Face Our Future: Jihadist Offshoots and Continuing Maelstrom in Middle East

Central London is one of the most heavily instrumented pieces of urban terrain on the planet. It has hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit cameras, a fibre-optic early warning system, well-trained first responders and an alert and supportive public. The fact that, even there, Masood could murder four people and wound more than 50 in broad daylight and in less than two minutes should give us all pause. Indeed, the ability of governments to protect people from “snap attacks” like this is very limited.

Reviewing what we know so far, both Masood and the attack fit a pattern seen in the French city of Nice last July, in Berlin in December and elsewhere over the past two years. The attacker was known to police for offences unrelated to terrorism, was a convert to Islam who had self-recruited or been radicalised in prison, becoming too extreme for (and increasingly isolated from) his own family and community, and using political-religious ideology to dramatise and explain away his personal failures. The attack included use of a high-speed vehicle as a deadly weapon, targeting a crowded ­public place rather than specific individuals, an immediate knife assault on police to exploit the shock of the vehicle attack, a large incident area covering several hundred metres with the attacker staying mobile throughout, and an extremely short duration — by one count, only 82 seconds from beginning to end.

In common with other recent attacks, it also included a dubious after-the-fact claim by Islamic State, whose Amaq News Agency announced Masood as a “soldier of the caliphate” and claimed he was targeting citizens of coalition countries engaged in the offensive on Islamic State’s strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul.

There’s no doubt Islamic State has been trying to incite this kind of attack. Before he was killed in an airstrike in Syria last August, ­Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani repeatedly called on supporters to stage attacks in their own countries to relieve pressure on the “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. And the Islamic State magazine Rumiyah published how-to articles for knife and ­vehicle attacks in October and November last year.

It’s possible Masood had some connection with Islamic State, face-to-face or online. But it’s more likely — especially since Amaq’s claim came after the ­attack and included no details that weren’t already in the media — that Islamic State opportunisti­cally claimed an attack it might have indirectly inspired but with no practical connection.

For me, watching alongside Jordanian friends and talking with former colleagues who now ­monitor events in Syria for a Western aid agency, the attack underlined the increasing disconnect between what’s happening in the region — where Islamic State’s central ­organisation is rapidly approaching a point of collapse and rebirth — and the broader global terrorism threat.

I’ve worked in Amman many times. A lot of quiet intelligence and diplomatic activity went on in the city during the Iraq surge of 2007-08, including delicate negotiations with leaders of the great tribal confederations who eventually supported the “Awakening” by Sunni communities against al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Many leaders sought exile in Amman, leaving younger relatives to run things in Iraq because of al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s targeting of tribal elders. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq operated here too — I was tailed by a terrorist cell in 2006 and again in mid-2007, and hotels in the city were bombed. In fact, it was al-Qa’ida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s decision to attack hotels in Amman in ­November 2005 (killing 60 civilians and wounding 115) that triggered the intensive manhunt that killed him seven months later.

But since al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s collapse in Iraq in 2007-10 and its relocation of cadres to Syria in 2011, the main threat to Jordan has been the spillover of violence (and the flood of desperate refugees) from the war in Syria and, after 2014, from ­renewed conflict in Iraq as Islamic State regenerated from the ashes of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Radicals in local society — Zarqawi himself hailed from the outskirts of Amman — remain a concern but the real problem for Jordan, as for other countries in the area, is now the massive destabilisation triggered by the Syrian and Iraqi conflict, which is drawing competing states into proxy wars on the ground and redrawing the regional map in deeply ­destabilising ways.

Even as Islamic State fighters flee Raqqa and Iraqi forces close in on the Grand Mosque in Mosul — where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate in July 2014 — neither Syria nor Iraq shows much sign of stabilising, for four reasons.

First, there’s little prospect of an end to the war in Syria. Despite the Assad regime’s bloody recapture of Aleppo last December, with help from Russian airstrikes and Iranian and Hezbollah troops on the ground, the conflict is far from over. A rebel coalition ­renewed a major offensive on the outskirts of Damascus last week; fighting among rival Kurdish factions, Turkish forces, foreign ­advisers and extremist groups is continuing near the northern town of Manbij; the battle around Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east is ongoing; and Islamic State — even after the impending loss of Raqqa — will retain numerous fighters and significant strongholds across the country. If anything, the fall of Raqqa will simply push the ­organisation back into guerilla mode while it gathers strength for ­another ­resurgence.

Second, the Turkish-Kurdish rivalry that’s playing out around Manbij is just one facet of a profound regional realignment, with the emergence of a de facto autonomous Kurdistan covering most of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. This new entity is fac­tionalised within itself, with two major political blocs in Iraqi Kurdistan, several factions in Kurdish-­majority parts of Syria, and groups aligned with the anti-Turkish PKK separatist movement active in both countries. Externally, the emerging Kurdistan is enmeshed in competition and conflict with other ethnic groups and regional powers — with Shia militia and the national military in Iraq, with Turkish forces in Syria, and with Arab nationalist groups.

Kurdish factions have also, at times, struck deals with the Assad regime, ­extremist groups, and Russian or Iranian-backed militias in Syria. Thus, the emergence of an independent Kurdistan, despite the merits of Kurdish claims to self-determination and the pro-Western alignment of many Iraqi Kurds, can’t help but continue to destabilise the region, while creating immense concern and periodic violence in Turkey.

Third, the notion that the fall of Raqqa and Mosul might reduce the terrorist threat worldwide, and thus end atrocities such as last week’s London attack, reckons without Islamic State’s legendary regenerative capacity. Beyond Iraq and Syria, there are now Islamic State groups in Southeast Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, much of North Africa and parts of Europe. If anything, these groups are likely to increase rather than decrease their efforts after the fall of the “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, leading to a spike in attacks.

And individuals such as Khalid Masood — self-radicalised but inspired by ­Islamic State, and provided with techniques and tactics through ­Islamic State materials online — will still be out there in their tens of thousands. One recent analysis by a European intelligence service ­estimated there are between 500 and 600 Syria-trained Islamic State operatives in western ­Europe alone, more than enough of a cadre to sustain a pattern of small, snap terrorist attacks like Masood’s long after the parent ­entity loses its urban base.

The final, most important reason for concern among Jordanians, Lebanese, Israelis and others in the region is the takeover of northern Syria by al-Qa’ida’s local affiliate, a takeover that has been going on openly but with little comment in Western media since early last year. In the northern Syrian province of Idlib, and in several important urban centres, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, has gained territorial control and is ­exercising both military leadership of the anti-Assad coalition and civil governance.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is closely linked to al-Qa’ida, ­despite a cosmetic ­rebranding in mid-2016. It includes several dozen embedded senior al-Qa’ida leaders, hosts the “Khorasan Group” that plans exter­nal operations against Western countries, maintains loyalty to al-Qa-ida’s paramount leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Pakistan, and is headed by Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, a Syrian who previously served as al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s military chief in the Nineveh province of Iraq (which includes Mosul).

Jolani is an incredibly sophisticated political player who has forged a broad popular front with other groups fighting Assad, ­refrained from forcing other rebel factions to formally join his organisation and downplayed his jihadist ideology to seem moderate by comparison with Islamic State.

This has worked as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has gained military allies and public support in areas it controls. At the same time, the military prowess of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — composed of experienced fighters with good equipment, battle-proven tactics and a flexible ­organisation — dwarfs that of most other factions in the conflict. Capabilities for civil governance (something al-Qa’ida in Iraq, in its previous incarnation in Iraq, was inept at) and active ­attempts to win popular support through persuasion rather than ­violent coercion have increased the success of Jolani’s group. So even if Islamic State were to dis­appear overnight, there’s an equally capable — perhaps more capable, militarily more competent and more politically savvy — player ready to take its place.

All this means that, even as the US-led coalition and the Russian-backed Assad regime close in on Mosul and Raqqa, and as Turkish forces increase pressure on rebel groups in northern Syria, the ­impending collapse of Islamic State’s “caliphate” in the region will not bring an end to the threat, but merely the latest cycle of ­rebirth and regeneration, a cycle Islamic State has been through at least three times.

Islamic State’s ­capacity to inspire attacks such as the one in London, destabilise countries across the region and regenerate territorial enclaves in conflict areas as far afield as The Philippines, Afghanistan and West Africa, is far from ended. And even as Islamic State loses strongholds in Iraq and Syria, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — the latest, greatest, most-improved version of the threat — stands ready to take its place. No wonder friends in Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere are deeply concerned about the future.

It also means that efforts to speed the US-led campaign against Raqqa and Mosul may not help much. So far, according to Syria-watchers, the main effect of new rules of engagement designed to ramp up the pressure on Islamic State has been to increase civilian casualties.

Details of the mass ­casualty event in Mosul last week, in which up to 200 civilians may have died, are still sketchy. The Pentagon and US Central Command have denied the existence of new rules of engagement.

But perceptions among locals — especially in Syria — are that the gloves have come off. Until ­recently, nobody in Syria particularly worried about being accidentally caught up in US strikes, friends told me, because they ­almost always hit al-Qa’ida or ­Islamic State targets, and civilians were extremely rarely struck. If anything, people would have liked a faster pace (Russian strikes were another matter). Now, though, it’s clear the strikes are not only more intense but also less concerned about avoiding collateral damage if there’s opportunity to hit high-value targets. After six years of war Syrians are realists, and some have said they’re willing to accept more civilian losses as the price of getting rid of al-Qa’ida and ­Islamic State. But it’s easy to say that until it’s your own family being hit, and public perceptions can change rapidly.

As I left Amman late last week to fly to London, the ban on laptop computers in cabin baggage — ­imposed the day before, now in full force for flights to Britain and the US from Middle Eastern countries including Jordan — was creating major angst for the crowd at check-in.

Was this a legitimate response to new terrorist techniques? Or was it just the latest iteration of “security theatre” designed to make people feel safe rather than providing any real protection? Was it a naked grab for market share by Western airlines seeking to block local competitors? Was it an own goal in safety terms, massing large numbers of lithium ­batteries close to each other in people’s checked bags, subject to pressure and temperature ­extremes in the cargo hold, while a passenger with a mobile phone in the main cabin could still detonate a bomb in the hold using Bluetooth or a text message? All this was discussed in suitably hushed tones among frustrated travellers in the check-in line.

The Jordanian employee at the airline counter had a different take. “Ah, you’re from Australia,” he said. “It’s so dangerous there.” I asked him what on earth he meant. “All those sharks. Too dangerous to swim — and then there are the crocodiles.”

Well, yes, I agreed, but Australians kind of take those risks in their stride. We know they’re there but actual numbers of fatal attacks, while tragic, are very low, and anyway we have good systems in place — lifeguards, drones, air patrols, shark nets — that can never completely remove the risk but reduce it enough that you can just get on with your life.

He smiled as he handed back my passport and boarding pass, and I realised we hadn’t been talking about sharks.

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Among the COMMENTS

peter 1 day ago
 If the clock was turned back 100 years, the solution would be to divide all these problem territories up and assign them to whatever colonial powers cared to manage them. Nowadays the solution appears to be to isolate those groups most inimical to first world aims and attack them with the cooperation of sympathetic locals, getting these locals to do the hard bits, such as dying. First world solutions such as “democracy” and “freedom” would appear to be particularly woolly-headed. I wonder how many of the locals David talked to would like a vote.

Funny how useless the UN seems to be.

Josef 1 day ago

@peter … arge portion of the problems in the Middle East are the result of an “insensitive” carve-up of the region after WW1 by the French and British. They drew straight lines over complicated tribal and religious landscape.


Michael Roberts & Arhur Saniotis: “Empowering the Body and Noble DeathSocial Analysis  Spring 2006 50: 7-24, introducing articles by Douglas Farrer, Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, Michael Roberts and Jacob Copeman.

Damian Whitworth:  “Ignorant Oversimplifications in the Theresa May-Obama Characterisations of ISIS,” 17 January 2017,  https://thuppahis.com/2017/01/17/ignorant-oversimplifications-in-the-theresa-may-obama-characterization-of-isis/

Jvette Klausen & Allexandra Johnson: “How ISIS cells operate,” 3 April 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/04/03/how-isis-cells-operate/

David Cook: “An Apocalyptic Salafi Jihadi Movement and Its Offshoot,”  20 February 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/02/21/isis-an-apocalyptic-salafi-jihadi-movement-and-its-off-shoot/

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