The Day After the Islamic State

Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Strategic Assessment, Vol.20, No.3, October 2017

 

 Marta Furlan, Carmit Valensi

 

Abstract

The territorial losses suffered by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) over the past year, the fall of the Caliphate’s stronghold of Mosul and the encirclement of its de facto capital al-Raqqa indicate the imminent military defeat of the Islamic State. However, the ideological vacuum, frustration, and alienation that have been characterizing communities in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring”, the absence of a political alternative and the lack of a local effective governance to replace IS, raise the possibility that IS will survive its military defeat. In this context, it becomes imperative to assess how this entity is most likely to evolve. In providing such assessment, attention will be devoted to IS’s past evolution to deduce from it about its future. This will be followed by a discussion on which measures should be taken to deal with the “new” form of IS.


Key Words: IS, Al Qaeda, Jihadi Terrorism, War against IS


The Evolution of ISIS: 2003-2014

Before analyzing how IS is most likely to react to its military defeat in Syria and Iraq, a brief overview of the group’s evolution will allow to shed light on its capacity of adaptation and re-organization as a possible indicator for its future transformation.

The origins of IS are to be traced back to the 2003 Iraqi context and to the insurgent group al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (TwJ) that under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi initiated a ruthless campaign of terrorist attacks against the forces of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).[i] However, the group’s operative capability was constrained by the lack of financial resources and by an excessive reliance on foreign fighters that impaired the group’s integration in the Iraqi insurgency.[ii]

It was to deal with these weaknesses and enhance the image of TwJ among the Iraqi militancy that in 2004 al-Zarqawi pledged baya’a (allegiance) to bin Laden, who on his part was interested in extending Al Qaeda’s influence over the Iraqi theatre after the setback suffered in Afghanistan. After this association with Al Qaeda, TwJ was rebranded the Land of the Two Rivers or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and became a prominent actor of the Iraqi militant scene. Its influence grew particularly after the parliamentary elections of December 2005, when al-Zarqawi united the insurgent groups close to him under an umbrella organization known as Majlis Shura Council (MSC) in order to co-opt the other jihadist organizations[iii] and increased AQI’s violent attacks on Shiite targets in order to create inter-communal tensions that would strengthen the Sunnis’ support for the insurgency.[iv]

Against this background, in 2006 al-Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by a joint U.S force and his death turned into a major hindrance for AQI. Since the outset, in fact, the group’s internal cohesion, the inner coordination between its ranks, and the identity unifying its members had been dependent on the presence of a centralized structure built around the figure of al-Zarqawi. With his demise, the centralization that had enabled the group to assert itself as one of the most prominent actors of the Iraqi insurgency collapsed and AQI underwent a significant process of organizational restructuring and strategic re-thinking.[v] The group was re-organized under the dual leadership of Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi; its cadres were “Iraqified”; and its cells underwent a process of “bureaucratization and dilution” that subjected them to an inefficient bureaucratic apparatus and that led them to be unduly widespread across Iraq.[vi] As a result, AQI came to experience a high level of internal fragmentation and a fundamental lack of coordination that restrained its operational capability and that became the major weakness of the group.

In terms of modus operandi, the military and terrorist operations that had characterized the activity of the group since its earliest stage remained the core of AQI’s strategy but were redirected towards a new objective as the group endeavored to create an Islamic State in Iraq and in 2006 rebranded itself ISI. However, the violent military campaign embraced by the group was met with resistance in several areas of Iraq, such as the Anbar province. There, the local Sunni tribes resisted ISI’s attempt to impose its rule and in 2008 created military councils (sahwa) that fought the group, undermined its operative capacities, and damaged its credibility.[vii]

Therefore, when in 2010 al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were killed the general perception was that ISI was doomed to dissolution. However, in that same year Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader of the group and promoted a comprehensive re-organization thereof on the basis of the past successes and mistakes: he strengthened ISI’s internal bonds so as to increase its cohesiveness; re-introduced a centralized leadership revolving around his figure that enabled to reach high levels of operational capability and coordination; and simplified the inefficient bureaucratic apparatus of the previous stage.[viii] On the strategic level, he moderated the brutal approach that al-Zarqawi had adopted against his enemies –and in particular against the Iraqi Shias- and that had ultimately alienated the support of much of the Iraqi people’[ix] divided the ranks of the Iraqi Sunni resistance,[x] and aroused the criticism of al-Zarqawi’s mentor al-Maqdisi and of most of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, including bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.[xi]

In addition to this re-structural endeavor and strategic re-thinking, al-Baghdadi adapted the group’s goal of building an Islamic State to the destabilizing changes occurring throughout the Levant in the immediate aftermath of the “Arab Spring” erupted in December 2010, and in particular the collapse of traditional nation states; the loss of legitimacy on part of most regional governments; and the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. On the background of these developments, al Baghdadi extended ISI’s tactics beyond the purely militant-terrorist dimension in order to enhance the effectiveness of the group’s action. After identifying in the Sunni heartland encompassing western Iraq and eastern Syria the preferred location of his future Islamic State, al Baghdadi focused the group’s activities on both countries thanks to the high coordination enabled by the renewed centralized leadership. In both contexts, ISI proved its capabilities at the military as well as at the social level: on the one hand, it fought successfully against the enemies encountered on the ground; on the other hand, it attempted to adopt a more state-like structure and provided the population with goods (e.g. food) and services (e.g. education) that their governments were incapable of providing.[xii] Exploiting the incapability of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus to address their people’s basic needs and political demands; the weakness and ultimate collapse of the state structure in Iraq and Syria after the “Arab Spring” revealed the illegitimacy of their central governments; and the alienation experienced by the local Sunni communities, IS managed to present itself as the only legitimate alternative and to gain popular support among the Sunnis. In this way, ISI succeeded in extending its territorial control over several portions of Iraq and Syria and, after disassociating itself from al-Qaeda,[xiii] on 29th June 2014 it proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and al-Sham (IS), thus realizing the aspiration of its founding father al-Zarqawi.


From the Early Successes to the Latest Defeats: 2014-2017

 

Having reviewed IS’s emergence from the ashes of AQI and ISI, it is informative to delve briefly into the Caliphate’s history from the conquests and strengths of the initial period to the defeats and weaknesses of the past months.

With the proclamation of the Islamic Caliphate, the group led by al-Baghdadi completed its transition from traditional terrorist group engaged in violent military activities to quasi-state organization engaged in the provision of governance, including goods and services as well as order and security through the use of policing and law enforcement apparatuses. In completing this transition, the group adopted an efficient governmental pyramidal structure; it established ad hoc state-like institutions; and it expanded the range of its non-violent activities.  At the top of the pyramidal structure there are al-Baghadi and his two direct deputies who constitute the executive branch known as al-Imara and who are in charge of transferring al-Baghdadi’s orders to the provincial governors. Below al-Imara, the pyramidal structure is composedof eight councils: [xiv] The Shura Council (responsible for religious affairs); The Legal Council (responsible for resolving family disputes, violations of law, and the imposition of penalties); The Security Council (responsible for internal security and the enforcement of public order); The Intelligence Council (that supplies and conveys information to the leadership regarding rivals and opponents); The Military Council (that deals with warfare and preparations of the territories of IS); The Economic Council (responsible for the movement’s financial resources, including the sale of oil and weapons); The Fighters’ Aid Council (responsible for receiving foreign volunteers, smuggling them to different areas, allocating housing and addressing their different needs);  The Media Council (responsible for the dissemination of IS’s messages and official declarations and managing the group’s accounts on social networks and monitoring other sites in coordination with the Legal Council)[xv]

At the bottom of the pyramid, there is a large pool of both foreign and local fighters who are organized in three levels. This structure enables the leadership to control members more tightly, to assign military and governmental tasks more efficiently, and to deploy fighters more effectively in the areas of combat.

By means of this coherent state-like structure that distinguishes IS from traditional terrorist entities, the group led by al-Baghdadi has managed to assert its control over large spheres of public life and to expand its social activities[xvi]: it has built roads and bridges; organized recoveries for the poor; provided electricity; established lines of telecommunication; set up markets for the trade of goods; created offices for the collection and the distribution of the zakat; opened schools; maintained public order and security through the deployment of police forces; and guaranteed law and order through the establishment of sharia courts.

Additionally, besides providing services to the population, IS has also continued to rely on military means to fight its enemies and to employ violent tactics such as public executions and tortures to spread terror among the population and thus prevent popular uprisings against its rule. By means of this duality of tactics, IS has managed to consolidate its territorial control over the Sunni-dominated Jazira region and enforce its rule thereupon[xvii]; to seize control of the natural resources of the conquered territories and exploit them for purposes of self-financing[xviii]; and to obtain support, or at least acquiescence, on part of a frightened and disaffected local population.[xix]

However, IS’s early success began to decline after the group reached the maximum of its expansion in mid 2015. Since then, IS has been suffering several defeats that have considerably reduced the territories and the population under its control: as reported by HIS Conflict Monitor[xx] and by RAND Corporation,[xxi] IS’s territorial control has declined by 60% from 2015 to 2017 and the number of people living under IS has decreased from 9.6 million in fall 2014 to 2.6 million in winter 2016-17. Besides these territorial losses, the group’s income has similarly declined over the past few years, dropping from $1.9 billion in 2014 to $870 million in 2016.[xxii] As a recent study by ICSR has highlighted, in fact, the loss of territorial control has implied for IS the loss of its major sources of revenue, above which the oil reserves on which the group’s income was highly reliant and that contributed to making it the “richest terrorist organization in the world”.[xxiii]

This combination of territorial and financial losses has undermined IS’s governance capabilities because the group has found itself without the territorial control necessary to enforce a credible rule and a viable state-like structure and without the financial resources necessary to sustain an efficient governance apparatus. As a consequence, IS has diminished its governance dimension and has focused instead on military activities aimed at ensuring the group’s survivability and rebuilding its presence in the lost areas.[xxiv] At this respect, it is noteworthy how IS’s territorial and financial losses have led it to abandon the conventional military campaigns mounted by al-Baghdadi since the early days of his leadership and to return to the guerrilla warfare launched by al-Zarqawi during AQI’s first phase.[xxv] Guerrilla warfare, in fact, has considerable advantages vis-à-vis conventional military operations: it can be sustained by a group even when the financial resources are limited; it can be carried out effectively by small cells; it does not require the group to have territorial control. This shift in IS’s modus operandi could be seen during the battle for Mosul, when the group relied mostly on tactics of asymmetric urban warfare, including mortar shells, booby traps, IEDs and suicide car-bomb attacks.[xxvi]

Finally, in the framework of the recent territorial losses, IS has undergone an adaptation of its strategic thinking whereby it increasingly emphasizes the importance of striking the “far” Western enemy and the necessity for its fighters to spread beyond the Jazira region and join jihadists all over the Muslim world.[xxvii] In other words, IS seems to have extended its previously localized strategy and to have embraced a more internationalized strategic discourse similar to the one traditionally espoused by Al Qaeda. It is in the context of this rethinking that IS-inspired individuals have directed their terror activities against major European cities such as Paris, Brussels and London and that IS loyalists have joined the jihadist battlefields in places like Libya, Afghanistan and South-East Asia.

Nevertheless, IS continues operating in the Levant area and has not completely abandon its local-territorial feature so far. According to the Pentagon, about 20,000 IS fighters still control several areas in Syria and Iraq (August 2017). Between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters are now in the middle Euphrates Valley area running from Deir Ezzor to the Iraq-Syria border region[xxviii].

These recent developments and adaptations that have occurred within IS raise important questions over the next phase of the group’s life and make it imperative to provide an assessment of how IS is most likely to evolve.


What Future for IS After its Military Defeat?

In light of the above-seen resilience and capacity of adaptation that the group has displayed over its 15 year-long existence, the present paper argues that, once militarily defeated, the group will not disappear but will rather change its form and adapt to the changed circumstances: the most likely scenarios in terms of the group’s internal evolution as far as its organizational re-structuring and strategic re-thinking are concerned are the following:

 

  • “Mini-emirates”– Evolution of the group into several mini-entities scattered across the Middle East and beyond (e.g. North Africa, South Asia) in what would be a much lose network highly similar to the post-2001so-called Al Qaeda Nebula. Rather than surviving as a single and unified group, IS might split into more sub-groups ideologically-linked one to the other but inherently independent in terms of financing, definition of objectives, strategic planning, and actual conduct of operations; at the core of this scenario lies the assumption that the Salafi-jihadi current is too rooted and established in the Islamic world, hence does not necessarily dependent on a central and well-structured organization in order to flourish.
  • “Jihadi merger” – Rejoining -in a more or less tight way- of al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda in order to regain the lost status and deal with the setbacks suffered in terms of financial sustainability, ideological credibility, and recruitment ability. Once defeated militarily, IS might find it convenient to pursue again that “marriage of convenience” with Al Qaeda that first took place in 2004 so as to expand its ranks, acquire more operational capabilities, and enhance its status in the global jihadist world. This scenario lies on the assumption that despite some setbacks, Al Qaeda remained strong, resilient, and guided by a prudent strategy of winning over populations and subverting local conflicts to its own ends. This move not only would give new life to IS but it would also reassert Al Qaeda as the uncontested leader of the jihadi movement and probably encourage it to learn from IS’s experience and adopt more state-like tasks and features. It is important to stress however that this scenario is less likely to be manifested in the short term as the level of mutual hostility between IS and Al Qaeda would be hard to Al Qaeda loyalists describe IS operatives as “extremists,” “Kharijites,” and “takfiris”; the Islamic State, in turn, has named Al Qaeda devotees as “the Jews of jihad” and loyalists of the “Sufi” leader of the heretical Taliban. Hence, this split could be simply unbridgeable.
  • “IS.com” – On July 2017, IS information office in Raqqa province, Syria released a 30-minute video that focuses particularly on presenting foreigners from various countries who came to join IS: “This is a message to the new pharaoh of today, Donald Trump, you may have your eyes on Al-Raqqah and Mosul, but we have our eyes on Constantinople and Rome. ’Bi Idhn Allah, Bi Idhn Allah [with Allah’s permission], we will slaughter you in your own houses.”[xxix] This scenario includes the maintenance of a small and underground nucleus in the Jazira region (namely the Sunni tribal region stretching across western Iraq and Eastern Syria) where IS first emerged and expanded and shift of the strategic focus on the inspiration of attacks in foreign countries (e.g. European countries, USA etc.) by means of an ad hoc ideological propaganda mostly conducted on-line. The end of the “Caliphate dream” will thus lead the group to revise its original objectives and strategy and to shift from aiming at hitting the “close enemy” by means of military campaigns and territorial conquests, to aiming at hitting the “far enemy” by means of on-line radicalization and recruitment of sympathizers residing abroad. Fairly robust external operations arm that has really been built over the past three or four years even before the caliphate or the Islamic State was declared. And this network certainly exists in Europe and elsewhere – in South Asia, North Africa as well. Last September, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, called upon his followers not to come to the Levant in Iraq to fight, but instead to migrate to the branches and to strengthen the branches so that precisely the branches could continue the struggle.
  • “The Comeback” – Resurgence of IS in the areas from which it was expelled. This resurgence is a possibility that is likely to concretize under three specific circumstances: Firstly, if the international coalition fighting against IS makes the same mistakes that it did in the past when it withdrew too promptly from Afghanistan because assuming erroneously that the Al Qaeda menace had been eradicated successfully and permanently and that the mission had been accomplished. However, that assumption stemmed from a fundamental underestimation of Al Qaeda’s capacity to survive and re-invent itself and indeed Bin Laden’s group proved able to transfer its base to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and to evolve into a more complex and less easily-detectable “Nebula”; Secondly, IS’s resurgence might occur if the different actors that are currently involved in the fight against IS refrain from addressing properly the problem of which path to follow in the “day after IS” and do not draft any coherent and viable politico-social plan of reconstruction for the liberated areas. Thirdly, is the permanence of the factors that enabled IS’s rise in the first place. In other words, if the root causes that created a fertile ground for the group to find support among a Sunni population that felt marginalized and estranged from the Iraqi nation-state are not addressed it is likely that the remnants of IS will regroup. Similarly, if the Salafi-jihadist ideology inspiring IS’s weltanschauung is not countered with a credible and appealing ideological-religious alternative, IS or new IS-like manifestations are likely to (re)appear on the scene.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This paper argues that IS’s imminent military defeat will not imply its disappearance tout court. Rather, it will imply the end of its existence in its actual form and the emergence of a different but not less threatening entity.

In light of the possible scenarios that were proposed as far as IS’s future development is concerned, the following measures will need to be taken in order to deal effectively with the group’s new threat at the local and international level:

  • At the local level, reduce the likelihood of a resurgence of IS (or like entities) by addressing the causes that paved the way to the group’s emergence and the factors that favored its consolidation. In this regard, it will be crucial for the Iraqi government to address the grievances, alienation and disaffection that the Sunni communities felt under Nuri al-Maliki’s tenure and that led many among them to see in IS a desirable alternative to the sectarianism of Baghdad. For this to be done, a political compromise that ensures power-sharing between the country’s ethno-religious groups; reforms that guarantee that state institutions offer national rather than sectarian representation; and the effective implementation of a 2013 decentralization law[xxx] that devolves more autonomy and responsibilities to the single local governments will need to be encouraged and emphasized as the only way to resolve those inter-communal tensions that foster insurgencies and state failure;
  • Rebuild the areas – both urban and rural–freed from IS by means of an ad hoc cooperation among the Iraqi government, its partners of the U.S.-led coalition, the United Nations and aid agencies so as to address effectively the economic, security and social needs of the local communities and offer to them credible alternatives to the institutions and services provided by IS at the apex of its state-building project;
  • Continue and improve further the training, equipment, assisting and advise of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as developed in the framework of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in order to enhance the effectiveness of the ISF in countering terrorism and countering insurgencies and to increase their legitimacy, credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the local communities;
  • At the international level, confront the security threat posed to Western countries by IS, IS-inspired individuals and returning “foreign fighters” by addressing both the pre-recruitment and the post-recruitment phase. and obstruct IS’s on-line propaganda; increase intelligence cooperation and database sharing to detect radicalized individuals; address the problem of returning “foreign fighters” by adopting responses that can range from “hard” measures such as revoking citizenship, confiscating passports and issuing arrest warrants, to “soft” measures such as developing programs of de-radicalization, psychological counseling and social re-integration.

Finally, past experience shows that these measures are more likely to be effective when local actors and international actors manage to coordinate their endeavors and share responsibilities. Therefore, while preparing for the “day after IS”, efforts need first to be invested in building this crucial coordination.


 

Notes

 

[i] Angel Rabasa et al. Beyond Al Qaeda. The Global Jihadist Movement (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006) p.139

[ii] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[iii] Nibras Kazimi, “The Caliphate attempted”, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 7, July 21, 2008

[iv] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[v] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.8

[vi] Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline: Lesson Learned from Inside Al Qa’ida in Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, March 16, 2009)

[vii] David Kilcullen, “Field Notes on Iraq’s Tribal Revolt Against Al-Qa‘ida”, CTC Sentinel 1, no. 11, October 2008

[viii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.10

[ix] Ibi., p.7

[x] Emily Hunt, “Zarqawi’s ‘Total War’ on Iraqi Shiites Exposes a Divide Among Sunni Jihadists”, PolicyWatch 1049, Washington Institute [online], November 15, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/zarqawis-total-war-on-iraqi-shiites-exposes-a-divide-among-sunni-jihadists

[xi] https://fas.org/irp/news/2005/10/letter_in_english.pdf

[xii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.23

[xiii] Aaron Zelin, “The War between IS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Research Notes, no. 20, June 2014

[xiv] Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium

[xv] Christophe Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Der Spiegel, April 18, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html [accessed: November 29, 2015].

[xvi] Laith Alkhouri, Alex Kassirer, “Governing The Caliphate: The Islamic State Picture”, CTC Sentinel 8, no.8, August 21, 2015

[xvii] James Denselow, “Mosul, the Jazira Region and the Syrian-Iraqi Borderlands”, in An Iraq of its Regions. Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?, eds. Reidar Visser and Garteh Stansfield (London: Hurst Publishers LTD, 2007) pp. 99-122

[xviii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.5-8

[xix] Stephen Wicken, Iraq’s Sunnis in Crisis, Middle East Security Report II (Washington: Institute for the Study of War, May 2013)

[xx] “Islamic State Territory Down 60 Percent and Revenue Down 80 Percent on Caliphate’s Third Anniversary, HIS Markit Says”, IHS Markit, June 29, 2017, http://news.ihsmarkit.com/press-release/aerospace-defense-security/islamic-state-territory-down-60-percent-and-revenue-down-80

[xxi] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) p.20

[xxii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.7-8

[xxiii] Ibid., p.7

[xxiv] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq, (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.132

[xxv] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) pp.14, 32

[xxvi] Josie Ensor, “Isil ‘launches suicide attacks’ on Kurdish forces in Mosul as bloody battle to retake terror group’s Iraq stronghold begins” The Telegraph, October 17, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/17/bloody-battle-to-retake-mosul-begins-as-iraqi-forces-move-to-wip2/; Tim Hume, “Battle for Mosul: How ISIS is fighting to keep its Iraqi stronghold” CNN, October 25, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/10/24/middleeast/iraq-mosul-isis-tactics/index.html

[xxvii] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.130

[xxix] “ISIS Video Shows Its Fighters Of Various Nationalities In Raqqa, Syria; Somali Fighter Threatens Trump Says ISIS ‘Will Slaughter You [Americans] In Your Own Houses’, Memri, July 31, 2017, https://www.memri.org/jttm/isis-video-shows-its-fighters-various-nationalities-raqqa-syria-somali-fighter-threatens-trump#_ednref2

[xxx] In August 2013, the Iraqi Parliament approved amendments to Law 21 (also known as Provincial Powers Act) that increased the powers of provincial councils and governors. According to the law, local governments should choose their own judiciary and heads of security; provinces should have more control on and autonomy in the management of its financial resources; in areas of shared competency between local governments and the central government, in case of disagreement the decisions of the local government should prevail; the governorate should have responsibility for all state officials in its jurisdiction; within two years, control over housing, employment, education, health and finance should be transferred to local authorities.

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Pakistan’s internal and ever-lasting war

PAKISTAN’S INTERNAL AND EVER-LASTING WAR

 

The attacks of Monday are a reminder of how terrorism continues to be the main challenge for Pakistan and how Islamabad has more than one reason to embrace a non-ambiguous and effective policy of counter-terrorism

 

On Monday morning, the Pakistani city of Quetta became (once again) the theatre of a brutal terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 64 people and wounded dozens more. The target of the attack was a gathering of lawyers who had gone to a local hospital where a colleague of their – the President of the Balochistan Bar Association, Mr Bilal Anwar Kasi – had been brought after being shot while on his way to work.

The terrorist attack was claimed within some hours by spokesmen of both a branch of the Pakistani Taliban and of ISIS. Nevertheless, whoever the actual responsible is, what the attack of Monday pointed out is that – despite the shy improvements in terms of crackdown made by the Pakistani government – terrorism continues to be a major source of internal insecurity for Pakistan and a major threat for the Pakistani population.

 

The terrorist threat, embodied mainly by the Tareek-e-Taliban Pakistan but also by emerging groups such as the South Asian branch of ISIS, is particularly problematic in volatile provinces such as Balochistan (where the city of Quetta indeed is). Here, in fact, the central government has always faced difficulties in extending its control due to the existence of tribal insurgence movements who reject Islamabad’s legitimacy – and this has made it easier for terrorist groups to find ground for recruitment, training and action.

 

However, in order to understand how this state of things has come into being and has evolved one cannot only look at Islamabad’s difficulties in controlling the country’s tribal areas (with FATA being the most emblematic case) but needs to look deeper into the government’s traditional approach to regional terrorism.

As far as terrorism is concerned, in fact, Islamabad has always played a dangerous “double game”: elaborating a non-sense distinction between the so-called “good Taliban” who operate within Afghanistan and the so-called “bad Taliban” who are instead active in Pakistan, Islamabad has traditionally maintained an opposite approach to the two groups. On the one hand, it has (not even too covertly) supported the Afghan Taliban and, when needed, given to them a safe haven where to hid and re-organize. On the other hand, instead, the Pakistani government has always considered the presence of terrorists in Pakistan as a major threat and a destabilizing factor and has tried to act militarily against them (or at least keep them confined to peripheral areas only).

 

But what are the roots of Pakistan’s double approach to the jihadi terrorism espoused by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban? For that, one needs to look at the country’s historical relations with its immediate neighbours – Afghanistan and India.

With respect to Afghanistan, Islamabad has always tried to exploit the threat posed by the Taliban to Kabul’s credibility and the destabilizing effect of their activity in order to turn the Afghan government into a puppet eager to follow Islamabad’s guidelines (read impositions), such as the undiscussed acceptance of the 1893 Durand Line (the line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan for a length of 2640 km) and the adoption of an anti-India foreign policy. This last element is especially important: Pakistan, indeed, has always tried to use the Taliban and to take advantage of their presence in Afghanistan in order to gain strategic depth in an anti-India logic.

In other words, treating the Afghani Taliban as “good terrorists” and sustaining (or at least not refraining) their activity so as to weaken Kabul has always been part of Pakistan’s calculations to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the Indian enemy and turn in its favour the regional system of alliances.

 

However, what the wave of attacks that has been hitting Pakistan over the past years highlights is that Islamabad is now paying the price (and an extremely high one) of its “double game” with terrorism. Over the past years, the country has become a preferred target for many terrorist groups operating in the region and this is now starting to make Islamabad aware that no such distinction between “good” and “bad” can exist when terrorism is concerned and that a single approach aimed at its defeat is rather needed.

 

Pakistan today cannot escape the reality of facts that a serious fight against terrorism is vital to protect its own national security and its international credibility.

 

In addition – as if the above was not enough – Pakistan now has also economic motivations to pursue a harder line against terrorists, and this is evident if the Pakistan-China relationship is taken into consideration.

China is not only a long-time political ally of Islamabad but it is also the number one investor in Pakistan’s economic development, with a recent plan of a 46-billion-dollar investment for the construction of ports, railways, roads, telecommunication and energy infrastructures.

Thanks to these massive investments, Pakistan would see its potential of economic development fuelled and it could retrieve the levels of economic growth that it had known in the past and that had led many to see in it the next Asian economic power. However, nothing of this will become reality if Pakistan does not create a stable and reliable security environment: the waves of terrorist attacks, in fact, risk discouraging China from proceeding with its investment plans and if this were to happen and China’s projects were stymied, Pakistan economy would lag behind that of the other Asian countries for the next future.

 

Islamabad’s double game has thus security and economic costs that cannot simply be ignored.

 

 

 

[Picture: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/08/pakistan-mourns-victims-hospital-attack-160809070245225.html%5D

From Sykes-Picot to the Chilcot Report

The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities

 

Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).

 

The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.

 

As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.

According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.

 

As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase.  Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.

 

After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.

 

After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.

 

Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.

What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.

 

Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?

 

If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.

Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.

Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.

 

With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.

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.

Where the threat to our world comes from

After the bomb on the Russian plane in Egypt and the gruesome attacks that hit Paris on what was to be a regular Friday night in the capital, it is time to stop and try to understand for real how al-Baghdadi’s group could emerge so successfully and how it can be so dangerously resilient

Of all the dramas of which the Middle East is now theatre, few of them can compete with ISIS: not only has the group been able to maintain most of the conquered territories but it is now also proving able to expand its ambitions and the terror that fuels them.

It has been a year and a half since the Caliphate emerged on the regional and global scene, and though we are still trying to understand what exactly we are confronting (a state, a group, an ideology?) and how to stop the wave of violence spreading from Raqqa in all directions: towards Sinai, the Arabia peninsula, Afghanistan, South Asia – and now even Paris. The cradle of Enlightenment latest victim of a barbaric force.

The days immediately after an attack are always the worse ones. The days in which you have to stop, elaborate the tragedy and think of how best to react.

With Europe still under shock for one of the continent’s most brutal attacks that took the life of innocent civilians with whom we can too easily identify, it is simply too early to say what will happen to us, to our security measures, to our foreign policies and to the millions of innocent refugees for whom our borders could now become impenetrable. Instead of looking at consequences that are still to reveal themselves, then, I will here focus on what comes before the consequences and before the attack: the terrorist group itself. I will thus try to explain how could ISIS build its Caliphate and, above all, how can ISIS be so resilient today – and I will do that by focusing on the characteristics inherent to the group.

Firstly, we should look at the objectives of the group and the strategy employed in order to reach them.

While Al Qaeda had always been characterized by a universalistic ideology from which it drew abstract objectives such as the global jihad against the infidels, ISIS adopted since the beginning a pragmatic lecture of the reality – and this is proved by the masterly way in which al-Baghdadi exploited after 2010 the evolutions of the regional scenario: the civil war broken off in Syria and the power vacuum it created in many provinces, as well as the dissatisfaction of Iraqi Sunnis with Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policy. Coherently with this pragmatism, ISIS gave itself a single, concrete and localized objective: the creation of an Islamic State across Syria and Iraq, a new entity in the heart of the Islamic world.

From such a localized project it couldn’t but follow a localized strategy. At the opposite pole with respect to Al Qaeda who was hitting the American “far enemy” wherever possible, ISIS decided to focus on the “near enemy” in Syria and Iraq. It began its expansion by penetrating cities and villages (often through terror and slaughters) until coming to proclaim its Caliphate and change the map of the Middle East.

Now, after the attack in Paris that looked too much like a dejavu of the attacks of Madrid and London, it seems ISIS is enlarging its strategy and going beyond its borders. Why? Probably because now the group feels stronger than ever before and wants to reflect this strength on the world stage, attack in their own territory those enemies who went to war against the Caliphate, and definitely assert itself as the new pillar of jihadism.

But ISIS’s strength and resistance are due to three other reasons.

For a terrorist group, centralization in its internal structure is everything: the more a group is centralized, the higher the level of coordination and control is, and the more effective are the attacks.

In this, ISIS has been magisterial even before calling itself Caliphate. Since the beginning in fact al-Baghdadi gave ISIS a centralized structure, with a clear division of roles and tasks that revealed crucial in that process that led to the establishment of the Islamic State. Without such a high level of internal cohesion ISIS’s action could not have been as well coordinated as it was.

Such cohesion has become even more sophisticated when the group became “State”. With the proclamation of the Caliphate in fact, al Baghdadi implemented a perfectly pyramidal structure that had been designed by Haji Bakr as early as 2012. At the top of the pyramid there is al-Baghdadi himself, below him there are his two deputies, one for Iraq and one for Syria. Below them, there are a series of councils, each of whom deals with a specific matter in the management of the State. The bottom pf the pyramid, then, is made of the mujahideens.

If to this we add the fact that also the territory conquered is rationally organized in regions, provinces and districts we will see how challenging ISIS’s organization is for the group’s enemies. All the orders smoothly go top-down, passing through more levels for a more efficient implementation; and this applies to the daily management of the State and to the activities the group carries out (both against the provinces it wants to conquer and against the enemies it wants to send a message to – as we have just seen in Egypt and Paris). For counter-terrorism intercepting this well-planned flow of orders and information is one of the biggest challenges ISIS puts.

As much challenging then, is the way in which ISIS gets its finances.

Far from following Al Qaeda’s examples and relying on donations coming from abroad, ISIS has been able to reach financial independence to the extent that it generates within the borders of its Caliphate the resources it needs to keep the State functioning and to conduct its terroristic acts. Thanks to the conquest of territories that no previous jihadist group had been able to achieve, ISIS can rely on natural resources such as oil, water, grain, it can expropriate the population, impose taxes, loot museums, churches and mosques, kidnap locals and foreigners for ransoms. A wide range of financial sources that makes it almost impossible for counter-terrorism to block the flow of money that reaches ISIS’s cashes, because it is internally-generated. Not relying on donations, then, ISIS doesn’t even have to deal with the problem of international money transfer, and when it needs to transfer money outside the Caliphate borders to conduct attacks it can always rely on the traditional hawala system (based on middlemen who transfer money from A to B) or on individuals affiliated to the group who already are in the target place. A system difficult to detect for intelligence agencies.

Though, the strength of al-Baghadi’s group that the attack in Paris highlighted the most (and the one that looks most scaring for those who are outside the Caliphate) is its attraction and recruitment capability.

Through a magisterial use of modern technology, ISIS has been using Internet in the most effective way possible: not to spread religious sermons as bin Laden used to, but rather to post violent and brutal videos that serves the double aim of attracting recruits and scaring enemies. A strategy that has indeed proved extremely effective, as ISIS – by showing to the world the success of which it is capable – has managed to reach wannabe jihadists both in Islamic countries but also in non-Islamic ones. It has also managed to attract individuals who were already close to radical ideologies, but also regular citizens whom the group itself radicalized online, through the rhetoric of a humiliated Islam that rises to fight. Not only. It has managed to attract to its project of radical Islamic life and state men as well women (an element surprisingly new) who aspire to marry mujahideens met online and are disposed to leave everything behind to be part of a project of whose justness they are convinced online.

An unprecedented capacity of attraction that shows how the threat posed by ISIS can potentially be borderless, and how fighting ISIS is something that doesn’t end in Syria and Iraq, but has to be done here as well, in our societies whose freedom is now under attack and whose freedom we have to defend, despite all the attempts of making us forget who we are.

Until we reckon how many strengths has ISIS on its side, and until we reckon it’s time to adopt a coherent and comprehensive anti-ISIS strategy in which all ISIS’s enemies get together against the Caliphate – instead of diverting forces against other enemies (pro-Assad forces, anti-Assad rebels, Kurds, Houthis) – we won’t be able to face effectively the reality of the Caliphate, the threat that it represents, and the new face it has been giving to Salafist-jihadist terrorism.

Yemen’s biggest but least reckoned threat

While Saudis and Houthis fight to the death, terrorism is the one gaining the upper hand
With the world focused on other Middle Eastern areas and other Middle Eastern tragedies, Yemen is finding itself abandoned to a civil war that over the last 6 months has been tearing the country apart.
After the Houthis occupied Sanaa and forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia (where he remained until recently) the country has abruptly become the battlefield of one of the most cruel and most complex civil wars that the region has known, and us forgetting about it doesn’t make it less brutal. Just less likely to reach an end.
Thus far, in fact, despite shocking figures released by the UN on the human tragedy Yemenis are now suffering, there is no sign that the war will come to end any time soon, as all the attempts to reach an agreement through diplomatic dialogue have inexorably failed for the lack of points of contact between Houthis and Saudi-backed Sunnis.

And though, a common interest between the two sides of Yemen’s war does exist: defeating that common enemy that thanks to war is now on the rise. Jihadist terrorism.

Yemen’s war, in fact, with the flee of a President not reckoned as legitimate by everyone (as a President should) and with the lack of an alternative unity government capable of giving representation to all the country’s religious groups (as governments should), has inevitably created a power and security vacuum. And terrorist groups in all times and places have always proved able (or at least willing) to take advantage of this kind of vacuum. We have seen it in Colombia with the FARC’s rise, in Afghanistan after the war between the Soviets and local mujahideens, in Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011, and more recently in Iraq last year. And we could now see it in Yemen too, if the international community doesn’t give the country (and its people) the attention it deserves and – above all – if the parties directly involved make of any effort of dialogue a lost cause.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is no new actor in Yemen. It has always tried to use the country and its internal tensions as a preferred base to plan and conduct attacks and as a starting point to maximize its power and influence in neighboring Gulf countries.
However, not even in its brightest days could the group hope to get as far as it has now come thanks to the outbreak of the civil war. In fact, exploiting the vacuum the flee of President Hadi created, and taking advantage from its enemies killing each other while carefully avoiding direct involvement in the war, the group has known an increase in capabilities, profile and power, and is now obtaining a success that few other Al Qaeda-linked groups can boast.
How did this happen? Not only has the group conducted attacks in the country’s most important cities to boost its credibility within a global jihadist movement that is now less Al Qaeda-centered than it used to, but it has also been able to get an actual control over swaths of Yemen – with the best example of that being the southern city of Mukalla. Here in fact – far from establishing a counterproductive regime of terror aimed at subjugating the local population – the group has revealed its threatening modern pragmatism by allying with local Sunni tribes. With them AQAP built the Hadromouth National Council (HNC) that, providing services and guaranteeing security to the population, is now deeply integrated in the local dynamics and joins a considerable support from the people of the area. A sequence of events, this one, that worryingly reminds of the strategy embraced in Syria by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabat al Nusra, and that made it possible for the group to get support from disillusioned Sunnis.
Perhaps more threatening than the territorial control, in fact, is the support AQAP is gaining from locals. With Houthis and Saudis fighting against the each other on Yemeni soil and from Yemeni skies, and destroying what remains of a country that violence has never spared, to the eyes of many Yemenis AQAP is now appearing as the only actor capable of concretely guaranteeing a minimum level of security and subsistence to a population that has lost everything. Above all trust in politics and trust in a Yemeni government that has abandoned them.

Yemen’s problems, though, are not limited to the al-Zawahiri-linked group. As if AQAP’s advancing was not already enough, a new threat is now on the rise: that of ISIS and its affiliated groups/individuals.
Taking advantage – just like AQAP – of an authority-lacking country, the group and its supporters are expanding their activities in Yemen, and though still far from catching up with AQAP (especially in terms of territorial control), it is to be noted (and feared) that the group is proving its dangerousness in two main respects.
Firstly, ISIS is challenging AQAP’s previously undisputed status as Yemen’s most active terrorist group – something that increases the prestige of ISIS in the jihadist universe and creates the risk of having an increase in the number of ‘wanna-be-jihadists ‘ who choose to join the Caliphate and its affiliated cells wherever they are present and operative.
Secondly, the group is proving its ability (the same that led Iraq to collapse and that exasperated sectarianism in Syria) in getting support by part of the population – mainly youngsters who interpret the attacks on Shia sites conducted by ISIS as a proof of the group’s determination to protect Sunni Islam in a concrete and assertive way.
Moreover, ISIS’s new presence in Yemen is threatening not only for the destabilization it directly creates through attacks, or for the support it is getting from disillusioned youngsters. It is even more threatening because it is opening a front within jihadist terrorism, a front between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that reminds of that in Syria at the end of 2013, when ISIS and Jabat al Nusra fell apart after and began fighting against each other (with tragic consequences for the Syrian civilian population).
The threat of such a competition between AQAP and ISIS is that if the former sees itself challenged by the latter, it will try to maintain its status, profile and support base by widening its range of operation and – if necessary – by trying to strengthen its legitimacy through a higher toll of attacks against Shias. In fact, though for the time being it is unlikely that the Islamic State will overtake AQAP as the predominant jihadist group in Yemen, if AQAP is to prevent the Islamic State from making further gains it cannot but maintain its momentum with a strong narrative of victory. Something that Yemen and the Yemenis will be the ones paying the price of.

The rise of terrorism in Yemen is clearly no good news for the country nor for its population, but it could turn into an effective starting point of dialogue. In fact, none of those who are directly involved in the civil conflict – Houthis, Yemeni Sunnis, Saudi-led Coalition of GCC countries – can gain anything if talks are obstructed and Yemen falls to terrorism.
Houthis and Yemeni Sunnis, in refusing to work towards a coalition government, aren’t but playing the jihadists’ game as they are leaving them free hand in the country. By continuing on this path, thus, they would have to deal with a strengthened internal enemy competing for power, and it would become even more difficult (read impossible) to reach an agreement and put in Sana’a a government accepted by everyone.
On their part, GCC countries (and in particular Saudi Arabia, that shares with Yemen an important border) in refusing diplomatic dialogue and in closing the door to any possibility of compromise, risk continuing to favor the strengthening of a terrorist group whose power and influence could be easily projected from Yemen to neighboring countries.

If the two sides of the conflict realized how the real threat for Yemen’s future, for the Houthis’ survival and for the Saudis’ security is represented by the rise of AQAP and ISIS, they could start their dialogue from the necessity to oppose the common enemy. They could make of this common point of interest the starting point of peace negotiations aimed at the creation of a government that represents all Yemenis – thus cancelling the roots of AQAP’s and ISIS’s legitimacy and the reasons of their support.
It is now time to realize that it is in everyone’s interest to rely on political cooperation to fill the vacuum created by the war, and that this has to be done before it is too late, before terrorism leaves no room to peace, and before the definite collapse of Yemen that is now on the horizon reaches its shores.