IS forces now face an imminent assault by the Iraqi military, bolstered by American advisors. Presumably the government troops will, after much death and destruction, retake the city. The news media are already predicting this as the inevitable outcome, followed - also inevitably - by sectarian political struggle about the future of the city and its oil-rich neighborhood. Assuming Mosul is taken, what kind of victory will it be? It is dangerously unwise to assume that if IS loses Mosul it will be "defeated" in the sense of being unable to continue to wreak havoc. IS fighters number in the many thousands. They have been trained in battlefield skills such as bomb-making and small-unit combat, but also in their ranks are those skilled at mounting terrorist attacks and communicating the angry recruiting gospel that has proved so successful during the past few years. By the time IS loses Mosul, it will have dispatched hard-core fighters in sufficient numbers to inflict great damage in the cities of Europe and elsewhere. This is the new terrorist diaspora. It comprises not the so-called "lone wolves" inspired by IS but not trained by them, and who often lack the skills to carry out their plots. (An example was the recent New York bomber who, fortunately, was so inept that his homemade devices did little harm.) Rather, this invasive species knows what it is doing: how to remain invisible within the local population while preparing tactics and tools for attacks, and then launching devastating assaults such as those in Paris in November 2015. Also, far-flung IS affiliates in Arab countries and Africa are likely to benefit from the expertise of other Iraq-Syria veterans who will be sent to train and otherwise strengthen these outposts of the IS network. At the same time, Al Qaeda will continue to build its strength as an Islamic State rival but with similarly destructive goals. It is important to recognize the extent of terrorism's evolution: the airplane hijackings of the 1980s were followed by the Al Qaeda bombings in the late 1990s and the 9/11attacks, and then the rise of Islamic State (spawned by Al Qaeda in Iraq). Islamic State took a significant step forward in terms of scope and sophistication of operations by seizing and governing large amounts of territory. Until the United States and other major powers decided to fight back, Islamic State was running a profitable enterprise, making money from oil production, banking, selling looted antiquities, and more. It established schools, hospitals, and other institutions essential in making its "caliphate" a going concern. It is a system built on evil, but it has enabled terrorists to achieve an unprecedented sustained geopolitical presence. So, what to do? In Iraq and Syria as many IS fighters as possible must be killed or captured, while sparing as many civilians as possible. Simultaneously, work must continue in breaking up the IS financial system and undermining its communications efforts. Progress in these matters has been made, and it must be sustained while efforts to deal with the terrorist diaspora accelerate. This latter task is primarily a police function, but most police forces have neither the training nor the resources to do the job properly. Although many governments' finances are being squeezed because of the flow of refugees, counterterrorism spending can be made smarter, with less emphasis on hardware and more on intelligence-gathering. Cutting off terrorist recruiting also requires continuous, innovative measures that redirect disaffected young people toward alternatives to violence. This adds up to a dispiriting picture that is hard to grasp partly because much news coverage of the impending battle for Mosul is simplistically optimistic. This is a bad time for shortsighted journalism and shortsighted policy. Even while the battle for Mosul proceeds, the terrorist diaspora should be confronted before it gains an even stronger foothold.