Late last month, ISIS was driven out of the Syrian city of Kobani, thanks to over 100 days of US-led airstrikes and the actions of Kurdish fighters. This was a significant victory for the foreign coalition and for Syria. But this could also be bad news for other parts of the country and potential targets abroad, as this Sunni extremist organization reorients its focus. What can we expect of ISIS in the coming months?
1) Expansion in Syria, Iraq and Beyond Post-Kobani, ISIS will continue to secure its existing territories - about a third of Syria (e.g. Raqqa) and Iraq (e.g. Mosul) - but will also expand into more areas of these countries (e.g. al-Baghdadi in Iraq). Expect more turmoil as the extremist group battles rebel and foreign forces, but also as locals grow more frustrated with ISIS' weak economy that offers limited basic amenities and opportunities. We can also expect ISIS-related turmoil in other countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the extremist group will try to "annex" territory as it has already announced it is doing in Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Feb. 15 beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya reinforce ISIS' expansion beyond Syria and Iraq.
2) More Targeted Attacks in Syria, Iraq and Beyond There will be even more highly publicized, targeted attacks in Syria and Iraq. This will include more public executions of gay men, educated women, teenagers (including those who watch soccer matches) and foreign hostages. And there will be seemingly outrageous claims of ISIS' new targets outside Syria and Iraq, like the Vatican, and more realistic targets like cyber attacks in the US. But we shouldn't forget that a key component of ISIS ideology is its hatred of Shias, so look for the extremist group to incite more violence against this religious sect, including in countries like Pakistan where there is a notable Shia minority and ISIS has a base.
3) Increasing Numbers of Recruits (and Defectors) Globally ISIS will continue to expand its recruitment pool worldwide to prepare for its long-term goal of forming a global Islamic caliphate. Frustrated, unemployed individuals or simply impressionable youth, from Denver to Ankara to Sydney, will still be key targets via social media. But sadly, so will children - in fact, ISIS is already encouraging women to raise their babies to be "jihadis" right from the get-go. According to its guide, this would include everything from reading children bedtime stories about jihad, to exposing them to extremist websites before they are even seven years old. At the same time, expect more stories of disillusioned ISIS recruits returning from Syria and Iraq to their home countries (e.g. India, Switzerland, France.)
4) Rise in Lone Wolf Attacks on Western Soil Lone wolf terrorist attacks, inspired by ISIS, will be more prevalent around the world (as my earlier blog predicted). Yes, the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris was claimed by al Qaeda of Yemen, which its leadership said was a plan that was "years in the making." But this was not the case for the second attack at the kosher grocery store where lone wolf terrorist and ISIS supporter Amedy Coulibaly shot four people. Recent reports also suggest the shooter at the Feb. 15 freedom of speech event and synagogue in Copenhagen was an ISIS follower.
5) Building Stronger Organizational Linkages Globally ISIS will continue to grow abroad through building linkages with other extremist groups. This may already be the case for Africa-based Boko Haram, which is adopting similar online strategies as ISIS. And of course, initially we thought ISIS and al Qaeda were competing brands. This may still be the case. But the reality is the Paris attacks did have connections to both ISIS and al Qaeda, where the shooters synchronized their plans. Look for more coordination to develop between ISIS and al Qaeda outside and inside Syria and Iraq, despite their ongoing friction in other areas (e.g. in Yemen).
6) Increasing Funding Opportunities Globally ISIS may adopt new fundraising techniques or put more emphasis on existing techniques (e.g. ransoms). Why? Some estimates suggest ISIS has made $1 million to $6 million a day off its black market oil sales, but these profits have been hampered by US-led airstrikes on oil refineries in recent months. Also look for ISIS to use bitcoin even more to hide its financial transactions.