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While the West focused on Afghanistan, ISIS gained ground in Iraq and beyond

For jihadist groups, recruiting new adherents – primarily young men with few prospects – appears to be almost as easy now as 20 years ago

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 December 2021, 12.01am
Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters gather during an intensive security deployment after ISIS took control of Luhaiban village
Ako Rasheed/ Reuters/ Alamy

When the Taliban movement finally took control of Afghanistan in August, it had already spread its influence across much of the country. In doing so, it had struck uneasy alliances with al-Qaida groups but remained bitterly opposed by ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province, the official affiliate of ISIS in Afghanistan). An indication of ISIS-K’s power came with the devastating bombing at Kabul airport towards the end of the chaotic evacuation, killing more than a hundred people.

Since the Taliban takeover, ISIS-K has continued to be a serious problem, having been responsible for further bombing attacks in Afghan cities. But, away from Afghanistan, more attention has recently been focused on the wider jihadist movements in the Sahel region of the Sahara as well as to the south-east, into the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the Ugandan border, and, further away, in the Capo Delgado Province in Mozambique.

In the Sahel itself, ISIS followers went as far as assassinating the leader of the Nigerian Boko Haram earlier this year, in efforts to take control of the movement. Meanwhile paramilitary activity has steadily increased in Mali, especially around the tri-state border that the country shares with Burkina Faso and Niger.

French, American and British forces, both regular and special force/CIA personnel, have long been active in the Sahel – particularly France, which has stationed more than 5,000 troops there. But with extreme levels of corruption, maladministration and military incompetence in the region, particularly in Mali, the government in Paris plans to withdraw half its troops by late 2022, reasoning that it will not commit them into danger with little promise of success.

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The Mali insurgency originally developed after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, when Libyan paramilitaries – and those from Algeria – began spreading south. Since 2013, a complex insurgency has developed, focused mainly on Mali but with links to Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Chad. The main groups in Mali are loosely linked to al-Qaida and ISIS and the trend of the past three years has been of a marked increase in violence. Altogether, the paramilitaries may number only around 4,000, but attacks have increased fivefold since 2016, with more than 4,000 killed in the past 12 months alone.

A 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), has operated in the country for more than six years. But this is not a counter-insurgency force: its role is primarily one of protecting local populations and the national administration – and there is little willingness among the UN leadership to expand its operations, as MINUSMA has had one of the worst death tolls in UN peacekeeping history with 258 troops killed so far.

ISIS’s operations are mainly in northern Iraq, with as many as 1,200 members and 20 attacks a week

The absence of a competent Mali Army, combined with the marginalisation of people across the rural areas, has meant that the paramilitaries have been able to increase their activities and recruit readily from the many thousands of young men with few prospects. Moreover, for ISIS, al-Qaida and other paramilitary movements, the Sahel and parts of Eastern Africa are seen to have considerable potential for further expansion, aided indirectly by Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and to a lesser extent the impending French drawdown in the Sahel.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the wider never-ending ‘War on Terror’ has been the re-emergence of ISIS in Iraq. When the movement originally came to the fore after 2011, first in Iraq and later in Syria, the response from the West was to mount a remarkably intense four-year air war, starting in 2014. That appeared to deal with ISIS, which lost the substantial territory that it had taken in the two countries.

Western attention turned to the Sahel and Afghanistan, with ISIS apparently limited to few rather isolated groups operating in Iraq. There were estimates in recent years, including from UN sources, that ISIS might still have between 5,000 and 10,000 followers but their actions were, at worst, sporadic. Indeed, only this week, the Pentagon reported that the US has ended all combat roles in Iraq, its remaining military personnel, around 2,000 in all, now being limited to training and advisory roles.

But ISIS is very much back in business and, as French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique put it recently, the movement “survived military defeat in 2017. Now regrouped, with new recruits, camps and command centres, the organisation is filling the political vacuum left by two decades of conflict in Iraq’s most unstable region.”

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Its operations are mainly in the north of Iraq, with as many as 1,200 active members and up to 20 attacks a week, most of which take place at night, targeting Iraqi security forces, and oil and electricity infrastructure.

There were nearly a thousand attacks in Iraq in the first ten months of this year and some analysts believe that the movement may be on the point of taking over larger towns or even a city. Indeed, ISIS has extended its range well away from the north, including a suicide bombing in a Baghdad market last July, which killed 30 people. Earlier this week it struck again, this time right down in the south of the country, where a motorcycle bomber killed at least four people in the city of Basra.

Looking at the resurgence, whether ISIS-K in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq, or a complex web of loosely associated paramilitaries across and beyond the Sahel, one element seems to stay the same: the ability of these movements to gain new adherents.

The French writer Arthur Quesnay puts it bluntly in relation to Iraq: “ISIS easily attracts recruits because people are poor, with no prospects, and because, since 2003, everyone has had some contact with the rebels, whether directly or indirectly.”

Recruiting from the margins appears to be almost as easy now as 20 years ago, even with hundreds of thousands of people killed and maimed, and millions more displaced. Iraq is turning out to be just one example of a protracted conflict still seen primarily as a military concern, and is just the latest proof that responding to extreme movements with military force, as has been the trend of the past two decades of the war on terror, simply doesn’t work.

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