At the end of December, the United States (US) Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that in 2022, the US-led coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State (IS)—also known as ISIS, or Daesh
in Arabic—had killed nearly 700 people suspected to be part of ISIS
in Iraq and Syria, conducting 313 special missions across the two countries. This included the relatively new caliph of the group, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who was killed in a US counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria in November. However, as scholar Charlie Winter reminds us
, a dead caliph is a tactical win, not a strategic victory. And this is, perhaps, most true from the lens of geopolitical rivalries in the region.
Even though the US had announced the defeat of IS in 2019
, and the Iraqi government had announced it even before that in 2017,
the group’s influence and operations alike have been consistent as political instability continues to offer crevasses for such groups to fester in. Pro-IS entities in Africa and Afghanistan have overtaken threat perceptions posed by the group in West Asia, despite a level of consistency in IS influence remaining in this region, with regular upticks
The US-led campaign against IS has upscaled over the past 12 months. One of the fundamental changes that has happened is an increase in high-risk raids against the group, both in Iraq and Syria, that do not exclusively rely on drone strikes, but operations conducted by special forces as well. This change pulls the US into counterterror risk more transparently, away from the relative safety of drone strikes. This change in strategy was most likely the result of the fallout of the drone strike in Kabul
, amidst the chaos of August 2021, which ended up killing 10 civilians. The blunder was seen as a tragic swan song to the two-decade-long battle against al-Qaeda, and by association the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Pro-IS entities in Africa and Afghanistan have overtaken threat perceptions posed by the group in West Asia, despite a level of consistency in IS influence remaining in this region, with regular upticks in violence.
Despite the operational successes over the past few months against IS in Syria and Iraq, the threat is far from diminished. However, in two major geographies of IS influence—West Asia and Afghanistan—revitalised geopolitical realities and manoeuvres may in fact end up giving space for terror organisations to regroup. Türkiye’s
recent threats of conducting military operations in Syria’s north brought forward an old inflection point to new geopolitical realities, and increased stress for Moscow which has been active in Syria since 2011.
In November 2022, Türkiye seemed adamant on launching a full offensive in northern Syria, targeting the Kurds, and more specifically the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK)—an organisation banned by many countries as a terror outfit. Such threats coming from Ankara brought to the forefront a major dilemma for both the West and other neighbouring states, the fact that Kurdish-led groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) formed one of the first lines of defence on the ground against IS, despite Ankara’s view of seeing them as a terror threat. Türkiye ’s relations with the embattled Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad have been fraught, and the recent meeting between intelligence chiefs of both states organised and hosted by Moscow
shows Russia’s important role in the region as it is able to mitigate and negotiate regional fault lines with a NATO member. Interestingly, as scholar Sam Heller highlights
, despite strong opposition by the US over any such moves by Türkiye in Syria, it is Russia that Ankara needs approval of when it comes to dealing with Damascus despite the latter being fully embroiled in its war against Ukraine in Europe and being spread thin both militarily and diplomatically.
The Kurds in northeast Syria, amongst others, are not only continuing to fight a diminished but persistent IS threat, but also manage thousands of radicalised IS members as prisoners in camps, those both from in and around the region and others who had travelled from across the world to join the Islamist movement. In 2022, more than 530 radicalised pro-IS people were repatriated
from such camps, mostly women and children. France alone took back 109 such people. The Kurds have already made it clear
that they would not hesitate to prioritise their own security on back of Turkish threats, even if that means stopping
anti-IS operations, freeing camps holding thousands of IS fighters, and undermining US-led counterterror efforts that have managed to take out three IS chiefs since 2019 (where intelligence provided by Kurdish groups reportedly played an important role).
Türkiye ’s relations with the embattled Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad have been fraught, and the recent meeting between intelligence chiefs of both states organised and hosted by Moscow shows Russia’s important role in the region as it is able to mitigate and negotiate regional fault lines with a NATO member.
Both Russia and the US operated in Syria against the IS, although for different geopolitical purposes. In its heyday that lasted between 2014 and 2017, IS offered itself as a common enemy to a smorgasbord of an unlikely cooperative, with the West, Russia, Israel, and Iran simultaneously helping in eliminating IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq. As this was achieved, varied regional interests started to overtake with tensions between Russia and Türkiye , growing Iranian footprints in Syria and Iraq bringing Tehran close to the borders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, skirmishes
between said Iranian factions and US interests in Iraq, Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen targeting the likes of Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) and so on. Amidst this quagmire of interests and counter-interests, groups such as IS could find enough space to steadily rebuild themselves
ISKP and Afghanistan
The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan has added a ner in the narrative of global counterterrorism. Taliban members such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, part of its new interim government as acting interior minister carries a US $10 million
bounty on his head to this day. While the Taliban took over, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghan mirror of the IS, grew in strength. In an irony laden reality, the Taliban today is challenged by the ISKP, with the former building a counterterror strategy to counter an increasingly persistent anti-Taliban threat.
However, the tussle in Afghanistan over influence is expectedly getting murkier, pushed further by increasing tensions between the US and Russia on side line of the Ukraine conflict. To continue with the oddities, the US and Taliban, on principle, are on the same page against ISKP. However, Moscow is looking for greater leverage in Kabul which has found renewed fervour considering the Ukraine crisis. To grow cosier with the Taliban, Moscow has tried to match some of the movement’s anti-West narratives. In June 2022, Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s long standing and decorated special representative for Afghanistan blamed
the “Anglo-Saxons” for funding terror groups and creating instability in Central Asia while highlighting that the Taliban posed no threat to the region. Russia’s claim could be traced back to the ties between the founding of ISIS and the radicalisation that took place as a reaction to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Over the past months, ISKP has also targeted Russian interests, including attacks against its diplomatic mission
Russia’s threat perception against IS-led radicalisation in Afghanistan which has broken levees into Central Asia over the years is an import of its concerns from experiences in Syria.
For Moscow, a return of US military capability in Afghanistan, specifically after the Ukraine conflict, is undesirable. Russia’s threat perception against IS-led radicalisation in Afghanistan which has broken levees into Central Asia over the years is an import of its concerns from experiences in Syria. Russia, with its Moscow Format on Afghanistan, despite it being relatively sober and quiet over the past few months, remains in a good position with the Biden administration’s nonchalance towards Afghanistan. In July 2021, a month before Afghanistan’s collapse, Biden had said
that regional countries have an “essential role in supporting a peaceful settlement” and that these states should step up their efforts as well. However, there is no major US-led initiative at this point bringing regional states around a table, partly due to above-mentioned disinterest, and partly due to geopolitical limitations with Central Asia, Iran, and even India and Pakistan.
ISKP, despite its co-option of the IS branding, remains an Afghanistan-Pakistan construct. While the ideology is similar, and their aims of setting up caliphates also complement each other, many currently under the ISKP umbrella are there due to ethnic or strategic compulsions. Scholar Antonio Giustozzi has highlighted
that the Taliban, as part of its anti-insurgency construct, has gone after ISKP in the cities and opposition groups such as the National Resistance Front (NRF), operating in Panjshir largely due to their effective use of the media, social media, and internet against the Taliban. This is also partly due to the Taliban’s refusal to construct an inclusive political environment. While Western narratives concentrate mostly on issues such as women’s rights and women’s education (and rightly so), requirements for political stability in Afghanistan are much deeper rooted than just the issues that grasp Western media headlines today. And the fact that today even going against ISKP or al Qaeda
in Afghanistan has dwindling non-partisan global support
, which was prevalent for some time after 9/11, highlights incoming challenges in global counterterror narratives.
India is a prime example of suffering at the hands of partisan views and narrow geopolitical aims against terrorism. While these gaps were expected to close over time, current trajectory of global politics may end up pushing them further apart. An incoming major global rejig in power, whether from the point of big power competition, a perceived fall of Western influence and institutions or a fundamental push towards multipolarity, terror and extremist groups, who are adept and skilled at taking advantage of political chaos, may end up becoming beneficiaries in the coming years.
The Republic of Türkiye changed its official name from The Republic of Turkey on 26 May 2022
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