ISIS and Al-Qaeda in 2018: The Threat Continues
Yesterday’s UN Security Council Report on Terrorism had several relevant points worth noting on the terrorism front, and most particular to the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda (AQ).
First, the Islamic State (ISIS) is in a process of regrouping having largely lost its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Having said that there are still some 20-30,000 ISIS fighters in both countries and many are foreign fighters from abroad. They continue in their loyalty to both their Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his extreme and brutal and perverse view of Islam. In Syria, the ISIS still controls pockets of territory and is operating as a conventional paramilitary ground force. In Iraq, they control no territory, and the terror group has been reduced to guerrilla and terror tactics. Sadly, ISIS new strategy is a series of decentralized provinces around the globe in Syria and Iraq, Nigeria, Libya, the Sinai, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and the Philippines that will carry out terrorist attacks in the name of the organization and adhere to its ideology. ISIS now has a presence from Nigerian in Africa to the Philippines in the Pacific, with some 4,000 ISIS fighters in Libya, 1,000 in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, 3-500 in Yemen, 250 Somalia, 1000 in Afghanistan and the neighboring Islamic Republics, several hundred in the Philippines. Additionally, ISIS, at one point, had some 30,000 foreign fighters from countries around the globe that have either been killed in fighting, remain Iraq or Syria, who have escaped to another country, and or returned home. The number of ISIS foreign fighters who are believed to have returned home number some 5600 in 33 countries.
Al-Qaeda (AQ) has rejuvenated and consolidated its power since 2011 and remains the preeminent terror threat to the US and Western Security. The organization remains tightly controlled by Osama bin Laden’s former deputy and successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who likely is at large in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Al- Zawahiri tends to operate through two principle deputies, Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (a.k.a. Abu Muhammad Al-Masri), who remain at large in Iran. As a side note, Osama bin Laden's son, Hamza bin Laden, remains of considerable interest to Western intelligence organizations as a future leader of the next generation. Al-Zawahiri has employed a strategy to refrain from attacks on the West while consolidating AQ’s influence in countries where it has a center of gravity and dispersing its leadership to those centers of power and influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates can disrupt security on a regional basis in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia Europe and Russia. While al-Zawahiri has restrained the organization from attacks on the West, there are two exceptions in Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015 and St. Petersburg Metro in Russia in 2017, demonstrating a clear ability to return to overseas operations anytime that AQ wants. Al-Qaeda has outstripped ISIS in terms of influence, reach, manpower, and cohesion and maintains a close alliance with Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency. The group has about 20,000 fighters in Syria, 4000 in the Maghreb and Sahel Africa, 5000 in Libya, 1000 in Egypt, 4000 in Yemen, 7-9000 in Somalia, 800 in Afghanistan/Pakistan/and India, and some 300 in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
In summary, the ISIS terrorist organization remains capable of carrying out terror attacks, including mass casualty attacks against civilian targets, and could employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) such as chemical, biological, and perhaps even radiological weapons to achieve their apocalyptic goals of re-establishing the Islamic Caliphate. While, the AQ terrorist group remains the preeminent threat to Western security due to its influence, size, global reach, and cohesion. Al-Qaeda remains capable of carrying out terror attacks, including mass casualty attacks against civilian targets including, transportation hubs and civilian aviation, and could even employ WMD against Western targets at a time and place of its choosing.