Screenshot/Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri delivers a video address to his supporters via the group’s media channel.
A recently released report by the UN’s ISIL/Daesh monitoring team paints a sobering picture of the threat landscape, noting the challenges posed by an increase in jihadist activity in sub-Saharan Africa and concerns ongoing concerns about Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover, as well as the unresolved issue of ISIL-affiliated individuals and children in camps in northeast Syria. The danger posed by the global jihadist movement in mid-2022 is far different than it was just a few years ago. The territorial “caliphate” of the Islamic State has been destroyed, but the group remains active in Iraq and Syria, even in a weakened state. Its leaders have been repeatedly found in hiding in northwestern Syria, while in the northeast prison breakouts are frequent reminders of the organization’s longevity. Al-Qaeda again enjoys a safe haven in Afghanistan, operating with more freedom to maneuver since the Taliban took control of the country nearly a year ago after the US withdrawal.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is believed to be still alive and communicating more frequently with the group’s supporters, including releasing more video messages, although their impact remains questionable. The UN report also detailed al-Qaeda’s current line of succession, fascinating information for counterterrorism analysts, especially given al-Zawahiri’s age and health and at how much Al-Qaeda’s future will depend on its successor. The report lists Sayf al-Adl, Abdal Rahman al-Maghrebi, Yazid Mebrak (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Ahmed Diriye (al-Shabaab). Because al-Adl is believed to be living under semi-house arrest in Iran, and given the vulnerability of al-Qaeda leaders there (Abu Muhammad al-Masri was reportedly killed by Israeli commandos in August 2020 in Tehran), al-Adl may not be the most viable option. Al-Maghrebi, al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law and an established al-Qaeda veteran, may be a more feasible option. Interestingly, the report mentions Diriye in the line of succession, but no leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which it depicts as demoted from top-tier status.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic State affiliates maintained a high operational tempo, with attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Mozambique, Chad and elsewhere. In West Africa, the Islamic State West Africa (ISWAP) Province recently staged a major prison break in Abuja, Nigeria, demonstrating its ability to execute complex operations in the capital previously secure. Elsewhere, the organization separated large subsidiaries into smaller ones, probably in an effort to streamline command and control and boost propaganda and information operations. Islamic State is limited to Somalia and Libya and competes for primacy in parts of the Sahel with al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which has extended its reach operational beyond Mali and in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Togo and Benin. Russian influence through the private military company Wagner Group continues to destabilize parts of West Africa, through the use of asymmetric tactics and disinformation campaigns. This heavy-handed approach can prove counterproductive and inadvertently benefit jihadist groups in the long run.
The UN ‘1267’ monitoring team report mentions that al-Qaeda has neither the intention nor the ability to launch attacks outside of Afghanistan, noting that the organization ” is not considered to pose an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause international difficulty or embarrassment to the Taliban. This discovery should be viewed alongside recent statements by senior US Department of Defense and intelligence community officials, who are far less optimistic that al-Qaeda will simply play an advisory and supportive role to the Taliban. Moreover, even if al-Qaeda is hesitant to plan attacks against Western targets, its fighters can still wreak havoc in the region while patiently rebuilding the organization through recruitment and training.
According to the monitoring team’s report, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) poses a more acute threat in the short to medium term. Without a physical presence on the ground, US intelligence gathering capabilities are severely limited. This beyond-the-horizon approach to counterterrorism makes understanding and countering the threat much more difficult. Given the focus on Ukraine and great power competition, there are fears that Washington will not be able to properly assess the capabilities of transnational terrorist groups and will once again find itself on the defensive, forced to respond to al-Qaeda, ISK and other jihadist groups. organizations that fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan. The report focuses less on the implementation of the 1267 anti-terrorism sanctions regime, noting that little information on the asset freeze or travel ban components has been provided by states, although it points out that many Many states remain concerned about the proliferation of weapons in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa, particularly small arms and light weapons, complicating the implementation of sanctions-related arms embargoes.