ISIL and jihadist terrorism: not the moment to take our eye off the ball


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last weekend, jihadist militants struck two Orthodox churches, a synagogue and a police post in two towns in Dagestan: Makhachkala, the regional capital, and Derbent. Fifteen Russian policemen were killed in the attack, together with an Orthodox priest and a number of civilians. The attackers kept the gunfire going for eight hours before they were forced to flee. The synagogue was set on fire and destroyed. Russian security forces claimed to have killed six of the terrorists who they say had come from abroad.

The attack in Dagestan is the latest in a series of Islamist-inspired strikes against schools, government buildings and religious sites that have been ongoing in the province since the turn of the century when the Russian crackdown on radical Islamist groups in neighbouring Chechnya radicalised many disaffected Muslims in Dagestan. The latest attack comes also just three months after Islamist terrorists killed 145 people in an attack on a concert hall near Moscow. On that occasion, Putin and the Russian foreign intelligence service, the FSB, blamed Ukraine and made out that the surviving terrorist attackers had fled west towards the Ukrainian border, even though their prospects for escaping along that 1000km long route were close to zero. After the attacks in Dagestan, Moscow is rolling out the same narrative of Ukrainian complicity with NATO country intelligence services providing the training and resources. This is of course part and parcel of Russia’s justification for its war against Ukraine and by proxy the Westas the source of all security threats to Russia. So, as with the recent attack on the concert hall, the Kremlin is playing up the Ukrainian dimension and playing down the connection to ISIL and international jihadist terrorism as if the latter were more a false flag than the real motivation.

Yet there is plenty of evidence that Russia is indeed a principal target of ISIL and its affiliated groups as they attempt to recover and go back on the offensive after the fall of the ISIL caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2017. At first sight, it may appear strange that Russia, a country long known for its condemnation of Western imperialism and Western civilisation, as well as support for Third World national liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s when it was still the Soviet Union, should be at the top of ISIL’s target list. Yet in recent times, Moscow has been on the side of ISIL’s enemies. The brutal Russian crackdown in Chechnya, during two wars started by Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and that totally destroyed the capital, Grozny, has already been mentioned. But Islamists have fed too on the Russian support for Bashar alAssad in Syria, which has enabled Assad to massacre half a million Syrians during the civil war beginning in 2011 and which has displaced nearly 15mn others. The Russian airforce has used barrel bombs to destroy hospitals and attack refugee camps. Many cities like Aleppo have been destroyed and the remaining anti-Assad rebels holed up for years in the Idlib pocket along the Turkish border. Islamists have also been radicalised by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, following which hundreds of thousands of Afghan Muslims lost their lives; and more recently by the actions of Russian Wagner (now Africa Corps) mercenaries in the Sahel, who have been incriminated in human rights abuses against local Muslim communities and are propping up the military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger against which the local jihadists are fighting. So, Moscow can hardly be surprised at the radical change in its image in much of Africa and the Middle East. Muslims in the Western Balkans were not particularly happy either with the backing that Moscow gave to Milošević and ethnic Serb nationalists during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Clearly Moscow has a problem, notwithstanding the claim of the FSB in 2017 that the insurgency in the Caucasus had been defeated. After all, Russians from Central Asia can move more easily inside Russia than Arabs or Afghans. But,if Moscow now has to admit that it faces a real and persistent threat from Islamist terrorism, it will have to explain to the Russian population why it has wasted billions of dollars confronting an imaginary threat from Ukraine and the West instead of protecting its citizens against the more authentic dangers of local Russia based Islamist insurgencies.

This said, as ISIL and other jihadist groups like AlQaeda try to reconstitute after the assassinations of their senior leaders and disruptions to their networks and financing in the wake of the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington, their attention has been overwhelmingly on Africa. Over the last decade, 50% of all deaths at the hands of terrorists have been in Sub-Saharan Africa and 60% of all terrorist incidents. Obliged to abandon the caliphate in 2017, ISIL has been opportunistic, seeking new havens in places marked by chronic conflicts, insecurity and poor governance, and where poorly controlled borders and friendly local groups offer a degree of protection and survival. The departure of foreign forces, which might over time have enabled the local governments to train their armies and pursue effective counter-terrorism strategies, is an added bonus. That is why the Lake Chad and Sahel regions are now the new focal point of ISIL activities. France has been forced to withdraw from Mali, Burkina Faso and more recently Niger, and now the United States has also been obliged to close its drone and training base in Niger. On the other hand, terrorist attacks against government forces and buildings in Burkina Faso have quadrupled since the last French soldiers departed and they have more than doubled in Mali, which demonstrates that the Wagner alternative thus far is hardly more effective. Governments in the Sahel tend to focus their security efforts on the mineral-rich areas vital for mining and economic revenue, leaving other areas abandoned and prey to jihadist violence and takeover.

The EU and NATO member states need to conduct a stocktake of their coverage of the jihadist groups, identifying their blind spots and those groups most likely to attack Western targets

Yet ISIL has also sought to implant itself in other parts of Africa linking up with local actors. For instance, its most prolific branch is the ISIL West African Province (ISWAP), which has been active in northern Nigeria since 2021. It has a rivalry with the AlQaedaloyal Boko Haram group responsible for over 30,000 deaths in Nigeria over the past decade. ISWAP’s most spectacular operation was a prison break in Abuja, which freed hundreds of hardcore jihadists to swell its ranks. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, ISIL has established an affiliate called the Allied Democratic Forces, largely made up of Ugandan rebels. The ADF has caused mayhem in the northeastern DRC, forcing the displacement of thousands of civilians in North Kivu province and despite attempts by the DRC army backed by forces from Uganda, Kenya and other African neighbours to dislodge it. ISIL has also been setting up in northern Mozambique by associating with Al Shabaab (not to be confused with the group in Somalia having the same name). In 2021, Al Shabaab attacked the city of Palma in Cabo Delgado province disrupting the operations at the nearby LNG plant run by the French company, Total Energies. In May this year, it also attacked the town of Macomia, using child soldiers and committing a number of atrocities. Beyond Africa, ISIL has continued to maintain a foothold in Syria and Iraq with numerous scattered cells. Indeed, to the extent that there is still an ISIL HQ or centralised leadership at the moment, it is probably in northern Syria where it has also organised some prison breaks and Iraq too in 2013 to try to reconstitute its fighting forces. In Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, ISIL has established its Khorasan affiliate, which has harassed the Taliban movements traditionally loyal to Al-Qaeda.

So, although the focus of the security community has shifted back to great power rivalries and conflicts in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and no massive terrorist attack has blighted Europe in almost a decade since the 2015 and 2016 ISIL attacks in Paris and Brussels respectively –all this global activity shows that ISIL and to a lesser extent AlQaeda have not magically disappeared. The declaration of Donald Trump in 2017 that ISIL was defeated was as unwise as the premature boasting of the Russian FSB when it comes to the Caucasus. These movements have shown in the past how they can regenerate and resurge quickly, taking us by surprise as when ISIL suddenly captured vast swathes of territory around Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq in 2014. To use the favourite image of the jihadists themselves, they like to retreat into the purity of the desert and then rebound. There are plenty of disenchanted and disenfranchised individuals around to join the ranks and plenty of new perceived outrages against innocent Muslims to mobilise anger, resentment and a desire for destructive revenge. According to just one example, from Save The Children this week, 21,000 Palestinian children are missing in Gaza who are seven times more likely to die from explosives than adults. Just two days later, a report produced by a number of UN agencies was published, claiming that 500,000 people in Gaza are on the brink of starvation. So we can hardly be surprised that the propaganda and recruitment machines of ISIL and AlQaeda, not to mention Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have been working overtime since Israel’s military intervention in Gaza. Although ISIL now mainly offers its brand and legitimacy to decentralised groups who act in its name in return for finance and training, its media and online propaganda operations remain highly controlled and centralised. This ensures that images of violence and brutality always go hand in hand with softer messaging designed to appeal to a broader audience. Fund raisers and supporters are as necessary as suicide bombers. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a boon to the jihadists in this respect as it allows messages in multiple languages to proliferate. This said, it has not been all plain sailing for the jihadists. The competition between ISIL and AlQaeda for domination of the global jihadist movement has remained fierce. The two groups have fought each other in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, they attack each other online and sometimes the mockery can be petty. For instance, AlQaeda often taunts ISIL for its failure to liberate the thousands of its women folk and children who have been incarcerated in squalid camps, such as al-Hol or Camp Roj in northern Syria, which are guarded by Kurds in the Syrian Free Army. AlQaeda presents this as a sign of ISIL’s weakness and powerlessness to protect its own followers. It has also mocked some of the ISIL videos for faking scenes of violence and using the red coloured soft drink, Vinto, to imitate blood. For its part, ISIL has criticised some AlQaeda videos for blasphemy, for instance in the presentation of facial features.

Yet Western analysts should be wary of hoping that fratricide between the two emblematic terrorist groups will reduce the threat that they continue to pose to the transatlantic democracies. Pointing also to the fact that most terrorist incidents occur in just a dozen or so countries around the world mainly in Africa and South West Asia or that 90% of the victims are Muslims caught up in the attacks, does not mean that the jihadists as they bounce back do not have their eyes on Paris, London or Berlin. Neither would Schadenfreude that the West’s adversary, Russia, is now in the crosshairs of the terrorists be an appropriate response. Just last week, the French intelligence services announced that they had thwarted two planned attacks against the forthcoming Olympic Games, one against the stadium in SaintEtienne. Around the same time, the FBI announced that it had cooperated with a number of European partner agencies to take down a jihadist propaganda and recruitment network. The intelligence services that monitor the jihadists’ communications report that they are planning to target large crowds, music festivals (like Hamas in Israel on 7 October last year) and sporting events like the Euros football tournament and the Olympics. This week, the CIA’s former deputy director, Mike Morell, went on the US Sunday talk shows to express his concern that neither the Biden Administration nor the US Congress was sufficiently focused on the terrorist threat. He said that the US was in a “pre-9/11” phase of denial all over again. The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Brown, and the new head of the US Africa Command, General Langley, have been meeting the Chiefs of Defence of many African countries in Botswana and they have pointed to the expanding reach and influence of ISIL and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups across the African continent. In recent days, a report from the Department of Homeland Security warned of a potential risk from inadequate screening of asylum seekers at the Mexican border as well as the danger of Hamas surviving the Israeli offensive in Gaza and turning its attention to Western targets. Indeed, if Israel does not succeed in crushing Hamas, despite its six months of fighting in Gaza and the enormous humanitarian toll it has exacted, Hamas and other similar groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon will emerge with an aura of invincibility. Iran’s prestige and influence will increase and moderate Arab governments willing to work with the US and Europe will be intimidated and threatened. This would be a significant boost to jihadist militancy throughout the Middle East and beyond.

So , notwithstanding our current concerns regarding weapons supplies to Kyiv or the recent summit and military pact between Putin and Kim Jong Un in North Korea, this is no time to take our collective eye off the terrorist threat from international jihadist groups. True, Western intelligence agencies have had to redirect resources in recent years towards right-wing anti-migrant, anti-Islam and white supremacist groups, which have been responsible for shootings and arson attacks on both sides of the Atlantic. But, as Western forces have stopped combating terrorist groups by means of forward deployments in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Mali, and have withdrawn back home, these groups are getting a breathing space to rebuild and plan. After they came under pressure from Western military interventions as part of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, the jihadists were not able to organise many more spectaculars but relied mainly on the lone wolvesor self-radicalised individuals who were willing to wield a knife or drive a hired truck into a crowd on a sidewalk. These acts often inflicted only limited damage but served to keep the jihadists and their cause visible in the media and to expose the security lapses of Western governments. But now that the military pressure is off, the groups will have more time and space to build their sanctuaries and to plan more ambitious and deadly attacks.

So,what should the transatlantic allies do in anticipation of a resurgence of jihadist terrorism?

Certainly in first place not to sit back and wait for a major attack to happen. The allies should remember the dictum of Napoleon that “it is excusable to lose a battle but not to be taken by surprise”. This means devoting sufficient intelligence time and resources to monitoring the jihadist groups and to intercepting their communications. Intelligence and warnings also need to flow smoothly among allies and to other countries, even adversaries, who may face imminent terrorist attacks. The US warned Moscow ahead of the attack against concertgoers at the Crocus City Hall by ISIL Khorosan last March but the Russian security forces decided to ignore it. It may sound obvious to say that intelligence services need to share their analyses and especially operational information and indeed after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 many barriers both legal and administrative to that sharing were removed. Yet in this area, much depends on personalities at the top and the trust that they build up over time. As people retire and new priorities emerge, the culture of cooperation on terrorism can quickly evaporate. So, the EU and NATO member states need to conduct a stocktake of their coverage of the jihadist groups, identifying their blind spots and those groups most likely to attack Western targets either at home or abroad. The stocktake can also ensure that all the key regions of the globe are being examined as in recent decades significant terrorist threats have emerged from the Maghreb, the Sahel, Sinai, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Philippines, not to mention within Europe and the US. Establishing regional intelligence fusion cells in these areas of concern can help Western intelligence agencies to interact with local actors who often have better insights into what is happening on the ground. Given the reliance of jihadist groups on the dark web and social media for their propaganda and communications, the old issue of encryption and access by intelligence agencies to private encrypted communications will no doubt return before too long. A compromise between governments and the tech companies and social media platforms will need to be found here. Within democratic states, the police and intelligence services need to work with local authorities and communities as well as schools and universities to identify individuals who have been radicalised and need to be regularly monitored and engaged, or who travel to terrorist-controlled areas overseas.

Take your eye off the ball and you have a 9/11 with all the catastrophic political, human and financial consequences

A second course of action will be to disrupt the operations of the terrorist networks to keep them constantly on the back foot. This is normally viewed in military terms with drones or special forces targeting the leaders of these groups or cruise missile strikes against terrorist training camps. These are at best stopgap solutions but they can be justified under the right of self-defence, and if an immediate threat is posed. But disruption can take other forms too, such as cyberattacks, which the US has acknowledged carrying out against ISIL in the past, or the freezing of the financial assets of terrorists and sanctions against the banks that handle terrorist donations and criminal proceedsas with ISIL oil sales, ransom money and stolen art during the years of the caliphate. A body in Paris called the Financial Action Task Force has a good record in tracing terrorist finance and needs to be properly staffed and resourced. The smuggling routes and supply chains that the jihadists use to procure weapons or to traffic drugs and stolen commodities also need to be dismantled, for instance, access to ports and unregulated commercial shipping. It is highly risky and dangerous to plant moles and informants within terrorist groups so disruption has to be applied from the outside, as for instance in putting pressure on countries that host terrorist groups or refuse to cooperate in extraditing terrorist operatives and foreign fighters. Helping countries willing to cooperate with the West to train and equip their security forces, to improve governance in regions with vulnerable populations and to build more secure prisons to house terrorist fighters has to be part of this equation too. Bringing terrorists to justice for their crimes in trials that are not seen as ‘victors’ justice’ but as free and fair, can also help to publicise the crimes of terrorists and de-legitimise their cause. This week, there was a legal breakthrough in this respect when a rebel leader from Mali linked to Jihadist extremism, Al Hassan Abdullah Aziz Mahmoud, was found guilty in the International Criminal Court in The Hague of torture and summary executions. He was also on trial for gender-related violence, in the first trial of this kind but not ultimately found guilty on that specific charge. Nonetheless, the trial demonstrates that jihadists operating in remote areas beyond normal Western reach can still be captured and successfully prosecuted. So,disruption has to be a constant harassing of violent extremist groups using a multifaceted approach that can capitalise on vulnerabilities wherever they are discovered.

In third place comes resilience. Following the spate of terrorist attacks that Europe experienced from the 1970s onwards many of these coming from nationalist groups like the Irish IRA or the Basque ETA, or from the radical left like Italy’s Red Brigades – European states started to look at their capacity to absorb the shock of terrorist attacks and bounce back quickly. They learned the importance of clear and rapid communication, warnings conveyed on mobile phones, how to protect vulnerable communities against retaliation, how to secure critical infrastructure and to prevent economic damage and how to ensure continuity of government and essential services. The joined-up approach mobilising all of government and society was one important lesson in minimising the impact of terrorist attacks, treating the casualties and getting transport links back up and running quickly. The key role of mayors and local authorities closest to the people most affected soon became apparent. As well as coordination between government and private sector, especially in an age when the private sector owns the telecommunications, energy grids, water supply systems and transport networks. At the height of the terrorist surge in Europe 20 years ago, government civil servants were busy organising exercises and drills to ensure that the various agencies of government knew their roles and were ready to mobilise. In more recent times, resilience has been directed at other types of threats, such as pandemics, like COVID-19, climate-induced extreme weather events and civil defence against aerial bombardment in wartime. But the responses are largely the same, particularly when it comes to strategic communications, hospital reception facilities, emergency responders, temporary shelters and the need for adequate stocks of food, medicines and basic supplies. The new EU Commission, once appointed and approved by the European Parliament, could usefully conduct a Resilience Audit of its member states, specifically against a spectrum of possible terrorist attacks with different targets, weapons used and levels of casualties. The audit report could identify remedial actions to be taken both at the EU and national levels. NATO also does a lot of work on resilience with allies committing to Resilience Goals as part of the NATO defence planning process and benchmarking their performance against seven resilience baselines for continuity of government and essential services. So,this should be a priority area for NATO’s incoming Secretary General, Mark Rutte, and the new European Commission. It might just be one area too that EU sceptic Hungary, which takes up its EU Presidency on July 1, might like to push as part of its programme.

Finally, there is diplomacy. As we know all too well, terrorism feeds on historical grievances and perceptions of Western double standards and indifference when it comes to the plight of innocent and defenceless Muslims suffering violence and repression. Of course, we have to be wary of over-simplifying this finding as radicals like to assign blame and can jump easily from one cause and grievance to another. So, even if we could bring peace to Gaza, the current source of anger and radicalisation, it would probably only bring a short respite given all the many other conflicts blighting Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Yet this said, there is certainly scope for a more visible and effective EU diplomacy to be led by Kaja Kallas of Estonia, who was just announced as the next EU High Representative for the Common Security and Defence Policy. The Middle East is not the best place to start as the EU is not seen as a security provider, contrary to the US, and has difficulty coming to a united position. In recent days, three member states have recognised Palestine as a state Spain, Ireland and Sloveniawhile others believe this is premature or, like Germany, are firm backers of Israel. But more involvement in the horrendous conflict in Sudan and pressure on the UAE to stop its support for the Rapid Support Forces, responsible for numerous human rights violations, could demonstrate a more even-handed EU foreign policy putting real muscle behind its lofty humanitarian principles. More backing with logistics and finance for the multinational African forces (currently led by South Africa as part of the SADC mission) and the African Union trying to drive back the M23 and ADF rebels in the DRC could help too, as would help to the Nigerian government to end the climate of lawlessness and school kidnappings in the northern part of the country. There can be drawbacks to more EU engagement in conflict resolution in regions where terrorists are preying on corrupt governments and insecure populations. To take one side is often to alienate the other. And expectations can be created, which are difficult to achieve. Yet at a time when the reach of the Jihadists is expanding across West Africa, a concerted EU effort to tackle on the ground the root causes of the unrest that makes this a fertile recruiting environment for the violent extremists is worth the effort. Patience, persistence and a sense that the EU is in the fight for the long haul can persuade local authorities and populations to cooperate with the EU. Certain countries seem lostfor the time being. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have left ECOWAS, formed their own defence pact, and thrown in their lot with Russia and its Wagner mercenaries. This week, Niger terminated the permit of the French company, Orano, to operate a uranium mine on its territory in a further sign of its distancing from its former colonial ruler. Yet other West African states, such as Senegal, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are still willing to work with the West and need to be shored up so that ISIL and AlQaeda do not destabilise them from its base in the Sahel. Inevitably trying to contain illegal migration will remain a priority for the EU’s foreign policy towards West Africa; but a renewed and comprehensive effort to counter-terrorism and the criminality and poor governance on which it depends can not only produce better and stronger EU-Africa partnerships but stop the Jihadist threats to Europe from escalating to a strategic level. Preventing this from happening will be as much a test for the new EU foreign policy team as deterring Russia and managing the challenge of China. Precisely because the EU has the military and economic tools to achieve it whereas so many of its other global objectives will depend on the involvement of the US and fellow democracies in the Asia Pacific.

Readers of this commentary will not be pleased to be confronted with another security headache at a time when war in Ukraine, European rearmament and war warnings from our generals have given us all a degree of psychological overload. But take your eye off the ball and you have a 9/11 with all the catastrophic political, human and financial consequences. As George H. W. Bush famously said, the following day on 12 September 2001, we all woke up in a different world. And it certainly was not a better one. Do we really want to live through all that again?

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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