Michael Zekulin is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary.
With the battle for Mosul now well under way, the outcome of the latest fighting in Iraq will play an important role in shaping the future of the Islamic State group – and, by extension, the threat and challenges we will face.
The game is about to change and we must start preparing for the military defeat of IS. Current threats will evolve and new threats will emerge requiring new policies and strategies.
The liberation of Mosul will set in motion a final confrontation in Raqqa, and this trajectory represents the beginning of a new phase in fighting IS, its supporters and its ideas. In this new phase, IS has no territorial protection or obligations; one of its most potent narratives, the established caliphate, is gone.
How will a militarily defeated IS respond? How will it spread its ideas, target recruits and remain relevant? Simultaneously, there will no longer be a destination for those sympathetic to its cause. Where might they focus their anger and resentment, especially if they directly link the destruction of their caliphate to the West?
They will adapt and evolve much like al-Qaeda did following the war in Afghanistan. As IS scatters, it may splinter, but its narrative will persist. We must take into account that this new IS, now decentralized and scattered, will continue to use technology to spread its message, attract followers and encourage its supporters to conduct attacks in the West. This strategy has already proven successful. It may also provide a motivation for supporters and sympathizers to finally make the decision to take action, and could lead to an increase in plots and attacks in Western states in the near term.
As IS nears defeat, we also need to prepare for another reality: the return of foreign fighters. Not all of the fighters and supporters will be killed or captured. Some may move on to the next jihadi hotspot, but many, including some Canadians, will return home.
How will Canada receive them and what will we do with them? A framework needs to be considered preparing for this reality. Will Canada pursue a criminal-justice approach, meeting these individuals with handcuffs, funnelling them directly to courts in an effort to imprison them? Or will Canada pursue a social-work approach and provide counselling and other forms of support in an effort at reintegration? There is an advantage to making this decision early and communicating it to both the public and potential returnees prior to their arrival at Canadian airports.
Each of these factors, an evolving IS and its messaging and returning foreign fighters, must be addressed early in the New Year. Not only do they represent an imminent and pressing concern, they will also be a significant part of our national security challenges in the coming years.
A failure to include these potential new realities within our security framework will once again leave us vulnerable to the challenges and threats which accompany them. The current fight for Mosul should be used as the catalyst to start these discussions because the defeat and displacement of IS has begun.
The upcoming year will be filled with new challenges and our government must recognize the potential dangers lurking around the corner and move quickly to address them.
The challenge before the Canadian government has now grown. We must also start plotting a course for the coming endgame of IS and the inevitable return of radicalized Canadians fighting in Syria and Iraq.