Two distinct terror threats are emerging in the Middle East - Sunni lone wolves and well-drilled Shia militias.

Bullets. Credit: Flickr/149812394@N07By John Raine, Senior Adviser for Geopolitical Due Diligence

The Middle East has dominated the international security agenda for 50 years. Reasons for this include the region’s frequent internal and international armed conflicts, its energy security challenges, the presence of weapons of mass destruction and high levels of migration. But the most persistent and powerful factor is terrorism.

Terrorism has been a constant in the modern Middle East, but its nature has varied wildly. Terror attacks are a tool used by nationalists, sectarian movements (Shia and Sunni) and political groups, each justifying their violence in a different way. But the region’s terrorists have all operated within a system of states and aspired, ultimately, to statehood. In the decades of both Israeli and later Palestinian terrorism, activities were in pursuit of political, state-level agendas. Responses to terrorism were through state-level cooperation.

Terrorism before and after 9/11

Such responses were particularly appropriate when terrorists had state sponsors who needed to be influenced, deterred or punished. In the 1990s, terrorism dominated the Western security agenda not only because individuals were running amok in Western capitals, but because relations with several major Middle Eastern states were deeply complicated by their sponsorship of terrorism. Libya, Iraq, Iran and Syria harboured terrorists as high value political cards. Other states played an ambiguous role, accommodating terrorists while shaking the hand of the West at the same time. The region was plagued by the geopolitics of terrorism.

The nature of the threat changed after 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s agenda was not about demanding a fair share in an existing order, but opting out and creating a new one. Erstwhile state sponsors were their enemy too. This helped nations to close ranks, and for a time the global geopolitics of terrorism centred on the degree to which states tackled terrorism and its root causes, not whose side they were on. The exception was South Asia, where state use of or connivance in terrorist proxies continued to be a deep problem.

But a consensus formed that was strong and durable enough for al-Qaeda to be pushed back and, later, the caliphate of Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) brought down. Now that has been accomplished what will terrorism look like next?

Radioactive fragments and the return of state-sponsored terrorism

There are signs that Middle East terrorism is entering a dangerous bipolar phase, presenting two distinct threats – resurgent state-sponsored terrorism, and the radioactive fragments of shattered organisations. Terrorists claiming Sunni provenance are moving away from command and control towards dispersed networks and emulation. Their regulated structures, where individuals were united by a set of rules and organised in a strict formation, have been broken up.

These groups might re-form, but what they leave behind are terrorists who identify with an idea rather than an organisation. Terrorists are united less by a structure than by a meme which, courtesy of the internet, proliferates across the world, preying on the vulnerable. The remains of terror organisations are now scatted like radioactive particles in societies across the Middle East and Europe. Former members may act alone or leverage the advantage of their networks forged in the shared experience of campaign. Either way, the danger they pose is high, enduring and hard to detect.

Meanwhile, Shia-linked organisations are returning to state-sponsored, large-scale militant operations. There is debate over whether these activities constitute terrorism, but even if they do not, they could undoubtedly lead to terrorist activity in the immediate future. The Qods Force are already boasting of their ability to mobilise Shia across the Islamic world in support of the Iranian Revolution.

More worrying than the numbers involved is the quality of these cohorts. Unlike earlier sponsors of Sunni terrorism, Iran can summon from the militias operatives who are disciplined, well resourced and, importantly, battle hardened. A sobering further difference between the old and the new state sponsor is that Iran can enable or flank operatives with one of the world's most formidable offensive cyber capabilities.  

The global system in which state sponsors operate has also changed. Individual nation states, and the global order that rests on them, are under stress. The US is now a post-interventionist power stepping back from its traditional leadership and balancing role. Other states, particularly Russia and Turkey, are asserting themselves with a strong but controversial counter-terrorist agenda, and influential non-state forces control territory and resources.

The international response

In this disordered environment, the international community's biggest challenge may well be finding a response that effectively counters the two distinct phenomena of state sponsorship and dispersed networks. Describing and treating Shia militias as terrorists may work; it may not. The same can be said of the most atomised of the lone Sunni actors. Terrorists or solitary mass-murderers? This problem could make it difficult to agree targets, priorities and legal frameworks.

But however they are described, neither phenomenon can be neglected. The anti-Islamic State coalition – or whatever it becomes – must treat the radioactive particles of the shattered Caliphate meticulously, while dealing firmly with potentially the most capable and menacing proxy–patron combination the Middle East has ever seen. The war to defeat the Caliphate on the battlefield is over. Rapid re-tooling and re-prioritisation will be needed if the fruits of that victory, rightly celebrated in Baghdad, are not to quickly sour as new and even more destabilising terrorism emerges.

The re-tooling must include the agreement amongst regional and international partners of compatible goals and authorities, an agile and decisive cyber and online capability, and a robust diplomatic framework for confronting state-sponsors. None of these has so far proved easy to deliver but these objectives are worth effort and sacrifice comparable to that entailed in the military campaigns.

The vital domains may well be social media and the online world but geography, like terrorism, is cruelly persistent. Baghdad will play a crucial role mopping up the remains of Islamic State and containing Tehran's fighting proxies. Like Hercules, long-suffering Iraq may have another mighty labour to perform. 

Back to content list


IISS Voices

The IISS Voices blog features timely comment and analysis on international affairs and security from IISS experts and guest writers.

Latest Voices