As we pass another 9/11 anniversary, people talk about Daesh as if they were a defeated, spent force. In fact, they are a more globalized movement than at any time in their history.
As recently as 2017, about 80 percent of Daesh’s activity was in Iraq and Syria, but in 2022 the vast majority of their attacks occur elsewhere — over half emanating from Africa, and a growing number focused on Afghanistan and neighboring states.
Both Daesh and Al-Qaeda have become highly active throughout the Sahel region of Africa, including sprawling ungoverned spaces across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. They have been expanding at a frightening pace, vigorously recruiting along tribal lines and transforming their “jihad” into a brutal onslaught against rival tribes.
Meanwhile Daesh’s West African franchise controls much of the vast Lake Chad region, using these inaccessible territories and Nigeria’s immense Sambisa Forest as staging points from which to attack the military. During 2022 this branch has expanded out of northeastern Nigeria to strike at wider parts of this troubled nation, including a prison break in July on the outskirts of the capital, Abuja, in which hundreds of militant inmates were freed.
In Nigeria, Cameroon, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Daesh carries out murderous attacks on a near daily basis against defenseless Christian villages, slaughtering dozens of people at a time.
Daesh in Afghanistan have been celebrating bloody attacks against Shiite mosques and even a Sikh temple. These strikes partly seek to embarrass its arch enemies the Taliban, who as the de facto authority in Afghanistan are supposedly defending these minority groups. Daesh are gaining strength by recruiting from within disaffected Taliban ranks — those who failed to enjoy the benefits of the group’s ascent to power, and who believe it has compromised on its radical Islamic principles.
Throughout Afghanistan and Central Asia, Daesh have embarked on the rhetorical offensive, distributing propaganda materials in an ever-broader range of languages, seeking to entice brainwashed students in madrassas and seminaries into their ranks, particularly in the Pashto-peaking tribal areas from where the Taliban movement emerged in the first place.
Thanks to US President Joe Biden’s unforced errors, Afghanistan is again becoming ground zero for terrorism. Far from keeping promises to dissociate themselves from terrorist groups, the Taliban play attentive host to Al-Qaeda’s leadership, and seem powerless to avoid being outflanked by the more radical Daesh. Daesh’s latest deadly attack on the Russian embassy and the assassination of high-profile clerics demonstrate their ability to strike at significant targets, while Al-Qaeda are using their Afghan haven to reconstitute themselves worldwide.
Does the world have a response? Beyond sending the occasional drone into Afghanistan and Yemen, the West’s “over the horizon” strategy surrenders vast portions of the world to the terrorists. Can leading states and multilateral institutions grapple with only one crisis at a time? As long as terrorists confine themselves to dysfunctional states, they are mostly ignored and left to go about their business unmolested.
Al-Shabab have drawn inspiration from the Taliban’s victory to set themselves up as the dominant force throughout Somalia, in all but Mogadishu and a few other pockets. Much of Al-Qaeda’s worldwide revenues are reaped from their territories in Somalia. Although Daesh have only a foothold there, it is thought to be a vital financial hub for the group.
The West’s counterterrorism strategy is in similar in disarray in West Africa, after French forces were compelled to leave Mali. This retreat represented a victory for propaganda and outreach efforts by Moscow and its Wagner mercenaries, who have stepped into the breach, perpetrating horrific massacres in the guise of counterterrorism operations.
Daesh propaganda has been capitalizing on the recent intra-Shiite turmoil in Iraq to argue that Sunnis have nothing to gain from aligning themselves with squabbling Shiite political forces, and should instead give refuge to Daesh fighters as a bridgehead for regaining their “caliphate”.”
Thanks to US President Joe Biden’s unforced errors, Afghanistan is again becoming ground zero for terrorism.
Daesh in Iraq had actually been becoming weaker year-on-year since 2017, with diminishing numbers of attacks, of decreased lethality, in narrowing geographical areas. Daesh’s once-mighty branches in Salahuddin province rarely nowadays stage meaningful attacks. During 2022, only Daesh’s branches in Diyala and Kirkuk have been consistently active, and with soft targets, such as burning agricultural lands and murdering Shiite civilians.
Daesh’s predecessors were fought to virtual defeat around 2010. That didn’t stop them surging back to pre-eminence in 2014, drawing tens of thousands of fighters back into their ranks as a consequence of Iraq’s political instability and poisonous sectarian tensions. Daesh now sense that another such opportunity is in the air.
Throughout Syria’s vast Badia region, Daesh have sought to remain below the radar while they rebuild and prepare for fresh onslaughts. Just as Daesh this January staged their daring raid on Ghuwayran prison in Hasakah province, a priority will be to attack the huge detention centers in eastern Syria, holding militantsand their families. Daesh propaganda constantly reminds their foot soldiers of their duty to “break the walls” of these prisons and liberate their comrades.
These detention camps are yet another time bomb. Far from controlling these dangerous terrorist elements, levels of radicalization among those detained — including women and children — are such that even Daesh’s leadership has sought to put a lid on some “ultra-extremist” (ghulat) trends. These camps have existed for five years, yet attempts to repatriate these multinational extremist elements have proceeded at a snail’s pace. Is the world simply waiting for Daesh to go back on the offensive and liberate thousands of its fighters?
The Gulf region is a rare success story in combating terrorism, with militant networks broken up and negligible activity in recent years. Sophisticated procedures obstruct the movement of funds, alongside elaborate deradicalization programs. Militant groups in Yemen have also been weakened, with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula reduced to pitifully begging local tribes to obstruct a new army offensive in Abyan province.
As of 2022, the danger lies in scattered terrorist groups expanding, recruiting and coalescing into region-wide militant empires. Already from Mali, through Niger and Nigeria and into Chad and Cameroon, if Daesh factions were to succeed in linking up with each other it has the makings of an immense “caliphate” stretching for about 2,000km.
Confronting terrorism should be less about killing terrorists than eradicating the vast ungoverned spaces that they inevitably occupy. Poverty, hunger, state failure, desertification and inter-communal conflicts are fertile raw materials that these parasites feed upon. We may laugh at Trump’s ludicrous claim to have “eradicated” Daesh, but Biden’s counterterrorism policies inspire little more confidence.
These deranged terrorist death cults exploit religion for the purpose of killing thousands of innocent people, triggering conflicts and miring entire regions of the world in instability.
Experience shows us that terrorism can be defeated, but as long as the world’s wealthiest states fail in their duty to combat immense global inequalities and prevent the disintegration of sovereign states, we will never be rid of this globalized scourge.
• Baria Alamuddin