Russia: Al-Qaeda-affiliate’s claiming of Saint Petersburg bombing likely to increase threat of one-off Islamic State attack

The Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility for the 3 April Saint Petersburg metro bombing that killed fifteen people (see our Special Report of the following day), via an al-Qaeda-linked website on 25 April. Its statement claimed that the assailant, Kyrgyz-born Russian national Akbardzhon Dzhalilov, had acted on the orders of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It also threatened further attacks in retaliation for Russian actions in Syria, Libya and the North Caucasus. Meanwhile, the authorities have detained at least ten individuals in connection with the attack, all of whom are Central Asian.

The statement is the first public message issued by the group, and the choice of name is likely a reference to Imam Shamil, a prominent rebel who led anti-Russian resistance efforts in the Caucasus during the nineteenth century. It also alludes to Shamil Basayev, a deceased Chechen jihadist leader, who was responsible for the 2002 Moscow theatre siege and the 2004 Beslan school attack. Basayev’s organisation later became the al-Qaeda-affiliated Caucasus Emirate, and the Battalion is likely an affiliate of this loosely-structured group.

The Emirate attracted a number of Central Asians to its cause during the Chechen insurgency and it may have used its remaining networks across Russia to recruit Dzhalilov. We therefore believe the group’s involvement in the bombing to be plausible. That said, the attackers’ ties to al-Qaeda were almost certainly overstated, especially since the authorities have disrupted the Emirate by killing most of its leaders. Moreover, the al-Qaeda claim may be largely opportunistic and intended to exploit Islamic State’s (IS) failure to assert responsibility. Indeed, it remains possible that Dzhalilov was an IS sympathiser, but had no direct ties to the group, and this may explain why the group was unable to associate itself with the blast.

Al-Qaeda’s association with the Saint Petersburg bombing will boost its appeal among hardline Sunnis in Russia and across the Islamic world given the widespread anger towards the Kremlin’s support for the Syrian regime. IS will therefore want to carry out its own, larger attack in Russia in order to overshadow its rival. Should it stage a successful attack, this will help the group to continue attracting defectors from the Caucasus Emirate and boost its credibility at a time of major territorial setbacks in the Middle East. There is consequently a heightened risk of a one-off mass-casualty attack in a major Russian city over the next few months, especially at key transport hubs. However, should IS fail to carry out a major attack, it will damage its credibility among Russian jihadists, and many defectors may then return to the Caucasus Emirate.

However, for now, both IS and the Emirate currently lack the capabilities to mount a sustained campaign of violence outside the North Caucasus. They will consequently seek to encourage their supporters, and especially radicalised migrant workers from southern Russia and Central Asia, to stage low-level attacks in the main cities that boost their respective profiles and allow them to gradually establish a presence in the country.

Philippines: Foiled attack on Bohol resort island indicates pro-Islamic State units’ growing ability and intent to strike beyond southern strongholds

The authorities said they had thwarted a major attack, most likely targeting the tourism industry, on 11 April, when they struck Islamic State (IS) militants in the remote town of Inabanga, on the resort island of Bohol, Central Visayas. The resultant clashes, which included a Government air strike, left four security personnel, two civilians and at least five militants dead. The Army said the assailants were members of breakaway pro-IS factions of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), including the Maute Group and the allied Ansar al-Khilafa Philippines, as well as IS supporters who remain part of ASG. Manila further explained that they had arrived a day earlier in three small motor boats from ASG’s southern stronghold of Sulu. The incident took place just two days after the US Embassy warned its citizens of an “unsubstantiated yet credible” threat that militants would attempt to carry out kidnappings and other attacks on Bohol.

Jihadist activity has so far been overwhelmingly concentrated in the Muslim-dominated South. However, the Army’s sustained counter-insurgency campaign there has limited jihadists’ ability to expand their presence beyond remote jungle areas. IS fighters therefore likely sought to stage a one-off, high-profile attack outside the South to relieve the intense pressure on them by forcing the authorities to divert military resources elsewhere and to raise their profile in order to recruit from rival factions. The operation may also have been timed to disrupt a major ASEAN conference, which began on Bohol on 18 April, and a successful attack would have embarrassed President Duterte. Pro-IS groups believe that publicly humiliating Duterte will provoke him into retaliating against the wider Muslim population, and this will in turn fuel radicalisation. Indeed, on 19 April Duterte said that he was considering “invading” Jolo to “finish off” militancy on the island; any mass civilian casualties caused by such an escalation would almost certainly boost IS recruitment efforts.

In addition, the assailants’ ability to reach central areas of the Philippines reflects increasing levels of cooperation between the pro-IS units of ASG, Maute Group and Ansar al-Khilafa. IS also views the Philippines as the most attractive location to expand in South East Asia due to the protracted Muslim insurgency in the South and the presence of established jihadist groups there. IS may therefore dispatch experienced militants from the Middle East to the country in order to boost the capabilities of local pro-IS groups. This may explain the presence of suspected IS members Hussein al-Dhufairi, a Kuwaiti national, and his Syrian wife Rahaf Zina, in Bonifacio Global City, Metro Manila, where they were arrested last month (see today’s Kuwait Report).

However, a greater IS presence will also encourage more established groups, including pro-al-Qaeda ASG units, to step up their own violence to prevent defections to IS. For instance, al-Qaeda-aligned ASG members likely carried out the 13 April beheading of a fisherman in Sulu to demonstrate that its fighters are also willing to kill civilians, as the Bohol assailants appeared likely to do. Meanwhile, pro-IS ASG factions such as Maute Group will attempt further high profile attacks, particularly against civilians, tourists and Christian sites, potentially in major cities such as Manila, Cebu and Davao, and feasibly on Palawan, to boost their credibility among regional jihadists, attract further Al-Qaeda defectors and provoke an indiscriminate over-reaction by the Government. However, their currently limited capabilities mean that major attacks outside the South will be infrequent.

China: Trump has positive first meeting with Xi Jinping on trade deficit and North Korea, but achieving solid progress will be more difficul

Chinese President Xi Jinping on 6-7 April made his first visit to the US since the inauguration of President Trump in January. This informal summit between the two presidents is likely to shape future US-China relations in a number of ways, though the visit was overshadowed by Trump’s decision to launch air strikes on 6 April on an airfield in Syria in response to the recent use of chemical weapons in that country.

The tone of the discussions was friendly and constructive. The fact that the meeting took place before Trump’s team is fully in place is also a positive sign, given that Trump had been highly critical of China on the campaign trail. The meetings also suggest a willingness on both sides to manage issues through dialogue, though a positive tone does not mean a shared view on a strategic way forward. The two leaders however agreed to restructure the Strategic and Economic Dialogue into a “US-China Comprehensive Dialogue” with four pillars: diplomatic and security, economic, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and cultural (people-to-people).

The lack of a clear US strategy towards China does not seem to have prevented Trump from putting pressure on Beijing on issues which he considers important. The trade deficit and North Korea appear to be Trump’s main priorities with respect to China. Ahead of the visit, Trump had tweeted that the meeting would be “a very difficult one” on trade (Chinese exports to the US are about three times its imports from the US, though this partly reflects China’s position in transnational value chains). He also criticized China for not doing enough to rein in North Korea’s nuclear programme.

On trade, the two presidents agreed a 100-day schedule for discussions to reduce the US’s trade deficit with China, a tighter timeline than has been agreed in previous high-level discussions. Subsequent reports suggest that China might liberalise imports of US beef, relax ownership restrictions in the financial services sector, or purchase more oil and natural gas from the US, though any related impact on the trade balance would be gradual. Trump also subsequently told a US newspaper that China was not a currency manipulator, publicly reversing a key campaign position.

On North Korea, Trump’s rhetoric has increased pressure on Xi, including through his comments that the US would solve the problem unilaterally if China could not. Followed by the rapid shift in policy on Syria, this creates a greater element of uncertainty for Beijing over whether the US might launch strikes against North Korea (a US carrier strike group was deployed near the Korean peninsula, though the risks of military action would be high, given South Korea’s vulnerability to any retaliation from the North). Xi spoke to Trump again to reaffirm that he wanted a peaceful resolution on 12 April; Trump had tweeted the previous day that a trade deal would be “far better” if China resolved the North Korea problem.

However Beijing has limited options for containing North Korea. China assesses that cutting economic ties completely will risk provoking retaliation from Pyongyang, and so far sanctions have only hardened Kim Jong-un’s determination to develop a nuclear capability. The China-North Korea relationship is also in a bad state, with limited channels of communication, and minimal high-level contacts since Kim took over from his father in 2012. In addition, Beijing will be unwilling to turn its back on Pyongyang, given the countries’ historical relationship, and North Korea’s role as a buffer between China and US forces in South Korea. Assertive diplomacy against Seoul following the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system has also damaged relations between China and South Korea (see our last Report), though Chinese rhetoric on the issue has since softened. Following his meeting with Xi, Trump acknowledged Beijing’s relatively limited leverage over North Korea, which suggests a greater potential to co-ordinate their approaches to Pyongyang.

In spite of the cordial Xi-Trump meeting, and some initial positive signs from Trump, the Chinese leadership will continue to find dealing with the US challenging. Even in the area of global economic governance – where it looked as through the lack of leadership from the US could offer more space for Chinese influence – the Chinese approach will remain cautious, and the leadership does not want to increase tensions with the US. In other areas, there has been less focus from the Trump administration, such as in the South China Sea, where it is unclear whether the US will continue freedom of navigation operations. There have been some reports of Chinese surveying activity at a land feature in the Philippines’ maritime economic zone, though subsequent indications suggest that overall the two countries are continuing to manage relations amicably. Tensions over the area, which were not addressed in the Trump-Xi meeting, also therefore have the potential to complicate US-China relations.

 

Turkey: Tempo of major militant attacks will slow ahead of vote but rate of violence likely to increase afterwards

Cemil Bayik, a militant commander of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), said in an interview on 23 March that, ahead of the 16 April referendum, the PKK would only respond in a limited manner to the increased Turkish military pressure on Kurds. Bayik explained that he feared that a major attack could galvanise nationalist support for the “yes” vote ahead of the referendum, and that this was against Kurdish interests.

Bayik’s statement likely explains the lack of any major Kurdish strikes in recent weeks, which would indeed likely boost Erdogan’s position, as he has argued that an executive presidency is needed to effectively tackle Kurdish militancy. Consequently it is unlikely that there will be any major attacks before 16 April, although isolated and low-level incidents – such as a bomb attack which injured two policemen in Mersin province on 3 April – will continue. As discussed above, however, regardless of the referendum’s outcome, Ankara will continue to pressure Kurds, which means that PKK violence is likely to increase again after the referendum, regardless of its outcome.

Meanwhile, Turkey announced the end of its operation in northern Syria on 29 March, though Ankara said it will maintain a military presence in the country. This decision was likely taken in part due to Turkey’s failure to convince the US not to rely on the PKK-linked Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to liberate Raqqa from Islamic State (IS). Turkey’s desire to maintain military influence in northern Syria likely reflects its fears of future PKK influence along Turkey’s southern border, and confirms our previous analysis of a raised risk of sustained cross-border conflict with the YPG after Raqqa’s liberation, as well as the threat of a further escalation in domestic Kurdish militancy.

The decision to end the operation also likely reflects Ankara’s success in creating a buffer zone between IS and its territory. This, coupled with Turkey’s very limited role in the Raqqa operation, suggests that the threat from IS to Turkey is unlikely to rise further in coming months, as other countries may represent a higher priority and the group’s capabilities have likely been reduced. However, Turkey has played a significant role in weakening IS’s position, and so will remain a potential target for revenge violence, particularly as the group will continue to suffer setbacks, including losing control of Mosul, in the coming few months. The arrest of a Chechen, who was attempting to cross the border from Syria and was carrying explosives on 4 April, illustrates this ongoing risk. Therefore, the current level of relative calm in Turkey is unlikely to persist and both Kurdish militants and jihadists will have significant motivation to undertake further major strikes in the coming year.

Somalia: Increased US targeting of al-Shabab in Somalia will sustain high threat to Western interests

Washington granted US forces in Somalia the authority to carry out pre-emptive airstrikes and raids against al-Shabab for at least the next 180 days, on 30 March. The changes lift restrictions that previously prevented the US troops from using airstrikes unless they, or partnered African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces, were in the process of being targeted. However, the relaxed rules will not apply in Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab has exploited internal challenges within AMISOM to rebuild its strength, and is now able to carry out regular attacks in the capital. For example, it claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed six near the Presidential Palace on 21 March, hours after Prime Minister Khayre named his new Cabinet. Mortar attacks around the Presidential compound then injured seven people on 30 March, during the Cabinet’s first meeting. Such attacks will hinder the Government’s efforts to expand control beyond Mogadishu, and so support al-Shabab’s goal of regaining territory lost to AMISOM troops. The US is concerned by this possibility, and President Trump likely eased the targeting restrictions to try to prevent further al-Shabab gains.

Washington will also increase airstrikes against al-Shabab in support of Trump’s agenda to pursue more aggressive action against jihadists globally. The US will hope to decrease the al-Qaeda affiliated group’s strength, particularly since high-profile al-Shabab attacks have the potential to trigger increased Islamic State (IS) violence in the region, as the groups compete for support. IS’s affiliates are primarily based in Puntland, so the group’s ability to operate in Mogadishu is limited. However, IS’s Amaq news agency claimed an attack on a Somali intelligence officer in the capital on 27 March. The targeting is consistent with IS affiliates’ past attacks against security forces in the capital, and we therefore believe the claim is credible. This suggests IS has some capabilities in the area, and its intention to carry out attacks may indeed rise in response to increasing al-Shabab activity.

Al-Shabab continued to operate after its leader was killed by a 2014 US airstrike, suggesting that it will remain able to carry out attacks at a high tempo across Somalia in the coming months, even if Washington’s increased involvement means larger numbers of senior commanders are killed. Greater US involvement will also incentivise further violence against Western interests in the country. Most foreign representatives are based inside the perimeter of Aden Adde International Airport, and al-Shabab may look to target the facility, having last struck it in January.

The group may also seek to place bombs on aircraft flying from Mogadishu in an effort to undermine foreign commitment to Somalia’s security. Our 22 March Special Report noted that al-Qaeda’s desire to attack high profile aviation-linked targets could rise as US pressure on it intensifies. Indeed, flights to countries contributing AMISOM troops, including Kenya, which resumed direct flights between Nairobi and Mogadishu on 29 March after an eleven year ban, are likely to face the greatest threat.