Middle East and North Africa risk: Alert – Islamic State displays its reach

The series of attacks that hit three countries on June 26th—France, Kuwait and Tunisia—has highlighted the growing global threat posed by Islamic State. The extreme jihadi group’s declaration of a self-styled caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and its utterly uncompromising and ruthless approach, has won it a small but fanatical number of adherents across the globe, placing an enormous question mark over how governments can defeat the group. In reality, the place to start is where the group first emerged: among the failed and failing states of the Middle East. 

The threat of jihadi terrorism has been omnipresent and foremost in policymakers’ minds globally ever since the September 11th 2001 attacks in the US, and in some places, such as Algeria and Egypt, a long time before that. However, IS seems to represent an especially challenging group to counter: first because it is so well-established in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq; and second owing to the ease with which it can seemingly recruit and motivate attackers globally.

Self-declared caliphate a shrewd move

IS’s self-declared caliphate has played a central role in both factors: not only does the area under its control give it a major operational base and source of revenue (including from several oilfields in Raqqa province in Syria), but the caliphate’s very existence is a massive propaganda tool. In February US intelligence officials estimated that some 20,000 foreigners (including 3,400 from Western nations) had travelled to Syria to fight alongside IS, many no doubt drawn by the chimerical attraction of “recreating” the Sunni caliphates that ruled large swathes of the Middle East for almost 1,300 years. These recruits provide important cannon fodder (and suicide bombers) for IS, and, in the future, those who survive could be useful operatives on their return to their various countries of origin. Thus far, however, the bulk of terrorist attacks elsewhere in the region seem to have been the work of individuals radicalised from afar, rather than returning fighters from the battlefronts in Syria and Iraq.

IS has shifted targets depending on local conditions

Taking advantage of its decentralised nature—which allows individuals to operate under its banner anywhere in the world without prior contact with the group—IS has been able to strike a wide variety of targets, with seemingly an eye on each countries’ particular areas of vulnerability. In the case of Tunisia, the massacre of 38 holidaymakers on a beach in Soussewas motivated as much by a desire to cripple the Tunisian economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism inflows, as by IS’s contention that the hotel was a “den of vice”. It is the second time that the group has targeted tourists in Tunisia, following the March attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in which 21 tourists were killed. The Tunisian authorities believe the gunman, who was shot and killed by the police, received assistance from others in Tunisia.

In the case of Kuwait, the attacker—according to the Kuwait authorities, the suicide bomber was a Saudi who had entered the country only a few hours earlier—targeted a Shia mosque, with some 27 people killed. The decision to attack a Shia mosque in Kuwait follows similar attacks by IS in late May in Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia, as well as the bombing of around half a dozen Zaydi Shia mosques in Yemen in March and June. In these instances, the group seems to be seeking to exacerbate current Sunni-Shia tensions across the Gulf in an effort to destabilise the thus far relatively quiet Gulf Co-operation Council states, as well as pursuing its own broader sectarian agenda (it blew up a series of Shia mosques, for example, after capturing Mosul in northern Iraq). The Saudi provenance of the Kuwaiti bomber should be a particular concern for the authorities across the GCC: his involvement would seem to indicate that a terror cell is now fully established in Saudi Arabia—the attack was claimed by a Saudi, IS-affiliated organisation called Najd Province—and that it is able to co-ordinate with affiliated cells abroad (in this instance, in Kuwait).

In the case of France, however, the terrorist suspect, Yassin Salhi, seems to have been a loner, albeit one with long-known extremist Islamist sympathies. His attack combined the macabre and the bizarre: as well as seeking to conduct a terrorist spectacular on an economic location (he attempted, and failed, to blow up a chemical plant), he also seems to have wanted to avenge himself on his employer, allegedly beheading his manager.

Jihadi groups flock to the IS banner

Besides its ability to win new adherents, arguably IS’s other success has been to garner the backing of already established jihadi organisations internationally. In Egypt, for example, last year a militant group based largely in the Sinai, Ansar Beit al‑Maqdis (ABM), rebranded itself Sinai Province and swore allegiance to IS. ABM has been the most active jihadi group in North Sinai, and has recently switched its tactics to attacking the Egyptian judiciary (no doubt in reprisal for the local judiciary’s alleged role in persecuting Muslim Brotherhood members). Notably, three judges and their bus driver were killed just hours after the former Islamist Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, was sentenced to death in mid-May, and it may well be that ABM was behind the assassination of Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat, on June 29th.

It is states and areas where the rule of law has largely broken down that provide the greatest opportunity for IS. In Libya, for example, lax security has enabled IS to establish a foothold in the eastern city of Derna since November 2014. Although it remains little more than a collection of cells at present, the Libyan branch of IS has declared its intention to set up a rival administration in the city, and has launched attacks on embassies, killed migrant workers and targeted oilfields across the country. Yemen, which is currently in a state of collapse amid a civil war, Saudi-led blockade and outside air attacks, would also appear a promising location for IS to expand its influence, although in that instance some kind of accommodation would need to be made with the already well-established al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Cutting off the head

The potential for numerous IS bases across the Middle East is a fearful prospect for the security of the region, and further afield (Libya is, of course, directly across the Mediterranean from southern Europe). Notwithstanding their ability to recruit remotely using social media outreach, the modus operandi of jihadi groups has typically necessitated setting up a secure headquarters: after all, IS’s predecessor, al‑Qaida (from which the group broke, after al-Qaida’s chief, Ayman Zawahiri, rejected the merger of its Syrian and Iraqi wings) means “the base” in Arabic. With its former base in Afghanistan (and now Pakistan), al‑Qaida was able to co-ordinate attacks abroad (including September 11th 2001) and pump out growing quantities of propaganda material.

With this in mind, policymakers in the Middle East and beyond will need to redouble their efforts to not only force IS out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, but also prevent it establishing new ones in Libya and Yemen. Despite some recent inroads made by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) into IS areas in north-eastern Syria, thus far it seems no country, or collection of countries, is willing to take on the task. Air strikes by the US and its allies in Iraq and Syria, and the UAE’s clandestine air strike on IS in Libya, have seemingly done little to constrain the group, and dispatching ground troops to both clear and hold areas currently under IS control is politically infeasible.

Regional policy is proving counterproductive

Adding to the problems, the obsession of the GCC, and in particular, Saudi Arabia, with countering Iranian regional influence may even indirectly be assisting IS. Saudi Arabia has been loath to provide material backing for Iraq’s new government (which is largely Shia and close to Iran), and the Saudi-led military intervention against the Iranian-backed Zaydi Shia Houthi group in Yemen is arguably cultivating the chaos out of which jihadi groups such as IS prosper. Separately, the authorities’ crackdown on political Islamist movements has also added to the violent backlash, as has been especially evident in Egypt.

Unquestionably, the IS ideology is one that the vast majority of Muslims, both in the Middle East and further afield, reject. Equally, Saudi Arabia’s success in clearing al-Qaida out of Saudi Arabia during 2003‑05—and, more dramatically, al-Qaida’s heavy defeats in western Iraq in 2007‑08—shows that such groups can be beaten. However, repeating such outcomes will require the Middle East states to retain an unerring focus on defeating the jihadis in their midst, and a combined offensive, probably including ground troops, to clear IS from its safe havens in Iraq and Syria. With neither outcome currently in prospect, it seems sadly probable that the horrors of June 26th will be repeated in the months, and even years, to come.

Economist Intelligence Unit
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit