The Expansion of Terror Safe Havens
Next year, Islamist terrorists will have growing opportunities to regain the safe havens they lost since 2001 and to expand their current bases.
The Islamic State announced in November that it had expanded from Iraq and Syria into Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It killed eight Shiites in Saudi Arabia and shot a citizen of Denmark in Riyadh. At least 60 jihadist groups in 30 countries have expressed solidarity with the Islamic State.
Syria is the brightest prospect for the jihadists.
The Iran-backed Assad regime is winning on the battlefield but has severe weaknesses that will only get worse next year like the regime’s bankruptcy, collapsing infrastructure and lack of manpower. The regime cut subsidies that are essential for maintaining support from its constituencies.
The low oil price will drastically undermine support from Iran and Russia, as well. A Syrian trade official recently admitted that the regime would have fallen without Iranian financial aid.
The U.S.-backed rebels have been ripped to shreds by the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The country is being described as “a patchwork of warring fiefdoms” and “total chaos” is being predicted for 2015. The chances are high that the civil war will spread to Lebanon in a major way.
The often-overlooked civil war continues to rage in Libya where Islamist militias are making gains in eastern Libya against secular forces. The Islamic State conquered the city of Derna and has erected training camps with an estimated 200 terrorists.
The Libyan civil war could spread into neighboring Tunisia and Algeria. The Libyan secularists are scoring some victories in western Libya and Tunisia is sealing border crossings. The new anti-Islamist government of Tunisia is destined for a showdown with Islamist militias like Ansar al-Sharia.
Yemen is also a grand opportunity for jihadists. The Iranian-backed Houthis have captured the capital of Sanaa and is advancing in the central and southern parts of the country, battling Al-Qaeda and other Sunni fighters along the way. This could become a repeat of Syria very shortly.
In Egypt, the military is battling an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The Islamic State is expanding there and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate there could potentially bounce back from major losses. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas could join the fight as the Egyptian government tries to dismantle political Islam.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. has pledged to end the official combat mission at the end of this year and reduce U.S. troop levels down to 9,800. The remaining forces will leave by 2016. The Afghan Taliban is making gains in Helmand Province since the U.S. handed security over to the Afghan security forces, but the Afghan forces deserve credit for stopping the Taliban from seizing a single district there.
A secret group of dozens of students backing the Islamic State has arisen in Afghanistan and expressions of support for the Islamic State are being seen in neighboring Pakistan. The Islamic State could also win over hardline elements of the Afghan Taliban opposed to negotiated settlements with the elected government.
The Clarion Project has seen numerous online statements by Islamic State members and supporters enthusiastically talking about replicating in Afghanistan the success they have enjoyed in Iraq once U.S. forces depart Afghanistan.
Islamist terrorists could also become stronger in Central Asia due to jihadists returning from Syria, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and an apparent rise in support for Islamism, as evidenced by the rise of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan has thwarted attacks by terrorists who returned from Syria and sought to spark an insurgency there.
In December, a terrorist group called the Caucasus Emirate attacked the city of Grozny in Chechnya and killed 14 police officers. The Emirate’s Dagestan section then released a videotape declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, even though the emir of the overall group endorsed Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The unfortunate reality is that a homegrown terrorist attack on U.S. soil is all but certain in 2015.
There were at least six Islamism-inspired acts of terrorism on U.S. soil in 2014, with the murder of two New York Police Department officers being the latest. At least 14 Americans have been intercepted on their way to join the Islamic State, with the most recent cases being a mother in Virginia and a Chicago man with his two teenage siblings.
It is believed that over 100 Americans have joined jihadist groups in Syria with other estimates as high as 300. The FBI is monitoring about 150 Americans who have returned from Syria for possible terrorist links.
The Islamic State has inspired a new generation of homegrown terrorists and a study found that the number of Salafist jihadists has doubled since 2010. The number of individual Salafist jihadist groups has doubled since 2001 and the number of attacks has tripled since 2010. The State Department likewise calculated a 40% rise in attacks in 2013 and a 60% rise in fatalities from terrorism.
Based on these trends, it is safe to say that Islamist terrorism will dominate the headlines throughout 2015 as it did for most of 2014.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.