Iran: Iran’s response to Tehran attack shows threat from Kurdish jihadists, but Government’s approach will help limit escalation risk

The Intelligence Minister said on 10 June that security forces had undertaken a cross-border operation and killed the “mastermind and commander of the team” that carried out the major 7 June Islamic State (IS) attacks, who he said had fled the country after the attacks. No further details of this operation were given, but the security forces had identified one of the IS attackers as an Iranian Kurd from the city of Paveh in the western Kermanshah Province on 8 June. At least three of the other four attackers are also reported to have been Sunni Kurds. The security forces have claimed that all the attackers had returned to Iran in mid-2016, having fought for IS in Iraq and Syria.

The majority of Iranian citizens that have travelled to fight for IS in its self-proclaimed Caliphate are members of the country’s mainly Sunni Kurdish minority, principally due to the proximity of Kurdish-majority areas in Iran’s North-West to the Iraqi and Turkish borders. Long-established cross-border smuggling networks will have facilitated this travel, despite the security forces’ efforts to secure these border areas. Such networks also likely permit militants to evade detection when returning to Iran. It is therefore credible that the 7 June attackers were mostly Kurds, likely veteran fighters, who had travelled from IS territories in Iraq and Syria. This also suggests that Iran’s operation to eliminate the group’s leader also occurred in the Iraq-Iran border area, as the commander behind the attack was also likely to have been of Kurdish origin.

In addition, Iranian media reported the arrest of numerous other suspected Kurdish jihadists, most recently on 14 June when the Intelligence Ministry reported the arrest of a seven man militant team in Kurdistan Province. This reflects the Government’s desire to be seen as responding firmly to the 7 June assaults and its concerns that other returned IS fighters are plotting further attacks, especially against prominent Shia targets. The security forces have also increased their activities against Sunni militants in the south-eastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province, killing three members of the Ansar al-Furqan (AaF) Salafi-jihadist, ethnic Baloch group in a major raid in Chabahar city on 14 June. Baloch jihadists are less likely to have direct links to IS than Kurdish radicals due to their greater distance from Iraq and Syria, but many will be sympathetic to IS. The Government raids are therefore likely intended to prevent IS establishing a further foothold in this region.

These ongoing security force efforts will ensure that the capabilities of jihadist groups in Iran remain limited, meaning the tempo of violence is unlikely to exceed more than a few major attacks per year. Those convicted of involvement in jihadist violence are likely to face harsh sentences, including executions, which could make it easier for jihadists to recruit. However, Iran’s security forces are likely to avoid any sustained or indiscriminate crackdowns against Sunnis, which will limit the potential for any large-scale jihadist insurgency to develop over the coming few years. That said, IS will continue to attempt high profile attacks, especially around the end of Ramadan, and also during Ashura, a highly significant month for Shias, which begins in September.

Nigeria: Fresh militant threats highlight fragile peace in Niger Delta but new groups lack capability to launch co-ordinated campaign of attacks

A new coalition of Niger Delta militant groups on 1 June threatened to attack oil company offices and personnel in a bid to stop the petro-chemical industry’s pollution of the region. The coalition comprises newly formed militant groups: the Niger Delta Watchdogs, Niger Delta Volunteers, Niger Delta Peoples Fighters, Bakassi Freedom Fighters and Niger Delta Warriors. The threat came after a Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt on 12 June ordered Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to pay damages to local communities in Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State for a recent oil spillage. Meanwhile, the Adaka Boro Avengers (ABA) and newly formed New Delta Avengers (NDA) on 3 and 7 June respectively vowed to resume efforts to disrupt oil-related activities, claiming the Government’s peace efforts discriminate against new militant groups that are not included in the ongoing talks.

The Government on 6 May said it had almost tripled the budget for its 2009 amnesty programme for ex-militants, and promised several development projects. However, most of the budget is allocated to increasing existing amnesty cash payments for former Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militants, and does not benefit the wider population or newer militant groups such as the NDA. In this context, as we have said previously, groups that feel excluded are likely to threaten to renew attacks against energy interests in an attempt to extract benefits from the Government (see our 18 May Report).

In addition to stipend payments, newly formed groups remain aggrieved by the absence of long-term development plans. The Government’s ‘New Vision’ programme announced in March represents Abuja’s most comprehensive effort so far to tackle the marginalisation and under-development of the region. It includes broad interventions, such as the opening of a Maritime University in Delta State, establishment of modular refineries, continuation and review of pipeline protection contracts and the clean-up of Rivers State, an area that has been devastated by years of oil spills. However, it ultimately fails to offer longer-term solutions such as the creation of non-oil related employment and broader opportunities in the Niger Delta. Without addressing this issue, the Government’s strategy of continuing to pay off militants in exchange for peace, coupled with only limited development initiatives, is likely to further entrench the conditions that foster the emergence of new armed groups.

Two groups in the new coalition – the ABA and NDA – have demonstrated an ability to attack pipelines in the region. As such, sporadic assaults on energy infrastructure will likely resume in the next few months as these groups seek to pressure the Government. However, they lack support from key regional militant groups such as MEND, reducing their ability to conduct a co-ordinated campaign of large-scale attacks. Similarly, these new groups are unlikely to be able to launch large-scale strikes on energy company offices and staff given oil majors’ high levels of security. Nonetheless, they will likely step up criminal activities targeting oil personnel in the region in a bid to apply pressure on foreign companies to address environmental and employment issues. Violent crime and kidnapping will therefore pose an increasing threat to operators across the Delta, and particularly Port Harcourt due to the large number of oil company staff based in the city.

Indonesia: Suicide bombing in Jakarta prompts Government action against hardliners, but moves are mainly symbolic and will have limited effect

Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives at an East Jakarta bus terminal on 24 May, killing three policemen who were escorting a traditional parade to mark the start of Ramadan. The authorities later said the individuals were members of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a local pro-Islamic State (IS) group, and linked them to a bombing in the West Java city of Bandung in February. In response, President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) promised to defend the country’s official secular principle of Pancasila, which is seen as underpinning Indonesia’s racial and ethnic diversity. The authorities also arrested numerous suspected jihadists, including in Bandung. The Home Office Minister also said the Government was planning to outlaw Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia, the local branch of the global Islamist group, which like IS aims to re-create the Caliphate, although without using jihadist violence.

The attack, almost certainly conducted by local IS sympathisers, was likely aimed at both the security forces and, to a lesser extent, the Ramadan parade. This was intended to appeal to hardline Islamists and members of rival jihadist groups, who often resent the police for their role in suppressing Islamist organisations. They also typically see such traditional parades, which often borrow heavily from non-Islamist traditions, as heretical and un-Islamic. IS’s Amaq news agency claimed credit for the attack, although it said only one attacker was responsible. Such errors are common in Amaq claims for South East Asian operations and reflect the limited nature of contacts between local jihadists and IS’s leadership in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the bombs – primitive pressure cooker devices carried in bags – were similar to those used in the Bandung attack. This further suggests that IS provides only limited direct support for Indonesian jihadists, and that their capabilities consequently remain limited.

The Government’s high profile response is intended to show it regaining the initiative, especially after Jokowi’s former ally, the Christian ex-Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) was convicted of blasphemy last month following a campaign by hardline Islamists (see our last Report). However, many of the Government’s moves are largely symbolic. For instance, Hizb ut-Tahrir has very limited local support. In addition, the group’s doctrinal reluctance to work with other groups and its rejection of any engagement with democratic process means it has very limited links with larger conservative, Islamist and jihadist groups, or with mainstream politicians. As a result, the Government’s move to proscribe the group is a dramatic – but largely cost-free – move, which will have limited effect on militancy and do little to deter more politically engaged hardliners.

UK: Manchester bombing signals Islamic State’s intent to operate at higher tempo in Western Europe over Ramadan

The British Government reduced the UK’s threat level from critical to severe on 27 May, five days after it was raised following Islamic State’s (IS) first mass-casualty attack in the country, when British-born Salman Abedi killed 22 people in a suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena (see our 24 May Special Report). Abedi, who was of Libyan origin, had returned from Libya to the UK (via Turkey and Germany) just four days prior to the attack. The explosive device that Abedi used – which was packed with shrapnel, carried in a rucksack and detonated with a hand-held trigger – was sophisticated and well made, suggesting that he received training and direction from experienced IS jihadists in Libya.

The critical threat level reflected the UK’s concern that Abedi was part of a wider network, and that other members would seek to conduct strikes in the UK before being detained by the security forces. Indeed, at least sixteen people have been arrested since the bombing. However, the British authorities said on 30 May that Abedi likely acted largely alone, and this will have driven the decision to return the threat level to severe, which indicates that London no longer fears an imminent IS attack.

That said, the security agencies have not yet definitively ruled out that Abedi was part of, or had links to, an IS network. We believe that it is plausible that he did have ties to a jihadist cell in the UK, through his connections to militants in Libya, which likely helped guide the bombing. The Manchester attack therefore highlights that IS is prepared to send small numbers of trained jihadists to Europe to orchestrate or support violence. Indeed, our last Report warned that there was an increased risk that IS would attempt to conduct more complex strikes over Ramadan, which began on 27 May and will end around 25 June.

Jihadists regard Ramadan as an auspicious time for attacks, but last year IS failed to conduct a major strike until the end of the holy month, when 41 people were killed in an assault against Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on 28 June. In contrast, the Manchester attack came four days before the beginning of Ramadan, which also marks the third anniversary of IS establishing its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. This indicates that IS wants the incident to demonstrate its intent to carry out a high tempo of complex attacks in the West over the next month, and encourage its supporters to engage in violence in the region. This is because the group is desperate to be seen as capable of operating in Europe as its Caliphate comes under growing pressure, in an effort to protect its credibility and recruitment, and limit defections to its rival, al-Qaeda.

There will consequently be an increased risk of an IS attack against a high-profile target, such as a sporting event, entertainment venue or iconic site, in Western Europe in the coming weeks. France and Belgium will face the greatest threat as they are home to large jihadist communities and are more accessible from the Middle East. In addition, IS may hope that carrying out strikes in the UK and Germany before elections on 8 June and 24 September, respectively, will fuel far-right and anti-immigration rhetoric and violence, and so drive radicalisation and recruitment. Islamist extremists are also present in Norway and Sweden, while IS may also consider Denmark a target for its role in the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy, and Christian sites in Italy are also a significant target.

That said, while IS has the intent to significantly elevate the tempo of attacks in Europe over the next month, governments across the region will tighten security measures during Ramadan. This will help mitigate IS’s ability to conduct a rapid spate of major attacks across Western Europe in the coming weeks. Indeed, on 30 May the German authorities announced that they had arrested a Syrian teenager in northwest Germany, who was plotting to carry out a suicide attack in Berlin. A failure by IS to follow-up the Manchester suicide bombing with further complex strikes in Europe would therefore demonstrate the significant constraints on jihadists seeking to operate in the region.

Security agencies will find it more difficult to disrupt attacks by IS sympathisers, especially as many are self-radicalised and do not have direct links to known jihadist recruiters or networks. Moreover, IS has stepped up calls for its supporters in the West to act on its behalf, and this month’s publication of its online magazine Rumiyah called for truck attacks against pedestrians, and the taking of hostages to attract media attention. The threat of sympathiser violence will therefore also rise over Ramadan, not only in Europe but also in the US and Australia where there are small jihadist communities. Most sympathiser attacks will be low-level, such as stabbings, but some inexperienced individuals will seek to cause mass casualties by using vehicles as a weapon. In the US, access to firearms enhances the risk of a high death toll from attacks by IS supporters.

Pakistan: Islamic State suicide attack in Baluchistan points to increased threat of jihadist violence in urban centres during Ramadan

An Islamic State (IS) suicide bomber attacked a convoy carrying Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri – the Deputy Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate – near the town of Mastung in Baluchistan, 50 km from the provincial capital of Quetta, on 12 May. Haideri was hospitalised with only minor injuries, but the blast killed around 28 others.

This was IS’s first major attack since its suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine in Sehwan, 186 km northeast of Karachi, on 16 February, which partly triggered a nationwide crackdown against militant groups (see our 24 February Report). The lack of any significant IS activity since that time, as well as the fact that this incident took place in its Baluchistan stronghold, indicates that this crackdown has successfully slowed the tempo of IS violence. However, the fact that the Mastung incident was a mass-casualty suicide attack like that in Sehwan illustrates that the crackdown has not significantly impacted IS’s capabilities.

IS likely targeted Haideri because he is a national political figure, and attacks against such individuals are popular among jihadists because of the Government’s counter-militancy campaign. Targeting such a prominent figure will therefore provide a propaganda boost to IS, which the group will hope increases its support and encourages defections from its Taliban rival. This competition between the two groups likely further motivated IS to target Haideri, who is a senior member of the Jamaat-Ulem-e-Islam-Fazl party, which has a long history of supporting the Taliban.

IS will look to conduct another major attack in the coming weeks to re-establish momentum lost since the Army crackdown began in February. The threat from the group will be particularly elevated during Ramadan, which begins on 27 May, and is typically a period of heightened jihadist activity. The beginning of Ramadan also marks the anniversary of IS’s declaration of its Caliphate and the group will be keen to demonstrate ongoing strength as it loses key territory in Iraq and Syria. The group will continue to target Government interests and the security forces, but could also strike religious minorities. Foreigners will face a predominantly collateral threat due to IS’s lack of concern over causing civilian casualties. Attacks are most likely to occur in Baluchistan, including Quetta, where IS has an established presence. However, the group will be motivated to strike outside of this area, including in Karachi, where there are sectarian tensions that the group could exploit to boost its support.

The Taliban, for its part, will also look to strike during Ramadan, both because of its local competition with IS, but also in accordance with al-Qaeda’s global strategy to try to exploit the current pressure on IS in its Caliphate and reassert itself as the pre-eminent global jihadist movement (see our 28 April Report). Any Taliban attacks are likely to prioritise Government and security force interests, in response to ongoing counter-militancy operations, although they could also target minorities. The Taliban frequently operates in Quetta, and the Tribal Areas, but there will also be a raised threat from the group in Lahore and Karachi, where it has a strong presence.