To an analytical and logical mind the ultimate aim of the Islamic State (IS) reads like a medieval fantasy. Its ideologues believe that soldiers of Islam will take on and destroy the ‘armies of Rome’ at a decisive battle near Dabiq, a small town near Syria’s Aleppo.
After the battle at Dabiq, IS believes, soldiers of Islam will extend their reign over rest of the Earth, in the process defeating Dajjal, an anti-Messiah, with the help of Jesus, who will miraculously appear one day to fight alongside a handful of soldiers of Allah.
In an age dominated by air strikes, drones and other forms of warfare, dreams of a decisive man-to-man combat led by messengers of God and forces of evil sound implausible. Also, since Rome declined several centuries ago, nobody knows who the ultimate adversary of the soldiers of Islam at the prophesied battle of Dabiq would be.
At the moment, the Islamic State is fighting a coalition of governments of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Russia, France and England, and several rebel groups. Its enemies, who transcend religions and sects — Christians, Shias, Sunnis, Kurds — and geographies, are raining aerial bombs and missiles on IS hideouts and strongholds. By no indication does the promised tryst at Dabiq, with an army marching under one flag, look likely.
Yet, the attack in Dhaka shows that more and more educated youth are getting drawn to Islamic State and its radical ideology that seems steeped in irrational goals. Its arc is spreading on both sides of Al-Raqqah, the Caliphate’s capital in Syria, and its footprint is becoming visible daily on new battlegrounds.
What could be driving its expansion? It is apparent that Islamic State is now operating on two distinct levels. One, as a geographical entity that controls and governs a large area between Syria and Iraq through its Caliphate. And two, as an ideology that is finding off-shore recruits either because of its sustained efforts or through self-radicalisation. In some cases, hardened terrorists and criminals — such as the Abdeslam Brothers involved in the Paris attacks — extend their loyalties to the Caliphate on their own, possibly to grant their acts some sort of ideological legitimacy and ideological cover and swell IS ranks.
Seen in this context, India is as much a soft target for IS propaganda as any other country, with a significant population of Muslims that can be brainwashed, is. The Islamic State may never send its recruiters to India, but it may still find willing recruits because of its social media outreach or just because some vulnerable youngsters get radicalised on their own.
Dealing with a terror module that operates on the ground is less difficult, as India’s experience with Indian Mujahideen and the insurgency in Punjab has shown. But how does one identify and stop someone sitting in a dark corner from becoming a terrorist or carrying out a lone wolf attack, such as the one in Orlando, in the US or the shootout at Sydney’s Lindt Café in 2014? This would be the biggest challenge for Indian security agencies.
And it is going to be a long battle.
The end of the Caliphate announced by IS is imminent. Its ouster from the areas it controls in Iraq-Syria is just a matter of time. After the fall of Fallujah earlier this year, Al-Raqqah could be targeted within a year if the ceasefire in Syria doesn’t get violated and Iraqi coalition forces do not disintegrate. According to estimates, the Islamic State has already lost nearly half of the area it controlled in Iraq, and a third of its initial gains in Syria. Its supply lines have been choked, income from the oil business has fallen and the number of fighters in its ranks has come down to 20,000-25,000 from the peak of 35,000-40,000. Hundreds of IS recruiters are deserting it every day, either because they get disillusioned or because the Caliphate doesn’t have enough to pay its ranks.
Yet, the battle isn’t over. As the Caliphate prepares for the eventual fall of Raqqah, it has started exporting terror to distant lands, out of frustration, to retain its relevance, giving out calls for strikes that may not be planned or coordinated by it, but that which could be carried out on their own by its sympathisers.
Once Islamic State gets ousted from its current seat of power, its jihadists will spread across different countries, where they will remain lifelong security threats. Divested of the burden of defending a territory, they would be free to plan sporadic attacks across the globe.
The recent terror strike in Dhaka suggests the nearing end of the Caliphate. Soldiers of Islam may not get to fight armies of Rome or Dajjal sometime soon. But they may soon be free to wage guerilla wars across the world.
India needs to be extremely cautious of the unidentified, self-radicalised and desperate enemy.