Nice proves Syria is not the end of the road
'Lone wolves' are on the loose and pose a bigger threat to Europe and beyond
Within hours of the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, French President François Hollande was pledging to ramp up France's role in the war on the Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Soon after, US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Moscow after having marked Bastille Day with French officials in Paris, called Syria - home to Daesh - the "incubator" of the recent horrendous attacks like the one in Nice on Thursday. He pledged a redoubled effort to defeat Daesh and end the war in Syria.
But with Daesh now advising its followers around the world to stay home and wreak havoc on the "infidels" they live among - rather than traveling to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad - is Syria still the key to ending the group's expanding global appeal?
Would crushing Daesh in Syria (and routing it from Mosul, the group's last major holding in Iraq) bring to an end the attacks that in recent months have spiked in Europe which have also struck places as far-flung as Orlando, San Bernardino, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh?
Defeating Daesh in Syria and Iraq will be critical to ending the group's global allure, experts in extremism say. But Daesh is now also a kind of cyber-caliphate as much as it is the physical one now crumbling under US-led pressure in Syria and Iraq. To that extent, the group and its sophisticated array of online magazines and Twitter feeds is likely to continue inspiring mass atrocities like the one in Nice for some time after its physical headquarters are destroyed.
"Destroying Daesh, the caliphate, and its ideology will start its defeat, but it will only be the beginning of the end," says Fawaz Gerges, an expert in extremist movements at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Moreover, Dr. Gerges warns that the next 12 months are likely to witness many more devastating attacks like the one in Nice as the "lone wolves" Daesh has inspired take up the group's mounting online admonitions to strike the caliphate's foes from where they live.
"A lot of the terrorism we're seeing has some connective tissues to it, and some of it connects back to Syria and Iraq and to a physical presence for planning some of these attacks or for disseminating a message," says Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Stein Programme on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
In recent communications issued over its various social media platforms, Daesh appears to be responding to its loss of territory and the mounting difficulties would-be foreign fighters are encountering to reach Syria and Iraq.
Western intelligence officials say the group is already sending operatives out of Syria to neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya, perhaps to try to establish or solidify new bases of operation. Gerges says that perhaps even more devastating to the group than the loss of its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, will be the fall of Mosul, since it is in the group's birthplace of Iraq.
But that loss of physical territory won't occur for 8 to 12 months, Gerges predicts, during which time he says the group will do what it can to "lash out" at what it calls the "crusaders" attacking its self-declared state.
Of course, breaking up the Daesh caliphate will be a key step in eventually ending the group's sophisticated social media presence - and thus its ability to "inspire" disparate followers and lone-wolf attackers. But undermining the group's appeal will be among the toughest challenges of the anti-Daesh campaign, others say.
Gerges sees echoes of the Orlando attack last month by the American-born son of Afghan immigrants in Thursday's Nice attack. He and others caution that we don't yet know what motivated the Nice attacker to drive a large truck into Bastille Day revelers, killing at least 84. But he says the method used - a vehicle as a ramming rod - has figured among the means of attack suggested online by Daesh for years.
Both the Orlando and Nice attackers appear to have been troubled men wrestling with identity issues and personal crises. The Orlando attacker, Omar Mateen, declared allegiance to Daesh even as he was carrying out his attack on a gay club - one he was known to have frequented. The Nice attacker was said to be enraged by a recent divorce, was not known to be particularly religious, but was said to engage in behaviours that would run counter to the strict moral code Daesh espouses.
Smith at CNAS says developing an effective counter narrative to Daesh will be difficult in part because the jihadist message is easily accessible, while countering it will involve addressing deep-seated grievances, like racism and discrimination, that societies are in no mood to address.
"It's hard to prevent a disenfranchised young individual from opening a laptop, finding these groups, and getting sucked into the narrative," she says. "It's all the more difficult because it will involve addressing long-term challenges, like integration, that are short-term political liabilities at a time of rising anti-immigration rhetoric."
Levitt at the Washington Institute says a recent trip to France demonstrated to him that the French - who are dealing with thousands of returning fighters in addition to those totally off the radar like the Nice attacker - are taking some crucial steps at home in addition to taking the fight to Daesh.
The Christian Science Monitor
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