The Danger of Metastasis

Making New York City look rural

The imminent expulsion of ISIS from its geographical strongholds in Syria and Iraq may signal not its excision but metastasis.  Michael Flynn, before his resignation, used to show “visitors a map predicting what will happen to the Islamic State after its stronghold in Mosul is captured. It shows menacing black arrows reaching west toward other, future battlefronts in Iraq, Syria and beyond.” He feared metastasis.


After Raqqa, some jihadis will head back to Europe, which thinks it can absorb them. “A programme to rehabilitate former Isis fighters and other extremists with housing, employment, education and financial support is being trialled in Sweden. Local authorities in the city of Lund say the controversial measures aim to reintegrate returned jihadis into society and prevent them reverting to their former networks.” Others are going back to Muslim majority countries where they are rather less welcome.

As of January, some 200 fighters are believed to have returned to Jordan, while Tunisian authorities announced in December that 800 fighters had returned to Tunisia from Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

Attacks have left citizens apprehensive over the fighters’ return. In December, Tunisians protested against the return of former Islamic State fighters, holding signs like “Close the doors to terrorism” in front of parliament. Here in Jordan, many know a son of a neighbor, colleague, or distant relative who has gone off to fight to Syria.

“It is better for them to die in Syria then to come back and ruin our homeland,” says Mohammed, a 45-year-old grocer in Amman, who says he knows of “several” families whose sons have travelled to Syria.

Still others are headed for African failed states where their skills, ruthlessness and ideology will make them the new Dogs of War. But as John E. McLaughlin of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University explained before Congress, history itself may be preparing the soil for ISIS to take root. It will encounter extraordinarily favorable conditions in the next decades as burgeoning non-Western populations flock to megacities in the Third World, if not to Europe, perfect for their style of fighting.


By 2035, the world will have grown to about 8.8 billion people. But less than 3 percent of this growth will occur in the developed world, many parts of which – Europe and Japan especially – are now aging societies. What some have called a ‘pensioner bulge’ will contrast with a youth bulge elsewhere, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America. …

An underlying trend will be a continued growth in urbanization – now at more than 50 percent but projected to rise to two-thirds within the next couple decades, triggering … more migration and possibly sectarian and ethnic tensions … the wars of the last 15 years have produced a generation of terrorists trained to exploit these circumstances by virtue of their experience with urban warfare …

This combines with … a technology revolution that exceeds in speed and scope anything we’ve seen in modern history … this technology revolution has brought a truly revolutionary and unprecedented devolution of asymmetric power to individuals and small groups through things like social media and easy access to knowledge.

The megacity will become the dominant form of human habitation over the next half century. A West Point’s Modern War Institute report warned they could constitute a battlespace that could easily swallow up all the armies of the earth. “By 2030, a projected 662 cities will have at least one million residents. And the number of ‘megacities’ in the world—those with ten million residents or more—is projected to grow from thirty-one to forty-one in the same period.” US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said “in the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas.”


In 2014, the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) chose megacities to be the organizing theme for its yearlong research projects. Concept teams looked at the unique characteristics and challenges of a megacity, future maneuver and mobility concepts, Army force design considerations, personnel talent management, and other topics, assessing the requirements for operating in megacities. The conclusions of the SSG research are clear: megacities are unavoidable, they are potentially the most challenging environment the Army has ever faced, and the Army is unprepared to operate in them.

The Modern War Institute has more recently followed the hypothetical activities of a Task Force Gotham as it battles through the teeming cities of Pakistan and various other locales some time in 2029. It reads like science fiction with accounts of terrorist radiological shrapnel, army sensor drones, comms over mesh nets, men behind breaching lances, etc. but it is really a serious attempt by military professionals to think about what it will be like when they meet ISIS — again. And meet them they probably will. Microsoft’s Bill Gates warned the Munich Security Conference last week that governments were overlooking the threat of biological warfare from non-state actors.

He told the Telegraph: “Natural epidemics can be extremely large. Intentionally caused epidemics, bioterrorism, would be the largest of all.

“With nuclear weapons, you’d think you would probably stop after killing 100 million. Smallpox won’t stop. Because the population is naïve, and there are no real preparations. That, if it got out and spread, would be a larger number.”

He said developments in genetic engineering were proceeding at a “mind-blowing rate”. Biological warfare ambitions once limited to a handful of nation states are now open to small groups with limited resources and skills.

He said: “They make it much easier for a non-state person. It doesn’t take much biology expertise nowadays to assemble a smallpox virus. Biology is making it way easier to create these things.”


These scenarios suggest a future far different from the rosy predictions of conventional wisdom. Instead of an ever more borderless planet marching steadily under the rainbow arc of justice unhindered by anything more than a nuisance Jayvee Team of rogue Islamic rebels, we may instead have a world of strict borders, quarantine controls, universal surveillance, in which vast megacities, ravaged by drug and religious wars, are sustained by autonomous vehicles with goods from automated factories.

If a biological attack killing hundreds of thousands ever happens, people will demand a wall.

Perhaps the populist revolution now overturning politics is really rooted in the instinctive perception akin to that felt by small animals before an impending earthquake that the dangers feared by the US Army and Bill Gates are much more likely than liberals think. If the doors are being shut, the global world is being rejected, and tribes are huddling more closely round the communal fire, the impulse may not be rooted in bigotry or intolerance but a primeval sense of self-preservation.

There is a suspicion that the elites have missed something — something big — something that a future Task Force Gotham cannot fully stop. And perhaps the elites have. The feeling that decades of demographic collapse, self doubt and ideology have made the status quo vulnerable cannot be easily dismissed. These may be needless fears. But the point so ignored by the establishment is that to paraphrase a popular movie “the future, always so clear to the progressive project has become like a black highway at night” to many people in the world. It is no longer fully predictable and nothing can induce them to believe again.


Perhaps 2029 will come and go. Lena Dunham will turn an uneventful 44, people will travel as ever to Paris, Karachi, Beijing and Mars and there will be no Judgment Day. But we have no way of knowing for sure, and no right to take it for granted.

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An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy), by Rick Atkinson. The liberation of Europe and the destruction of the Third Reich is an epic story of courage and calamity, of miscalculation and enduring triumph. In this first volume of the Liberation Trilogy, Atkinson shows why no modern reader can understand the ultimate victory of the Allied powers without a grasp of the great drama that unfolded in North Africa in 1942 and 1943, as the American and British armies fight the French in Morocco and Algiers, and then take on the Germans and Italians in Tunisia.At the center of the tale are the commanders who come to dominate the battlefield: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, and Rommel.

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Drawing on dozens of leading chefs’ combined experience, Page and Dornenburg shows you how to season ingredients to coax the greatest possible flavor from them. This definitive guide to creating “deliciousness” in any dish lists thousands of ingredient entries, organized alphabetically and cross-referenced, to provide a treasure trove of spectacular flavor combinations.


The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, Those on both sides of the issue will find this book a stimulating contribution to the debate. Author Neil Gorsuch provides a thorough overview of the ethical and legal issues — including evidence and case histories from the Netherlands and Oregon, where the practices have been legalized, and the evolution of laws and attitudes regarding the issue — then builds a comprehensive argument against legalization that still leaves wide latitude for individual patient autonomy and the refusal of unwanted medical treatment and care.

Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. This book offers a new interpretation of this great naval engagement, making extensive use of Japanese primary sources and examining the battle within the context of the Imperial Navy’s doctrine and technology. It corrects the many errors of Mitsuo Fuchida’s Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, a book that many previous Western accounts have uncritically relied upon.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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