The military defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was perhaps the happiest global event of last year, certainly compared to the shock of Brexit, America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and North Korea’s now habitual dismissal of the international consensus against the development of its nuclear and missile programmes. Even compared to China’s inauguration of a trans-regional economic architecture in the form of its Belt and Road Initiative, whose success will be known only in the future, the disappearance of ISIS from the political map of the Middle East was a real victory for the world. That is because the known global order could not have survived if ISIS had prevailed.
In 2014, that organisation announced its terrifying arrival on the world stage, not by carrying out the usual attacks on existing states that terrorists ritually do, but by capturing, holding and ruling a substantial stretch of territory straddling the two strife-torn states of Iraq and Syria. From that insurgent base, ISIS declared the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate and pronounced Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the caliph to whom Muslims everywhere were apparently obliged to give allegiance. Thousands did, many of them flocking to the base, sometimes with their families, to live in and die for the caliphate. ISIS’ headquarters also became the nerve centre for attacks on Asian and Western nations, guided if not coordinated by its sophisticated propaganda on the Internet. For a while, it looked as if ISIS could actually be a state in the making.
Although it took three years to call ISIS’ bluff, last year provided reason for hope that attempts to refashion the world order, by resorting to militant identity politics, are not bound to succeed. A clash of civilisations can be prevented only if those who control the political and economic power centres of those civilisations are determined to not fight. The problem with ISIS was not its arcane ideology or its abhorrent militarism: It was that thousands of people, spread across a diverse world, responded to its siren call. What is there to say that the malevolent attractiveness of ISIS will not be reincarnated in another terrorist organisation, which will take off from ISIS as it itself did from Al-Qaeda?
Meanwhile, South-east Asia must join other regions in preparing for the return of defeated ISIS fighters planning the next war, one that is local and not global this time. The prolonged siege of Marawi in the Philippines last year provided a foretaste of what could await this region if it lets down its strategic guard. Asean countries owe it to their people to place the afterlife of ISIS high on their security agenda. That terror group’s command of territory was bad enough, but it formed a single enemy at least. Now its dispersed fighters can and will take chameleon forms.