Five geopolitical predictions in the wake of ISIL’s terror spree

Conflict-averse Europe is going to become increasingly hawkish on security.
Conflict-averse Europe is going to become increasingly hawkish on security.
Image: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Here is what we know: Over a span of several weeks, the Islamic State has conducted three mass casualty attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. On Oct. 31, a Russia-bound Airbus A321 with 224 passengers and crew on board was brought down by an explosive device that was placed somewhere on the aircraft, according to the Kremlin.

On Nov. 12, an ISIL suicide bomber and a explosive-laden motorcycle parked on a busy street in southern Beirut claimed the lives of 43 people, in what was Lebanon’s deadliest terrorist attack this year. A day later, Paris experienced the deadliest act of violence on French soil since World War II, when three separate teams of ISIL gunmen stormed six separate locations in the city. When the operation was over and all the assailants were killed, the lives of 129 people were tragically cut short, turning what would have otherwise been a typical Friday night in one of the world’s most iconic cities into a war zone.

The three separate attacks over less than three weeks clearly caught counter-terrorism and law-enforcement officials off-guard. The operations, particularly the rampage in Paris, have forced terrorism analysts both inside and outside government to reassess their previous assumptions about the Islamic State. Perhaps, for instance, ISIL is more willing and able to plan and execute terrorist attacks in the west than first thought?

The events in Egypt, Lebanon, and France claimed so many lives and created so much fear that it is inevitable that the entire international community will need to respond. When such a horrific act of terrorism occurs, governments around the world must assure their citizens that the intelligence community and the military are doing everything possible to prevent further attacks in the future. Business as usual in a post-Paris world would be akin to malpractice.

Here are the actions that governments affected are already taking, and further measures we should all expect in the weeks ahead.

1. In Egypt, another crackdown

Over the past four years, the state of Egypt has undergone a period of transition that would spin the head of the most devoted revolutionary. The more representative and democratic governance that tens of millions of Egyptians were hoping for in Jan. 2011 has instead been overshadowed by a return to rule dominated by the military. Journalists and human rights workers have been locked up (Hossam Bahgat is the latest casualty), tens of thousands of protesters have been jailed, any hint of domestic opposition to the Sisi government has been hit with a combination of incarceration and heavy fines, and vague anti-terrorism laws have been passed that could technically sweep up ordinary protesters.

As restrictive as these measures are, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi could strengthen existing laws already on the books now that investigators have concluded the Islamic State brought down the Russian plane.

Indeed, it’s almost a certainty that the Egyptian government will respond to such a scenario with more sticks: Sisi has shown a habit of issuing decrees when his government believes the measures are necessary to clamp down on anti-government sentiment in the street or silence political opponents like members of the Muslim Brotherhood who continue to paint president Sisi as an illegitimate ruler. A highly publicized ISIL attack on Egyptian soil is an embarrassment for a man who prizes stability of the state and the military’s control over it as the backbone of the regime. It’s an embarrassment that Sisi will use as an opportunity to further cement his authority.

2. The UK will jump back into the fight

There are currently nine countries participating in kinetic strikes against ISIL targets inside Syria. To the dismay of British prime minister David Cameron and his government, the United Kingdom isn’t one of them. Although UK Tornados are hitting ISIL from the air in Iraq, British pilots are not authorized to cross into Syria for precisely the same mission: degrading and defeating the Islamic State. The restrictive rules of engagement have been denounced by defense minister Michael Fallon as “morally indefensible.”

The Conservative-led government spearheaded by prime minister Cameron, however, has received a boost to its argument now that ISIL has executed the most devastating terrorist attack in Europe since the train bombings in Madrid in 2004. The emotional appeal and necessity to do something, combined with the national security imperative of assisting a European friend in need, has provided Cameron’s government with the political weight to advance the argument for greater British military intervention against ISIL in Syria.

Two weeks ago, Cameron concluded that he would need to explain his position in far more detailed terms before submitting a motion to the House of Commons asking for authorization to expand Britain’s operation against ISIL. What the attacks in Paris have managed to do, however, is turn the tables in Cameron’s favor. Whereas more aggressive UK involvement in Syria was once considered unnecessary and potentially counterproductive, that same position is now perceived to be a critical course of action. Over the next month, it is almost guaranteed that prime minister Cameron will ask the House of Commons for authorization to join the counter-ISIL coalition in Syria.

3. France will grow hawkish on security

After the attacks last January on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, French president François Hollande succeeded in pushing through parliament one of the most extensive surveillance packages in the history of the modern republic.

That law—which provides the prime minister with the power to authorize a national security investigation on an individual suspected of involvement in terrorism and compels phone or internet companies to send the government metadata information if requested—was passed by overwhelming margins in the parliament and deemed constitutional by the Constitutional Council.

If those strict surveillance measures could be passed after an attack that killed less than 20 people, president Hollande’s case to the parliament that more power needs to be given to the French security services is even more compelling after the deadliest act of terrorism in its history. Indeed, this is exactly what president Hollande is calling for: an expansion of a state of emergency, a constitutional amendment that would allow the French government to strip dual nationals suspected of terrorism, and another amendment that would give the authorities the freedom to deport foreign residents labeled dangers to national security in a more expeditious manner.

Hollande’s declaration that the Paris attacks last weekend are an “act of war” is an apt description of how he intends to fight the Islamic State in a post-Nov. 13 world—more security powers at home and more military force abroad.


The US will refocus on Sinai

Before it was called “Sinai Province,” the jihadist group operating in Egypt’s eastern desert peninsula referred to itself as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—an organization aligned with al-Qaeda that was composed of a mix of Palestinians, foreign fighters, and native Bedouins from the area. Whereas the international community generally took a more laissez-faire approach to militancy in Egypt, the Egyptian government under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has perceived Salafi-Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai as a critical national security threat to the entire state.

For good reason. Hundreds of soldiers and police officers have been killed in the Sinai over the past two years, from synchronized suicide bombings against army patrols to more conventional-style attacks on army checkpoints and police buildings. The examples are nearly endless: an Oct. 2014 suicide bombing that killed 30 soldiers; a Jan. 2015 attack on police and military buildings in the provincial capital that killed 26; a coordinated wave of small arms and mortar fire on six military checkpoints that took the lives of 64 soldiers; and a July 2015 assault on an Egyptian navy frigate that was hit by an anti-ship missile.

If all of this violence was not enough to get the west to pay attention, the downing of a commercial airliner—only the second attack on a large scale civilian aircraft since the 9/11 attacks—will provide U.S. officials with more reason to focus on the Sinai as an active front in the broader war against the Islamic State. This will mean more intelligence-surveillance-reconnaisance (ISR) flights from US drones, more coordination between the US, Israeli, and Egyptian intelligence services, and the prospect of the occasional raid or air strike on militant positions in the desert province.

5. Russia will finally start taking ISIL seriously

According to US intelligence reports, approximately 85 to 90% of Russian air strikes in Syria are directed at insurgent groups that aren’t affiliated with the Islamic State. The majority of Russian attacks are concentrated in the northwest and western section of Syria where ISIL has very little presence, despite assertions to the contrary from president Vladimir Putin and his government.

Evidence that ISIL was responsible for the deaths of 224 Russian citizens will undoubtedly alter those numbers. Less than 24 hours after Moscow concluded that ISIL was the perpetrator of the airline bombing, president Putin ordered his air force to increase sorties in Raqqa and pummel whatever ISIL targets are in the area.

On Nov. 17, 25 long-range Russian bombers took off from an airbase in Russia and proceeded to strike fourteen ISIL targets in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces. In addition to those air strikes, the Russian navy launched sea-to-ground cruise missiles during the same operation. President Putin has also ordered Russian naval commanders traveling in the Caspian Sea to cooperate with the French as if they were normal allies—a strong indication that the Russians may be willing to spend more of their time and military resources on the Islamic State in Syria’s north and east rather than on non-ISIL insurgent groups in the west fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

If indeed this turns out to be the case, it would not be unprecedented if the Obama administration decided to increase their own military-to-military communication with the Russians and authorize more frequent contact between US and Russian officials about the prospects of synching what have to date been two separate air campaigns in the same exact airspace.

The Paris attacks last weekend have again concentrated the world’s attention on the depravity that ISIL represents and the very real threat that the group poses to those in the west and in the Arab world who are seeking to defeat it. A tragedy of such horrific proportions has the power to shock governments around the world into action, compelling policymakers to table proposals or consider partnerships that would be brushed off in more normal circumstances. If 9/11 was that moment for the United States, Nov. 13, 2015 will be that moment for France and its European neighbors.