Jihadist terrorist groups with a global ‘Caliphate’ agenda operating within Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan with major links to ISIS and Al-Qaeda core leadership networks have switched tactics to focus on winning hearts and minds of the local population at the detriment of security forces tasked to counter these groups.
In the Lake Chad region, Boko Haram Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) factions are benefiting from ISIS experienced returning foreign fighters and resources from the ruins of ISIS stronghold in Mosul and Raqqa, creating an environment of absolute fear that enables jihadist to easily win the people’s ‘trust’ required for counter -intelligence led operations and long-term survival. These tactics have left the military and other security services facing regular attacks, placing them in a defensive position.
With the massive displacement of surviving ISIS fighters spread across the Middle East, North Africa and the Lake Chad Basin, jihadist attack patterns and methodology has equally changed to more random, unpredictable and disorganized tactics. There have been major changes in selection of targets with a consistent focus on targeting hard security, government and military positions. Strategically, Jihadist groups are creating more avenues to corporate and collaborate for a common interest and a common enemy with other rival jihadist networks and organized criminal networks. The most glaring shift so far is the move away from the tactics of invading, capturing and holding large territory for long to temporal capture, show of force, assure the local population and abandon. These changes in jihadist attack trend, focus, tactics and strategy is a mirror reflection of the absence of an effective and coordinated counter terrorism strategy by security stakeholders.
The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) Context:
The Number of recorded deaths from terrorist attacks reduced globally in 2017 according to the newly released 2018 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report. Despite the collapse of the so-called Islamic Caliphate stronghold in Raqqa & Mosul, ISIS (Daesh), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram factions, Al-Shabaab and Taliban remains the deadliest terrorist groups, increasingly coordinating operations, showing signs of forging long term coalitions and changing attack tactics to focus on military and other security hard targets compared to civilian soft targets.
The battle ground has equally shifted away from Syria – Iraq towards Africa and Middle East where recruitment and vulnerability drivers are much higher. When compared to terrorist patterns in 2018, the global jihadist threat level for 2019 looks disturbing for Africa and the Middle East with a forecast of further reduced terror related deaths in Europe.
The 2018 GTI report by the Institute for Economics and Peace has recorded a 27% decrease in death from terrorist attacks in 2017 compared to 2016. It also cites a reduction from 79 to 77 countries where someone died as a result of a terrorist incident. Attacks and deaths as a result of terrorist incidents in Syria, Iraq and Europe dropped significantly since 2016 and 2017.
The Middle East and Africa where Daesh, Boko Haram factions, Taliban, Al-Shabaab and AQIM linked jihadist groups operate recorded more deadly attacks and more casualties than Europe and the rest of the world .
Africa and the Middle East regions remain the most vulnerable and unstable in the world as a coalition of ISIS and Al-Qaeda Jihadist groups linked to organized criminal networks are becoming more strategic, choosing to focus less on number of attacks and more on the significance and long-term impact of targets. The 2018 GTI report should not be read as an indicator of reduced global terrorism threats but a calculated jihadist change of strategy and other challenging factors. Understanding the displacement and balloon effect will shed light on the increase terror related incidents in Africa and the Middle East.
The ‘Balloon Effect’ and How It Reduced Jihadist Casualties in 2017:
The level and nature of terrorist related attacks leading to mass casualties dropped significantly for the first time especially in Iraq and Syria (Deaths fell by 52 percent – incidence by 22%) after the slow but steady collapse of ISIS strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul in 2017.
That pattern has continued in 2018 although a small number of remaining Daesh fighters continue to launch hit and run attacks against hard military and security targets in Syria and Iraq. The fall of ISIS Caliphate to US-Russia backed coalitions led to a balloon effect to parts of Middle East and Africa particularly in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Mali, Northern Nigeria and Somalia. In Sub Saharan Africa and the Sahel, Al-Qaeda and Daesh backed affiliates Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM or “The Group For The Support of Islam and Muslims”, Boko Haram ISIS faction (Islamic State of West Africa Province – ISWAP) AQIM and Al-Shabaab have benefitted from experienced returning foreign fighters (RFF) and specialized resource networks from the ruins of the so-called ISIS Caliphate.
The demise of Mosul and Raqqa left thousands of surviving Daesh experienced fighters looking for alternative safe haven to restart their campaign. Daesh leadership negotiated its way out of the left-over ruins from Raqqa and Mosul, moving its remaining fighters with weapons across the borders of Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.
Some of the surviving hardened RFFs (with their families) smuggle themselves across borders using false identifications to return to their countries of origin. FFRs and their families who could not return to their country of origin for fear of facing the justice system or they were simply not welcome back, diverted to other countries in Africa, the Middle and Europe where some joined ISIS Wiyalats in environments they could blend without suspicion.
The logistics period required for ISIS planning and preparation to move hundreds of thousands of their men with families, weapons and other resources to link up with other ISIS networks in selected regions in Africa, the Middle East and Asia created a gap period of reduced terror related attacks in 2017-2018. The time required for Returning Foreign Fighters (RFFs) to familiarize in their new theatre of operation, may account for some reduced deaths immediately after the period of the collapse of Raqqa and Mosul in 2017. The displacement of ISIS from Syria and Iraq and the linking up with affiliates explains Jihadist attack upsurge in late 2018 by groups like ISWAP , Al-Shabaab, Taliban , JNIM and AQIM in Northern Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, Mali , Niger and Afghanistan compared to Europe and Asia which received fewer RFFs.
The Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel where experienced ISIS RFFs have joined ranks with ISWAP and other existing networks (AQIM and Al-Shabaab) are key areas to watch come 2019-2020. This prediction in increase terrorism and insurgency activities come 2019 explains the GTI report rating of countries with higher threats – Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, Egypt, Congo DRC, Rep of Congo, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Mali, Kenya … which scored low ratings in peace and stability for 2017.
Winning Hearts and Minds: Create Fear to Win Trust: Indirect radicalisation:
A sustainable victory in the asymmetric ‘war on terror’ depends largely on the unrelenting support, trust and timely intelligence from the local population. Whoever succeeds to win the support of the local population who are the primary stakeholders, will likely control the dynamics of the long war. Jihadist groups operating in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, have significantly changed attack targets in the past year 2017-2018.
A consistent change of pattern from targeting soft civilian positions to focusing on hard security, military and government related targets suggest a tactical move of focusing on ‘winning hearts and minds’ of the local population by exploiting fear to win trust. The idea of winning support from the local population was not considered a first priority to ISIS especially as attacks against soft civilian targets were meant to create fear worldwide.
As seen in recent attack patterns in Nigeria, Somali and Afghanistan, jihadist are targeting military and security hard positions, sensitive government infrastructures rather than busy markets, shopping malls, Mosque and the public places where innocent civilians and Muslims are likely to be the highest casualties. Daesh affiliates increasingly avoid carrying out attacks against local population or claim attacks that deliberately or mistakenly kill too many innocent people to avoid loosing needed support.
Encouraged by the fall of Raqqa and Mosul means ISIS linked Jihadist groups are increasingly changing their attack behaviour, focusing on activities that will win over the hearts and minds of the local population even when they are not in direct support of their jihadist activities. The Focus on hard targets is an increasing trend that is likely to continue in 2019 forcing coalition and government security services to take permanent defensive positions. The need for security services to accelerate sustainable activities that will win the support and trust of the local population has become even more challenging in a war that can only be effectively won through timely intelligence sharing from the people who need protection the most.
This prevailing terror tactics of spreading fear by consistently attacking hard military targets and gaining coercive trust from the local population trapped in the middle is likely to continue into 2019.
However depending on the strength and effectiveness of locally implemented counter measures from government stakeholders, the dynamics of ISIS affiliates winning trust from the local population through fear may change especially if ISIS affiliated groups become more desperate or fail to win the local support needed to survive and sustain their global jihadist narrative.
ISIS & Al-Qaeda Will Avoid Holding Captured Territory for Long:
The ISIS rational to capture and hold large territory for long as it did with Raqqa and Mosul is dead and buried- at least for now. Ironically, what made the ISIS brand a global appeal beyond their ability to take advantage of online resources for propaganda and recruitment of vulnerable men and women from all corners of the world, was the short term success in ISIS leadership permanently holding large territory in Iraq and Syria and declaring it an Islamic Caliphate.
ISIS ‘competitor’ Al-Qaeda (the ‘mother of ISIS’ ) under Bin Laden did not get that far. The ‘ideals of the Caliphate’ acted as a pull factor for global jihadist groups declaring allegiance and support to ISIS leadership, inflow of hundreds and thousands of volunteer foreign fighters and ordinary Muslims with and without needed skills but who believed in the narrative of the appointed Caliph Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi.
Without aerial control, support and surveillance capabilities, made worse by a constant and coordinated coalition air and ground force attacks, with leadership decapitation tactics using UAVs (drones), it became clear that what ISIS had relied on as their greatest appeal and strength would be turned inside-out to be their achilles hills.
The lessons learnt by the leadership of ISIS and passed on to its affiliated factions is to avoid the tactics of ‘capture and hold’ large territory for long term without acquiring a comprehensive and sustainable ground and air support capability. This trend may likely continue in years to come until ISIS and Al-Qaeda leadership is practically convinced that they have acquired sufficient resource capacity to sustain air and ground incursions from coalition or multinational joint task forces.
Why Europe Had Fewer Terror related activities:
Improvement in Anti-terrorism and counter terrorism measures:
Most western European states (according to 2018 GTI figures) recorded reduced deaths from 872 in 2016 to 204 in 2017 but increased incidents from 2017 compared to 2016. Indicating Europe was still Daesh ‘enemy number one’ target but the security measures were much improved. Proactive intelligence gathering and counter terrorism planning, preparation and emergency response methods were effectively applied in Europe than any other region. European states continue to gather, maintain and share a comprehensive database of RFFs than other regions without a comprehensive database of RFFs.
As soon as ISIS self proclaimed Caliphate was showing signs of collapsing, severe hard and soft border protection measures were put in place to track, identify and arrest potential RFFs coming back into Europe. Some RFFs managed to slip through tight border security ports but majority RFFs could not return to Europe and the UK in particular and carry out jihad. Most of this frustrated ISIS RFFs who originated from Europe were forced to re-strategies and seek alternative territories in the Middle East and Africa.
Most European states increased security spending and community engagement efforts following random truck, knife and gun attacks on soft targets. They increased spending in human resources towards anti-terrorism and counter terrorism activities. These strict measures led to reduced vulnerability of borders ports, public places and terrorist high value targets. The more difficult the target, the less attractive it became for terrorist.
The UK and most countries in Western Europe continue to promote community awareness activities on social media, newspapers and mainstream media platforms – visible adverts in popular spots like ‘ see something say something ‘ , how to spot and report suspicious activities and video adverts on what to do when faced with a terrorist gun, knife or van attack continues to have a psychological deterrence effect on potential ISIS inspired and assisted terrorist attacks but also increased population knowledge and confidence to recognize and report suspicious activities.
Terrorist prefer vulnerable but significant targets and they rely on the element of surprise. Public adverts on suspicious packages-‘ when to Run – Hide, fight and Tell ‘ has worked against experienced as well as amateur terrorist activities. This improvement in European counter ISIS strategy as Mosul and Raqqa collapsed led to a reduction in terrorist related deaths in Europe in 2017.
The collapse of ISIS strongest holds in Iraq and Syria and the period of ISIS leadership rethinking culminated with reduced deaths from Terrorist related attacks in Europe, Syria and Iraq in 2017 displacing the bulk of ISIS activities mainly to Africa and the Middle East. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are showing more tendencies towards collaboration and coordination of their activities more than before while significantly changing attack tactics to focus on military positions as a means to win the hearts and minds of the local population. ISIS core and affiliate groups, in particular, continue to inspire and direct attacks using various unpredictable methods in Africa, Europe and the Middle East from online social media platforms. ISIS and Al-Qaeda core are certainly not silent nor have they abandoned their core ideology. This period of relative calm in Europe could be a space to rethink, recruit, plan and prepare another massive move for this undying idea of a global Islamic Caliphate. A more globally coordinated effort is required to reduce to the bear minimum the threats that these jihadist pose to global peace and security particularly in Africa and the Middle East which seem to represent the weakest link in efforts to tackle ISIS and Al-Qaeda growing global influence.