During a seven-month campaign to seize control of Sirte, the only Islamic State (IS) stronghold in Libya, IS has lost senior figures in what is now an unsuccessful battle to defend its coastal stronghold. However there have been growing signs that the militant group has already moved on to try to fight back through sleeper cells and desert brigades.
For months now, Libyan officials have been warning that hundreds of IS militants may have escaped before the battle for Sirte was launched in May or during its early stages. This has prompted concerns of a counter-attack or insurgency campaign that could allow the militants to show that they are still in business despite losing control of Sirte, which comes as the group is also under intense military pressure in its core territory of Iraq and Syria.
According to some experts, some cells have already been active and it is now thought that the militant group is behind at least two dozen attacks or attempted attacks that have occurred to the south and west of Sirte since August.
Before the launch in May of the operation to gain back Sirte, IS was thought to have several thousand fighters stationed in Sirte. It should be noted that estimates of the exact number have varied widely. According to residents of Sirte and security officials in Misrata, the city that led the campaign to retake the militant group’s stronghold, both leadership and rank and file had a heavy presence of foreigners, adding that the group drew on recruits from northern and sub-Saharan Africa. It is believed that much of that force has been killed in the past seven months as IS was also targeted by nearly 500 US air strikes since 1 August. Local officials have reported that amongst those killed were a number of high-level Libyan figures, including preacher and commander Hassan al-Karami and senior official Abu Walid al-Ferjani. According to messages of mourning that were posted on social media accounts close the militant group, a number of foreign commanders were also killed, however it currently remains unclear how far up the hierarchy they were or how important to the group’s future operations. While Misrata officials have refused to disclose on reports of IS militants being killed after capture, fighters and commanders have indicated that they took few, if any, prisoners. Ibrahim Baitulmal, head of Misrata’s military council, has disclosed that an estimated 1,700 jihadist’s bodies had been recovered during the campaign, noting however that the number killed is much higher as militants retrieved some of their own dead. He noted that those killed in the final days of the battle for Sirte included Abu Habib Jazrawi, a Saudi who is thought to have taken the name Abdul Qadr al-Najdi before being named as IS’ leader in Libya in March. While IS has not announced his death, regional media reported that Najdi was replaced in September by a Tunisian, Jalaludin Al-Tunsi, who was possibly appointed to carry on the fight outside Sirte.
What is clear is that IS has made no secret of its plans to continue the fight. In August, the new leader of IS’ Libyan branch, Abu Musab al-Farouq, disclosed that high-level figures who had escaped from Sirte were helping it regroup not far away. Months later in late October, the head of the west Libyan branch, Abu Hudhayfah al-Muhajir, acknowledged that the group had been suffering, stating however that it would continue its campaign for “conquest and empowerment” and that it was still attracting a steady flow of foreign fighters.
On November 26th, the Iraqi parliament passed a bill recognising the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), as part of the Iraqi security forces. The PMF is an umbrella organisation composed of around 40 militia groups. The law does not stipulate how many forces will be incorporated under the legalised Popular Mobilisation corps, which currently claims to have more than 110,000 fighters. The Iraqi government says there are between 25,000 and 30,000 PMF members from Sunni tribal fighters and nearly all the rest are Shi’ite, with a few Yazidi and Christian units. The bill was passed with 208 votes out of 327, with no votes against due to a boycott by Sunni politicians who disagree with giving power to Shia militants. Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni MP, said: ‘I don’t understand why we need to have an alternate force to the army and the police.’ The law specifies that the PMF has a right to preserve their identity if they do not pose a threat to Iraq’s national security. The law allows the PMF and their formations to assume their military and security duties and activities, upon a request from Iraq’s armed forces commander when they are needed to provide support. They are also allowed to take any measures required to deter terrorist groups and security threats facing Iraq.
PMF militias rose to prominence due to their battlefield successes against IS after the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014. More than 100,000 fighters mobilised to fill the security vacuum and prevented IS from taking Samarra and western Baghdad. The problem is that these militia groups cannot be militarily defeated, not when this would bring greater costs than benefits to a war-ravaged society and weak Iraqi state. Therefore, the institutionalisation of the PMF could help bring some order to Iraq’s atomised security structures and help to establish limits to their powers.
One of the major problems with the inclusion of the PMF, and one of the major fears from critics is that the PMF contains some of the most dangerous militia groups in Iraq. Groups like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have killed hundreds of US and British soldiers. They have also murdered thousands of Iraqi Sunni and Shia civilians, particularly in Baghdad, where Asaib Ahl al-Haq committed mass sectarian cleansing of Sunnis. There are also fears over the groups links with Iran.
After their hard work and success fighting IS in Iraq many believe it is right and fair that the PMF fighters get medical and logistical support plus salaries and pensions equivalent to other Iraqi soldiers. Supporters of the law believe it provides a controlled way for the fighters to receive support. It would be dangerous if the PMF starts to build up a set of parallel institutions like Iran’s Islamic revolutionary Guard Corps or Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In Iran and Lebanon these forces are powerful political, voting and intimidation machines, and they can threaten even elected ministers. However, Prime Minister Abadi has welcomed the law saying PMF is now under direct orders of the Armed Forces, which sets its regulations and represents all Iraqi people and defends them wherever they may be.
A report released on 16 November indicated that deaths from terrorism in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries decreased last year by 650 percent despite a marked fall globally as Nigerian-based Boko Haram militants and the so-called Islamic State (IS) Group suffered military defeats at home but carried out more attacks abroad.
The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) has reported that worldwide, there were 29,376 deaths that were caused by terrorism in 2015. This figure represents a decline of 10 percent, adding that this is the first decrease in four years. GTI disclosed that his decline was due to action against IS in Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which cut the numbers killed there by a third. IS was the deadliest group in 2015, overtaking Boko Haram. Last year, IS carried out attacks in 252 cities that led to 6,141 deaths. The index however has noted that Boko Haram’s move into neighbouring countries – Cameroon, Chad and Niger – saw the number of fatalities in the se countries increase by 157 percent.
The report however notes that the groups have spread their actions to neighbouring states and regions, where they have caused a huge increase in fatalities amongst OECD members, most of which are wealthy countries, such as the United States and European countries. According to GTI, of the 34 OECD member countries, 21 had witnesses at least one attack with most deaths occurred in Turkey and France. Last year’s terror incidents included coordinated attacks carried out by IS gunmen and suicide bombers at the Bataclan music venue, a soccer stadium and several cafes in Paris in November, which killed 130 people. The index also noted that Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and Turkey all suffered their worst death tolls from terrorism in a single year since 2000, adding that in total twenty-three countries registered their highest ever number of terrorism deaths. Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, which accounted for 72 percent of all deaths, were the top five ranked countries in the GTI. The United States ranked 36th, with France coming in 29th, Russia in 30th and the United Kingdom in 34th.
According to Steve Killelea, executive chairman at the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) think-tank, “while on the one hand the reduction in deaths is positive, the continued intensification of terrorism in some countries and its spread to new ones is a cause for serious concern and underscores the fluid nature of modern terrorist activity,” adding that “the attacks in the heartland of western democracies underscore the need for fast-paced and tailored responses to the evolution of these organizations.”
Germany’s plan of conducting security investigations of all military recruits appears to be more and more a concrete reality.
German media reported on 5 November that the military counter-intelligence service (MAD) identified 20 Islamists in the country’s armed forces. An agency’s spokesman confirmed the figure later, adding that other 60 potential cases are under investigation for suspected links to Islamist militants.
Early in 2015, MAD had already warned that extremists could have potentially taken advance of the German Military to gain skills that they could then take to groups such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Reportedly, in fact, Daesh and other terrorist organizations were actively encouraging their followers to join states military forces to get training. This seemed to be confirmed, according to MAD President Christof Gramm, by the fact that, for example, the killers who launched an attack on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo had military skills.
Two months after this attack, Gramm proposed for the first time an initial check for applicants to armed services.
After multiple Islamist militant attacks that shook Germany in July this year, the German government decided in August to allow preliminary background checks on recruits to be done starting in July 2017. At that time it was reported that more than 300 German soldiers were being investigated for some forms of suspected extremism: 268 suspected right-wing extremists, 64 suspected Islamists and six suspected left-wing extremists.
According to MAD it has been decided to speed things up after recruitment offices across the country have reported increasing individual inquiries from applicants expressing a commitment request to join the German Military (Bundeswehr) of only few months and expressly interested in intensive weapons and equipment training.
Currently, under German military law, recruits only need to present their police records and formally agree to comply with the German constitution to enlist; moreover just service members that have already enlisted, including soldiers and officers, are vetted.
The new measure, if adopted, would allow conducting comprehensive background checks on all applicants as of January 2017 and it would result in at least 20,000 screenings annually, causing some €8.2 billion in additional expenditures.
The German army is regarded as one of Europe’s most capable in terms of training. During army boot camp, recruits are taught shooting and marksmanship skills, map reading and topography, and the fundamentals of woodland and urban warfare, as well as to give emergency aid. Having said that, it is evident that Islamic infiltrations in the national army constitute a serious risk not only for insider attacks in country but also for the rest of Europe.
However, this measure has received critics from several parts of the public opinion, both in Germany and outside. The Measure is, in fact, considered in line with the questioned new state defence plan put in place in August, which entails for citizens to stockpile food and water enough to last for at least ten days, in the event of a major disaster or armed attack.
According to its critics, the German government seems concentrating its efforts just on radical Islam, when the country is relatively safe in comparison to France and other nations. There would be instead other areas that need particular attention like right and left wing extremists.
Commissioner Warns that EU Should Prepare for Return of Jihadists as Iraq Launches Operation on MosulOctober 31, 2016 in Europe
The European Union’s (EU) commissioner has warned that the EU should be prepared for returning jihadists if the so-called Islamic State (IS) is driven out of its Iraqi stronghold, Mosul.
Julian King has told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper that even a small number of militants would pose “a serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for.” The comments come after Iraqi forces on 17 October launched what is expected to be a lengthy offensive on Mosul. Officials believe that as many as 5,000 IS fighters are believed to remain in the city.
King, a British diplomat who was recently made the EU’s security commissioner, told Die Wel that the threat of IS fighters returning to Europe after the fall of Mosul was “very serious.” He disclosed that there were currently about 2,500 fighters from EU countries in the combat zone, stressing however that it was “very unlikely that there would be a mass exodus of IS fighters to Europe.” He noted that similar cases in the past had shown that “only a few fighters come back.”
On day one of the offensive, a coalition of some 34,000 Iraq security personnel, Kurdish fighters, Sunni Arab tribesmen, and Shia military forces, backed by the US and other nations, took control of a number of villages and districts located in the south and east of Mosul. On the ground sources have reported that the strategy is to encircle the city before moving in on the centre itself. Late on 17 October, US Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook disclosed that the campaign was “ahead of schedule,” warning however that it was early days and it was not yet known whetehr IS fighters would “stand and fight.” On 18 October, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that “it could be a long battle” lasting several weeks, if not months.
In other reports, the Syrian army has accused the US-led coalition of planning to allow IS fighters in Mosul to flee into Syria. The army, which has no control over Syria’s border with Iraq, was quoted by Reuters news agency as stating that it would resist any attempt by fighters to cross. The commander of Iraq’s Counter-terrorism Service, Maj-Gen Fadhil Jalil al-Barwari, has been quoted by the New Arab website as saying that IS fighters are being offered two corridors “to go to Syria.”