This article was originally published by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) on 17 March 2017.
At the end of 2016, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), announced that the group had “expanded and shifted some of our command, media, and wealth to Africa.” ISIS’s Dabiq magazine referred to the regions of Africa that were part of its “caliphate”: “the region that includes Sudan, Chad, and Egypt has been named the caliphate province of Alkinaana; the region that includes Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda as the province of Habasha; the North African region encompassing Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria, Niger, and Mauritania as Maghreb, the province of the caliphate.” Leaving aside the mismatched ethno-linguistic groupings included in each of these “provinces,” ISIS’s interest in establishing a presence in Africa has long been a part of its vision for a global caliphate.
Battlefield setbacks in ISIS’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria since 2015, however, raise questions of what impact this will have for ISIS’s African aspirations. A useful starting point in considering this question is to recognize that the threat from violent Islamist groups in Africa is not monolithic but is comprised of a variety of distinct entities. For the most part, these groups are geographically concentrated and focused on local territorial or political objectives. Specifically, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies has identified 5 major categories of militant Islamists groups in Africa. In order of lethality on the continent, these include Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, ISIS-linked groups in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Sinai-focused groups.
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.
This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 27 May 2016.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Popular Mobilization launched a major operation on May 23 to recapture Fallujah from ISIS. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced Operation Breaking Terrorism late on May 22 following weeks of force build-up in the area. The ISF and Anbar Sunni tribal fighters carried out shaping operations to the south of Fallujah in the weeks prior, recapturing al-Salaam Junction and moving along the southern road on May 7. Iranian proxy Shi’a militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, deployed heavily to the vicinity of Fallujah beginning on May 17. Progress of the actual operation has been rapid, with the joint ISF-Popular Mobilization forces recapturing key locations within the first 24 hours. These included Garma sub-district, a small town northeast of Fallujah, and Naimiyah on the southern edge of Fallujah City on May 23. Even before ISIS, Sunni militants including Jaish al-Mujahideen, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiyah (JRTN) used Garma as a support zone. As of May 26, security forces have captured much of the Garma area and have pressed on Fallujah’s northern, eastern, and southeastern flanks, though the progress of the ISF and Popular Mobilization in Albu Shajal and Saqlawiyah, on the northeastern axis, remains limited. These areas need to be controlled in order to complete the encirclement of Fallujah.
Operation Breaking Terrorism comes amid a period of instability for Baghdad and the Iraqi government. PM Abadi is weak, and the Council of Representatives has failed to make quorum due to boycotts by numerous parties, including the Kurdistan Alliance, the Reform Front, and the Sadrist Trend. Meanwhile, Sadrist demonstrators have threatened Baghdad security, breaking into the Green Zone and major government buildings first on April 30 and again on May 20, when protesters clashed with security forces. The demonstrations have exceeded the Interior Ministry’s security forces’ ability to provide basic protection in Baghdad; the increased instability caused by large-scale protests has required the deployment of additional forces to the capital, including members of the Golden Division, a unit within the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), that closed the entrances of the Green Zone on May 20.
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.
Two Iraqi armed insurgents, courtesy Menendj/WikiMediaCommons
This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 11 March 2016.
It seems clear that pro-government forces in Iraq are preparing to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The Islamic State (ISIS), a Sunni extremist group, captured Mosul following a series of assaults in June 2014, an offensive that ultimately resulted in an embarrassing collapse of the Iraqi Army in northern Iraq. Since then, the Iraqi government has made the recapture of Mosul a key domestic goal in its fight to reclaim its territory and reassert its control over a restive minority Sunni population. Prior to the events of 2014, the Sunnis were agitating for greater regional autonomy, akin to the political status of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and strongly against the Shiite-dominated central government.
Mosul lies at a strategic juncture between a number of groups, including the Turks, Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Persian Shiites. It is also lies in close proximity to several states and territories, including Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the autonomous northern KRG. Which party controls this city is a significant determinant for all of these regional powers when considering their border security and foreign policy.