According to a US military official, at least 50,000 militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group have been killed since the US-led coalition was launched in Syria and Iraq two years ago.
The senior official has described the figure as a “conservative estimate,” adding that it showed that air power and a small number of US figures supporting local forces were having an impact. He further disclosed that the ongoing US campaign was beginning to damage IS. The US however has repeatedly warned that IS can replace fighters quite quickly.
While the US has often been reluctant to provide figures on enemy causalities, in August, Lt Gen Sean MacFarland was quoted by the AP news agency as stating that about 45,000 enemy combatants had been killed. Meanwhile in February, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest disclosed that IS had about 25,000 fighters operating in Syria and Iraq, citing a US intelligence estimate.
The senior US military official further disclosed that coalition airstrikes could be intensified in places such as Mosul, which Iraqi troops are now battling in order to recapture. He notes however that this would have to be offset against the risk of civilian casualties.
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.
This month, the new head of MI6 disclosed that the scale of the terrorism threat to the United Kingdom is “unprecedented.”
According to Alex Younger, UK intelligence and security services have disrupted twelve terrorist plots since June 2013, adding that many of the threats came from ungoverned spaces in the Middle East – namely Iraq and Syria. He further warned that “hybrid warfare,” which included cyber attacks and subverting democracy, was becoming an “increasingly dangerous phenomenon,” noting, “the risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty…They should be a concern to all those who share democratic values.”
In his first public speech since taking up the post of “C,” Mr Younger warned of the impact of Russia’s alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in casting all opponents of President Assad as terrorists. He disclosed, “I believe the Russian conduct in Syria – allied with that of Assad’s discredited regime – will, if they do not change course, provide a tragic example of the perils of forfeiting legitimacy.” He went on to say that “in defining as a terrorist anyone who opposes a brutal regime they alienate precisely that group that has to be onside if the extremists are to be defeated,” adding “we cannot be safe from the threats that emanate from that land unless the civil war is brought to an end.”
Speaking to journalists at MI6 headquarters in London, Mr Younger disclosed that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group had exploited the situation in Syria to fortify its stronghold in the region and to wage a war on the West, adding that IS had a “highly organized external attack planning structure” that was plotting attacks against the UK and its allies “without ever having to leave Syria.”
In describing the risks that MI6 agents face in the field, Mr Younger disclosed that “encountering terrorism, some of our agents operate in the most dangerous and hostile environments on earth,” adding, “they know that the result of being identified as an MI6 agent could be their death. But they do what they do because they believe in protecting their country – and religion – from the evil that Daesh (IS) and other terrorist organizations present.”
Since August 2014 the threat level for international terrorism in the UK has been severe, effectively meaning that an attack is highly likely. There are five threat levels – low, moderate, substantial, severe and critical – which are set up by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.
On 9 December, six policemen were killed and three injured in an explosion in the Giza district of Cairo, near the ancient pyramids. The attack appears to have specifically targeted police officers. It was the deadliest incident in Cairo since May, when Islamic State gunmen attacked a bus carrying plainclothes officers, killing eight.
Anonymous sources indicate that two bombs were placed near a mobile checkpoint in Al Haram street. The street leads to the Pyramids and is often used by tour buses. The area has been cordoned off as police search for more explosives.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the incident, however the acts are consistent with a relatively unknown militant group operating in Cairo called the Hassam (“Decisiveness”) Movement. In September, Haasam Movement claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Egypt’s deputy state prosecutor.
The bombing comes days after the Interior Ministry announced the killing of three members of the Hassam Movement in southern Egypt, and weeks after they announced breaking up one of the group’s cells. Egyptian security sources say the Hassam Movement is affiliated the Muslim Brotherhood. However since 2013, the Egyptian government has been prone to attributing many militant actions to the Brotherhood, which is now banned and listed as a terrorist organisation in Egypt.
The incident occurs as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi initiates austerity measures address a growing financial crisis. The government floated the Egyptian pound in November and cut fuel subsidies, raising the price of many necessities out of the reach of many struggling Egyptians.
While the attack does not appear to have targeted civilians or foreigners, visitors to the region are urged to remain vigilant, particularly when visiting sites popular for tourists.
A second bombing occurred later on Friday near Egypt’s Kafr el Sheikh. The bomb targeted police vehicles in the road, injuring three policemen and killing a motorist in the vicinity of the explosion.
In a statement on their website, the relatively unknown Cairo-based militant group, Hassam Movement, has claimed responsibility for the attack Giza attacks earlier in the day. It is likely they are also responsible for the second bombing.
Analysts reported on 16 November that Nigerian-based militant group Boko Haram has significantly scaled back attacks in Cameroon in recent months, suggesting that a regional security force is gaining ground against the militants.
According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Islamist movement, which controlled an area in northeastern Nigeria last year and raided Cameroon and other neighbours, including Niger, in a bid to expand its “caliphate,” has since suffered a number of defeats. One of the report’s authors, Hans de Maria Heungoup, disclosed that “we’ve seen a dizzying downwards spiral in the number of attacks suicide bombings.” Two years ago, attacks were happening on an almost daily basis, however since September that number has fallen to between six and eight a month. The study indicated that “(Boko Haram) has suffered heavy losses and seen its conventional capacities reduced,” partly thanks to last year’ formation of a 10,000-strong regional force with troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. According to the report, up to 1,000 fighters with heavy weaponry and armoured vehicles joined strikes in Cameroon’s Far North region in 2014 – 2015, however attacks have now focused on the northernmost tip of the region, where fighters have continued to control part of the fishing industry of Lake Chad.
The ICG also noted that recruitment in Cameroon has also faltered, warning however that forced enlistment remains a risk. Citing interviews with the locals, the study disclosed that up to 4,000 Cameroonians are though to have joined the group and some were given sign-on bonuses of up to US $2,000 and a motorbike, adding that those who proved their loyalty by killed their parents often enjoyed quick promotion. Analysts have disclosed that the faction around the Lake Chad Basin represents the stronger branch of the group, which is loyal to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group and which is led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, while another faction, which is led by Abubakar Shekau, is based further south in Nigeria’s Sambisa forest.