Is Islamic State Facing Defeat, Or Starting A Deadly New Phase? – OpEd


By Baria Alamuddin*

After repeated misleading boasts since 2017 that Daesh had been eradicated in Iraq and Syria, there are indications that this happy scenario may finally be coming to pass.

Daesh activity in these two countries has been relentlessly falling, confined to an ever-narrowing list of localities. According to Daesh’s own claims, numbers of victims from most attacks in its heartlands are vanishingly small. Around 2021, Daesh in Iraq was averaging 50 attacks a month. Now, in a state of apparently terminal decline, the branch considers itself lucky if it scrapes together a dozen low-level attacks each month.

During past Ramadans, Daesh has escalated its activity. Its failure to stage a major terrorism campaign in Ramadan 2023 highlights its current crippled capabilities, despite jihadists celebrating it as a “month of conquests.”

Two of Daesh’s leaders were killed last year, and good luck finding any militant who could tell you anything about its current secrecy-shrouded leader — Abu Hussein Al-Husseini Al-Qurashi — if he exists at all. Operations in recent weeks have culled a further crop of Daesh leadership figures. Iraqi authorities claim that Daesh now has only about 400 fighters across four Iraqi provinces, with its geographic isolation making recruitment increasingly impossible.

Rival jihadists note the absence of veteran Daesh personnel remaining alive to make strategic decisions, manage worldwide operations, or confer legitimacy on leadership choices. Jihadists stress the impact of the apparent February killing of a top commander, Abu Sarah Al-Iraqi, on Daesh’s most recent disarray. 

Influential militant media such as Sawt Al-Zarqawi have been rebuking disciples on the Telegram platform for “abandoning their posts” and failing to produce and disseminate propaganda. Daesh statements voice frustration at the reluctance of European Muslims to blow themselves up, or plow cars into crowds of passers-by, for the group’s perverted version of the greater good.

However, Daesh’s implosion in Iraq and Syria has counterpointed a cataclysmic transformation of the group’s fortunes throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, 80 percent of its activity was in Iraq and Syria; today over half the group’s attacks are in Africa.

Across West Africa, Daesh and its Al-Qaeda rivals have carved out vast areas of control throughout Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Reports signal that the major north-eastern Malian conurbation of Menaka is now fully encircled by Daesh fighters. Jihadists are the de facto power throughout around 40 percent of Burkina Faso. Propaganda videos show their ability to mobilize hundreds of well-armed fighters, who can swarm across vast areas of lightly populated territories on motorcycles and armored vehicles.

Chronic weaknesses in security and governance across the Sahel region mean that the main check on jihadist expansion is rivalry with each other, with both Daesh and Al-Qaeda killing of hundreds of each other’s fighters.

Tribal leaderships have little choice but to pay taxes, do deals, and allow their youth to be recruited by militants after regular military forces and local self-defense militias have melted away, particularly given the strategic vacuum left by the departure of French and regional forces. The Russian Wagner mercenary group’s attempts to muscle in have made a bad situation worse, with indiscriminate massacres further driving citizens into the arms of jihadists. Much of Somalia lies under jihadist control.

In the Lake Chad region, Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province forces had been busy fighting each other in recent months, but since March the latter has once again been escalating assaults against the military, and attacking in new areas such as Jigawa state. In other parts of Nigeria, bandits and militant groups — some with links to jihadists – have boasted about lucrative deals with Chinese companies for allowing them to prospect for minerals and do business. Kidnapping of foreigners and wealthy individuals is an easy means for militant groups to reap millions in ransom money. Islamic State West Africa Province is mostly financially independent from Daesh’s central organization, reaping an estimated $36 million a year from its control of fishing and agricultural production.

Daesh’s branches in the Congo and Mozambique continue killing hundreds of local people. Daesh propaganda is littered with grizzly beheadings, mutilations, and gratuitous mass-slaughter.

Why are Daesh and Al-Qaeda fighting each other? Obviously, the principal reason dates back to bitter splits within these jihadist movements in Syria around 2012. However, a vicious ideological war continues to be fought. For example, in Afghanistan, the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies denounce Daesh as brutal “Khawarij” extremists, while Daesh propaganda denounces the Taliban as deviant sell-outs who collaborate with the West to crackdown against Daesh militants. With Al-Qaeda still publicly failing to name a leader after last year’s killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, both these global jihadist organizations lack clear leadership, but show scant prospects of mending fences with each other any time soon.

Terrorists are like weeds. If I don’t tend my garden constantly and conscientiously, soon everywhere will be infested with vigorous growth of unwanted plants that rapidly spread into my neighbors’ gardens too. In Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen and Egypt, terrorist groups know that all they have to do is survive and subsist until an inevitable political crisis erupts, allowing them to surge out and re-establish themselves as the dominant force throughout all under-governed spaces. 

Malicious entities such as Bashar Assad, Iran’s ayatollahs and Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in Iraq have exploited jihadists for their own ends as a bogeyman to terrorize their enemies — meaning Daesh may not be allowed to disappear altogether.

So instead of celebrating Daesh’s woes, the world should be adjusting counter-terrorism strategies to confront a grinding new phase of the conflict; slowing down relentless jihadist expansion across Africa and Central Asia, working to stabilize post-conflict states such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, preventing state sponsors of terrorism from bankrolling paramilitaries and jihadists, and ensuring that frustrated young people aren’t seduced by Daesh’s ideology of death. The Western world is meanwhile menaced by far-right extremism.

Daesh in Iraq was fought to a state of virtual defeat around 2010, yet I hardly need recount the manner in which the group surged back to dominance three years later, as a result of political incompetence and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s fueling of sectarian hatred in Iraq, along with the conflict in Syria.

Jihadists don’t believe they are facing defeat; they assert that they are biding their time ahead of future victories. Short-sighted policies and intelligence failures must not give them the opportunity to prove themselves right.

• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

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