CSARN World Reports are supplied by Stirling Assynt, a global intelligence network with offices in London and Hong Kong run by a team with significant government and commercial sector experience.
The Moroccan authorities have arrested ten women who were allegedly part of an Islamic State (IS) cell that was plotting to target the 7 October Parliamentary elections with a series of suicide attacks. The polls will be Morocco’s second under Constitutional reforms introduced by the King in 2011 in response to the country’s Arab Spring protests. These measures strengthened the position of the Prime Minister and decreed that the King must appoint to the role a member of the party that wins the most seats in Parliament.
The security forces said that the alleged jihadist cell, which included four teenagers, was inspired by the militant brother of one of the members, and that some of the women had married IS fighters in Syria via the internet. The authorities also said that they found materials that could be used for bomb-making in one suspect’s home, but few other details were provided about the arrests and no weapons or assembled devices were seized. This suggests that the alleged plot was overstated. Indeed, the intelligence and security forces are likely cracking down on perceived jihadist sympathisers in order to reassure foreign visitors to the country and deter hardline Islamists from turning to militancy.
For its part, IS has not committed significant resources to the country and so it does not likely have an organised presence in Morocco. This is because the jihadist group seeks to trigger instability by fomenting social unrest and anti-Government sentiment, and is most able to do this in countries with long-standing ethnic or religious tensions, a history of jihadism and active militant groups. Given that Morocco lacks these conditions, IS has prioritised activity in other North African countries, notably Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
Despite this, many Moroccans are supportive of IS and its global jihadist agenda, underlined by the large numbers of Moroccan nationals fighting with the group in Iraq and Syria. This means that there is a persistent, low-level risk of unsophisticated gun, knife or bomb attacks by IS supporters in the country. Any such strike would seek to target sites popular with Western tourists, or interests linked to the security forces and the Government. Radicalisation of hardline Islamists will likely be fuelled by the ongoing crackdown on suspected jihadists, as well as any perceptions of increased authoritarianism in the Kingdom. This could become a more prominent issue following the Parliamentary polls, should the King - who is the ultimate arbiter of Government formation and Ministerial appointments - be seen to abuse his authority.
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Turkey has launched its most significant cross-border military operation since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. The Army began shelling Islamic State (IS) positions in Jarabulus, less than 2 km inside northern Syria, on 22 August. Troops and tanks were then deployed across the border today (24 August) and Ankara carried out air strikes on Jarabulus, with latest reports suggesting that IS has now withdrawn from the city. The military had previously suspended action against IS in Syria after last month’s failed coup, but renewed its targeting of the group after 54 people died in an IS suicide bombing in a Kurdish district of Gaziantep in the South-East on 20 August.
Prime Minister Yildirim has said that Turkey will take a more active role in Syria over the next six months and Ankara has presented the operation as an anti-IS initiative. The loss of Jarabulus will severely restrict its access to the Turkish border but the military has also hit the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the city and in Manbij, which the SDF captured from IS on 12 August. The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and this points to a more assertive approach to the presence of Kurdish militias along its border. The intervention would not have been possible without the tacit approval of Russia and Iran and the Government sought to improve ties with Moscow and Tehran immediately beforehand, with Yildirim conceding that Assad could play a role in a future political transition. This constituted a significant softening of Ankara’s position on the issue and the Government hopes this engagement might lead to coordinated efforts against Kurdish rebels (see today’s Syria Report).
This highlights that Ankara’s key objective in Syria is to reduce the amount of territory in the North controlled by Kurdish militias, something Turkey considers to be in its vital interests. The operation against Jarabulus is therefore aimed at weakening IS’s position there so that Turkish-backed rebels might then seize the city. This is intended to frustrate the YPG’s efforts to capture it, which are being supported by the US through the SDF. The Government’s more assertive approach in Syria will anger Turkey’s Kurdish population, thereby further fuelling the violence in the South-East and Kurdish militants will also step up efforts to strike in Istanbul and Ankara. Attacks will predominately target Government and security interests, though hardline militants could also seek to strike civilian areas. Such violence would pose a collateral threat to business interests and travellers in the two cities.
IS has long sought to aggravate tensions between the Government and the Kurds and we believe this was the principal objective of the Gaziantep attack. However, it will also fear that Turkey’s more assertive approach in northern Syria will jeopardise its position there, and so the bombing was a warning not to play a more active role in the civil war. IS will now want to respond to Turkey’s increased military efforts in northern Syria, and so we believe that jihadists will seek to conduct a major attack against foreign and economic targets in key cities every few months. Although Ankara could be drawn more deeply into the civil war in time, it will remain focused on border areas for now and is unlikely to expand its military efforts to other key cities under IS’s control, such as Raqqa. IS is therefore unlikely to launch a major campaign of violence in the country at present, though the tempo of attacks may increase somewhat if Turkish-backed rebels enter Jarabulus.
King Salman warned that the Kingdom would “strike with an iron hand” those who preyed on youth vulnerable to religious extremism during his speech marking Eid al-Fitr on 5 July. His comments came the day after four security personnel were killed in a suicide bombing at a checkpoint near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, while blasts also occurred near the US Consulate in Jeddah and at a Shia mosque in Qatif (see our 5 July Special Report). Islamic State (IS) likely conducted these bombings and we believe that the absence of a claim of responsibility is due to the low death toll and limited success of the attacks, though the group could still associate itself with the blasts in future propaganda messages.
Salman’s focus on tackling those who seek to spread jihadist propaganda and recruit for IS illustrates the regime’s concern with the potential for growing radicalisation among the Kingdom’s large Islamist community. This is becoming a more prominent issue in Saudi Arabia, reflected by the intense domestic media coverage of the fatal stabbing of a woman in Riyadh by her twin sons on 24 June after she reportedly prevented them from joining IS in Syria. Over the past year, IS’s supporters have carried out a number of low-level attacks against relatives, primarily targeting those who serve in the security forces, which have contributed to concerns over the group’s ability to win support in the country.
Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai issued orders on 10 August that soldiers be placed on a state of alert and said that extra troops would be deployed to the capital Abuja. This followed a threat from Abubakar Shekau that Boko Haram would attack the city and invade the Presidential Palace. Shekau’s threat comes amid a reported split within the group after Islamic State (IS) named Boko Haram’s new leader as Abu Musab al-Barnawi, replacing Shekau. Shekau denounced the IS statement in an audio recording on 3 August and accused al-Barnawi of attempting to stage a coup against him.
Shekau’s diminishing influence over elements of Boko Haram likely prompted his threat to Abuja, reflecting an attempt to shore up support within the group.
The Olympic Games opened in Rio on 5 August amid intense security, and have so far passed with only a few minor incidents. Limited pro- and anti-Rousseff protests were held in ten cities in the week before the Games began. Scuffles broke out at several points during the Olympic torch procession and tear gas and rubber bullets were used to disperse anti-government protesters. Hours before the opening ceremony, several thousand protesters took part in an anti-Temer rally on Copacabana beach and smaller rallies continued outside the Maracanã Stadium. Around 3,000 also gathered close to Copacabana beach in protest at the cost of the Olympics. Temer himself was heckled by spectators at the ceremony and a judge has ruled that protests within the stadia are allowable providing they do not disrupt the events.
Meanwhile, the country remains on high alert due a perceived terrorism threat. An international counterterrorism centre has been set up in Rio for the Games and the US and other allies have stepped up cooperation to monitor the terrorist and cyber threats. On 29 July a Rio resident of Lebanese origin who had travelled to Syria and had alleged ties to Islamic State was arrested. The high state of vigilance was again shown on 6 August when the authorities carried out a controlled explosion on a suspicious bag which turned out to be harmless. The main terror threat remains that of a ‘lone wolf’ attack but we believe the greater risk to visitors is from criminal gangs.
Counter terrorism police arrested six suspects on 5 August believed to have been planning a rocket attack on Marina Bay in Singapore – a popular tourist destination - from nearby Bantam island in Indonesia. The group is suspected of having links to Bahrun Naim, a jihadist currently fighting with Islamic State (IS) in Syria who is widely credited with orchestrating the January attacks in Jakarta (see our 22 January Report). He is a founding member of Katibah Nusantara, an IS-linked South-East Asian faction made up primarily of Malay-speaking Indonesians and Malaysians, and is believed to have communicated with some of those arrested via social media.
In response, Singapore has stepped up border security but has played down fears saying it was aware of the plot and had been working with the Indonesian authorities prior to the arrests. However, the detentions highlight the growing threat to Indonesia and other parts of South-East Asia from IS-linked militants. Western interests, as well as the Government and security forces, are likely to remain priority targets.
80 people were killed and over 230 wounded when a double suicide bombing targeted a demonstration by the Shia Hazara community in Kabul on 23 July. The attack was credibly claimed by the Islamic State (IS) affiliate Khorasan Shura, which has targeted the minority before – for example in October last year when it struck a Shia religious hall in the capital. In contrast to Khorasan Shura, the Taliban has eased its anti-Shia stance in recent months and the movement issued a statement denying involvement in the attack. The Taliban has sought to distance itself from its historic persecution of the Hazara minority in order to position itself as a viable future Government.
Khorasan Shura sees aggravating Sunni-Shia tensions as a way to encourage defections from Taliban hardliners who are dissatisfied with the Taliban leadership’s reluctance to target Hazara. The IS group also likely hopes to boost support by associating its campaign in Afghanistan with IS’s global agenda, which prioritises targeting Shia in order to portray itself as the defender of Sunni interests. Furthermore, Khorasan Shura will seek to characterise the attack as retribution for IS’s territorial losses in Syria, since Hazara Shia are among those providing military support to the Assad regime. Attacks against the Hazara will therefore be popular among the wider jihadist community. Indeed, the attack in Kabul suggests that the group has already attracted increased support in recent months, enabling it to deploy some resources outside its stronghold in the eastern Nangarhar Province.
Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a triple suicide bombing and gun attack on 7 July which targeted the Shia shrine of Sayyid Mohammad bin Ali al-Hadi in the Shia-majority town of Balad, located around 90kms north of Baghdad. Several gunmen stormed the site and shot at worshippers after a man detonated an explosive belt at the gate. The site also came under rocket fire during the attack, which killed at least 40 people and wounded 60. Five days later, IS carried out a vehicle bombing at a market in the Shia-dominated district of Rashidiyah in Baghdad which killed twelve people and wounded 37.
Attacks on Shia shrines are rare as most are well protected by Shia militias (known as the Popular Mobilisation Units, PMUs). However, the al-Hadi shrine is of lesser religious significance and so security was relatively limited. This allowed IS to stage such a sophisticated attack, and the incident underlines its desire to aggravate sectarian tensions by targeting Shia interests to provoke a significant Shia response. The strategy has been showing signs of success for some months and dozens of Sunnis were burned to death by PMUs in retaliation for the major IS attack in Baghdad we reported last time.
The police announced on 30 June that they had disrupted a plot by eleven men to carry out coordinated gun and bomb attacks in Hyderabad, capital of the southern Telangana State, on behalf of Islamic State (IS). The group had two pistols and hundreds of litres of chemicals that could be used in bomb-making, and are believed to have been planning to attack the city’s malls in the early evening to maximise casualties. The men allegedly also intended to leave beef in Hindu temples in an attempt to aggravate inter-communal tensions. Separately, a suspected IS supporter was arrested on 4 July in the eastern state of West Bengal in possession of a knife and improvised firearm. He reportedly told police that an IS member in Syria had ordered him to kidnap and behead a prominent businessman on camera, after which IS would fund further operations.
Information released by the authorities suggests the latest plots were driven by individuals inspired by IS, rather than by jihadists returning from fighting with the group in the Middle East. This is consistent with IS’s current strategy of keeping fighters in Iraq and Syria to protect its self-declared Caliphate rather than directing them to carry out attacks in their home countries. That said, the Hyderabad cell was reportedly in direct contact with an Indian IS member in Syria. The police also said the individual from West Bengal was communicating with members of Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, many of whom are linked to IS and were behind the recent attack on a cafe in Dhaka. These ties suggest that self-radicalised IS supporters in India may be capable of more sophisticated strikes than the low-level gun and knife attacks typical of lone-wolf attackers.
Four suicide bombers killed five people in the Christian-majority village of al-Qaa, located a few miles from the Syrian border in North-East Lebanon, early on 27 June. The first bomber reportedly detonated at the entrance to a house, and the subsequent bombers targeted crowds who had gathered at the site. A further four bombers struck the village later in the day, wounding another 11 people. No group has claimed responsibility but the attack was likely to have been carried out by Islamic State (IS).
Local media reported on the same day that a leading Lebanese IS member had recently been arrested, and had admitted to planning attacks on Beirut’s mainly-Shia southern suburbs, as well as foreign embassies and security forces targets, during Ramadan. Such a variety of targets seems implausible given the limitations of the group in this part of the country, so the man’s significance may have been exaggerated.
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