On May 11, the new Director of National Intelligence, Daniel R. Coats, presented the US Intelligence Community’s (IC) “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate. Coats’ predecessor, James Clapper, explained during a hearing in Nov. 2016 that the IC collects and analyzes more intelligence on jihadist groups now than ever. The written analysis presented by Coats provides an update on how the IC views these same threat streams six months later.
Everyone agrees that the Islamic State is losing territory, but the IC’s analysts warn that the group is likely capable of sustaining insurgencies in both Iraq and Syria. In fact, Baghdadi’s men are already conducting guerrilla warfare and launching spectacular terror attacks in their theaters of war on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Taliban-led insurgents are on the rise in Afghanistan. And while counterterrorism forces around the globe have made it more difficult for al Qaeda to plan a large, 9/11-style plot, the organization remains a threat in several parts of the globe.
The Islamic State “continues to pose an active terrorist threat to the United States and its allies because of its ideological appeal, media presence, control of territory in Iraq and Syria, its branches and networks in other countries, and its proven ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world,” the IC’s analysts write. In other words, nearly three years after it declared itself to be a caliphate, the Islamic State isn’t close to being finished.
The US has waged a prolific campaign against the group’s “external operations” planners, some of whom are focused on plotting attacks in the West. But the ODNI assesses that the Islamic State “maintains the intent and capability to direct, enable, assist, and inspire transnational attacks.” As territory slips from the organization’s grasp, some foreign fighters might “look for new battlefields or return to their home countries to conduct or support external operations.”
The so-called caliphate is taking steps to keep fighting, despite losing ground in Iraq and Syria, as well as other “parts of its global network” being degraded.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) hints that Baghdadi’s loyalists still run an international network that is at least somewhat cohesive. The so-called caliphate “is seeking to foster interconnectedness among its global branches and networks, align their efforts to ISIS’s strategy, and withstand counter-ISIS efforts,” the IC’s analysts write.
From the caliphate to insurgency
Even though Mosul is falling, and Raqqa is under assault from multiple sides, the Islamic State is “unlikely to announce that it is ending its self-declared caliphate.” Instead, the jihadists will wage an insurgency in the areas it once controlled as well as elsewhere.
The ODNI’s written testimony points to ongoing issues in the US government’s strategy for countering the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Despite the fact that the self-declared caliphate “has lost about 45 percent of the territory it held in Syria” as of Aug. 2014, it “still controls much of the eastern section of the country,” including Raqqa. In other words, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s jihadists continue to hold onto more than half the turf they controlled inside Syria at their peak.
More importantly, the group “will likely have enough resources and fighters to sustain insurgency operations and plan terrorists [sic] attacks in the region and internationally” going forward.
The ODNI’s written testimony also highlights the inherent tensions in the anti-Islamic State strategy, including the role played by America’s partners inside Syria. “Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) control much of northern Syria and have worked closely with coalition forces to seize terrain from ISIS,” the testimony reads. Just this past week, the YPG played a role in the liberation of Tabqah, a major Islamic State stronghold.
However, America’s partnership with the YPG raises other problems. The “YPG’s goal to unite its ‘cantons’ across northern Syria is opposed by most Syrian Arabs and Turkey, which views these Kurdish aspirations as a threat to its security.” This means it will be difficult for the YPG to implement long-term governance in northern Syria outside of the areas where it has a natural base of support. Moreover, Turkey works to “weaken ISIS” and to “check the Kurds,” including America’s surrogate ground forces, by using “Syrian opposition groups, backed by Turkish artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles, to establish a border security zone in Syria.”
The Islamic State is “preparing to regroup and continue an insurgency and terrorist campaign” in Iraq as well. The fall of Mosul won’t end matters.
The US is relying on an ad hoc alliance of partners in Iraq, including the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the “Shia-dominated” Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC). All three are “involved” in the Mosul campaign. But the ODNI warns that America’s direct or de facto partners have different goals. “As the Mosul campaign progresses,” the testimony reads, “Baghdad faces potential tensions between the Kurds and the Iranian-backed PMC members over disputed territory while also managing the Turkish presence in northern Iraq.”
Iraq’s various ethnicities remain at odds, of course, and the Iraqi government is besieged by problems.
Therefore, the ODNI concludes, the Islamic State “will seek to exploit any Sunni discontent with Baghdad and try to regain Iraqi territory, whereas the Kurds will probably continue efforts to establish an independent state.”
In sum, the US intelligence community clearly doesn’t think Baghdadi’s enterprise will be completely defeated any time soon.
“During the past 16 years,” the IC’s analysts write, “US and global counterterrorism (CT) partners have significantly reduced al Qaeda’s ability to carry out large-scale, mass casualty attacks, particularly against the US homeland.”
While that’s true, however, the al Qaeda threat has evolved and grown.
Al Qaeda and “its affiliates remain a significant CT threat overseas as they remain focused on exploiting local and regional conflicts.” The ODNI specifically mentions Al Nusrah Front, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and Shabaab. With the exception of Al Nusrah, each of these groups remains openly loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. Nusrah changed its name to Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS) last July, claiming to disassociate from any foreign entities, and then merged with several other groups to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in January. HTS claims to be an independent group. But the US government still refers to Nusrah as an al Qaeda “affiliate.”
In 2016, both Nusrah and AQAP “faced CT pressure in Syria and Yemen,” but they “have preserved the
resources, manpower, safe haven, local influence, and operational capabilities to continue to pose a
threat.” The ODNI employs the same wording to describe Shabaab’s status in Somalia. Last year, Shabaab “sustained a high pace of attacks in Somalia and continued to threaten the northeast and coastal areas of Kenya.” But its “operations elsewhere in East Africa have diminished after the deaths of many external plotters.”
AQIM “escalated its attacks on Westerners in 2016 with two high-profile attacks in Burkina Faso and Cote d’lvoire.” The IC points to the creation of the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin) earlier this year, saying the new joint venture is “intended to promote unity among Mali-based jihadists, extend the jihad beyond the Sahara and Sahel region, increase military action, and speed up recruitment of fighters.”
The ODNI’s testimony seemingly plays down al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying the “remaining members” of al Qaeda and AQIS “continued to suffer personnel losses and disruptions to safe havens in 2016 due to [counterterrorism] operations.”
It is true that both al Qaeda senior leadership and AQIS suffered losses last year, but there is also evidence that the organization maintains an extensive footprint in the region.
In December, for instance, the US military explained that 250 al Qaeda operatives were killed or captured in Afghanistan in 2016. That figure is two and a half times the high-end of the US government’s previous estimate of al Qaeda’s entire presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, in Oct. 2015, the US and its Afghan allies raided a massive al Qaeda training camp in southern Afghanistan. The training facility, approximately 30 square miles in size, was likely larger than any al Qaeda camp in the country’s history. There is evidence that, through AQIS, Zawahiri’s network has expanded in Pakistan, Bangladesh and perhaps other regional countries as well.
ODNI notes that both al Qaeda and AQIS “maintain the intent to conduct attacks against the United States and the West.”
Afghan security continues to “deteriorate”
“The overall situation in Afghanistan will very likely continue to deteriorate, even if international support is sustained,” the IC’s analysts write. “Endemic state weaknesses, the government’s political fragility, deficiencies of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Taliban persistence, and regional interference will remain key impediments to improvement.”
The Kabul government suffers from “political dysfunction and ineffectiveness,” while the ANSF cannot stand on its own. US intelligence predicts that the ANSF’s “performance will probably worsen due to a combination of Taliban operations, ANSF combat casualties, desertions, poor logistics support, and weak leadership.” All of this means that the ANSF will “remain heavily dependent on foreign military and financial support to sustain themselves and preclude their collapse.”
The ODNI notes that the Taliban failed to capture a provincial capital in 2016. However, the jihadists have been able to threaten several capitals. And despite turmoil in its leadership, the Taliban remains a cohesive fighting force.
The Taliban “effectively navigated its second leadership transition in two years following the death of its former chief,” Mullah Mansour, who perished in a May 2016 drone strike in Pakistan. Even though the Taliban hid Mullah Omar’s death from 2013 to 2015, and Omar’s successor was killed less than one year later, the Taliban fights on and “is likely to make gains in 2017.”
Although the ODNI doesn’t report it, the Taliban remains closely allied with al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch (Wilayah Khorasan) “constitutes ISIS’s most significant presence in South Asia,” but it is “a low-level developing threat to Afghan stability as well as to US and Western interests in the region.”