In recent years, the death of a Croatian hostage, downing of a Russian airliner, and pernicious attacks on military installations and on civilians in churches, mosques and tourist sites raise questions about the Egyptian government’s ability to protect the country. The attack on the Rawda mosque in Egypt’s Sinai region last week, which left 305 people dead and another 200 injured, escalated this concern to an entirely new level – laying bare the harsh reality that Egypt’s counterterrorism policy does not appear to be working.
No one organization claimed the Rawda attack, but Daesh-affiliated groups, like Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), have claimed several of the terrorist attacks in Egypt. Daesh and its affiliates have no qualms about killing Muslims or Copts and other religious minorities to advance religious sectarianism and destabilize the stability of states.
In the last three and a half years, Egyptian security’s counterterrorism policy has been laser-focused on the Muslim Brotherhood as the primary source of instability and insecurity. However, with approximately 70,000 Muslim Brotherhood members imprisoned, the organization has almost no presence on the streets of Egypt. Thus, the Rawda mosque attack highlights the question of whether Egypt has been focused on the right group. In reality, Egypt — and other countries in the Middle East and beyond — need to recognize that while Daesh no longer governs from its former urban holdings in Syria and Iraq, it retains insurgent and terrorist capabilities in these two countries. Furthermore, it retains a global network of affiliates that will not only help sustain the transnational jihadist movement, but also bolster its efforts to regain its status as a state actor.
Examining the Nodes
Daesh has lost much of its hold on territory in Syria and Iraq, including the “capital” of its so-called caliphate, the city of Raqqa. It has degraded from being a quasi-state actor back to a non-state threat. While it was trying to govern its caliphate situated in Iraq and Syria it was also focusing on enhancing its decentralized global network of over 40 nodes — known as wilayats, or provinces — in 100 countries in Africa and Asia. Daesh’s original aim was to break away from al Qaeda’s more gradualist approach and establish a theocratic state. However, two and half years after achieving its goal, Daesh lost its desired regime. Anymore, it has been reduced back to the status of a loose movement revolving around the most extreme form of militant Salafism willing to scorch the earth for the sake of what it considers success.
Daesh’s power does not come solely from its ability to conquer and control territory. Its envisioned polity is based on its efforts to penetrate the minds of disillusioned and disenfranchised youth who seek to belong to a community with inspiring, unflagging devotion to a just cause. Despite its military losses, the Daesh “brand” still stands as a powerful symbol of the oppressed fighting the oppressors, and the cleansing of the faith (and the land) of corruption to win the future promise of messianic blessings.
With Daesh fighters on the run from Syria and Iraq to the wilayat, local militant jihadist groups in North Africa, the Sahel, and other parts of Africa are working to handle the presence of Daesh affiliates — by either bringing them into the fold or circumventing their influence in local affairs.
Rise of the Daesh Franchise
As Daesh was losing strategic territory in Iraq and Syria, it was organizing and/or inspiring attacks in the United Kingdom, Spain, Niger, the Philippines, Somalia and Afghanistan. Daesh-affiliated outfits, like the Sinai Peninsula’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, have been active since 2011. The Wilayat Sinai pledged allegiance to Daesh in November 2014. In 2015, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis staged a series of attacks against the Egyptian army. The scale and complexity of those attacks opened the possibility of closer coordination with the Daesh leadership in Syria.
In Libya, militants responsible for attacks on government institutions and revenge killings are tied to Daesh’s Wilayat Tarabulus, Wilayat Fezzan and Wilayat Barqqa. The Daesh wilayats in Libya encountered resistance from existing Libyan tribal militias in Sirte, who viewed them as foreign and rival forces fleeing from their own losses in Iraq and Syria.
In Tunisia, Ansar Sharia Tunisia (also known as Shabab Tawhid) and its rival group Jund al-Khalifa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) claimed powerful attacks against civilians at tourist resorts. Approximately 6,500 Tunisians are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to answer Daesh’s call for a global caliphate.
In Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, militant jihadists are engaging with government and multilateral forces. Among these jihadist groups are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Din, and Al Mourabitoun. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is not rooted in any specific area, but finds itself competing for legitimacy, funds and control of militant Islamist narratives in an already crowded space.
In Nigeria, the deadly Boko Haram declared its allegiance to Daesh in 2015. In return, the group received organizational support, funding, ammunition, training for fighters and technical support. Boko Haram was able to use the Daesh brand and reputation to recruit new members and sustain itself.
The Islamic State in Somalia (Abnaa ul-Calipha) is a Daesh-affiliated group operating in the Puntland mountains of Somalia. Shaikh Abdul Qadir Mumin, the prominent militant Islamist, leads the group. Al Shabaab is actively trying to destroy the Islamic State in Somalia because Al Shabaab views the other group as competition. Al Shabaab has had deep ties with al Qaeda for more than a decade and claims that its jihadist struggle is grounded in finding just solutions to local grievances on governance, property rights, and power-sharing, and in dissolving the economic power held by a select group of warlords. Daesh’s Somalian affiliate is seen as an interloper.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Daesh is not entrenched or well-rooted in local communities. Daesh wilayats will attempt to maximize the Daesh brand in order to increase funding, technical support, ideological legitimacy and organizational guidance. However, local fighters will assess their affiliation with any organization based on the group’s ability to create change on a local level.
Throughout Africa, governments have feared that the fall of Daesh in Syria would contribute to a kind of renaissance among local militant Islamists who would welcome Daesh fighters and adopt their strategies and tactics. However, the opposite is occurring. Al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are rejecting Daesh funding and support and robustly fighting Daesh to suppress its presence in the Islamist market. Libyan tribal militias have contained the Daesh wilayats there to areas in Misurata. Even Boko Haram has splintered into two rival factions: one aligning with Daesh and the other insisting that any alignment with foreign militant groups will compromise local allegiances.
U.S. Counterterrorism Support
Following the military fall of Daesh in Mosul and Raqqa, U.S. Presidential Envoy to the Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the State Department Brett McGurk highlighted three key areas of focus. The first is to continue stabilization efforts in Iraq and Syria. The second is to advance political and diplomatic efforts to resolve local governance problems. The third is to strengthen the coalition of 73 countries working to cut off Daesh’s financing and recruitment efforts and to provide counter-messaging.
Building upon President Donald Trump’s lunch with African leaders at the U.N. General Assembly meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted a follow-up ministerial meeting on Nov. 21. African ministers spent two days working with counterterrorism experts on effective ways to monitor recruitment, counter militant narratives, and deflate the exaggerated influence of militants.
The United States recently pledged up to $60 million to the G5 Sahel Joint Counterterrorism Forces, a collaborative effort between the United Nations and the African Union to fight terrorist threats in West Africa. The G5 Sahel CT force includes more than 5,000 troops from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania to eliminate the presence of militant forces on the Niger-Mali border.
However, prioritizing a combination of military and counterterrorism approaches alone will not sufficiently address violent extremism’s appeal to non-state actors. There is a dire need to invest in preventive activities, in concert with counterterrorism efforts, in order to attack violent extremist ideologies at the root. Perhaps the biggest such activity is the need for a narrative that can offer effective intellectual resistance against radical impulses. In addition, there is a need to improve political, social and economic conditions, which could help in creating a bulwark against the proliferation of Salafist-jihadism.
Learning from a Soviet Defeat
Policy makers and analysts need to recall the lessons learned after multilateral efforts forced the surrender of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In 1989, former fighters (mujahidin) flowed back into Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and East Africa. Governments there made little to no effort to reintegrate them into mainstream society. Actually, these fighters exerted a high level of influence within their communities because they were viewed as heroes who defeated the powerful Soviets and thus were able to have a toxic influence on considerable segments of the mainstream.
Similarly, former Daesh fighters returning to their local communities will want to either seek amnesty and reintegrate into society, conceal their continued allegiance to Daesh by pretending to partake in rehabilitation programs, remain undercover with Daesh wilayats to conduct local operations, or build underground networks and operate like street gangs involved in illegal activities.
While it is imperative to focus on disrupting the global network that is providing Daesh with fighters and financing its propaganda, it is also crucial for multinational organizations fighting Daesh to develop robust reintegration and rehabilitation programs.
Research shows that violent extremists are attracted, or pulled toward, extremist ideologies because of a complex interplay of social, psychological, economic, political and identity factors. Counterterrorism strategies with half-hearted efforts to counter violent extremism will not diminish the lure of extremist ideologies. For example, in Mali or Chad, countering violent extremism programming by making communities resilient is futile if there is no attention to pre-existing conflicts, divisions between and within communities, mistrust between state and citizens, and increasing ethnic sectarianism. Countering violent extremism and counterterrorism policies must take all these factors into account, or the feelings of exclusion and other grievances that drive recruits into the arms of Daesh and its affiliates will continue.
Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is the Director of Security & Violent Extremism at the Center for Global Policy, overseeing the department’s policy initiatives. Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA) where he focused on a variety of religious issues and their intersection with US foreign policy. He specializes in political Islam, civil society organizations, education policies and security issues within the Muslim world. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image: Courtesy of AP