Last weekend marked two important dates in the history of jihadism: the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attack by al-Qaeda (AQ) and the start of the trial in Paris of the 13 November 2015 attacks carried out by Islamic State (IS). This article aims to take stock of the progression of AQ’s propaganda following the emergence of IS: to what extent do the two groups’ digital strategies embody their ideological differences and reflect their organisational evolution? How do they diverge? Despite the weakening of both group’s media capabilities, how has AQ’s media managed not to be overshadowed by IS’s stronger brand and more frequent propaganda machine?
On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a new episode of Hold Your Fire! looks at the shadow cast by the “global war on terror” across South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh discuss how Islamist militants – groups like al-Qaeda and later ISIS – have fared in twenty years marked by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the 2011 Arab revolutions, the war in Syria and U.S. counter-terrorism operations in many other corners of the world. They talk about al-Qaeda’s recovery after losing its safe havens in Afghanistan, its vicious local branch in Iraq and its expansion through affiliates elsewhere. They also discuss how al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch exploited the Syrian war and evolved into ISIS, and the later struggle between ISIS and al-Qaeda. They take stock of where Islamist militancy stands today, with groups fighting in an increasing number of warzones across Africa and in light of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. They examine what efforts against militants look like today and some of the flaws of existing counter-terrorism policy.
Fifty years ago, John Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a question that is probably occurring to many Americans right now: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Yesterday, at least 13 U.S. service members died in an attack on a crowd of Afghans seeking evacuation from Kabul’s airport. They died saving their allies from persecution or murder by the Taliban. This was no mistake, although their deaths were the result of a war in which the United States made just about every mistake possible. It was among the noblest moments of the war, and because it killed them and nearly a hundred Afghans, also one of its most tragic.
Alizan Mahadi writes: Last week, amid the record number of Covid-19 cases, Malaysia presented its progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the United Nations. While some may question the relevance of long-term and lofty targets when Malaysia and the world are grappling with a crisis, it would be myopic if the link between the current crisis and development is not made.
go to ISIS: SDGs can guide our Covid-19 recovery – ISIS
It feels like a long time ago that we fought the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). The world has moved on to other problems since the military defeat of this terrorist group in March 2019. Yet the challenges associated with ISIL are far from over. As well as the continuing global threat of terrorism, one of the key issues is what to do with detained ISIL soldiers, their families, and those that joined the group at the height of its power.
A Kazakh military officer is seen as he carries a child during the Zhusan humanitarian operation in 2019. [Astana Times]
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has said he wants to set up an international task force to counter the threat posed by the spread of ISIL (ISIS)-affiliated groups across the African continent.
Co-chairing a meeting on Friday of the global coalition fighting ISIL alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Di Maio said there are fears that the group can “regain strength”. He also warned against the alliance letting down its guard, despite the fact the ISIL fighters had lost much of their territories in Iraq and Syria.
The day after President Biden was inaugurated, Baghdad was hit by two suicide bombers who, in macabre fashion, killed at least 32 people and wounded at least 100.
After losing 95 per cent of its territories in Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State (IS) movement is widely considered to have fallen. Yet despite its territorial collapse, IS still has support among Islamist militant groups in Indonesia. One of them is Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), a group that pledged its allegiance to IS in 2014 and labelled a terrorist group by the US Department of State in 2015.
The group has faced serious logistical problems — particularly in recruiting new fighters. Following the death of their first leader Santoso in 2016, MIT fighters continued their struggle with only nine personnel. MIT’s current chief Ali Kalora managed to strengthen the group in 2018, bringing the total number to 16 fighters. Under Kalora’s command, the group carried out numerous violent attacks.
In 2020, MIT lost five fighters. But despite its critical condition, the group is still active in emerging terror.
On 27 November, MIT killed four Christians, including one beheading, in Lembantongoa village in the Sigi regency of Indonesia. The group also robbed and burned down six houses, including one that was used as a makeshift church. The Sigi attack is the biggest and most brutal in the past decade, and it shocked the nation. Sigi is not part of the Poso regency — where MIT is based —and it is a relatively new target location.
This latest attack bears similarities to the attacks of IS-linked groups in other countries. Mozambique IS-linked fighters reportedly used the same strategy in November when they killed over 50 people from several villages in Cabo Delgado province and burned down houses. The same strategy was implemented in Taliban–IS joint operations in 2014 and 2017 in Afghanistan.
The success of such IS attacks — particularly in invoking fear and attracting international attention — make them appealing to replicate. The Mozambique attack received wide media coverage and gained the attention of the United Nations. Immediately after the attack, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Mozambique to investigate the murders. The attack both embarrassed Mozambique in front of the world and showed that the terror group exists and possesses formidable power.
The Sigi attack also raised criticism against the police and military for their ‘failure’ to capture MIT’s members. The Tinombala Task Force — the state’s responsible operational team — has not demonstrated satisfactory results. In 2020 alone, Operation Tinombala was extended three times.
Following the Sigi attack, the operation will likely continue to be extended through additional personnel and funding until all MIT fighters are captured. MIT was successful in embarrassing the task force and questioning whether the government’s strategy is effective in tackling violent extremist groups.
The motives behind the Sigi attack are likely a combination of retaliation for the previous killings and arrests of MIT members, and seeking recognition from IS-central and supporters. During 2020, MIT lost at least five fighters in shootouts that brought the group’s membership down to 11. They also lost 32 affiliated members from various cities due to Tinombala Task Force arrests in 2020. Police had also arrested Kalora’s wife in August 2019. Two members who reportedly participated in recruiting new members surrendered themselves to the authorities in March 2020.
Other than Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), led by Aman Abdurrahman, MIT is a top IS-linked Indonesian group. Some supporters of IS recognise MIT as its Southeast Asian branch. MIT reportedly obtained weaponry from the Philippines and was successful in attracting foreign fighters to join its ranks. MIT also had a strong connection with Mujahidin Indonesia Barat which was operating in Java and Sumatra before its collapse in 2013.
Since 2016, MIT has not been successful in launching widely noticed attacks, while JAD has carried out multiple operations. While both MIT and JAD are affiliated with IS, and MIT may have gained assistance from JAD, they each have a separate network, structure and operational bases.
As a group that has declared allegiance to IS, MIT is desperate for recognition from IS central headquarters and sympathisers. This recognition is an important credential for IS-linked groups and can be achieved by committing deadly attacks. Any attack puts MIT members at risk, especially as they only have 11 fighters remaining. Yet attacking is perceived as more honourable and will lead to their recognition, rather than the alternative of surrendering which will have them labelled as cowards.
The attack option gains strength with the support of many in the community in Poso who consider MIT ‘defenders of Islam’. When two MIT fighters died in an April 2020 shootout, many in Poso went to the funeral — some holding tawheed (monotheism) black flags typical of IS. This response contrasts with other locations where communities had refused to bury the bodies of terrorists in their area.
What will MIT do after the Sigi attack? The Indonesian government and military have announced their commitment to hunting down the remaining fighters. The mobilisation of power for military operations to hunt down MIT will place the group in a critical situation. It is likely that MIT will face the Tinombala Task Force while also seeking to launch new random attacks.
There is also a risk that Indonesian IS supporters will exploit the current situation to launch a movement. Various terror groups could commit attacks in other locations in an act of solidarity with MIT or to distract the security operation against MIT. At this delicate time, a special effort on the part of the government and military is especially needed.
Since the Islamic State collapsed, what is the U.S.-led Global Coalition doing specifically now to deal with ISIS underground?
The coalition is engaged in a combination of training, equipping and advising local forces in counter-insurgency and the counter-terror environment; stabilization funding; and various political and governance programs. It is also involved in military actions, including both airborne and special forces operations against particularly dangerous targets. This includes targeting in Syrian areas beyond SDF territory in the northeast.
What role is the United States playing in coalition operations? How many airstrikes did the coalition conduct monthly in 2020—compared with 2015 in the first full year of the air campaign? What percentage of the airstrikes have been carried out by the United States?
The United States provides the military leadership and much of the staff of Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). It also informally runs the political coalition to defeat ISIS through American management of the Coalition political secretariat. It provides almost all the troops on the ground in Syria and a smaller but significant share of the coalition troops in Iraq, which were in flux at the end of 2020. U.S. airstrikes are relatively rare compared to the almost 10,000 annually at the height of campaign. The coalition conducted well over 30,000 between 2014 and 2020. The majority of airstrikes have been by the United States; the U.S. percentage is even higher now.
The coalition has more than 75 countries and local military partners. What are the other countries doing? What countries are playing the most significant roles or have the largest numbers of troops and warplanes committed to the campaign besides the United States?
Iraq and the local Syrian partners—the SDF and the Syrian Democratic Council—play the key roles in ground operations, stabilization, and hosting coalition forces. The next largest commitments are by France, Britain, and Germany, who have provided significant ground forces. Britain and France have also provided considerable airpower and special forces for training and direct action military operations. A broad range of other European countries—from the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and Italy—are also very active on the ground and in the diplomatic superstructure of the coalition.
What is the future of the coalition?
As long as there is a significant ISIS presence in Iraq and Syria, the United States and especially its European allies, who have been subjected to waves of ISIS-planned or -inspired terrorist attacks, will not consider standing down Operation Inherent Resolve or abandoning the political superstructure, which includes task forces that deal with foreign fighters, reconstruction, terrorist financing and social messaging. In 2019, President Trump proposed that NATO take over many of the functions of the CJTF-OIR. NATO agreed to expand its presence in the NATO Mission Iraq, or NMI, perhaps by as much as 100 percent in personnel, above the few hundred that were deployed in Iraq in 2020. NATO also agreed to take on additional training as well as headquarters planning and intelligence support functions.
But many coalition partners—beginning with Britain, France and Germany and including others that are also NATO members—have pushed back on NATO taking over the bulk of CJTF-OIR missions for at least four reasons: First, the coalition has had proven success, especially compared to similar international efforts in Libya, West Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, the CJTF has capabilities that NATO is highly unlikely to authorize or that will face political problems when it comes to command-and-control operations, notably in Syria and the direct coalition strikes on ISIS targets. Third, the coalition is more flexible than NATO when it comes to making decisions. With no fixed rules in the past, the United States and key partners routinely determined what had relative consensus, then consulted with members, but ultimately made the final decision. If NATO took over, its operations would need unanimous consent, with several potential challenges, from Germany’s strong pacifist tendencies to Turkey’s national interests on Kurdish issues in both Iraq and Syria. Fourth, the coalition military presence in Syria is dependent on the SDF being capable of hosting coalition forces (in the face of opposition from the Syrian government, Turkey, Russia and Iran) and Iraq being willing to continue hosting coalition forces (in the face of opposition from Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias).