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.
This year, American air strikes in Afghanistan have already significantly surpassed the total number of strikes that were carried out last year, in what is a stark indicator of the United States’ struggle to extricate itself from the conflict and to stick to its declared “non-combat” mission.
According to US military officials, between 1 January and 20 October this year, American warplanes conducted around 700 air strikes compared to about 500 in total carried out last year. Furthermore, about 240 were under rules that were approved by President Barack Obama in June, which effectively allowed US forces to more actively support Afghan troops during strategic combat operations. Also a similar number were conducted against “counter terrorism” targets, including about fifty against al-Qaeda and 190 against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. Other air strikes can be conducted in defense of US and international military advisors, as well as some Afghan troops. American air strikes have been credited with helping to prevent Taliban forces from completely overrunning cities like Lashkar Gah, the capital of embattled Helmand province. However despite the air strikes, militants continue to contest or control as much as a third of the country.
This rise in strikes signals a deeper role for American forces that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. While ending US involvement in Afghanistan was one of President Obama’s signature promises, with him going on to declare the combat mission over at the end of 2014, in the last year of his presidency, however, rising violence has led President Obama to keep more US forces in the fight, both to target a growing IS presence, but also to back up Afghan troops who have been struggling to combat IS and Taliban militants. This year, top American military commanders in Afghanistan successfully pressed the president to reverse an earlier restriction on the use of air strikes, therefore clearing the way for a rise in attacks on IS and Taliban targets.
In a statement, US military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland disclosed that “the increase in strikes is due to the additional authorities US forces received and due to the Afghan change in strategy to offensive operations.” The statement goes on to say that “the new authorities have allowed the US to be more proactive and deliberate in supporting this year’s Afghan offensive operations and in aggressively targeting (Islamic State).”
With no end in sight for one of America’s longest wars, any decisions on the future of the I strikes, and the nearly 9,000 US troops who will remain in Afghanistan, will be up to the winner of the 8 November American presidential election. In a report release in October outlining challenges for the next president, a dozen former US military commanders and ambassadors to Afghanistan wrote that “it will be important to ask if the relaxation of rules of engagement that President Obama provided to American/NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2016 should go further, allowing even more substantial use of their air power against the Taliban.”
On Monday 17 October, an Iraqi operation to recapture the city of Mosul, which is the last stronghold of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the country, began, with official reporting that pro-government forces have already made gains.
The start of the operation was announced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a televised address in the early hours of Monday (local time). Shortly afterwards, artillery began firing on the city in what is a long-awaited assault from Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi government and allied forces. On the ground sources reported tanks moving towards the city, which has been held by IS since 2014, with one source disclosing that Kurdish tanks have closed the gap with IS position on about 300m. Kurdish forces have also disclosed that they have retaken a number of villages in their advance while pro-government forces are attacking an airbase in Qayyarah, located about 60 km (37 miles) to the south, which was recaptured in August. The US-led coalition that is fighting IS is backing the assault with air strikes. Analysts have warning that the operation is complex, adding that it could last for weeks, if not months.
Who is Fighting?
About 30,000 pro-government troops are involved in the operation, with the main assault being led by Iraqi army troops who are based south of Mosul. About 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga milita have begun clearing villages in the east. Sunni tribal fighters and Shia-led paramilitary forces are also due to take part, while planes from the US-led coalition against IS are providing air support. US Special Operations personnel are advising forces on the ground and elite Iraq counterterrorism forces are expected to join in th coming days. It is estimated that between 4,000 – 8000 IS fighters are defending the city.
Importance of Mosul
Mosul, which is the oil-rich capital of Nineveh province, was Iraq’s second-largest city before IS militants overran it in June 2014. Its capture became a symbol of the group’s rise as a major force and its ability to capture and hold territory. It was there that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. The city was one of the country’s most diverse, and comprised of ethnic Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmens as well as a number of religious minorities. While members of those minorities largely fled the onslaught by IS, many local Sunni Arabs initially welcomed the militants as they were angered by the sectarian politics of the previous Shia Arab-led central government. However after two years of brutal IS rule, opposition has grown inside the city.