Between the Taliban’s fragmentation and ISIS’sthreat

With the fragmentation of the group led by Mansour, a growing number of Taliban has embraced the flag of the Islamic State, thus making even more complex the Afghan scenario and jeopardizing any prospect of dialogue

Historically the most outstanding terrorist group of the Afghan framework, the Taliban have undergone over the past year a phase of internal fragmentation that is now spreading its consequences not only on the group as such but also on the context in which the group, its affiliates and its opponents operate.
The cause of such fragmentation is twofold.
Firstly, it is to be considered the impact of Ghani and his political line aimed at initiating negotiations with the Taliban. Such approach on part of the President has indeed divided the Taliban in two factions. On one side, there are those who acknowledge the impossibility of re-instating the Taliban Emirate and see in negotiations the most direct (and only) way to a political participation from which, otherwise, they would continue to be excluded. On the other side, there are those who see in the recreation of that Taliban government that ruled the country (or at least most of it) between 1996 and 2001 the only reason lying behind their action, and who regard dialogue with Kabul as a betrayal of that political project that is the raison d’être of the group itself.
Secondly, the intra-Taliban fracture was exasperated last summer by the news of the death of Mullah Omar – the Taliban’s Amir al-Mu’minin – and the subsequent rise to leadership of Mullah Mansour and his deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani. Among the Taliban, not everyone did recognize Mansour as new leader and divisions concerning his appointment have swiftly translated into defections.

Such situation has led to the emergence of a new reality in the Afghan theatre, as a number of Taliban has embraced the flag of the Islamic State and created a new group.
Known as ISIS-Khorasan, the group consists mainly of former members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and has found fertile ground in the North-Eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, whose capital Jalalabad is strategically located between Kabul and Peshawar.
However, despite flying the flag of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the group and its action are not under the direct control or coordination of ISIS’s leadership in Iraq and Syria. Rather, the Afghan group has been exploiting ISIS’s brand and its image of invincibility within the jihadist universe in order to easily gain credibility and attract recruits.
According to the USA Department of Defense, the group counts among its ranks between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters and – despite being on the rise – it is still a limited reality. Since its formation, indeed, it has been forced to deal with a series of obstacles.
Firstly, ISIS is expression of a Salafi ideology that struggles to find support among an Afghan population deeply loyal and traditionally committed to the Deobandi doctrine and practice embodied by the Taliban. Secondly, the long-established and consolidated presence of the Taliban – that in many areas have successfully presented themselves to the population as “security providers” and have intervened through the structures of the so-called “shadow government” – reduces for ISIS-Khorasan the room for maneuver. Finally, a further obstacle for ISIS-Khorasan is that it tends to be perceived by the locals as an alien force, contraposed to the indigenous reality of the Taliban.

The Afghan scenario is thus divided in Taliban factions open to negotiations; Taliban factions hostile to negotiations; former Taliban fighters now rallied under ISIS’s banner; and groups more or less tightly linked to the Taliban, such as the Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda.
It is this one an extremely complex scenario – in which more dynamics and realities are intertwined and contraposed – that brings with it crucial consequences for the future of Afghanistan and the security of its people. Indeed, the country’s security is made particularly (and increasingly) precarious by the clashes between the Taliban, ISIS-Khorasan and the Afghan regular forces (namely the ANP and the ANA) in the Northeast of the country.
In addition, the fragmentation of the Taliban front reduces the possibility to initiate and carry forward peace negotiations capable of instituting an embryonic form of cooperation between Kabul and the Taliban. Collapsed the traditional cohesion of the group, in fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Ghani to identify the interlocutors with whom dialogue can be initiated, as the Taliban – and more generally Afghan jihadist – universe comprises now a growing variety of subgroups and factions.
Tightly linked is the consideration that, even if it was possible to initiate negotiations with a given faction, the stability and credibility of such negotiations would be put into question and jeopardized by the risk that the interlocutors represent too small a section of the jihadist reality for the dialogue to be meaningful and effective in stopping violence.

In light of what said, it is clear how future developments will largely depend on what happens on the Taliban’s front as well as on ISIS’s side in Iraq and Syria.
As far as the Taliban are concerned, much will depend on Mansour’s ability to give cohesion to the group he is now leading. A renewal of that cohesion that has always characterized Omar’s group and represented one of its main strengths would be functional to avoid further defections and thus weaken ISIS-Khorasan’s recruiting ability.
As far as ISIS is concerned, the future of ISIS-Khorasan will largely depend on the resilience of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As seen, the link between the two groups is for the moment a loose one, but this situation might change if al-Baghdadi’s group saw its position in the Levant weakened. If this was to happen, in fact, al-Baghdadi might find it rational (and even vital) to look for new areas of action, and such necessity would likely lead him to tighten the connection with ISIS-Khorasan and expand into the Afghan districts under its control.

Clearly, much will also depend on NATO’s capacity of making the Afghan forces fully autonomous and efficient and on Ghani’s capacity of increasing the credibility of those same forces in the eyes of a disillusioned Afghan people.

The best hope remains that of looking for credible interlocutors with whom to start the dialogue – which may also have the effect of inciting others to follow suit.
Though, for the moment, the only certainty is that the Afghan civil population is – as always – the victim who is paying the price, with 2015 that asserted itself as the deadliest year since 2001, with a growing flow of people embarking on perilous journeys to Europe, and with Afghanistan’s future as faltering as ever.

ISIS’s Libyan Wilayat

ISIS’s losses in Syria and Iraq are being compensated by the expansion in Libya, which is gradually emerging as the group’s new province in the heart of North Africa and at the doors of Europe

In 2011, the Middle East became the theatre of one of the most remarkable political developments of this just-begun century: the Arab Spring.
Started in the winter of 2010 in Tunisia with the desperate deed of Mohamed Bouazizi, the popular uprising against authoritarianism soon became a wave that reached other countries of the region – Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Praised all over the world as the event that would finally open to the Middle East the doors of secular, modern and democratic statehood, the Arab Spring brought instead more repression and authoritarianism than the one it had tried to overthrow.

With the exception of Tunisia, all the countries that in 2011 found themselves on the frontline of the Arab awakening are now either locked in bloody civil wars or frustrated under authoritarian rules. In Egypt, al-Sisi’s rise to power through a military coup that ousted Morsi’s elected government had little to do with the democratic aspirations that had led the Egyptians to Tahrir Square. In Bahrain, the quest for democracy and equality that spread through the streets of Manama in early 2011 was met with the government’s increased marginalization of the Shia majority, now victim of a blind and dangerous sectarian policy. Yemen, for its part, has been for the past year the theatre of a bloody civil war fought between the Houthis and Hadi’s supporters with the participation of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. Likewise, such mix of civil and proxy conflict is reality in Syria, a collapsed country where government’s forces, rebels, terrorist groups and foreign powers are fighting each other with no truce on sight.

Finally, there is Libya. Here, one of the most well-known and impactful images of the Arab Spring was the killing of Gheddafi, which brought to an end four decades of dictatorship and spread hopes of a new democratic, free and secure Libya. Far from following this hoped path, though, the country’s development has taken a different route and one that has led it to collapse. Since the elections of June 2014, Libya has lost any appearance of cohesion and today the country is divided between two governments: in Tobruk, where there is the internationally recognized House of Representatives, supported by the Libyan National Army; and in Tripoli, where there is the Islamist-inspired General National Congress, supported by the Libya Dawn militia.
The two governments have been engaged in a bloody civil war since their polarization and any attempt to reconciliation has thus far been deemed to failure.

As if the lack of any credible Libyan central government and the spread of violence throughout the country was not worrying enough, it is now made even more so by ISIS’s intervention.
Placed under pressure in Iraq and Syria, al-Baghdadi’s group is now trying to expand its terrorist network wherever there is room for intervention, and stateless Libya provides the ideal context to build the Caliphate’s next wilayah.
Such strategic calculation has thus far proved successful for the self-declared Islamic State. Thanks to the lack of a united ground force capable of countering ISIS’s advance in any effective and durable way and thanks to the presence instead of a high number of militias fighting against each other, ISIS has been increasingly taking roots in the country.
Strong of 5,000 fighters – some come from neighboring states, others absorbed from local groups such as Ansar al-Sharia – ISIS has carried out a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it is has been carrying out terrorist attacks – both in Libya and in neighboring countries such as Tunisia – in order to spread fear and attract supporters, and has been setting on fire oil installations in order to weaken the shirking Libyan economy even more and avert any possibility of state-building on part of other groups. On the other hand – and more threateningly – it has managed to establish its control over 180 miles of Libyan coastline: it has occupied the cities of Tarablus, Fezzan and Barqah and more recently Sirte, which, located between Tripoli and Benghazi, is now on the verge of becoming Libya’s Raqqa.

Such modus operandi, made of terror attacks and efforts at territorial control, reminds of the strategy adopted by ISIS in Syria back in 2012, when the group began under the leadership of Al-Baghdadi its violent upsurge in the Levant.
In Syria, ISIS managed to exploit the power vacuum created by the civil war exploded in 2011 to spread its presence there and increasingly gain territorial control. Implementing a plan designed by Haji Bakr as early as 2010, ISIS gradually penetrated the country by efficiently combining a strategy of terror aimed at spreading fear in the local population and attracting recruits, and a territorial strategy aimed at occupying as many villages as possible in those Sunni areas where the war had cancelled any form of authority. Thanks to a high degree of coordination and to a thoroughly planned action, ISIS was able to raise its flag on many areas of Eastern and Northern Syria and place under its direct control sources of revenues such as oil plants, grain silos and hydric resources.
On the background of the Syrian civil war, ISIS was thus successful in laying the foundation of a Caliphate that was later expanded to neighboring Iraq and that has been redrawing the map of the Levant that we had known since 1922.

The same dynamics that have turned part of Syria in the territorial expression of a self-declared Caliphate that no jihadist group had ever been able to establish are now at play in Libya, a country whose control has for ISIS a dramatic strategic value.
Firstly, Libya is an ideal recruiting ground for fighters coming from other Northern African states such as Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. Secondly, it is located in the heart of North Africa and at the doors of Europe, thus strengthening ISIS’s threat and widening its potential reach. Finally, thanks to a geographical position that makes it a “bridge” between inner Africa and Europe, it is a traditional point of departure of people-smuggling routes across the Mediterranean – routes that can favor ISIS through a two-way flow: the flow of wannabe-jihadists coming from Europe, and the flow of trained terrorists towards Europe.

ISIS’s presence in Libya is therefore a direct threat for both North Africa and Europe and the concern generated across both shores of the Mediterranean by ISIS’s rise might lead countries such as Italy, France, the UK, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria to regard an anti-ISIS coalition as a top priority.
Right now (and the meeting recently held in Rome confirmed that) no such option has been seriously put on the table, and the truth is that it cannot be until Libya is inherently divided and torn apart by local militias fighting one against the other. The recent experiences of Syria and Iraq, and the past experiences of foreign interventions in the Middle East, have taught how the success of any external intervention is dependent on the support and cohesion of the local population.
Easier to say than to do, the first step of the fight against ISIS’s Libyan wilayat is the resolution of the Tobruk-Tripoli divide. If both North Africa and Europe have a direct interest in defeating al-Baghdadi’s group, then their joint efforts shall go in this direction and aim to create the conditions for a dialogue and reconciliation that is now more vital than ever.