On the backdrop of the Caliphate’s slow military demise in Syria and Iraq, the last six months have revealed two new trends in the jihadi attacks against Western targets: the growing role of terrorists of Central Asian origin and of the use of the Libyan territorial platform.
The bloody battles in Mosul, Iraq, and the encirclement of Raqqa, in Syria, have stopped the flow of foreign fighters to these territories, while the numbers of fighters on the ground have shrunken considerably. According to numbers published by ISIS, in 2016, 1112 fighters have died in suicide attacks. The Iraqi army, with Iranian and Western encouragement, encircled completely Mosul and kills as many jihadists as possible.
The Central Asian connection
It is estimated that there were some three thousand Caucasians fighting within Syria and Iraq, divided between those who have arrived from Chechnya, Georgia, Daghestan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan, and those who migrated from countries of asylum like Europe and Turkey.
In October 2016, police in Germany have conducted raids in five regions as part of a probe into alleged extremism by asylum-seekers from Chechnya, as part of an investigation which began against a 28-year-old Russian of Chechen origin who was suspected of “preparing an act of violence against the state.” The Chechen jihadist scene in Berlin is substantial and high-profile. Chechen groups in Syria trained foreigners, including Germans of different ethnic origins, following a long tradition of sympathy for Chechnya among German jihadists.
On New Year's Eve 2017, Abdulgadir Masharipov, an Uzbek national, under instructions from ISIS in Raqqah, Syria, machinegunned the Reina nightclub in Istanbul killing 39 people. An ISIS cell of Uzbeks operating in the central region of Konya provided support to Masharipov. In March 2017, Istanbul Police detained two ISIS terrorists, Uzbek citizens, planning a major attack similar to the Reina nightclub. Uzbek fighters are said to have secret bases in some major Russian cities as well as ties to Uighur extremists in China.
On April 3, 2017, Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Russian national, ethnic Uzbek born in Kyrgyzstan, died in the suicide attack in the St. Petersburg underground that killed 16 people. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Abror Azimov, one of the organizers of the attack who had trained Jalilov. About 850 people from Kyrgyzstan have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, according to official figures.
Four days later, on April 7, 2017, Rakhmat Akilov, a 39-year-old Uzbek man, rammed a stolen truck into a crowd in central Stockholm, killing five people. Bomb disposal experts found an improvised explosive device packed into a suitcase inside the hijacked beer truck.
Interestingly, the terrorists of the attacks in Stockholm and St. Petersburg were deported by Turkey. Jalilov was deported two years ago while he tried to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria. Akilov attempted to cross Turkey’s border with Syria in 2015 but was detained and given his refugee status he was deported back to Sweden.
The Libyan platform
The Manchester Arena suicide bombing killing at least 28 people, by jihadist Salman Abedi, British citizen of Libyan origin, and the horrendous slaughter of Coptic worshippers, mainly school children, in Minya, Egypt, have highlighted the growing threat from the ISIS bases in Libya.
Days before the attack, Abedi had returned from a visit to his radicalized family in Libya. Abedi's younger brother Hasham, 20, was detained in Tripoli on suspicion of links with ISIS. Abedi's father, Ramadan, has also been detained in Libya. Abedi travelled to the capital Tripoli and the town of Sabratha to meet operatives from Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, a cell linked to the ISIS November 2015 Paris attack. Among the terrorists who trained in Sabratha is the ISIS gunman who killed 30 British tourists on a beach in Sousse, Tunisia, in June 2015.
On May 26, 28 Coptic Christians have been killed and dozens more wounded, many children, by armed men who attacked them while they were travelling to a monastery in Egypt's Minya province. In retaliation for the attack on the Copts, the Egyptian air force hit a training camp for jihadists in Derna, Libya, who were involved in the attack on Egyptian Christians.
Derna was known as a bastion of jihadists even before the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. After his fall, the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia spread its presence to Derna but by 2014 ISIS took control of the city.
Taking advantage of the dismembering of the Libyan state, the infighting between the multiple political forces and tribal militias, ISIS decided to expand its presence in the failed state, the third most important province of the caliphate. The group captured the important coastal city of Sirte, but lost it in December 2016. In January, the U.S. bombed two ISIS training camps south of Sirte and “external plotters” tied to terrorist planning in Europe, specifically the December 19, 2016, Christmas truck ramming people in the Berlin market, carried out by a Tunisian.
Tunisia, another central target of ISIS and other jihadist groups active in Libya, suffered in 2015 multiple attacks initiated in ISIS’s training camp in Sabratha, as well as an attempted territorial takeover in Ben Gardane in early 2016.
It is possible that the involvement of Central Asian foreign fighters in attacks in Europe and Russia is the result of the great reservoir of these jihadists with fighting experience in Syria, Iraq and Turkey; the relative facility for receiving asylum refugee status in Europe; and the difficulty of the law enforcement agencies to monitor this big mass of jihadists speaking “strange” languages, and Russian, compared with the North Africans and Africans speaking French, English or Italian.
The Libyan failed state, the presence of a host of jihadist groups allied with ISIS but also with the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its factions, networks of mafia smugglers sending tens of thousands of immigrants to Europe and the lack of a unified Western strategy in trying to solve the dire situation of the country, could transform it in the main immediate threat to the security of Europe.
*Dr. Ely Karmon is a senior research scholar at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.