Outcomes of ISIS* defeat in Syria and Iraq
Speech at VIII Moscow Conference on International Security, April 2019
In the aftermath of the 9,11 attacks, the US under president George W. Bush announced the Global war on terror. This terror was recognized as al-Qaeda* and its offshoot Taliban*. Al Qaeda owned the ideology, the mobilization and sleeper cells all around the world, while Taliban owned the land in Afghanistan and the loyalty of parts of the Afghan tribes and people. The US invaded Afghanistan, occupied it, overthrew the Taliban regime and replaced it with an elected government. Most observers believed then, that al-Qaeda was totally defeated, and that terrorism was thus eliminated. Also observers considered that 9,11 was the ultimate terrorist attack, which followed the attacks on the world trade center in 1994, and on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar El Salam in 1998, not to mention the USS Destroyer Cole bombing off the coast of Aden in 2000.
However, Terrorist attacks did not stop after 9,11, as al-Qaeda carried out attacks in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and other countries.
One of the reasons that the US invaded Iraq was to wipe out the terrorist organizations, mainly al-Qaeda. Yet now, and after 18 years, terror has spilled over to Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and the Arabian peninsula, in addition to Somalia and Egypt.
In Syria and Iraq the terrorists became regular armies with command and control systems, logistic support and well a defined ideology extracted from so called “political Islam” and the misinterpretation of the teachings of Islam and the sayings of prophet Mohamed. The first terrorist army was created in the beginning of 2012 assuming the name of al-Nusra, which was called officially in the press releases: al-Qaeda organization in Sham –al-Nusra Front. Later in 2013 ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham) was created as a defector from the mother organization al-Qaeda, led by the notorious Abu Baker al-Baghdadi.
Many organizations appeared in Syria affiliated to the al-Qaeda school of thought under various names (Jaish al-Sham, the Islamic Turkistan party, Guards of religion….)
On the level of military operations, it is clear that the Army of ISIS was defeated in Iraq in the end of 2017 and it is about to come to its demise in Eastern Syria. Yet the Army of al-Qaeda is still deployed in the Idlib province in North Syria, and includes in its ranks 15 thousand non-Syrian fighters. Talks on the highest level are being held between Russia, Iran and Turkey to find an end either peacefully or by force in cooperation and coordination with the Syrian government.
As we come to the end of the armies of al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the sleeper cells remain, not only in these two countries but in most of the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, India and Afghanistan-Pakistan and other countries all over the world.
What form will these sleeper cells take?
1- In Afghanistan they will take the form of small groups ready to unite into an army and launch attacks. They will rely on some tribes and people supporting them ideologically and/or on benefits from the Opium drug trade. Taliban is part of al-Qaeda in many ways, for it has shown remarkable resilience and over the past year has dealt significant blows to the Afghan army and security forces. It combines terrorist insurgent attacks with conventional military operations. As soon Taliban assume power in Afghanistan or in parts of the country, they will continue to build momentum, gain more strength, and then direct their terrorist activities towards the neighboring countries of Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan. The recent agreement between the US and Taliban for a full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan within a year will also prove a boon for Taliban to exploit any security gap and weak areas left by US forces. This predicates a new role for Taliban in destabilizing the region, given that the Afghan government was not a part of the agreement.
2- In Yemen, al-Qaeda is increasingly active in the Southern provinces, mainly Hadarmout. Benefiting from the involvement of Saudi Arabia and UAE in the war against the Houthis in North Yemen, al-Qaeda built safe havens and reorganized its ranks and files in the form of small groups that could grow larger to become units of a tribal army. This army fits in with the geography of the desert and social fabric of the tribes. It will have a structure of command and control slightly different from that of a regular army. The US drones attacks did not undermine its activities in spite of killing some leaders. The outcome of the war in Yemen is not clear yet,but whatever it is, Al-Qaeda will be an important player in the peninsula and will likely constitute a threat to the stability and security of the region.
3-In West Africa the Boko Haram— an offshoot of al-Qaeda— is expanding in Nigeria, Niger and Cameron and it has groups in Northern Nigeria that are active on the borders of Cameron and Niger. Counter terrorism failed to defeat or weaken these terrorist organizations. In Niger the US lost a team of special operation forces and has not deployed troops in the area yet. No significant coordination has been reported in the region against Boko Haram. Not so far away, French troops have been deployed in Mali with the aim of ousting Islamic militants from the North and pushing them into the center. While the UN mission MINUSMA is a 15 thousand strong force and is assigned with a mandate of ensuring stability, stabilization and protection of civilians, yet so far these forces have not succeeded in fighting terrorism and preventing it from expanding in the region.
In the above three regions al-Qaeda is made up of the native population with a small number of leaders from outside. It will likely form a kind of army upon any deterioration of the political and security situation in the mentioned countries. In addition, sleeper cells and small groups are likely to remain dangerous.
4-In Syria, Iraq and the Levant, sleeper cells will remain and will be activated to launch attacks on civilian, governmental or military targets. Western Iran may become a theater for these cells’ terrorist operations . Al-Qaida will assume different names related to the ethnic or confessional affiliation of the groups. The size of the group depends on the support of the towns or tribes or clans that sympathize with their ideology.
5-As for ISIS, although many Al-Qaeda groups and individuals defected to ISIS, they are not the majority, at least not in Afghanistan where the native Taliban still takes the lead, . ISIS will have sleeper cells that will pose a significant danger. ISIS is based ideologically on the Caliphate?, and the Caliph Al-Baghdadi is the political, military and spiritual leader. When they lose the Caliphate which is “the land of Islam” they will dismember as an army or large groups and become small teams of sleeper cells.
6- Sleeper cells of both al-Qaeda and ISIS will dominate the world of terrorism in North Africa, Europe, Central Asia and other countries. The fate of the foreign fighters in Syria is an important indicator which determines the direction of terrorism in the aftermath of the ISIS and al-Qaeda armies. Do they return back home- this is crucial to the European nationals –or leave to a third country expected to be a target for terror?
The best alternative is to bring them back home and refer them to the judiciary to undergo a fair and just trial. The result of the trial should be made known to their accomplices, funders, and all supporters in politics and media. The question is whether their governments are ready to reveal these secrets or bury them in the sand?
7- Al-Qaeda and ISIS did not monopolize the world of terror. Beyond organized militancy, the world has witnessed the growth of DIY terrorist attacks (Do It Yourself) over the past decade. These attacks were committed by individuals or small groups inspired by radical ideology. They embrace the tactics of leaderless resistance and stage attacks against perceived enemies. Lacking the ability to manufacture complicated devices like bombs and explosives, DIY people opted for comparatively low-tech solutions such as stabbing, shooting or using vehicles to mow down pedestrians. From the couple in St. Bernardino in California USA, to a truck driver in Nice, France and other attacks in Germany and other countries, an individual uses his vehicle or knife or rifle as a weapon to commit terrorist attack alone without any plan.
ISIS relies largely on grassroots militants for operations in the west which seem isolated and uncoordinated, with ISIS often issuing press releases to claim responsibility for the DIY attacks.
Terrorist groups appeared to have motivated fewer attacks in 2018 because of the defeats they suffered in Syria and Iraq which have stripped away at their appeal.
In order to stay alive, it is likely that al-Qaeda and the remains of ISIS will resort to DIY operations in the West. This may involve some of those who would be released from prison after serving the legal detention sentences in their countries.
How to fight terrorist organizations in culture and funding?
8- Culture and Education.
As long as the current culture prevails in the grassroots of the Muslim world, and the Clergy and Sheikhs promote dangerous ideology when they preach during prayers, and the curricula of education continue urging the believers against the infidels, terrorism will persist in many faces.
Taliban, which means the students in Persian, was founded by graduates of religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similar schools are promoting the same culture and teachings in many Islamic countries. In order to fight this ideology, there should be a counter promotion of the real teaching of religion based on the true interpretation of religion. A decision should be taken by the principal Islamic centers in Egypt (al-Azhar), Saudi Arabia (Mecca), Iraq (al-Najaf) and other centers in Indonesia, Pakistan and other countries. The main issue is the fatwa which is a religious decision or ruling taken by a recognized religious authority such as a Sheikh. Fatwas involve many aspects of life and some fatwas give permission to kill members of a certain confession or even certain people from the same confession. A Fatwa is usually more powerful than a sentence adopted by a judicial court. Some fatwas allow a man to implement the order no matter what the dangers— even if it results in the death of that man. All suicide bombers commit their attacks based on a fatwa.
The Islamic centers are before a decisive decision to identify those who issue a fatwa, and how and when such fatwas are issued.
It is impossible for al-Qaeda, ISIS and other affiliated groups to survive and act without funding. When it comes to Armies as is the case in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, they need billions of dollars’ worth of funding. Where does this money come from? The narrative of international media that ISIS funds itself from the revenues of oil while Taliban gets its money from drug business is not convincing. If they sell oil, or drugs, who purchases? How is the money transferred? Furthermore, this money is not enough to cover salaries, living expenses, food, vehicles, fuel, arms and ammunition, and medical services. This means there should be accomplices.
In funding, transferring and handing cash money, the international community did little or nothing to stop the flow of money. The US, for example, froze assets of countries and individuals labeled as terrorists. However, it was never reported that the banking system froze the assets of al-Qaeda or ISIS. The money is still being transferred after rumors of moving ISIS to West Africa.
There should be transparency and sincerity in stopping the flow of funds to al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Yet recently a dispute erupted between the US and the EU over watch lists of countries. The EU commission proposed an addition to the EU blacklist for countries and jurisdictions that possess significant gaps in their domestic AML/ CFT (Money laundry and funding terrorism) legal frameworks, a few are sure to rankle the US including Saudi Arabia and four US jurisdictions-Guam, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. This shows a deep gap between the US and the EU in dealing with countering funding of terrorism. Thus, the international community should seek a new mechanism to stop funding terrorism.
Pending the end of the conventional war on terror in Syria and Iraq, much work has to be done in terms of monitoring the preparations of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan and West Africa, with a special focus on the funding of terrorist organizations and a close review of the curricula in the religious schools.
*Organizations forbidden in Russian Federation