Analysis: DIA head warns al Qaeda in Syria may gain ground in 2015

The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, warned during congressional testimony yesterday that the “security challenges” the US faces are “more diverse and complex than those we have experienced in our lifetimes.” Stewart delivered his remarks to the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing devoted to assessing worldwide threats.

While Stewart addressed diverse national security issues, much of his written testimony was focused on what was once called the global war on terror.

Al Qaeda in Syria may “expand its territory,” while threatening the West

The Islamic State’s advances in Iraq and Syria have understandably garnered most of the headlines since the middle of last year. But the Islamic State’s rivals in the Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda, have been gaining ground over the past several months. And the DIA is concerned that Al Nusrah will continue to advance inside Syria and elsewhere, while also enabling senior al Qaeda operatives to plan attacks against the West.

The DIA expects Al Nusrah “will try to expand its territory in 2015 beyond its Syrian operating areas and enhance its operational capabilities in Lebanon, where it already conducts operations.”

“As part of the larger al Qaeda network,” Stewart writes, “we are concerned about the support Al Nusrah Front provides to transnational terrorist attack plotting against US and Western interests.” In particular, he highlighted the threat posed by the so-called Khorasan Group, “a cadre of experienced al Qaeda operatives that works closely with and relies upon al Nusrah Front to provide personnel and space for training facilities in northwestern Syria.” The Khorasan Group “is primarily focused on transnational terrorist attack plotting.”

In the past, US officials have tried to draw a line between the Khorasan Group and Al Nusrah, as if the two were almost distinct entities. [See LWJ report, Analysis: CENTCOM draws misleading line between Al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group.] In reality, both are simply al Qaeda. And Stewart’s testimony makes it clear that the Khorasan Group’s operatives are deeply embedded within Al Nusrah.

The US-led coalition struck Al Nusrah and the Khorasan Group in September of last year, but has not made targeting al Qaeda in Syria a priority since then.

The DIA thinks that the airstrikes “probably killed a number of senior al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group operatives, but the group almost certainly has maintained some capability to continue plotting against Western interests.”

Air campaign damaging, not defeating Islamic State

The implication of Stewart’s testimony is that the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is only somewhat effective in containing the organization. Stewart refers to the group by an acronym of its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or ISIL).

Since Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s fighters stormed their way through much of Iraq last spring and summer, he writes, “coalition airstrikes have resulted in the removal of a number of ISIL senior leaders and degraded the group’s ability to operate openly in Iraq and Syria.” And ISIL has hit a natural barrier to its expansion as “[s]eizing and holding Shia and Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq…will continue to be difficult.”

However, the DIA expects “ISIL to continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria while also fighting for territory outside those areas.” He predicts that ISIL will “continue limited offensive operations, such as the group’s recent operations in Syria and in Anbar province of Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government continues to need substantial external support. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) remain “unable to defend against external threats or sustain conventional military operations against internal challenges without foreign assistance,” Stewart writes.

A “stalemate” in Afghanistan

US-led forces have been battling jihadists for control of Afghanistan since late 2001. But the jihadists are far from defeated, and the situation is likely to get worse in the wake of America’s drawdown in forces. While the DIA expects the Afghan government to be able to protect major urban areas, the jihadists will continue to use their safe havens in rural areas to challenge the state’s authority.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) “remain stalemated with the Taliban-led insurgency,” Stewart explains. The DIA expects the ANSF “to maintain stability and security in Kabul and key urban areas while retaining freedom of movement on major highways.”

“However, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their extremist allies will likely seek to exploit the reduced Coalition presence by pressuring ANSF units in rural areas, conducting high profile attacks in major population centers, and expanding their safe havens,” the DIA chief warns.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) “will continue to struggle with permanently denying the insurgents freedom of movement in rural areas,” Stewart writes.

Each of the main Afghan organizations charged with battling the insurgents is plagued by serious problems. The ANA is “constrained by its stretched airlift and logistical capacity,” and suffers from “[h]igh attrition” rates. The Afghan National Police (ANP) suffers from “manpower shortages, inadequate training, attrition, logistics shortfalls, and the corrosive influence of corruption.” And the Afghan Air Force (AAF) “is not a reliable source of close air support and still struggles with recruiting qualified pilots and technicians.”

As a result of these problems and the jihadists’ resilience, the “Taliban will probably sustain the capability to propagate a rural-based insurgency that can project intermittent attacks in urban areas through at least 2018.”

Al Qaeda is eyeing a continuing decline in Western counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan as an opportunity, according to Stewart. Al Qaeda “will continue to use its remaining paramilitary units, trained recruits, and extremist affiliates and allies to target Western interests in South Asia and worldwide.”

And Ayman al Zawahiri’s organization “also will likely try to expand its limited presence in eastern Afghanistan … in the face of continued [counterterrorism] pressure from Pakistan” and less resistance from Western forces.

Competition between the Islamic State, al Qaeda

Several parts of Stewart’s testimony deal with the competition between the Islamic State (or ISIL) and al Qaeda. The DIA chief says that al Qaeda’s “core” is “now focused on physical survival following battlefield losses” and “is trying to retain its status as the vanguard of the global extremist movement, being eclipsed now by ISIL’s rising global prominence and powerful competition for adherents.”

The notion of a “core” al Qaeda is a fuzzy one in the US government’s lexicon, as it is rarely, if ever, precisely defined. And the DIA’s assessment is at odds with other conclusions in his testimony.

As Stewart himself testified, al Qaeda will likely try to expand its presence in Afghanistan in the coming months. So its “battlefield losses” have not been that devastating. Moreover, “core” al Qaeda operatives staff the Khorasan group and Al Nusrah, which the DIA believes could continue to grow throughout 2015, while also threatening the West.

“Core” al Qaeda operatives are stationed throughout the world, including inside al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The general manager of al Qaeda’s global network, Nasir al Wuhayshi, also serves as the emir of AQAP, a regional branch of al Qaeda. The rise of the Houthis, Shia rebels in Yemen who receive some support from Iran, over a Sunni government allied with US interests, has greatly complicated America’s counterterrorism mission. “Current conditions are providing AQAP operational space,” Stewart notes.

And the DIA director explains that despite the challenge from ISIL, al Qaeda “core” in Pakistan “continues to retain the loyalty of its global affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, Syria, and South Asia.”

The Long War Journal assesses that these “affiliates,” which al Qaeda refers to as “branches,” are currently stronger than ISIL’s international network. ISIL has cut into al Qaeda’s market share as the “vanguard” of the global jihadist movement, but it has not “eclipsed” al Qaeda.

Still, Stewart and the DIA are rightly concerned about the “spread of ISIL beyond Syria and Iraq.” Stewart mentions ISIL “affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, Libya,” which give Baghdadi’s group “a growing international footprint that includes ungoverned and under governed areas.”

In Egypt and Libya, ISIL’s followers are a rising threat. The Sinai faction of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), which officially joined ISIL in November, has increased its capacity for significant attacks on the Egyptian police and military. Other jihadist groups that are not aligned with ISIL, including Ajnad Misr, remain a problem.

In Libya, ISIL has gained a foothold because of the return of hundreds of foreign fighters from Iraqi and Syrian battlefields. The attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli last month underscores ISIL’s growing capabilities inside the country. “ISIL has increased its presence and influence in Libya, particularly in [Derna], where it has begun establishing Islamic institutions,” Stewart writes. ISIL does have a significant presence in Derna, but so do other jihadist groups that are not part of Baghdadi’s international coalition. The Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna and its constituent groups remain a prominent force, but they are not loyal to ISIL. Similarly, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council and Ansar al Sharia carry out the bulk of the fighting in Benghazi. They are not part of ISIL’s coalition either.

And in Algeria, the jihadists loyal to ISIL have executed some attacks, but they do not yet appear to be a major force.

Pakistan “remains concerned about ISIL outreach and propaganda in South Asia,” Stewart explains. ISIL has launched a nascent effort to build up its presence in the region, garnering the support of former Pakistani Taliban commanders and Afghan Taliban castoffs. But here, too, ISIL’s reach is not nearly as pronounced as the Taliban or al Qaeda and its allies, few of whom have endorsed Baghdadi’s “caliphate” project.

However, Stewart says, the “robust foreign terrorist fighter flow” will continue to benefit ISIL and help the organization expand its international presence.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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6 Comments

  • Tom says:

    I find the whole discussion thoroughly dis-heartening. Another story about the unexpected persistence of ISIS that fails to flip the coin properly and examine the interelationship between ISIS and Iran. The DDIA failes to even mention Iran during his comments about Iraq, the in describing Iran’s threat actually says “Iran’s military posture is primarily defensive”. Meanwhile we’ve seen IRGC and QF senior officers killed in Iraq and Syria, watch Iran vigorously push it’s military in to both places and all anyone wants to discuss is ISIS. Did anyone stop to think that maybe ISIS resulted from a combination of American power drawing down and Sunni fear over the expansion of Iran? I wonder whether LTG Alexander thinks that the Gulf nations fear ISIS or Iran more?

  • sundoesntrise says:

    In my experience, Jihadists do not like this type of honest, accurate, fact-based assessment. They want everyone to be intimidated when they raise their index fingers in the air, and they constantly claim “we are coming” and that they will overrun the entire world toe-to-toe with military force, which is obviously just a fantasy they indulge in. 10 guys in ski masks in a rural area making threats doesn’t phase the world anymore.

  • Jim says:

    It is very heartening to see how these heartless terrorist groups are getting more and strongly rooted. The way they are influencing the youth of other part of the world, it is quite scary. Defense heads around the world need to act and act quickly.

  • mike merlo says:

    @Tom
    “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and Lebanese Hizballah are instruments of Iran’s foreign policy and its ability to project power in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Hizballah continues to support the regime of Syrian President Asad, pro-regime militants and Iraqi Shia militants in Syria. Hizballah has sent trainers and advisors to Iraq to assist Iranian and Iraqi Shia militias fighting Sunni extremists there. Select Iraqi Shia militant groups also warned of their willingness to fight U.S. forces returning to Iraq.”
    LTG Alexander

  • Dan says:

    AQ’s influence and strength will also certainly benefit from the funding, equipping and training of Obama’s “vetted” Syrian “moderates” as well. Something I would guess Stewart is also using in this assessment..

  • Dan says:

    Tom,
    When discussing the (perceived) interrelationship(s) between Iran and Islamic State, I think you miss the realities on the ground.
    Primarily, this is a war of ideologies that spreads throughout the world however, contained within the Middle East (for now). Iran is playing a large part because its ideology sits opposite Islamic State’s, and they are doing a helluva lot more than the US in fighting it head-on.
    This is why we are seeing IRGC-QF involvement in both Iraq and Syria, whether it be KIA’s or leadership roles – they have a much bigger necessity to at least contain Islamic State than we (the West) does.
    Further, it would be remiss of any high-level US personnel to discuss any relationship the Iranians have during the ongoing nuclear discussions. But you can be assured there is some level — relatively extensive — of cooperation between the US, and Iran in the fight against IS – there has to be purely because of the AO’s, and the sometimes close proximities each is fighting in.
    There is so much more happening in the Middle East right now that forbids exclusivity pertaining to one country. Every country in the region has its own agenda WRT IS, every country in the region has its own agenda pertaining to its various ideologies and every country in the region is relying on the US to assist with this. It’s an intricate web of assistance that can easily be followed if closely observed but can also be misinterpreted if observing through a large aperture.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis