The world breathed a sigh of relief when the last stronghold of the Islamic State (IS) group in Baghouz in eastern Syria fell in March, ending a nightmare that had lasted since June 2014 when it established its foothold in the region and proclaimed its global “caliphate”.
Due to international complacency and a series of defeats of the Iraqi and Syrian militaries, IS managed to declare its state, which was bound to be temporary despite some believing it could prevail in a chaos-stricken region.
The group managed in record time to expand in territory that almost matched the size of the United Kingdom, but the seeds of its demise and its lack of viability fortunately doomed this caliphate of delusion.
Even so, the destruction, massacres and ethnic cleansing that IS committed in both countries and others in the region during its expansion will go down in history as the worst atrocities the century has seen, and it will take years if not decades for these countries to revive from the damage caused by IS.
The end of the group in Syria and Iraq and the fall of its last stronghold also do not mean that the IS threat to global security is over. The group’s twisted aims, based on Muslim Brotherhood literature by founder Hassan Al-Banna and adopted by IS and other Islamists, will not wither away that easily.
The dreaming of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, of a global caliphate may be temporarily over, but the group is scrambling to find another chaos-stricken region in the world in which to resurrect it.
The most volatile area where the terrorist group has settled and where it has allies willing to fight for its twisted cause is the West African Sahel region.
The existence of IS-affiliated Boko Haram and its allies among the Fulani militias in Northern Nigeria, Mali, Chad and Cameroon represents a chance for the terrorist group to re-emerge.
The Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) is growing steadily as global efforts against IS have been focused on the Middle East and on thwarting the group’s attempts to move to European countries.
IS has also benefited from the lawlessness in Libya and managed to coordinate with Boko Haram to establish a presence in the region.
On 21 April, the world woke up to another shocking terrorist attack by IS in the unexpected venue of Sri Lanka. The attack targeted three churches and two hotels in the capital Colombo, killing over 250 civilians and injuring over 500 others.
Sadly, Sri Lanka is no stranger to violence, but the country has witnessed a decade of relative peace since the end of the civil war from 1983 to 2009.
The Muslims of Sri Lanka are a minority of nine per cent from the 21.5 million population, and they have not been in conflict with other religious groups in the country, whether Hindus or Christians.
An IS-affiliated group called the National Thawheed Jamaath claimed responsibility for the devastating attack that brought back harsh memories of the Sri Lankan civil war.
The attack reminded many that the IS threat is by no means over, and the group has not been completely destroyed. The number of similar groups in Asia and Africa willing to sacrifice thousands to claim victory over governments in the name of a supposed caliphate is numerous.
The IS-affiliated National Thawheed Jamaath is linked to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen India (JMI), the Indian faction of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, for example.
There are also other Asia-based terrorist groups linked to IS, including the Jaish-e-Mohamed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, along with the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf group that is unofficially known as the Islamic State in the Philippines. Similar groups exist in southern Russian republics such as Chechnya and Dagestan.
Many of these groups have remained dormant for a while and do not utilise the same propaganda methods as IS in luring recruits from around the world. Instead, they wait for the right moment to find a security breach to strike heavily and cause severe civilian casualties.
These groups cannot be taken lightly or with the complacency that the Sri Lanka government handled the IS threat after being warned of an imminent strike in the country hours before the attack took place.
It is imperative that the captured militants and families of IS fighters face justice in the international courts for participating in terrorism and crimes against humanity.
This is especially applicable to the group’s foreign fighters who are now pleading with the governments of their own countries to be allowed to return. These terrorists have destroyed thousands of families and committed massacres beyond description, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
The debate in some western capitals on the fate of the IS returnees should be settled in a manner that upholds justice for the countries and the people they have committed atrocities against.
These terrorists should be handed over to the Syrian and Iraqi authorities to face justice in the courts and to pay the price for their evil deeds.
This is the least that can be required of the Western countries that were complacent in their own security measures and in some cases looked the other way as the fighters flooded Syria and Iraq without lifting a finger to stop them.
It is crucial to remain vigilant regarding IS attempts to resurrect its power in less-secure areas of the world, especially since Al-Baghdadi is still on the run and his whereabouts are unknown.
Al-Baghdadi could be anywhere in Iraq, where he originates, or he could have moved to Libya where his allies are fighting the Libyan army. There is also a chance that he could have crossed the border into Turkey where many of the foreign fighters of IS have moved.
The Turkish regime has been proved to have conducted trade deals with IS in the past, and according to Libyan army spokesman Ahmed Al-Mesmari it helped transport IS fighters from Syria into Libya to back the Islamist-supported Tripoli government.
IS will continue to use its vile ethnic and religious cleansing methods as long as its members exist anywhere in the world, and therefore treating IS as a bygone problem that requires no more attention is the key to its re-emergence perhaps on a more fearsome scale.
Just as the Muslim Brotherhood has moved around the globe over several generations, instilling its radical beliefs into those who are vulnerable to them, IS remains a source of terrorist rhetoric in the future.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The future of Islamic State