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.
Police on 22 November claimed for the first time that there may be links between Islamic State (IS) and the Deep South after Australian police handed over information alleging financial support to the group. The dossier also claimed to have found 100,000 Facebook users in the South had visited IS-related online communities over the past year. The Government said authorities were identifying suspects and would arrest anyone involved with IS, and that the Police Special Branch and Immigration had been ordered to be on alert for suspects.
The Sheikh ul-Islam (SIO), or office of the Chularajmontri, the official head of Thailand’s Muslim community, and other Islamic groups in the South, have sought to dismiss the allegations. A senior SIO official said all funds sent to Syria and surrounding countries were exclusively to help war refugees. The organisation also downplayed online viewing of IS material as the actions of Muslims disillusioned by the Western portrayal of Islam, saying it did not amount to proof of a connection to IS. It is likely that IS influence – particularly through online media – is growing in the South. However actual IS contacts with militants remain extremely limited, meaning any related increase in violence is likely to be gradual and limited.
Nonetheless, the claims of IS links come at a delicate time amid heightened violence (see our 18 November Report) which continued during this period with the killing of a security guard in Songkhla on 24 November. This was followed the next day by rangers shooting dead two wanted militants in Yala, and on 26 November, two suspected militants shot dead a pregnant Buddhist woman, and injured another. The authorities’ determination to hunt down and arrest suspects with alleged links to IS could lead to increased targeting of Muslims thereby raising religious tensions. Moreover, the authorities may target Muslims not only in the South but also in Bangkok and this risks provoking a strong and violent reaction from southern militants.
With one month of the year remaining, official reports state that total deaths as a result of violence in the South in 2016 have reached 227, 19 less than for the whole of last year, and the fifth year in a row in which killings have dropped. However, with peace talks stalled, violence rising since October and the possibility of further arrests, violence may increase in the early months of 2017 unless the junta can convince militants to disarm and return to dialogue.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a US television interview on 20 November that he was “disillusioned” with the Obama administration’s policy in Syria. He separately criticised hostile European responses to Trump’s victory in the US Presidential elections and called for the US poll result to be “respected”. Erdogan was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump and downplayed the President-elect’s previous remarks about Muslims.
Erdogan’s comments reflect tensions between Ankara and the Obama administration over US policy in Syria, and particularly over US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara views the group as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and considers it a terrorist organisation. However, the US sees the YPG as the most capable military force opposing Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Tensions rose further after the attempted coup in Turkey in July as the US has rejected subsequent requests to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric whom the Government accuses of orchestrating the coup.
Erdogan’s latest comments reflect Ankara’s view that Turkey stands to benefit domestically and regionally from Trump’s election. This view was likely strengthened by an article published on the eve of the election by the new administration’s National Security Adviser, retired General Michael Flynn. In this, Flynn described Turkey as America’s “strongest ally against [IS], as well as a source of stability in the region”. He also argued that the US should not continue to harbour Gulen, whom he called a radical Islamist, which may indicate that Washington might consider his extradition next year.
Ankara believes that Trump’s main priority in the region will be countering IS and reducing Iran’s influence. Turkey will be crucial to achieving these objectives, given its intervention against IS in Syria and its willingness to play an expanded role in Iraq. The Government therefore believes that the new administration will be more willing to ignore Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian actions in return for Turkey’s help. Furthermore, Trump’s stated intention of improving relations with Russia will likely help to position Ankara as a key player in the region.
Turkish-backed fighters in Syria are therefore likely to step up their attacks on the YPG in the coming weeks (see today’s Syria Report). Ankara will also aim to position itself as an indispensable ally against IS by intensifying its strikes on IS targets, particularly ahead of its proxies’ assault on the strategically important city of al-Bab. In response, IS and the PKK, and its offshoot the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), are likely to intensify their attacks in Turkey in an effort to deter the Government from further military action in Syria and Iraq. IS attacks may target Westerners and commercial and transport hubs. Kurdish attacks are most likely to focus on Government-linked targets, but these may nonetheless take place in city centres, posing collateral risks to civilians.
ASG militants kidnapped German national Jurgen Gustav Kantner on 7 November after killing his wife, Sabina Wertch, in waters off the coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Wertch’s body was found on board Kantner’s yacht which had been abandoned in the Sulu Sea. Kantner and Wertch had previously been held for 52 days in 2008 by Somali pirates but later released after a ransom was paid.
The German authorities said they were working with their Philippine counterparts to establish the facts of the case but refused to speculate further. The incident comes days after two Indonesian fishermen were kidnapped while working in the same area. Then, four days after Kantner’s abduction suspected ASG fighters hijacked a Vietnamese flagged cargo vessel off the island province of Basilan, Mindanao, taking the captain and five other crewmen hostage.
ASG are estimated to have received more than USD 7.3 million in ransom payments in the first six months of this year alone. An intense military offensive against the group has seemingly had only a limited effect and ASG has adapted well to the restrictions on its freedom of manoeuvre on land by expanding its maritime kidnapping efforts. Manila has responded by formally agreeing on 10 November to allow Malaysian and Indonesian authorities to carry out "hot pursuits" in its territorial waters as the three nations struggle to tackle the rising threat posed by ASG.
These risks from the group were also highlighted by a US Government travel advisory alert issued on 11 November that warned US nationals to take precautions against the possibility of kidnappings by “terror groups” particularly on the popular tourist island of Cebu. The Australian and UK Governments also issued separate alerts a day after the US, citing reports of groups planning to kidnap foreigners visiting the Cebu area. These warnings reflect the heightened risk of maritime-based abductions by ASG which – given their lucrative nature - will persist despite the recent efforts to improve policing.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bomb attack against the German Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern Balkh Province, on 10 November. The blast killed four Afghan nationals and caused considerable damage to the diplomatic facility. This was the third attack targeting Westerners this month; two US soldiers were killed in a confrontation with the Taliban in northern Kunduz Province on 3 November, and two days later the group kidnapped an Australian NGO worker in Kabul.
We do not believe that the Taliban will view the incoming US administration differently from the current Government in Washington, and so it will not alter its approach after Trump’s inauguration. Taliban attacks against Western interests, as well as efforts to expand its control of territory, are intended to pressure the US and NATO to withdraw their troops from the country. The group also hopes to increase its public support by presenting itself as resisting the international military intervention. Indeed, the Taliban said that the attack in Mazar-e-Sharif was launched in retaliation for the deaths of 32 civilians in a NATO air strike in Kunduz a week earlier.
The Taliban’s strategy is also intended to strengthen its position ahead of any future talks, which the group considers the best means to secure its ultimate aim of significant political influence in the country. Our last Report noted that Taliban representatives held preliminary talks with Afghan and US officials in Qatar in early September and October. These initial discussions were likely intended to begin establishing a framework for the resumption of more formal dialogue efforts. However, the change of US administrations will likely delay official talks, and so these are unlikely to begin until next year at the earliest. In the meantime, there will be a persistent risk of major attacks against Government, security and foreign interests in Kabul and other urban centres.
The authorities claimed on 30 October that they had broken up a four-person Islamic State (IS) cell in Shaqra, 190 km north-west of Riyadh, which was receiving instructions from an IS leader in Syria. The cell was reportedly planning to target security personnel near Riyadh, Shia civilians near the eastern city of Qatif, and a football match against the UAE in Jeddah.
Our 23 September Report assessed that IS would broaden its targeting criteria in the coming months, and prioritise attacking soft Shia targets in Eastern Province. The planned attack against Shia civilians in Qatif demonstrates that this remains the case, while the plot against the football match suggests that IS is also seeking to carry out high-profile attacks to boost recruitment efforts among the Kingdom’s large jihadist community.
Indeed, the threat of a major strike has risen substantially following the release of an audio statement on 2 November in which IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for “attack after attack” in Saudi Arabia (see yesterday’s Special Report). The Kingdom is one of the main Sunni-majority countries opposing IS, and so he has identified the country, along with Turkey, as the group’s top regional priority. This is intended to ensure IS is seen as credible and expanding at a time when it is facing mounting military pressure in Mosul. Al-Baghdadi specified attacks against Shia targets, since they would help IS to present itself as protecting Sunni interests. However, he also encouraged strikes against a wider range of targets, including journalists, writers and politicians who back the Government. Such attacks would fuel radicalisation by provoking a Government crackdown on hardliners.
Shia sites and security forces will continue to face the greatest threat from low-level militancy, but sympathisers will now seek to carry out a high-profile attack against the other targets advocated by al-Baghdadi, since failing to do so would undermine the group’s standing. Indeed, IS supporters responded to a similar statement by al-Baghdadi in November 2014 with a series of strikes, including a suicide and gun attack near the border with Iraq two months later that killed three security personnel. IS’s capabilities in the Kingdom have strengthened since then, and there is consequently a significantly heightened risk of a major IS attack in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, the disruption of the Shaqra cell highlights the security forces’ ability to counter jihadist threats, and this will enable them to foil a number of plots.
Two jihadists were killed and at least three members of the security forces injured following an operation in Nizhny Novgorod (Russia’s fifth largest city, located 300 kms east of Moscow) on 23 October. The violence occurred after police targeted a vehicle being used by the militants, with some reports suggesting they were in possession of explosive devices. The authorities have asserted that the jihadists were linked to groups in the North Caucasus and Islamic State’s (IS) Amaq media agency has since claimed they were members of the group. Elsewhere the security forces have targeted and killed six IS fighters in the Stavropol and Dagestan areas of southern Russia. During the raids, security officers uncovered plans to target police and military posts in the region.
The incidents follow a limited rise in jihadist activity beyond the North Caucasus region. In August a raid on an apartment in St. Petersburg killed four members of a cell that the Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed had been planning attacks in the city. Elsewhere, in late August, three jihadist sympathisers were killed after attacking traffic police in two low-level incidents in Moscow.
Both IS and the al-Qaeda aligned Caucasus Emirate aspire to strike beyond the North Caucasus, largely because they want the prestige that would stem from being seen to lead the retaliation for the Russian bombing campaign in Syria. Indeed, IS rarely claims responsibility for failed attacks and the fact it has associated itself with the Nizhny Novgorod incident demonstrates how eager it is to be seen as operating in Russia’s heartlands.
Nonetheless, the Caucasus Emirate has been severely weakened by the security forces in recent years and the regular elimination of its leadership suggests it has been well penetrated by the FSB. The local IS affiliate is itself an offshoot of the Caucasus Emirate, having been established by defectors from the group and likely faces similar challenges. Consequently it remains highly difficult for either group to operate successfully away from the North Caucasus region.
That said, as the Russian-backed assault on Aleppo intensifies, both North Caucasus based groups will likely intensify their efforts to retaliate. IS may even try and send small numbers of its North Caucasus fighters back to Russia to launch attacks, although it will want to hold most in Iraq and Syria as they are highly-valued for their fighting prowess. Moreover, if the Kremlin’s air raids inflict large numbers of civilian casualties in Aleppo this may radicalise some of Russia’s 18 million Sunni Muslims and lead to an increase in low-level sympathiser attacks against the security forces, similar to the August assaults on Moscow traffic police.
The Intelligence Ministry has said that a jihadist cell disrupted by the security forces earlier this month had planned a series of suicide bombings against sectarian targets in Lar city in Fars Province in the South during the Shia festival of Ashura on 12 October. The authorities said the cell’s eleven members – who were reportedly all foreigners – were arrested in Fars on 11 October, and described those detained as “takfiri Wahhabists” – a term that Iran often uses to refer to Islamic State (IS). This comes four months after the Intelligence Ministry announced the arrest of ten Sunni militants who had reportedly plotted to carry out multiple bombings across the country on 16 June - the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife Khadija (see our 22 June Report).
The Intelligence Ministry’s claim to have disrupted a foreign jihadist cell is not credible, especially as Lar is a small and remote city in south-central Iran, where it would be extremely difficult for foreign jihadists to establish an organised presence. However, there is a Sunni community in Lar, and it is possible that the authorities detained suspected local IS sympathisers, but they would be unlikely to have the ability to conduct a series of suicide attacks. The Intelligence Ministry may have overstated the threat to boost its standing amid its longstanding competition for influence with the Revolutionary Guards, while its claim that the cell was foreign may aim to downplay the presence of local IS sympathisers. The Ministry may also have wanted to embarrass Riyadh, its chief regional rival, given the cell’s reported link to Wahhabism, the hardline Sunni ideology followed by Saudi Arabia.
IS’s ultimate goal is to seize territory, and to do so it aims to foment instability and win the backing of local Sunni populations. Conducting attacks in Iran is consequently not a priority for the group given that it is a stable country with a small Sunni community. IS is also not under pressure to show its sectarian credentials by striking in Iran given that it is already fighting Iranian and Tehran-backed forces in Syria and Iraq, and can target Shia interests elsewhere in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. In addition, Iran is strategically placed between the Middle East and South Asia, and IS wants to establish a greater presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its limited operations in the country are therefore focused on using it as a transit route. This is likely to be somewhat tolerated by the Iranian authorities as they will judge that, as long as IS is focused on logistical operations, it will want to avoid triggering a security clampdown by launching a campaign of violence.
The IS threat to Iran therefore remains low, though it is possible that the group could attempt isolated attacks in the future in response to the loss of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria in order to demonstrate its strength and ability to operate in new areas. However, this would not represent the beginning of a sustained IS campaign in Iran as the group will instead prioritise exploiting persistent instability in Iraq and Syria to re-capture territory. In addition, any strike will likely be limited to border areas in eastern or western Iran where Sunni jihadists already have a presence, limiting the threat to key urban centres.
The security services arrested six members of an alleged Islamic State (IS) cell in the southern state of Kerala on 3 October. The group’s suspected handler, an Indian national working in Qatar, was also recently detained on his return to India. The cell was reportedly considering various targets for attack, including a religious gathering in Kochi, High Court judges, the Jewish community, tourists, and prominent members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organisation aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. According to the authorities, the suspects were planning to drive a heavy vehicle into crowds, replicating IS’s attack in the French city of Nice in July.
The Indian authorities have in the past sought to portray local militants as belonging to global jihadist groups in an effort to downplay their domestic grievances, and at other times overstated the threat posed by suspects. However, the details of the alleged IS cell’s reported targets and methods are consistent with IS’s capabilities and ambitions in India, suggesting that those arrested posed a credible threat. In particular, both globally and in India, IS is seeking to strike high profile targets that will resonate with its supporters and demonstrate its continued strength, despite gradually increasing territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. IS’s strategy also seeks to provoke local sectarian tensions that will trigger a crackdown on Islamist communities and so fuel further IS recruitment, underlined by the plans to attack Hindu and other religious targets. Plans to strike tourists and Jewish interests would also appeal to global jihadist sentiments.
While the disruption of the cell shows that the authorities are capable of preventing some IS attacks, details of the alleged plot underline the challenges that they face when attempting to counter all threats. For example, the militants allegedly planned their attacks from a relatively remote hilltop shrine in a likely attempt to avoid electronic surveillance. The group’s members also reportedly first connected via a pro-IS Facebook group. This is a marked departure from previous jihadist recruitment patterns in India, which relied heavily on face to face contact and were easier for the authorities to track and disrupt. The group’s plan to launch an unsophisticated attack using improvised weapons further highlights the difficulties involved in disrupting future plots.
IS will continue to seek to direct or inspire attacks in India in the coming months, both in major urban centres and smaller regional cities. The group will look to strike targets that are less secure and so easier to reach, prioritising religious, political, state and tourist interests. Although IS will be constrained by the relatively small numbers of Indian nationals fighting with it in Iraq and Syria, which will limit its ability to reach out to sympathisers in India, the group will be keen to claim an attack in India to demonstrate continued expansion. In addition, such an attack will distinguish it from its rival al-Qaeda, which despite establishing its al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent branch in 2014, has yet to conduct a significant attack in India.
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.
Posted at 02:52 PM | Permalink
| | | | | |
A gunman shot dead the controversial anti-Islamist writer, Nahed Hattar, outside a courthouse in central Amman’s Abdali District on 25 September. Hattar was due to stand trial for contempt of religion over a cartoon he posted online mocking Islamic State (IS). The assailant, who is a resident of eastern Amman, has been arrested and charged with terrorism offences. The authorities have also detained ten social media users for allegedly spreading hatred.
The Government has not said whether the perpetrator had pledged allegiance to a particular group, though he may have been seeking to act in support of IS given that it was the target of Hattar’s cartoon. The shooting reflects a growing frequency of isolated and low-level attacks by both militants and jihadist sympathisers in Jordan. For example, five intelligence personnel were killed in June at Baqaa refugee camp. In this instance, the fact that the assailant was able to strike Hattar outside a courthouse in central Amman demonstrates his willingness to be killed or captured by the security forces.
Hattar, who was Christian, was especially high-profile given his outspoken criticism of IS and support for Syrian President Assad, and so the shooting may be an isolated incident. While attacks in the capital remain rare the authorities’ failure to secure the area, which is located near several other Government buildings, will be highly embarrassing to the regime. Meanwhile, the IAF has condemned the attack and this will limit any Islamist support for such assassinations. That said, Hattar’s killing will be popular among Jordan’s Salafist-jihadist community, and so there is a risk of copycat strikes in the coming months against those perceived to be critical of Islam.