Potent Underground Terror Networks Menace World in 2018

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
180102-SEA-threat-forecast-620.jpg Isnilon Hapilon, identified as the leader of the Islamic State faction who overtook Marawi in May, is seen in this Philippine military video of a militants’ meeting at an undisclosed location.
Philippines Military via AP

With a radical Islamist jihadist ideology, sleeper cells, lone wolves and skillful exploitation of modern technology, the terrorist threat in 2018 will remain challenging despite the Islamic State’s (IS) defeats in Iraq and Syria last year.

Jihadist movements, principally IS and al-Qaeda, have localized to exploit indigenous grievances, recruit aspiring militants and fight for local and global causes. Overall, both groups have become underground terror networks. This will allow them to sustain themselves longer and perpetrate more violent attacks.

The major risk to Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the West will come from Muslim extremist groups with radicalized segments of migrants perpetrating attacks in North America, Europe and Australia. Notwithstanding the operational and military setbacks that IS and al-Qaeda have suffered over the years, their affiliates will keep mounting attacks against military, diplomatic, political and economic targets.

Despite security measures, threat groups will seek to hit aviation, maritime and land transportation targets. In addition, self-radicalized and directed attacks will focus on populated locations for large-scale impact, with suicide attacks as the preferred tactic. The favored modus operandi will be low-end terrorism relying on vehicle-ramming and stabbings, as witnessed throughout 2017.

Southeast Asia

IS suffered its most significant Southeast Asian loss in Marawi, the Philippines, where it mounted a takeover of the city in May. More than 950 local and foreign fighters, including the designated IS East Asia leader, Isnilon Hapilon, and several top leaders were killed.

Following the government’s recapture of Marawi in October, IS Philippines has been headed by Ismael Abdulmalik (also known as Abu Turaipe), the leader of a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

In another setback, the militant directing terror attacks in Indonesia, Bahrun Naim, apparently was killed in Syria while another Indonesian IS ideologue, Aman Abdurrahman, is in prison.

Despite being locked up, Abdurrahman has been able to provide leadership to his followers and aspiring IS members, as his writings continue to resonate among the jihadist subculture in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, Malaysian IS leader Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi was killed in Syria. His associate, Dr. Mahmud bin Ahmed, who played a central role in uniting the diverse Moro groups, met the same fate during the Marawi siege.

Despite the loss of leaders, the threat from lone-wolf and self-radicalized individuals is present and could lead to attacks in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.


In 2018, three trends are likely to define the global terrorism landscape.

First, Islamic State is transforming itself from a caliphate-building entity to a global terrorist movement. To compensate for battlefield and territorial losses, the group is reinventing itself and seeking to expand globally in cyber and physical space.

Despite defeats in Iraq and Syria, IS has been successful in directing or inspiring attacks throughout 2017, as seen in the December church attack in Pakistan that killed nine people and the October truck attack in New York City that killed eight.

Second, Islamic State is decentralizing by shifting its center of gravity from Iraq and Syria to its wilayats (provinces) and divisions in different countries, including the East Asia Division (mainly in the Philippines), Libya (Barqa, Fezzan and Tripoli), Egypt (Sinai), Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan/Pakistan (Khorasan) and the Russian Caucasus (Qawqaz).

Foreign terrorist fighters will use these hubs as bases to conduct attacks.

In some wilayats, especially in Syria and Afghanistan/Pakistan, IS will face stiff competition from al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups.

Third, al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria will capitalize on the vacuum left by IS and exploit the fragile and unstable situation in post-IS Syria. Al-Qaeda in Syria (AQS) has created a coalition – Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and an army referred to as Jaysh al-Sham. HTS is headed by the former AQS commander, Abu Mohammed Al-Julani, and has at least 20,000 fighters.

Following IS’s fall in Syria, HTS and its constituents are likely to present a similar threat within the country.

Global Jihad

The world has witnessed the rise of three generations of global terrorist movements identified here as Global Jihad 1.0 through 3.0.

Global Jihad 1.0 emerged after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks in the United States that captured the imagination of militant groups in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Global Jihad 2.0 emerged after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate and announced the formation of IS on June 29, 2014.

Global Jihad 3.0 represents the global expansion of IS outside Iraq and Syria. IS relies on its wilayats as its operational bases in the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus and Asia.

Along with its affiliates, IS controls territorial space in varying degrees in countries with active conflict zones and maintains a presence in cyber space. The group’s strength also lies in affiliated and linked groups, networks, cells and dedicated jihadists who are willing to fight and die for IS.

While its footprint has shrunk in Iraq and Syria, to assert its presence in Muslim majority and minority countries, IS is exploiting encrypted communication platforms and using its fighters returning to their homes to make inroads into Muslim communities. In 2018, Afghanistan, Yemen and parts of Africa likely will emerge as IS strongholds.

Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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