A longer piece for a great new outlet, the Bookings Institution managed Lawfare Blog. This one is a longer story I have been trying to publish for some time about the last and in some ways most dangerous of the Londonistani preachers, Abdullah el Faisal. Touched on some of this in my earlier piece for GNET. It draws on some material that from my book, but goes on beyond that including digging into the many stories of plots and networks that have been linked to him around the world.

Abdullah al-Faisal’s Global Jihad

By Raffaello Pantucci

Sunday, April 19, 2020, 10:00 AM

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Editor’s Note: The history of the modern jihadist movement is often the tale of different charismatic preachers and fighters, whose inspiring words and deeds—and whose pettiness and divisions—shaped the movement. RUSI’s Raffaello Pantucci examines the life and times of Abdullah al-Faisal, the storied jihadist preacher whom the United States is trying to extradite. Faisal is a particularly militant jihadist, and his personal history captures the dangers of the movement and its many divisions.

Daniel Byman

When he was able to preach publicly, Abdullah al-Faisal enjoyed employing apocalyptic imagery. The current COVID-19 misery no doubt appeals to his taste for biblical pestilence. The drama of his preaching was such that others in London’s Muslim community would find his exaggerated rhetoric absurd and often dismiss him as a marginal figure. More than two decades on from his heyday in the United Kingdom, Faisal is now fighting extradition to the United States, where he stands accused of helping people join the Islamic State. His four-decade-long career around the world and online distinguishes him as among the most modern jihadist preachers in the West.

Born Trevor William Forrest to an evangelical Christian family in Jamaica, Faisal was introduced to Islam in his mid-teens by his business education teacher, Jolly McFarlane. When he graduated from secondary school in 1980 he changed his name to Abdullah el Faisal, and the next year took a Saudi government-sponsored six-week course in Islamic and Arabic studies in Trinidad. He also studied in Guyana before leaving in November 1984 for Riyadh, where he took up a scholarship in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University. Years later, he told police he had been sent to the United Kingdom by his teacher, Sheikh Rajhi, and set himself up among the growing community of black converts in south London. Landing at around the same time that Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was attracting attention, Faisal’s vigorous speeches, skin tincture, fluent Arabic and street style made him a hot commodity among young Muslims in the United Kingdom. In an interview with the Sunday Times in February 1993, Faisal boasted that he was able to transform this charisma into numbers at the south London mosque where he operated, claiming he had “received three converts a day for the past six years.”

Soon after this, however, he fell out of favor at the mosque because of his extreme preaching. By some accounts, it was after he was caught playing Abu Hamza tapes at the mosque. Another of the “Londonistan” preachers at the time, Hamza was already actively involved in jihadism by the mid-1990s, having been to Afghanistan, met Abdallah Azzam and started down his path to becoming the famous hook-handed cleric. At one point or another both Faisal and Hamza had been students of Abu Qatada al-Filistini, the famous Jordanian cleric who had provided spiritual guidance justifying some of the darkest acts during the brutal jihadist conflict that wracked Algeria during the 1990s. Faisal acted occasionally as an interpreter for Qatada, though this sometimes produced strange results.

In a screed attacking Faisal, titled “Be Aware of Takfir!”, Hamza provides an anecdote capturing the relationship Faisal had with his teacher (as well as the tensions among all the preachers). Qatada and Faisal had been invited to publicly debate the practice of takfir—a controversial act, whereby one excommunicates others for failing to act as a proper Muslim. It is a crucial concept among violent jihadists as it provides a context permitting violence against individuals once they are cast out, enabling the killing of Muslim civilians and other Islamists with whom one disagrees. Because Qatada had little English, he was reliant on Faisal as his translator. During the presentation, by Hamza’s account, Faisal was somewhat selective in his translations of Qatada’s words, meaning that while the Arabic speakers in the room felt that “the end of the debate left brother Faisal a broken man[,] … those that did not understand the Arabic [Faisal’s students] went away feeling the same about Qatada.”

Faisal was a particularly aggressive proponent of takfir, wantonly spraying it in any direction he could. The long and illustrious list of people with whom he fell out included everyone from Anwar al-Awlaki (whom Faisal accused of being too restrictive in his use of takfir and therefore a kafir worthy of takfir himself) to the “Tooting and Finsbury Park” Muslims he dismissed as “fake jihadis … using the word ‘jihad’ for fame and fortune and to line their pockets.” At one event with Qatada, he went so far as to call his audience “Jews” when they disagreed with his views—a perspective that even Qatada thought was over the top.

Notwithstanding this rather razed-earth approach to preaching, Faisal remained an attractive figure to jihadists and continued to interact with his fellow Londonistani preachers. One expert with whom I spoke spent considerable time among the jihadist milieu in the early 2000s and described how members of the community would go to Hamza for the religion and to Faisal for the fire. Young Muslims from that time have told me how much they enjoyed listening to Faisal thanks to his polished English, angry rhetoric and cool Jamaican accent. He claimed a street heritage in Jamaica that gave him a way of connecting with the lost men of color in the grimier parts of London where he would hold his teaching groups. He had a strong following across the United Kingdom’s young Muslim community but found that his messages resonated particularly with those who had criminal pasts or inclinations. A number of the black convert Muslims drawn into his circles were often successfully encouraged to move away from lifestyles revolving around drug and alcohol abuse. One respectable Deobandi Muslim leader in north London praised Faisal for this success and struggled to reconcile this history with what Faisal was ultimately accused of in court.

But Faisal was deeply engaged with the U.K. jihadist community. He was a regular at events where future terrorist plotters gathered. In the early 2000s, he appeared at an event with Hamza in Crawley at which the two men spoke before a group that included individuals from the “Operation Crevice” cell that was later disrupted in 2004, a Brit who went on to play a prominent role in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan, as well as a preacher who was close to the pair who murdered Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. Faisal was also an influential figure in the lives of Zacarias Moussaoui, the infamous 20th 9/11 hijacker, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.

Faisal was booted out of the United Kingdom and returned to Jamaica in 2007, having served four years in prison for inciting violence and racial hatred. He had been caught after police attention was drawn to his rantings in the course of their investigation of Richard Chinyoka, a brutal misogynist who was incarcerated for 12 years for raping and torturing a series of women. As police went through Chinyoka’s belongings, they discovered cassette tapes of Faisal’s sermons and were shocked by what they heard. They were even more stunned to discover that these tapes were fairly openly available when they investigated religious centers around London. This led to Faisal’s incarceration and eviction from the country—but not before he was able to help push a young convert named Germaine Lindsay along the path to radicalization. Lindsay then went on to be one of the bombers who attacked the London Underground on July 7, 2005, all of whom reportedly enjoyed listening to Faisal’s preaching.

Faisal’s links to the July 7 group continued after their deaths. Years later, Faisal reported that Samantha Lewthwaite, Germaine Lindsay’s widow, had visited him while he sat in Long Lartin prison. She told him she was happy and offered him money and supplies while he provided her with guidance. The two stayed connected, and soon afterward, when Faisal traveled to South Africa after his deportation to Jamaica, he met a young man, Fahmi Jamal Salim, who was looking for a white wife. Claiming to know him to be Lewthwaite’s type, Faisal put the two in touch and a relationship and children followed. Salim was a long-standing jihadist fighter close to al-Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA) and al-Shabaab. His sister was married to a fighter who was killed when Comorian AQEA cell leader Harun Fazul took a wrong turn in Mogadishu and ended up in front of a Somali security checkpoint. All of these individuals have links to the same groups and networks that hosted Faisal when he was in South Africa.

After a protracted deportation process that involved bouncing around a number of countries, Faisal was ejected from Africa and back to his native Jamaica. From there he became a keyboard warrior and magnet for journalists. The U.K. press in particular was drawn to him and eager to gather more details about his links to the United Kingdom. His influence at this stage had also grown considerably in the United States, and he was proving to be a draw for extremists from further afield through his website, Authentic Tauheed, and associated social media accounts.

Faisal continued to espouse his aggressive and uncompromising messages online, turning toward the Islamic State as the group gained prominence. He provided speeches and justifications about the validity of the Islamic State’s caliphate, arguing that part of the reason for the Islamic State’s rise was that al-Qaeda was not brutal enough. Showing his eagerness to continue to speak in favor of sexual violence, he declared that Islamic State fighters were allowed to rape women they captured. Additionally, he encouraged jihadists to sacrifice themselves in combat on behalf of the Islamic State, telling his audience that “some of you have lived a sinful life—the only way for you to go to paradise is to die on the battlefield.”

As it turned out, Faisal’s Authentic Tauheed site was managed by an array of extremists dotted around the world to whom he delegated responsibilities. Two of his online associates, 38-year-old Mohammed Abdul Ahad, from north London, and 31-year-old Muhammad Abdur Raheem Kamali, from Rochdale, were sentenced to four years each in February. Their roles were to help manage the website, translate parts of Faisal’s speeches, design posters, and disseminate links and information. They were part of a web of individuals involved in these activities, some of whom have also been arrested and pleaded guilty in the United States over the past few years.

Faisal’s audience was truly global. By one count, 10,000 people listened in during one of his talks. They could ask questions and engage with the preacher through the layer of support staff he built up around him. In October 2019, Singapore handed down its first conviction for terror financing. Ahmed Hussein Abdul Kadir Sheikh Uduman was a 35-year-old who had been following Faisal’s work online since 2013. Uduman reached out to Faisal, and the two swapped messages via WhatsApp, email and Facebook. Eventually, Uduman sent $840 to Faisal via an intermediary using the name Patrick Grey and Faisal’s wife. Uduman pleaded guilty to the financing charges, and the government claimed he was also eager to pursue armed jihad overseas.

In other cases, Faisal appears to have inspired people to more violent acts. Mohammad Kasim Stimberwala, a lab technician, and Ubed Ahmed Mirza, a practicing lawyer, were both reportedly in contact with Faisal and planning an atrocity aimed at Jewish targets in Mumbai. They had been active online radicals for years, and had even gone so far as to try to obtain weapons and scout potential targets. They were also communicating with Aadhil Ameez, an extremist recruiter in contact with Faisal as well as the 2019 Sri Lankan Easter bombers. His speeches were also reportedly played frequently in Trinidad and Tobago, where he stands accused of being a facilitator for people to go to Syria and Iraq.

The list of attacks he is linked to in the United States is substantial, with the U.S. Treasury Department connecting him to “the Ohio State University attacker during Thanksgiving weekend in 2016; a Garland, Texas shooter at a Mohammed drawing contest in 2015; Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber in New York City in 2010; Mohammed Chowdury, who planned and attempted to bomb the London Stock Exchange in 2010; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who attempted to down an airliner over Detroit, Michigan in 2009.” Separately, Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan linked to al-Qaeda who sought to attack the New York subway system in 2009, told a jury in 2012 that Faisal had influenced his radicalization and that he had listened to Faisal’s tapes as he trained in Pakistan ahead of his attempted attack. In all cases, the individuals were active listeners to Faisal’s material, and in some cases—like the Garland, Texas, shooters—they were in direct contact with him.

Faisal was particularly influential among converts, among them Jason Brown, also known as Abdul Ja’Me. Brown was the head of a Chicago gang specializing in drug trafficking called AHK—a mutation of the Arabic “akhi,” meaning “brother”—that required members to convert to Islam. In June 2016, Brown was arrested in Clayton County, Georgia, on gun charges. When police searched his phones, they found evidence that he was an avid consumer of Faisal’s teachings. Brown continued his obsession with Faisal while in prison and, upon release, started to more actively recruit members of his gang to follow Faisal’s teachings and told them in early 2019 about his plan to travel abroad to join the Islamic State. He also told them that he had sent money to Faisal to support him during his extradition to the United States from Jamaica. He was ultimately arrested for sending money to someone he thought was an Islamic State fighter in Syria.

To this roster of Faisal’s adherents we can also add the two men killed in the United Kingdom as they launched terrorist knife and fake bomb attacks in London in November 2019 and January of this year. Usman Khan, responsible for the November attack on London Bridge, and Sudesh Amman, the man shot down in Streatham in January, were both listeners to Faisal’s teachings. Khan even had Faisal’s phone number.

When he was free, Faisal interacted frequently with his flock and took full advantage of modern technology as well as in-person contacts. His legal trouble in the United States is in part a product of helping one of his adherents join the Islamic State. While trying to impress one follower online, Faisal told her that he was adored in Raqqa and that the Islamic State was keen to fly him in to guide them. Now that he is jailed, he has fewer contacts, but his ideas continue to flourish online.

Faisal’s luck has finally run out. Given U.S. sentencing and conviction rates for terrorism offenses, it is highly likely he will eventually face a long stint in prison. His ideas, speeches and lessons, however, will continue to live on. Authentic Tauheed can still be found online with some digging. The website stopped updating in August 2017, roughly around the time that Jamaican authorities arrested Faisal on a U.S. warrant. His final posting is titled “Entering the Lizard Hole,” which he explains “means that the Muslims will imitate and follow the kuffar in their creed, culture and character. This issue is one of the signs of the Day of Judgement.” As Faisal awaits judgment, his ideas will continue to be perpetuated around the world online—making him likely the most enduringly and globally influential of the infamous Londonistani preachers.

Still being slow in posting, but not in producing material. Have gotten a few longer things in the pipeline and a big project that is winding towards conclusion. Media has slowed down considerably, so little to post on that front for the time being, but in the meantime, here is a new piece with Kabir for his excellent institution the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Tries to push back a bit on the attention that the COVID commentary by terrorist groups was getting.

Beware of terrorists offering COVID19 aid

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Terrorists have been thrown off course by COVID19. While their narratives may try to claim they are ahead of the curve on the virus, the truth is that they are still uncertain about how to react to what is going on and what the longer-term impact of the virus will be on their action. Nowhere is this more visible than in the public health and welfare sector where there has been a steady pattern of terrorist and non-state groups jumping forwards to show their own plan of action to deal with the virus. Yet their action has for the most part been an echo of traditional state structures, or accusations of blame about where the disease has come from, all reflecting the paucity of their response and the challenge that the virus poses to them as much as anyone else.

As anti-state structures, terrorists are always keen to show their superiority to the existing state. Most often this is articulated through violence, but there is a softer side to this as well with groups seeking to win the hearts and minds of their target audience as well as inspire terror. One way to do this is through charitable work, or being seen to provide for people’s needs. This helps show that the group is more than just murderers and also emphasizes their appropriateness as an alternative state structure. For violent Islamist groups who are seeking to build a better world in God’s image, it is even more important as for them to adequately demonstrate this ability as they are showing their ultimate goal is a better world.

The pandemic, like for any state or quasi-state structure, poses a significant problem for a terror group that holds control of territory and population. Any insurgency, irrespective of size or ideology, requires a level of support from the population that surrounds it to thrive, whether by threat or cooperation. However, public health as an idea and policy is arguably far too a heavy-lifting task even for the best organised and most equipped groups.

While groups like to show the image of themselves as new state builders, in reality they struggle to offer much of genuine practical utility. In part this is about resources. A large well-resourced group (which are in some ways political parties) like Hamas, Hezbollah, Lashkar-e-Taiba (or one of its many incarnations) can offer some succour given their size and physical footprint, the truth is that their actual offer is quite limited. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s actual contribution to aid relief in the wake of the 2005 earthquakes in Pakistan or the 2010 floods was much less in practical reality than international organizations or donors, though the group did an excellent job of projecting the rapidity of its arrival on the scene and subsequent activity. Similarly, while Hezbollah has contributed to Lebanon’s economy, international donors are bigger contributors to the aid that is given to the many refugees squatting in their country.

In other cases, we see that terrorist groups actually target aid and healthcare workers. The Taliban in Afghanistan may be currently talking about the positive action they are taking to support the counter-COVID19 effort, but they have previously made it difficult for polio vaccinators to operate. Their counterparts in Pakistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), even went so far as killing some of these health workers. Boko Haram has not currently offered much perspective on the virus, but in the past has been responsible for the persistence of polio in the parts of Nigeria where it operates. All three (Boko Haram, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP) have targeted aid workers more generally in the past.

The Afghan Taliban has been one of the more vocal groups in response to the pandemic. Pictures of the Taliban organising camps to treat people in the territories that they control became popular on social media as the world struggled with controlling the virus. Taliban images show their members social distancing, while wearing protective clothing and simultaneously maintaining that the pandemic is “sent by Allah because of disobedience and sins of mankind”. The Taliban also announced the establishment of medical centres, including in areas such as Afghanistan’s Paktika province, mere months after the group was blamed for attacking the government run medical centre in the same place. All this posturing, while also looking for help from aid agencies and health workers that previously they targeted, comes alongside them talking about cease-fire in areas it contests with the Afghan government. All of this raises questions about whether their approach in battling COVID19 is to genuinely setup a health care system or simply a cynical effort to portray the group as doing so.

For a group such as the Taliban, the virus comes as a significant challenge at a critical time. They are in the midst of trying to justify themselves as part of the ruling elite in Kabul. The images in circulation of their members attending to local populations in health clinics in full protective gear comes in stark contrast when images of health workers from New York to New Delhi working with shortages of the same gear are all over the news. This creates a counter-narrative for the group that they are more in control than most, while in reality they do not have the capabilities of running a quasi-health care system for their quasi-state.

ISIS is potentially the most hypocritical group in this regard. When they had their state, they liked to vaunt the social and healthcare systems they built, including videos in which British medical students who had joined the group were shown in films that aped the UK’s much-loved National Health Service (NHS). In reality the systems they offered were limited, and in some cases were hijacked charity ones.

Currently, the group is focused on its online propaganda and propagating Do-It-Yourself (DIY) terror in its name by its supporters around the world as it continues to rebuild itself after its territorial and leadership loss. Online, ISIS’s newsletter Al Naba warned its fighters against the virus being spread in Europe, while the group’s online supporters took the opportunity to criticise the Chinese state’s treatment of the Uighurs and the Shiite regime in Iran, comparing images of Shiite clerics with those of the virus. In South Asia, the newly launched pro-ISIS publication ‘Voice of Hind’ in its March issue dedicated a page to COVID19, but not from a health perspective, but an ideological one, pontificating that the disease is Allah’s creation to “cause chaos amongst the nations of disbelief.”

These narratives reflect the difficulty that groups have in keeping ideological coherence amongst their followers in advance of something so far from their usual concerns. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the formerly al Qaeda affiliated group in northern Syria, offers an interesting case study in this regard. HTS cancelled Friday prayers in its areas of control in the northern Syrian region of Idlib, following a ban on bazaars and markets. The region’s ‘Salvation Government’, backed by HTS, advised people to not attend mosques in order to control the COVID19 pandemic. This is a significant move for a quasi-government backed by HTS. Ideologically, HTS choosing science over religious directives offers an interesting insight in what is an Islamist group taking a more ‘state like’ approach. In a 4 minute long report released by ‘News Agency of Sham’, a media outlet of the ‘Salvation Government’ in Idlib, the quasi-state shows its preparations against COVID19, with preventive quarantine centre, distributing information to local traders, pictures of sanitization efforts and so on. HTS image is that of a more reasonable organisation than even some churches in the US, that have refused to close down in face of the pandemic. At the same time, HTS has suffered from coherence around its messaging with some of its leaders refusing to toe the line and continuing to operate much as before.

The practical problems do not end here, and go beyond simply having the resources to provide adequate healthcare. There is also the practical reality of trying to mobilize people. Those who join terrorist groups are not individuals – for the most part – who joined the group to become social or healthcare workers. They may see themselves as soldiers and warriors who are willing to do what they are ordered to, but providing basic healthcare services to people was not likely a major driver of their decision to join a group. Quite aside from questions of competence in the role, there is a question about how long they would be willing to play such a part rather than a frontline warrior.

Terrorists as healthcare providers and counter-virus warriors are an odd mix. It is not the first time we have seen such groups try to co-opt global narratives outside their ordinary remit as a way of showing their greater relevance and governance capability (another odd example is al Shabaab’s environmentalism), but given the all-encompassing nature of COVID19 these previous efforts have arguably been overshadowed. The reality of these efforts are that the groups are not really able to contribute much, and are merely cynically exploiting the existing situation and fears to draw more attention to themselves. This is the real impact of their efforts and should be treated as such.

And now finally up to date with my latest piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at some of the geopolitical questions flowing around China, broader geopolitics and the COVID-19 mess. Covers ground not dissimilar to my earlier piece for the Telegraph though focused in a different direction. Has already received some anger online and was reproduced in a Singaporean local Today. In other media work, earlier piece for ORF on Kashmir and the UK and my last RSIS piece on the Maldives were both picked up and reproduced by Eurasia Review, while spoke to the Independent about recent UK terrorism numbers release and last interview in CTC Sentinel with Lord Evans was written up by the paper.

How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Forget Pax Sinica, China’s medical outreach is struggling to attract new friends. And even though Russia and Iran, its closest allies, may be on the same page, underlying tensions remain. There is a global leadership gap but Beijing is not filling it

Raffaello Pantucci

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The world is grasping for an understanding of how the geopolitics of the coronavirus will play out. One dominant theme is that China is mendaciously riding the media waves to paint itself as a saviour dispensing medical equipment.

Yet, it is hard to see how Beijing is benefiting from its medical diplomacy, with opprobrium from every direction. Even given China’s close alliances with Iran and Russia, it is possible to see tensions emerging.

It is not at all clear that China will come out of the virus crisis as the rhetoric winner, notwithstanding the frantic narrative seeking to paint it that way.

Given the energy that China appears to be putting into promoting and pushing its medical diplomacy, it is surprisingly hard to uncover much evidence of a positive reception. While news stories speak of Chinese doctors and equipment arriving in stricken European states, it is difficult to find many news stories trumpeting China’s magnanimity.

Those who do speak of it positively tend to be the ones who already hold a positive view of China. The bigger narrative that seems to have caught on of late, however, is that much of the Chinese equipment appears to be faulty. It certainly does not seem that China is winning many new friends with its medical diplomacy.

Where China is finding resonance is in the predictable places, but even this is with caveats. The almost comical conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US military weapon has, unsurprisingly, found resonance in both Tehran and Moscow.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the theory on his Twitter feed, while Russia’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, defended China’s work on the virus and helped to propagate narratives espoused by Beijing.

Yet, singing from the same hymn sheet about the virus has not swept away the underlying tensions. For example, Sinochem is refusing to buy oil from Russia’s Rosneft after the US warned of sanctions if it did so.

At the same time, Chinese purchasers have bought record volumes of Russian oil from other suppliers, taking advantage of record low prices to fill strategic reserves.

Iran may still be supplying energy to China, but some calculations have concluded that Tehran is doing this for zero income, given that it is paying off earlier Chinese investments. This is hardly magnanimous action on Beijing’s part to strategic allies in difficult positions.

The coronavirus has caused tensions between the three nations. Russia was one of the first countries to close its borders to China (doing so at the same time as
Italy and before theUnited States), while reports from Iran suggest that its outbreak, which started in Qom, may have come either from businessmen travelling back from China or Chinese workers.

In Russia, there have been reports of East Asians being attacked, while Moscow bus drivers were told to report it to the police if they found a Chinese person on board.

We are seeing a classic dance play out here, with all three powers playing the same game of rhetoric (deriding Europe and attacking America), while the realist dynamics churn on relentlessly below the surface.

There is little evidence that the coronavirus has changed the dynamics between the three, nor that it has bolstered China and its axis of convenience on the world stage.

Some fear that in some ways Beijing’s displays of medical diplomacy will permanently reshape the international order. Yet, the reality is that the most damaging impact to the international order comes from the absence of leadership in Washington.

Some European capitals have been slow to respond to the pandemic and walked when they should have run, but the truth is that few expected the European Union to lead the world in responding to this crisis. The EU remains confounded by its fundamental governance contradictions.

But none of this means that China can credibly fill the vacuum. Rather, a vacuum continues to exist, and is only being made larger by the fumbling response from US President Donald Trump and his administration. This is the acceleration that is happening in international geopolitics. Power is ebbing away while others desperately thrash around for influence.

Yet no one is able to fill it, creating a confusing order where rules and behaviour are increasingly incomprehensible, where state leaders and their spokespeople lie, and we refuse to acknowledge goodwill and impressive gestures for what they are. The cynicism is obvious, but the absence of something better means such narratives are gaining greater attention.

China has undoubtedly used its medical aid politically, but ultimately this is not going to shape the new world order. We may not be seeing an end to an American-led order in favour of Pax Sinica, but we are witnessing a rebalancing of the two.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

More belated posting, this time a short comment for RSIS with excellent new colleague Sinan. We had actually written this a little while ago, but it got buried under the COVID-19 coverage. This is a potential problem which may yet express itself more dangerously.

ISIS in the Maldives?

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Raffaello PantucciMohammed Sinan Siyech

ICPVTR / RSIS / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / East Asia and Asia Pacific / Global / South Asia / Southeast Asia and ASEAN / Terrorism Studies

03 APRIL 2020

Synopsis

The February 2020 stabbing of three tourists in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terror in paradise. There are numerous indicators to suggest a potential threat in the Maldives, but it remains unclear whether this incident was simply a one-off or the beginning of something more serious.

Commentary

THE STABBING of three tourists recently in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terrorism in the popular tourist destination. The style of the attack, the subsequent video aping ISIS’ style, and the broader backdrop against which it comes, point to being inspired by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The attacks were reported as an isolated incident, though media has suggested authorities might be re-opening an earlier investigation into the stabbing of a Turkish tourist in December. The video emulating ISIS style and tone threatened more attacks, though the group itself has been quiet about the attack so far.

Long-time Coming?

The attack has been a long time coming. With roughly 250 fighters, and about 1400 alleged radicalised individuals, out of a population of 350,000, the Maldives has amongst the highest per capita instances of foreign terrorist fighters around the world. For some time, there has been fear that an exodus of fighters from the Maldives might return home bringing terrorist violence with them.

There is a history of foreign militant fighters from the Maldives going back to the war in Afghanistan. There have been killings of journalists and bloggers on the islands that have been blamed on violent Islamist groups, though questions have been raised around motivations.

The last major incident was an attempted bombing in 2007 in Male which injured a dozen tourists. The networks involved then were also present in supporting ISIS. Moreover, A couple of weeks after the stabbing incident, authorities raided properties in Naifaru island of Lhaviyani Atoll claiming to have disrupted a bomb-making plot. No charges were pressed.

Identifying Trends

There are a few indicators which bear attention. First, there have been incidents in the past few years where ISIS-linked or inspired attackers have launched attacks against visiting foreigners: Tunisia (2015), Tajikistan (2018) and Sri Lanka (2019) are prominent examples. The different sorts of attacks and the nature of the links to ISIS all show how tourists present themselves as easy targets for ISIS adherents (either inspired or directed).

In each of those cases, local tensions – including inequality, anger at government and a sense of injustice – translated into violence against foreigners. Striking visiting foreigners assuages some of this anger, brings international attention to the situation, and undermines local authorities. All of which makes it an easy fit into the ISIS playbook.

Second, there are existing violent operators in the Maldives like drug smugglers and other criminal gangs. There has been evidence of such individuals being specifically recruited into ISIS networks. ISIS narrative offers itself as a source of redemption for previous criminals. Their propensity for violence and access to criminal networks makes these recruits convenient assets within extremist networks.

Third, there is a problem of fundamentalism on the margins of society. During former president Abdul Gayoom’s rule (1978–2008), many scholars such as Muhammad Ibrahim who did not toe the official line were exiled to islands where they continued preaching their exclusivist messages. Over time, his influence has spread across Maldivian society with his students inspiring attacks such as the above mentioned 2007 bombing and having linkages to ISIS.

Closing the Maldivian Pandora’s Box

Currently, it is unclear as to the degree to which local authorities have the capability or experience to manage either violent networks at home or those that might return from Syria/Iraq or Afghanistan.

For instance, there are links and communications between those abroad and Maldivians back home via encrypted platforms, but there has been little coverage of rehabilitation or other programmes to engage returnees. Understanding the connectivity, the flows home and how to effectively manage such individuals is going to be a crucial task for the authorities.

The fact that not much support for this attack has been forthcoming is confusing; but it might reflect earlier divisions amongst the Maldivian radical community who were cleaved in two when ISIS broke from Jabhat al Nusra in the early days of the Syrian civil war. It might also simply reflect ISIS’ general state of chaos at the moment.

Key Question

The key question at this stage is whether the government has indeed been able to roll up the entirety of this network. Once the profiles are made public, it will be important to note whether any are returnees or the extent of their links to terrorist groups or networks. While the West has not suffered many attacks involving returnees, there have been lethal attacks in Southeast Asian countries involving battle hardened individuals. This escalates the risk profile in the Maldives.

The government has not been complacent so far about the potential danger. They have been identifying extremist preachers and raising threat levels across the nation while also engaging in religious counter messaging. However, despite arrests, they have not been able to prosecute returnees or address root causes such as corruption and lack of employment for youth.

Given their relative inexperience in managing such threats, it will be important to cooperate with international partners. The country has formulated a national action plan on preventing violent extremism with international support; it will be important to implement any work that flows from it.

Beyond this, it will be important to see whether terrorist or extremist networks gain access to better weaponry. Another indicator will be whether ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups start to raise the profile of the Maldives as a potential target in South Asia. Given that ISIS continues to face pressure on the battlefield, a major attack on a soft target like the Maldives, whether inspired or directed by the group, would provide a useful ideological boost.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Mohammed Sinan Siyech is Senior Analyst at ICPVTR.

Trying to be a bit more rapid about my updates this time, here is a brief Telegraph commentary that came out looking at the geopolitics of Coronavirus and the impact it is having on the west and China in particular.

China is losing the geopolitical battle of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the West is too

The more dominant public narrative is of

The Chinese government has embarked on a highly-publicised campaign to supply medical supplies to European nations as they contend with their own domestic outbreaks of coronavirus. But for all the noise Beijing is making about its “medical diplomacy”, it is hard to see how many new friends it has won.

So far, expressions of gratitude have come from predictable places, while China’s critics have focused on the unreliability of Chinese data or conspiracy theories advanced by Foreign Ministry spokesmen. It is not clear that China is winning the geopolitical conflict around Covid-19. Unfortunately, neither is the United States, which leaves a dangerous vacuum at the top.

But while China might not be winning this narrative, it is strengthening itself at home, creating a context which will leave Beijing well-placed to paint itself as a successful government in comparison to others around the world, when the short-term nightmare of covid-19 has passed.

This will have repercussions for China’s future behaviour, and for parts of the world that were already inclined in Beijing’s direction. China may not be winning new geopolitical space, but it is shoring itself up at home. This will make it even more assertive in the future.

One narrative that has caught on in public discourse is that China has ramped up its medical aid in a cynical attempt to use the current chaos to win new influence. Countries like Italy are described as being abandoned by their European brothers while the friendly Chinese sweep in with aid and gifts, in a clear geopolitical “win” for China.

The reality is far more complicated. The EU has mobilised considerable resources to support its member states. EU rules around state aid have been relaxed to allow countries to support affected industries better. Medical aid has flowed around the continent, and a growing number of intensive care cases from the hardest stricken countries like Italy are being sent to neighbouring countries. And while there is no denying the Chinese support, it happened after considerable volumes of European aid flowed to China when the country was in the heat of its own crisis – all delivered with much less fanfare.

This is not unknown in the halls of power. European governments know that their first port of call will always be their neighbours. Those who shout about Chinese aid are for the most part using it to score political points against adversaries, either at home or in Brussels. Leaders who have thanked China in more modest tones have only done the courteous thing which is expressed gratitude when someone offers you support.

Media reports have instead focused on Chinese equipment being delivered either with caveats or outright defective or faulty. Conspiracy theories advanced by Chinese foreign ministry officials about the virus being a product of some US military plan have failed to gain traction, and there is open doubt about data around the virus reported by Beijing.

There is little evidence that we are seeing a groundswell of positive perspectives on China sweeping across Europe. For all Beijing’s efforts, it has failed to win hearts and minds through medical outreach and aid.

Where these narratives have worked is at home, where the conspiracy theories in particular, as well as the stories of munificence and the improved domestic situation, have shaped Chinese domestic perceptions of the virus. The narrative in China is that Beijing has controlled the virus domestically, but now faces a second wave from irresponsible European countries who failed to control their own outbreaks and are exporting trouble back to China.

Such narratives also focus on domestic success and external enemies stirring up trouble within China, something already visible in the conspiracy theories about the virus emanating from the United States military. The rally to the flag effect this produces is only exacerbated when Chinese people see the dominant narrative in Europe being of defective Chinese equipment and cynicism about Chinese motives. The sense of hurt this generates could widen the gulf between China and Europe. None of this is strengthening China geopolitically, but it is certainly strengthening the Chinese leadership at home.

This is not dissimilar to what is happening in Washington, where the government has slowly let the crisis overwhelm it, used anti-Chinese narratives to apportion blame and has failed to take a global leadership role. The result is a situation which could be wide open for middle powers – including Britain – to step forward. But this has not yet happened; everyone is understandably distracted with their own problems. The result is a rudderless moment in international geopolitics, at a moment when great conflict was already the keynote.

This is where the real danger of Chinese influence could lie. It is not in China influencing new parts of Europe, but instead becoming even more detached. Building a nationalist narrative at home will make even greater aggression abroad politically possible in the future. An already confident China will feel even more emboldened while the rest of the world lacks any clear way forward and will be left reeling by the economic damage Covid-19 will unleash.

We are entering a moment of even greater geopolitical uncertainty, with adversarial behaviour all around and no clear leader. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Covid-19 has torn a big hole in our already confused order.

Still catching up on myself. Got distracted with a few other things including the current chaos in real life and suddenly a wave of new short pieces landed. So will continue updating here. Have some longer ones still gently coming to the boil, but current events have confused everything. First up, a short commentary for my London institutional home RUSI.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Enduring Global Terrorist Threat

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Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTerrorismMiddle East and North Africa

As the world’s attention remains understandably concentrated on the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that other threats have not gone away.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), has started to tell its adherents to take advantage of the chaos in the West caused by the coronavirus pandemic to launch attacks. Beyond this, a series of worrying trends point to an international terrorist movement developing greater coherence and strength in preparation for another bout of violence. Largely unnoticed amongst the flood of information and disinformation about the global pandemic, a series of actions illustrates the persistent and chronic nature of the threat of international terrorism that the world still faces.

Daesh’s recommendation for its followers to take advantage of this moment to launch attacks was a shift in its narrative around the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, it had largely been passing instructions to its followers not dissimilar to what the WHO and governments were suggesting: to be careful in certain countries and practice good hygiene. It had also enjoyed the fact that China and Iran had been so badly hit, considering it ‘divine retribution’ for China’s treatment of Uighurs and for Iran’s Shia ‘apostasy’. This message was echoed by other groups, most prominently the Uighurs fighting in Syria, who appeared eager to celebrate China’s ‘punishment’. But until recently there had been little comment around the option of launching attacks under the cover of the coronavirus crisis.

In fact, international jihadist terrorism has been a receding concern for Western governments for some time. The absence of large-scale successful attacks directed by Daesh or Al-Qa’ida has removed the threat from the top of world leaders’ in-trays. And this was reinforced by two additional trends: the growing capability of security services to disrupt and counter organised terrorist plots, and an increased focus by terrorist groups towards their local environments rather than the preparation of international plots. The danger is that whenever we have witnessed similar trends in the past, they provided a lull which concluded with new and more creative threats coming back to strike us.

A growing coherence amongst terrorist organisations

There is evidence of growing coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. Rather than disintegrating, they appear to be developing and strengthening their connections. This has been most visible in Africa, where reporting from the Sahel suggests that Al-Qa’ida- and Daesh-aligned groups on the ground are working together. This cooperation is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, the two groups offer an ideology that is very similar and it is not uncommon to see adherents initially drawn into their orbits through a mix of ideological material from both. Yet, at a strategic level, the two have been in competition for some time, something that appears now to have been overcome within the Sahel, where a growing violent insurgency is displacing and killing thousands.

A similar, though maybe less surprising, level of coherence is visible within Al-Qa’ida’s various African factions. Lately, the group’s East African affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its West African representative, Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its Yemeni affiliate Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all been releasing messages praising each other, marking the death of AQAP’s leader Qasim Al-Raymi, the death of a senior Tunisian jihadist, and generally demonstrating a high level of interaction. This has been seen and praised by Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership, which has issued messages congratulating them on their operations.

Al-Shabaab has emphasised its fealty by emphasising that its attacks are being conducted in accordance with senior Al-Qa’ida figures orders, demonstrating a desire to connect with Al-Qa’ida’s global ambitions rather than simply be Africa-focused. Al-Shabaab has also been demonstrating a growing capability and ambition – attacking Western forces on their bases in East Africacontinuing to aim at targets in Kenya and even reportedly looking at international aviation as a potential target once again. JNIM has not quite achieved the same level of success, but a more worrying potential development for Al-Qa’ida was the recent agreement signed between the Taliban and the US government, in which the Taliban appeared to specifically agree to ensure the group could not use Afghanistan as a base of operations once again. While on the one hand, this statement might be moot (there have long been suspicions about Al-Qa’ida hiding in Iran or Pakistan), it is also yet to be proven how assiduous the Taliban will be in going after them. Assessing that this was something that they could game in their favour, Al-Qa’ida was quick to put out a statement praising the agreement and painting it – much like the Taliban’s leadership have – as a victory for the Afghan organisation, showing once again its ability to defeat empires.

Al-Qa’ida’s calculation is likely based on the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban already appear to be facing difficulty coming to the table for the next stage of the process to conclude Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. This fact, and the Taliban’s persistent willingness to let Al-Qa’ida elements operate in their territory, suggest that it is unlikely that any resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is on the immediate horizon, or that Al-Qa’ida will find itself under greater pressure as a result of the agreement.

Iran tensions not helping

All of these moves are taking place against a backdrop of escalating US–Iran tensions. The brief intake of breath that took place in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filled by more strikes and deaths of Western forces in Iraq caused by Iranian-backed militias. The coronavirus pandemic may be the major focus in Tehran at the moment, but the Iranians have not forgotten the US and seem to now have moved beyond their self-imposed cease-fire in the wake of the mistaken downing of the Ukraine Airlines plane over Tehran on 8 January.

This is relevant to the context of Al-Qa’ida and Daesh for two reasons. First, Iran has regularly shown itself to be an agile manipulator of jihadist elements, able to pragmatically engage with them when it suited Tehran’s objectives. And at the moment, these groups will prove both a useful and deniable tool in Iran’s growing showdown with the US. Second, Iran’s interest in crushing Daesh in Syria and Iraq is likely receding so, as long as the group does not focus on Iran, Tehran is likely to look the other way.

Given Daesh’s growing profile in Africa in particular, the organisation still has some power of attraction, notwithstanding the loss of its ‘caliphate’. This continues to make the organisation dangerous, and any successful effort to rebuild its territorial structures in the Levant will give it a major boost internationally.

The danger is that these shifts will produce a dramatic terrorist attack which will shock the West out of its current collective coronavirus focus. Daesh’s suggestion to its adherents represents a first indication that the terrorist organisation sees the West as distracted, and may seize the opportunity to launch a dramatic attack. The broader trends that have been visible with Al-Qa’ida date back to before the current crisis, but show a threat picture which is developing in directions that warrant close attention.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski/commons.wikimedia.org

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Almost done with my slow catch up posting (and will do a media round-up in the next one), but here posting a recent piece for my new institutional home in Singapore, RSIS, for their online journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA). The piece focuses on the impact of General Soleimani’s death on the jihadist scene and Iran’s relationship with Sunni jihadists in general.

Soleimani’s Assassination: Could Jihadist Groups Benefit?

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Synopsis

While the geopolitical implications of General Qassim Soleimani’s killing have been well discussed, an understudied aspect is its impact on the jihadist terrorist milieu. The general assumption is that the act is either tangential to or undermines the fight against the Islamic State (IS), given Iran’s role in anti-IS operations on the ground in the Levant. However, it is not clear that either of these assumptions are true, or in what ways Soleimani’s death and its consequences might shape the future behaviour of jihadists.

The Current Milieu

On the surface, the global jihadist landscape remains dominated by two core factions – those aligned with al Qaeda (AQ) and those closer to IS. However, some jihadist factions continue to hedge against outwardly joining either side, and groups elsewhere around the world have pledged allegiance to IS, but with little evidence of a direct link or connection. At the ground level, it is sometimes not clear that individual adherents see the distinction in the same way that leadership cadres might, with arrests showing caches of radical material drawing from both pools. Similarly, in West Africa, there is growing evidence of cooperation between IS and AQ, though it is not clear if this is centrally mandated or coordinated.1

The growing importance of Africa in both groups’ global footprint is a more noticeable trend. For IS, that is represented through the growing influence and presence of IS-linked or inspired groups eager to brandish their connections – for example, there has been an increase in violence in the Sahel,2 Nigeria3 and Mozambique4 linked to groups that have been releasing videos through IS channels. AQ also continues to be represented on the battlefield through their own affiliates, though they appear less vocal. The growing reported alignment between AQ and IS-linked groups in the Sahel is an interesting regional development – unique globally according to senior US military officials serving in the region5 – whose larger significance is not yet clear.

Coherent Messaging

The exception in some ways for AQ is al Shabaab in East Africa, which has managed to demonstrate a constant capability and willingness to attempt ambitious attacks, while also maintaining a persistent public deference to AQ central.6 IS has recently also taken to pushing a pan-regional narrative in direct competition to al Shabaab.7 The link to AQ core is something that is reflected across the range of AQ affiliated groups who have in recent months shown a considerable degree of coherent messaging.8

IS in contrast continues to push to inspire wherever it can, with messages in support of its affiliates. While there is an equal degree of coherence in terms of style of messaging with AQ linked groups, it does not necessarily seem to fulfil the same role of seeking to bolster the centre and show higher levels of organisational coherence. In the wake of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death, there appeared to be a rush from around the world of groups pledging allegiance to the new IS leader, with little clarity about how this affects the various groups or cells themselves.9 Given the continued questions around IS’ new leader – with some in the security community even doubting his existence – IS certainly appears to be less concerned about global organisational coherence than AQ.10

Focus on Local Conflicts

At the same time, neither group appears at the moment in a position to launch a strategically significant strike against the West or out of their immediate areas of operation. It is possible such plots are being disrupted, but, regardless, the net result is a loss in visible effectiveness. In some parts of the world, local authority weakness, societal fissures or external tensions have created a context where the group, or a cell pledging loyalty to them, might launch a strike.11 But evidence of centrally directed plots successfully launched by either group over the past year is lacking.

Rather, the groups appear to be focused on local conflicts in which they sometimes use the rhetoric of an international attack as a garb to shroud their attacks with greater meaning. For example, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’s (AQAP) most recent claim of responsibility of the Pensacola terrorist attack in Florida, showed little evidence of a connection beyond the group claiming the assailant as one of its own given his nationality as a Saudi.12

Iranian Manipulation

Contrary to popular consensus that it is the sworn enemy of Sunni jihadists, Iran has shown itself to be a pragmatic actor in dealing with violent Sunni groups. This partly stems from a well-spring of early support from across the Muslim divide for the Iranian revolution. In the early days of the revolution in 1979, the overthrow of the Shah was treated as an event in the same light as the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the Siege of Mecca – whereby dedicated believers, armed only with guns, the Koran and the zeal of their beliefs, were able to overthrow (or hurt) long-standing apostate regimes. The focus was on Islam and anti-imperialism rather than Sunni-Shia divides.13

Support of Violent Extremists

While Iran has continued to maintain its rhetoric of permanent revolution – something alluded to within its constitution14 – providing a logic that connected it with anti-imperialist movements around the world, for the most part, its links to violent groups have been highly pragmatic. For example, Iran has historically been supportive of Turkish Hezbollah, a Sunni group that has targeted Kurdish groups as well as Turkish authorities.15 From an Iranian perspective, supporting such a group is partly motivated by a desire to control Iran’s own Kurdish separatist regions as well as providing them a card to play against Turkey.

Since the early days of the revolution, Iran has also supported Hamas against Israel.16 Further, looking to Iran’s complicated border region with Pakistan, the long-standing Baluchi insurgency on both sides of the border has generated repeated accusations by Pakistan that Tehran is providing support to some Baluchi elements, specifically the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS),17 a Sunni group that has targeted Pakistani security officials. Iran’s support appears tit-for-tat, but also an expression of concern against growing Saudi influence in Pakistan and particular investments in Baluchistan.

Iran’s relationship with the Taliban and AQ is also complicated. For years post-9/11, Iran hosted a number of senior AQ figures, alternatively jailing them and letting them run around under fairly loose supervision. This included senior figures like Saif al Adl and a number of Osama bin Laden’s close family. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the subsequent founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to IS) was allowed to pass through Iran as he fled Afghanistan for northern Iraq.18 Iran appears to have held these individuals hostage as negotiating leverage as well as to protect themselves against future attacks by AQ. Nonetheless, relations between AQ and Iran have remained consistently antagonistic, something evidenced by comments within Osama bin Laden’s correspondence found in Abbottabad.19

In 1998, when the Taliban overran Mazar-e-Sharif, they reportedly massacred a group of 11 Iranians (including 9 diplomats), pushing the two sides to the brink of war.20 This soured relations such that following the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, Tehran actively reached out to the US offering detailed maps of Taliban positions to aid in its attack plans.21 However, as the AmericanIranian relationship soured, the relationship between the Taliban and Tehran flourished. To the point that there was a Taliban Mashhad Shura formed, as well as Iranian support for Taliban groups in the north and west of Afghanistan.22 Iran’s calculations here appear to be driven by a desire to keep its hand in play in Afghanistan as well as formulate another way to frustrate the US.

Pragmatic Relations

The key takeaway from all of this interaction with the Sunni jihadist world is that Tehran is highly pragmatic in its relations with them. While there are clear moments of conflict, Iran is seemingly willing to overlook them in order to advance broader strategic goals. This perspective will unlikely change following the removal of Soleimani. Unlike a terrorist group, where the leader is a figure around whom great mystique, ideology and personal linkages flow, Soleimani was simply (albeit very charismatic) the leader of an army – an organisation with a fixed hierarchy and goals, promotion and division of labour. The overall approach may be massaged by a leader, but ultimately the institution will have political perspectives that are dictated elsewhere. This will not change with the removal of a general.

Jihadists’ View of Iran

While Iran may have a highly pragmatic and agnostic view of Sunni jihadist groups, it is equally clear that the groups themselves have fairly firm views on Iran. The clearest expression of this is in the numerous postings that appeared on extremist social media channels in the wake of Soleimani’s death. While AQ did not make a formal statement, its affiliate on the ground in Syria, Hurras al Din, celebrated his demise.23

In contrast, IS was more open in its gloating, with a message in late January from its new spokesman, Abu Hamza al Qarashi, celebrating Soleimani’s death, describing him as a ‘Safavid apostate’ and calling on God to curse him and all who supported him.24 The message followed an earlier one in IS’ newsletter al Naba, which hailed Soleimani’s death as a victory for the jihadist group.25 There was also substantial condemnation amongst the jihadist community for Hamas’ stance on Soleimani’s death.26

This does not mean jihadists would be averse to once again strike pragmatic deals with Iran if they advance broader strategic goals. They may shout anti-Iran rhetoric, and IS has in the past sought to accelerate its conflict with Iran with its June 2017 attack on the Parliament and Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, which followed its first ever Persian-language video.27 But outside this attack, the group has done little in advance of its animosity towards the Islamic Republic (though Iran has claimed numerous foiled attacks).

Moreover, while both IS and AQ might see Shi’ite apostates as enemies, it is not clear how much they are dependent on this narrative to generate supporters and recruits. It is notable, for example, that in IS’ messages claiming the 2017 attack in Tehran, they sought to emphasise the ethnicities of the various attackers – highlighting their Baluchi and Ahvazi heritage; two minorities within Iran with strained relations with Tehran.28 This suggests a narrative around the attack that attempts to manipulate local politics and tensions rather than rely solely on the simplistic Sunni-Shia divide.

Broader Geopolitics

While Iran is seen as the heart of an alliance of apostates that is oppressing Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, the jihadist community still seems fixated on its enemies in the West and the regimes they are supporting around the world. The Shia may also be seen as adversaries, but arguably, they are not a principal focus of the jihadist community. Soleimani’s death is unlikely to change the calculations for both sides (Tehran and the jihadist community) a vast amount.

Continued Operations Across Middle East

This is not to say that in key theatres where AQ and IS operate, including in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani’s death will not have some effect. While physically decimated, IS is still estimated to carry out 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone targeting security forces and local rivals, as it seeks to regroup around an estimated 20,000 hardcore fighters across the Iraq-Syria theatre.29 While concerned about IS’ regrowth in Syria, Iran will likely continue to focus their efforts through either their forces on the ground or Iraqi or Syrian proxies. The removal of Soleimani is not going to change this approach.

Rather, the greater impact will be on the broader US-Iran clash, where the escalation marked by the removal of Soleimani will give Iran and its proxies a greater sense of latitude in their operations. This will concern Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principle adversary in the Gulf, who has been noticeably careful in official statements to downplay any gloating over Soleimani’s death.30

This perspective provides an interesting resonance to the broader question of the longer-term consequence of the strike for Sunni jihadist groups. For the US, this strike was part of a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that appears to be intended to topple the Tehran regime. It also came as the US continued to agitate to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. If US President Donald Trump is successful in his desire to pull US forces out of these Middle Eastern theatres, the resultant vacuum is one that will likely be filled by instability or Iran-Saudi tensions.

Filling the Security Vacuum

These tensions might express themselves through proxies like Sunni jihadist groups, but it is likely that these groups’ actions will be a combination of manipulation and individual agency. While IS and AQ (or other Sunni jihadist groups like the Taliban or those in Syria) might take advantage of the security vacuum that follows a US withdrawal to grow once again, their adversaries (including Iran) will likely retaliate. This will give Iran’s foes an opportunity to provide support to their enemies’ enemy. So, as IS advances and the Iraqi and Syrian sides push back against them with Iranian support, it would be unsurprising if some support flows towards IS from Gulf backers.31

Similarly, in Afghanistan in the peace deal that was signed, the Taliban seemed to appear willing to sever their links with AQ.32 While there has been much scepticism around this declaration and earlier intent by the Taliban to sever such links,33 the new agreement might provide a context in which Tehran could once again seek to play its cards with AQ to maintain some leverage against Taliban – a group with which they have deep historical enmity which may have only temporarily been put to one side. It might also be useful leverage in Iran’s broader conflict with the US – who by virtue of the latest agreement are (theoretically at least) now allied with the Taliban against AQ and IS.

Conclusion

The Sunni jihadist milieu is one that paints itself as ideologically pure. Yet it can be as brutally pragmatic as its state-based adversaries. In Tehran, the leadership also appears happy to cooperate with its perceived adversaries to ensure broader strategic goals. The death of General Soleimani will not alter such calculations, and rather may herald a period of greater confrontation between Iran and the world which will have the corollary effect of both weakening some of the alliances fighting against Sunni jihadist groups (for example in Iraq and Syria) while also increasing the willingness for Iran to use or manipulate proxies to launch attacks around the world.

Given the disruption or success of historical plots by Iranian linked networks in places as diverse as Thailand, India, Georgia, Cyprus, Argentina, Nigeria, Bulgaria, and the US, amongst others, the conflict against its enemies (Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia) from Tehran’s perspective has no borders. While a permanent alignment between Tehran and IS or AQ is unlikely, there is not likely to be much of a focused effort in eradicating either group by Tehran. In fact, it is possible and likely that Tehran will see IS, AQ and their various affiliates as useful potential assets to manipulate (if they are able) in their increasingly aggressive confrontation with the US.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Eric Schmitt, “Terrorism Threat in West Africa Soars as US Weighs Troop Cuts,” New York Times, February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/world/africa/ter rorism-west-africa.html.

2 Jason Burke, “Sahel faces surge in violence from terror attacks,” Guardian, January 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/22/sah el-faces-surge-in-violence-from-terror-attacks.

3 “Islamic State in Nigeria ‘beheads Christian hostages’,” BBC News, December 27, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50924266.

4 Peter Fabricius, “Is Islamic State taking charge of Mozambique’s jihadist insurgency,” Institute for Security Studies Today, January 10, 2020, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/is-islamic-state-takingcharge-of-mozambiques-jihadist-insurgency.

5 Adrian Blomfield and Will Brown, “British troops back on front line against jihadists as war on terror spreads to Africa,” Telegraph, March 1, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/01/britishtroops-back-front-line-against-jihadists-war-terror/.

6 The attack on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi in January 2019 (James Kahongeh, “How Dusit terror attack unfolded,” Daily Nation, January 15, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/How-Dusit-terrorattack-unfolded/1056-5418518-bp715yz/index.html) and the attack on US and Italian forces in September 2019 (Caleb Weiss, “Sahabaab strikes American, Italian forces in Somalia,” Long War Journal, September 30, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/09/shabaab-strikes-american-italian-forces-in-somalia.php) show ambition, while their praise of AQAP’s Pensacola attack claim and the reference in the Dusit attack to being Zawahiri’s soldiers shows deference: “Blessing and Salutations for the Military Operation at the US navy base in Pensacola, Florida,” Al Kataib Media, February 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/Magdashi3/status/12249689 22329505792.

7 “Islamic State video seeks recruits in East Africa,” BBC Monitoring, February 28, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201hy23 – it is also notable how al Shabaab is being reported as broadening its recruitment base, Nicholas Komu, “AlShabaab changes tack, targets jobless youths in Nyeri slums,” Daily Nation, March 1, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Al-Shabaab-targetsyouth-in-Nyeri-slums/1056-5474832- xagos9z/index.html.

8 This can be seen in some of the aforementioned incidents, but also see Caleb Weiss, “Al Qaeda’s general command praises recent Shabaab attacks,” Long War Journal, October 17, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/10/alqaeda-praises-recent-shabaab-attacks.php.

9 “Regional affiliates start pledging loyalty to new IS leader,” November 2, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c2017fwd; Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Decoding Islamic State’s allegiance videos,” BBC Monitoring, October 7, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c20150sr

10 Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Ongoing uncertainties about identity of new Islamic State leader,” BBC Monitoring, January 24, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201eozr and Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool, ISIS founding member confirmed by spies as group’s new leader,” Guardian, January 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/isisleader-confirmed-amir-mohammed-abdul-rahman-almawli-al-salbi; there appears to be a debate about his identity which even a report in the Guardian reportedly sourced from numerous intelligence sources has not cleared up. IS’ recent statement referred to the new leader again, without showing him.

11 The Easter 2019 attack in Sri Lanka is arguably an archetypal example of this.

12 Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP claims ‘full responsibility’ for shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola,” Long War Journal, February 2, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/aq ap-claims-full-responsibility-for-shooting-at-naval-airstation-pensacola.php.

13 Emmanuel Sivan, “Sunni radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.21, no.1, February 1989, pp.1-30.

14 “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11- 38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

15 Fatih Altayli, “Is Iran Supporting Turkish Hezbollah?,” Al Monitor, April 16, 2013, https://www.almonitor.com/pulse/security/2013/04/turkey-iranhezbollah-support.html; there is a live debate about the degree to which Iran is involved with the group. People close to the group deny (“Huda-Pars emergence,” The Economist, November 23, 2013) while Turkish sources tend to highlight links (Mustafa Cosar Unal and Tuncay Unal, “Recruitment or enlistment? Individual integration into the Turkish Hezbollah,” Turkish Studies, vol. 19, No.3, 2018, pp.327-362)

16 Adnan Abu Amer, “The Hamas-Iran alliance remains and expands,” Middle East Monitor, January 14, 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-thehamas-iran-alliance-remains-and-expands/; “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11-38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

17 Shahaburddin Shahab, “Pakistan asks Iran to act on militants behind Baluchistan killings,” Reuters, April 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/uspakistan-iran/pakistan-asks-iran-to-act-on-militantsbehind-baluchistan-killings-idUSKCN1RW0EQ.

18 Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (UK: Bloomsbury), August 2017.

19 Nelly Lahoud, “Al-Qa’ida’s Contested Relationship with Iran: The View from Abbottabad,” New America Foundation, September 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/newamericadotorg/docu ments/AlQaidas_Contested_Relationship_with_Iran_2018- 08-20_151707.pdf.

20 Douglas Jehl, “Iran holds Taliban responsible for 9 diplomats’ deaths,” New York Times, September 11, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iranholds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomatsdeaths.html.

21 Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, September 23, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/th e-shadow-commander.

22 Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani, “What does Soleimani’s death mean for Afghanistan?,” The Hill, February 6, 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/481884-whatdoes-soleimanis-death-mean-for-afghanistan.

23 “Syria-based jihadist group reportedly welcomes Soleimani’s death,” BBC Monitoring, January 12, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dr8l.

24 “Text of IS spokesman’s message announcing new phase in jihad,” BBC Monitoring, January 27, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201f2pb.

25 “IS gloats at death of Soleimani in first comment on US-Iran crisis,” January 9, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dfp7.

26 “Jihadist supporters condemn Hamas for mourning Soleimani,” BBC Monitoring, January 7, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201d54j.

27 Chris Zambelis, “Terror in Tehran: The Islamic State Goes to War with the Islamic Republic,” CTC Sentinel, vol.10, no.6, June/July 2017, https://ctc.usma.edu/terror-in-tehran-the-islamicstate-goes-to-war-with-the-islamic-republic/.

28 Ibid.

29 Loveday Morris and Louisa Loveluck, “Killing of ISIS leader has not hurt group’s operations, says Iraqi Kurdish prime minister,” Washington Post, February 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/killing-of-isisleader-has-not-hurt-groups-operations-says-iraqikurdish-leader/2020/02/15/d3e7303a-4ff8-11eaa4ab-9f389ce8ad30_story.html

30 Yasmine Farouk, “What does the US killing of Soeimani mean for Saudi Arabia?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commentary, January 7, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/07/whatdoes-u.s.-killing-of-soleimani-mean-for-saudi-arabiapub-80722

31 Martin Williams, “Factcheck Q&A: Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?,” Channel 4 News, June 7, 2017, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck -qa-is-saudi-arabia-funding-isis

32 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” February 29, 2020, https://www.state.gov/wpcontent/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-BringingPeace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf

33 This skepticism was well articulated by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban,” Politico, March 18, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/18/ donald-trump-afghanistan-zalmay-khalilzad-225815 and was particularly illustrated in the death of Asim Umar in Afghanistan in September 2019, “Asim Umar: Al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief ‘killed in Afghanistan’,” BBC News, October 8, 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49970353.