Islamic State beyond its territorial component

by Francesca Citossi

Original article available on Ce.Mi.S.S. Osservatorio Strategico 1/2018

We don’t see things as they are. Each of us see things as we are. We are captive of our own particular experience. Therefore, when you deal with people there is not one reality. What seems obvious to you is not obvious to the other party. If you get into the other persons world it makes you so much more effective. You are able to virtually predict their behavior… power is based upon perception.

Herb Cohen in Ep. 33 Negotiations Ninja Podcast May 28, 2018.

The Islamic State has never been a state and this is its strength. Terrorism expands until filling all the room available: it flourishes because the territory is uncontrolled, sometimes uncontrollable, until when the conditions that allowed its surge change the cycle will repeat itself. Military victories are temporary and offhand. The group narrative is based on the 1919 “betrayal” by the western powers that had promised a great Arab state. The world order that was established is then illegitimate and it must be destroyed: this is a long-term objective, which will not be compromised for a mere territory loss. Many states in this area are legitimacy deficient and deeply weak.
Weakened but not defeated, the Caliphate claimed the grounds illegally taken from the Muslims by the Crusaders, it declares itself the unique legitimate government on earth and the believers have the divine duty to live in the reconquered territory.
The community is ideal and idealistic; it shares an even historical ground instead of a real one, myths, an inescapable ancestral memory, a public mass culture that inspires awareness and collective action.

Islamic State: vindication and revenge for the humiliations suffered by the Sykes-Picot agreement and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Belonging to this entity goes far beyond the classical and western concepts of a nation-state, it provides to the individuals redemption from the individual’ oblivion, hope for regeneration, salvation from alienation, loneliness and anonymity. It is a source of personal and collective pride, vindication and revenge for the humiliations suffered by the Sykes-Picot agreement and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The narrative is based on the rejection of the nation-state world order invented and imposed by the West. It aims to Muslim dominance in Asia and the Middle East: personal frustrations converge into the universal persecution of all Muslims that must be avenged and rectified in the future permanent, regardless of temporary defeats; it is a mission, which will change and save the world.
Prime Minister at Abadi in December 2017, as well as President Trump in January 2018, had declared the final victory: the group had lost 96% of its territory- but the road between Baghdad and Kirkuk during the summer was impassable because of the attacks. IS is withdrawing towards the Anbar desert – inhiyaz ila al-sahra as spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani said- to reorganize: the defeat is only military, the organization is being reshaped to adapt to the context and continue to promote the final goal, the realization of the Caliphate.
In August 2018 in Iraq, the Islamic State resumed attacks, killings, kidnappings, fake check-points to seize materials, sabotaging power lines and pipelines, especially in the areas of Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahuddin, accomplice, or because of, the lack of effective control by the central government which, after the May elections, has yet to complete and to stabilize institutional appointments. The parties are still negotiating to form the new government and are seeking for an agreement on power sharing after the heavy accusations of fraud and the outbreak of anti-government protests in the southern provinces, in particular in Basra.

International reactions to counter violent extremism are usually reactive rather than preventive

The attack on Iran in Ahvaz on 22 September was claimed – although it leaves some doubts – even from IS. The Revolutionary Guard responded on October 1st with a launch of missiles in Syria. As early as June 2017, a group of Iranian Jihadist Kurds attacked the parliament and the Ayatollah Khomeini mausoleum: retaliation followed with a launch of six missiles in Syrian territory and in July 2018 with eight executions. Iran refuses to cooperate with Washington in this area because it believes it is a pretext to intervene in the region. Instead, it preferred to provide support to Iraq since 2014 in an anti-IS function: military advisors in Baghdad and weapons were sent to the Peshmerga, taking care not to polarize the differences with the Sunni minority, to provoke protests by the Iraqis or exacerbate sectarian tensions. It favored a strategy of inclusiveness: both Prime Minister al-Abadi and al-Amiri recognized the importance of Iranian support with a view to uniting the country, until a special agreement was signed.
Saudi Arabia has suffered several attacks on its territory in 2015 (Qatife and Dammam mosques, Asir area and a bomb car in Riyadh). The Saudi response has taken different forms: the training and equipment of fighters in Syria (but it is estimated that about 2,500 Saudis have joined the Islamic State). Riyadh has also produced a television series (“Security for the Kingdom”) to fight the propaganda of the group and is active in the control of funds as co-chair of the CIFG, Counter-ISIL Finance Group, the mechanism of the Coalition to monitor loans to IS. It also cut the group out of the international financial system by applying UNSCRs 2253/2015 and 1267/1999 on individuals and entities associated with ISIL and Al-Qaeda and therefore on the sanctions list. The Saudis have increased their contributions to humanitarian agencies operating in Iraq.

the answer to IS has been mainly of a military-security nature

So far, the answer to IS has been mainly of a military-security nature: the Peshmerga and the forces led by Shiite groups supported by Iran in Iraq have direct experience with the United States and France support.
International reactions to counter violent extremism are usually reactive rather than preventive: these short-term strategies have limited scope because they do not imply ideological eradication.
The current territorial defeat of the group does not affect the potential of this phenomenon, since the assessment only of the physical dimension is limited, insufficient to measure a media revolution, a communicative, religious and social innovation. The map is not the territory; a military defeat is marginal if the idea, a dream of a Caliphate, persists.
Military defeat is only one aspect of the matter, and not even the most important. When instability persists, the soil is fertile. The fighters have not disappeared, and even if so, there would be many ready to replace them. The Caliphate is not defeated because the aspirations and conditions that led to the project formulation persist; they are impermeable and superior to temporary assessments. The complete disappearance is far away, since the organization has simply become clandestine: it is a cyclical process, not a linear one. From the mode of “government” of the territory it has moved to insurgency. There is no direct link between the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq and its ability to continue recruiting followers by cultivating divisions of various kinds among the populations of this area. The territorial collapse has created a diaspora that now escapes any territorial measurement – as happened to Al Qaeda who survived in Iraq, withdrawing and then re-appearing in Syria in 2011.

the Islamic State has evolved into a global clandestine network

According to the latest report presented to the UN Security Council, the Islamic State is still strong of around 30,000 fighters divided between Iraq and Syria, but above all it has evolved, especially on the Iraqi territory, into a global clandestine network. The discipline, finances and security are intact, the coordination office for logistics and immigration work, the exploitation of oil resources continues, the survivors follow the indications of the spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir and Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi remains at the helm. Command and control have been damaged, many planners and leaders have been killed, the flow of foreign fighters has stopped, but the General of the US Army Paul Funk believes that the conditions for the return of the group persist, they are sharpened indeed: the reduction of terrorist attacks is temporary, a pause for reorganization.
Furthermore, the unresolved issue of the families of the combatants that survive in refugee camps in Syria and Iraq is not to be underestimated. This is a very favorable situation to lead to the creation in a few years of new cells, a generation fueled by the resentment, ostracism and marginalization they are undergoing. They are thousands of women and children rejected by their national states, or stateless, detested by the communities who want to take revenge on them or, simply, they do not want to deal with them, and embassies resist their requests for return.
IS has, since its inception, specifically orchestrated propaganda to attract young people, exploiting the natural search for identity, the recurrent rebellion against families and the frustration among the most disadvantaged social classes. Despite reports and information sent to Baghdad on thousands of families in serious trouble, the central government has not responded, leaving the local authorities to deal with them.
The fight against IS is effective through a better coordination of intelligence between the various systems at national and international level, political stabilization, the fight against extremist ideology and with a clear cut to financial support and supply of arms.
A real political stabilization of Syria and Iraq is necessary, and in particular an agreement with the Sunni populations. The new Iraqi government, dominated by Al Sadr even if he has not obtained a full victory in terms of parliamentary seats, if it does not make progress in the power sharing with respect to Maliki’ sectarian policy will face the same problems. Re-establishing effective security for all populations, beyond sectarian divisions, requires a strong commitment to security while respecting ethnic groups.
The ideological battle can only be victorious if it invests directly in the young generations of extremists, through a long-term educational strategy that attacks the radical ideology at its roots, with programs for recovery and reintegration within the communities: eradicating toxic ideologies in a society can require much time, as the German case proved after the Second World War, but it is the only lasting strategy. The fight against IS is essentially a battle for minds, not a clash of civilizations or a territorial contest.

The current threat and evolution of jihadist groups in the Sahel

by Marco Cochi

The war in the north of Mali has turned into a low-intensity asymmetric conflict while a new, dangerous insurgency has further developed along the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border

Instability and insecurity in the border regions of the Sahel are a long-standing phenomenon. They originate from a series of issues, namely the still uncertain consolidation of the security forces belonging to different states of the region; the porosity of borders; ethnic-driven territorial claims  and the presence of active Islamist extremist groups. The crisis in this area worsened at the end of 2011 following the fall of Muammar al-Ghaddafi and resulted in a huge, illegal flow of weapons through the Sahel, which has fuelled insurrections and conflicts in the region.

A progression of events, which erupted in April 2012 under the leadership of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and culminated in the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. A few months later, MNLA secured the support of three fearful jihadist groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Later, these jihadist movements came into conflict with MNLA due to strong disagreements between the Tuareg and Islamist radicals, after the latter succeeded in imposing their fundamentalist religious connotation over the armed uprising.

After taking over military operations, the extremists began invading Southern Mali up to the point of threatening its capital Bamako. In January 2013, the revolt spree prompted Operation Serval, which was conducted by a French-led multinational force in accordance to Security Council resolutions 2071 of 12th October and 2085 of 20th December 2012.

This action prevented the former French colony from falling under an Islamist yoke and put an end to the jihadists’ offensive, but failed to eradicate the contagion of violent extremism from the area. With state authority restored in Northern Mali, as of 1st August 2014 Paris entrusted the fight against Sahelian jihadist groups to the Operation Barkhane, comprising Serval and Epervier.

Six and a half years later, the war in the north of Mali has turned into a low-intensity asymmetric conflict and a new, dangerous insurgency has further developed along the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border. Some jihadist groups, exploiting the insecurity that characterized it for decades, have made this area their stronghold.

JNIM was established in early March 2017 under the aegis of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to gather the main groups linked to al-Qaeda under a single umbrella organisation 

One of the most dangerous and dynamic Islamist extremist formations in the area is Jama’ah Nusrah al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims – JNIM/GSIM). The JNIM was established in early March 2017, under the aegis of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to gather the main al-Qaida linked groups active in Mali and the Sahel desert areas under a single umbrella organisation. Specifically, the merger involved al-Murabitun, Ansar Eddine and its affiliates from the Macina Brigade, later renamed as Macina Liberation Front.

Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian cell is led by a prominent figure of the Malian jihadist network: Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly – nicknamed “the strategist” –  who, besides leading Ansar Eddine during the war in the north of Mali, also fought in the ranks of Ghaddafi’s Islamist Legion and in Lebanon alongside PLO militants; in addition to negotiating the release of hostages for the Bamako government and being one of the main actors in the second Tuareg uprising between 1990 and 1995.

The alliance of the main Qaedist groups active throughout the region had been anticipated by some observers; a study carried out by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) two months prior to the merger testifies to that, as it examines such possibility in detail.

Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel fostered the merger in response to the progressive strengthening of the Islamic State’s influence in the region

After all, AQMI leader Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel had long been pursuing the objective of binding together all militant groups in the Sahel to fulfill his ambitions of increasing AQMI’s then limited influence on the region. But the jihadist leader’s motivation also stemmed from the a need to formalize ties and relations between various armed formations, dating back to the occupation of Northern Mali. Furthermore, it is manifest that Droukdel fostered the merger in response to the progressive strengthening of the Islamic State’s influence in the region which, despite its territorial losses, still remains a pole of attraction for international jihadism.

Download the full article – Ce.Mi.S.S – Military Centre for Strategic Studies

Marco Cochi is a professional journalist, expert in security and development for Sub-Saharian Africa and Lecturer at Link Campus University, Rome.

Libya: the opportunities

The Libyan frailty

On August 26, in the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, violent clashes took place as consequence of an attack conducted by the militias of the Tarhuna Seventh Brigade (originally from a town 60 km south of Tripoli and linked to Salah Badi, former chief of Libya Dawn) against the militias loyal to the Government of national accord (Gna), in place since 2016, under Fayez al-Sarraj. Thanks to the UN mediation, the parties agreed to a truce on September 4, but the subsequent missiles attack on Tripoli airport on September 12 broke the truce and imposed the closure of the capital’s air traffic. In a month’s time, because of the hostilities 117 people died, 560 were injured and 5000 families were displaced.

This situation, while confirming the failure of the international negotiation process, significantly affected the internal political scene, characterized by chronic instability and very difficult to put back together. Despite international recognition and support, the Government of national accord is being de-legitimized by some very dynamic competitors, like militias, sub-national, local and tribal groups. It is weak, lacks the necessary monopoly of force and therefore is unable to impose its power beyond the sole Tripoli area.

The UN rejects the French early elections project

In mid-September, the UN Security Council (under rotational US presidency) made two important decisions: in the first place it adopted a resolution authorizing an extension into 2019 of UNSMIL mandate -the United Nations Support Mission in Libya is the UN body in charge of relations with Tripoli, under the responsibility of Lebanese national Mr. Ghassan Salamè. Secondly, due to persisting instability, the idea of holding presidential elections before the end of the year, put forward by France, was abandoned. This latter choice was in line with the Italian and US views.

The UN Security Council decision thus reinforced the key role of the UNSMIL mission, while it weakened Mr. Ghassan Salamè’s (apparently not very incisive) who is to be flanked by US national Ms. Stephanie Williams as Vice-representative for political affairs in Libya. On the other hand, Paris has not given up its plans.

Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar collaboration-competition relationship, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades.

The overall situation pays the price of strong external interferences making a solution to the conflict unlikely in the mid-term. The Libyan government under Fayez al-Sarraj is busy maintaining a safe and secure environment in the Tripoli urban area, the Tobruk Parliament – loyal to General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar and with the support of France, Russia and Egypt – is promoting a constitutional referendum, urged by the French, with the aim of facilitating elections. Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar relationship of collaboration on the one hand and competition on the other, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades who are busy imposing their own priorities on both Tripoli’s and Tobruk’s governments thanks to their respective territorial and social control, whose characteristics have been compared to the mafia’s. A thriving parallel economy based on international illegal trade in smuggled goods, consisting mainly in oil, drugs and weapons, as well as human beings, allows self-sustenance. 

Within this scenario, signs are starting to emerge of an improved cooperation between Italy and the US. Washington could take a more direct involvement in Libya into consideration, while the US administration also views the 12-13 November international conference on Libya organized by Italy with favour. It is not to be excluded that the US will advance its own strategy for Libya with an eye to security. Should the strategy be designed in accordance with Stephanie Williams’s vision, resulting from her 24 years’ experience in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically in Libya where she previously held the position of «chargé d’affaires», it might include the creation of a selected military corps to also include Gadhafi’s special troops currently scattered among countless armed groups.

Syria: the Russian-Turkish competition

The Russian commitment in post-conflict reconstruction: Moscow will be in charge of reactivating roads, rebuilding strategic pipes and infrastructures.

Syria: Russia gets the upper hand over Turkey

On September 17, Russia and Turkey agreed on the institution of a demilitarized area in the Syrian region of Idlib, the last fortress of the about 60.000 members of the armed opposition groups and anti-government rebels including Jihadist and former Qaedist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The demilitarized area is about 15-20 km wide. Inside the area, Russian, Turkish and NATO units will perform coordinated patrol activities; radical groups shall leave the area while rebel groups shall surrender heavy weapons to Syrian governmental forces. This agreement was the outcome of the Sochi meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish equivalent Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Apparently, this agreement managed to prevent a serious humanitarian crisis that could have affected about 3 million people, if the announced military offensive had actually taken place.

The terms of the Russian-Turkish agreement reinforce the idea that the Idlib campaign will follow the path traced for the previous campaigns, like the one for Daraa. This approach confirms the strategic vision of the Syrian regime and its allies, who systematically induced hesitant armed opposition groups to scatter on the territory, so that they could be fought without great effort and with limited collateral effects on the civilian population.

Ankara will have to maintain a sort of Turkish protectorate on rebel troops

The main advantage for Turkey is to avoid the concentration of Syrian governmental troops in that area. The downside is that Ankara will have to maintain a sort of Turkish protectorate on rebel troops in evident distress and, should the campaign against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other Jihadist groups be successful, Turkey will have the further burden of guaranteeing them a way out of Syria.

On the other hand, the agreement gives Russia and Syria the opportunity to secure the strategic line of communication that cuts across Idlib and connects the North of Syria to other cities. Transit along the Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama motorways is expected to resume by the end of 2018. Russia also obtains another advantage from the agreement, in particular on the operational level. As its forces cannot keep fighting the Jihadist and other rebel groups, it is going to deploy its troops along with Turkish troops in the demilitarized area in order to reduce the presence and arsenals of those rebels which were until now supported by Ankara.

The US, in turn, stays out of the conflict and its solution. Similarly to what happened in the South (Daraa), US support to opposition groups in the province of Idlib seems to be limited to deterrence from the hypothetical use of chemical weapons, to which the US administration could nevertheless and in a limited, tactlcal manner respond. In brief, a merely symbolic help to the rebels that Ankara would like to keep supporting.

So the war in Syria essentially continues but with the Putin-Erdogan agreement the trend appears to consolidate Russians’ influence in the area, to the benefit of Damascus and Teheran.

Analysis, assessments and previsions

Russia wants a new security order in the Middle East. Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria firmly inside its area of influence – both as its stronghold in the Middle East and to help contain the US and its allies.

the presence of 38 Russian companies at the Damascus International Fair, last September, proved that the economic and trade activities will be the main enablers of the Russian strategic influence

The contribution of the Russian armed forces was decisive in the fight against the opponents to Bashar al-Assad’s government and against the Islamic State, and it granted Moscow a more influential position compared to Western powers’. Russia was able to take the upper hand in diplomacy and international relations as well as on military ground, as the recent sales’ agreement for S-300 missile systems to Syria seems to confirm. The agreement is causing concern to another big regional player, Israel, who has long been carrying out bombing actions on Syrian territory with the aim of containing Iran and countering Lebanese Hezbollah.

The Russian role on the military front was paramount, but also its commitment in post-conflict reconstruction cannot be underestimated. Moscow will be in charge of reactivating roads, rebuilding strategic pipes and properties destroyed during these last seven years of war. The participation of 38 Russian companies to the Damascus International Fair, last September, proved that the economic and trade activities will be the main enablers of the Russian strategic influence in the Middle East.

Latest from the ‘5+5 Defence Initiative’


Tunis, 5th October

The ‘5+5 Defence Initiative’ wrapped up their latest 2018 research meeting in Tunis on 5th October.

The international study group, bent on identifying shared security preoccupations, focused their work on the threat posed by illegal immigration, organised crime and terrorist groups in the Mediterranean. A year-long, in-depth analysis resulted in an internal research document suggesting approaches and solutions to try and contain criminal networks. Libya and the consequences of domestic instability gained specific attention.
The ‘5+5 Defence Initiative’ regroups appointed researchers from Algeria, France, Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Mauritania, Portugal, Spain and Tunisia which in 2018 were coordinated by Dr. Andrea Carteny from CEMAS -Università la Sapienza – Roma.
Italy was represented by CeMiSS’ Strategic analyst Dr. Claudio Bertolotti, who is also START InSight’s Executive Director.
Official research documents emerging from these regular, joint meetings pave the way for discussions among Defence Ministers. The latest paper is being delivered next December.