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The Siege of Marawi City: Some Lessons

Image courtesy of Wasfi Akab/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This article was originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on 22 August 2017.

Synopsis

As the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) closes in on the dwindling number of IS militants in Marawi, various terrorist tactics learned from the wars in Iraq and Syria are being replicated to worsen the conflict in southern Philippines and spread IS influence in the region.

Commentary

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has managed to recapture most of Marawi back from the Maute Group and its acolytes despite the military’s lack of familiarity with urban warfare and the terrain. Westmincom has made “great advances” addressing the “complicated” issues on the ground even though it missed the deadline for retaking Marawi fully or wiping out terrorism from Mindanao by June 2017.

However, for the Maute Group and other terrorist groups in Mindanao, the eventual loss of Marawi will not be so much of a setback as the beginning of bolder military moves to capture territory, even if briefly, to demonstrate their fighting capability and rally support for the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the region, especially in the wake of IS military defeats in Iraq and Syria.

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Al-Shabaab Holds its Ground against Somalia’s Amnesty Deal

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

This article was originally published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on 4 August 2017.

Most al-Shabaab members refused Farmajo’s offer – he must now defeat the group within two years as promised.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) has employed a classic carrot-and-stick approach to al-Shabaab since taking office in February. In early April, Farmajo announced a 60-day amnesty for al-Shabaab militants, while also offering to open discussions with the movement’s leadership.

At the same time, he noted that Somalia was in a state of war, and promised to eradicate within two years those who didn’t take advantage of his offer to surrender. With the presumed expiration of that amnesty, it is clear which path most of al-Shabaab has chosen, but what is less clear is the Somali government’s ability to respond.

The provision of an amnesty was not a novel concept, as it followed on similar offers by previous Somali governments. With the election of the popular, less clan-inclined, and seemingly incorruptible Farmajo, however, there was some speculation that there may be a genuine opportunity for engagement with al-Shabaab. At an official level this was quickly squashed by top al-Shabaab leaders.

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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 Islamic State’s Internal Rifts and Social Media Ban

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This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) on 21 June 2017.

An important part of the Islamic State’s meteoric rise to power in Syria and Iraq was due at least in part to its creative use of social media tools to distribute propaganda and recruit new members. The group’s well-documented social media skills have attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join the fight. As documented by the CTC weeks before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established the caliphate in Mosul, the Islamic State propaganda machine also served a critical role in psychological operations during the group’s blitzkrieg advance into northwestern Iraq in June of 2014.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the group has issued an official ban on social media for all of its soldiers. In a document (see below) produced by the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee a few weeks ago and disseminated via Islamic State distribution channels more recently, the group’s order to all of its soldiers stated: “effective from the date of this notification, using social networking sites is entirely and completely forbidden. Whoever violates this exposes himself to questioning and accountability.” The order was published by the group in both Arabic and English.

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Can Military Might Alone Defeat al-Shabaab?

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

This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 21 March 2017.

Developing a “security pact” to tackle insurgent jihadists al-Shabaab, who continue to stifle state-building efforts, is one of the key agenda items at the upcoming high-level conference on Somalia scheduled for May this year in London. This complex challenge first depends on identifying what makes al-Shabaab such a resilient movement. Despite some success on the battlefield, this is an understanding that has largely escaped Somalia’s various security forces—and their international supporters—until now.

Donors such as the United Kingdom, European Union, and United States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Somalia’s security services, including 1.8 billion euros pledged in September 2013 as part of the “New Deal Compact.” Yet al-Shabaab remains a potent force throughout most of the country. The London conference thus presents an opportunity to develop security architecture—and associated justice mechanisms—more in line with previous political progress in Somalia.

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