Essay: The Enduring Islamist Threat
Mar 5, 2018 | Thomas Joscelyn
ISIS and al-Qaeda live on
On January 19, the Pentagon released its new National Defence Strategy for the US. The second paragraph of the 14-page declassified summary painted a dire picture. “Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding,” the Defence Department warns. “We are facing increased global disorder, characterised by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order – creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory. Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.”
That last line garnered widespread attention. It signalled that defence planners no longer want the jihadist wars unleashed by the 9/11 attacks to be their primary focus. The rest of the overview explained why. China is now a “strategic competitor”, while Russia seeks to “shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor.” Both China and Russia “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Meanwhile, rogue states such as North Korea and Iran increasingly pose threats to American interests.
While the Defence Department recognises that ISIS and other “terrorist groups” will continue “to murder the innocent and threaten peace more broadly,” Washington must shift its focus to “long-term strategic competition.”
In many ways, the Pentagon’s planning document makes sense. China and Russia command resources that far outstrip the jihadists’ capabilities. They have nuclear-tipped missiles; the jihadists do not. The gap between their conventional military prowess and America’s has closed somewhat. Russia and China also use other means, ranging from economic pressure to cyber-attacks to espionage and disinformation, to challenge American supremacy. Meanwhile, the 9/11 wars have been costly. But as threatening as they’ve been, the jihadists lack the industrial capacity and military might to be a top-tier competitor. It is only natural, given these facts, that the Defence Department seeks a rebalancing.
It will not be so easy, though, to pivot away from the jihadists. ISIS and Al-Qaeda have tied up security services throughout the West for years. Thousands of terror suspects across Europe require monitoring. The FBI has been swamped by hundreds of US cases involving potential terrorists. The CIA and allied intelligence agencies continue to hunt down professional terrorists who plot mass destruction in the West. ISIS and Al-Qaeda operatives still threaten aviation with smartly concealed bombs. And while ISIS has lost its territorial caliphate, the fight is far from over.
In mid-February, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) presented its annual worldwide threat assessment to the Senate. It contains numerous warnings that the Defence Department pivot may be premature: “Over the next year, we expect that ISIS is likely to focus on regrouping in Iraq and Syria, enhancing its global presence, championing its cause, planning international attacks, and encouraging its members and sympathisers to attack in their home countries.” ISIS, the ODNI assessment warns, “has started – and probably will maintain – a robust insurgency in Iraq and Syria as part of a long-term strategy to ultimately enable the re-emergence of its so-called caliphate,” and it will continue to “threaten US interests in the region.”
The bottom line: ISIS is far from finished. While most of the territory once under its rule in Iraq and Syria has been “liberated,” the group still retains the resources to wage guerrilla warfare indefinitely.
A map produced by the ODNI underscores the global nature of the threat. Outside of Iraq and Syria, ISIS fighters continue to wage insurgencies in several countries. And some of these branches of the so-called caliphate still threaten the United States and its allies.
Consider the situation in Egypt. In Nov. 2014, an Al-Qaeda-linked group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis swore its fealty to ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group was then rebranded Wilayat Sinai, or the Sinai Province (of the caliphate), and pledged to fight for the caliphate’s cause. Wilayat Sinai remains a security threat to the Egyptian state. Its members blew up a Russian airliner in October 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board. The bombing was the jihadists’ first successful attack on commercial aviation since the 9/11 hijackings. Wilayat Sinai has assassinated Egyptian officials, harassed locals, and conducted a series of bombings against mosques, tribesmen and Christians. At times, the ISIS branch has been strong enough to capture Egyptian checkpoints and overrun security facilities. ISIS also spawned a terror network in mainland Egypt that has dispatched suicide bombers to strike Coptic churches, including on Palm Sunday last year.
The Sinai jihadists are so fierce that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s men haven’t been able to contain them on their own. In early February, the New York Times confirmed a thinly veiled secret – Israel has been helping the Egyptians hunt down ISIS leaders and commanders in the northern part of the Sinai since 2015.
Despite this assistance from Israel’s expert terror-hunters, Wilayat Sinai hasn’t been eradicated. In late February, the group threatened Egypt’s upcoming presidential election, scheduled for late March. In a lengthy video disseminated on ISIS media channels, the caliphate’s Sinai brethren pledged to extract blood from the “tyrants” and celebrated some of its most heinous acts.
In one scene, a jihadist snuck up behind an Egyptian security official, slowly raising his pistol to the man’s head before pulling the trigger. The murder was meant to send a message to the Egyptian government: Nobody is safe. It is a threat Sisi has taken seriously. Earlier this month, his government announced a major campaign against the Sinai jihadists. The Egyptians have struggled to find the right counterinsurgency formula, meaning the jihadists will likely continue to threaten the area for the near future.
In Libya, ISIS no longer controls significant turf. But there are reasons to worry that Baghdadi’s goons may make a comeback. At the height of its power in North Africa, beginning in 2015, ISIS ruled over the city of Sirte for more than a year. Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown and site of the Libyan dictator’s demise in 2011, Sirte was more than just a symbolic stronghold. ISIS considered it one of the three most important cities under its control, ranking just behind Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. But the Libyan branch of ISIS lost control of the city in December 2016, after a prolonged siege by US-backed local forces.
Some of the ISIS survivors decamped for remote areas south of Sirte in the Libyan deserts, where they attempted to regroup. In early 2017, the US government announced that two of its makeshift training camps had been bombed after “external plotters” – that is, operatives responsible for planning terror attacks in Europe or the United States – were discovered there. Some of these terrorists may have been directly involved in the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, which left 22 people dead and hundreds more wounded.
How many men does ISIS still have inside Libya? We don’t really know. The US State Department estimates that ISIS had “as many as 6,000 fighters in its ranks” in Libya in early 2016 – that is, before the start of the heaviest fighting inside Sirte. Some 1,700 ISIS jihadists are thought to have been killed in or around the city in the months that followed, in US airstrikes and during ground battles. This implies that upwards of 4,300 ISIS members either slithered away or were stationed elsewhere inside Libya. It is possible that ISIS retains a significant cadre of diehards in North Africa.
Elsewhere in Africa, ISIS has upstart branches that are seeking to expand. In West Africa, a former Al-Qaeda commander named Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui leads a group that claimed responsibility for killing four American and five Nigerien soldiers last October. The circumstances surrounding their deaths are murky, but the men were on patrol in Niger when the jihadists seized an opportunity to strike. Sahraoui and his men have fought in the caliphate’s name since 2015.
Separately, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, also swore allegiance to Baghdadi in 2015. Boko Haram is infamous for a string of high-profile slayings and kidnappings, including the abduction of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls. Even compared to Baghdadi’s psychopaths, Shekau has always been one of the most disturbed jihadists on the planet. His unhinged ways led to a dismissal in 2016, when ISIS named a new leader for its men in West Africa. Shekau continues to run his own Boko Haram contingent.
To the east, in the horn of Africa, ISIS has carved out a small but deadly fighting force. Headquartered in the autonomous northern Puntland region of Somalia, another former Al-Qaeda commander, Abdulqadir Mumin, heads an ISIS contingent that carries out regular attacks. Mumin’s men have been unable to capture and hold ground for any significant length of time, and their remoteness hampers their efficacy. But they have exploited their local roots, relying on Somali businesses to fund their enterprise.
Across the Gulf of Aden, in Yemen, ISIS fanatics have added another dimension to an already complex, multisided war. In December 2017, US Central Command cited “intelligence estimates” that ISIS there “has doubled in size over the past year.” This hardly speaks to an effort on the wane. What’s worse, the Pentagon has warned that ISIS “has used the ungoverned spaces of Yemen to plot, direct, instigate, resource and recruit for attacks against America and its allies around the world.” The jihadists use the war-torn country as “a hub for terrorist recruiting, training and transit.”
The American air campaign in the southern Arabian Peninsula was increased dramatically last year, with a record number of airstrikes (131) targeting jihadists in Yemen. Most of these hit Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which rejects Baghdadi’s caliphate. But several, for the first time, struck the growing ISIS presence.
In October, the Pentagon said that “dozens” of ISIS militants had been killed in two Yemeni training camps. One of the camps was named after Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a deceased ISIS spokesman who helped build the jihadists’ campaign of terror across the world. Adnani played a direct role in instigating and planning attacks in the heart of the West. That the Yemeni jihadists train in his name is an ominous portent.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISIS loyalists fight their foes nearly every day. Wilayat Khorasan, or the Khorasan Province of the caliphate, has lost significant ground in eastern Afghanistan, where it once controlled several districts. The United States has systematically hunted down several of Wilayat Khorasan’s emirs, disrupting its chain of command. But the jihadists remain resilient – surviving such extreme measures as America’s use of a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (also known as a MOAB, or “mother of all bombs”) in Nangarhar Province in April 2017. It was the first time that a MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the American arsenal, has been deployed in combat.
Baghdadi’s representatives regularly claim operations in the heart of Kabul, the Afghan capital. In January, a team of highly trained inghimasis (guerrilla fighters who immerse themselves in battle before carrying out suicide bombings) struck the Marshal Fahim National Defence University in Kabul. Last March, an inghimasi squad infiltrated the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Hospital, Afghanistan’s largest medical facility for military personnel and their families. It killed or wounded dozens.
Some claim that outfits such as Wilayat Khorasan have merely adopted the caliphate brand and lack meaningful connections to Baghdadi’s enterprise. This is not so. The US military has discovered connective tissue. Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US Forces-Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support, has explained that there is a “connection” between Wilayat Khorasan and the ISIS headquarters. The first head of Wilayat Khorasan “went through the application process” and the group has received “advice”, “publicity”, and “some financial support” from ISIS. In June 2017, the US bombed an ISIS “media production hub” in eastern Afghanistan. The Pentagon explained that the bombing “disrupt[ed] their connections to ISIS main in Syria.”
ISIS fighters remain a threat as far away from Iraq and Syria as Southeast Asia. As elsewhere, ISIS built a network in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines by wooing some veteran jihadists to its cause, while also electrifying new recruits with its initial battlefield successes in 2014. Indonesian and Malaysian authorities have disrupted a string of terror plots tied directly to operatives in Syria and Iraq. The governments of Australia and Singapore have as well. In one startling case last year, the Aussies discovered that ISIS had shipped bomb components from Syria to a cell targeting Australian aviation. Meanwhile, over the span of several months last year, Philippine armed forces fought to eject jihadists from the city of Marawi, on the island of Mindanao. The Treasury Department recently revealed that at least some of the money used to arm the insurgents in Marawi came from ISIS central command.
Look at the ODNI map again and you’ll notice something else: ISIS isn’t the only jihadist menace. Al-Qaeda lives – despite the Obama Administration’s many attempts to declare it dead. In some countries, such as Somalia and Yemen, Al-Qaeda’s footprint is broader and deeper than that of the ISIS outfits. A new Al-Qaeda chapter is especially prolific in Mali and the surrounding countries. In Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda remains heavily invested in the Taliban-led insurgency. Although many in Washington, particularly at the State Department, would have us believe that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are mutually exclusive, numerous details show otherwise. The Taliban’s deputy leader, Siraj Haqqani, is a longtime Al-Qaeda ally. And some of the Taliban’s most important facilitators also serve Al-Qaeda.
In September 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, announced the formation of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Its primary mission is to help the Taliban reconquer Afghanistan. Today, the Taliban and its allies contest or control more than 40% of Afghanistan’s districts – far more territory than the caliphate’s flag-bearers. The Taliban also regularly rocks Kabul with large-scale bombings and guerrilla-style raids. In neighbouring Pakistan, Al-Qaeda has reorganised elements of several decades-old jihadist groups under the AQIS banner, ensuring that the organisation has staying power.
Al-Qaeda hopes to use ISIS’s territorial losses to win the loyalty of disaffected jihadists. It remains to be seen how successful these efforts will be, but an Al-Qaeda recruiting campaign is underway in several of the ISIS hot spots discussed above. Recently, for example, a pro-Al-Qaeda group known as Jund al-Islam re-emerged in the Sinai after several years of quiet. It is explicitly marketing itself as an alternative to ISIS. Similar efforts are reportedly underway elsewhere, including in Syria. Al-Qaeda has encountered serious management problems in northwestern Syria, where thousands of fighters were once under its command. But it is too early to count Al-Qaeda out of that fight.
The Pentagon is not wrong in its National Defence Strategy. China is rising. And Vladimir Putin will always see America as Russia’s adversary. It is no coincidence that Iran and North Korea – the two rogue states highlighted in the new strategy document – have benefited from Chinese and Russian largesse. The US Government will have to counter new challenges from all four nations. But the jihadists’ revolution has spread across the globe in the 16 years since 9/11. In many of the areas highlighted on the ODNI’s map, America’s involvement is the only thing standing in the way of new Islamic emirates sprouting up. That is what the jihadists are fighting for – to claim new territory, either for Baghdadi’s caliphate or a new one. We cannot wish away this threat. ISIS isn’t defeated. Neither is Al-Qaeda.
Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. © Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com), all rights reserved, reprinted by permission.