Interesting Article: "ISIS in Afghanistan Is Like a Balloon That Won't Pop" by Krishnadev Calamur, 28 December 2016. The Atlantic.
An interesting article mentioned that even though Abu Sayed, the head of ISIS-Khorasan, as the group is known in Afghanistan is dead, ISIS has not only survived, but it has also showcased its ability to strike at the heart of the Afghan state, like they did this week, when the group claimed responsibility for a suicide-bomb attack on a Shia cultural center in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Those killed included students who had gathered for a discussion to mark the 38th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Christmas Day, 1979). There have been similar attacks in recent weeks and throughout the year. On Christmas Day, ISIS struck near an office belonging to the Afghan intelligence service, killing six people. On December 18, gunmen from the group stormed another intelligence center in Kabul, but that attempt ended with all three attackers being killed. All this comes even as the Taliban, which governed Afghanistan before it was toppled in 2001 following the U.S.-led invasion, is still the primary militant group operating in the country. The Taliban still has control—and support—in large parts of Afghanistan.
“It’s like a balloon, we squeeze them in this area and they’ll try to move out elsewhere.” So, what is the future threat for next year in 2018? Isis has sought to tout itself as the defender of Sunnis across the region and the choice of words in its statement is designed to drive that message. The sectarian theme is likely to be the group’s focus in the coming years, as it retreats from a caliphate to an insurgency. Terror attacks are likely to increase in 2018, as the destruction of the Islamic State's physical stronghold in Iraq and Syria will strengthen its will to strike out abroad.
Its much-vaunted caliphate has gone, crushed by the might of Russian, Syrian and US warplanes, Iran-backed militias, Kurdish forces and armies launched by Damascus and Baghdad. But while 2017 might have seen the end of Islamic State’s dream of ruling over its twisted vision of an ideal society, the year ended with an ominous sign that its deadly international campaign against the many people and faiths it sees as spiritual foes has gathered new energy.
In Afghanistan, Isis has done so much with so little. In Libya, for example, the group had hundreds of local battle-hardened fighters with experience stretching back to the early years of the Iraq war and who played a pivotal role in early Isis efforts in Syria in 2014, but its fortunes have dwindled over the past two years.
The sectarian narrative helps the group present a “contiguous ideology” from Afghanistan to Syria, in place of the caliphate it seems to have lost; its message to its followers is that the victims of its attack were potential soldiers in the army that Iran is forming everywhere.
Presenting itself as the last line of defense against Iran will ensure that its localized operations have a general regional theme, even as it has lost the global caliphate. This has been a recurrent theme since its rise in 2014, but the group has increasingly focused on sectarianism, not just against the Shia but also against Christians and other religious minorities.
. A day after the Kabul assault, the group also claimed responsibility for a militant shooting on a church in Cairo, killing about a dozen people, one of several attacks targeting Coptic civilians and churches in the country in recent years.
The lesson from such attacks is that the group can still be deadly regardless of its contraction in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, its territorial demise might even exacerbate insurgencies elsewhere, if militants safely flee the battlefields to fill up the ranks of affiliates in other countries. Reports of militants escaping the collapsing caliphate have emerged recently. Earlier this month, for example, Agence France-Presse reported that French and Algerian fighters travelled to Afghanistan from Syria to join the Isis branch there. Similar trends were reported in Egypt and Libya. An African Union official also warned this month that many of the 6,000 who had travelled to Syria in 2014 may be returning home.
Such fighters could replenish and revitalize insurgencies scattered across the region in a way they could not when the group’s focus was its core in Iraq and Syria. The branches of Isis that sprung up remained limited in size and some weakened as the pool of militants had been small. This could change as former fighters make their way out of Syria and Iraq to countries in the region, where it is easier to link up with existing affiliates than if they travelled to their homelands, such as in Europe and Britain. The group thrives on polarization and religious minorities present it with soft targets to turn people against each other. These targets also enable it to recast itself in opposition to al-Qaida and other Islamist groups. In addition to political stagnation and persistent conflicts, sectarianism will continue to provide the group with growth opportunities in a region beset with ever deepening divisions and amid the increasing role of Iran in the Middle East.
The "caliphate" may be in ruins, but that doesn't mean ISIS is gone forever. An estimated 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries left their homes to fight in Syria. A report by the Soufan Center in October put the current figure for returned fighters at 5,600 from 33 countries, and revealed that on average 20 to 30 percent of those from Europe are already back. In the U.K., Sweden and Denmark, a whopping 50 percent have returned. Almost 20,000 names have been shared with Interpol.
For the U.S., the figure is far smaller: The Soufan Center reported 129 Americans made it to the battlefields of Syria or Iraq, and only seven of them have returned as of October. Seventy-seven out of 135 people charged with ISIS-linked terrorism offenses have been convicted as of August.
Even if the ISIS threat ultimately recedes, al-Qaeda is very capable of filling that void in terms of a major terrorist threat. In recent months, Osama bin Laden's son Hamza has released a series of messages upping his calls for attacks on Westerners and Western interests, particularly following Trump's naming of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The organization is likely to use the younger Bin Laden to spearhead a comeback as it sees opportunity in ISIS's military defeats.
MI5, the U.K.'s domestic counterintelligence agency, revealed in October that it was overseeing 500 live operations and had 20,000 people on its counterterrorism radar. Between January and October 2017, seven terror plots in the U.K. had been foiled.
Another threat that will see more rapid expansion is Tahrir al-Sham, created as the result of a merger between the Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front and other militant groups in Syria. The group’s fighters are younger and less religious; not tied to a geographic caliphate, like ISIS; and less interested in governance. They are, in other words, more nimble—and more dangerous. Call them ISIS 3.0. With a limited number of dedicated actors, Tahrir could take down local, regional, or even national power grids. They could disrupt cellphone, G.P.S., and satellite communications. In a worst-case scenario, they could hack into government computers and publish all types of classified military and intelligence information, endangering Western agents and assets. Our postal and package delivery systems depend on SatLocaters that, if compromised, could bring America’s sprawling logistics network to a standstill. On their hidden Telegram channel, Tahrir militants have bragged about adapting drones to deliver explosives or biological agents, and once posted an encrypted video of their efforts. Recently, after an initial crowdsourcing campaign had run for only six hours, Tahrir claimed to have recruited over a dozen young followers, including five from Germany. These were played up in subsequent postings directed at potential new recruits. This crowdsourcing approach, via Telegram’s end-to-end encryption channels, is difficult to detect, let alone censor. Their Dark Web social networks, unlike ISIS’s territorial holdings, cannot be seen by satellites or destroyed with bombs.
Tahrir leaders operate on the principle, “The narrower the audience, the bigger the impact.” While ISIS sent messages using a broadcast model, Tahrir has experimented with platforms like Sarahah (“Honesty” in Arabic), which allows users to send messages anonymously to one person. The app provides a honeypot approach for Tahrir, in which they can A/B test different messages to see what sticks. While governments are still trying to censor ISIS on Twitter, Tahrir is experimenting with an app that reaches more than 16 million young people and is the top download in over 25 countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Tahrir can fail, quickly measure what resonates, and retool their pitch before the activity is detected by officials. Again, speed gives them the advantage. Research suggests that Tahrir surrogates have configured A.I. bots which can be run on thousands or even millions of user accounts at very low cost. They operate 24/7 and respond to events almost immediately, allowing Tahrir to consistently punch far above their weight. Social-media giants like YouTube and Facebook can’t keep up: by the time they take down pro-Tahrir accounts, the content has already been linked or distributed through encrypted platforms like Telegram or Riot. These bots are programmed to react to certain events and create content at machine speed, shaping the narrative almost immediately. This is critical in an information environment where the first story to circulate may be the only one that people see or recall.
Al Qaeda in Yemen:
The Qaeda wing in Yemen remains so nefarious in part because the group has spent years inventing explosives that are difficult to detect, including trying to disguise bombs in devices like cellphones. It has tried at least three times to blow up American airliners, without success. And its most notorious bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, remains at large and is training protégés, intelligence officials say.
The United States has tripled the number of airstrikes this year against Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, one of the deadliest and most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world. American allies have pushed the militants from their lucrative coastal strongholds. And the Pentagon recently boasted of killing key Qaeda leaders and disrupting the group’s operations. Yet the top United States counterterrorism official and other American intelligence analysts concede the campaign has barely dented the terrorist group’s ability to strike United States interests. The fight against Al Qaeda is a different military campaign in a different part of Yemen than the one helping fuel the humanitarian disaster gripping the country, most visibly in the west. Yemen, one of the poorest nations in the Arab world, has been convulsed by civil strife since the Houthis, Shia rebels from the north aligned with Iran, stormed the capital, Sana, in 2014 and then ousted the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Americans’ main counterterrorism partner.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab nations began a military campaign aimed at pushing back the Houthis and restoring the government. That campaign has so far failed to do so and has instead caused the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis, the worst outbreak of cholera in contemporary history and widespread child malnutrition.
Al Qaeda exploited the security vacuum and in 2015 took control of large parts of land in the south, including Al Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city and a major source of port revenue.
Al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group seeking to take advantage of the turmoil in Yemen. An affiliate of the Islamic State there has doubled in size in the past year, according to the Central Command.
The fact is the simplicity of their approach, combined with their ability to still inspire, has the power to outlive the end of their physical caliphate. Only through constant vigilance, directed special operations and consistent campaigns can we eliminate this threat to the homeland.