The ghost of terrorism re-emerges: The resurgence of ‘ISIS’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ organizational activity and their strategy for adaptation and resilience

For nearly twenty-three years, extraordinary efforts have been exerted, and substantial funds have been invested in the fight against terrorism, with a particular focus on the threats posed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

In 2006, the United Nations adopted and implemented a global strategy to combat terrorism. This strategy included a range of measures to enhance states’ capacity to confront terrorist threats, evaluate achievements, coordinate UN activities in counterterrorism, establish mechanisms to keep pace with the evolving operations of terrorist organizations, address the challenge of extremist ideologies and foreign fighters, and counter the use of social media and modern technology by terrorist groups to advance their agendas.

Based on this strategy, the international coalition against ISIS was formed in 2014, comprising 86 member states committed to defeating ISIS entirely, confronting terrorist organizations on various fronts, dismantling their networks, and countering their global ambitions in addition to the establishment of Islamic Military Alliance to Combat Terrorism in 2015, to unify the efforts of Islamic nations to combat terrorism.

International efforts have succeeded in crippling the organizational, operational, media, and financial capabilities of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, leading to their loss of territorial control in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.

The questions that could be asked today are: Where are we in the fierce war against terrorism that the world has launched? Has terrorism been defeated, and is it a threat to the world? Why does terrorism persist in certain regions of the world, perhaps even more complicated than before? What is the reason for terrorism’s resilience and adaptability despite the significant successes of counter-terrorist efforts and continuous pressures imposed by the world?

These questions may be perplexing, but they are necessary, especially since numerous international reports and studies have been released indicating that the fundamental trends of terrorism have become a significant cause for concern.

Making national and international decisions based on the assumption that ISIS and Al-Qaeda have been eradicated is a mistake. These organizations are still able to convey their messages, market their agenda, and dispel narratives about their defeat. Jihadist organizations still pose a persistent threat in most parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and around the world, as the widespread presence of these groups makes it challenging to eliminate them easily.

In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and the Sahel region in Africa, ISIS and Al-Qaeda continue to use the available spaces in their areas of influence. They benefit from the complex geographical terrain in their hit-and-run operations, camouflage, evasion of targeting, recruitment and training camps, and maintaining external support networks.

Both organizations have proved their capacity to adapt and endure periodic setbacks. The new generation of leaders has not given up on their efforts to return to the scene with strength despite their previous defeats. The occasional operations conducted in various regions of the world are proof that they can still move swiftly and strike anywhere. They are still working towards their long-term goal of establishing the Islamic Caliphate “alleged.” Occasionally, International intelligence agencies issue warnings about the resurgence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda has shifted its focus towards the concept of the ‘near enemy’ rather than the ‘far enemy,’ and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan allowed it to regain its primary safe haven, after the Taliban reopened its old bases, established training camps, rebuilt its organizational and operational capabilities, and granted its members Afghan national identities for legitimate residency. Therefore, Afghanistan has become a logistical hub for recruiting and training Al-Qaeda fighters, and its terrorist operations have started to surface in various regions across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.

According to a report by the International Security Council and another by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) on the state of terrorism in Afghanistan, both issued in July 2023, there is a presence of around 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan affiliated with various terrorist groups, including approximately 900 from Al-Qaeda and its branch in the Indian subcontinent.

Since 2022, Al-Qaeda in West Asia has continued its activities in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to attract new recruits, taking advantage of the worsening sectarian tensions in these areas. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda activity rates increased during the year 2022, and it demonstrated its ability in recent months to enhance its operational and technical capabilities, trying to obstruct attempts to resolve the Yemeni crisis despite Saudi Arabia’s cessation of the war. The organization’s leaders have begun a dialogue with tribes, jihadist movements, and parties opposed to the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia, in order to form an alliance to thwart the Houthi project in Yemen and overthrow the Yemeni government.

In Syria, the faction known as “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (Syrian Salvation Government), the primary representative of Al-Qaeda in the region, collaborates with “Hurras Al-din” to combat their opponents and disseminate their ideology. The organization’s goal is achieved through weekly lectures, forums, and religious and cultural lessons, which are used to guide children and young people towards extremism and recruit them into the organization.

Hurras Al-din uses technological platforms to raise funds for the purchase of weapons and medical care for injured fighters. Dedicated accounts on platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp are used by them to send messages and later provide them with banking information.

Additionally, the organization collaborates with the “Houthi Ansar Allah” group in Yemen, using the Gulf of Aden to smuggle weapons and military equipment. This collaboration has been documented by the “Global Initiative to Combat Transnational Organized Crime” based on data collected from inspections at 13 different locations across various parts of Somalia and the seizure of stockpiles from 13 boats intercepted by the US Navy.

In Iraq, ISIS’s operational activity escalated at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, with two major attacks on Iraqi army forces. Daily news reports highlight the organization’s violent operations in various parts of Iraq in 2023. ISIS is employing a war of attrition against Iraqi security forces, taking advantage of the country’s instability, political crisis, and escalating disputes among Iraqi factions.

On the other hand, ISIS continues its operations in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, functioning as a highly active insurgency, particularly in rural areas. Its attacks have increased since 2020 following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. forces conducted 313 unilateral operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq during the second half of 2022, targeting some of the organization’s leaders.

The organization managed to infiltrate Iran and carried out an attack in 2022, the first of its kind in the city of Shiraz since 2018, targeting the shrine of Shah Jiragh and a mosque housing the tombs of the brothers Ahmad and Muhammad, sons of Musa al-Kazim. Observers expect ISIS to target more Iranian interests both domestically and abroad in 2023, as a response to Iran’s support for the governments of Syria and Iraq.

In Türkiye, in 2022, ISIS carried out a terrorist operation on Istiklal Street in Istanbul, and in a restaurant in the city of Aydin, west of the country. Türkiye faces threats from ISIS fighters and the PKK, who were able to infiltrate into Turkish territory following the Syrian crisis. The Turkish Minister of the Interior announced at the time that 185 terrorist operations had been thwarted during the year 2021.

The terrorist operation that took place at the entrance to the General Directorate of Security, which is located in an area crowded with official institutions in the capital, Ankara, perhaps the most important of which is the Parliament building, prompted the Turkish authorities to continue their campaign against terrorist organizations and pursue their leaders and members at home and abroad.

In Afghanistan, the ISIS/Khorasan Province organization is currently engaged on two fronts. They are involved in hostile activities and assassinations, both with the Taliban and against Western interests and U.S. allies. Additionally, they launched attacks on neighboring countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian nations.

Iran, Russia, and China are exerting pressure on Pakistan to play a more significant role in preventing the resurgence of ISIS in the region.

A report from The Washington Post, based on leaked Pentagon documents, revealed that Afghanistan had quickly become a crucial coordination centre for ISIS’s Khorasan Province. This transformation occurred in less than two years after the U.S. withdrawal. The Pentagon had been aware of nine plots orchestrated by ISIS leaders in Afghanistan since December 2023, and this number had increased to 15 by February of the same year.

The military equipment and ammunition left behind by US forces after their withdrawal from Afghanistan have raised great concerns in many countries of the region, as reports indicate that the value of this equipment and weapons may reach $7.2 billion, including 78 aircraft, more than 40,000 vehicles, this enables the Taliban to sell some of it to finance its government, and there are fears that some of this equipment may fall into the hands of extremist organizations, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Leaders of both ISIS and Al-Qaeda are moving cautiously, carefully calculating their actions, and awaiting opportune moments. They are also actively working on recruiting fighters and supporters. The current terrorist threat posed by ISIS can be broken down into three primary categories:

  1. “Fighters on the Ground”

These are fighters representing various branches who are actively operating in conflict zones. This group still possesses the ability to inspire, direct, organize, and lead terrorist activities on a global scale.

  1. “Detained ISIS fighters.”

These individuals are often described as ticking time bombs, posing a persistent global danger, especially if they are ever released. Estimates suggest that there are approximately 10,000 detainees in Syria and around 20,000 in Iraq with affiliations to ISIS.

  1. “Potential next generation of ISIS.”

This forthcoming generation of ISIS comprises over 30,000 children residing in camps such as Al-Hawl camp, meant for displaced individuals, and more than 1,000 children in Al-Roj camp, where they undergo daily ideological indoctrination.

A pertinent question emerges: how have Al-Qaeda and ISIS managed to withstand the international onslaught against them? How have they succeeded in regaining their capabilities, reorganizing their ranks, and recruiting new fighters in anticipation of future endeavours?

Both Al-Qaeda and ISIS conduct geopolitical assessments, analyse risks, closely monitor the positions of “the international coalition against terrorism”, and craft a strategy founded on the following principles:

Resilience and Adaptation: They employ guerrilla tactics, swiftly changing their positions, infiltrating marginalized and densely populated areas, and embracing a protracted war of attrition.
Multifaceted Recruitment Strategies: They cautiously recruit to evade intelligence agencies’ detection, selectively recruit influential individuals who can influence society intellectually and ideologically, and target children in refugee camps and marginalized regions, seeing them as the future generation of the organization.
Low Profile and Concealment: They shun visibility in conflict zones, evading the watchful eyes of security agencies and global intelligence services pursuing them. They execute discrete, high-impact operations to strain the security and military forces, which are often embroiled in internal and regional conflicts.
Secure Havens and Sanctuaries: They position fighters in secure geographical areas characterized by rugged and intricate terrain that discourage easy access. This is a deliberate choice to evade detection by security agencies and military strikes, steering clear of vulnerable and easily surveyed areas.
Reliance on Sleeper Cells and Lone Operatives: This strategy enables them to carry out a higher number of attacks across various parts of the world. It is a tactic frequently employed by extremist organizations following field defeats and the loss of leadership and fighters.
The strategy of “breaking the walls” has gained prominence within ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Its primary objective is to release prisoners, compensate for the shortage of fighters, and reclaim the organization’s strength, status, and influence among its supporters and sympathizers.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 ISIS fighters remain detained in Syrian prisons, and 19,000 in Iraqi prisons. In addition, more than 65,000 family members of ISIS detainees, most of whom are women and children, are detained in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS fighters were able to liberate large numbers of prisoners, after the attack on “Nangarhar Central Prison” in Afghanistan, and Ghweran Prison in Syria, where some reports indicate that more than 2,000 prisoners and detainees escaped.

The success of ISIS in liberating its prisoners from Afghan, Syrian, and Iraqi prisons constitutes great concern, as well as the fear that they will return to their homelands in Europe and carry out new terrorist attacks in Europe. Especially since they have gained experience and organizational capacity in fighting, manufacturing explosives and technology, and planning to spread extremism and violence.

Exploiting challenging living conditions and deteriorating security situations in conflict zones, whether this is between government authorities and the population or among rival organizations, and capitalizing on local ethnic, political, and sectarian divisions for the recruitment of fighters and the restructuring of security and military activities of terrorist organizations, adjusting their positioning.

In terms of financing, despite facing significant financial challenges, both ISIS and Al-Qaeda continue to find ways to gather and receive funds. According to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), despite the financial blockades and stringent international measures implemented by countries to disrupt their funding sources, both organizations have managed to circumvent these actions through:

The assets owned by the organization, estimated at approximately $300 million by the US government.
Illicit activities, which encompass crimes such as kidnappings, drug smuggling within the region, human trafficking into Europe, and the unlawful trafficking and sale of looted Iraqi or Syrian antiquities.
Engaging in cryptocurrency trading to elude international monitoring.
Extortion of financial institutions and investments in small to medium-sized businesses.
Involvement in the ivory trade, with the United States identifying four financial facilitators for ISIS in South Africa who enable the transfer of funds from the top of the ISIS hierarchy to branches throughout Africa.

Al-Qaeda’s restoration of its former bases in Afghanistan, and ISIS’s strengthening of its positions and the opening of new bases, have raised fears and concerns in Asian countries and the entire world about the possibility of a resurgence of terrorism, even though the Taliban government has always stressed that it is fighting ISIS and will confront it, according to what was stated by the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taliban Abdul Qahar Balkhi.

The international community admitted that Afghanistan needs international assistance, The United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are communicating with the Taliban government to help them achieve stability, calm the situation, provide good governance and the rule of law.

The United Nations has become the “eyes and ears” of the international community in Afghanistan, Mr. Markus Potzel, Special Representative of the SG for Afghanistan said once, “we have to face the facts on the ground, the Taliban is interested in talking to us because they see us as bridge, conveying messages from Afghanistan to the outside world, and vice versa. The UN is working to enhance cooperation and help the Taliban emerge from its isolation because isolation is not a good option for the future of Afghanistan.

Efforts to address these concerns will likely require diplomatic, political, and security measures, as well as international cooperation to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism once again. The situation remains dynamic, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation are crucial to understanding and addressing the evolving threats.

Although there is a clear distinction between the level of terrorist threats in the member states of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA), but all countries have adopted the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Strategy, as a comprehensive and collective legal basis for unifying national and international efforts in combating terrorism. It has also developed their national strategies and plans to combat terrorism, consistent with United Nations recommendations, and ensuring human rights, freedoms and the rule of law.

Governments and international and regional organizations have also shown a renewed determination to confront this evolving threat, and have taken a number of measures and steps to combat these threats, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and to ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis of the fight against terrorism.

Numerous measures have been taken by CICA member states, at the bilateral and multilateral levels, to strengthen the capabilities of states to confront the new threats and challenges, including organized crime, extremism and terrorism. These measures include strengthening legal and international instruments related to terrorism and organized crime. promoting law enforcement cooperation and exchange of information on legal, judicial and criminal matters, and exchange of intelligence information.

CICA member states are aware of the issue of development, as it’s the best way to address the roots of radicalization, including poverty, inequality, lack of opportunity and public services that fuel despair, and can undoubtedly make a decisive contribution to conflict prevention and terrorism.

The CICA member states are already addressing some of the prevention drivers of violent extremism, including root causes and factors that radicalize young people and make terrorism an ominous choice for them, including political participation, poverty, inequality, youth unemployment and the lack of public services, such as health and education.

It is not surprising that the CICA Secretariat is leading youth efforts on countering violent extremism and promoting peace through the CICA Youth Council, which was established as an advisory body responsible for coordinating the activities of member youth organizations, associations and movements in Member States.

CICA Youth Council promotes comprehensive cooperation among CICA member states in order to promote interaction, peace and friendship in Asia.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS lost their territory in Syria and Iraq, but they gained virtual territory in cyberspace, and they have been creative in using technology and social media to implement their goals of recruitment, training, and carrying out terrorist operations. Therefore, it was necessary for CICA member states to take effective steps to confront this.

The security and use of information and communications technology (ICT) is one of the priority areas for new threats and challenges for promoting an open, safe, peaceful, and cooperative technological environment, deepening dialogue and cooperation and combating threats resulting from the misuse of internet and communications technology.

CICA secretariat works intensely to establish and strengthen cooperation and contacts with relevant regional organizations and authorities, including the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO RATS), the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), and the Administration of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), for promoting cooperation through necessary consultations, in matters of common interest, and in the areas of regional security and stability, and confronting new challenges and threats.

Special attention has been paid during the last three decades by CICA to developing actions and exchanging views regarding the dimension of new emerging threats and challenges. Among these actions are the various conferences, seminars, and workshops, which are held in coordination with Member States, to enhance cooperation in countering terrorism and to find the best ways and appropriate measures to combat terrorism and extremism.

Being a strong supporter of anti-terrorism efforts, CICA, at its sixth Summit held in Astana on 12-13 October 2022, adopted the CICA plan of action on the implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. In this context, CICA called for uniting international and regional efforts to ensure the practicality of this global instrument in the region and beyond.

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