January 05, 2023
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update
The Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update is produced by the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
This brief provides regular analysis of the global Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and affiliated and associated groups worldwide. The Salafi-jihadi movement is an “ideological movement that holds that it is a religious obligation for individual Muslims to use armed force to cause the establishment of true Muslim state governed under a Salafi interpretation of shari’a.” The product distills open-source information to assess Salafi-jihadi groups’ campaigns and related security and political issues in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia.
This brief will also cover the Afghan Taliban and associated groups. The Taliban is a Deobandi religious movement stemming from the Hanafi legal school of Sunni Islam and separate from the Salafi movement. The Taliban movement maintains close ties with many Salafi-jihadi organizations, however.
CTP has temporarily paused the Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and Pakistan sections of the Salafi-Jihadi Weekly Update to support the production of CTP’s Iran Update, which is covering the latest Israel-Hamas war. This update will continue to cover the Salafi-jihadi movement in sub-Saharan Africa on a weekly basis in the interim.
Previous versions of static maps are available in our past publications.
Additional maps specific to each region are available here.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Western Failures, Military Coups, and Kremlin Gains Undermine US Geostrategic and Counterterrorism Interests in the Sahel
Western counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel failed to degrade the Salafi-jihadi insurgency over the past decade, which contributed to governance collapse and the rise of military juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger that have exacerbated the regional insurgency. Russia has taken advantage of this shift to entrench itself in the region, to the benefit of Salafi-jihadi insurgents and at the expense of US geostrategic and counterterrorism interests.
A potential localized truce between Islamic State and al Qaeda–linked militants near the Malian-Nigerien border is likely aiding both groups’ efforts to strengthen their support zones in the Sahel and increasing their transnational threat risk. The Islamic State’s Sahel Province (ISSP) has spread its governance efforts in northeastern Mali and expanded governance and military activity closer to the Nigerien capital since the July 2023 coup. Al Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate has increased its military activity in northern Mali to exploit opportunities created by the end of the UN mission in Mali and renewed fighting between the Malian army and Tuareg rebels since July.
Malian and Kremlin-funded Wagner Group forces will likely attempt to capture the vacated UN base in the Kidal regional capital in the coming weeks. Malian and Wagner forces have the conventional capabilities to clear the base but almost certainly lack the popular support, strategy, and sufficient troop numbers needed to hold the base and degrade the insurgency. Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda–linked militants will likely give priority to preemptively attacking Malian and Wagner positions in the Kidal region in the coming weeks to degrade security forces’ ability to launch an offensive.
Mali. The Malian junta is hindering the ongoing UN withdrawal, which is making it easier for al Qaeda and Islamic State–affiliated militants to attack UN peacekeepers.
Somalia. Clan infighting in central Somalia will likely hinder the Somali Federal Government’s (SFG) plans to remove al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab from central Somalia and pose an enduring risk to stability in central Somalia.
The Malian junta and its Wagner Group auxiliaries cannot backfill withdrawing UN forces in northern Mali while maintaining pressure across the country, which will likely create gaps for al Qaeda–affiliated militants to exploit in central Mali. Al Qaeda–affiliated militants and the Tuareg rebels are at least tacitly supporting each other operationally in northern Mali and may explicitly be coordinating some attacks, which will prolong the conflict and further strain the junta’s capacity issues.
Al Qaeda’s affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa may exploit the Israel-Hamas war to attack their regional or Western adversaries under the pretext of supporting Hamas. These attacks would simultaneously advance the affiliates’ transnational propaganda narratives while furthering their preexisting local campaigns. Al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate will likely increase the rate and scale of attacks in Kenya and against US and Kenyan forces in the Horn of Africa. The group’s Sahelian affiliate is unlikely to do the same against UN peacekeepers or foreigners because international disengagement from the region has removed many potential targets and incentives.
Iraq and Syria. Turkey began an air incursion against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on October 1, which will likely impede SDF’s ability to execute operations against ISIS. Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are deploying to the Israeli-Syrian border, which may enable ISIS to embed itself in the population in Deir ez Zor and conduct attacks to incite sectarian tension in Damascus. ISIS will likely take advantage of the changing Iranian and SDF priorities to accelerate ISIS’s campaigns of isolating regime and SDF units to prepare to build support among the population.
Niger. The Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) is isolating Nigerien forces and reducing Nigerien pressure on the group’s sanctuaries along the Malian-Nigerien border, which will enable the group to overrun Nigerien border posts to consolidate control over northwestern Niger. Strengthened ISSP control over northwestern Niger would destabilize the Nigerien junta and allow the group to target more politically sensitive areas, such as the capital.
Mali. The Malian army and Wagner Group are committing atrocities against civilians as they push into northern Mali to assume control over UN bases, which will likely strengthen al Qaeda–linked militants’ local support in the area. Al Qaeda’s local affiliate will likely leverage this support to further co-opt local leadership and implement shadow governance in rebel-controlled areas, which will increase the group’s transnational threat risk by giving it access to the sanctuaries and resources needed to stage external attacks.
Pakistan. Pakistan has begun deporting Afghan refugees, which will likely provide the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) with opportunities to attack Pakistani authorities expelling refugees to build popular support. The Pakistani government ordered all undocumented Afghan refugees to leave the country by November 1 and has begun deporting refugees to follow through on the decision.
Afghanistan. Taliban messaged support for Hamas’s incursion into Israel while denying that it will militarily support the group’s attacks. Taliban-affiliated media outlets republished rhetoric from Taliban religious leaders calling on Muslims to conquer Jerusalem, demonstrating a continued shared ideology with transnational Salafi-jihadi groups.
Iraq and Syria. Tribal insurgent attacks against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) quintupled in the past week compared to previous weeks, a trend that will almost certainly cause the SDF to lose control over some of the population in southern Deir ez Zor province. The tribal insurgency’s increasing violence means the SDF will likely become less capable of supporting the primary US objective of countering ISIS.
Sahel. Worsening insurgencies are contributing to factionalism within the Burkinabe and Malian juntas, which could lead to additional coups. Factionalism in the military juntas will make them preoccupied with securing power, which will likely enable Salafi-jihadi insurgents to increase military pressure on politically sensitive areas, further eroding the juntas’ legitimacy.
Somalia. An al Shabaab offensive is setting conditions for the group to undo Somali Federal Government (SFG) gains made during its successful 2022 offensive. Al Shabaab will continue threatening to overturn SFG gains from the 2022 offensive as long as it retains havens in central Somalia.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Islamic State Pakistan Province (ISPP) likely carried out separate suicide bombings in Pakistan on September 29. Pakistan is responding to increasing terrorism by planning to deport one million Afghan refugees, which will heighten tensions between the Taliban government and Pakistan and could increase support for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Taliban does not have the logistical capacity to care for these refugees and will likely use the crisis to argue for international support.
Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attacks against civilians in eastern Syria are contributing to popular grievances and may cause the tribal insurgency to expand geographically. CTP is tracking several indicators that would suggest either a contraction or expansion of the tribal insurgency in northeastern Syria.
Mali. The resumption of fighting between the Malian government and non-jihadist Tuareg rebels will likely enable al Qaeda–linked militants to further ingratiate themselves with communities in northern Mali, potentially establishing de facto control and shadow governance in some nominally rebel-controlled areas. Growing control in northern Mali will enable al Qaeda–linked militants to pose a greater transnational threat.
Pakistan. Afghan Taliban and Pakistani officials met in Kabul on September 21 to resolve hostilities over border-security issues, including cross-border Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacks. The Taliban refused to publicly mention measures against the TTP, which suggests it will not stop the group from conducting attacks in Pakistan.
Afghanistan. Iran claimed it conducted raids targeting IS-affiliated militants in West Azerbaijan Province who Iran alleged were planning coordinated bomb attacks in Tehran, Iran. Iranian state media suggested these militants were connected to Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and ISIS.
Iraq and Syria. The tribal insurgency against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has maintained a steady rate of attacks over two weeks, and this insurgency’s objectives mean it will likely unintentionally support ISIS lines of effort. ISIS possibly is executing a military deception operation that aims to increase the success of ISIS defensive action over the next few weeks while preparing for future ISIS offensive action against the SDF over the next few months.
Sahel. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is growing ties with Sahelian juntas as part of its efforts to subsume Wagner’s global operations. These efforts are increasing friction with Wagner fighters in the Sahel and creating opportunities for Salafi-jihadi and non-jihadist armed groups to exploit.
Pakistan. Islamic State Pakistan Province (ISPP) attacked a politician for the first time since 2019 and may conduct similar attacks during Pakistan’s upcoming elections to discourage local cooperation with the government. Attacks against politicians intimidate politicians and voters from participating in elections, which supports ISPP’s efforts to undermine Pakistani state presence.
Afghanistan. A radical sub-faction of the Taliban movement, the Haqqani Network, is expanding its influence in northeastern Afghanistan, which will likely support Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) operations. Pakistan has failed to convince or coerce the Taliban government to prevent TTP safe havens in Afghanistan from conducting attacks into Pakistan.
The Syrian Democratic Forces’ Arab Coalition Is Crumbling, Creating Opportunities for ISIS, Iran, and Turkey
The coalition between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Arab tribes in Deir ez Zor is fracturing amid clashes over long-standing grievances. The SDF's response to the clashes very likely will undermine its ability to maintain control in the province during at least the next several months. The SDF and the Deir ez Zor Military Council (DMC) began fighting after the SDF arrested the DMC commander on August 27. The conflict rapidly expanded after August 30, as other tribes joined the fighting driven by long-running grievances against the SDF.[i] These grievances included limited reconstruction in Arab areas, repeated SDF abuses of the local populations, and a lack of representative Arab leadership.[ii] The tribes captured southern areas of SDF-administered Deir ez Zor province by September 2.[iii] The SDF recaptured the territory on September 10 by force and through actions that local media portrayed as abuses. Anti-SDF tribal fighters began conducting hit-and-run insurgent attacks on September 6, meaning anti-SDF forces are contesting the SDF’s control of the population in Deir ez Zor. CTP defines control as “uncontested physical or psychological pressure to ensure that individuals or groups respond as directed.”[iv] The SDF has not taken steps to address the tribes’ grievances as of September 14.[v]
Iraq and Syria. The tactics the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) used in recent clashes with Arab tribes in Deir ez Zor province undermined SDF legitimacy, which will very likely impede its ability to reestablish control in the province. The SDF’s loss of legitimacy will make achieving its counter-ISIS objectives more difficult.
Mali. Al Qaeda–linked and IS-linked militants are continuing to expand in northern Mali and threatening to control major population centers. Al Qaeda–linked militants are exploiting the void left by withdrawing UN forces to besiege and coerce regional capitals in northern Mali, while IS-linked militants are setting conditions to control a regional capital they have encircled since April. Both groups’ growing control over northern Mali increases the risk that they could generate a transnational attack threat.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. Pakistani security forces will likely fail to defeat Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) cross-border attacks into northern Pakistan. The Taliban is unwilling and incapable of stopping TTP cross-border attacks, which will likely enable to TTP to conduct future attacks into Pakistan.
Iraq and Syria. CTP will publish a special edition on the fighting between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and anti-SDF tribal forces during the week of September 11.
Pakistan. Rival Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions met and demonstrated their first sign of reconciliation after eight months, which indicates the TTP is trying to reduce internal tensions. A TTP faction could defect to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) as ISKP positions itself as an alternative to the TTP.
Afghanistan. The Taliban announced it signed major mining contracts, which could help stabilize the Afghan economy and improve the Taliban government’s legitimacy domestically. Taliban expropriation of land to facilitate foreign mining contracts and Taliban infighting in northeastern Afghanistan could exacerbate security issues and hinder implementation of the contracts with Chinese firms, however.
Iraq and Syria. Local tribes are resisting the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) campaign against the Deir ez Zor Military Council (DMC), which could enable ISIS to re-embed itself into in local Sunni Deir ez Zor tribes.
Pakistan. Pakistan deployed security forces to protect state energy infrastructure from ongoing protests. The protests may continue through mid-September because the Pakistani government cannot address the issues that prompted them. Deploying additional police to address the protests could disrupt Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban are conducting an information campaign that frames Tajikistan as responsible for the actions of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). The framing aims to deflect responsibility for the Taliban’s inability to defeat ISKP and prevent attacks beyond Afghanistan.
Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is facing multiple internal and external pressures, which could destabilize the SDF and create opportunities for ISIS.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. Pakistani strikes against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan are unlikely to curb TTP attacks. The Taliban gives priority to maintaining internal unity, making it unlikely the movement will crack down on TTP safe havens. Tensions between the Taliban and Iran and Pakistan will further worsen as the Taliban leadership demonstrates an inability to publicly ban its movement from conducting attacks beyond Afghanistan.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is conducting offensive operations in the central Syrian desert that are likely undermining the cohesion of pro-regime forces and enabling ISIS to maintain its momentum. Poor cohesion and coordination among Syrian regime forces will very likely limit their effectiveness in a counteroffensive. The regime’s prioritization of expelling US forces from Syria over combating ISIS also will likely inhibit its ability to successfully roll back ISIS gains.
Niger. The Nigerien junta will likely expedite efforts to remove French forces from Niger due to France’s strong support for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The Nigerien junta may allow the United States to continue operating in Niger because the United States has been less antagonistic toward the junta.
Pakistan. Separatist insurgencies in southwestern Pakistan are worsening, which may prompt Pakistan to deploy additional troops to Balochistan. The deployment of troops to the region likely would further strain the Pakistani military’s bandwidth against Salafi-jihadi groups, including groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Afghanistan. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is a regional threat that exploits the Taliban’s inability to secure the Afghan border. The Taliban likely lacks the ability to decisively defeat ISKP, which will allow ISKP to continue threatening neighboring countries.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Niger Coup—ECOWAS Mobilization Does Not Guarantee Invasion
The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) activated and ordered the deployment of a standby force on August 10 to reinstitute constitutional order in Niger, which increases the risk of a regional clash in the coming weeks. The junta’s refusal to cooperate is leaving little room for compromise, and ECOWAS risks undermining its stability by not confronting the junta, increasing the risk that neither side finds a suitable off-ramp to the looming military conflict.
ECOWAS will likely assemble the bulk of its standby force in the next month, and Nigeria remains the lynchpin for any potential military action and could follow through on the threat of military action if ECOWAS and the junta do not reach a compromise. Niger will pose significant operational challenges for the ESF that did not exist in the 2017 Gambian intervention, which strengthens CTP's assessment that an ECOWAS intervention would be highly costly and destabilizing for Niger and West Africa.
Both sides could still reach a compromise during the weeks it takes the ESF to mobilize. ECOWAS continued diplomatic efforts during the buildup of the ESF in Gambia and is signaling it will do the same with Niger. Some ECOWAS partners may be willing to accept a compromise that secures the release of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum and a transitional government to avoid military conflict while securing a pathway to restore democracy. A similar road map failed in Mali due to the army’s heavy influence in the transition process, leading to a second coup that installed the country’s current junta.
Global Movement. Islamic State (IS) affiliates in Africa, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East are establishing greater operational autonomy, which likely will enable them to continue their operations amid a higher rate of IS leadership losses. IS propaganda may offset the loss in morale caused by consistent leadership losses by providing religious legitimacy and projecting strength to IS fighters and supporters.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS announced the elimination of its “caliph” on August 3, but continued leadership decapitation is unlikely to successfully defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian regime’s lack of focus on killing and detaining mid-level ISIS leaders will enable the group to execute its campaign plan in Syria, which aims to set conditions for an ISIS resurgence after a US withdrawal.
Niger. The Nigerien junta plans to use the Kremlin-funded Wagner Group and local volunteer militias to bolster security in the capital and may intend to use both against Salafi-jihadi insurgents after securing its hold on power. Relying on these auxiliary forces risks increasing human rights abuses and exacerbating communal tensions, which would create opportunities that Salafi-jihadi groups have historically exploited.
Mali. Al Qaeda–linked militants increased the rate and severity of their attacks in central Mali in July, indicating the group is strengthening in area despite Malian and Wagner Group counterterrorism operations. Al Qaeda associate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) will likely use its growing support zones in central Mali to besiege larger towns in the area into submission and conduct more frequent and more severe attacks in southern Mali to challenge the junta’s legitimacy.
Somalia. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) will likely resume its offensive to capture the last al Shabaab–controlled district capital in north-central Somalia in the coming weeks. Al Shabaab will likely avoid conventional defensive engagements for complex suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) counterattacks as it did during the initial phase of the offensive.
Afghanistan. The Taliban government is delegitimizing Taliban participation in attacks beyond Afghanistan, possibly in response to recent diplomatic engagement with the United States and pressure from Pakistan. The Taliban is unlikely to prevent Afghan Taliban members from supporting Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan operations in Pakistan.
A regional intervention in Niger is unlikely in the next 72 hours, as the West African regional body buys itself time to reach a compromise and finalize military plans. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has not yet followed through on its threat to use military force to reinstitute the democratically elected government of Niger, after its one-week ultimatum expired on August 6. ECOWAS and the Nigerien junta agreed to another round of talks on August 6, signaling the regional body is still seeking a negotiated solution. ECOWAS also announced that it would hold a second summit on Niger in Abuja, Nigeria, on August 10. This summit will provide ECOWAS leaders the chance to reassess all potential options and finalize invasion plans that the ECOWAS defense chiefs created during a summit from August 2 to 4.
Domestic Nigerian pushback to a military intervention could derail an ECOWAS intervention. Nigeria withdrawing its support for military action would end the chances of a regional invasion due to Nigeria’s crucial importance to an intervention. Nigeria is the largest of all troop-contributing countries and will presumably compromise the bulk of an intervention force. A regional intervention would also have to be staged from Nigeria. Algeria and Chad are against a regional intervention, and Burkina Faso and Mali have said they would support the junta.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Niger Coup—Wagner Group and an ECOWAS Intervention Threaten to Further Destabilize the Sahel
The Nigerien junta is unlikely to capitulate to international pressure to reverse its coup. The junta has doubled down on its coup by striking a deal with neighboring juntas to jointly defend against an ECOWAS intervention, arresting civilian officials, appointing military officers to lead government positions, and decreasing cooperation with Western partners.
The junta’s opposition to ceding authority back to civilians will result in its international isolation and force the junta to seek auxiliary forces. The EU and US have already cut military cooperation with Niger, and the deteriorating relationship between the West and the junta will make current French and US deployments in the country untenable.[v] The Nigerien military would need to compensate for the loss of Western troops, supplies, and funding. The junta’s most likely options would be strengthening civilian militias, as Burkina Faso did, or hiring the Kremlin-funded Wagner Group, like Mali did. Supporting civilian militias or deploying the Wagner Group will almost certainly increase human rights abuses and exacerbate communal tensions, which Salafi-jihadi groups will use to expand.
An ECOWAS intervention into Niger could happen and would be a most-dangerous scenario. CTP is tracking the following indicators of a regional West African intervention into Niger:
- Indicator: Troops amassing along the Nigerien border in neighboring countries.
- Finding: Nothing significant to report.
- Indicator: Troop or asset redeployments in likely troop-contributing countries.
- Finding: Unverified photos of allegedly leaked Nigerian mobilization orders toward the Nigerien border with northwestern Nigeria began circulating on Twitter on August 2.[xvii]
- Indicator: High-level discussions between the government and military leaders of participating countries and Western partner countries. Such discussions would be needed to establish a mandate and command-and-control structures for an intervening force.
- Finding: The defense chiefs of ECOWAS are meeting in Abuja from August 2 to 4.[xviii] Radio France Internationale reported that the defense chiefs are outlining a road map for an intervention plan in Niger including a general strategy, logistics, and a timetable.[xix] Radio France Internationale also noted that the defense chiefs expect the plans to be actionable by the end of the summit so an intervention force can act immediately after the deadline of the ECOWAS ultimatum on August 6.
- Finding: ECOWAS held an extraordinary summit in Abuja on July 30, following which they released their ultimatum and threat to intervene.[xx] No military leaders were listed as attendees at the summit, and it is unclear if the attendees made any military plans.
- Indicator: Widespread state-led evacuations of foreign nationals residing in Niger. This could indicate countries may have been alerted to an impending conflict.
- Finding: France began voluntary evacuations for French citizens on August 1.[xxi]
- Finding: France also began evacuating German, Italian, Spanish, and other EU nationals on behalf of their governments. Germany and Spain have formally urged their citizens to leave, while France and Italy have organized voluntary evacuations.[xxii]
- Finding: The UK urged its citizens to stay indoors on August 1 but has not announced any evacuation plans.[xxiii]
- Finding: The United States began evacuating non-emergency staff and families from the US embassy on August 2.[xxiv]
- Note: The increase in violent anti-Western sentiment since the coup is likely partially driving Western evacuations. Protesters attacked the French embassy on July 30, and Niger’s opposition party that supports the coup called for detaining European civilians until all foreign troops leave Niger on August 1.[xxv] Non-Western evacuations would be much stronger indicators that governments are expecting imminent conflict.
An ECOWAS military intervention would create immediate opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen by significantly reducing counterterrorism pressure in West Africa as counterinsurgent forces prioritize each other over the insurgencies. An ECOWAS military intervention would likely worsen the security situation in Niger and the region in the long term, regardless of its outcome.
Niger and regional powers could also come to a compromise involving the release of President Bazoum and a road map to restoring civilian rule, although it is unlikely that a compromise deal would mitigate the fallout between Niger and its Western partners.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS targeted Shi’a civilians at Sayyida Zainab, southern Damascus city, in two separate motorcycle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on July 23 and 25, which may be the first in irregular but sustained ISIS attacks against urban centers in Syria.
Russia and Syria. Russia is continuing an information operation that aims to deflect responsibility for the increase in tensions between the United States and Russia and Syria. This information operation aims to make Syria a less permissible environment for US forces by further delegitimizing the US presence in Syria to a regional audience.
Niger. The Nigerien junta is unlikely to capitulate to international pressure to reverse its coup, which will result in its international isolation and could lead the junta to seek out the Wagner Group as a long-term replacement for Western support. The junta’s obstinacy may also prompt an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) military intervention, which is a most-dangerous scenario that would likely create vacuums for Salafi-jihadi groups to fill and spread regional instability.
Afghanistan. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) released propaganda addressing National Resistance Front (NRF) supporters to convince them to defect to ISKP, which is highly unlikely to be successful due to fundamental differences in ideology and strategic goals.
Pakistan. ISKP claimed a suicide bombing at a political rally for a conservative Islamist Pakistani political party linked to the Afghan Taliban, likely as part of ISKP’s effort to build support zones in northwestern Pakistan. This was ISKP’s deadliest attack since January 2023.
Iraq and Syria. Russian acts of aggression against the United States in Syria aim to expel the United States from Syria through sustained, low-grade military pressure. Iranian, Russian, and Syrian regime efforts to expel the United States are causing a decrease in counterinsurgent pressure on ISIS. ISIS is not defeated and retains significant latent capabilities in Syria. Internal friction within the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is also contributing to a decrease in counterinsurgent pressure. ISIS is likely conducting operations under the assumption that the United States will withdraw in the near term—and preparing to take advantage of a US withdrawal.
Niger. A successful coup in Niger would likely strengthen al Qaeda and the Islamic State by preoccupying Nigerien security forces and hindering international security cooperation as coups have elsewhere in the Sahel. A successful coup would almost certainly negatively impact Niger’s role as the last remaining Western partner in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger and the largest recipient of US State Department military assistance in West Africa. Russia could also exploit an isolated junta government to evade Western sanctions.
Pakistan. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is concentrating attacks near Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, in a likely effort to build support zones that will allow it to facilitate cross-border movement from Afghanistan, run training camps, and carry out more sophisticated attacks in Pakistan. This supports the TTP’s effort to exert control over rural terrain in Pakistan. TTP support zones could also allow affiliated transnational Salafi-jihadi groups, such as al Qaeda, to plan and conduct attacks beyond Pakistan.
Afghanistan. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is likely directing cells in Turkey from Afghanistan to attack European targets in Turkey. ISKP also exerts command and control over cells in northern Syria that could attack European targets. ISKP is seeking to carry out an attack against Swedish targets as retaliation for the burning of a Quran on June 28. ISKP could use a successful attack against European targets to support its campaign to delegitimize the Taliban government among its hard-line supporters.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Niger Coup Threatens Western Counterterrorism Efforts and Could Offer Opportunities to Russia
The outcome of the attempted coup in Niger on July 26 is unclear. Coups elsewhere in the Sahel have strengthened the regional al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates. A successful coup in Niger would likely further strengthen al Qaeda and the Islamic State by preoccupying Nigerien security forces and hindering international security cooperation. Niger is the last remaining Western partner in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger after the coups in Burkina Faso and Mali and is the largest recipient of US State Department military assistance in West Africa. A successful coup could also enable Russia to exploit the new junta government to evade Western sanctions. An unsuccessful coup will still create limited opportunities for Salafi-jihadi insurgents while security forces are preoccupied.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Iran, Russia, and Syrian Prioritization of Challenging the United States over ISIS Will Present ISIS with Space to Grow Its Capabilities, Rest, and Refit
Iran, Russian proxies, and the Syrian regime have deployed forces along the line of control between Syrian regime forces and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, likely as part of a coercive campaign to expel the United States from Syria.[i] Iran and the Syrian regime have surged forces and matériel to eastern Syria since July 7 under the auspices of defending against a US-Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive into regime-controlled territory.[ii] Iran and Iranian-backed militias have framed the US-led international coalition in Syria as an imminent security threat to local Syrians since late June.[iii] The surge has occurred alongside an increase in Russian coordination with Iran on planning and intelligence sharing in Syria.[iv]
Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime are giving lower priority to counter-ISIS operations, which very likely presents ISIS with the space to grow its capabilities and rest and refit. The Russian Air Force continues to conduct some air strikes targeting ISIS, but the increase in flights aimed at harassing US forces in Syria since March draws Russian resources from counter-ISIS operations.[v] Russia maintains a mixed air regiment in Syria, but the war in Ukraine has imposed some constraints on assets, such as the withdrawal of a squadron of attack aircraft in March 2022.[vi] Iranian deployments along the line of control (LoC) also pulls resources from countering ISIS in the regime-controlled Deir ez Zor urban belt. ISIS has stepped up attacks and coercive efforts in the Deir ez Zor urban belt since early 2023, including intimidating locals by establishing shadow governance at night and hanging ISIS flags in Musayrib, north of Deir ez Zor city.
Russia replaced Wagner commanders in Syria posts with Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officers on July 8, which may temporarily degrade Russia’s ability to conduct counter-ISIS operations.[vii] Wagner defended Al Kawm against a major ISIS offensive in April, and it has repeatedly organized counter-ISIS operations in the central Syrian desert in 2023.[viii] Wagner commanders in central Syria benefited from sustained Wagner deployments to central Syria and coordinating operations against ISIS. The new Russian MoD commanders will not have the same knowledge, and therefore they will be more prone to poorer or slower decision-making. The Wall Street Journal reported Iran is attempting to recruit the Wagner-funded “ISIS Hunters,” a Syrian mercenary group whose members are no longer being paid by Wagner and returned to their homes in Palmyra, Syria.[ix] The decrease in the available manpower of pro-regime forces suggests negative impacts for counter-ISIS operations.
ISIS may be lying low in Deir ez Zor amid the buildup of Iranian, Syrian regime, and Russian-backed forces along the LoC. ISIS claimed only four attacks in Deir ez Zor since July 5, including when ISIS fighters killed an SDF fighter in Izba after ISIS supporters chanted in support of the organization there on July 4.[x] ISIS is still conducting other attacks, but it is not claiming them.[xi] It is also conducting isolated operations to maintain support zones north of the Euphrates River Valley, where ISIS fighters threatened 39 SDF members with death in the Khabour River Valley on July 17.[xii]
Iraq and Syria. The United States’ adversaries in Syria are prioritizing confronting the United States over ISIS, which will give the group space to grow its capabilities, rest, and refit. Iran, Russia, and Syria have deployed forces along the line of control separating parts of Syria held by the regime and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russian forces are also harassing US aircraft, which draws limited Russian assets away from counter-ISIS operations. CTP has identified four possible scenarios that will affect ISIS's ability to reconstitute itself in Syria: Iran, Russia and Syria reprioritize ISIS; Russia and Iran continue coordinated coercive pressure aimed at forcing a US withdrawal from Syria; Iran chooses to target US forces or the SDF using explosively formed penetrators (EFP); and Iranian- and regime-backed forces attack SDF territory.
Ghana. Al Qaeda’s regional associate may use abuses against Fulani refugees to begin conducting attacks in northern Ghana. The group has threatened to attack inside Ghana, has the capabilities to launch an attack should it choose to, and has repeatedly taken advantage of security force abuses and ethnic tensions to recruit and expand among marginalized Fulani communities in the Sahel. However, Burkinabe counterterrorism operations targeting Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) havens near the Ghanaian border may disincentivize JNIM from opening new attack zones in Ghana until at least after the pressure subsides.
Somalia. An al Shabaab blockade of a regional capital in southern Somalia will likely strengthen local support for an offensive against the group. While the Somali Federal Government (SFG) may attempt to break the blockade as a launching pad for a broader offensive against al Shabaab in southern Somalia, it likely does not have the capacity to sustain significant activity in the area in the coming months. This limited support will likely prevent the SFG from leveraging the increase in local discontent to counter al Shabaab.
Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is expanding its attack zones in Balochistan Province, which may strain the ability of the Pakistani military to counter the TTP. A TTP front group attacked a Pakistani military garrison in Zhob, Balochistan, on July 12, which was the group’s first offensive attack in Zhob since December 2022. Competing claims for the attack are deepening tensions between hard-line and moderate factions in the TTP. A hard-line TTP faction could defect and support the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) if fractures worsen.
Afghanistan. The terrorism threat from Afghanistan to the United States and its allies has increased over the past six months. Afghan Taliban members participated in a major terror attack in Pakistan. The Taliban government’s rhetorical response to this attack indicates it does not perceive the same counterterrorism obligation toward Pakistan as it does toward the United States. Iran may already be recruiting from Afghanistan to conduct attacks targeting Israel.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Refugee Abuses Open the Door for Salafi-Jihadi Attacks in Ghana
Al Qaeda’s regional associate may use abuses against Fulani refugees to begin conducting attacks in northern Ghana. The UN said on July 13 that Ghana had illegally deported at least 250 Burkinabe refugees since July 11, which led to calls from the local media wing of al Qaeda’s regional associate to launch jihad against Ghana if the abuses continue. JNIM has not claimed an attack in northern Ghana, but it has the capabilities to launch an attack should it choose to and has repeatedly taken advantage of security force abuses and ethnic tensions to recruit and expand among marginalized Fulani communities in the Sahel. However, Burkinabe counterterrorism operations targeting JNIM havens near the Ghanaian border may disincentivize JNIM from opening new attack zones in Ghana until at least after the pressure subsides, as opening new attack zones in Ghana would invite pressure onto the group’s rear bases in Ghana that support the targeted havens in Burkina Faso.
Iraq and Syria. Iranian, Russian, and Syrian regime deployments and attacks targeting the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are interfering with an SDF counter-ISIS operation. The operation aims to take advantage of a US drone strike that killed the ISIS governor in Deir ez Zor, which will likely temporarily disrupt the group. Iranian, Russian, Syrian, and ISIS activity illustrates the overlapping threat to the US mission and force in Syria. Each actor seeks to limit US influence in the region and undermine the SDF. A rapid and effective SDF counter-ISIS operation would take advantage of temporary ISIS confusion in the wake of the US drone strike, but regime, Iranian, or Russian-backed harassing attacks could inhibit the SDF’s ability to carry out the operation.
Mali. The erosion of international counterterrorism pressure on Salafi-jihadi insurgents in Mali will likely enable al Qaeda’s regional associate to gradually rebuild transnational attack capabilities in its support zones to conduct external attacks. Al Qaeda–linked militants have historically carried out regional terror attacks and still aspire to build external attack capabilities targeting the West, despite prioritizing their locally focused insurgency in recent years. Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) would most likely target Western personnel in Africa or West African partners and could use West African human trafficking networks to target Europe, in the most dangerous scenario. JNIM’s expanding havens in the Sahel will increase the risk of external attacks even if JNIM leadership does not prioritize rebuilding transnational capabilities by giving internationally minded factions or individuals increased opportunities and resources to orchestrate such attacks.
Pakistan. A senior Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander and hundreds of his fighters pledged allegiance to a breakaway TTP faction on July 9, which could draw other TTP militants from his tribe away from the TTP. The commander’s move could be offset by growing coordination between the TTP breakaway faction, the Gul Bahadur group, and the TTP. Greater coordination between the Gul Bahadur group and the TTP may allow the groups to cohere fighters in North and South Waziristan, where both groups have recently been expanding.
Afghanistan. Pakistan is likely expanding security cooperation with Tajikistan to improve its ability to track and target TTP militants in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban government may relocate some TTP militants to northern Afghanistan, but TTP militants will continue to pose a security threat to Pakistan. Intelligence sharing between Pakistan and Tajikistan would allow Pakistan to better track TTP militants in northern Afghanistan near the border with Tajikistan.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Local Protests Suggest New ISIS Support Zone in Northeastern Deir ez Zor, Syria
Demonstrators in Izba, Deir ez Zor province, Syria, protested on July 4 against the Quran burning in Sweden by waving ISIS flags and making pro-ISIS statements, indicating that ISIS has likely established a new support zone in Izba. Protesters traveled in a convoy brandishing weapons and flying ISIS flags. At least one protester said that the Syrian people were “passive” in the face of the Quran burning and that ISIS “will not be passive under this great flag.” ISIS began solidifying a support zone in Izba in fall 2022, if not earlier. ISIS has repeatedly targeted local leaders and civilians in the area linked to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since October. ISIS successfully shut down the Deir ez Zor Civil Council in Izba in November, removing the SDF’s civilian governance in the area. Small numbers of locals continue to support the SDF in the area, but the protests and continued ISIS activity aimed at intimidating the population suggest that ISIS’s ability to coerce support from the population remains significant.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS conducted three attacks in Iraq near a border crossing in Saudi Arabia, possibly signaling the group’s intent to challenge Saudi Arabia’s religious legitimacy by threatening Hajj pilgrims. ISIS’s lack of strong relationships with the tribes in northern Saudi Arabia makes crossing the border extremely difficult. The location of the attacks and ISIS’s limited capability in Saudi Arabia suggests ISIS sought to message its intent rather than try to access the Saudi side of the border.
Africa. The Wagner Group will continue operating in Africa following the group’s armed rebellion and is very unlikely to decrease its activity on the continent. Wagner’s continued presence in Africa is imperative to Russia’s foreign policy objectives on the continent, as it uses the group to gain access to natural resources that it uses to evade and mitigate Western sanctions and undermine Western influence on the continent. The group’s continued activity in Mali will almost certainly continue fueling the Sahel’s Salafi-jihadi insurgency.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) participated in a rhetorical campaign to denounce the burning of a Quran in Sweden on June 28. These groups have a symbiotic relationship and remain fundamentally aligned. The Taliban is caught between satisfying its hard-liners, who support continuing ties to Salafi-jihadi groups, and engaging with foreign countries to seek economic support and international recognition. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will likely exploit this tension to try to recruit disaffected Taliban hard-liners alienated by the Taliban government’s ties to foreign governments.
The Wagner Group will continue operating in Africa following the group’s armed rebellion and is very unlikely to decrease its activity on the African continent. Several Kremlin officials assured that Wagner will continue operating in Africa regardless of the outcomes of the post-rebellion deal for Wagner in Russia, strongly suggesting the group will continue its activities on the continent. Wagner’s continued presence in Africa is imperative to Russia’s foreign policy objectives on the continent, as it uses the group to gain access to natural resources that it uses to evade and mitigate Western sanctions and undermine Western influence on the continent. It remains unclear whether Wagner will continue operating in Africa as an independent entity or as a formalized unit subordinated to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The group's continued presence in Mali will almost certainly continue fueling the Sahel’s Salafi-jihadi insurgency.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS has coerced greater support from the population and expanded attack zones along the Euphrates River, which will allow it to rebuild some capabilities over time. Iranian- and regime-backed activity inadvertently helps ISIS rebuild by undermining Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control. ISIS and Iranian- and regime-backed forces will be able to exploit the degradation of SDF control along the Euphrates to strengthen their capabilities.
Somalia. Al Shabaab is increasing the rate and severity of its attacks in northeastern Kenya and against Ethiopian forces in Somalia, likely to boost recruitment and local support in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. Al Shabaab may also intend to undermine the ability of Ethiopia and Kenya to effectively participate in an offensive against the group in southern Somalia.
Pakistan. The political crisis in Pakistan is exacerbating divisions within the Pakistani military. The Pakistani military fired three senior army commanders and disciplined 15 officers on June 26 over their actions during widespread protests in May. Divisions in the Pakistani military could weaken Pakistan's counter–Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operations as the TTP seeks to expand into new parts of the country.
Afghanistan. TTP is using support zones in Afghanistan to support attacks inside Pakistan. The Taliban government is unlikely to change its policies toward harboring foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s continuing failure to prevent the TTP from using Afghanistan to support its campaign against the Pakistani state will strain the relationship between the Taliban government and Pakistan.
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: ISIS Expands Support and Attack Zones Along the Euphrates River
ISIS has coerced greater support from the population and expanded attack zones along both banks of the Euphrates River, which could present it an opportunity to rebuild sophisticated military capabilities. These capabilities, such as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and well-organized attack planning cells, would allow ISIS to generate forces by targeting prisons while also rolling back Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control of northeastern Syria. ISIS has not created new support zones along the Euphrates River. The group does, however, have inconsistent access to local populations and key terrain it can use to move forces to and from northeastern Syria and collect intelligence on counter-ISIS forces. ISIS is already attempting to transition these contested areas into support zones. Locals in some areas north of Deir ez Zor city already refuse to move close to regime headquarters or engage with regime forces due to fear of attack.
Al Shabaab is increasing the rate and severity of its attacks in northeastern Kenya and against Ethiopian forces in Somalia, likely to boost recruitment and local support in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. Al Shabaab may also intend to undermine the ability of Ethiopia and Kenya to effectively participate in an offensive against the group in southern Somalia.
Iraq and Syria. The Iraq and Syria section is on pause until the Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, June 28, 2023.
Mali. The Malian junta requested the UN to end its peacekeeping mission in Mali, which is very likely to enable Salafi-jihadi groups to expand and pose greater domestic and transnational threats. The withdrawal of the UN mission will very likely end reconciliation efforts between the Malian government and non-jihadist former rebel groups with ties to al Qaeda–linked militants in Mali. The al Qaeda–linked group in Mali will very likely use these ties and the resulting security vacuum to assert itself as the primary power broker across northern Mali, which it can then leverage to carry out more-sophisticated attacks in central and southern Mali and spread its insurgency to neighboring states in West Africa. The UN withdrawal will also very likely embolden the regional IS affiliate to establish territorial control in northeastern Mali, increasing the group’s threat to US personnel and interests in West Africa.
Somalia. Clan-based disputes between regional and state governments are derailing Somali-led counterinsurgency offensives in central and southern Somalia. These disputes are not isolated, and clan infighting will undermine Somali security to a greater extent and present additional openings for al Shabaab to exploit as the Somali Federal Government (SFG) prepares to assume sole responsibility for Somali security by the end of 2024.
Pakistan.The Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is expanding and formalizing de facto control over terrain in Balochistan and Punjab provinces, Pakistan, which may enable TTP shadow governors to expand the group’s administrative influence in those areas. The creation of these new governorates outside of TTP’s traditional support areas shows the TTP has become more emboldened in its governance efforts since it ended a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in November 2022.
Afghanistan. The Taliban government’s relocation of TTP militants into northern Afghanistan will exacerbate tensions with locals and provide openings for opposition groups. This transfer of TTP militants will not diminish the security threat Pakistan faces from the TTP.
Iraq and Syria. The Iraq and Syria section is on pause until the Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, June 21, 2023.
Somalia. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) has to date failed to launch an offensive against al Shabaab in southern Somalia in 2023, which is likely enabling al Shabaab to increase the rate and severity of its attacks in Mogadishu. The group conducted its first suicide attack in Mogadishu in four months on June 9 and has increased car bomb attacks in Mogadishu since late May. The withdrawal of thousands of African Union soldiers by the end of June will likely create more security gaps for al Shabaab to exploit across the country in the coming months and will strain the Somali National Army’s (SNA) capacity as counterterrorism operations in central and southern Somalia remain stalled.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. Pakistani sources and pro-Taliban online accounts may have misreported that the Taliban killed the leader of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) on June 9. Sanuallah Ghafari’s death would degrade ISKP attack coordination for several weeks or months as ISKP works to replace its leader and could also disrupt ISKP recruitment. The killing would not address ISKP supporters in the Taliban government or Taliban atrocities against civilians, which drive recruitment. Taliban infighting is hindering its counter-ISKP fight while ISKP is establishing new training camps in Afghanistan.
Iraq and Syria. The Iraq and Syria section is on pause until the Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, June 21, 2023.
Burkina Faso. Burkinabe forces greatly increased their operations against al Qaeda–linked militants near Burkina Faso’s southern border in May, which has likely temporarily degraded the militants’ support zones in the area. The uptick in operations is in response to the growing presence of the al Qaeda–linked group in the area throughout 2023. The al Qaeda–linked militants will likely maintain their support zones in southeastern Burkina Faso and strengthen them as Burkinabe forces scale back counterterrorism pressure over time, using nearby havens along the borders with Benin, Ghana, and Togo.
Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban may be aiding Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) efforts to coerce Pakistan into entering negotiations by supporting TTP attacks in Pakistan. The Taliban stated it will relocate TTP militants and other Pashtun refugees away from the border with Pakistan, likely to persuade Pakistan to negotiate with the TTP. The Taliban may be seeking to manage relations with the TTP and Pakistan. The Pakistani government has repeatedly asked that the Taliban address TTP safe havens in Afghanistan in recent months.
Afghanistan. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) resumed conducting attacks after a two-month operational pause and assassinated a Taliban deputy governor in Badakhshan Province, northern Afghanistan. ISKP’s use of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) indicates it has likely established a support zone around the provincial capital of Badakhshan Province. Taliban security measures have so far been insufficient to prevent ISKP from repeatedly assassinating local Taliban leadership in Badakhshan.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS likely is increasing large-scale operations, setting conditions to challenge regime control in some population centers. ISIS deployed more than 100 fighters in two separate operations in spring 2023, which indicates the group’s ability to coordinate between disparate elements to conduct sophisticated tactical efforts. ISIS is using its operations in the central Syrian desert to neutralize anti-ISIS forces in key areas. The group will gradually expand its attack zones into urban areas to coerce the population into supporting ISIS.
Burkina Faso. Al Qaeda–linked militants increased the rate and lethality of their attacks in northwestern Burkina Faso in May 2023 to strengthen and expand their support zone along the border of central Mali and northwestern Burkina Faso. The al Qaeda–linked group is using these support zones in northwestern Burkina Faso to expand toward the Burkinabe capital. The group will also use these zones to expand south along the Burkina Faso–Mali border to threaten southern Mali and Burkina Faso’s second largest city and economic capital in southwestern Burkina Faso.
Somalia. Self-admitted poor troop performance likely enabled al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate al Shabaab to overrun a Ugandan African Union base in southern Somalia in late May. The Ugandan contingent’s intelligence gaps and lack of close air support likely also contributed to al Shabaab’s success. Al Shabaab also overran a Somali National Army (SNA) base in central Somalia in late May, underscoring the continued vulnerability of holding forces in recently liberated areas of Somalia.
Pakistan. Pakistan may have postponed an anti-Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operation to focus on suppressing protests in early May. The removal of counterterrorism pressure on the TTP may permit the group to conduct attacks against sensitive targets in Islamabad, where the government is holding meetings to discuss the protest crisis. Local sources claimed the TTP is planning attacks on high-level political leaders in Islamabad.
Afghanistan. Iran and the Taliban rhetorically deescalated following border clashes amid an ongoing water dispute. Both sides took measures to reinforce the border and are likely prepared for future clashes but will seek to avoid instigating another round of skirmishes. The Taliban will likely seek to preserve its economic relationship with Iran by deescalating tensions along the border.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is attempting to reconstitute itself and rebuild its capabilities in the areas surrounding Baghdad, but it is likely to succeed only north of Baghdad, where local conditions are more advantageous to the group. ISIS can generate local support north of Baghdad by appealing to communities threatened by abuse and harassment from Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias, which have threatened to commit sectarian cleansing against Sunni communities. ISIS attempts to rebuild its capabilities south of the city are enfeebled by long, third-rate supply lines through unpopulated desert. ISIS cells south of the city also suffer from bad operational security and a lack of local support.
Somalia. Somali-US drone strikes targeting al Shabaab leadership may temporarily weaken the group’s capabilities but will not disrupt al Shabaab’s regional threat. The al Shabaab network will continue organizing regional attacks from its havens in southern Somalia in the absence of effective Somali ground operations that degrade the group’s havens regardless of who is overseeing its activity. The lack of flood-prevention efforts in central Somalia despite international funds for such projects is a microcosm of how government mismanagement will continue to present al Shabaab opportunities to undo the few military setbacks it suffers.
Mali. Al Qaeda-affiliated militants have escalated its rate of attacks in western Mali since late 2022 to increase its revenue and support its campaign to degrade Malian lines of communication around the Malian capital. The militants may be trying to increase its ties with illicit networks in western Mali to strengthen its position in the area, which could create opportunities to spread its insurgency to neighboring countries in the future.
Afghanistan. The Operation Enduring Sentinel (OES) inspector general released the 2023 report for January–March 2023, which omits the threat Salafi-jihadi groups pose to US and Western interests in Afghanistan. The report’s purpose is to highlight Salafi-jihadi threats to US interests outside Afghanistan and the US homeland, but these groups also challenge Western interests in the country. The report rightly describes how these groups have benefited from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.
Water shortages are driving increased tensions between Iran and the Taliban. Reduced water flow from Afghanistan to Iran will undermine Iranian regime stability. Iran is unlikely to escalate the crisis and risk destabilizing Afghanistan.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is taking advantage of the seam between Syrian territory held by the regime and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to evade counterinsurgent pressure and rebuild its insurgency. ISIS will use the seam and lack of coordination between counterterrorism forces to set conditions that will enable a rapid resurgence after a US withdrawal. US and SDF raids are successfully targeting ISIS planners, but these high-value targets will evade effective counterterrorism pressure by exfiltrating to central Syria, where US and SDF forces decline to conduct raids targeting ISIS due to regime presence. These planners will use safe havens elsewhere in Syria to plan new attacks.
Lake Chad. The recent increase in counterterrorism operations by regional forces in the Lake Chad Basin are unlikely to permanently weaken IS West Africa Province (ISWAP) because security forces cannot adequately sustain operations in the remote havens they are targeting. ISWAP is also fighting a rival Boko Haram faction, which will likely combine with the counterterrorism operations to temporarily weaken the group for several months. ISWAP will likely increase the rate and geographic scope of its attacks outside of northeastern Nigeria in response to the increased pressure. The resulting resource constraints and degraded support zones will likely proportionately degrade the regional IS support network in West Africa until ISWAP recovers.
Pakistan. Salafi-jihadi groups will likely try to exploit any banning or severe weakening of the Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI) party to recruit. The PTI has a stronghold in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Salafi-jihadi groups also have safe havens and attack frequently. The Pakistani military and government have arrested thousands of PTI leaders and supporters since Pakistan’s widespread protests on May 9–10. Pakistan’s interior minister has proposed banning the PTI. A PTI collapse would exclude the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa constituencies from mainstream politics and feed the Salafi-jihadi narrative that democratic governance is bound to fail.
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is expanding its support zones in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) despite falling attack claims. The US mission in Syria claimed that Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) clearing operations helped to cause falling attack claims, but the SDF often fails to hold terrain following operations, which allows ISIS presence to return. ISIS will use these areas to plot complex attacks against detention facilities. US-led targeted raids against planners for these attacks are insufficient because ISIS is a decentralized, networked organization that does not have a single point of failure. It can reconstitute planning cells.
Somalia. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) has improved security around Mogadishu since February. Al Shabaab has not conducted a mass casualty attack in the Somali capital since late February, after conducting three such attacks between November 2022 and February 2023. The SFG’s central Somalia offensive has likely degraded al Shabaab’s support zones and lines of communication north of Mogadishu that they previously used to support attacks in the city. The SFG has also deployed new Ugandan-trained soldiers in the capital that are degrading al Shabaab’s access to sensitive parts of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab is also likely giving priority to attacking Somali forces farther south to preempt the SFG’s planned offensive in southern Somalia, which is contributing to the decrease in attacks in the capital.
Sahel. The Islamic State affiliate in the Sahel is on course to eclipse its strength at its prior peak in 2020. The group has restrengthened across multiple fronts in the Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger tri-border area since the French drawdown in northern Mali in 2022 and is a threat to US personnel and interests in West Africa. Al Qaeda–linked militants have also increased attacks targeting civilians farther south in the northern regions of Benin and Togo. The Beninese and Togolese governments have responded with increased security measures, which are necessary to degrade the Salafi-jihadi insurgents’ long-standing support zones in the area but risk exacerbating the grievances that drive local support for the insurgency.
Pakistan. Read CTP and ISW’s latest Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition on the Protests in Pakistan below.
Unrest may continue in Pakistan despite efforts by the Pakistani government and former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to deescalate the protests. The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled on May 11 that the government’s arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 9 was illegal, while Khan separately urged calm from his supporters on May 11.[i] CTP observed two protests in Pakistan on May 11, down from 24 protests on May 10, but the Pakistani government continued to target former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrek-e Insaf (PTI) to suppress its protest movement. Pakistan has also arrested thousands of PTI supporters and several senior PTI leaders, and clashes between the PTI and Pakistani security forces have killed and injured dozens of protestors.[ii] An anonymous senior Pakistani official told CBS News that at least eight people had been killed in the protests, but the PTI says the number of killed is in the dozens, which could fuel continued or renewed protests.[iii] The poor economic and political conditions that led to the current crisis persist and may worsen as Pakistan begins to prepare for elections in October.[iv] Khan and his PTI supporters and the Pakistani security establishment remain at odds, and the recent round of protests will exacerbate this situation.
Pakistani military deployments to major cities will cause commanders to shift their focus away from addressing the threat Pakistan faces from Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) if the deployments protract. The TTP is already attempting to exploit the protest movement and discredit the Pakistani state. A senior TTP commander commended the protests and urged TTP fighters to take the current “opportunity” to attack the military on May 11.[v] The commander also incited protesters to take up arms.[vi]
The crisis resulting from the arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the eruption of violent protests against the Pakistani military is deepening. Hostility between Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf Party (PTI) and the Pakistani military is causing PTI protesters to deliberately target military and police infrastructure across Pakistan. Demonstrators set fire to multiple police stations in Islamabad and exchanged small arms fire with Pakistani security forces outside the Frontier Corps’ headquarters in Peshawar on May 10.[i] Relations between Imran Khan and the Pakistani military have deteriorated since at least late 2021 when Imran Khan refused to approve senior Pakistani military appointments.[ii] Khan claimed that the Pakistani military and United States helped to remove him from office after an April 2022 vote of no-confidence, and separately accused Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Major General Faisal Naseer of an assassination attempt against Khan in November 2022.[iii] PTI supporters burned down Naseer’s home on May 10.[iv]
The Pakistani government may choose to expand its crackdown against the PTI in response to attacks on the military, which could exacerbate the protests and open new security gaps that Salafi-jihadi groups could exploit. Pakistani security forces arrested high-level PTI leaders, and the Pakistani cabinet discussed declaring a state of emergency on May 10.[v] The Pakistani prime minister called PTI protesters “terrorists” on May 10, suggesting the Pakistani government is preparing to crack down on unrest further.[vi] Pakistani military deployments to suppress protests on May 10 will constrain Pakistan’s ability to counter the Salafi-jihadi threat. The Pakistani military deployed to assist local security forces with quelling protests in Balochistan, Islamabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Punjab Provinces.[vii] Pakistan’s military capacity is already limited, and the government announced military expenditure cuts on April 26.[viii] The deployments could further delay a nationwide counter–Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan campaign which Pakistan’s chief of army staff announced on April 7.[ix]
Violent protests erupted across Pakistan after the arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 9.[i] These protests targeted Pakistani military facilities and institutions across Pakistan. Protesters stormed the Pakistani Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the regional parliament building for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Peshawar. Protesters also burned the IV Corps commander’s residence inside the military cantonment in Lahore. Protests against the Pakistani military are uncommon and represent a decline in public trust in the Pakistani military and state institutions.[ii] Khan accused the United States and Pakistan military of a conspiracy to remove him from office after the Pakistani parliament voted him out of office in April 2022.[iii] Khan and his Tehrik-e-Insaf Party (PTI) led several large-scale marches across Pakistan against the government to protest the vote of no confidence in 2022.[iv] Unknown attackers attempted to assassinate Khan in November 2022, leading to three weeks of widespread protests by PTI supporters who demonstrated outside military and government sites.[v] Protesters did not storm military and government sites during the unrest in November 2022.[vi]
The Pakistani security establishment’s decision to suppress these protests will constrain its ability to address the multiple security threats currently facing Pakistan. The Pakistani government deployed security forces, banned public gatherings in Islamabad, Punjab, and Balochistan Provinces, and cut internet access to quell the protests.[vii] These actions will present new opportunities for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic State’s provinces in Pakistan. Salafi-jihadi groups in Pakistan have strengthened since the Afghan Taliban rose to power in August 2021.[viii] Islamic State branches in Afghanistan and Pakistan--the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Islamic State Pakistan Province (ISPP)--maintain attack zones across large swaths of territory in Pakistan, including in diplomatic areas in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.[ix] The TTP, an umbrella organization of anti-Pakistani state militant groups, has increased attacks and expanded the scope of its operations since 2021.[x] Afghan Taliban and Pakistani security operations have degraded IS groups in recent years. However, these groups continue to exploit gaps in security to attack and leverage widespread discontent with the Pakistani state to recruit.[xi] Pakistani security service focus on suppressing unrest will likely distract Pakistani commanders’ attention from operations against Salafi-jihadi groups, especially if the unrest continues, and could offer dangerous opportunities for those groups.
May 4, 2023, 10:00 am ET
Iraq and Syria. The Turkish raid on an alleged ISIS safe house in northwestern Syria on April 28 likely killed an ISIS leader, but not the “caliph.” The US Defense Department said it “could not corroborate” Turkey’s claims that the raid killed the “caliph.”[i] The continued targeting of ISIS leadership is helpful, but it fails to address the group’s ability to embed itself within local populations. ISIS could leverage opportunities in US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled areas to cultivate relationships with local tribes opposed to SDF governance. The SDF approach to governance is counterproductive and causes resentment among local tribes.
Sudan. The al Qaeda and Islamic State networks in Africa will likely seek to use the Sudan conflict to improve their position on the continent. Numerous inmates escaped from a prison in Khartoum city beginning on April 22 amid clashes between Sudan’s two warring factions. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have previously used conflicts elsewhere in Africa to improve their position on the continent.
Pakistan. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants based in Afghanistan continue to direct TTP activities in Pakistani cities far outside of TTP’s recent attack zones. Police arrested two TTP militants for extortion in Karachi on April 26. Police said that TTP leadership in Afghanistan directed the militants to extort Pashtun traders. Pakistan will be unable to counter the TTP as TTP leadership continues to provide support from Afghanistan. Pakistan will also be unable to weaken the TTP in Pakistan as the TTP grows its attack capabilities and Islamabad cuts its military expenses.
Afghanistan. A former Taliban official close to Taliban Minister of Interior and Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani called on Taliban supporters in Europe and America to kill critics of the Taliban government. This official claimed the Taliban already had volunteers in Europe and America who could be organized to carry out assassinations of Taliban critics. A stated intent to establish networks to facilitate Taliban-ordered assassinations abroad presents a direct threat to critics of the Taliban—including US and European citizens.
April 27, 2023 | 10:00 am ET
Iraq and Syria. ISIS activity in Syria increased in the first quarter of 2023, in contrast with statements by the commander of the US-led counter-ISIS coalition, who that ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria had “decreased dramatically.”[i] ISIS attacks increased in the Syrian desert since 2022. ISIS attacks in northeastern Syria did decrease, but the decrease is likely due to the group’s prioritization of central Syria. ISIS’s continued ability to maintain support zones in Syria means that it remains a risk to Iraq’s hard-won stability, especially due to Iraq’s inability to successfully destroy ISIS support zones in rural areas.
Sahel. Overstretched security forces cannot contain al Qaeda–linked and IS-affiliated militants across Mali. Al Qaeda–linked militants have very likely established new support zones in central Mali despite increased counterterrorism efforts. The group is likely using these havens to support attacks on security forces in central and southern Mali—including the region surrounding Mali’s capital. Security forces are also unlikely to disrupt IS-affiliated militants growing support zones in northeastern Mali as they give more priority to the challenges in more politically sensitive areas of central and southern Mali.
Somalia. Al Shabaab suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attacks are continuing to pose a significant long-term threat to Somali counterterrorism efforts in north-central Somalia. The SVBIED attacks are exacting unsustainable human costs on US-trained Somali special forces and will undermine crucial local support for the Somali government. Al Shabaab will continue to halt Somali forces and exact an unsustainable human cost, barring improved Somali tactics or a second front that diminishes al Shabaab’s ability to concentrate its resources.
April 19, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Global Movement. The Islamic State is strengthening and expanding globally. US operations targeting senior leaders in the Islamic State’s network temporarily disrupt the organization and its affiliates but fail to slow its expansion. The Islamic State is pursuing multiple military campaigns in Syria, where it takes advantage of poor counterinsurgency forces and rural sanctuary. The group is also strengthening in the Sahel, where it has effectively neutralized Malian army forces and al Qaeda–affiliated adversaries in northeastern Mali.[i] US Central Command assesses that the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan could conduct an attack targeting the West within six months, pointing to the inadequacy of US counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan.[ii]
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is strengthening and expanding across Syria despite US raids targeting ISIS senior leadership. US raids eliminating senior leaders planning external attacks are good, but they are insufficient to defeat ISIS. The ISIS insurgency in central Syria is strengthening after successfully transitioning from defensive to offensive operations. ISIS is not a network of limited and ineffective sleeper cells, but rather a decentralized network of insurgents executing the early stages of a well-organized insurgency.
Sahel. Islamic State militants in the Sahel are strengthening their control over northeastern Mali. IS expansion in this area threatens US interests and personnel in neighboring Niger. IS core is likely using its global network to help its local affiliate appeal to civilians and set conditions to consolidate territorial control in northeastern Mali. Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Malian army, and Wagner Group are unlikely to undo IS’s gains in this area. The attempted coup in Sudan is also creating opportunities for the global Islamic State and al Qaeda networks to strengthen their influence in the region—and attack US personnel, in a worst-case scenario.
Pakistan. The Pakistani military is incorrectly defining the target of a nationwide military campaign against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan is overemphasizing the Afghan nationalities of TTP fighters to deflect blame and pressure the Afghan Taliban to target TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Pakistan is unlikely to target these sanctuaries because Pakistani proxies are also located in some of these areas.
Afghanistan. The Taliban conducted operations to clear poppy fields in remote areas of eastern Afghanistan, which led to violent clashes that killed several local civilians. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will likely exploit these operations to rebuild its traditional support bases in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban continues to conduct poppy-clearing operations even though these operations risk increasing support for anti-Taliban groups.
April 12, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is executing a decentralized military campaign in northeastern Syria to destabilize the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). ISIS strategic communications provide guidance for operational and tactical commanders implementing the campaign. ISIS’s campaign design assumes military success will gain the support of local populations by delegitimizing the SDF as a security provider while lengthening the conflict to create time for ISIS to set conditions for the return to the “caliphate.”
Somalia. The Somali Federal Government’s (SFG) inability to escalate multiple fronts against al Shabaab could allow the group to repel renewed Somali offensive operations in central Somalia. Insufficient local support and the absence of expected regional troops are preventing or delaying the SFG from expanding additional fronts in central and southern Somalia, which will allow al Shabaab to concentrate its resources on the active Somali forces more effectively. Outreach to clans in central Somalia or the arrival of Kenyan or Djiboutian troops in Somalia could enable the SFG to increase operations on another front.
Pakistan. A large-scale campaign against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is unlikely to model previous Pakistani counterterrorism campaigns that helped contain the TTP between 2007 and 2014. The decentralization of the TTP, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, and increasingly complex political conditions may limit the effectiveness of any potential campaign.
Afghanistan. Recent Taliban operations targeting Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) are targeting its ground lines of communication (GLOC) into Iran. Iran may be conditioning closer trade ties with the Taliban government on the Taliban giving priority to targeting ISKP networks near the Afghanistan-Iran border.
April 5, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will likely remain unable to address coordination issues on the line of control between Iraqi Kurdistan and federal Iraq, likely enabling ISIS to continue its low-grade insurgency in Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries (DIB). ISIS uses the unsecured areas between Iraqi Kurdistan and federal Iraq to enable attacks against urban areas, such as Kirkuk city, and to resupply its attack cells across eastern Iraq. The coordination issues between the ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga will likely continue indefinitely without a political solution to the DIB issue, as stipulated under the 2005 Iraqi constitution.
Burkina Faso. The Burkinabe junta has significantly increased drone strikes targeting al Qaeda and Islamic State–affiliated militants since late March 2023 to compensate for manpower capacity limitations and boost its popular support. The drone strikes may temporarily degrade the insurgents’ support zones and their ability to organize large-scale attacks on Burkinabe forces. However, both groups will likely adapt to continue attacks, and the junta’s use of drone strikes will not address the inherent manpower shortage that constrains Burkina Faso’s counterinsurgency operations.
Mali. Al Qaeda–linked militants have continued attacking Malian security forces in the region surrounding Mali’s capital since it launched an offensive in the area in January 2023. The campaign demonstrates the militants’ ability to sustain attacks in southern Mali and increases the likelihood that they have established support zones near the Malian capital. The group likely seeks to primarily discredit and undermine the junta’s legitimacy with this campaign and will likely focus on military targets over civilian targets to achieve this goal.
Afghanistan. The Taliban have conducted more raids targeting Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Mazar-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan’s largest city, over the past three weeks than in the rest of 2023 combined. ISKP is expanding to areas in northern Afghanistan where CTP has not previously observed ISKP activity. The Taliban supreme leader is planning to purge suspected ISKP sympathizers in the Taliban’s ranks, which may reduce ISKP’s ability to attack high-value Taliban targets. This purge risks further marginalizing non-Pashtun Taliban leaders and increasing support for anti-Taliban groups, including ISKP.
March 29, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq and Syria. ISIS remains a viable insurgency in Syria that aspires to reestablish a territorial caliphate. The US presence in Syria enables the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to maintain sufficient pressure to prevent ISIS’s insurgency from increasing in strength rapidly, but deficiencies in the SDF’s capabilities and a lack of coordination with counterinsurgent forces in regime-held Syria means the SDF is unlikely to be able to defeat ISIS. The SDF remains the most reliable counter-ISIS partner for the United States in Syria. The Syrian regime is incapable of containing ISIS and often tacitly allows ISIS resurgence in select areas.
Somalia. Al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate al Shabaab has retained its vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) capabilities in central Somalia, which could help it overturn recent counterterrorism gains. The group will likely continue manufacturing VBIEDs because Somali counterterrorism forces cannot adequately disrupt its supply chains and likely lack the capacity to degrade its havens in the area as the government gives more priority to opening a second front in southern Somalia. Al Shabaab will likely use VBIEDs to target and overrun vulnerable holding forces. Meanwhile, seasonal flooding in Somalia could affect the timeline and scope of the next phase of the Somali Federal Government’s (SFG) offensive in southern Somalia.
Mali. An al Qaeda–linked shadow governor in northern Mali indirectly threatened to attack the US, UK, and EU countries, underscoring the transnational Salafi-jihadi threat emanating from the Sahel. CTP continues to assess that the al Qaeda–linked group in the Sahel is unlikely to pursue transnational attack targets in the West in the near future, although there are signs and past patterns that indicate this could change. The group’s growing freedom in northern Mali increases its ability to host and support transnational attack cells, should it choose to pursue such aims.
Pakistan. The integration of new groups into the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) could foreshadow TTP attacks in high-population areas, which would likely have a more deadly and destructive effect and pressure the Pakistani military to respond. The TTP has increasingly integrated independent jihadi groups into its fold since December 2022. The groups likely have not previously played a major role in TTP, unlike TTP splinter groups that rejoined it between 2020 and 2021. However, the location in which the new mergers operate poses a challenge to the Pakistani government.
Afghanistan. The Taliban supreme leader removed the Taliban minister of finance, which may open new rifts in the Taliban’s traditional support base. The Taliban supreme leader’s efforts to form his own military forces may exacerbate concerns he is monopolizing power and further escalate Taliban government infighting.
March 22, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq and Syria. ISIS increased attacks targeting a pro-regime tribe north of Deir ez Zor city, Syria, to drive a wedge between regime forces and tribal fighters in the area. ISIS is attempting to illustrate the regime’s inability or unwillingness to support the tribe, which has had a troubled relationship with regime forces in the past. ISIS likely exploited the relief and replacement of regime forces north of Deir ez Zor city to increase its attacks, indicating the group’s continued tactical and organizational expertise.
Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Islamic State has used its global network to rapidly grow its affiliate based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The group’s growth demonstrates the danger the IS global network poses by enabling terror groups across Africa, and its regional aims threaten nearby US counterterrorism partners, which could jeopardize counterterrorism missions elsewhere in Africa. Diverging interests between regional security forces likely will prevent Congolese and Ugandan forces from containing or defeating the group. The shortcomings of regional and US efforts to degrade the group and the global IS network increase the likelihood this group will continue to strengthen its threat to US and African interests in central and southern Africa.
Pakistan. Pakistani government officials are attempting to use the security situation in northwestern Pakistan to delay elections for the foreseeable future. The governor for Khyber Pakhtunkwa province said on March 17 that the regional government will postpone provincial elections until Pakistan addresses the expansion of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan has held elections in this region during periods of significantly higher TTP activity, indicating that the postponement is due to political conflicts rather than the TTP threat.
March 16, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is not defeated, and it will continue to plan attacks against Western targets while setting conditions for a resurgence in Iraq and Syria. The US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander highlighted the continued threat of ISIS efforts to break out prisoners from detention facilities in northeast Syria and sympathizers from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. A US withdrawal—as suggested by a recent congressional resolution—would inadvertently improve ISIS’s fortunes in Iraq and Syria, where it would focus on freeing veteran cadres and building support in rural areas. A US withdrawal would likely force the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to deprioritize anti-ISIS efforts to counter Syrian regime and Turkish incursions into SDF-controlled areas.
Sahel: Ongoing infighting between al Qaeda and Islamic State–affiliated militants in the Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger tri-border area that has surged since the French withdrawal from Mali in 2022 will likely increase local support for both groups. Ethnic tensions have played into the clashes and worsened human rights abuses against civilians, forcing locals to support a side for protection. The al Qaeda–linked faction will likely remain the dominant group in the region but be unable to eliminate the Islamic State militants. The resulting stalemate will likely become a self-feeding conflict that will strengthen both sides in the coming months and years.
Afghanistan. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is expanding its attack operations in northern Afghanistan. An ISKP suicide bomber killed a top Taliban leader in northern Afghanistan on March 11. Repeated Taliban security failures indicate the Taliban is unlikely to be successful in containing ISKP’s growth in northern Afghanistan.
Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may launch a limited spring offensive on Pakistani security forces. The Hafiz Gul Bahadur TTP faction announced a spring offensive on March 12. Conflicting statements from TTP leadership on a spring offensive could be a result of the Afghan Taliban attempting to restrain the TTP after high-level talks between Pakistan and the Taliban. The TTP leadership’s apparent halt of its spring offensive could lead to fracturing in the organization if the Hafiz Gul Bahadar faction carries out its own offensive.
March 8, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Syria. ISIS has increased its attacks in Syria’s central desert since early February, likely to secure resources and ISIS supply lines between northeast and central Syria. The group focused on targeting civilians for economic gain in central Syria, while targeting regime and Iran-backed forces closer to the Euphrates River to maintain supply lines. The corresponding decrease in ISIS attacks in northeastern Syria is not due to counterterrorism pressure or the group giving lower priority to northeastern Syria, but instead may have been preparation for a major attack targeting detention facilities.
Somalia. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) will begin a major offensive targeting al Shabaab–controlled areas of southern Somalia in the coming months. The SFG will likely be able to contest significant portions of southern Somalia’s Lower Jubba region during the offensive because it has competent and well-equipped clearing forces. It is highly unlikely that the SFG will penetrate the al Shabaab heartland in the neighboring Middle Jubba region, because of strong al Shabaab resistance. However, the offensive could still weaken al Shabaab and set conditions for future offensives by targeting al Shabaab logistical nodes in Lower Jubba. The SFG will likely struggle to hold newly contested areas in the long term because of a lack of adequate holding forces.
Afghanistan. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) may be shifting its attack pattern to increasingly target civilians associated with the Taliban government. The Taliban may respond to increased ISKP attacks targeting civilians by carrying out more aggressive counter-ISKP operations in suspected ISKP support areas. These Taliban counter-ISKP operations will likely cause significant civilian casualties. In the most dangerous scenario, this could foment further instability in Afghanistan and increase support for ISKP.
India. ISKP may be unable to replace its leader for India operations, Ejaz Ahangar, for several months. The Afghan Taliban killed the leader in Kabul, Afghanistan, on February 14. ISKP claimed two attacks in India in 2022 on March 4, possibly to highlight its capabilities and offset the effects of Ahangar’s death on the group’s recruitment from India. ISKP is likely overstating its role in these attacks to benefit its India recruitment.
March 1, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq. Iran-backed Shi’a militants likely massacred unarmed Sunni civilians in Diyala on February 20. ISIS has not commented on the attack. Pro-Iran politicians accused ISIS of the attack, likely in an effort to obfuscate responsibility. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) arrested 18 suspects in the attack, though it is highly unlikely the Iraqi government will hold the perpetrators accountable. ISIS may use this attack to position itself as a protector of the local community. ISIS may do this by targeting local security forces, particularly Shi’a militias, to illustrate its capabilities to locals.
Afghanistan. Iranian security assistance may be supporting recent Taliban counterterrorism successes against Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Taliban forces killed ISKP’s chief of military operations and the former leader of Islamic State Hind Province (ISHP) in Kabul on February 26 and February 14, respectively. ISKP operations may be hindered in the short run, but these killings are unlikely to have a decisive impact on ISKP over the long run.
February 22, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq. The Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) inability to defeat ISIS in the northern Baghdad Belts could allow ISIS to attack Baghdad itself. An ISIS attack against Baghdad would be a propaganda boon for the group, while possibly triggering sectarian violence and ISF command changes that could improve the group’s position. The level of ISF pressure on ISIS in the northern Baghdad Belts is likely sufficient to disrupt ISIS attacks against Baghdad, though ISIS is attempting to undermine ISF cohesion in the area. ISF is unlikely to defeat ISIS without a major operation involving capable Iraqi Army forces. ISIS will continue to be able to resupply its attack cells and attack ISF forces in the northern Belts without a major counter-ISIS operation.
Sahel. Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) is likely consolidating control over rural areas of southeastern Burkina Faso. The group is likely using these expanded havens to increase activity in neighboring regions of Burkina Faso and the littoral states. A Burkinese overemphasis on military solutions without successfully addressing underlying social issues risks backfiring, inflaming local tensions that feed JNIM recruitment in the area.
Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) conducted its most deadly attack in Karachi in southeastern Pakistan since 2016, indicating an expansion of TTP attack zones and an increase in TTP capabilities in Karachi. Pakistani security forces will likely conduct counter-TTP operations in Karachi in the near term. Pakistan could strike TTP militants in Afghanistan in a less likely scenario. Pakistan continues to seek engagement with the Afghan Taliban on terrorism-related issues, and a Pakistani attack in Afghanistan could undermine discussions between the two sides.
February 15, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Somalia. Several large-scale al Shabaab attacks on military bases across Somalia highlight that Somali counterterrorism efforts have not weakened the group’s attack capabilities. Meanwhile, al Shabaab is also well positioned to take advantage of a festering clan-based conflict in northern Somalia’s disputed regions. A prolonged battle would reduce counterterrorism pressure on al Shabaab and Islamic State havens in northern Somalia.
Mali. The Malian junta appointed several pro-Russian figures to high-ranking military positions, indicating growing Russian influence over the Malian government. The junta could be planning to leverage Russian assistance in a northern Mali offensive in a highly unlikely but dangerous scenario. Any such offensive would likely increase links between militia groups and al Qaeda’s Sahelian branch without having long-term success.
Afghanistan. Taliban Minister of Interior and Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani issued a rare public criticism of the Taliban leadership, indicating escalating tensions in the Taliban government. Tension in the Taliban movement will continue to build but is unlikely to result in an intra-Taliban civil war in the short run. However, the Taliban supreme leader’s unwillingness to compromise will alienate important Taliban leaders and raise the risk of fracturing the Taliban movement over time.
February 8, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Yemen. Escalating competition within the Yemeni government will reduce counterterrorism pressure on al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and allow the group to increase its influence in the country’s south. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) support different groups with divergent political objectives in Yemen, and recent Saudi efforts to arm a Yemeni ally may increase discord and infighting within the Yemeni government. This infighting will in turn draw Yemeni security forces away from managing the Salafi-jihadi threat in southern Yemen.
Somalia. A decrease in al Shabaab bombings in central Somalia likely indicates a lull rather than the end of the group’s counteroffensive against the Somali government. Somali forces initiated an offensive to recapture al Shabaab–controlled areas in central Somalia’s Galgudud and Hirshabelle regions in January 2023. Al Shabaab surged explosive attacks in January and early February 2023 in response. The group tends to launch explosive attacks in clusters, so the current decline in attacks may indicate preparations for a larger counterattack.
Mali. Al Qaeda’s Sahel branch is taking advantage of the lack of counterterrorism pressure and state presence in northern Mali to position itself as the primary power broker in the area, including striking agreements with local groups that previously collaborated with French counterterrorism forces. Militants are simultaneously pressuring Mali’s junta with increased attacks in southern Mali. Meanwhile, Mali’s relationships with its foreign partners continue to deteriorate. The junta’s pressure on the United Nations mission in Mali will likely push major contingents to withdraw in the near term, worsening the security vacuum that Salafi-jihadi militants will fill in the country’s north.
Afghanistan. The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) is isolating the Taliban government by targeting its diplomatic relations. This campaign has included both online propaganda and attacks on diplomatic facilities and foreign citizens in Kabul. ISKP attacks delegitimize the Taliban by targeting areas of Kabul that are meant to be highly secure, and the likely presence of ISKP informants in the Taliban government hinders an effective response. Internal tensions in the Taliban government will increase as its isolation and resourcing challenge grows.
February 1, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) likely made a strategic choice to decrease its attacks in some areas of Iraq to enable their use as transit zones. ISIS continues to use Ninewa province in northwestern Iraq to move supplies and personnel to support its attack cells in eastern Iraq. Iraq’s government is attempting to limit ISIS movements, though Ninewa’s geographic and demographic features challenge this effort. ISIS likely retains some access to rural Arab communities due to Yazidi-Arab tensions stemming from aftermath of ISIS atrocities and subsequent retribution attacks in the 2014-2017 period.
Somalia. The Islamic State is leveraging networks across multiple continents to sustain both new and established affiliates. A US military raid in northern Somalia killed a key ISIS facilitator in northern Somalia. This facilitator oversaw a sprawling financial and logistical support network from Somalia that coordinated trainers and funding to Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique. His death may temporarily disrupt these activities.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) significantly escalated its attack campaign against the Pakistani state with a major suicide bombing targeting police in northwestern Pakistan on January 30. Conflicting TTP responses to the attack could demonstrate internal TTP divisions over strategy and ideology. These divisions, as well as tensions between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP faction that conducted the attack, could lead this faction to ally itself with the Islamic State’s branch in the region. Afghan Taliban support for the TTP will continue to strain the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan and increases the likelihood of Pakistani military action against TTP havens in Afghanistan.
January 25, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Somalia. Al Shabaab continued a wave of suicide attacks against Somali forces, including its first major tactical victory in central Somalia, where it overran a base used by US-trained special forces. These attacks are retaliation against a months-long Somali Federal Government (SFG)–led effort to oust al Shabaab from its positions in central Somalia. The SFG may open a second front against al Shabaab in southern Somalia, but this effort faces more hurdles than the central Somalia campaign.
Sahel. Malign actors are exploiting security vacuums left by the French withdrawal from Mali and Burkina Faso. Al Qaeda–affiliated Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) has emerged as the only viable security partner for Tuareg communities facing Islamic State violence in northeastern Mali. This situation forces communities to partner with JNIM in self-defense, solidifying the groups’ influence across northeastern Mali. JNIM is also active in Burkina Faso, where the country’s military leaders recently ended a military deal with France and are seeking partnership with the Russian Wagner Group. Wagner’s presence will increase violence against Burkinabe civilians, to the benefit of Salafi-jihadi groups—as it has in Mali since Wagner arrived in 2021.
Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is increasingly taking control over terrain in Pakistan since ending a cease-fire with the government in November 2022. The TTP announced organizational changes in December 2022 to facilitate increased governance activities. TTP militants also attempted to collect taxes in Pakistan for the first time in over a year in late January.
January 18, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Syria. A potential Turkish military operation into northern Syria could draw the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) away from counter-ISIS efforts. The SDF commander is warning of an imminent Turkish incursion. Even a limited Turkish invasion would drain SDF resources and likely allow ISIS to accelerate its efforts to erode and replace SDF governance structures in eastern Syria.
Somalia. Anti–al Shabaab forces notched a significant victory in an ongoing offensive in central Somalia by capturing two logistical and financial hubs from al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has stepped up suicide attacks in response to the offensive, but its loss of these locations may harm its ability to sustain a counterattack over time. Al Shabaab’s withdrawal from the captured towns likely indicates that it withdrew in preparation for a future counterattack, though there are also limited indicators that the group is losing bandwidth and morale.
Mali. Al Qaeda’s Sahel branch increased attacks near the Malian capital in a likely effort to undermine the legitimacy of the Malian junta, which has promised to increase security in the country. The uptick in attacks indicates that Salafi-jihadi militants likely have access to enduring havens in southwestern Mali, signaling a shift in the militants’ ability to threaten Mali’s government and largest city.
Afghanistan. The Taliban government is conducting information operations to deflect blame for ongoing security failures. Taliban security measures have failed to prevent assassinations and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) attacks in major cities. A leaked Taliban Ministry of Defense document blamed Pakistan for the infiltration of ISKP fighters into Afghanistan. Poorly resourced Taliban border security forces will struggle to control the Afghan-Pakistan border and prevent ISKP cross-border movement.
January 12, 2023 | 10:00am ET
Syria. Deteriorating relationships between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and local communities will likely advantage the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) as it seeks to expand its shadow governance in eastern Syria. Tensions have spiked over reported SDF human rights abuses in communities it suspects of harboring ISIS fighters in Deir Ezzor province. ISIS is likely taking advantage of the SDF’s abuse of civilians by retaliating against the SDF to promote itself as an alternative, while also using threats and intimidation to recruit local allies.
Somalia. Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, is attempting to push back an effort by Somali government and local forces to oust the group from positions in central Somalia. Somali forces, with US support, have removed al Shabaab from several strongholds in central and south-central Somalia. Al Shabaab is retaliating with attacks intended to pin Somali forces in their positions and intimidate local militias. The group is likely not pursuing negotiations with the Somali government, despite media reports of talks.
Afghanistan-Pakistan. An escalating insurgency in Pakistan is straining relations between the Pakistani government and the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has increased attacks in Pakistan since November 2022. The TTP has ties to the Afghan Taliban and maintains havens inside Afghanistan. The relationship between the Afghan Taliban government and Pakistan has deteriorated over the past few months due to increasing border clashes and the Taliban government’s failure to reign in TTP attacks targeting Pakistan. The Pakistani government is now likely considering a renewed military effort against the TTP to include strikes in Afghan territory. The Taliban government will seek to avoid open military conflict with Pakistan but will remain either unable or unwilling to restrict TTP operations targeting Pakistan from Afghanistan.