AQIM propaganda video. Wikimedia Commons.The partial cessation of hostilities in Syria, which came into effect on 27 February 2016, has so far held for over three weeks, longer than most people expected. Russia followed on 15 March by announcing the withdrawal of most of its military forces. These two events offer a small degree of optimism over prospects for the current round of "proximity talks" in Vienna.
In this context, the United States might seek to use diplomatic progress in Syria to put more pressure on ISIS. In fact, a new report by Open Briefing clearly illustrates that western military involvement in both Syria and Iraq is already increasing.
At the same time, the centre of western security concern is shifting to north Africa, the Sahel and the west African coast. For example, escalatiing western input in Libya is the subject of interesting analysis by (among others) Richard Reeve at Oxford Research Group. He points to the risk that western military intervention could once again have particularly dangerous consequences.Yet indications that a substantial air assault is being planned seem to confirm Washington's direction of travel.
The return of AQIM
Such proposed engagements must also been seen in the context of much broader developments far to the south of Libya. These include the re-emergence of groups linked to the original al-Qaida movement, now operating consistently against tourists and western interests in a number of countries.
A recent sequence began with the assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, on 20 November 2015. It continued with the attack on a hotel and restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 16 January 2016. The latest incident, on 13 March, was at the beach resort of Grand-Bassam in Ivory Coast, where sixteen people were killed.
All these operations are being blamed not on ISIS but on an offshoot of the original al-Qaida movement, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). French special forces were thought to have routed what remained of AQIM after it (and other Islamist paramilitaries) had had some initial successes in Mali in 2012-13. But now the group is back, and is believed to have re-established itself in northern Mali.
The group is following a strategy of attacking western-orientated sites and personnel in countries across the region. Indeed, the cell involved in the Ivory Coast incident may have intended specifically to target a US trade delegation staying in the resort, led by assistant commerce secretary Marcus Jadotte, along with accompanying US embassy officials
AQIM’s re-emergence comes at a time when another al-Qaida-linked group, the Shabaab movement in Somalia, is making a comeback, soon after it too had been dismissed as a spent force. Extensive action by the western-backed AMISOM coalition of east African states, backed by the direct use of force by US armed-drones and special forces, had been heralded as a turning-point in that local theatre of the war.
The change in fortunes for al-Qaida-affiliated groups across the Sahel means that, after a two-year period when ISIS has held most of the combat initiative, they too are able once again to seek international recruits. In turn this requires western states to rethink their priorities: no longer can they 'just' concentrate on trying to limit ISIS in Syria and Iraq while engaging much more forcibly in Libya. The complication of accelerating violence across west Africa adds another dimension to an already extensive conflict.
AQIM responded to its setback in northern Mali by trying to survive and redevelop, taking the opportunity to kidnap foreigners for ransom along the way. After that two-year hiatus, it has again become sufficiently strong to go on the offensive. The hotel attacks, and evidence that it can pass through state borders and thus stretch individual counter-terrorism forces and their western backers, shows the scale of the challenge.
AQIM's actions demonstrate its power to potential recruits. But they also almost certainly seek specifically to damage the tourist industries of the countries being targeted, and more generally to weaken international business confidence. The belief is that any enforced economic downturn will increase marginalisation, making it easier still to mobilise angry young people who face diminished prospects.
In late 2015 there was a common view in western security circles that ISIS was in retreat and that AQIM and Shabaab were greatly weakened. In the space of just three months that has been turned on its head. In a familiar pattern, a burst of optimism about the prospects of the 'war on terror' has been shown to have flimsy foundations. The west's continuing failure to understand what is happening fuels a conflict out of control.