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ISIS’s Global Attack Network: November 13, 2015 – November 9, 2016

Corpse Fortress

Courtesy Metal Chris/Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 9 November 2016.

ISIS has organized a number of external attacks worldwide in the past year, some of which have been thwarted. ISIS’s global network is still operating and is poised to continue conducting external attacks in late 2016. The U.S. must recognize that the campaign to recapture Mosul and Raqqa will not defeat ISIS. Rather, any military success in Iraq and Syria must be the first phase of a campaign to counter ISIS globally, whether through military or non-military means.

Overview

ISIS has been planning an external attack from Raqqa, Syria. The U.S. and its partners in the counter-ISIS coalition are assisting the major operations to recover Raqqa and Mosul, ISIS’s main urban hubs. ISIS is conducting  counter-offensives inside Iraq to divert Coalition attention from these main efforts. Similarly, ISIS will direct its global network to launch additional counter-offensives across its global footprint. Coalition partner nations face a high risk of attacks by ISIS on their homelands and their populations abroad while the offensives to recapture Mosul and Raqqa progress. The attack threat emanating from Raqqa highlights that ISIS-linked militants across the world still receive direction from ISIS in core terrain.

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The Polarizing Effect of Islamic State Aggression on the Global Jihadist Movement

Torn billboard

Courtesy wwwuppertal/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center on 27 July 2016.

The Islamic State will struggle to hold onto the governments it builds and the territory it captures outside of Syria and Iraq because it antagonizes local jihadist competitors and powerful non-Muslim states. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism toward these entities for the sake of expediency, but then it would no longer be able to recruit followers as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

Since it announced its caliphate in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State has taken on 17 affiliates or “governorates” that operate in 12 countries outside of Syria and Iraq. Many of the governorates were preexisting jihadist groups or factions that joined the Islamic State because they identified with its antagonism toward local jihadist competitors and its unyielding animosity toward non-Muslim nations. Yet this hostility subsequently limits the group’s ability to build governments or take territory beyond the confines of Syria and Iraq. In most countries where the Islamic State has planted its flag, its aggression prompted powerful local jihadist rivals[a] or international foes to check its advances. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism to one or the other for the sake of convenience, but this would compromise its recruiting ability and tarnish its reputation as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

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The Struggle Over Bangladesh’s Future

Joflong Stone Quarry, Bangladesh

Courtesy David Stanley/Flickr

This interview was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on 25 July 2016.

On July 1, militants attacked a restaurant in one of the Bangladeshi capital’s affluent neighborhoods, taking dozens hostage. Twenty-nine people died, including the five gunmen and eighteen foreign victims. This incident was the most deadly in a recent rise in violence linked to Islamist extremists and occurs amid a polarizing political debate over Bangladesh’s identity and what the role of Islam should be, says CFR senior fellow Alyssa Ayres. “The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism,” Ayres says, emphasizing the decision of the militants to affiliate themselves with a global terrorist movement at the time of the attack. “The Islamic State dimension comes on top of an already tense political climate,” she says.

There has been a recent rise in extremist violence in Bangladesh. Why?

The rise of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh has been noticeable in the last year and a half. But the July 1 attack was different because of the overt desire by those terrorists to affiliate themselves with global terrorism as the attack was unfolding. Prior attacks in Bangladesh were harder to link explicitly to international groups. Though responsibility was sometimes claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, these claims were widely disputed in Bangladesh, where the government tended to blame domestic groups. The July attack was different, not only in terms of scale but also in terms of communication. Islamic State-affiliated media tweeted scenes from the attack as it was underway, and later posted photos of the attackers with an [Islamic State] flag, making it hard to deny a connection. The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism.

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Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out

You....Stop. Enough, we need these people

“You….Stop. Enough, we need these people” erected in-front of the Somali parliament building. Courtesy AMISOM Public Information/Flickr

This article was originally published by the International Crisis Group on 27 June 2016.

Somalia’s militant group, Al-Shabaab, has often defied its adversaries’ claims that it is in decline. In recent months, however, the movement has suffered setbacks, including territorial losses, high-ranking commanders killed and defections. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its internal, regional and international allies need to be clear-sighted about the reasons for these, and what they can do to stop another Al-Shabaab recovery.

Al-Shabaab’s set-backs – and fewer attacks by the movement during the Ramadan holy Muslim month of fasting than in previous years – are the result of three distinct and unrelated factors. First, an enhanced and largely externally directed and funded campaign including drone strikes has eliminated high-profile leaders and diminished its military capacity. Second, some of Somalia’s new federal units are demonstrating greater military effectiveness, even if they and the government still rely primarily on clan-based militias. Third, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged Al-Shabaab’s greatest internal vulnerability – its ideological cohesion.

Whether the Somali government and its allies can advance their cause will largely depend on greater agreement on priorities and coordination of action – no easy task, given the wide and diverse range of external and internal actors.

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The Role of Iraq’s Former Regime Elements in Islamic State

Portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, courtesy thierry ehrmann/flickr

This article was originally published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) on 5 May 2016.

Former Baathists—members of the Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein—including army and security officers, are today the most influential figures in the Islamic State (IS). The opportunism and ideological ambiguity of the former regime elements (FRE) make them ruthless tacticians who use torture and intimidation, but they should also be seen as a potential Achilles heel of the IS. The EU, together with the United States, needs to cooperate on political intelligence in order to examine the possibilities and conditions for weakening IS by bargaining with some of its key members.

Origins of Cooperation between Baathists and Jihadists

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority embarked on the “de-baathification” of Iraq, a process that aimed to remove senior Baath Party members from the country’s institutions and political system. More than 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) were dismissed and barred from further employment in the government sector, while being allowed to keep their weapons. In the faltering economy, dominated by the public sector, de-baathification meant social exclusion or at least a sudden deprivation of privileges that the elite had become used to over decades. Some of them formed local insurgent forces, and later joined the rising jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in 2006 established the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (today’s IS). To a large extent this cooperation resulted from discriminatory policies of the Shiah prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006–2014), who persecuted former officials and marginalised the entire Sunni population.

What united the FRE and the jihadists was the common enemy, the United States and Maliki’s government, rather than ideology. Even during the Faith Campaign (Hussein’s shift towards Islam in the 90s) Baath Party members lived relatively secular lives. Despite different ideological backgrounds, the common enemies and shared desire for power led to a strong synthesis of the jihadists and the ex-Baathists. The degree to which this occurred can be illustrated by the fact that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of IS, was elected to the position in 2010 owing to the support of a former intelligence colonel, Samir al-Khlifawi, who subsequently cleansed the IS management and replenished it with further FRE.

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