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Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use: Conclusions

The main perpetrators of IED attacks in the countries most affected by explosive violence are almost all Salafi-jihadi in outlook and practice.  The jihadi terrorism that fuels such attacks is, in turn, a globalised transnational enterprise; it is networked but largely decentralised in its operations.  The sources of this enterprise’s financial, material and human resources are diverse and have evolved with changing circumstances – including counterterrorism measures – in recent years.

In this report we have focused on the networks linking the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliates, the Taliban, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, and have focused on their common Salafi-jihadi ideology in the context of other relevant factors.  We have been able to draw the following conclusions:

  1. IED users share many similarities. The groups under review use IEDs both for quasi-military purposes and as an insurgency tactic, and do so in remarkably similar ways.  Most of them target civilians with IEDs and, in the countries worst affected by their actions, civilians overwhelmingly represent the majority of the casualties they inflict.
  2. IED users are linked in many ways. AOAV has been able to identify links between several of these groups relating to the manufacture, tactics and usage of IEDs, as well as signs of interorganisational cooperation.  The groups show themselves to be pragmatic, flexible and adaptable in operational terms, however rigid in their rhetoric.
  3. Religion plays a key role in the justification for IED use. Groups vary in the degree to which they seek to locate their actions within Islamic jurisprudence, but they all adopt some sort of religious framework for their actions.  At group level they paint a black-and-white view of the world, depicting their actions as a defence of Islam and a virtuous struggle against corruption and injustice, and some of their grievances are legitimate.  Yet individual followers are often motivated by more personal or local socioeconomic factors, and may have joined the jihad as an act of rebellion, thrill-seeking or self-protection.  Action to address issues such as social or economic inequality, corruption and injustice would, as a by-product, be of considerable value to counterterrorism efforts.
  4. There is less state funding of terrorism than we might think. In terms of financing, state sponsorship of Islamist militant groups has become less of an issue than was previously the case, although Qatar and Kuwait are still passively allowing private donations to reach groups in Syria fighting the Assad regime, especially Jabhat al-Nusra. Since the rise of IS in Syria and Iraq and IS-linked terrorist plots within the kingdom, Saudi Arabia, in particular, has cracked down on terrorist financing and joined in coalition airstrikes against IS.  It continues, though, to sponsor military action against those it sees as allies of Iran in Syria and Yemen. Most of the Gulf states now have legislation and mechanisms in place for combating the financing of terrorism, and these are starting to be used, at least with reference to IS.
  5. Syria has had an impact on funding streams for jihad. The war in Syria has resulted in the diversion of some Gulf Arab funding away from Afghanistan and Somalia.
  6. IED users have adapted in a number of ways to find alternative sources of revenue. Where state sponsorship and/or private donations have been reduced and, especially in the case of IS, where the group postures as an independent power, terrorist organisations have developed diversified quasi-state economies.  They rely heavily on revenues from oil and agriculture and various forms of taxation. They also attempt to provide some kind of public services. Criminal activities such as extortion, illicit trade, and kidnapping for ransom are also important sources of funds for these groups.
  7. Funds and fighters often follow the same pathways.  Two emerging features of terrorist financing are worth highlighting.  The first is the two-way flow of funds between, primarily, IS in Syria and Iraq and returning fighters or new recruits from a wide range of places, including Western Europe and the US but also Libya and possibly other Middle Eastern states.  The second is the movement of self-funding foreign fighters into conflict zones, often bringing with them material support of various kinds, and their use of multiple small transactions to microfinance their jihad.  We noted innovative measures being piloted to track this form of funding.
  8. Not all charity is good. Islamic charities, which have a track record of supporting violent jihadi groups in the past, continue to play a nebulous but potentially significant role in the funding of terrorism.  These charities often carry out much valued humanitarian work in many of the main areas most affected by IED violence, but their association with particular groups has a darker side: it aids jihadis’ efforts to win local hearts and minds. In some instances, there are even plausible claims that weapons have been transferred to armed groups under the cover of humanitarian aid. Pan-Islamic humanitarianism often responds to the same rhetoric as the global jihad: the need to aid fellow-Muslims suffering hardship or aggression by non-Muslims.  Both forms of response draw on a sense of solidarity and, on its own terms, altruism. This area deserves further scrutiny.
  9. The Islamic ‘caliphate’ is the new Afghanistan.  As in the 1980s, a conflict portrayed by the Salafi-jihadis as a battle between Islam and anti-Islamic forces is attracting thousands of foreign volunteers. These fighters may – some of them, at least – return to their countries of origin to carry out bombings and other terrorist attacks, or go on to fight elsewhere. It was in Afghanistan, and more recently in Iraq and now in Syria, that jihadi recruits have received their most intensive indoctrination and training.  Already over 20,000 foreign fighters have reportedly arrived in IS-controlled Syria and Iraq, more than the total number of foreign fighters who battled the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
  10. IS loves foreigners and foreigners love IS. IS recruitment propaganda is heavily slanted toward foreigners, and nearly 20% of the foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq have been from Western Europe.  A disproportionate (though still small) number have been converts to Islam.
  11. Beware the returning jihadi. The potential threat posed by foreign fighters returning home is a challenge facing not only Western governments but also those in the Middle East and North Africa region, which continues to provide the bulk of the insurgents.  Not all returnees will be intent on mayhem, however; many may be traumatised or disillusioned. Options such as prosecution, imprisonment, revoking of citizenship and social rehabilitation (or ‘deradicalisation’), and their impact on target communities, will need to be assessed and implemented with great care.
  12. Wahhabism lies at the root of much of the problem. Decades of oil-financed Wahhabi propaganda have – without promoting violence – spread fundamentalist Salafi Islam across the globe, largely as a counterweight to Shiism and the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Wealthy Arab states continue to fund mosque-building and proselytisation, including in the non-Muslim West.  This has contributed to providing fertile ground for some groups, especially nowadays with the aid of social media, to find potential recruits for a more radical outlook.  Radicalisation, however, tends to take place not in mainstream or foreign-funded mosques but in private prayer halls and ‘garage mosques’.
  13. The Salafi-jihadi genie is out of the bottle.  Whereas previously jihadi recruits would have been young, radicalised Muslims, it may be that radicalism itself is now attracting other alienated youth to Islam, making the radicalisation process all the harder to monitor.
  14. Religious financing from the Gulf has had a troubling impact. In examining the ongoing efforts of some Gulf states to spread Salafi Islam in Europe, we have questioned whether this is compatible with host societies’ desire to integrate Muslims into their communities. At a minimum, greater transparency on the part of Gulf State donors and local European Muslim recipients is called for.
  15. Beware the Sahel. We have identified a number of areas of concern for the future, top of the list being the Sahel region.  AQIM and IS in Libya are already active to the north, and Boko Haram to the south. The fluidity of alliances among these and other similar groups is an additional factor for instability.  Mali is a hub of Salafi-jihadi influence. Niger is seen as particularly vulnerable to more radical jihadi violence, largely due to economic stagnation, high population growth, rapid urbanisation and climate change.
  16. Egypt is a concern. AOAV’s data shows a sharp increase in IED attacks in Egypt, by a range of minor groups, in 2014 and 2015. There have also been a large number of terrorist attacks reported in Sinai in 2016.  Egypt’s repressive government, bleak economic outlook and vulnerability to a spillover of violence from neighbouring Libya make it another area to watch.
  17. Turkey poses problems. The conundrum of NATO ally Turkey’s ambivalent relations with IS and Jahbat al-Nusra, and its ongoing hostility to the PKK, needs to be better understood.  Turkey, now facing IED violence on its own soil, is critical to international efforts to tackle the epicentre of the globalised transnational jihad and its profligate use of IEDs, the source of so many civilian deaths.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.