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ISIS’s Global Campaign Remains Intact

Image courtesy of Surian Soosay/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study War on 12 July 2017.

ISIS’s first attack in Iran punctuated two stark realities: the group’s annual Ramadan campaign is alive while the US-led anti-ISIS campaign is on a path to failure. ISIS surges attacks every year during Ramadan in order to gain or increase momentum in its global campaign to maintain its declared caliphate, expand across the Muslim world, and win an apocalyptic war with the West. ISIS has conducted successful attacks in three new countries this year – the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Iran – and will likely pull off more before the Muslim holy month is over. The jihadist group has sustained a global insurgency despite the considerable military pressure it faces in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS has been waging its global campaign in four separate “rings” since 2014. First, ISIS is defending and attempting to remain in and expand its territorial control in its “core terrain” in Syria and Iraq. Second, ISIS seeks to weaken the Middle East’s power centers of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Third, ISIS is expanding in other Muslim majority countries through attack networks and, when possible, ground operations. Fourth, ISIS is conducting spectacular attacks in the non-Muslim majority world, or the “far abroad,” in order to polarize those communities and radicalize their minority Muslim populations. ISIS’s Ramadan surges set conditions in these rings, varying its main effort based on its circumstances and the capabilities in Iraq and Syria and of its networks abroad.

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The (Overblown) Concerns Linking Foreign Fighters, Civil Wars, and Terrorist Campaigns

Courtesy of thierry ehrmann/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by Political Violence @ a Glance on 15 June 2017.

More than 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries have entered ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq since 2011. While the flow of these fighters has decreased dramatically over the past twelve months, two important concerns remain regarding foreign fighters. First, foreign fighters could radicalize rebel groups causing an escalation of violence in conflicts, lengthening their duration, and/or reducing opportunities for their resolution. Second, upon the conclusion of their participation in foreign conflicts, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks. In two articles at Research & Politics and Journal of Conflict Resolution, we suggest that both of these concerns are easily exaggerated.

Previous studies present divided evidence as to whether foreign fighters aid or undermine the rebels that they join. On the one hand, data summarizing foreign fighter participation across the period 1900 to 2006 suggest that conflicts involving foreign fighters were more likely, on average, to conclude with insurgent victory than with government victory. On the other hand, in Chechnya, the arrival of foreign fighters perverted the goals of local rebels, negatively affecting their resource and recruitment bases and losing them support within local populations.

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Boko Haram in 2016: A Highly Adaptable Foe

Courtesy of Surian Soosay/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on 7 February 2017.

Significant security gains have been made in the fight against Boko Haram, but the war is far from over.

Last year marked the seventh year since Boko Haram re-merged following a heavy-handed crackdown on the group in July 2009. Since then, the outfit has employed violence in Nigeria and the surrounding region at a dizzying pace. In 2014, according to data collected by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), it was the world’s most deadly terrorist entity.

A lot has changed in the struggle against Boko Haram since then, including the advent of operations by the Multi-National Joint Task Force and the eviction of militants from most areas of territorial control.

This past August, the movement split into two factions. Long-time leader Abubakar Shekau favours a more indiscriminate attack profile, while the new Islamic State-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi faction prefers to engage security forces directly (such as in Bosso, Niger in June). Despite these developments, the high rate of violence perpetrated by the group remains a consistent feature.

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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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ISIS’s Campaign in Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, painted portrait

Courtesy by thierry ehrmann/flickr

This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 30 June 2016.

ISIS is refocusing its strategy in Turkey towards destabilizing the Turkish state and isolating it from the West. ISIS has two main lines of effort in Turkey. The first is to incite an ethnic war between the Kurds and the Turkish state in order to weaken its opponents in northern Syria and regain freedom of action in southern Turkey. The second is to undermine the Turkish state and punish it for being part of the anti-ISIS coalition through attacks against western targets in Turkey. ISIS has more actively pursued this second line of effort by targeting Westerners in Istanbul beginning in early 2016 while continuing its campaign along the Syrian border. The triple suicide bombing at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport on June 28, 2016 supports ISIS’s stated strategic objectives of seizing Constantinople and undermining the Turkish state by harming the vital tourism industry, targeting infrastructure that connects Turkey to the West, and raising requirements for domestic security services. ISIS has not claimed any spectacular attacks against the state in Turkey in order to avoid a major domestic crackdown that would threaten its freedom of action as well as its cross-border mobility into Syria. Moreover, ISIS already accomplishes its objectives in Turkey through spectacular attacks without risking a claim.

ISIS’s evolved strategy in Turkey mirrors a corresponding shift in the policies pursued by Turkey towards the group. Turkey joined the international anti-ISIS coalition in September 2014 but initially avoided overt confrontation with ISIS. Turkey instead tolerated ISIS as a vector to apply indirect pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hasten the overthrow of his regime by opposition groups supported by Turkey. ISIS also provided Turkey with a means to contain the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which Turkey views as an existential threat due its affiliation with secessionist agenda of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey’s reluctance to restrict cross-border flow of foreign fighters and supplies provided ISIS with an incentive to avoid conducting terrorist attacks inside the country and jeopardizing its freedom of movement through Turkey to Syria. Turkey altered its calculus after the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition deepened its cooperation with the Syrian Kurds throughout early 2015, enabling the YPG to secure major gains along the Syrian-Turkish Border. The prospect of further motion towards a contiguous autonomous zone in Northern Syria controlled by the Syrian Kurds prompted Turkey to deepen its own engagement with the coalition. The coalition also acted to encourage this decision through the use of alternating incentives and disincentives meant to influence decision-making in Ankara. The U.S. in particular modulated its provision of aircraft, missile defense systems, rocket artillery, and other high-end capabilities in order to generate a policy convergence on Syria.

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