In the second of this series, Isaac Kfir examines recent tactics al-Qaeda and ISIL have employed to expand their influence, and explains what this means for Australia and its counter-terrorism strategy.
The Salafi-jihadi landscape has drastically changed since 2015, when Australia released its Counter-terrorism Strategy.
In 2019, al-Qaeda, which many discounted in 2015, has resurged. Between 2014 and 2015, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s current leader, didn’t make any public statements; since 2017, however, we have seen a steady increase in his messaging. This growth in confidence can be seen as a result of the success in his “strategy of deliberate yet low-key growth”.
Zawahiri has adopted a franchising strategy that doesn’t require people or groups to completely buy into the al-Qaeda model. It simply requires that they at least in part accept the al-Qaeda ideology – or, al-Qaedaism.
In undertaking his franchising strategy, Zawahiri has dispatched key lieutenants to Syria, Iran, Turkey, Libya, and Yemen to help build and solidify cells. These individuals have brought new connections, overseas resources, technical skills, and, at times, have helped bridged parochial divisions.
Al-Qaeda’s resurgence is also predicated on the fact that Zawahiri and Hamza bin Laden have largely abrogated responsibility for terrorist activities to their franchisees.
It is groups such as al-Shabab, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Peninsula, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) that carry out terrorist attacks.
The threat that al-Qaeda poses comes from two avenues. Firstly, there’s the core of al-Qaeda, which serves as the disseminator of ideas often through specific chatrooms and online channels, and behaves as an arbitrator and facilitator of sorts by marrying local issues with a transnational call to engage in jihad. Secondly, there exists the franchisees that engage in violence.
In 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may have posed an existential threat to Iraq, Syria, and other areas in the Middle East. Now in 2019, however, the group is but a shell of itself. Officially, it controls no territory, and many of its leaders are either dead or on the run.
But ISIL is also is investing in subsidiaries and proxies. Outside of Syria and Iraq, it has two main proxies in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Khorasan Province, while a third is emerging in West Africa. These entities carry out insurgency operations that extract heavy casualties from Egyptian and Afghan security forces.
The Egyptian and Afghan governments have adopted hard military tactics against these entities, while retreating their own forces to secure bases. In doing so, they’ve fuelled the anger of local communities who feel the brunt of their tactics, and have also empowered the insurgents who live among, and also terrorise, the people by feeding the extremist narrative.
ISIL has arguably been more successful in Southeast Asia than al-Qaeda, not only because of Marawi, but because of Syria’s Katibah Nusantara brigade, led by Bahrun Naim, who conceived and directed the 2016 Jakarta terrorist attack. Questions remain as to whether Jemaah Islamiyah threatens national and regional security, while the recent arrest of 12 Filipinos in Sabah underlies the importance of regional cooperation. There simply are too many ‘black spots’ that non-state actors can exploit.
Through Naim and the Abu Sayyaf Group network, which relies on close kinship links, ISIL seeks to exploit Filipino dissatisfaction with the Bangsamoro Organic Law and a possible Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, the Duterte regime, and with established groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to garner support. The network has even claimed responsibility for the twin bombings in Jolo in January 2019 that killed 23 people.
The implications of the new global Salafi-jihadi architecture for Australia are numerous.
Firstly, the fact that there has been at least one recent attempt to carry out a mass casualty attack in 2017 involving ISIL means that Australia must remain vigilant in ensuring that Brexit and Trump don’t undermine the Five Eyes alliance.
Australia remains an attractive market for extremists for a number of reasons. It is evident that their message resonates with at least a small number of people, and Australia is closely allied with the international coalition to counter violent extremism. It’s also likely that a successful attack will test social cohesion – a key motivator for terrorist groups. The goal is to sow divisionism.
Over the last few years, Melbourne and the Sydney Opera House have featured in Salafi-jihadi videos, and ISIL’s media department is reportedly headed by an Australian, Abu Abdullah al-Australi, leaving the likelihood of threat at being reasonably probable.
Secondly, it is important for Australia to continue to work closely with Israel, Lebanon, and Europe to forestall attacks – it was allegedly Israeli intelligence that prevented the attack. The security services of these countries have a better understanding of the Middle East than we do.
Home-grown radicalisation remains a principal concern. Some 80 per cent of convictions for terrorism offences in Australia have occurred in the last three years. Many of those individuals weren’t members of ISIL or al-Qaeda, but were sympathisers intending to commit low-cost, high-impact operations. However, as groups such as al-Shabab, AQIM, and AQIS increase their presence, there is a growing need to watch these groups and their activities on their media outlets as well.
We need to be cognizant that these entities could be reaching out to young Australians. We must also remain aware of the pull and push factors that feed al-Qaedaism as it pertains to regional groups.
For years, security services have focused on al-Qaeda and ISIL and Jemaah Islamiyah. The next threat, however, is just as likely to come from a franchise group that could be based in the subcontinent, Africa, or the Greater Middle East. Australia must be quick to broaden its horizon over the expanding Salafi-jihadi landscape.