Militant attacks in Afghanistan and Libya show that despite Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and Syria instability is likely to persist in 2018.
E ven for a city as frequently rocked by violence as Kabul, the attack on January 27 stood out in terms of the tactics militants used to cause carnage. More than 100 people were killed in the Afghan capital when an ambulance packed with explosives blew up in a busy street near government and foreign embassy buildings. Reports said the attacker was able to pass a checkpoint in central Kabul by claiming he was transporting a patient to a nearby hospital. At least 235 people were wounded in the blast, which came one week after 20 people lost their lives in a siege on Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel. Both attacks were claimed by the Taliban.
Two days after the ambulance blast, a local Islamic State (IS) affiliate claimed an attack on a military academy, in which 11 soldiers were killed. Months after establishing its ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria in summer 2014, the violent jihadi group declared parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan part of its ‘Khorasan province’.
“People are very disappointed, they don’t feel secure even walking to the shop, because every minute there is fear of suicide explosion,” one resident of the capital told local media outlet Tolo News.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani vowed resolve at a time of fear, calling on the Taliban to choose between “Islam and terrorism”. Afghan officials have pointed to the influence of outside powers in the latest wave of violence. Having been pushed out of Kabul in 2001, the Taliban has been fighting an insurgency ever since, currently controlling large swathes of territory. The Afghan government and some of its allies see Pakistan as the main backer of the Afghan Taliban, offering material support and refuge across the border. The Pakistani government denies these charges. A high-level Afghan delegation travelled to Islamabad this week to discuss the spate of attacks.
The Taliban has been able to “exploit the currently chaotic situation in the city, particularly the growing political rift” inside Afghanistan’s national unity government, says Haroun Mir, the founder of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies. “They have been able to infiltrate the Afghan security apparatus.”
Taliban fighters are openly active in 70% of Afghanistan, according to a BBC study released this week.
Afghanistan is not the only country in the wider region facing militant attacks and instability. As IS is on the back foot in Iraq and Syria, it remains active in conflict-ridden Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Two car bombings outside a mosque in Benghazi, Libya, killed at least 33 people in January. Whereas IS did not officially claim the attack, it bore the hallmarks of the group’s past operations.
“We will see a constant pattern of attacks in North Africa this year,” predicts Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at RUSI, a UK think-tank.
A new IS hub?
As IS has been forced into the mountains and deserts of Iraq and Syria, there has been speculation that Libya, a country ruled by rivaling governments and a variety of armed groups, could become its next hub. Senior IS officials reportedly travelled to the North African country to boost the militant group’s presence there after the establishment of the ‘caliphate’ in 2014.
For a time IS controlled around 200 kilometres of Libya’s coastline, including the cities of Sirte, longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown, and Derna. However, in late 2016 a coalition of fighters backed by US airstrikes pushed IS out of Sirte, the group’s last urban stronghold in the country.
Exploiting Libya’s ongoing lack of central authority, IS withdrew to areas south of Sirte. “ISIS is regrouping in Libya’s vast desert and is attempting to use Libya’s southern region and the vast Sahara desert as a new hub for its activities,” says Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan analyst and founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting. IS members, Mr. Eljarh told TWW, were still able to conduct raids and set up fake checkpoints in the centre and south of the country to generate funds in support of its “regrouping attempts”.
There are fears that Libya could become a key destination for fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria. Indeed, a recent study showed that Libya had become the “fourth-largest foreign mobilisation in global jihadist history”. In the last seven years, 2,600-3,500 foreigners have joined or attempted to join jihadi groups in Libya, around 1,500 of them coming from neighbouring Tunisia. Tunisians trained by IS in Libya carried out deadly attacks in Tunis and Sousse in the last years. IS attacks in the UK and Germany also had links to Libya.
“ISIS could exploit the migrant crisis in Libya to recruit foreign fighters or embed some of their fighters with migrants and refugees in an attempt to smuggle them into neighbouring countries including Europe,” Mr. Eljarh says.
Having recently stepped up its activities in Libya, will the North African country become IS’ new main hub? Experts preached caution. Aaron Y. Zelin, the author of the foreign fighters study, told TWW that IS in Libya was “in recovery mode, trying to rebuild its capabilities after being pushed out of Sirte”. He added that Iraq and Syria “will remain the main hub of IS, because that's where the core is”.
Before the formation of the IS caliphate in 2014, most foreign fighters in Libya came from within North Africa, a trend that persisted afterward, but with larger concentrations from continental Africa and other locales.”
Dr. Pantucci concurred, stating that the prediction that Libya would replace Syria as the jihadi group’s main hub “has not materialised yet”, adding that Afghanistan would be key to watch in this regard. Another place in North Africa Dr. Pantucci says could see security deteriorate due to IS activity is the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian security forces have been battling a deadly insurgency. IS has staged several deadly attacks in the Sinai, Cairo and Alexandria.
Thinking of IS’ new main hub, “we might have to look further afield to Southeast Asia”, the RUSI scholar told TWW. “Everyone was shocked by what happened in Marawi”, the Philippine city a local IS affiliate besieged for months. The battle to retake the city left over 1,000 people, including dozens of civilians, dead.
Back in Kabul, Mr. Mir said IS posed a long-term threat to Afghanistan and beyond, citing Afghanistan’s difficult terrain and the income the group could gain from narcotics and illegal mining. “Similar to what al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan during the 1990s, IS could establish a stronghold in the forest-covered mountains of eastern Afghanistan and attract as many foreign fighters as possible,” Mr. Mir says.
The need for a political solution
The latest attacks in Afghanistan and the ongoing violence in places like Syria, Iraq, and Libya beg the question how militant groups like IS can truly be defeated.
There are lessons to be learned from the battles against IS in Syria and Iraq, says Dr. Pantucci: “Some level of violence is needed to push groups out of territory”, so are reliable local partners for outside forces. However, as ongoing Turkish operations against a US-backed force in northern Syria show, relying on local actors can come with a whole range of complications in complex battlefields.
In Libya, Afghanistan and beyond, armed groups thrive on continuous political instability. A United Nations-backed government based in the Libyan capital of Tripoli has struggled to assert power beyond the western part of the country. General Khalifa Haftar, a powerful military commander, backs a rivaling government in the east and has vowed to “take action” if UN-sponsored reconciliation efforts fail.
The UN aims to prepare Libya for elections by the end of 2018. However, a senior African Union official said this week that there should be no rush to hold elections. “We have to prepare solid ground for peaceful and credible elections so that the results will be respected by all the parties,” Smail Chergui, the commissioner of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, told journalists at a summit in Addis Ababa.
Mr. Eljarh stressed the importance of a political settlement in Libya. “In order to be able to counter ISIS and other jihadi groups, a legitimate, representative and unity government must be formed in Libya.”
“Some sort of political settlement would be essential” to deal with all of these groups, Dr. Pantucci told TWW, stressing a need to address local grievances.
Until that happens, instability and violence are likely to persist in 2018.