CBNW Editor Andy Oppenheimer reviews underlying and resurgent threats from Daesh and other groups
“The borders between Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic remain inadequately secured, allowing some movement of fighters… and a spike in attacks targeting the United States-led coalition and local non-State armed groups.” – UN MONITORING TEAM
While governments, national and international agencies, medical experts and health services around the world grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the threat of terrorism and the vulnerability of states to terrorist attack may appear to have receded into the background. However, the watchful eye of intelligence services and all those tasked with counter-terrorism never lets up. The state of play as regards the status of Daesh, plots and incidents by lone perpetrators and starter cells inspired by jihadism, and the rise of right-wing and other forms of terrorism and other groups in many countries will not be ignored by concerned authorities.
While tens of thousands of Daesh fighters have been killed or have been detained, billions of dollars spent, bombs dropped and the thousands of troops deployed across Iraq and Syria, the most murderous terror group in recent times poses an ongoing threat. Up to 20,000 fighters are said to be still operating in Iraq and Syria.
Despite the removal of Daesh from occupied areas in Syria and Iraq, and following the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid in Syria in October, by January it had begun reasserting itself in those beleaguered countries under a new leader, Amir Muhammad Said Abdal Rahman al-Mawla. An Iraqi operative, he is a prime force driving the genocidal terrorist group’s abduction, trafficking and mass slaughter of Yazidis in northwest Iraq. Baghdadi’s death has not disrupted Daesh command structure or operations.
A UN Monitoring Team report released in February 2020 logged an increase in jihadist attacks, the breakout of Daesh fighters in detention facilities and “exploiting weaknesses in the security environment of both countries.” Daesh resilience is partly due to its financial resources, no longer needed to administer a makeshift state: UN estimates are $100 million in reserves.
Of huge implications is the removal of US support for Kurdish forces, who were primarily instrumental in defeating Daesh on the ground – losing thousands of courageous fighters in the campaign. Peshmerga spies supplied intel to the US and they helped coordinate air strikes as well as working alongside US special counter-terrorism operators.
A simmering threat is 10,000 detained male fighters, including 2,000 foreign fighters and female detainees, who are active in radicalising other detainees, including their own children. Escaping detainees from northeastern Syria run into the hundreds. The COVID-19 pandemic has postponed, rather than halted, Daesh’s aims and activities.
The areas formerly enslaved by Daesh are in total chaos. Iraq remains riddled with corruption, poor governance, sectarianism, and economic decline. Sunni-majority areas that had been taken by Daesh were destroyed by them and before, by US air strikes. Others are under the control of Iran-backed Shiite militias.
Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan
The spread of the Daesh poison and influence in several other countries is compounded by the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda, which hasn’t gone away. The UN report stated that al-Qaeda affiliates gained ground over their ‘competitors’ Daesh in the Sahel, Somalia, and Yemen, as well as northwest Syria – where a group of up to 5,000 al-Qaeda loyalists are based in Idlib province. However, there is constant military pressure on them, and the resurgent Daesh remnants.
Despite negotiations between the Taliban and the US, Afghanistan is suffering the highest number of terrorcaused deaths. Al-Qaeda numbers up to 600, and they exchange resources and training with the Taliban, also trying to dissuade Taliban leaders from pursuing talks with the US in return for financial support.
Continuing US pressure on Daesh is also on pause following the elimination of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, at Baghdad international airport on 3 January. The pandemic has also occupied US policy since March.
Iraqi politicians stated their intention to eject 5,000 US troops deployed against Daesh. There followed a spate of Iranlinked attacks on US and other nations’ shipping and oil assets in the Persian Gulf and rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias on US troop bases in Iraq.
Iran is still the world’s prime state sponsor of terrorism and continues to fund, supply and train proxy militias in Iraq, making Shia-originated attacks an upcoming threat. Lebanese Hezbollah has been in the forefront of terrorist technologies, including rockets and unmanned aerial systems. Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, which launched a rocket attack in December that killed a US contractor and injured US troops. This in turn triggered a retaliatory US strike against Iraqi and Syrian targets, upping the ante in terms of a possible US-Iran conflict.
The series of Daesh/jihadist-inspired attacks in Britain near London Bridge in November 2019 exposed the danger posed by the release of convicted terrorists. At least 1,000 radicalised convicts are due for release from European prisons, and deradicalisation programmes in and out of prisons have been found wanting.
While the military and command strength of Daesh has been largely defused, the lack of that central command structure makes tracking and stopping its adherents in many countries more difficult. Identifying and monitoring sleeper cells and weapons supply chains, Internet presence, and recruitment all call on the stretched resources of intelligence services, while the release of prisoners, including radical preachers drumming up more fanatical support, seems to be in an unbreakable cycle.
As ever, such terrorist groups take the long view, and are fighting a long war – knowing that western powers have fought several ‘forever wars’ against them, without victorious conclusion. Al-Qaeda has survived for thirty-plus years due mainly to the constant refinement of TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) and its affiliates are still able to launch spectaculars, most notably the truck-borne IED attack by its Somali affiliate, al-Shabab, in Mogadishu – killing 80 on 28 December 2019.
The world crisis over COVID-19 may halt some terrorists temporarily, but it will also provide vulnerabilities to be exploited. Long-term efforts to defeat terrorism are either no longer affordable, or practicable in the face of economic and other pressures on western and other governments. To repeat the oft-quoted maxim of the Taliban, “You have the watches, we have the time.”
Photo credit: Media outlets visit one of the many impact sites created by the missile attacks at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq in January 2020.
©US Army/Spc. Derek Mustard