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U.S. and U.N. on Jihadi Threat in 2021

ISIS Khorosan Fighters Sept 2020
ISIS-K fighters in a video published in September 2020

In 2021, jihadist groups proved resilient, despite counterterrorism pressure from the United States and its partners, according to five reports by U.S. intelligence, the Pentagon and the United Nations. The risk of attacks on the U.S. homeland was diminished, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). In a separate report, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned that the most serious security threat was from lone wolves based in the United States who had been inspired by jihadi propaganda. But the major international terrorist groups – ISIS, al Qaeda, and their affiliates – still posed threats to countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

ISIS continued to operate across rural areas of Iraq and Syria “as a well-entrenched, low-level insurgency,” according to the DIA. The group was limited to conducting isolated attacks rather than sustained military campaigns. ISIS had some 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to a U.N. report, but little was known about whether they were full-time or part-time. It continued to seek recruits from disaffected Sunni Arab communities. The group reportedly had tens of millions of dollars in reserves and aspired to control territory again.  

ISIS–Khorasan Province, the affiliate in Afghanistan, grew in strength, even as the rival Taliban seized control. ISIS-K was estimated to have between 1,500 fighters to 3,500 fighters. The original ISIS leadership, which is based in Syria, views Afghan territory “as a base for the spread of their influence to Central and South Asia as part of the realization of its ‘great caliphate’ project,” a U.N. report warned.

Al Qaeda suffered setbacks or managed “only limited operations” in North Africa, Syria and Yemen in 2021, according to the ODNI. Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan increased “slightly” after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in August, according to General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command. He did not provide specific figures, but the group had 400 to 600 fighters in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover in August, according to the United Nations. The following are excerpts from U.N. and U.S. government reports and remarks by officials from 2021.

U.S. Government Reports

Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve Quarterly Report

July 1, 2021 – September 30, 2021 (published November 4, 2021)

STATUS OF ISIS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA

Coalition and international officials stated during the quarter that although ISIS is weakened, the group remains a threat and the fight to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS is not over. In September, Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence, said that ISIS in Iraq and Syria remain priority threats to the U.S. homeland.

Combined Joint Task Force–OIR (CJTF-OIR) noted that its forces remain in Iraq and Syria to help partner forces “consolidate hard-fought gains” against ISIS. General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Commander of the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) has previously stated that sustained pressure on ISIS is critical to preventing the group’s resurgence.

ISIS Attack Claims Decrease, but the Group’s Capabilities and Strategy Remain

During the quarter, ISIS attack claims dropped in both Iraq and Syria compared with the same period in 2020. CJTF-OIR reported that in Iraq, ISIS claimed responsibility for 182 attacks during the quarter, compared to 230 attacks during the same period in 2020. In Syria, the decline in ISIS-claimed attacks was even greater, according to CJTF-OIR. ISIS claimed responsibility for 19 attacks during the quarter, an 86 percent reduction from the 132 attacks it claimed during the same period in 2020. CJTF-OIR said that ISIS remained unable to sustain coherent military operations against Coalition partner forces and was restricted to conducting isolated insurgent and terrorist attacks.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported that ISIS continued to operate across rural areas of Iraq and Syria as a well-entrenched, low-level insurgency. The DIA said that there were no notable changes to ISIS’s internal cohesiveness during the quarter and no observable changes to its recovery strategy or operational objectives. ISIS sustains aspirations to resurge and to control territory. The group’s overall strategy remained to maintain its notoriety, rebuild influence among the local populace, and reestablish itself as a governing organization in the region.

TACTICS: The DIA reported that ISIS continued to exploit security gaps and target anti-ISIS forces across both countries while also seeking to exploit sectarian tensions. ISIS attacks targeting security forces in Iraq were also lethal and complex, such as a September 5 attack targeting an Iraqi Federal Police checkpoint in southwestern Kirkuk, which killed at least 13 people.

The DIA said that ISIS continued to conduct hit-and-run and IED assaults and used small arms to attack security forces as well as community and tribal leaders that pose a threat to the group’s resurgence. The DIA noted that while ISIS tactics were similar in both countries, the group was able to carry out a greater number of complex attacks compared to their counterparts in Syria—including a high-casualty bombing in Baghdad on July 19—suggesting a higher level of operational maturity.

CROSS-BORDER ACTIVITIES: The DIA reported that the long border between Iraq and Syria runs through the center of ISIS’s core operating area, which suggests “a high level of importance for cross-border operations.” ISIS operates smuggling routes to move weapons, supplies, people, and cash across the border using its own personnel, established local networks, and existing infrastructure, including tunnels. The DIA said that ISIS’s smuggling activities allow the group to more efficiently distribute resources between its Iraq and Syria branches and “almost certainly” serve to improve operational capabilities on both sides of the border.

The DIA identified several elements that contribute to a permissive environment for crossborder smuggling, including weak or absent governance along the Syrian side of the border, endemic bribery, long-established routes and networks, the cross-border nature of tribes that live in the region, and the presence of Iranian forces and militias under Iranian influence. The open desert region that spans across the border between the central Syrian desert and Iraqi deserts, stretching as far east as Iraq’s Hamrin and Makhmur mountains, also enables ISIS smuggling activities.

The DIA said that ISIS fighters who move across the border between Iraq and Syria often proceed to provinces where ISIS operates. In Iraq, both Ninewa and Anbar provinces are vital for moving and protecting fighters. To facilitate its freedom of movement, ISIS targets influential figures within the Iraqi government and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as well as prominent Sunni community members who pose obstacles to the group.

Along the Syria-Turkey border, ISIS activity remained subdued. The U.S. European Command reported that Turkey’s sustained counter-ISIS activities and security presence along its borders with Syria and Iraq deterred ISIS cross-border activity and disrupted the group’s ability to conduct and support attacks in and from Turkey.

RECRUITING AND SUSTAINMENT: In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS continued to focus recruitment efforts on disaffected, marginalized, and insecure Sunni Arab populations, as well as individuals who already had connections to ISIS members, affiliates, and supporters. The DIA said that while ISIS actively seeks to recruit new members, the group lacks the resources and popularity needed to expand recruitment.

According to the DIA and a research organization, ISIS seeks to secure a facilitating environment for its activities within the Sunni community in Iraq, and targets influential community leaders who are viewed as obstacles to attracting more young people into its ranks as well as to limit security cooperation that could expose ISIS members and hideouts. In Syria, ISIS continued to use the al-Hol displaced persons camp in northeastern Syria as a key source for its recruitment effort, maintaining indoctrination programs targeting minors, who the group sometimes smuggles out for training, according to the DIA.

The DIA said that nevertheless, ISIS is probably struggling in Syria to effectively respond to counterterrorism pressure and competition from the former al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is principally based in western Syria’s Idlib governorate. The DIA said that this overall strain on ISIS appeared to extend to recruitment activity, and the number of new members probably modestly declined during the quarter.

FINANCES: ISIS’s financial situation remained largely unchanged during the quarter. The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) reported that ISIS probably has tens of millions of U.S. dollars available in cash reserves that are dispersed across the region. However, Treasury, which participates in the Counter-ISIS Finance Group of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said that it did not know the amount of money ISIS distributed during this quarter. Treasury said that ISIS continued to raise funds through extortion of oil smuggling networks in eastern Syria, kidnapping for ransom, targeting civilian businesses and populations, extortion, looting, and the possible operation of front companies.

ISIS continued to move funds in and out of Iraq and Syria, often relying on ISIS facilitators in Turkey and in other financial centers, Treasury said. The group continued to transfer funds in Iraq and Syria and internationally using money services businesses, including hawalas—a financial network based on trust and family or regional connections—located throughout Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. ISIS also continued to use networks of couriers to smuggle cash between Iraq and Syria. In addition, ISIS supporters relied on virtual currencies and online fundraising platforms.

According to Treasury, al-Hol remained one of the largest concentrations of ISIS-affiliated individuals who continue to receive donations from ISIS supporters internationally. Treasury said the Tawasul hawala in al-Hol served ISIS members and transferred payments for ISIS from outside Syria. ISIS members in Iraq collected and sent funds to intermediaries in Turkey, who then smuggled it to al-Hol or other displaced persons camps in northeastern Syria or sent the funds to hawalas operating in the camp.

Treasury said it continued to work with interagency and Coalition partners, including the Iraqi government, to identify ISIS’s financial reserves and financial leaders, disrupt ISIS financial facilitation networks in Iraq, and designate ISIS facilitators for sanctions, front companies, and fundraisers in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere.

EXTERNAL OPERATIONS: Although U.S. officials continue to view ISIS as a priority threat to the homeland, the DIA reported that ISIS probably remains unable to effectively direct external operations against the U.S. homeland, and most of its branches also lack the ability to direct such attacks. The DIA said the external ISIS threat continues to take the form of small-scale attacks by individuals to demonstrate the group’s reach outside its normal operating areas. The DIA said that lone actors based in the United States or Europe that are inspired by ISIS propaganda constitute the most serious security threat to Western homelands as they can use simple weapons and launch attacks with little or no warning.

The DIA assessed that ISIS probably continues seeking to develop the capability to conduct directed attacks in Europe. While 14 people suspected of ISIS links were arrested in Germany and Denmark in February, including several Syrian nationals with bomb-making material, ISIS has not claimed responsibility for any inspired attacks in Europe in 2021.

Click here for the full report.

 

Office of the Director of National Intelligence - Annual Threat Assessment

Published April 9, 2021

GLOBAL TERRORISM

We assess that ISIS and al-Qa‘ida remain the greatest Sunni terrorist threats to US interests overseas; they also seek to conduct attacks inside the United States, although sustained US and allied CT pressure has broadly degraded their capability to do so. US-based lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate domestic threat. We see this lone-actor threat manifested both within homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), who are inspired by al-Qa‘ida and ISIS, and within domestic violent extremists (DVEs), who commit terrorist acts for ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias and antigovernment sentiment. DVEs also are inspired by like-minded individuals and groups abroad. Lebanese Hizballah might conduct attacks against US and allied interests in response to rising tensions in the Middle East and as part of its effort to push the United States out of the region. The diffusion of the terrorist threat globally, competing priorities for many countries, and in some cases decreased Western CT assistance probably will expand opportunities for terrorists and provide them space to recover from recent setbacks.

ISIS

ISIS remains capable of waging a prolonged insurgency in Iraq and Syria and leading its global organization, despite compounding senior leadership losses. Although we have seen a decline in the number of ISIS-inspired attacks in the West since they peaked in 2017, such attacks remain a high priority for the group. ISIS-inspired attacks very likely will remain the primary ISIS threat to the US homeland this year, rather than plots operationally supported or directed by ISIS, given the logistical and security challenges the group would need to overcome to deploy and support attackers in the United States.

  • ISIS will attempt to expand its insurgency in Iraq and Syria, where it has been attacking prominent local leaders, security elements, infrastructure, and reconstruction efforts.
  • The appeal of ISIS’s ideology almost certainly will endure, even if it appeals to a narrower audience. The group will continue to use its media to encourage global supporters to conduct attacks without direction from ISIS leadership, but ISIS’s degraded media capabilities probably will hamper its ability to inspire its previous high pace of attacks and attract recruits and new supporters.

Al-Qa‘ida

Al-Qa‘ida’s senior leadership cadre has suffered severe losses in the past few years, but remaining leaders will encourage cooperation among regional elements, continue calls for attacks against the United States and other international targets, and seek to advance plotting around the world. Al Qa‘ida’s regional affiliates will exploit local conflicts and ungoverned spaces to threaten US and Western interests, as well as local governments and populations abroad.

  • Al-Qa‘ida’s affiliates in the Sahel and Somalia have made gains during the past two years, but the group experienced setbacks elsewhere, including losing key leaders or managing only limited operations in North Africa, South Asia, Syria, and Yemen.

Hizballah

We expect Hizballah, in coordination with Iran and other Iran-aligned Shia militants, to continue developing terrorist capabilities as a deterrent, as retaliatory options, and as instruments of coercion against its adversaries.

Hizballah’s focus on reducing US influence in Lebanon and the Middle East has intensified following the killing of IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani. Hizballah maintains the capability to target, both directly and indirectly, US interests inside Lebanon, in the region, overseas, and—to a lesser extent—in the United States.

Click here for the full report.

The National Intelligence Council - Global Trends 2040

Published April 2021

THE FUTURE OF TERRORISM: DIVERSE ACTORS, FRAYING INTERNATIONAL EFFORTS

Terrorist groups will continue to exploit societal fragmentation and weak governance to push their ideologies and gain power through violence. During the next 20 years, regional and intrastate conflicts, demographic pressures, environmental degradation, and democratic retrenchment are likely to exacerbate the political, economic, and social grievances terrorists have long exploited to gain supporters as well as safe havens to organize, train, and plot. These accelerants, the intensity and effects of which are likely to be uneven across different regions and countries, probably will also foster rural to urban international migration, further straining state resources and diminishing global and local counterterrorism efforts.

Global jihadist groups are likely to be the largest, most persistent transnational threat as well as a threat in their home regions. They benefit from a coherent ideology that promises to deliver a millenarian future, from strong organizational structures, and from the ability to exploit large areas of ungoverned or poorly governed territory, notably in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Extreme “rightwing” and “leftwing” terrorists promoting a range of issues—racism, environmentalism, and anti-government extremism, for example—may revive in Europe, Latin America, North America, and perhaps other regions.

Insurgent groups and sectarian conflicts—increasingly around ethno-nationalist and communal causes—will also continue to foster terrorism. The specific groups will wax and wane as some are defeated and others gain power. Although some groups will aspire to conduct transnational attacks and maintain cross-border connections, most attacks will continue to be perpetrated by local actors against local targets aimed at achieving local objectives.

Iran’s and Lebanese Hizballah’s efforts to solidify a Shia “axis of resistance” also might increase the threat of asymmetric attacks on US, Israeli, Saudi, and others’ interests in the Middle East.

Technology Evolving Tactics for Terrorists and Counterterrorism Forces

Most terrorist attacks during the next 20 years probably will continue to use weapons similar to those currently available—such as small arms and improvised explosives—because these are generally sufficient, accessible, and reliable. However, technological advances, including AI, biotechnology, and the Internet of Things, may offer opportunities for terrorists to conduct high-profile attacks by developing new, more remote attack methods and to collaborate across borders. Terrorists will also seek weapons of mass destruction and other weapons and approaches that will allow them to conduct spectacular mass casualty attacks. For example, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has already launched mustard gas attacks and uses unmanned aerial vehicles extensively—as do Iranian-supported Shia militants. Autonomous delivery vehicles guided with the help of AI systems could enable a single terrorist to strike dozens of targets in the same incident. Augmented reality environments could also enable virtual terrorist training camps, connecting experienced plotters protected by distant sanctuaries with potential operatives.

Technological innovations that expand surveillance capacity may help governments to combat terrorists despite challenges posed by poor governance. Governments are likely to continue dramatically expanding the amount and types of information they collect as well as the tools to sort and organize that data. Advances in biometric identification, data mining, full-motion video analysis, and metadata analysis will provide governments with improved capabilities to identify terrorists and plotting. Development of precision long-range strike capabilities might undermine terrorist safe havens that are inaccessible to police or infantry forces.

Geopolitics Reshaping Counterterrorism Landscape

Shifting international power dynamics—in particular, the rise of China and major power competition—are likely to challenge US-led counterterrorism efforts and may make it increasingly difficult to forge bilateral partnerships or multilateral cooperation on traveler data collection and information-sharing efforts that are key to preventing terrorists from crossing borders and entering new conflict zones. Poor countries probably will struggle with homegrown threats, particularly if international counterterrorism assistance is more limited. Some countries facing existential threats, such as insurgencies in which terrorists are active, may choose to forge nonaggression pacts that leave terrorists free to organize within their borders and others compelled to submit to terrorist rule over significant parts of their territory.

Click here for the full report.

 

Statements by U.S. Officials and Military Commanders

 

Chris Landberg, Acting Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism, in Congressional testimony on Nov. 17,  2021: “Terrorist groups remain a persistent and pervasive threat to the United States, allies, and interests abroad. ISIS, AQ, and their affiliates have proven to be resilient and determined, despite the significant progress we have made in degrading their ability to directly threaten the US homeland.

“They have responded to increased counterterrorism pressure by adapting their tactics and techniques. ISIS’s global presence continues to grow despite the complete liberation of territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. Globally, ISIS continues to leverage branches and networks across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to advance its agenda. Some ISIS branches and networks are increasing the volume and lethality of their attacks, particularly in West Africa, the Sahel, and Mozambique, causing more fatalities by ISIS affiliates in Africa in 2020 than in any previous year.

“We are also concerned about the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan and potential spillover to neighboring countries. AQ also continues to pose a serious threat and has branches – notably AQAP and al Shabaab – that are quite capable of inflicting damage on our allies and on our global interests. This remains the case despite the significant losses of leadership and degraded capacity to execute large scale attacks that AQ has suffered.

“In parallel with all of this, Iran, and its proxies – including Hizballah in Lebanon and groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – continue to engage in dangerous and destabilizing activity in the Middle East and beyond. Iran has been funding and arming its proxies – including with sophisticated technology – and enabling attacks across the region.”

General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, in Congressional testimony on April 20, 2021: “Every day across the AOR, VEOs like al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operate without respect for borders or consequence, creating instability and human suffering in an attempt to destroy sovereign nations to remake them in their own twisted vision. … None of these current threats to our U.S. national interests are approaching sunset, and they all continue to unfold with speed and unpredictability.”

General McKenzie on PBS NewsHour on Dec. 9, 2021: “We never have predicted a bloodless future with ISIS. We have always thought that ISIS is an ideology of the mind, so it's going to recur. What you want to be able to do, though, is keep it local and you want local forces to be able to deal with it. And, increasingly, that's what we're seeing, certainly in the case of Iraq.”

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines in remarks on Sept. 13, 2021: “In terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don't prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan. What we look at is Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq for ISIS. That's where we see the greatest threat.”

The intelligence community is monitoring “any possible reconstitution of terrorist organizations” in Afghanistan.

 

U.N. Security Council Reports

Thirteenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat

Published July 27, 2021

Overview of Threat

The threat from Da’esh has remained steady, continuing to raise serious international concern during the reporting period. While the group continued to exploit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Member States, it has taken no apparent steps to weaponize the virus. The pandemic has continued to have an impact on terrorist activity in non-conflict zones where the threat remains suppressed by limitations on the ability of operatives to travel, meet, fundraise and identify viable targets. Lockdowns in many areas were more comprehensive in early 2021 than in 2020, and it is conceivable that attacks have been planned for when restrictions ease at those locations. In conflict zones, however, where pandemic-related restrictions have less impact, the threat has already increased.

The leader of Da’esh, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, remains reluctant to communicate directly with supporters. The group’s command and control over its global affiliates has loosened, even though it continues to provide guidance and some financial support. The autonomy of regional affiliates has been further strengthened, especially in West Africa and the Sahel, East and Central Africa, Afghanistan and South Asia. Member States judge that the success of this evolution will be an important determinant of the extent of the future global impact of Da’esh. They also assess that the group will continue to prioritize regrouping and seeking resurgence in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic as its core area of operations.

The most striking development of the period has been the expansion of Da’esh in Africa, which is also where groups designated as terrorist by the Security Council have inflicted the largest number of casualties. Some of the most effective Da’esh affiliates are spreading their influence and activities on the continent, including across national borders. Spillover from Mali into Burkina Faso and the Niger, incursions from Nigeria into the Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and from Mozambique into the United Republic of Tanzania, are all very concerning. One of the most troubling events of early 2021 was the deterioration of the security situation in Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique, where the local Da’esh affiliate stormed and briefly held a strategic port near the Tanzanian border before withdrawing with spoils. …

Da’esh finances

Several Member States revised downwards their assessment of the financial reserves available to Da’esh in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, with estimates currently ranging between $25 million and $50 million. One Member State assessed that most of those funds are in Iraq, making the group’s Syrian network partially dependent on their counterparts in Iraq for financial support. Da’esh fighters in the Syrian Arab Republic are believed to have received several million United States dollars from Da’esh in Iraq in 2020. In mid-April 2021, Iraqi officials announced the discovery in Mosul of a sum equivalent to $1.7 million in buried United States dollar and Iraqi dinar bank notes, as well as gold and silver. The gold appears to have been intended for production of Da’esh currency. The discovery underscores the extent of Da’esh cash reserves that may remain hidden.

One of the largest ongoing expenditure for Da’esh remains salaries to fighters and payments to families of imprisoned or deceased fighters. Da’esh also draws on its reserves to secure the release of its fighters and family members from prisons and camps for internally displaced persons in the region. …

North Africa

Da’esh in the Maghreb region is assessed to have a limited presence, with supporters generally inspired rather than directed to act in the name of Da’esh, although there remain examples of local actors taking direction from the group’s core. In Morocco, authorities disrupted a cell in April 2021 that was directed to target Moroccan forces on the country’s eastern border. The security of Algeria is threatened by instability across its borders with Mali and the Niger. Hassan Naamoudi, the leader of Da’esh affiliate Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria, was killed with four others in an area west of Algiers in January 2021.

In Libya, six Da’esh members were arrested in early March 2021 as a result of a counter-terrorism operation coordinated by the then Government of National Accord in southern Tripoli. Members of that cell, and other Da’esh elements from southern Libya, reportedly fled to various coastal towns, including Tripoli. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Libya lost its leadership and is greatly diminished in the country, even though Da’esh continued to claim responsibility for attacks, including in Sabha on 6 June and near Haruj al-Aswad, south-east of Jufrah, on 14 June. One Member State noted that the Da’esh core supplied its affiliate in Libya with funding couriered by returnees. One Member State reported that 200 Da’esh fighters had travelled from Libya to the Sahel region at the end of April 2021. The decline of Da ’esh in Libya contrasts with the past appeal of the country to foreign terrorist fighters.

In Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to Da’esh in 2014, is assessed to be resilient, with 800 to 1,200 fighters, notwithstanding ongoing Egyptian military pressure. One of its leaders, Salim al-Hamadin, was killed in a security operation south of Rafah in March 2021. He is believed to be one of the people responsible for the attack on the Rawda mosque in November 2017.

Middle East

Da’esh remains active in wide swathes of the Syrian Arab Republic, where the group seeks to rebuild its combat capabilities while expanding its insurgency. Da’esh wages hit-and-run operations against checkpoints from hideouts on both sides of the Euphrates River in Dayr al-Zawr Governorate. It continues to target convoys and foot and mobile patrols with roadside improvised explosive devices. Its operations against Syrian government forces extend to Hama and Homs Governorates. East of the Euphrates and “white desert” area, its reach extends well into Raqqah and Hasakah Governorates. Da’esh maintains a significant presence in the desert area that extends from southern Aleppo to northern Hama Governorates, in particular between the villages of Khanasir and Athriya. Member States assess that the group has the intent and capability to sustain a long-term insurgency in the Syrian desert.

In Iraq, Da’esh remains active, albeit under constant counter-terrorism pressure. Although active Da’esh cells persist in remote areas of the country, the group’s leadership has designated all of Iraq as a single “province”. They carry out hit-and-run operations seeking to undermine critical infrastructure projects, inflame sectarian divisions and communal grievances and generate media coverage. Repeated roadside bomb attacks have occurred on the roads linking Kirkuk, Tikrit and Tuz Khurmatu and against checkpoints near those cities. Such attacks indicate that some Da’esh fighters remain sheltered in the Hamrin mountain range and continue to exploit security gaps in some areas of those governorates.

Da’esh carried out two attacks in Baghdad after a long gap in such operations. On 21 January, two suicide bombers killed more than 30 people in a crowded marketplace. On 15 April, Da’esh detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in Sadr City. The group is likely to continue to attack civilians and other soft targets in the capital  whenever possible in order to garner media attention and undermine the Government of Iraq.

In late January, the Government of Iraq announced the killing of Da’esh deputy leader  abir Salman Saleh Al-Isawi (aka Abu Yasir). In February, the leader of Da’esh in  southern Iraq, Jabbar Ali Fayadh (aka Abu Hasan Al-Gharibawy), was killed, along with Ghanem Sabbah, who had trained the suicide bombers responsible for the January attack in Baghdad.

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Yemen has suffered losses in fighting with rival groups. It has been in decline for an extended period and is assessed to be preoccupied with stabilizing itself and regrouping. One Member State estimated its fighting strength at just a few hundred. Its most likely future attacks are expected to take place in the south of Yemen, especially against government figures located in or moving to Aden.

Central and South Asia

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan has expanded its presence in several provinces of Afghanistan, despite leadership, human and financial losses during 2020. The group has strengthened its positions in and around Kabul, where it targets most of its attacks against minorities, civil society actors, government employees and personnel of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. Most recently, Da’esh claimed responsibility for the brutal attack of 8 June in which 10 humanitarian deminers were killed and 16 injured in Baghlan Province. One of the main risks identified by Member States is that militants in Afghanistan, from the Taliban or other groups, may join the Da’esh affiliate if they feel alienated or threatened by developments in the Afghan peace process.

In its efforts to regroup and rebuild, Da’esh in Afghanistan has prioritized the recruitment and training of new supporters. Its leaders also hope to attract intransigent Taliban and other militants who reject the agreement between the United States and the Taliban and to recruit fighters from Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and other conflict zones. Estimates of the affiliate’s strength range widely, with one Member State reporting between 500 and 1,500 fighters, and another stating that it may rise to as many as 10,000 in the medium term. One Member State reported that Da’esh in Afghanistan is largely underground and clandestine.

Click here for the full report.

Twelfth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan (published May 2021)

The Taliban and Al-Qaida

As reported by the Monitoring Team in its eleventh report, the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties. Member States report no material change to this relationship, which has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties. 

While the Doha agreement has set some expectations for a break in the longstanding relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaida, the publicly available text of the agreement does not define expectations, and its annexes remain secret. 

According to Member State information, Al-Qaida is resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions, and are led by Al-Qaida’s Jabhat-al-Nasr wing under the direction of Sheikh Mahmood (not listed).19 Members of the group have been relocated to more remote areas by the Taliban to avoid potential exposure and targeting. According to Member States, Al-Qaida maintains contact with the Taliban but has minimized overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to “lay low” and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis the Doha agreement. 

Member States reported that a significant part of Al-Qaida leadership remains based in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the core is joined by and works closely with Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent. 

Al-Qaida’s own strategy in the near term is assessed as maintaining its traditional safe haven in Afghanistan for the Al-Qaida core leadership. The Monitoring Team takes note of assessments that have suggested a longer-term Al-Qaida core strategy of strategic patience for a period of time before it would seek to plan attacks against international targets again. 20 This scenario is untested against stated Taliban commitments to prohibit such activities. 

Al-Qaida, including Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, is reported to number in the range of several dozen to 500 persons. Al-Qaida core’s membership is of non-Afghan origin, consisting mainly of nationals from North Africa and the Middle East. Although, as noted above, Member States assess that formal communication between senior Al-Qaida and Taliban officials is currently infrequent, one Member State reported that there is regular communication between the Taliban and Al-Qaida on issues related to the peace process. The group’s leader, Aiman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri, is believed to be located somewhere in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Previous reports of his death due to ill health have not been confirmed. One Member State reports that he is probably alive but too frail to be featured in propaganda.21 Another Egyptian national, Husam Abd Al-Rauf (alias Abu Mohsin al-Masri) was killed on 20 October 2020 in Andar district of Ghazni Province. Al-Rauf was thought to be both an Al-Qaida Shura Council member and its chief financier. …

The killing of several Al-Qaida commanders in Taliban-controlled territory underscores the closeness of the two groups. Following the death of al-Rauf in October, the Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent deputy, Mohammad Hanif (alias Abdullah), was killed on 10 November 2020 in Bakwa District of Farah Province. According to a Member State, he had been providing bomb-making training to Taliban insurgents in that location. Both individuals appear to have been given shelter and protection by the Taliban. On 30 March 2021, Afghan Forces led a raid in Gyan District of Paktika Province that killed a prominent Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent commander, Dawlat Bek Tajiki (alias Abu Mohammad al-Tajiki), alongside Hazrat Ali, a Taliban commander from Waziristan. …

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Afghanistan

Despite territorial, leadership, manpower and financial losses during 2020 in Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) continues to pose a threat to both the country and the wider region. ISIL-K is seeking to remain relevant and to rebuild its ranks, with a focus on recruitment and training of new supporters potentially drawn from the ranks of Taliban who reject the peace process.

ISIL-K territorial losses have affected the group’s ability to recruit and generate new funding. Although the group is assessed to retain a core group of approximately 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in small areas of Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces, it has been forced to decentralize and consists primarily of cells and small groups across the country, acting in an autonomous manner while sharing the same ideology. The core group in Kunar consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, while smaller groups located in Badakhshan, Kunduz and Sar-e-Pol are predominantly made up of local ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. Recent reporting by Afghan security agencies referred to the disruption of a 450-strong cell of ISIL-K around Mazar-e Sharif in Balkh Province, suggesting that the group may be stronger in northern Afghanistan than previously assessed. 

The ISIL core’s leadership in the Syrian Arab Republic views Afghan territory as a base for the spread of their influence to Central and South Asia as part of the realization of its “great caliphate” project. This has been supported by an active social media presence with a post-United States withdrawal period in mind. Following the decision of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, the manner in which the Taliban approaches this transitional period and the extent to which they pursue an intra-Afghan peace process will determine the success of the ISIL-K strategy. …

During the first four months of 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 77 ISIL-K claimed and/or attributed attacks. This was an increase over the same period in 2020, where the number of claimed/attributed attacks was far lower, at 21. The large increase in ISIL-K attacks for the first quarter of 2021 also corresponded to a similar increase in attacks by the Taliban during the same period. Overall, however, the number of ISIL-K attacks has continued to decrease annually. While 572 attacks were recorded between April 2019 and March 2020, the same period between 2020–2021 recorded 115, a decline of almost 80 per cent. 

Member States assess that there has been a “trickle” of foreign terrorist fighters arriving in Afghanistan until now, not the significant influx that was anticipated of relocators from the collapsing ISIL “caliphate” in the period from 2017 to 2019. Individuals or groups with an extremist ideology, or those who are not willing to be controlled by the Taliban, may therefore still present themselves as recruits for ISIL-K. Even in a more positive scenario in which the Taliban clamps down on foreign extremists, the stabilization of the country will take time, providing opportunities to terrorists and warranting further international monitoring of the situation.

Foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan

Although the Taliban maintains its long-standing practice of denying the presence of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan, fighters from a variety of countries and militant groups continue to operate in the country, and most are reported by Member States to be at minimum tolerated or protected by the Taliban. The Monitoring Team continues to estimate the number of foreign terrorist fighters to be approximately between 8,000 and 10,000, mainly comprised of individuals from Central Asia, the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, Pakistan and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, among others. Although the majority are affiliated foremost with the Taliban, many also support Al-Qaida. Others are allied with ISIL or have ISIL sympathies. 

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