The Expanding Jihadist Threat

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The US’s Worst Fears Realized

The war in Syria has been a magnet for extremists from around the world and has greatly contributed to the spillover of violence and destabilization of its neighboring countries:

  • Lebanon has been gripped by sectarian violence as Iranian-backed Hizbollah forces continue to support the Assad regime;
  • Jordan has shouldered the burden of receiving a massive refugee population;
  • Iraq has become a thoroughfare for jihadists traveling to and from Syria and most recently has suffered territorial losses to advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS);
  • The mass abductions by Boko Haraam in  northern Nigeria have called into question the capacity of the Nigerian military to contain one of the most deadly extremist groups in west Africa;
  • In Somalia, al-Shabaab continues its insurgency campaign against the Somali government and, following its Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, has released plans to expand its operations into Djibouti, soon encompassing almost the entire Horn of Africa;
  • Across the Gulf of Aden, Yemen security forces have launched a campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in conjunction with U.S. drone support and have been active since this past Easter.

Taken altogether, a growing extremist threat exists throughout the Middle East and Africa and it seems these groups are becoming bolder and more aggressive in their attacks if not even becoming stronger. The protracted conflict in Syria made for a breeding ground for terrorist cells with only the strongest groups, such as ISIS, emerging as solidified entities.

In the beginning, the conflict in Syria could best be characterized as a popular uprising against the oppressive Assad regime (much in the same way as other countries in the Arab Spring), and has since turned into the more violent and fractionalized war that it is today. With aggressive reactions by government loyalists and an influx of foreign fighters into Syria, a prolonged conflict was inevitable. Additionally, porous borders, increased infighting amongst rebel groups, barrel bombings and chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, territorial contestations between government and rebel groups, and financial backing from international donors all contributed to the increase in duration and intensity in the fighting.

As the war in Syria continues to look like an eternal stalemate, activity by jihadist groups in neighboring countries has been on the rise. With the recent expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) into Iraq and its hostile takeover of Mosul, leaders in Washington seem to have hit yet another wall in its fight against terrorism. When the Syrian civil war first broke out, it took months of debate for the Obama administration and Congress to come up with an agreeable course of action. At the time there was interest in assisting moderate rebels combat the brutally oppressive Assad regime, but there was also much concern in arming insurgents who might later use such weapons against western targets. As regional stability was continuing to crumble, it became pertinent for the United States and other Friends of Syria allies to take decisive action and decide whether or not to arm the Syrian rebels. As far as the public is aware, only intelligence data and non-lethal aid was given to insurgent groups, though some speculation suggests that the CIA ran supply lines to rebel camps. Rumors aside, this lack of hard support for any one faction allowed the conditions to continue for rebel forces to compete for supremacy. And now, from the rubble that is now Syria, ISIS has emerged the winner amongst the rebel groups and with its recent advances in northern Iraq, it has proven its military prowess. If ISIS can maintain its multi-front operations without sustaining huge losses, then it is likely we’ll see continued growth in its territorial claims as well as membership, particularly while its insurgents move further into the heart of Iraq. We can expect to see the shared border between Iraq and Syria become the new terrorist training camp destination, and if it does, it is likely the U.S. will initiate drone strike operations to counter the threat.

Nowadays, Washington’s policy on the Middle East is a tattered mess of failed interventions and peace-keeping that has evolved into a rather dull series of condemnations and less-than-surgical drone strikes. Instead of containing global jihadists to the boundaries of single nations, Washington is now faced with an expanding jihadist threat that is consuming the MENA. Most unfortunate, however, is the fact that ISIS has its eyes set on the very country we invested billions of dollars into liberating its people from a tyrannical, indiscriminate ruler. The war on terror has returned to Iraq, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to contain it.

**I’ll follow up this post with possible courses of action the Iraqi government could use to counter the insurgent threat and to once again secure its borders. As always, feel free to leave comments, opinions, or advice below or contact me via one of my social media accounts.