The news media has recently focused much attention on the supposedly imminent collapse of the “caliphate” of the Islamic State extremist group (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) in the main area it has controlled in the past couple of years in Iraq and Syria. Developments elsewhere, however, show that ISIS and the broader Islamist extremism problem are far from eradicated, while the West’s campaigns across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond have no end in sight.
As the U.S. boasts of some progress and makes further plans towards retaking the key cities of Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra, another major jihadist organization operating in Syria, has reportedly renamed itself Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, and claims to have cut ties with Al Qaeda.
There appears to be little bad blood between the two groups, though. Al Qaeda has reportedly “given the split its blessing” as the various factions of Islamist rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria look to end their infighting and possibly unite. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reportedly dismissed the Nusra name change as a “PR move” aimed at creating a more moderate image for the group.
Outside of Iraq and Syria, however, jihadist activities have been far from business as usual. A “heat map” recently produced by the National Counterterrorism Center and published by NBC, for example, shows that Daesh has been steadily and rapidly expanding in the last two years and is now “fully operational” in 18 countries. These include Afghanistan, where officials say most Daesh members are former fighters with the Pakistani Taliban.
They also include Libya, where the U.S. recently stepped up its bombing campaign as it announced the third major front in a war that has morphed from the United States of America versus the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the United States of America versus the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and wherever else its supporters pop up. It’s interesting to remember that just five years ago, America was engaged in another widely publicized air campaign in Libya, when it played a major role in ousting the country’s deceased former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
A major reason the West is so focused on ISIS, of course, is that the group’s ability to do damage is not constrained to those countries where it is “fully operational,” a point that has been made painfully clear by terror attacks in recent months across Europe, the U.S. and other parts of the world. As fears over refugee ties to terrorism spread across Europe and impact immigration policy, however, countries closer to ISIS’s strongholds may be dealing with even greater destabilizing forces.
In Sudan, for example, President Omar al-Bashir is reportedly taking steps to quietly improve his standing in the eyes of the West, where his reputation has long suffered due to his past as host to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, as well as his dubious distinction of being the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, in 2009, over his involvement in alleged war crimes in Darfur.
With Europe’s blessing, Bashir is reportedly cracking down on border security, catching and either jailing or deporting migrants, particularly from Eritrea, that attempt to pass through Sudan en route to Europe. E.U. plans to provide funding for training and equipment for Sudanese border authorities have been revealed, although Nesrine Malik of Foreign Policy reports it is unclear whether Sudan is paying for its stepped up enforcement out of a $110 aid package from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, or a separate $45 million grant from this same organization. “Either way,” Malik writes, “Sudan is effectively being funded to stanch the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe — and to build open-air prisons to house them.”
Then, of course, there is the case of Turkey – a country adjacent to both Iraq and Syria that has seen problems with both refugees and ISIS terrorists making their way across its borders. And, more recently, a country that has seen a coup attempt.
Turkey appears to be unified, from the highest officials down to the general public, in placing blame for last month’s failed coup on Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who got a green card with the help of a former CIA official and U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Despite strong words from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanding Gulen’s extradition, however, the American response has not appeared typical of an ally eager to help. In what appears a somewhat begrudging, token move, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has reportedly said only that the U.S. would consider an extradition request if Turkey can provide “legitimate evidence” that “withstands scrutiny.”
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria may indeed be diminishing. But America’s war on terror – along with its related wars on various other abstract ideas, ambiguously defined enemies, and its own shadow that it casts on the world – is clearly far from over.