Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, February 8, 2023
Authors: Brian Carter, Kathryn Tyson, Liam Karr, and Peter Mills
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Data Cutoff: February 8, 2023, at 10 a.m.
Yemen. Escalating competition within the Yemeni government will reduce counterterrorism pressure on al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and allow the group to increase its influence in the country’s south. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) support different groups with divergent political objectives in Yemen, and recent Saudi efforts to arm a Yemeni ally may increase discord and infighting within the Yemeni government. This infighting will in turn draw Yemeni security forces away from managing the Salafi-jihadi threat in southern Yemen.
Somalia. A decrease in al Shabaab bombings in central Somalia likely indicates a lull rather than the end of the group’s counteroffensive against the Somali government. Somali forces initiated an offensive to recapture al Shabaab–controlled areas in central Somalia’s Galgudud and Hirshabelle regions in January 2023. Al Shabaab surged explosive attacks in January and early February 2023 in response. The group tends to launch explosive attacks in clusters, so the current decline in attacks may indicate preparations for a larger counterattack.
Mali. Al Qaeda’s Sahel branch is taking advantage of the lack of counterterrorism pressure and state presence in northern Mali to position itself as the primary power broker in the area, including striking agreements with local groups that previously collaborated with French counterterrorism forces. Militants are simultaneously pressuring Mali’s junta with increased attacks in southern Mali. Meanwhile, Mali’s relationships with its foreign partners continue to deteriorate. The junta’s pressure on the United Nations mission in Mali will likely push major contingents to withdraw in the near term, worsening the security vacuum that Salafi-jihadi militants will fill in the country’s north.
Afghanistan. The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) is isolating the Taliban government by targeting its diplomatic relations. This campaign has included both online propaganda and attacks on diplomatic facilities and foreign citizens in Kabul. ISKP attacks delegitimize the Taliban by targeting areas of Kabul that are meant to be highly secure, and the likely presence of ISKP informants in the Taliban government hinders an effective response. Internal tensions in the Taliban government will increase as its isolation and resourcing challenge grows.
Yemen. Competition for control of Yemen will likely escalate as Saudi Arabia and the UAE support competing armed groups in the Yemeni government. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE back individual commanders and political organizations who pursue divergent political objectives and parochial interests. The UAE backs a conglomeration of armed groups organized in several political and military organizations concentrated in southern Yemen. Saudi Arabia also backs different political leaders and relied on Islah, an Islamist party based in northern Yemen, during much of the war. Saudi Arabia attempted to unify its clients and those of the UAE by brokering the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) in April 2022, which brought together Yemen’s main power brokers and their armed groups.
Saudi Arabia is now attempting to use proxy forces it has trained and equipped to bolster the power of Yemen’s president. The National Shield Forces (NSF) are a 14,000-strong Salafist Saudi proxy force that Saudi Arabia established, funded, and trained under the name “Happy Yemen Brigades” in early 2022. Saudi Arabia deployed the NSF to protect Yemeni government facilities in Aden in July 2022. Yemeni President Rashad al Alimi placed the NSF under his direct command on January 29.
UAE-backed forces see the NSF’s subordination to President Alimi as a threat. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-backed southern Yemeni political organization that aims to secede from Yemen, views the NSF’s deployment to Aden and its allegiance to Alimi as a serious threat to STC control of Aden and southern Yemen writ large. The NSF’s presence in Aden may have also further damaged the relationship between the STC and Saudi Arabia.
These tensions contribute to PLC fragility and raise the risk of internecine conflict. The Saudi-led coalition’s trend of backing individual mid-level commanders and units undermines the Yemeni government. The Saudi decision to allow Alimi to control the NSF increases his influence in the government by providing him with his own force, but it also further fractures the Yemeni security sector. Alimi was one of only a few PLC members who did not control his own armed group, a decision the Saudi-led coalition made in the hope that he could compromise with the other PLC members.
Internecine conflict would disrupt pressure on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in southern Yemen. STC forces, under the leadership of PLC Deputy and STC President Aydarus al Zubaidi, have been engaged in countering AQAP and competing with the Yemeni government. Other UAE-backed forces originally intended for counterterrorism tasks have fought the Yemeni government more recently. Zubaidi likely perceives the NSF as a direct challenge to his power and may direct more forces toward Aden to solidify his political power, drawing them away from areas where AQAP is most active.
AQAP attacks in southern Yemen are already rising, and the group’s capabilities and influence will likely increase further if it faces reduced pressure. The STC launched a so-called counterterrorism operation in August 2022, primarily aiming to weaken its Yemeni government rivals in Abyan governorate. AQAP responded to the operation with a counteroffensive against STC forces. The STC’s response to the AQAP counteroffensive caused local hostility toward the STC. STC-backed forces in Abyan face an increase in AQAP operations in Abyan, despite STC claims that they have defeated AQAP there. STC forces are already struggling to address the rising AQAP threat without alienating the population, and they will struggle further if their resources are diverted toward Aden. AQAP may capitalize on an internecine conflict scenario to increase its capacity for conducting major attacks, including against Aden.
Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in the Middle East
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
Somalia. Al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate al Shabaab has temporarily paused its counteroffensive in the Galgudud region of central Somalia. Al Shabaab launched seven suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attacks in central Somalia between January 4 and January 20 but has not carried out any such attacks since January 20. The group used these bombs for two main types of attack: first, lone SVBIEDs designed to delay reinforcements from Somali Federal Government (SFG)–controlled towns, and second, complex attacks involving several SVBIEDs and ground forces that targeted isolated Somali forward operating bases in strategically located towns.
Al Shabaab’s counteroffensive likely delayed Somali forces attempting to advance farther into al Shabaab–controlled areas of the Galgudud region. Al Shabaab overran at least one Somali base on January 20, forcing the Somali forces to withdraw. Somali forces may have since withdrawn from two other towns near the Middle Shabelle–Galgudud regional border, indicating that these forces are retreating and consolidating as they recover from the al Shabaab counteroffensive.
Somali forces farther north have successfully countered al Shabaab’s tactics so far, but a renewed al Shabaab surge is likely. Al Shabaab has repeatedly retreated from towns to rural staging areas where it prepares attacks. Somali forces in the Harardhere district have regularly advanced into these rural areas since January 20, likely to prevent al Shabaab from preparing an attack on Harardhere. A likely Turkish or US drone strike reportedly destroyed two al Shabaab vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) and killed al Shabaab militants en route to attack Somali bases in Harardhere on February 2, indicating the group is still likely trying to push Somali forces out of Harardhere. Al Shabaab VBIED attacks tend to occur in clusters, indicating that the current pause is more likely a lull than a permanent downturn in the group’s operations. The group may launch another effort to push Somali forces out of Harardhere and farther from the Middle Shabelle–Galgudud border in the coming weeks or months.
Figure 2. Somali Forces Contest al Shabaab Support Zones in Central Somalia: January 2023–February 2023
Source: Liam Karr.
The SFG is attempting to leverage relationships with neighboring countries to solidify the gains of its central Somalia offensive and prepare for the scheduled drawdown of African Union forces tentatively set for December 2024. The SFG released a communiqué outlining a joint military counterterrorism strategy with Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya following a security summit on February 1. All three countries currently have troops deployed in Somalia as part of the African Union force.
The strategy notably included a “search and destroy” component—which would be a more offensive role than the current African Union peacekeeping mandate—and requested that international partners support Somalia’s efforts to stabilize the newly liberated areas of Somalia. The communiqué did not outline any concrete plans or explain how these countries’ efforts would intersect with their preexisting commitments as part of the African Union force. The Somali president’s national security adviser also told Voice of America on January 31 that the SFG sent at least 12,000 recruits to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda for training. The training missions likely aim to help the SFG meet its commitment of having 24,000 troops ready to assume security from African Union forces by the December 2024 deadline.
Mali. The al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliate in Mali is taking advantage of decreased counterterrorism pressure to cultivate partnerships with rebel groups and their communities in the country’s north. The emir of Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), Iyad ag Ghali, has taken advantage of increased freedom of movement following the end of the French counterterrorism mission in Mali to travel across northern Mali and meet with regional leaders at least three times in January. JNIM published photos of one of the meetings on January 22, marking his first confirmed public appearance in two years.
These regional Tuareg leaders have a decades-long history with ag Ghali. They fought on the same side of the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali before the French-led intervention in 2013, which helped codify a split between non-jihadist and jihadist factions, including ag Ghali’s group Ansar al Din. The Malian government and non-jihadist rebel groups signed a formal agreement in 2015, which remains largely unimplemented. Ag Ghali has retained a degree of contact with his networks even since becoming JNIM’s emir in 2017.
Dissatisfaction among the former rebel groups has increased with the departure of French forces in November 2022 and continued strained relations with the Malian state. Regional Tuareg leaders condemned the government’s lack of commitment to the 2015 agreement in December 2022 and demanded a meeting with international partners to save the deal. They suspended their participation in the agreement’s enforcement mechanisms shortly afterward and withdrew from the Malian constitutional process in January 2023.
JNIM is capitalizing on this dissatisfaction and growing Islamic State activity to partner with Tuareg armed groups, including groups that until recently partnered with French forces. The Islamic State’s Sahel Province (also known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS) has increased massacres against vulnerable Daoussak Tuareg communities since French forces’ withdrawal. Several Daoussak Tuareg leaders pledged allegiance to ag Ghali and JNIM in northeastern Mali’s Ménaka region on January 21. Ag Ghali also reportedly met with rebel and tribal leaders or their representatives in Kidal to discuss an anti-ISGS front on January 26, even though ISGS has not yet attacked there.
Figure 3. Salafi-Jihadi Activity and Militia Activity in Northeastern Mali
Source: Liam Karr.
The Malian military likely lacks the capacity to replace JNIM in the north and is preoccupied with JNIM activity closer to the capital region. JNIM units operating in central and increasingly southern Mali have escalated activity in the capital region since the start of 2023. The group has attacked security forces in southern Mali’s Koulikoro and Sikasso regions 12 times since the year began. JNIM had only attacked in Koulikoro once and Sikasso twice between September and December 2022. JNIM has also highlighted its operations in the Ségou region as part of this offensive, although the number of attacks is largely consistent with the group’s activity in the last months of 2022. None of the attacks have been in JNIM’s typical attack zones in the Banamba Cercle in northeastern Koulikoro, supporting CTP’s previous assessment that JNIM has established havens in Banamba that it is using to expand activity farther south. The campaign has continued to target towns along the main roads connecting southern Mali to Bamako, indicating campaign aims to disrupt lines of communication to Bamako and undermine and distract the Malian junta.
Figure 4. JNIM Intensifies Attacks Near Malian Capital
Source: Liam Karr.
The Malian junta has continued undermining the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which could lead to its withdrawal and open more gaps for JNIM to exploit in northern Mali. The Malian junta declared the head of MINUSMA’s human rights division persona non grata on February 5. The move was likely in retaliation for UN experts calling for an independent investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali and the Malian armed forces on January 31. The junta has also reportedly denied MINUSMA drones overflight permission for months, which has led the German contingent to threaten to withdraw before their scheduled 2024 departure. Other major troop-contributing countries already announced they will withdraw in 2023; that and a German withdrawal would add to the troop shortage MINUSMA faces. MINUSMA’s presence has helped secure population centers primarily in northern Mali and helped facilitate effective governance and mediation in these areas. MINUSMA’s absence would allow JNIM to exert its influence on these urban areas of northern Mali more easily.
Figure 5. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
Afghanistan. ISKP is isolating the Taliban government by targeting its diplomatic relations. Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE all withdrew diplomatic personnel from Kabul following reports of an ISKP VBIED in the city’s center. An ISKP media outlet issued a direct threat to target the Taliban government’s ties with foreign states. UN employees in Kabul are also reportedly advised to work from home due to security threats. Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan has still not returned to Kabul since an ISKP assassination attempt in December 2022. Russia already reduced its diplomatic presence after an ISKP bombing killed a Russian diplomat in September 2022.
ISKP can attack fortified targets in central Kabul despite Taliban counter-ISKP operations. ISKP has repeatedly struck fortified targets in central Kabul over the past few months. A likely ISKP bomb destroyed a Taliban patrol vehicle near the Ministry of Finance and presidential palace in central Kabul on February 4. ISKP attacked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior headquarters in Kabul in late 2022. Taliban security forces are currently conducting raids across central Kabul, likely trying to disrupt an ongoing ISKP plot.
ISKP likely has informants in the Taliban government, which will hinder Taliban efforts to conduct effective counter-ISKP operations. ISKP informants have previously supported ISKP attacks on high-value Taliban targets and symbolic locations in central Kabul. The Taliban government recently arrested one of its commanders in Panjshir Province for being part of ISKP. The Taliban government previously arrested one of its provincial officials after ISKP likely paid him to plant a bomb in a government barracks. A Taliban deputy defense minister recently admitted in a leaked audio file that unspecified “non-Taliban elements” were operating in the Taliban military and undermining the government.
Greater diplomatic isolation will likely worsen internal tensions in the Taliban movement as Taliban leaders compete for a diminishing pool of resources. The withdrawal of foreign embassies will further isolate the Taliban government and reduce already remote prospects for international recognition. Absent substantial foreign engagement, the Taliban government will struggle to secure foreign development aid or humanitarian financial assistance. This trend will further worsen the ongoing socioeconomic crisis in Afghanistan.
Figure 6. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Central and South Asia
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
Philippines. The Islamic State’s East Asia Province (ISEAP) attacked Filipino troops for the first time since May 2022. ISEAP ambushed a Filipino army patrol, killing one soldier and wounding three others, in Lanao del Sur in the southern Philippines on February 4. ISEAP carries out sporadic, small-scale attacks targeting military positions and infrastructure in the southern Philippines. ISEAP killed six soldiers during a clash in the southern Philippines on May 24, 2022.
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