Advance of Islamic State affiliates ‘could lay ground for new wave of terrorism’ | Islamic State

Islamic State (IS) remains defeated in its core strongholds of the Middle East but has made significant progress in Africa and parts of south Asia, winning territory and resources that could serve as a launchpad for a new campaign of extremist violence, analysts and officials believe.

European governments have moved to their highest levels of alert for years after the attack on a concert hall in Moscow last week by militants from IS which killed 140 people.

Within 48 hours, France increased its surveillance and risk warning to the highest level and Italy too ordered enhanced measures. In Germany, officials described an “acute risk”.

The attack in Moscow, the most lethal Islamist extremist operation ever in Europe, was claimed by IS which, officials believe, has been planning new operations against European targets for several years.


Between 2015 and 2019, when IS ran a so-called caliphate across a swath of land it controlled across eastern Syria and western Iraq, the group’s central leadership had little need of its newly established affiliates to launch operations in Europe as it had all resources to hand with foreign recruits, money and training camps. This led to a series of lethal attacks in France and Belgium.

However, years of counter-terrorism operations by local security forces, the US and others, have degraded IS in its former strongholds and the group is fragmented and weak.

Western security officials with close knowledge of IS in Iraq and Syria said the group had abandoned its project of rebuilding the so-called caliphate but that successful strikes at international targets were seen as “good for morale and the IS brand and compensate for failure closer to home”.

Recent US-led counter-terrorist operations have killed a series of IS leaders in Syria who were thought to have been planning attacks in Europe.

“[The US military’s] decision to act against these individuals may indicate that the threat they posed needed to be dealt with immediately. It may also signal that IS is reprioritising external operations, which it has not had the capacity to do for some time,” wrote analysts at the Washington Institute, a US-based thinktank.

That new capability has come from affiliates, experts say.

The Moscow attacks appear to have been the work of the group’s branch in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). ISKP, which was founded in 2015, has targeted propaganda and outreach on central Asia and has previously made multiple efforts to launch new recruits into Europe and Russia. Turkey has also been a focus of activity. The four suspects presented in court by Russia were from Tajikistan.

Western security officials are focusing on communications among IS factions to answer the important question of how close links are between affiliates and the central leadership.

Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa, where IS has expanded rapidly in recent years, suggests the central leadership is in close contact with affiliates and runs sophisticated communication networks.

Habib Yusuf, the leader of the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) now sits on the IS central leadership council, it is thought. The appointment is evidence of the enhanced status of successful affiliates.

One of the men suspected of taking part in the attack on the Crocus City Hall waiting for his pre-trial detention hearing at a court in Moscow. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images

“There are testimonies of ISWAP commanders noting … requests for advice for bigger attacks, submitting proposals and intel. And there is a lot of technical and doctrinal advice that is sent. There are sometimes visitors – Arabs or Chechens, mostly – who come to advise, teach and confer, but the bulk of the conversation seems to happen online,” said Vincent Foucher, research fellow with the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Caleb Weiss, editor at the Long War Journal, said IS had constructed an effective communications system via hubs located across sub-Saharan Africa. For example, the IS affiliate in Mozambique, now resurgent after suffering significant losses in a government and Rwanda-led offensive, was in touch with central leadership via IS militants elsewhere on the continent.

“It is all coordinated through these regional offices so Mozambique is connected very strongly through Puntland … So that’s how they’re receiving training, funding, logistical support that is all being directed to them and status reports and requests get sent back,” Weiss said.

According to intelligence submitted by western and other agencies to the UN, similar systems link ISKP with the central leadership. A recent UN report found there has been significant communication between ISKP and the central leadership in recent years. On occasion, couriers have travelled to bring money or instructions to key central and south Asian leaders.

A variety of encrypted social media platforms are being used for messages, western security officials say, and some might have been intercepted, leading to recent US warnings of an ISKP attack on venues in Russia such as concert halls that was relayed to Moscow but ignored.

IS claimed responsibility for the attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in 2015. Photograph: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

One concern is that the effectiveness of the campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq depended to a significant extent on the US and others having forces on the ground and being able to work with local partners. This is not the case in Afghanistan – though the Taliban has struggled to eradicate ISKP and launched repeated offensives against the group. In 2021, after its withdrawal from Kabul, the US said it would rely on an “over the horizon” capability to fight IS and other international extremist groups in Afghanistan.

IS has also sought to exploit the conflict in Gaza to mobilise and radicalise new followers, issuing a series of calls for attacks around the world on civilian targets. In one statement, IS offered advice on “practical steps to fight the Jews” but criticised Hamas for its links to Iran and narrow focus on Israel. The group called for attacks against Jews everywhere, but specifically in North America and in Europe.

The annual US intelligence assessment, released two weeks ago, said the regional affiliates of IS and al-Qaida, the group responsible for 9/11 but now much weakened, were likely to expand in the future despite recent leadership losses. “This threat is mostly likely to manifest in small cells or individuals inspired by foreign terrorist organisations and violent extremist ideologies to conduct attacks,” it said.

Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, said this month that “the Gaza conflict will have a generational impact on terrorism”.


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