Islamic State and al-Qaeda Are Still Formidable Enemies

Feb. 23 2018

According to the National Defense Strategy released by the Pentagon in January, “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Thomas Joscelyn does not disagree. He cautions, however, that Islamic State (IS)—despite suffering major territorial losses in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the past two years—is far from vanquished. Neither is al-Qaeda, which in many places waits in the wings to recruit IS fighters who have survived the organization’s defeats. Joscelyn writes:

Consider the situation in Egypt. In November 2014, an al-Qaeda-linked group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis swore its fealty to the IS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group was then rebranded Wilayat Sinai, or the Sinai Province (of the caliphate), and pledged to fight for the caliphate’s cause. Wilayat Sinai remains a security threat to the Egyptian state. Its members blew up a Russian airliner in October 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board.

The bombing was the jihadists’ first successful attack on commercial aviation since the 9/11 hijackings. Wilayat Sinai has assassinated Egyptian officials, harassed locals, and conducted a series of bombings against mosques, tribesmen, and Christians. At times, the IS branch has been strong enough to capture Egyptian checkpoints and overrun security facilities. IS also spawned a terror network in mainland Egypt that has dispatched suicide bombers to strike Coptic churches, including on Palm Sunday last year.

The Sinai jihadists are so fierce that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s men haven’t been able to contain them on their own. Earlier this month, the New York Times confirmed a thinly veiled secret—Israel has been helping the Egyptians hunt down IS leaders and commanders in the northern part of the Sinai since 2015. Despite this assistance from Israel’s expert terror-hunters, Wilayat Sinai hasn’t been eradicated. . . .

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, IS loyalists fight their foes nearly every day. . . . Some claim that outfits such as Wilayat Khorasan [as its major Afghan branch is called] have merely adopted the caliphate brand and lack meaningful connections to Baghdadi’s enterprise. This is not so. The U.S. military has discovered connective tissue. General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has explained that . . . the first head of Wilayat Khorasan “went through the application process” and the group has received “advice,” “publicity,” and “some financial support” from IS [in Syria]. . . . [Meanwhile], the Taliban, [which remains closely linked to al-Qaeda], contest or control more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts.

Joscelyn also mentions the two groups’ presence throughout Africa, as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Read more at Weekly Standard

More about: Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Egypt, ISIS, Politics & Current Affairs, Sinai Peninsula, U.S. Foreign policy

To Undermine Russian and Iranian Influence in Syria, the U.S. Must Go on the Offensive

March 22 2018

When Iranian-lead, pro-Assad forces attacked U.S. allies in Syria last month, they found themselves quickly overwhelmed by American firepower. The incident, writes Tony Badran, makes clear that the U.S. has the capability to push back against the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis. By taking a more aggressive approach while working closely with Israel, Badran argues, Washington can at once prevent Russia and Iran from cementing their control of Syria and avoid getting drawn into a wider conflict:

Israeli assets can augment U.S. capabilities considerably. A few days after the skirmish in Deir Ezzour in February, Iran flew a drone into Israeli air space. Israel responded by destroying the Iranian command center at the Tiyas military air base near Palmyra, and then proceeded to bomb a large number of Iranian and Assad-regime targets. The episode again underscored the vulnerability of Iran, to say nothing of the brittle Assad regime. Close coordination with Israel to expand this ongoing targeting campaign against Iranian and Hizballah infrastructure, senior cadres, and logistical routes, and amplifying it with U.S. assets in the region, would have a devastating effect on Iran’s position in Syria.

By going on the offensive, the U.S. will also strengthen Israel’s hand with Russia, reducing Jerusalem’s need to petition the Kremlin and thereby diminishing Moscow’s ability to position itself as an arbiter on Israeli security. For instance, instead of haggling with Russia to obtain its commitment to keep Iran five or seven kilometers away from the Israeli border, the U.S. could adopt the Israeli position on Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and assist Israel in enforcing it. Such a posture would have a direct effect on another critical ally, Jordan, whose role is of high importance in southern Syria and in the U.S. zone in the east.

Assad and Iran are the scaffolding on which the Russian position stands. Targeting them, therefore, undercuts Moscow and reduces its leverage. By merely forcing Russia to respect Israeli and Jordanian needs on the border, the U.S. would undermine Russia’s attempt, more generally, to leverage its position in Syria to make headway into the U.S. alliance system. In addition to adopting a more offensive military posture, the U.S. should also intensify the economic chokehold on Assadist Syria.

Read more at Caravan

More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israeli Security, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy