Extremism and Conflict: What to Watch in 2017

Extremism and Conflict: What to Watch in 2017


13 min read

View of the truck that crashed into a christmas market at Gedächtniskirche church in Berlin, on December 19, 2016 killing at least nine people and injuring at least 50 people. 


Alona Ferber Managing Editor, Co-Existence

Posted on: 20th December 2016

In 2016, we saw the conflict in Yemen mired in a bloody status quo and the balance tipping in President Bashar al-Assad's favour in Syria after five years of civil war. We saw ISIS losing territory across the Middle East and North Africa, but its affiliated attackers killing hundreds in France, Belgium, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump pointed to the ongoing shift in the trajectory of our globalised world. Just before the year closed, Russia's ambassador to Turkey was shot dead in Ankara by a man shouting "this is for Aleppo" and 12 people were killed in a suspected terror attack at a Christmas market in Berlin.

According to the our Global Extremism Monitor, some 10,000 people lost their lives in religious extremist violence, and efforts to counter it, in each quarter of 2016. More than half of these were in the Middle East and North Africa, and the vast majority of the violence was perpetrated by Islamist extremists. Can we expect the same levels of violence in 2017? Will the same groups continue to dominate? We asked security and risk analysts for their take on the 12 months to come.

Sectarianism and stability

When it comes to sectarianism and Mideast stability, what should we be watching in 2017?

Ali Soufan, The Soufan Group

The long-running but dramatically accelerating geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to drive most of that region's crises in 2017. The Syrian Civil War has not only caused the sectarian machinations between the two rivals to explode into proxy warfare, but has brought Russia into the region with an influence it has not had in decades. The war in Yemen is another manifestation of the tendency for Riyadh and Tehran to view local conflicts as part of a zero-sum regional power play. Next year will likely see a continuation of the truly negative sectarian trend lines that are fueling conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and stressing Lebanon. The Kurdish issue will remain Turkey's priority as it relates to Syria and Iraq; it will drive most of Ankara's interventions.

Firas Abi Ali, IHS Markit

The relationships between the US and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are key, as well as their ties with Russia. We are seeing a US administration that says it has a problem with Iran's behaviour in the region generally, rather than just the specifics of the nuclear issue. To confront Iran regionally, the US will need the support of the Sunni states. This runs the risk that it will again make acceptable the narratives coming out of a lot of the Sunni community that have caused so much trouble in the past. I am talking about the sectarian narrative and Salafism generally, and the attempt by states - or by clergymen backed by states - to reshape Muslim identity.

If the US ends up pushing these countries to reform internally and amend their narratives while rallying them to confront Iran, that is one thing. If it ends up reverting to the old formula of overlooking Salafism and the problems associated with it, and overlooking support of countries like Turkey or Qatar for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, it will take us back years. The people the Trump administration has looked at, be it General Flynn or others, would most certainly be aware of these things. The extent to which this translates into policy is obviously not clear at this stage because the appointments are not final. The other issue is what does Iran do, because the Iranians and a significant portion of their Shia backers, are also responsible for the sectarian narrative.

Iranian policy after the nuclear deal

Will we see shifts in Iran’s Mideast policy next year, in the aftermath of the nuclear deal?

Firas Abi Ali, IHS Markit

Absolutely not. If the nuclear agreement stays, will the Iranians tone back their regional activities? No. The agreement has emboldened them to pursue their interests in the region, and arguably the fear of upsetting the nuclear agreement has stopped the US from intervening in Syria to check Iranian influence. If the agreement is canceled, will the Iranians then decide they will dial it back? No. They will have no incentive to, unless they are forced militarily to back down. If you look at the internal indicators, the consolidation of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the fact that they are increasingly influential over the armed forces, it does not point to them reducing their regional activities. But if the Iranians are allowed to dominate southern Iraq, and are increasingly dominating Syria, and are doing well in Yemen, and are keeping the Saudis bleeding, why would they change their behaviour? If a Trump administration were to cancel the nuclear deal, as far as Tehran is concerned, it would be free of an agreement, and could do as it likes.

Al-Qaeda or ISIS?

Is 2017 the year al-Qaeda will once again become the globe’s leading jihadi brand?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Valens Global

Yes – one hundred per cent. It is very clear that ISIS never broke up the al-Qaeda network, and it did not get any major al-Qaeda affiliates. It will actually be more difficult with al-Qaeda in that it has rebranded itself. The group is able to operate more openly in the Middle East and North Africa than ever before. People don't understand just how much al-Qaeda's position has changed there; it will be really hard to disentangle. Its brand is set to again eclipse ISIS', but it will operate very differently to its rival. ISIS made enemies of everybody, and it drew counter-terrorism resources against it. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has been acting in a much more strategic manner.

It is possible that al-Qaeda will go back to only carrying out attacks against the West, but given its foothold in Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Mali, the group may pursue a strategy of progressive destabilisation instead, without ramping up the threat level, to try to continue to build strength. So yes, al-Qaeda is definitively a greater challenge now than ISIS. It will not try to copy ISIS' spectacular action, though there is a possibility that it will. Al-Qaeda has operated with off-brands for a few years, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. It could be that some of their off-brands do get spectacular. For the moment I would put the odds against that. Al-Qaeda views ISIS' flamboyance as a weakness rather than a strength. Still, Syria will remain the centre of gravity for global jihadism, with al-Qaeda outstripping ISIS there. 

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The conflicts that will dominate the year

Iraq, Syria, and Yemen dominated the headlines in 2016 when it came to conflicts involving religious extremists. Will this continue?

- Asher Berman, Haley Cook-Simmons, Rajae Nami, Elizabeth Parker-Margyar, Navanti Group

The conflict between Shia and Sunni will continue to be a deadly religious fault line, and fighting will continue to center around Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. While tension is high in Lebanon, it has shown an impressive ability to export that tension to fighting in Syria, and the appointment of a new president should further stabilise Lebanese politics. There will continue to be occasional violence between Israel and the Palestinians, but this is not likely to result in a full-scale war, while the conflict with Hizbullah also is unlikely to flare, as the Shia militia remains focused on Syria.

In Yemen, the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition will support the internationally recognised government with operations in western coastal cities. Meanwhile, forces loyal to the government are determined to seize more territory from the Shia Houthis and military units loyal to ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthi movement has roots in a Zaydi Shia religious revival movement. However, the religious aspect of the conflict should not be overstated. Saleh supporters joined with Houthis to form the major armed opposition to the transition government, making Yemen's civil war a political rather than a religious issue. Even so, the geopolitical interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran lead those countries to continue framing the conflict in sectarian terms.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS in Yemen are expected to expand an existing presence in Abyan and al-Baydah governorates, in addition to sending fighters to curtail the Houthi expansionist maneuvers in the north.

What next in Syria

Should we expect a major change on the ground in Syria?

- Asher Berman, Haley Cook-Simmons, Rajae Nami, Elizabeth Parker-Margyar, Navanti Group

Barring a major escalation on behalf of the Syrian opposition from one of its allies, 2017 will witness continued gains by the Syrian government against its opposition and an intensified scramble by all sides to be first to win back ISIS' Syrian territory. The aftermath of the Syrian government's retaking of Aleppo and the coalition-led campaign against the ISIS' capital in Raqqa will dominate the first half of the year. Having lost Aleppo, Syria's opposition will be left with only Idlib and scattered territories such as the Damascus suburbs and the northern Aleppo countryside. The Syrian government will immediately turn its efforts on the rebel-held pocket of the Damascus suburbs, forcing a rebel withdrawal to Idlib in the early months of 2017.

Following the surrender of the Damascus suburbs, the government will choose between jumping into the scramble to recapture Raqqa and Syria's east from ISIS, or fully concentrating its resources on the destruction of the armed opposition's stronghold in Idlib. In eastern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey's Sunni Arab, opposition-aligned militias, and the Syrian government will race one another to liberate territory from a weakened ISIS. At first, the animosity between these parties will be secondary to their desire to take territory and establish themselves as de facto powers on the ground. In late 2017, when ISIS is pushed out of both Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, but there remains a continued absence of a united Syrian state, the harder task of governing these areas will begin. Then conflict between the Syrian government, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups, and the Kurds will increase.


Counter-extremism in the age of Trump

How will counter-terror and counter-extremism policy change under Trump?

Ali Soufan, The Soufan Group

I think 2017 will be marked, certainly in the beginning, with a great deal of uncertainty in regards to how the incoming administration will handle challenges such as counter-terrorism that defy term-of-office timelines. There is no record of voting or legislating with which to build some assessment of the incoming administration's strategies and tactics; statements made during the campaign have at times contradicted each other, leaving no clear grasp as to priorities and means and methods. One somewhat consistent theme is a possible preference for an ad hoc approach to alliances and partnerships, such as aligning with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria, something that has not happened under the current administration despite lengthy discussions between Washington and Moscow.

A preference for smaller partnerships in a bilateral counter-terror approach might be likely and it might have some positive impact if each country's efforts are viewed in isolation. Unfortunately, as seen clearly in Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iraq/Syria, there really is no such thing as a localised terrorist threat. There indeed might be positive developments from new approaches, just as there might be negatives. There are too many unknowables right now to assess the potential impacts of hypothetical strategies and tactics.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Valens Global

Trump indicated that he intends to take a harder line on counter-terrorism issues, but his statements have been all over the map. Often he has taken a position and retreated from it. However, early indications are that when it comes to counter-terror efforts, the Trump administration may view Islamism as more of a root cause than Obama. You had Walid Phares, an adviser to Trump, talk about "a military strike" against the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether one reads that metaphorically or literally, it dovetails with things like designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. I think that we will see more focus on Islamism as a problem, whereas the Obama administration tended to want to see engaging and even empowering Islamism as being a laudable set of counter-terrorism efforts. Obama saw empowering Islamism as a part of the solution, or as a safety valve. The new administration will be less inclined to join jihadi organisations if Islamism is an option. So between Trump and Obama, Trump will be less likely to want to engage groups like the Brotherhood. He will be more likely to aid governments clamp down on them.

The scourge of militancy in Africa

Will we see Islamist extremist violence reach new parts of Africa in 2017?

Robert Besseling, ExxAfrica

Islamist extremism will increasingly become an Africa-wide phenomenon, rather than being restricted to pockets of radicalisation in the Sahel and Horn of Africa. There will be a steady southward move of Islamist militancy that will affect areas not previously impacted. The alliance between Algerian and Saharan Tuaregs, as well as Mali Berabiche tribal clans, and the Arab and Tuareg groups from northern Mali, will remain united under the broad al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) banner and increasingly seek to stage attacks on entertainment and public venues in West Africa outside of their areas of control. Major West African cities such as Abidjan, Dakar, Lagos, and Accra will face increased risk of attack on high-profile public venues, frequented by expatriates and tourists. Countries with weak political and security institutions, such as Mali, could turn into failed states as they face insurgencies increasingly infiltrated by Islamist militants.

In East Africa, informal inter-connections and long-standing grievances along the Swahili coast will facilitate a southward move by groups like al-Shabaab. There is growing evidence that such groups are operating outside of their areas of control in Somalia and north-east Kenya, and seeking to recruit and set up new bases as far south as Mtwara in Tanzania and even northern Mozambique. ISIS, meanwhile, will struggle to hold onto territory around Lake Chad and within Somalia. Instead, it will remain an inspiration for self-radicalised and independent actors to stage attacks in countries like Kenya, or possibly South Africa.

Ryan Cummings, Signal Risk

There is a strong possibility that countries previously unaffected by terrorism on the African continent in 2016 may experience attacks in 2017. In North Africa, Morocco appears most susceptible to register an attack after a multi-year lull in terrorist activity. The threat stems primarily from ISIS sympathisers. In 2016, Morocco uncovered dozens of ISIS plots against commercial and foreign interests in cities like Casablanca, Fez, Rabat, and Tangiers. Abroad, Moroccans have been arrested for belonging to ISIS cells in several European countries. In West Africa, Senegal seems most likely to be targeted by terrorism. Its proximity to Mali, which serves as the main operational hub for AQIM, Senegal's support of regional counter-terrorism measures, and its military cooperation with France and the US, makes it a key target.

In East Africa, Tanzania could also be susceptible. In addition to a government clampdown on Islamist parties which could increase local radicalisation, Tanzania may also involve itself in counter-terror operations against al-Shabaab – a move which could place the country at threat of retaliatory attacks. In southern Africa, the threat is most elevated in South Africa where a series of terrorist warnings in 2016 highlighted the threat. The credence of these warnings were reinforced by arrests of twin brothers who were planning to attack US and Jewish targets in Johannesburg on behalf of ISIS. 

Africa’s counter-extremism: Global players

Which global powers will be key to counter-efforts in Africa next year?

Ryan Cummings, Signal Risk

France will continue and possibly extend its Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism effort across Francophone Africa as it continues to clamp down on the activities of AQIM, which has been discriminate to French interests and personnel. The US may also continue to expand its counter-terror presence as it seeks to continue to debilitate transnational networks like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Unlike France, which will directly deploy forces against Islamist militants, the US under President-elect Trump is expected to continue the Obama administration strategy of playing a supportive role to initiatives on the African continent by training, financing, and providing logistical assistance to local governments and their militaries spearheading such moves. The exception will continue to be Somalia and Libya, where the US military will continue to leverage off its air force for more offensive operations given the lack of stable governments in these countries. 

Jihadis eye South East Asia

Throughout 2016, we have seen signs that ISIS and other jihadis are looking to South East Asia. Can we expect an uptick in incidents there over 2017?

Asher Berman, Haley Cook-Simmons, Rajae Nami, Elizabeth Parker-Margyar, Navanti Group

Overall, South East Asia appears to have a difficult time "exporting" jihad, with most current and former jihadi groups choosing to focus their operations domestically. By all indications, most Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) fighters in the Levant are trapped in the deteriorating conditions of Iraq and Syria, and are most likely increasingly cut off from any means of egress. As a result, it is unlikely that defectors from the conflict will play much of a role in radicalising locals further, as it is especially unlikely they return home successfully. However, ISIS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf remains a significant security threat in the region and has engaged in large-scale terrorism as recently as 2 September 2016, with a bombing in Davao city, the Philippines. Ultimately, the security outlook for the region as the conflict in the Levant deteriorates is likely not much different than it has been in the past decade. A large-scale homecoming of battle-hardened fighters to South East Asia appears increasingly unlikely. The greatest danger is likely from Abu Sayyaf reprisals in a bid to give ISIS legitimacy both in the region and abroad, as the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria fails.

The battle against the Taliban

What shifts should we expect to see in efforts against the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region? Will the Trump presidency affect the US commitment?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Valens Global

The Taliban continues to gain ground in Afghanistan, as it has been gaining ground for some time. I do not see a reason to reverse that. The Taliban is a much stronger player than ISIS there. I expect that ISIS will continue finding it very difficult to grow in that country. The Taliban will continue to be in a stronger position, to the detriment of ISIS. For Trump, who knows? He could decide to triage the war effort entirely. It is unlikely that he will ramp things up particularly, as Afghanistan is on the back-burner. It is difficult to know what he is going to do in terms of specifics.

What policy makers need to know

What do policy makers need to understand about the fight against religious extremism in 2017?

Ali Soufan, The Soufan Group

The fight against violent extremism, and Islamist extremism in particular, will remain a serious challenge in the West, both because it is a credible and serious issue and because it is prone to wildly destructive overreactions in terms of society and policy. Militarily defeating ISIS, handing that group and its supporters a high-profile undeniable loss in Mosul and Raqqa, will help blunt some of its bandwagon appeal. However, the ideology of bin Ladenism is far more widespread now than when bin Laden was alive; that same ideology will persist after ISIS ceases to be a proto-state. Perhaps the best way to view strategies at countering violent extremism is an understanding that this extremism is a global phenomenon with mainly local solutions. The paths to violent extremism are as varied as there are violent extremists; the most effective approaches will likely be community (or smaller) based groups with support from the national government. And as in medicine, countering violent extremism, particularly dealing with religion and faith, the overriding motto must be 'above all, do no harm.' It is counterproductive to demonise a population based on the actions of lunatics and then ask for their help.

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