Facing Setbacks in the Middle East, Jihadism Gains Strength in Africa

Dec. 28 2022

This year, al-Qaeda suffered the death of its longtime leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike, and saw little success in its Middle Eastern operations, even if it has benefitted from the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Its offshoot-turned-competitor Islamic State (IS) has fared somewhat better, although the U.S. has managed to eliminate some of its key leaders as well. But, as Cole Bunzel explains, both organizations seem to be doing their best in Africa:

The most successful al-Qaeda affiliates were in Africa—al-Shabab in Somalia and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel. In 2022, both were dynamic and dangerous organizations that posed major security challenges in their areas and beyond.

In 2022, IS boasted several “provinces”—or wilayat in Arabic—in sub-Saharan Africa, including in Nigeria in West Africa, Mali in the Sahel, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, and Mozambique in southern Africa. It also boasts a particularly active franchise in Afghanistan along the Pakistan border known as IS-Khorasan Province or ISIS-K.

Unlike al-Qaeda, IS still had a strong presence in 2022 in the Middle East, particularly Iraq, Syria, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. IS released a weekly newsletter called al-Naba documenting insurgent attacks in its various provinces. The pace of attacks was somewhat lower in Syria and steeply down in Iraq compared with previous years.

Read more at Wilson Center

More about: Africa, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Radical Islam, Sinai Peninsula, War on Terror


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy