In the six months since the seemingly irrepressible ISIL avalanche overran Mosul after stagnating in Syria, the Iraq ISIL territorial expansion has gone about as far as it can. The Shi’a militia with Iranian assistance and perhaps a miniscule assistance from the pinprick US air campaign has halted the ISIL advance. The Iraqi army is not prepared to take on ISIL and will not for years. Indeed the majority Shi’a population of Iraq does not seem enthused about paying the price to regain the Sunni /ISIL -held territory in Iraq. The minority Alawi nucleus of Syrian Government forces are unable to dislodge the ISIL from Syria. Kurds will defend their homeland but are not prepared, nor willing, to attack the Sunni Arab ISIL for the benefit of the Shi’a regime in Baghdad. The bottom line is that the ISIL will become more entrenched in the territory they now occupy, but to feed the aspirations and pretentions of their leadership they will not be content with the status quo.
So the Paris attack should be seen as a harbinger of the next phase of the world-wide Islamist political ideological strategy. Having expanded as far as they can in Syria and Iraq, the ISIL and other Islamist organizations, especially the various branches of the al Qaeda franchise, will seek other soft areas in which to expand in order to keep their movement alive. Like all totalitarian movements, they atrophy and wither unless there is continual expansion. Like sharks in the ocean they must keep moving to breathe.
To what extent the ISIL and al Qaeda are competitors or allies are not really known, and lumping all the Islamist movements together as one entity is a mistake. The ISIL is a Sunni Arab movement with deep Ba’athist/ Saddamist roots. The al Qaeda movement, once mostly an Arab led organization, has morphed into a worldwide organization with a decentralized command, if any at all. It has worldwide aspirations. In regards to the ISI, young Muslim men, especially those from Western countries, brought to the Syrian and Iraqi desert by the chimera of an Islamist caliphate, adventure, loot and possibly the availability of infidel women, can hardly be expected to maintain their enthusiasm in the waste lands of the desert. But the reality is that we do not really understand the motivation that draws the majority of the recruits from the Western world. The current vogue in think tanks of using intellectual counter arguments based on Qu’ranic and other Islamic texts are really quite worthless, Most of the Jihadi recruits cannot even read the classical Arabic of the Qu’ran, and even fewer can understand it. Exhortations decrying Jihadi propaganda by Western think tanks or Muslim clerics assumed to be in the pocket of the Western or Arab regimes carry no weight with likely Jihadi recruits.
The ISIL are essentially hemmed in. Jordan has a large Palestinian population which has shown some affinity for Islamist ideology, but the Jordanian army is too tough for the ISIL Saudi centers of population are too far away and the Saudis are rich enough to hire the mercenaries to combat the ISIL. Turkey and Iran are nonstarters for ISIL expansion, leaving only Lebanon. But the largely Shi’a population along the borders of Syria and Lebanon make further ISIL expansion there limited to perhaps some small areas in the north near Tripoli. Therefore the ISIL is confined to the mostly desert which they now occupy. Will they seek to expand into the softer world as has Al Qaeda? Probably.
Terrorist organizations have the problems that any franchise and business organization has……. Money! In the recent past many terrorist organizations such as the PLO were heavily state funded, and various organizations within the PLO were funded by States. For example the al Sai’qa was funded by Syria and the Arab Liberation Organization funded by Iraq, as was the Abu Nidal Organization. Libya contributed heavily as did Saudi Arabia to the PLO.
Today Qatar has funded various Jihadist groups in Syria, but most of the funding for the various Islamist groups are privately funded by wealthy Sunni Arabs or illegal below the radar financial transactions by Arab organizations and banks. In other words they are paid by private and semi-private Arab or Muslim organizations, and like a professional football team, they are expected to win or provide evidence that the money is not being wasted.
For that reason rivalry between the ISIL and Al Qaeda is likely to be more deadly to the West than cooperation because they are both vying for money from the same sources. The possibility of greater expansion or notable exploits are drying up in the Middle East, and both organizations need to expand their operations. This is equally important to continue to draw recruits from the Western world’s urban Muslim ghettos. Clashes against Shi’a militias in Anbar province has very little glory involved, compared to the attacks like to the one in Paris which as all the world’s media tuned in. AS Eric Hofer (The True Believer) observed in analyzing the far left terrorists of the sixties and seventies, the world is a public stage in which the deeds of the terrorists will be memorialized. Ideology and religious fanaticism has its limits as the Iranians found out in their use of human wave attacks against the Iraqi positions in the Iran-Iraq war. Even despots have limits to the amount of human carnage they may inflict on their people. In the Iranian case discontent from mothers losing their sons forced Khomenei to negotiate a truce with the Saddam. For the recruited Jihadist, leaving the relative comforts of the Western world or even the Arab urban centers to live and die in a harsh desert environment is unlikely to hold its charm for a prolonged period, particularly if the caliphate seems increasingly a distant and an unachievable objective.
In summary the Western world should expect more and deadlier attacks in the future