After ISIS: What is the Future of Terrorism?

After ISIS: What is the Future of Terrorism?
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By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem* |

This essay will briefly present the more likely expected scenarios in the Middle East, and will focus on two issues.

First, before discussing the future of terrorism, we must agree on the reasons that led to the rise of extremism, and the motives of terrorism in the Arab and Islamic world and the world as a whole.

As you know, there are many hypotheses and approaches regarding the causes of the rise of extremism and the motives of terrorism. Some of these are attributed to religious reasons which accuse Islam of calling for violence, especially through the concepts of jihad, the “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice”, atonement, and dealing with infidels and apostates.

The other problem is the Salafist ideology, especially of the radical Wahhabi school, with its emphasis on the apparent nature of the Prophet’s Hadith, the rejection of the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith, and the rejection of reason and diligence in the new issues.

Many scholars bear the responsibility of extremism in political Islam; these are especially Sayyed Qutb and Abu Ala Mawdudi, and the integration of this Takfiri thought with the Salafist doctrine, which has produced Salafi Jihadism.

Other scholars attribute the causes of extremism and terrorism to external factors. Such factors are as a reaction to Western colonialism, the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, etc.; or as a reaction to the political and social tyranny and oppression of the Arab and Islamic regimes; the killing, imprisonment, torture, persecution of dissidents; or the policies of these regimes that led to poverty, unemployment, poor development, corruption, and dependence on colonialism.

There are researchers — among them the French researcher Olivier Roy — who consider the Islamization of extremism has taken place as a result of modernism and globalization, thus believe there is a generation of rebellion, and what al-Qaeda and ISIS are doing is a rebellion against the generation of fathers and grandfathers — like the Cultural Revolution in China led by Mao Zedong. Others point out that the extremist insurgency has been inspired by the phenomenon of suicide bombings as initiated, for example, by the Tamils.

Roy believes that a systematic association with death is one of the approaches to understanding current extremism. The nihilistic dimension is central here, and violence is not a mean but an end; it is violence without a future. Instead of adopting a vertical approach starting from the Koran to reach the ISIS, through Ibn Taymiyyah, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyed Qutb, and Ussama bin Laden, and assuming that there is a constant “Islamic violence” appearing regularly, Roy prefers to resort to an approach that tries to understand the violence of contemporary Islamism in parallel with other forms of violence and extremism (such as generation rebellion, radical rupture with society, and the aesthetics of death, etc.). Suicide terrorism, al-Qaeda, and ISIS phenomena are recent in the history of the Muslim world, and cannot be explained by the rise of fundamentalism. As Roy says, “Terrorism does not come from the extremism of Islam, but from the Islamization of extremism.”

The French writer acknowledges the existence of Islamic fundamentalism that has existed for 40 years; but this not enough to produce violence. This approach was criticized by many of his colleagues, including the French researcher Francois Bourga, who has stated that Roy did not notice the political reasons for the rebellion: the colonial legacy, Western military interventions against the people of the Middle East, and the social marginalization of migrants and their children. Roy was also accused by French researcher Gilles Kipple of ignoring the relationship between terrorist violence and religious extremism of Islam, manifested in Salafism.

However, Roy says he does not ignore any of these dimensions, but these are not enough to explain the phenomena he studies, because we do not find any causal link from the empirical data he has. The researcher rejects the question of “religious extremism” because the phrase “extremism” in religion is bad as it follows that we determine what a moderate state of religion is. However, there are no moderate religions. Are Calvin and Luther moderates? Certainly, for example, in the theological concept, Calvinism is “extremist”.

Roy’s hypothesis is that violent extremism is not the result of religious extremism, and he quotes methods and models which he calls the Islamization of extremism. Religious fundamentalism, of course, poses important social problems; because it rejects values based on individual centrality and freedom in all areas. But, this fundamentalism does not necessarily lead to political violence.

Critics of Francois Bourga argue that extremists are motivated by the suffering of former colonialists, victims of racism and discrimination, US bombings, etc., and that the insurgency is first and foremost the rebellion of the victims. But Roy believes that the link between extremists and victims is more imaginary than realistic, and those who carry out bombings in Europe are not the ones who suffer in the Gaza Strip, nor the Libyans, nor the Afghans; and they are not necessarily the poorest or the least integrated. The French scholar points out that 25 percent of those converted to Islam in the ranks of “jihadists” that the link between extremists and “their people” is also imaginary. Only a few militants belong to this virtual proletariat, and are ready to die for it. The rebels suffer from the suffering of others. They are not the victims of injustice, nor the Israeli occupation, nor the invasion, nor even the American bombings in Afghanistan or Iraq; but they have witnessed this suffering and been affected by it.

There is no doubt that the conclusions of the Olivier Roy cannot be generalized to include all “jihadists,” especially in the Arab and Muslim countries. Their motivation is different from the motives of their Western counterparts. The political, economic, social and religious factors, as well as the media and sectarian incitement have all played a role in nurturing this extremism and its savagery, in which the Arab and Muslim “jihadists” are victims of this extremist ideology as well as this political recruitment and sectarian incitement.

The other issue will be discussed is the future of terrorism after a defeat and a rebound in Iraq and Syria.

First, I believe that the rise of IS or ISIS (The Islamic State)- despite its reliance on a Sunni popular incubator in Iraq and then in Syria- feeds on political and sectarian injustice that the Sunni were complaining about from the central government in Baghdad, the consequences of the US invasion, and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime that led thousands of former military and security officers and soldiers to engage in the leadership and membership of ISIS.

In addition to the adoption by leaders and members of ISIS of the Salafi Wahhabi jihadist ideology, and the exploitation of the chaos of the Arab revolutions, the group would not have been successful without regional support in terms of funds and weapons as well as through the recruitment of foreign fighters from Arabs and Muslims all around the world.

It must be acknowledged that there has been a US-Turkish-Arab regional recruitment for a defiant confrontation with Iran and its allies in Iraq and Syria.

Whoever doubts this can ask the Toyota company where the convoys of Toyota vehicles came from in the invasion of Mosul and the Sunni provinces of Iraq, where the arming and funding came from, and how the Gulf and Arab media mostly used the fall of Mosul towards a Sunni revolt against the sectarian Shiite government of Baghdad and Iran.

Today, after the ISIS defeat in Iraq and Syria, the US-led international coalition against ISIS is not completing its mission in the final elimination of the group, but leaves it in the face of the Syrian army and its allies, as well as in Iraq.

In order to eliminate terrorist groups, we should find out the reasons that led to their birth and the rise of extremism, thus find solutions to remove all the motives that led to terrorism, sectarian conflict, political tyranny, and the socio-economic injustice as well as political and economic deprivation through the reform of regimes. There should be a provision of employment opportunities for young people, the reform of educational curricula (especially religious education and the formation of Muslim imams or clerics with a modern and tolerant mind set), a draining of the sources of financing terrorism from governments and individuals, and a stopping of the media and political support for the Takfiri terrorist ideology and its justification. And the most important is the presence of an international and regional consensus to solve the crises of the region, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict and the cause of Palestine, in an equitable manner, thus to end the Syrian, Libyan and Yemeni wars.  

The future of the region beyond ISIS

It is difficult to foresee the future of the MENA region. It is a complex and complicated area because of its religious, ethnic and cultural diversity on one hand, and its political and cultural history which is full of conflicts, wars and vicissitudes, on the other hand. It is also the cradle of different civilizations and religions. Thus, its geo-strategic location at the heart of the world and at its crossroads as well as its oil, gas, and mineral resources that make it a strategic and coveted goal that tempts the big powers to control the region, or at least part of it.

The talk about the post-IS includes a summary end of the Salafi Jihadist terrorist organization that established its alleged Caliphate, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and its branches and cells in most Arab and Muslim countries ranging from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Nigeria, the African Sahel, and some East Asian countries as well as in Europe.

The terrorist groups keep thousands of fighters in some areas of western Iraq in Anbar, and dormant cells in Iraqi cities in the west and north of Iraq, and in eastern Syria in the desert region bordering Iraq. They carry out various attacks and assassinations in Syria and Iraq, and especially clash with the Syrian army in the Badia, the south, and the countryside of Deir Al-Zour, as well as the continuous fight with the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” supported by the American-led coalition in rural Raqqa and Deir al-Zour provinces.

But, the good news is that the terrorist organization no longer has a state, nor has control over the cities in both Syria and Iraq after its defeat by the Iraqi army and the “popular mobilization”, and after the liberation of all the Iraqi cities and main towns, and the liberation of Syrian cities previously controlled by the ISIS, in addition to the liberation of the Lebanese-Syrian border highlands by the Hezbollah as well as the Syrian and Lebanese armies.

In Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, the strength of the organization has decreased after the control of the anti-IS forces over most of the cities and areas in these countries which it had controlled over the past years. However, it has not ended completely. It is carrying out sporadic terrorist attacks in Egypt and Libya, especially against the Egyptian army in the Sinai.

The Syrian army has made new progress in pursuing the remnants of the organization in the depth of Badia, and has tightened its control over the south and the crossing points with Iraq.

With the defeat of the ISIS in al-Suwayda province and the elimination of it in the western countryside of Daraa, this terrorist organization no longer has an influence in southern Syria, which is gaining importance because of its proximity to the border with the Syrian Golan occupied by Israel, and with Jordan.

But fighters of the ISIS are still present in the Syrian Desert as the organization still holds pockets in it, especially in the desert of Deir Al-Zour, which is geographically in the desert of Anbar, where ISIS keeps thousands of its members, as long as it has leadership.

Some experts estimate that ISIS now controls only 2 percent of Iraq and 1 percent of Syria. But the organization has prepared itself for the day after the fall of the “Caliphate”, the loss of the state and its territory, and the death of thousands of fighters and many of its leaders. Therefore, many cadres and fighters of ISIS have fled to their homes or to other countries in North Africa, the coast of Africa and, perhaps, to some areas of South Asia.

The main objective of the organization was to establish a state in its physical meaning rather than a cross-border organization, and also to adopt its slogan of survival and expansion, which enabled it to control 90,800 square kilometers of land in Syria and Iraq. Its loss of land means that the organization has lost the most important component of its existence, the state, the land, as well as the decline of its material resources.

Consequently, the concept of the Islamic state is over. But this does not necessarily mean that the phenomenon of ISIS will end. Indeed, some experts and analysts believe that the group appears ready for the moment they will lose state.

Despite the formation of an international coalition consisting of about 50 countries, it is not possible to eliminate ISIS and its sisters, such as the “Nusra Front”(Hayat Tahrir Al-sham) and other jihadist groups by using only military methods. Terrorist activity in a place does not preclude their appearance elsewhere. Therefore, there is a need to confront the ideology and the propaganda of terrorism, especially because the ISIS depends heavily on the media and propaganda on social media.

Moderate Islamist movements have become more demanding than ever before. They are fighting an intellectual and cultural struggle against terrorist and tyrannical organizations so as to prevent advocates of bloody thought from kidnapping Islam and presenting it to the world as a religion of extremism, hatred, and terrorism. There is a need to address the terrorist ideology of ISIS on intellectual and scientific bases by opening the door to reformers and moderate Islamists so that they can dismantle this thought and uncover its flaws and keep people away from it, based on the rule that “radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution.”

But some Arab and Western scholars and thinkers reject this and see that political Islam leads to the emergence of radical movements, but the intellectual reference from which these Islamists, though one.

I believe the most appropriate ways to confront ISIS and al-Qaeda and their sisters are to raise religious cultural awareness in Muslim societies, to re-organize religious schools by preventing them from teaching the Wahabbi thought of “takfir”, and to promote concepts of citizenship, secularism, freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

*Head of the Centre For Asian and Chinese studies and the Editor-in-Chief of Islam News.

**The paper has been presented at IDSA conference in New Delhi in January 2018.


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