Syria: Tahrir al-Sham’s pragmatic approach may prompt some hardliners to defect to al-Qaeda-linked group, but will not weaken coalition

The jihadist-led Tahrir al-Sham (TaS) alliance declared a ceasefire with all rebel groups in the North-East on 2 December. It also said that it would establish a committee with Islamist groups Ahrar al-Sham (AaS) and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement in order to resolve outstanding issues, such as prisoner exchanges. TaS’s statement comes after week-long clashes between its fighters and those of Nour al-Din al-Zenki in Aleppo Province last month.

TaS is dominated by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), a jihadist group with ties to al-Qaeda and which is led by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. He has taken an increasingly pragmatic approach to protecting TaS’s position in the North-West in recent months. For instance, in October TaS agreed with Ankara to allow Turkish-backed rebels to take control of areas bordering Kurdish-held Afrin district, which reduced the threat of Turkish military action against TaS in its Idlib stronghold (see our 11 October Report). TaS’s recent ceasefire shows this pragmatic approach is continuing. It also shows that al-Jolani wants to avoid increased intra-rebel fighting as this could undermine TaS’s ability to counter pro-government forces, which are seeking to capture areas held by the alliance in Hama and Aleppo provinces.

That said, TaS will also want to strengthen its military position given that it fears that Russia and the US-led coalition will shift focus to countering jihadists in the North-West as the anti-Islamic State campaign winds down (see our last Report). Despite the ceasefire, the alliance will therefore opportunistically seek to make additional territorial gains at the expense of other rival rebel groups, which will lead to further sporadic clashes. However, al-Jolani’s pragmatic approach and efforts to engage other groups mean such fighting is likely to be localised and occur only periodically, and is consequently unlikely to escalate significantly.

Meanwhile, pro-al-Qaeda hardliners in JFS oppose this pragmatic approach, which has led to growing tensions between al-Jolani and al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Our 1 December Black Banners Monthly noted that al-Jolani has sought to suppress dissent, arresting two al-Qaeda loyalists on 27 November – which was condemned by al-Zawahiri the next day. However, al-Jolani will not be willing to change his pragmatic approach to appease hardliners, and will continue to crack down on those who oppose his strategy. This may prompt some jihadists to defect to Ansar al-Furqan, a group formed in October by pro-al-Qaeda hardliners. However, al-Jolani’s approach has wide backing within TaS and such defections will therefore be limited. Growing tensions with hardliners more strongly aligned with al-Qaeda will therefore not threaten TaS’s position over the next six months.

Yemen: Aden Governor’s resignation highlights UAE’s efforts to increase influence, which will fuel southern security deterioration

The Governor of Aden, Abdulaziz al-Muflehi, tendered his resignation on 16 November, saying that corruption had undermined his efforts to restore basic services to the city. Saudi-backed President Hadi appointed al-Muflehi, a loyalist, when he removed UAE-backed Aydarus al-Zubaidi in April, in an effort to limit Abu Dhabi’s influence in the South (see our 5 May Report). However, al-Zubaidi then formed a new body to advocate southern independence, which has received continued support from the UAE. Indeed, on 18 November the commander of the Emirati-backed security forces in Abyan Governorate praised the organisation for opening a new political office in Abyan’s capital, Zinjibar.

Al-Muflehi’s assertion that his work was hindered by corruption is credible, since graft in Aden is a major obstacle to good governance. However, his ability to improve services and infrastructure in the city will also have been significantly limited by the UAE’s efforts to expand its influence there. These have led to clashes as Emirati-backed militias and pro-Hadi forces compete for control of key infrastructure, such as the city’s airport, thus undermining the authority of the President and his government.

Moreover, such clashes have disrupted operations against jihadists, and so enabled militants loyal to Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to increase their tempo of attacks in the South. For instance, IS supporters assassinated a criminal investigator in Aden on 26 November, and killed four people in a car bombing outside the Finance Ministry three days later. Meanwhile, AQAP carried out at least eight IED attacks against Emirati-backed forces in Abyan Governorate from 15-28 November, and shot and injured an official in Hadramawt on 22 November. This violence has undermined Hadi’s efforts to show himself as an effective leader, particularly in the face of the increasingly assertive southern secessionist movement, and so has damaged his credibility.

Hadi has since sought to reassert his authority by shuffling positions among other southern politicians. For example, he promoted a former counter-smuggling official to governor in the south-eastern al-Mahrah Governorate on 27 November. This was also likely intended to bolster his support from Riyadh, which launched its own anti-smuggling campaign in the governorate in mid-November. Regardless, Riyadh justifies its intervention in Yemen by saying that it was requested by the country’s legitimate President, and at present the Kingdom sees no viable replacement for Hadi. His political position will therefore remain secure for the coming months, despite these challenges to his authority.

Indeed, Abu Dhabi will continue its efforts to ensure that Emirati-backed figures maintain a prominent role in southern politics. Further clashes between rival security forces in Aden and jihadist attacks in the city are therefore likely. Moreover, UAE-backed forces may carry out violence and crackdowns against the Muslim Brotherhood-linked al-Islah party, which Abu Dhabi strongly opposes. This would in turn increase the risk of AQAP attacks against UAE-linked fighters, as the group seeks to attract support from hardline members of the Brotherhood and al-Islah, with which it has previously had limited cooperation.

Pakistan: Splits within Taliban movement may somewhat reduce tempo of group’s activity in coming months, but further attacks remain likely

The Australian Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index 2017, which was published on 15 November, noted a 12% reduction in the number of terrorism-related deaths in Pakistan in 2016 compared to the previous year. This marks the lowest such number in the last decade, and largely reflects a decline in the activity of the Pakistani Taliban, which has historically been responsible for the largest number of casualties.

This drop may partly be the result of increased US drone strikes in North Waziristan, and the Army’s Zarb-e-Azb Operation against militants in the region, which lasted from June 2014 until April 2016 and will have disrupted Taliban elements’ operational capabilities. Zarb-e-Azb largely avoided targeting militants that were primarily engaged in violence outside the country, and this strategy may have reduced violence further by minimising the groups’ desire to conduct retaliatory attacks inside Pakistan.

In addition, it is likely that splits within the Taliban movement, which reduced the core group’s ability to carry out attacks, contributed to the decline over this period. The group’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, said in April that such divisions had almost been eliminated, and indeed, the Taliban conducted a large suicide bombing in Lahore in July in an effort to show strength following the divisions. However, it has not maintained a high tempo of attacks since then, showing that although it maintains substantial capabilities, divisions are likely continuing to restrict its operations.

Moreover, separate reports from this period indicate that the group’s Jamaat ul-Ahrar (JuA) faction, which has conducted regular violence until now despite the difficulties facing the Taliban proper, has now suffered a split as a result of differences over operational practices. A new splinter group, Hizb ul-Ahrar, formed on 11 November under the leadership of former JuA commander Mukarram Khan, who reportedly opposed JuA’s targeting of civilians and Christians.

Such internal disagreements may continue to somewhat reduce the operational effectiveness of the Taliban and its splinter factions in the coming months. Nonetheless, they will not prevent attacks altogether, and further strikes against state-linked interests and particularly the security forces are likely. Meanwhile, Islamic State (IS) may seek to step up its activity in the region, as it seeks to show expansion and maintain its position as the foremost global jihadist group despite heavy territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it claimed a low-level sympathiser attack against a police post in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on 17 November, marking its first action, albeit undirected, in J&K. Any rise in IS activity may also drive an increase in Taliban operations, as the groups compete for support among Pakistan’s substantial jihadist community.

Thailand: Officials’ warnings over security likely intended to boost junta’s legitimacy and do not reflect increased threat

Deputy PM and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said on 13 November that he believed that members of terrorist organisations, including Islamic State (IS) fighters, had probably sneaked into Thailand. He made his comments in an interview on the Government’s latest crackdown on foreigners who overstay their visas in Thailand, including suspected members of transnational criminal gangs. In addition, Deputy Defence Minister Udomdej Sitabutr has said that Prawit had ordered security agencies to closely monitor its opponents as several are planning to instigate protests and disturbances. In response, however, Deputy National Police Chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul said there was no specific threat in this regard, although a letter has been circulated amongst police units to monitor anti-coup activists.

Red Shirt leaders questioned the Government’s motivation for issuing such warnings and claimed that they were part of the junta’s efforts to justify its ban on political activities as it comes under pressure for the ban to be removed. There has been no evidence to date of any significant IS infiltration , although some level of logistical support by foreign jihadist groups for the southern insurgent movement is possible. There have also not been any serious protests against the military although several, including one planned for 13 November by rubber farmers, have been called off following military intimidation. These have however been motivated by economic rather than political issues.

The calls therefore partly reflect that the junta is struggling to justify its heavy handed control over Thailand’s politics following the funeral of the late King, as calls for a return to normalcy continue from many quarters. It is therefore likely that its ban on political activity may begin to be partially lifted soon, as indicated by a 16 November statement by the Deputy PM that the Government would “probably” lift the ban next year, unless some serious event occurred which allowed the military to justify maintaining it. However, it is unlikely that the lifting of the ban will result in any serious protests or disruption, as all parties will be aware that the military will use any provocation to reinstate it.

Bangladesh: Airline plot shows local militant threat will persist, but direct Islamic State influence in the country likely to decline over coming year

The counterterrorism Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) said on 1 November that it had arrested a pilot for Biman Bangladesh Airlines, along with three accomplices, for plotting to hijack a commercial aircraft. An RAB official said in a 4 November court statement that the pilot planned to crash the aircraft into the Prime Minister’s house, or fly it to an Islamic State (IS) base in Syria. The group, which included two relatives of the pilot, were linked to former members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahidden (JMB) Islamist militant group. Indeed, the pilot’s father was arrested in an anti-militant operation in September, and the security forces also linked the group to a separate senior JMB leader who died during a police raid that month.

Some hardline JMB individuals and factions have aligned themselves with IS in recent years, including those who conducted other high profile attacks, such as the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka in July 2016. It is therefore plausible that IS-aligned JMB supporters would seek to carry out a spectacular, high-profile attack of this kind, particularly as IS is urging its sympathisers around the world to conduct such operations while it seeks to retain its position as the world’s leading jihadist group despite recent losses in Syria and Iraq. However, RAB’s claim does not in itself indicate that IS has increased its coordination with JMB, or that it is providing more active support for attacks in Bangladesh.

The authorities did not suggest that the plot was in an advanced stage of preparation. Indeed, they may have exaggerated the threat to justify their ongoing crackdown against Islamists. Dhaka may also hope to win international support for its crackdown by highlighting its successes against militants, and by exaggerating the threat they pose; both Australia and Canada recently warned of heightened risks for their citizens in Bangladesh, illustrating that international attention remains focused on this issue. Dhaka’s efforts to retain such support may also explain why the announcement of the plot came alongside a series of other highly-publicised arrests, including of a JMB member reportedly responsible for a bombing in Chittagong naval base in 2015, and of a member of the al-Qaeda-aligned Ansarullah Bangla Team group accused of killing Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy in the same year.

We do not assess, therefore, that the events point to an increased risk of a major, IS-directed JMB attack. Indeed, IS’s direct influence in the country is likely to decline over the coming year, in part because IS’s manpower and territorial losses are reducing its ability to reach out to supporters globally. This means that most pro-IS Bangladeshi militants are eventually likely to revert to focusing on more local agendas, such as attacking the security forces and their ideological opponents. Sporadic, low-level attacks against government targets and secular figures will therefore continue to pose the most common threat, although the potential for one-off attacks on international-linked targets will remain.