Baghdadi may be dead, but groups linked to Islamic State continue to pose threat far and wide
By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: October 28, 2019
With the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a U.S. raid in northern Syria this weekend, the militant group has suffered a serious setback. But it is, by no means, an insurmountable blow — neither in Syria nor elsewhere.
Cells affiliated with or linked to the Islamic State have persisted in South Asia, Africa and other parts of the Middle East. Though inspired by the Islamic State — which is also known as ISIS — those groups have operated largely independently of the militant network, which was based out of Syria and Iraq, and are expected to continue to push ahead with plots and propaganda efforts.
One key question will be to what extent global affiliates of the Islamic State or groups linked to it will remain loyal to a network that has lost all the territory it once held. These groups' loyalty may differ from country to country.
-The Philippines. The country emerged as a key hot spot in the fight against the Islamic State, after extremists aligned with the group launched a battle for the city of Marawi in 2017. For months, the Philippine military tried to gain back ground, with material help from the United States and other countries. More than 1,000 people were killed — a figure that includes militants, soldiers and civilians, the military said.
But amid stalling progress in rebuilding the area, Islamic State-linked groups in the country — which has seen an influx of fighters from other parts of the world — are feared to be on the advance again. Earlier this year, Islamic State outlets asserted responsibility for the bombing of a Philippine cathedral.
-South Asia. There have also been persistent concerns over Islamic State-linked militants in India and its vicinity, in part fueled by the group's propaganda. In April, the Islamic State asserted responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, in which more than 250 people were killed. In May, an Islamic State propaganda outlet claimed that the group had established a "province" in India and was behind a recent attack on Indian troops in Kashmir.
But in both cases, analysts raised serious doubts about the group's capabilities to plot attacks of the scale of the Eastern Sunday bombings or to claim territory in the region in the same way as it had done in Syria and Iraq.
So far, the Islamic State's presence in India has been fairly limited, including in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, which has been plagued by a decades-long militancy.
"There are some boys over there who jump up every so often and wave [an Islamic State] flag," Ajai Sahni, a terrorism expert and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, told my colleagues earlier this year. "That's just an effort to get attention."
The only official Islamic State affiliate in South Asia is in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-Khorasan, with eastern Afghanistan as its stronghold. For more than five years, its militants have at times competed with and at times cooperated with the Taliban.
Its fighters have launched deadly attacks, mainly against Afghan Shiites. In August, the group asserted responsibility for a suicide bombing at a Kabul wedding in which more than 60 people were killed. Analysts also worry that ISIS-Khorasan's reach extends into Pakistan.
-Somalia. The Islamic State emerged in Somalia after some militants broke away from al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked group, starting in 2015. Its presence has persisted, despite its rivalry with al-Shabab and despite pressure from the Somali government. More recently, Islamic State efforts to radicalize youths in neighboring Ethiopia have raised concerns.
Mali, Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Security analysts worry that Islamic State-linked groups, along with militants linked to al-Qaida, may be attempting a novel approach to gain a greater foothold in West Africa. Their new strategy? After deliberately provoking feuds among different ethnic groups, the militants systematically offer to "protect victims of the conflict they're stoking," The Washington Post wrote this month.
The footprint of Islamic State-linked groups in Nigeria continues to be so big that it is considered to constitute a major security threat in the region.
-Libya. Meanwhile, farther to the north, Islamic State-linked militants have wreaked havoc in Libya.
The country's political instability, the "rampant availability of weaponry" there since the 2011 revolt, and "local grievances" were among the factors that have contributed to the Islamic State's presence in the country, terrorism researcher Inga Kristina Trauthig wrote in a paper for the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, or Europol, earlier this year.
Islamic State militants' presence in the country has become a particular concern for Western security agencies because of "Libya's status as a key transit country for migration to Europe," Trauthig wrote. As a result, the group may be able to "infiltrate the migrant pathways into Europe and exploit this illegal entry point in order to enable radicalised individuals to perpetrate attacks in Europe on its behalf or engage in other subversive activities, such as distribution of propaganda or collection of funds," she concluded.
-Yemen. Whereas the Islamic State has been in retreat in Syria and Iraq, it continues to have a presence in war-torn Yemen. Recent strikes appear to have diminished the foothold of the Islamic State and al-Qaida in the region, but both groups continue to exploit the country's chaos.
-Sympathizers worldwide. The group's propaganda continues to attract recruits in the West and can still spur former fighters who have returned to their countries of origin into action.
It remains unclear how many former Islamic State fighters escaped Kurdish prisons in northern Syria after President Donald Trump recently announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.
But European nations fear that the escaped fighters — many originally from Western countries — could eventually return to Europe, where courts have often struggled to convict them.
As one of the Western countries hit hardest by Islamic State attacks, France stepped up security in the aftermath of Baghdadi's death, amid concerns about retaliatory attacks. French authorities, much like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, do not expect the group to go away just because the man who was its public face has been extinguished.