Panel discussions at the Munich Security Conference unanimously agreed that the terror group "Islamic State" remains a threat, even though it may have lost its "territory."
It has been just 3 1/2 years since the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the founding of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) at the mosque of the freshly captured city of Mosul in Iraq.
Now, after a long and bloody military campaign, the group has been wholly driven out of the country. And in neighboring Syria, only isolated pockets of IS fighters remain in the former IS stronghold of Raqqa. At its zenith, some 40,000 people took up arms for IS. Now 3,000 of them are hiding in the desert – or are seeking new areas of operation.
Although the terror group has been thwarted in its efforts to create a sovereign state, it nevertheless lives on. It still has its propaganda division — albeit greatly weakened. It also lives on in the hearts of its blind adherents and as the dream of a Salafist "utopia" for which thousands were willing to die. More than 5,000 people traveled to the "caliphate" from Western Europe alone.
Above all, "jihad" as such lives on. And the demise of IS could encourage other terror groups such as al-Qaida to launch new attacks, as Dan Coats told participants at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday. As the US director of national intelligence, Coats has a good overview of the threat posed by terrorism. The "Global Threat Assessment" that the US intelligence community released on Tuesday emphasized that the largest terror threats still emanate from "violent Sunni extremists," above all from Islamic State and al-Qaida.
Networked security – also when it comes to fighting terrorism
One thing participants at the Munich Security Conference unanimously agreed upon is that the fight against jihadism is far from over. Many spoke of the stamina that would still be required to achieve ultimate victory. The primary importance of exchanging information among intelligence services was also stressed.
Germany's federal interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, emphasized the importance of international intelligence services' cooperation in tracking down German jihadists who have fought for IS in Iraq and Syria: "Especially with America, but also with other agencies in the region that often give us tips. Those agencies are key to helping us protect German citizens," he told DW.
Nevertheless, during the panel discussion on "Post-Caliphate Jihad,"he spoke of the many technical and legal hurdles impeding data exchange within the European Union itself. EU security commissioner Julian King assured the audience that the EU was dealing with such impediments effectively. He pointed out that the exchange of information among national anti-terror agencies had grown by 40 percent since 2015.
It was conspicuous that Thomas de Maiziere, much like Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen before him, spoke in support of the concept of "networked security" – albeit, without calling it by name. De Maiziere did not limit himself to addressing the importance of police and intelligence cooperation; he also spoke extensively about prevention and the necessity of denying terrorism any kind of platform.
Foreign IS militants looking for new fields of action
This issue was also addressed in a separate panel discussion called "Making the Sahel Safe." A number of African leaders, the president of the World Bank and the secretary-general of the UN Climate Secretariat spoke frankly about the connections between development, climate change and terrorism. Lack of opportunity, poor governance and a lack of education, they said, all provide fertile ground for terrorism.
Moussa Faki, the chairman of the African Union (AU), illustrated the threat posed by a lack of education with an anecdote about a woman living near Lake Chad. She decided to become a suicide bomber because she was told she would be able to choose her own husband when she got to paradise.
Tunisia's foreign minister explained that many Tunisians join terror groups for financial reasons. A disproportionate number of Tunisians traveled to the caliphate because IS offered them good pay, he said.
The thought that many foreign IS fighters – but also fleeing locals – might look for new areas within which to operate, including Nigeria, was a point of concern for Mohammed Babagana Monguno. The major general, who is the Nigerian president's national security adviser, believes that large numbers of jihadists fleeing Syria and Iraq could swell the ranks of Boko Haram. Over the last few years, IS has established branches in no less that nine countries – Nigeria being one of them.
The chief of Pakistan's army, Qamar Javed Bajwa, bemoaned the fact that IS adherents have also begun gathering in neighboring Afghanistan, bringing the number of terror groups operating there to more than 20. Bajwa also appeared to be wholly fed up with criticism that his country is not doing enough in the fight against terrorism, especially criticism from the US.
Not only did he point to the high number of security forces members killed in the fight, he also gave a short history lesson. In it, he reminded listeners that the scourge of Islamic terror was a monster created by the United States, which recruited young men some 40 years ago in order to drive Russia out of Afghanistan.
After they completed their task and Russia withdrew from the country, the West simply left the young men to their own devices. General Bajwa went on to emphasize that all that had been won in Afghanistan with the expulsion of the Taliban had been wasted by prematurely pulling troops out of the country to aid in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.