By Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D, for The National Interest
It's time to take stock of 2016. The past year can be termed as one of war against international terrorism. Unfortunately, we have to recognize that it has not brought victory over this phenomenon. Furthermore, I would even frankly recognize that the terrorists have triumphed. 2016 has changed the nature of international terrorism. “The plague of the XXI century” has become absolutely decentralized, diffused and multilayered. Let’s focus attention on the following factors during the analysis of international terrorism.
First of all, looking at the conditional map of terrorist activity, two sub-regions can be identified: Iraq-Syria and Afghanistan-Pakistan. The most significant activity and density of terrorism has been focused here throughout the year. It became obvious that availability of "safe haven", where acts of terrorism could be prepared, assists radical activity. The greatest activity occurred in Iraq. The largest number of attacks occurred in this long-suffering country--almost half of the committed for the full year. The density and the concentration of population have led to the large-scale casualties. Sometimes a single terrorist attack in Baghdad has led to the deaths of hundreds of people.
Secondly, the greatest influence on terrorist activity of the world had two transcontinental groups. These are the so-called “Islamic State” with its vilayats (autonomous regional offices) and “Al-Qaeda” with its “sisters”.
And, thirdly, all counter-terrorism measures, despite the heroism of their initiators, were aimed at dealing with symptoms, but not with the “disease”. This applies to all countries without any exception.
Let's start with numbers. Final statistics for 2016 don’t exist yet. However, it can be assumed that around nine to twelve thousand of terrorist acts were committed worldwide in 2016. In 2015, for example, there were about twelve thousand of attacks, according to the State Department. As a result it was killed about thirty thousand people. Almost a record number of terrorist acts had been committed in 2014, it is about fourteen thousand, which killed nearly thirty-three thousand. In 2013, there were ten thousand terrorist attacks and twenty thousand people died. And about seven thousand terrorist attacks were committed in 2012.
The past year saw a significant blow to terrorist groups, especially to the “Islamic state”. From the outset, 2016 became the most unsuccessful year for Islamic State. After take-off and victories, the radicals began losing territories. From the beginning of 2016 the militants have lost control of territories where they had fundamental advantages of “basic conditions.” This term in the counter-terrorism dictionary refers to the factors that allow terrorist groups to feel safe in a particular area. Basically, there are two: the support of the population and difficult geography.
The “Islamic State” has lost control over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, where it had the support of a certain part of the population and in some cases geography conducive to its activities (the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah). In the outgoing year it was possible to cut the main logistics ways of “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq.
As a result, last year was the most unsuccessful for the radicals in Syria and Iraq. The influence and control of the Islamic State territory was at its peak in the spring of 2015. After that the militants had no major wins (with the exception of a broken Palmyra). Radicals have lost about thirty to forty percent of the territory in Iraq and Syria.
In January 2016 the terrorists have lost control over the Iraqi city Ramadi. The same thing happened in Fallujah in the summer. This occurred thanks to the actions of the Iraqi Armed Forces with the support of the United States. Syrian Palmyra was liberated with the support of Moscow in March 2016. However, due to the intelligence errors, including errors of its allies, the Syrian army lost control over the settlement in December 2016
Along with this, “Islamic State" has lost control of dozens of small towns in Syria and Iraq. Militants have lost control of dozens of oil facilities, refineries and factories in the past year. All this has led to the loss of “area of influence”, and “basic conditions", resulting in lower revenues. In brief, it began the decline of “Islamic State” in 2016, and maybe in the middle of 2015.
If the loss of a “safe haven” for “Al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan in 2001 was a result of the entry of American forces, after 9/11 it was the factor that pushed to change the format and mechanism of its activity. For “Islamic State, considering its ideology, it is tantamount to catastrophe.
I'll try to explain in more simple language. “Al-Qaeda” has moved to network activity. That is, after the loss of control over a part of Afghanistan, “Al-Qaeda” turned from a single organism to nominally related small groups acting independently. Osama bin Laden, and nowadays Ayman al-Zawahiri, gave the general outlines of activity, strategic directions, the paradigm, but the decisions were made on the spot.
Syria's territory has become a “safe haven” of terrorist groups. For the “Islamic state” to do the same is a complicated task. It will have to break all ideological bases, the essence of the organization. For them, the idea of controlling the territories and the subsequent formation of state institutions became a fixed idea. This was the basis of the “Islamic State”. It was a strong point of the organization. The ideologists of this group talked a lot about the need of controlling of areas. In their journal “Dabiq”, they wrote that real “Salafi” is impossible without control over the territories; that it is an imitation of "righteous ancestors"; and therefore a “caliphate” is impossible. In the past caliphs controlled territory that allowed them to establish rules, according to which Islamic world should live, in the radical sense. The ideologues of Islamic state taught their supporters that their is only one way to return former greatness--controlling areas. Nowadays their loss is a blow to the basis, to the essence of the “Islamic state”. It is not the state without controlling the territory. Of course, the Islamic State controls some territories today and will do so in the coming year. However, it is losing territories; its adherents are dwindling.
The number of attacks increase in the periods when the radicals confidently control vast territories. As soon as they lose the "safe haven", opportunities and resources for the implementation of acts of terrorism in any part of the world are reduced. As a result, 2016 became the year, when it became possible to reduce ability of terrorists of preparing and carrying out attacks. It is a definite success.
In this context it is possible to predict that number of attacks that will occur in the entire 2017 will be less than in 2015 and in 2016. This gives a kind of hope.
The third factor has had a major influence in the failure of the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, we must admit that the intelligence services, despite the heroism of experts fighting against terrorism, directed its efforts at dealing with symptoms, but not with the disease. This applies to all countries without any exception. As a result, success was achieved towards the end of the year, but it is tactical, operational, but not strategic. Despite unprecedented levels of threat, the fight against terrorism is still accompanied by political engagement.
Consider some examples. Ignoring the obvious facts, the United States still continued to assert, even in strategic documents, that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the main sponsor of terrorism, an assertion that doesn’t fully correspond to reality. Unfortunately, 2017 will bring more of the same. Washington notes that the major terrorist groups are “Islamic state” and "Al Qaeda" with their numerous branches. But at the same time, some officials from the State Department and the CIA argued that Iran is the main sponsor, because it supports Lebanese "Hezbollah" and the Iraqi wing of the “Kataib Hezbollah”. In turn, Russia almost refused to recognize the civil nature of the war in Syria. The Moscow opinion is that the Syrian conflict is a regional war involving terrorist groups and, therefore, participation in it should be reduced only to the fight against terrorism. Frequently, almost all groups are denoted as terrorist even without delving into the details of the Syrian regional reality. This in turn is one of the key mistakes in the fight against terrorism.
However very often in 2016 the Middle East governments blame all failures on terrorism. Their inability to protect interests and promote crisis resolution leads to the radicalization of the “loser part of society”. Protest is gaining momentum and finds a basis in a corrected Islamic dogma. Ultimately, the protests are fanatical. The government toughens fight against the rebels, who are gradually turning into terrorists. As a result, everyone loses. There should be a strict separation between the symptoms of Islamist terrorism and the real causes of this disease.
The struggle with the symptoms rather than with the disease consists in the fact that people who are fighting terrorism take the easy route and don’t fight the fundamental causes of the emergence and existence of radicalism. Consider Iraq and Syria.
In the social and political realities of these two countries we can see the deep conflicts that is underlie the success of terrorists. Specifically it concerns religious, ethnic and political differences. In addition, there is economic and social injustice. Furthermore, there is the ideological vacuum which the representatives of the official clergy couldn’t fill. There is a need for an updating of social contract between the four main pillars of the Muslim Middle Eastern countries: the population-power-army-clergy.
As a result, inter-religious and socio-economic contradictions form the foundation of the growth of terrorism in Iraq and Syria. This is the underlying cause. Moreover, the identity of the Syrians and Iraqis is going through the deepest crisis. As a result, conflicts are on the lines of the Alawites, Shiites, Christians - Sunni (Syria), Shia-Sunni-Kurdish (Iraq). Radicals have successfully used all of these contradictions in their favor.
The same applies to the methods of fighting terrorism. Of course, military methods are required. However, they can only play a subsidiary role in the fight against terrorism. Intelligence agencies are the main organizations called upon to fight against terrorism. The three pillars of struggle with radicals are actions of special services (intelligence and counterintelligence), special operations forces (MTR) and counter-propaganda (“battle of ideas”). No one country could really develop effective mechanisms to deal with counter-propaganda over the past year. Unfortunately, Russia didn’t even attempt to start this process. Other countries also didn’t have any success. The attempts of ideological struggle with radical of Islam of EU sometimes were even absurd.
Here is one example how one of the Arab countries is struggling against propaganda. I'm not going to call out the name of it, but I'm sure that many people would guess. Throughout the year, the Mukhabarat (intelligence agencies) was deleting and burn books of ideologues and founders of the organization “Muslim Brothers” of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. How effective do you think it is?
Put bluntly, the “battle of ideas” was lost in 2016. The main instruments and mechanisms of fighting with terrorism are counterintelligence, intelligence, investigation, coordination and aiming of offensive operations, tracing of phone calls, creating legends, intelligence work, operations compromised, rapid development, "outdoor work", undercover penetration and controlling of persons. The great powers often use air strikes, but in spite of their importance, they are only a subsidiary tool in the struggle against terrorism. But it should be said that until this is realized, no one will ever achieve a fundamental success. While terrorist networks are disintegrating, the intelligence agencies aimed to fight with them are going through a process of centralization and integration. The level of threat forces means that it is imperative to reconsider the cumbersome and sometimes immobile nature of the counter-intelligence and intelligence institutions. It is complicated to coordinate between analytical, technical and operational "sleeves" of intelligence services. It requires huge efforts and time, which is most important thing. Everything is accelerating; globalization has mixed space and time. We have to learn to respond faster.
Today there is a transition of terrorist groups to the use of a “single-suicide”. This is due to the complexity of organizing a terrorist attack in the West. The emergence of the Islamic State has put on the agenda the other factor of the struggle against terrorism, which is controlling of areas. “Quiet Harbor” used by terrorists greatly facilitates the organization of terrorist acts, including outside the Middle East. Therefore, the United States has an urgent need to have “good” allies in this region.
According to a Rand corporation study, terrorists groups are end their existence in two main ways: 1. the grouping goes to the non-violent struggle and includes in the political process (43%); 2. intelligence agencies destroys the root element of the grouping (40%). It is difficult to achieve victory over the terrorists which have distorted understanding of religion through “pure” military action (10%). After all, terrorism is not for killing lots of people, but for making lots of people see that.
Today, there is the rise of Salafi jihadism. All this affects the minds and attitudes of potential “clients” of extremists. Previously orientalists and figures of intelligence services had said that the Arab-Israeli conflict was a breeding ground of terrorism and until it was resolved, it was impossible to defeat terrorism. So, today, the same thing can be said about the situation in Syria and Iraq.
We failed war against terrorism in 2016. However, some Muslim Middle East countries, the US and Russia have caused a severe blow to terrorist groups, particularly on the “Islamic state”. It gives hope that 2017 year will become even more unfortunate for the radicals.
Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., is a special correspondent for Izvestia, an expert on Middle East policy, and on Twitter @aloriental