After the caliphate – future trends in radical Islamist terrorism

Radical Islamist terrorism is seeking a new direction following the collapse of the Isil caliphate. Activities may rapidly fall in line behind some new operator if conditions are favourable.

Illustration, dark passage and a corner of a bus.

The radical Islamist terrorist movement is currently undergoing a period of pathfinding and reorientation. As a terrorist organisation that attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters and seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, ISIL emerged as a key phenomenon in the 2010s.

Its appeal has nevertheless waned since March 2019 when the organisation lost its territory in Syria and Iraq. Supporters of the ideology and their networks have not disappeared. The threat of radical Islamist terrorism remains, though operations are seeking a new direction.

These operations may be swiftly channelled into a new grouping when conditions are right. The appeal of ISIL linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq demonstrated this.

The emergence of new conflicts or spectacular terrorist attacks may rapidly strengthen terrorist operators. Some new or established operator, such as the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda, may emerge to fill the leadership vacuum. The radical Islamist movement is greatly influenced by international events.

Returnees from the conflict zone reinforce networks

Radical Islamist operators in Europe will no longer necessarily be affiliated to a single organisation in future. They may support radical Islamist ideology more generally, drawing support from the propaganda materials of both al-Qaeda and ISIL.

The exceptional growth of the foreign fighter phenomenon during the conflict in Syria and Iraq is one of the factors reinforcing networks in Finland and Europe. Returnees from this region are strengthening radical Islamist networks in Europe. Cross-border acquaintances and complex family relationships have emerged in ISIL territory.

A large proportion of returnees will probably continue their radical Islamist activity, even if some of them are disillusioned.

The impact on the terrorist movement of individuals returning from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq will only be seen in the future. A returnee who has not disengaged from the ideology may be reactivated even after a long time. Such reactivation may be triggered by various causes, such as events around the world or in the individual’s personal life.

Trans-generational radicalisation gives rise to concern

The foreign fighter phenomenon and the idea of a caliphate played an important role in the terrorist recruiting drives of the 2010s. Recruitment currently seeks to strengthen domestic networks. Instead of going to conflict zones, targets are urged to serve in Europe, for example in supporting activities.

There is an attempt to make radical ideology a way of life in Europe. These networks seek to enlarge the supporter base by spreading an ideology and worldview that opposes Western values in society.

Radical Islamist networks are not solely an outcome of the foreign fighter phenomenon, and domestic radicalisation also plays an essential role.

The phenomenon of trans-generational radicalisation gives cause for concern. There are families in Finland where radicalisation has already reached the third generation. Children may grow up in a radical environment from a young age.

It is important to prevent reinforcement of radical networks. In a worst case scenario, networks will also emerge in Finland, with individuals living in a radical parallel reality from which it is difficult to disengage.

Jihadis hide in the depths of the Internet

ISIL represented a breakthrough for the digital radical Islamist movement. As the most prominent operator in the early 2000s, Al-Qaeda distributed recordings of long sermons by its leaders, and was selective in recruiting new members.

ISIL made propaganda and radical Islamist activity more accessible. ISIL propaganda was made available on an entirely new scale for everyone to find on the best-known social media platforms. Even though these platforms have adopted stricter policies concerning terrorist propaganda, the sheer volume of such material makes it hard to address.

Propaganda operations are now more covert, with the more organised operators moving back to more closed forums that are harder to find and join.

These forums make agile use of various platforms from Tiktok to Jodel. Terrorist organisations may also use cryptocurrencies and other facilities in their financial operations.

ISIL is still producing propaganda in several languages, seeking to inspire supporters to violent attacks that bring greater attention to the movement.

Supporters of the ideology have risen to increasingly key positions, generating materials independently. Propaganda activities offer such supporters the opportunity to participate actively.

Radical Islamist and far-right terrorism feed off one another

One worrying international development has been the mutually supportive influence of radical Islamist and far-right terrorism. The Muslim population has been a target for right-wing extremist attacks around the world.

Since the far-right attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, there have been calls in radical Islamist propaganda to strike back against the far right. Right-wing extremist operators have cited radical Islamist attacks in their propaganda. The concern is that extremist ideologies in Europe are fuelling violence against one another.

Trends in European terrorism often reach Finland after a slight delay and in an attenuated form. International networking, security awareness and use of the digital world are common factors in terrorism, without regard to ideology.