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From Moscow to the Sahel: Understanding the Ripple Effects of Terrorism on ISIS Activities and Regional Stabil

2024-03-26 09:09

Fuat Emir Şefkatli

#InternationalTerrorism , #GlobalJihad , #Africa , #SahelCrisis , #ISISExpansion , #MoscowAttack , #Terrorism , #FragileStates , #Counterterrorism , #SecurityAnalysis,

From Moscow to the Sahel: Understanding the Ripple Effects of Terrorism on ISIS Activities and Regional Stability

"Global jihad intensifies in Africa post-2023, leveraging crises in Sahel. Fragile states inadvertently aid ISIS's expansion and activities."

The attack carried out on the evening of March 22nd at the "Crocus City Hall" concert hall in Moscow is recorded as one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks within the borders of Russia to date. According to official statements, 143 individuals have lost their lives, while more than 100 have been injured. Russian intelligence units and security forces swiftly announced the detention of 11 individuals, including the 4 terrorists responsible for the attack. Moreover, images disseminated on social media after attack highlighted the militants’ calm and professional attitudes, sparking discussions on whether this attack was connected to ISIS. This speculation was clarified after ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack through their Telegram channel. It was understood that the terrorists, identified as Tajik nationals, executed this bloody act on behalf of ISIS Khorasan Branch.


Notably, the ISIS-Khorasan Branch had recently claimed responsibility for the attack on the Santa Maria Church in Istanbul, bringing the organization's activities in Türkiye under scrutiny. The choice of Moscow as a target today can be associated with the military interventions conducted by Vladimir Putin's administration in predominantly Muslim regions such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Chechnya. In 2022, the group had launched a similar attack on the Russian Embassy in Kabul, resulting in the loss of two embassy staff members.


On a broader scale, it's possible to assert that ISIS is transforming back into a global threat, localizing its activities to increase its influence and "market share." The blows dealt to the organization in what are considered its core regions, such as Syria and Iraq, including the loss of so-called leaders and difficulties in integrating into the societal structures of the relevant countries, have paved the way for ISIS's shift towards different regions. This pivot towards fragile or so-called failed states, characterized by high radicalization tendencies and weak central-local relations, has found significant resonance, especially in Africa and Central Asia. The emergence of ISIS Khorasan in the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2015, and the ISIS Sahel Branch (ISGS) in the Tri-Border Area connecting Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, supports this approach. Despite the prominence of ISIS Khorasan Branch following the Moscow Attacks, the Sahel region has become an area where, according to ACLED data, ISIS has gradually increased its attacks and territorial control since 2018.


Given this context, the flawed approaches to counterterrorism by Western actors, can be considered as factors contributing to the momentum of ISGS activities across Africa. The phenomenon of 'ungovernable spaces' observed across the continent and the operational flexibility afforded to non-state armed actors in the region, enhance these dynamics. This situation is further exacerbated by the strategic position of the region (proximity to North African countries with Mediterranean coastlines and its centrality to intra-African transit logistic routes) and the potential domino effect it could create, thereby increasing the threat and risk factors.



ISIS Sahara Branch and Threat Analysis


Established in 2015, the core of ISGS is composed of militants who defected from Al-Qaeda affiliated El-Murabitoun organization. Following the significant blow dealt by the killing of their so-called leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi by French military operations in 2021, the organization has been highly active in Mali's Menaka and Gao regions, and operates in a fragmented manner in the Tri-Border Area. Initially benefiting from fractures within rival terrorist groups, ISGS expanded its sphere of influence by exploiting farmer-herder conflicts and anti-authority sentiments, particularly in the inner parts of the Niger Delta.


During its expansion phase, ISGS became the most dangerous and effective organization in the north of Mali by March 2022 despite its disadvantages, including field knowledge, number of militants and media capacity compared to local AQ-affiliated groups like Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and Katiba Macina (MLF). This was evidenced by images shared through ISGS's social media accounts in December 2022, believed to be taken in the Menaka region, showing a large gathering of ISGS fighters. These images were interpreted as a show of force and indicates that the organization no longer felt threatened. 


On the other hand, the timing of the Moscow attack shortly after the U.S. National Intelligence Director's Office (ODNI) published its annual intelligence assessment report on March 11th is particularly noteworthy. According to the report, despite experiencing losses in their leadership cadre, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organizations have still a tendency to expand. The report emphasizes that the "global jihad" is shifting towards Africa and targets the citizens and interests of Western countries. As mentioned above, ACLED data corroborate the ODNI reports, indicating an increase in non-state armed group (NSAG) activities and regional territorial control in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa regions from the last quarter of 2023 and the beginning of 2024. The expansion of territorial control can be attributed not only to tangible territorial gains but also to the radicalization trends on the continent. Moreover, military coups and governance crises in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso since 2020 have created an opportunity window for terrorist organizations, particularly ISGS. In this regard, ISGS has utilized this period for propaganda activities and militant recruitment, accessing opportunities not found in other geographies.


Lastly, the Sahel region is distinct from past conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The presence of a governing structure, a unified army, and certain communication infrastructure can be seen as an advantage by transnational terrorist organizations like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. For instance, when looking at Afghanistan or Iraq, states categorized as 'very weak' according to the fragility index, these conditions offer disadvantages rather than advantages to terrorist groups in terms of recruiting militants and determining attack targets. The absolute disorder and insecurity in these areas mean a loss of operational security and the flexibility for unexpected/sudden attacks for terrorist groups. Furthermore, the security concerns in these areas significantly reduce the opportunity to attack civil or official targets. However, Sahel countries, which are in a 'collapsing' or 'moderately weak' state, reduce operational costs due to their relatively developed communication and transportation infrastructure, providing a broad scope of flexibility for the organizations involved.


In light of all these factors, the Sahel region, through the effectiveness of ISIS's Sahara Branch, not only enhances regional but also global threat perceptions. Following the Moscow attack, ISIS's Khorasan branch, along with others, should be closely monitored as an organization of concern.

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