Afghanistan: Al-Qaeda Primed to Continue Expanding in Afghanistan
Brian M. Perkins
Despite being less flashy than its rival Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and its affiliates have achieved a lot over the past several years. Al-Qaeda’s successes include completing a complex merger of various militant groups to help expand in the Sahel, the growth of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and the persistence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its local victories against the Yemeni IS branch. Arguably, the group’s greatest achievement, however, is its return to and growth in Afghanistan over the past year.
A UN report released on June 13 highlighted al-Qaeda’s growth in Afghanistan and continued partnership with the Taliban and Haqqani Network as well as other foreign terrorist organizations, including the primarily Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) (UNSC, June 13). Al-Qaeda has strengthened and expanded its area of operations as the Taliban has managed to take over an ever-increasing number of districts and is particularly active in Badakhshan, Kunar, Zabul, Helmand, and Kandahar. Additionally, it has been working to expand in Paktika Province’s Barmal District along the Pakistan border where LeT is notably active. What is also particularly concerning is that the report noted the arrival of al-Qaeda activists from Egypt, suggesting an effort to draw in more foreign fighters.
While its official branches and affiliates elsewhere comprise a significantly higher number of fighters and are important to the group’s image and growth, its leadership core is still seen as essential to its longevity and Afghanistan could once again provide an ideal base. Furthermore, the importance of the partnerships core al-Qaeda maintains with the myriad terrorist organizations in Afghanistan cannot be understated as they provide one another with financing, logistical, and communication support. The Taliban’s increased territorial control, the diminished role of U.S. troops, and the prospect of a troop withdrawal and peace deal is creating the ideal conditions for al-Qaeda to regroup in Afghanistan over the coming years.
Simply put, the Taliban is very much in a position of strength and has the wherewithal to continue the fight for years to come as it controls more territory now than when the war began. Meanwhile, Afghan forces are weary, and the U.S. and other international partners are eager to make an exit rather than ramp up operations. One of the core aspects of any potential peace deal with the Taliban is that the group will not allow the country to remain a haven for terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda (ToloNews, July 6). While the Taliban delegation negotiating for peace might be willing to agree to this requirement, it is simply a promise that is neither theirs to make nor is it particularly feasible. Those that have been sheltering and supporting al-Qaeda over the past decades are unlikely to turn their guns on the group. Then, there are the hosts of other foreign terrorist groups operating across the country that still need to be addressed.
If either the Taliban continues to expand or a peace deal is signed, Afghanistan will still almost assuredly see al-Qaeda itself in an increased operational space over the coming year. As we have seen before, al-Qaeda has the ability to shift its tactics and area of operations rather quickly and its leadership is well aware that there will likely not be a foreign military willing to increase operations in Afghanistan for years to come. As such, the group will almost certainly continue to expand in Afghanistan as it waits for the U.S. presence to further decline.
Philippines: Jolo Attack Suggests Tactical Shift for IS-aligned Abu Sayyaf Group
Brian M. Perkins
On June 28, a bombing at the front gate of a military base on the island of Jolo in the Philippines’ Sulu province killed at least eight people (Channel News Asia, June 29). The base is the temporary headquarters for the Philippine First Brigade Combat Team, the army’s counterterrorism unit, and the attack reportedly occurred during a change of command. The attack was, expectedly, claimed by the Islamic State East Asia Province in a statement purporting that two suicide bombers killed and wounded a total of 100 soldiers, a claim that was clearly wildly exaggerated. The attack was almost certainly the work of the local IS-aligned Abu Sayyaf, which has wreaked havoc on the Southern Philippines for years.
The embattled island of Jolo, and the larger Sulu province, has seen countless attacks over the past several years, but the nature of this attack points to several burgeoning trends, which will likely escalate in the coming months. One aspect in particular makes this attack different than those before it, and that is the fact that security forces confirmed on July 10 that it was, in fact, the first confirmed suicide bombing by a Filipino militant (Straits Times, July 11).
Only two other suspected suicide bombings have been reported in the Philippines in recent years—a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attack in Basilan in 2018 and the Sunday mass cathedral bombing in Jolo in January (PhilStar, August 11, 2018; PhilStar, February 2). While there are mixed reports regarding whether or not the cathedral bombing was a suicide bombing, authorities have placed the blame on foreign fighters for carrying out those attacks. Meanwhile, authorities are working under the assumption that the other bomber from the June 28 attack was a foreign fighter of Moroccan origin, potentially the son of the Moroccan who conducted the earlier VBIED attack (Rappler, July 2).
This latest attack points to a growing willingness to conduct suicide attacks, a tactic that militant groups in the country have long shied away from due in large part to local cultural specificities. The move toward adopting suicide attacks as a tactic points to a shift in the ideology of Abu Sayyaf factions. This shift could, in large part, be due to two factors. First, a growing presence of foreign fighters within the ranks of Abu Sayyaf, including radicalized Moroccans as demonstrated by the Basilan attack—potentially the recent attack as well—and militants from Indonesia and Malaysia, where suicide bombings have been successfully utilized or at least attempted on multiple occasions. Second, IS’ push to ramp up its operations across Asia could be leading to closer communication and an emphasis on indoctrinating Asian militants to the group’s ideology and style of warfare. It is unclear the direction IS will take in bolstering operations in Southeast Asia, but there could plausibly be an effort to draw together or at least increase coordination among the varying groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and other nearby countries.