With the Arab world still saturated by extremists and with new cyber capabilities making their way into the hands of jihadis, the international community can’t afford to become complacent about terrorism, Isaac Kfir writes.
Great strides have taken place in countering terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa.
The University of Maryland Database – the Global Terrorism Database – indicates that major improvements in counterterrorism have meant that attacks in the region have declined from over 6,100 in 2017 to under 3,800 in 2018. The number of deaths caused by terrorist attacks are also down by almost 50 per cent from last year.
The decline is part of a global downwards trend beginning in 2014, when there were around 17,000 attacks worldwide. By comparison, in 2017 there were around 11,000 attacks globally.
The reduction is most noticeable in Iraq, Turkey, Libya and Yemen (the conflict in Yemen is now less of an insurgency and more of civil war).
Nevertheless, despite or perhaps because of these successes, it is imperative that we don’t become complacent or too focused on inter-state competition, which, as the US National Defense Strategy noted, “is now of primary concern in US national security.”
There are several reasons why the international community must remain engaged in countering violent extremism in the Middle East.
First, according to estimates this year by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, there are around 230,000 Salafi-jihadist and allied fighters worldwide. In 2017 it was estimated that around 3,000 Jordanians travelled to join the ranks of the Islamic State. Wilayat Libya-Barqah, an IS affiliate in Libya, has around 3000 to 5000 fighters. The majority of these are foreign, although the group also has many Libyans who had fought with the Battar Brigade in Syria.
The region is saturated with Salafi-jihadis who are well-trained in insurgency and terrorism tactics. These individuals are trained in exploiting porous borders, government instability, and the high level of corruption that angers so many ordinary people in the region.
Another key concern relating to the foreign fighters is the unknown number of Islamic State (IS) prisoners and what to do with them. Many are held in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Syrian anti-Assad force, is holding around 1000 foreign fighters from as many as 50 countries (in particular Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey). It is unknown for how long the SDF will continue to hold these individuals. There is also the concern that the SDF might be willing to exchange prisoners for money or weapons in the future.
Unsurprisingly, western states baulk at taking back these battle-hardened, experienced Salafi-jihadis, and are even resisting allowing British women and their children who have gone to Syria and Iraq to return to their homes.
Notably, many western states are already facing the prospect of having to release extremists who have completed their prison sentence. In the UK, more than 80 individuals convicted of terrorism offences between 2007 and 2016 would be due for release by the end of 2018, including Anjem Choudary, the founder of al-Muhajiroun who was released on 19 October.
A third concern is that Salafi-jihadi groups have found safe havens in countries rocked by the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions. One notable hiding tactic has been to become a member of one of the region’s nomadic tribes, which is often done through marriage. It is estimated that around 6000 North Africans who have fought with IS have either returned or are on the way back to their homelands.
IS, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates have carved out niches for themselves in Libya, the Sinai, and across much of North Africa. British-born Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was of Libyan descent; the Berlin Christmas market attack was carried out by Anis Amri, a Tunisian; two of the three London Bridge attackers in June were from North Africa; and the 2017 Barcelona attack was carried out by a predominately Moroccan cell.
Technological innovations have made life a bit easier for many Salafi-jihadis to continue their campaigns. As far back as 2007, al-Qaeda developed the encryption software – Mujahideen Secrets. The software spawned Tashfeer al-Jawwal, a mobile encryption platform used by many Salafi-jihadis. More recently, information emerged that suggests that al-Qaeda is using various applications to help better shield itself from DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks.
There is also Asrar al-Dardashah, which allows individuals to engage in encrypted communication between AIM, Google Talk, MSN, and Yahoo accounts. Another example was the decision of the al-Fajr Media Center to issue Amn al-Mujahid (Security of the Mujahid), which is another encryption program. What was unique about this offering was that al-Fajr also provided a 28-page instructional manual.
Such developments have several implications, beginning with the fact that technology allows for a more decentralised Salafi-jihadi system, which seems to fit the direction that the Salafi-jihadi cause is taking: the prominence of lone actors and the fact that veterans such as al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri can’t dictate what others would do. This may also explain why al-Qaeda seems to have launched a new website aimed at hosting al-Qaeda propaganda material.
The Islamic State has also focused on technology, developing an Android app that allowed members to communicate through a more secure channel. Also included in its technology arsenal is cyber offensive capabilities, as seen with the CyberCaliphate, a hacking group launched in 2014 by a British national Junaid Hussain (also known as Trick). Later that year, the group hacked into the Twitter account of the US Central Military Command, tweeting “Pentagon networks hacked. AMERICAN SOLDIERS WE ARE COMING, WATCH YOUR BACK. ISIS. #CyberCaliphate.”
As the Islamic State comes to terms with both the loss of the caliphate and a destabilising leadership void, the region will need to deal with countless number of Salafi-jihadis, many of whom will tout their experience in Iraq and Syria to gain leadership positions in existing groups. The solution is not hard security, such as the new counterterrorism centre in Jordan established with American support, but rather policies that address inequality and gross human rights violations.
These are but a few reasons why the international community must remain engaged in the threat posed by violent extremists in the region.