Philippines: Deaths of pro-Islamic State leaders in Marawi will only briefly disrupt groups’ ability to win recruits in South

President Duterte said on 17 October that the Army had liberated Marawi City from the pro-Islamic State (IS) militants who seized the southern town in May. However, the military has said that around a dozen fighters remain in the city, and fighting is still ongoing. Nonetheless, the Government has pledged to begin work to rebuild the devastated town immediately, and prioritise shelter and schools for Marawi’s 200,000 residents. The previous day, the Defence Minister claimed that soldiers in the city had shot dead Isnilon Hapilon, who led a pro-IS faction of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and Omar Maute, one of the two brothers who founded the pro-IS Maute Group. The military provided photographs of their bodies, and so the claim is likely accurate. The other brother, Abdullah, was likely killed in August.

A botched army raid to capture Hapilon in Marawi in May prompted ASG and Maute Group to accelerate their pre-planned operation to seize the city, triggering a five-month battle that Manila says has left 854 militants, 163 soldiers and 47 civilians dead. The jihadists’ resilience embarrassed Manila and won them praise from IS’s central leadership in Syria and Iraq, which encouraged foreign fighters from around the region to travel to the city, in turn enabling the militants to prolong their resistance in the town. As we discussed last time, ASG and Maute Group will view the battle as one of the most significant jihadist victories in the region in decades, and believe it will inspire future generations of militants. As such, the groups’ defeat in Marawi will not necessarily damage their credibility among their core supporters.

That said, Hapilon and Maute’s high profiles had enabled their factions to win large numbers of recruits, including through social media, and so their deaths may disrupt pro-IS groups’ abilities to attract new recruits in the coming months. They were likely to be replaced by prominent Malaysian jihadist Mahmud Ahmad, an al-Qaeda-trained veteran who has been in the Philippines since 2014, although a general said on 19 October that he has also been killed in the fighting. Malaysians have played a key role in South East Asia’s jihadist activities, and should another experienced militant from that country take over, then he will be able to ensure greater coordination between the fragmented IS-aligned factions in the region, and will also be able to attract supporters from Indonesia and his native Malaysia. This will help IS to secure its relevance and appeal in the southern Philippines over the coming years.

In an effort to dampen IS’s appeal, ministers have pledged to rapidly fund Marawi’s reconstruction. Nonetheless, the Government will struggle to rebuild the city swiftly, and is also unlikely to move rapidly on its declared goal of introducing autonomy to Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao, which would help undermine pro-separatist sentiment. This will sustain resentment towards Manila, which IS will look to exploit, further sustaining the jihadist presence in the South. Meanwhile, pro-IS groups will in the coming weeks encourage sympathisers to conduct attacks in retaliation for the deaths of their fighters and leaders in Marawi, most likely targeting government, security and Christian interests. They may also try to inspire a high-profile attack against Westerners and tourists, though limited jihadist capabilities outside the South will help contain the threat outside Mindanao.

Nigeria: Mass trial of suspected Boko Haram militants will undermine Abuja’s efforts to tackle the group

The Government said on 9 October that more than 2,300 suspected Boko Haram militants will appear in court in the coming weeks. About 1,670 detainees held at a military base in the central state of Niger, will be tried first, followed by 651 others held in Maiduguri, capital of the north-eastern state of Borno. The move comes amid a wave of attacks by the group in Borno State and areas bordering Cameroon. For example, on 28 September, militants killed three people and burnt dozens of homes in a raid targeting rural communities in Borno State’s Guzamala area. An earlier suicide bomb attack on 31 August against a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Banki town, located at the border with Cameroon, killed eighteen people. Meanwhile, at least 35 cross-border suicide bomb attacks against security forces in Cameroon’s Extreme North have been reported in the last three months.

The attacks highlight that, although Boko Haram has been significantly weakened by Nigerian and regional military operations, it retains sufficient manpower and explosive-making capabilities to stage frequent suicide bomb attacks in the North-East and border areas of neighbouring states. Moreover, the recent increase in attacks suggests that Boko Haram is also able to exploit growing fatigue among local vigilante groups. Such groups play a key role in identifying and disrupting suicide bomb attacks, but have become increasingly frustrated with a lack of government support and reward in recent months. The group’s resilience also undermines Army Chief Lt Gen Tukur Yusuf Buratai’s claim in July that Boko Haram had been militarily defeated. It is therefore likely that the authorities hope the mass trials of suspected militants will provide evidence that Abuja is effectively tackling the group.

However, it is unclear whether Nigeria’s justice system can handle mass trials; with only four judges handling thousands of cases the trials are unlikely to be successfully completed in at least the next three months. Moreover, human rights groups have said the detainees are unlikely to have fair trials given these will be held in secret. Hundreds of the suspects’ families have also launched an appeal insisting that their relatives were victims but arrested by soldiers as suspects. Amnesty International said in a June 2015 report that more than 20,000 people had been arbitrarily arrested as part of the fight against Boko Haram and that, to date, only nine suspected militants had been convicted for their links to the insurgency. Given this, the mass trials are likely to trigger more accusations of human rights violations committed by the authorities, and further fuel local perceptions in the North-East that the Government is unable to take effective action against the ongoing Boko Haram violence.

Such anti-government sentiment is in turn likely to be exploited by Boko Haram as it seeks to boost recruitment efforts within Borno’s local communities. Many reject the largest faction of the group led by Abubakar Shekau due to its indiscriminate targeting of IDPs and civilians. However, those seeking revenge against the Government over its treatment of the detainees may be more easily convinced to join the Islamic State-affiliated faction, as it primarily targets security forces. A subsequent boost in this group’s numbers would compound Boko Haram’s resilience and increase its capabilities, likely leading to an increased tempo of attacks against government assets and personnel in the North-East.

West Africa: Killing of US troops in Niger underscores threat of jihadist attacks against foreign interests in Sahel region, including capital cities

Three US Special Forces troops and four Nigerien soldiers were killed on 4 October when they were ambushed by militants on a routine patrol near the town of Tongo Tongo, close to the border with Mali and around 190 km north of the capital Niamey. The deaths were the first in combat for US forces in the country, which are providing training, security assistance and intelligence support to the Nigerien Army.

A number of militant and jihadist groups are active in the region, particularly in northern and central Mali, and further north in the vast Sahel region. Indeed, four groups – Ansar al-Din (AaD), the AaD-affiliated Macina Liberation Front, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and the AQM-affiliated al-Murabitun – merged to form Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM) in March. We have previously warned that al-Qaeda-aligned groups would seek to target US and French interests in retaliation for both countries’ support for anti-jihadist activities in Niger (see our 21 October 2016 Report), and AQM and al-Murabitun have frequently targeted foreign interests in the region. AQM was therefore most likely responsible for the 4 October attack, possibly with the support of fighters from the broader JNIM movement.

Moreover, the incident follows the release of a recording by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in this period, in which he urged AQM to target US and French interests in the Sahel. AQM has become increasingly important for al-Qaeda’s central leadership in recent years, because its growing strength and ability to operate in new countries is vital to maintaining the movement’s global credibility. AQM and its regional affiliates will therefore look to sustain a regular tempo of violence across the region in the coming months.

AQM has demonstrated the ability to operate across Mali, including in Bamako, in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, and in Niger, including on the outskirts of Niamey. While the group and its affiliates will likely prioritise security targets in more remote areas, there is an ongoing risk of one-off attacks against Western interests in major urban centres throughout these countries. Meanwhile, Islamic State (via its Mali-based Greater Sahara affiliate) also has a presence in the region. The group has claimed few successful attacks, and most of these have been against security forces near the Mali-Burkina Faso frontier, but it also has the intent to target foreign interests. The threat of a jihadist attack against such interests in a major West African city will be somewhat limited by effective security and intelligence forces. However, any successful attack would likely strike soft targets, such as public spaces, or restaurants and hotels frequented by Westerners.

Israel-Palestine: Deadly settlement attack likely carried out by lone individual, but hardliners frustrated by unity deal may launch rockets from Gaza

A 37-year-old Palestinian man shot dead two Israeli security guards and a policeman in an attack on the West Bank settlement of Har Adar (located north-west of Jerusalem) on 26 September. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which is the most lethal since three settlers were stabbed to death in July amid heightened tensions over the Temple Mount. The attacker had a permit to work in Israel, suggesting he had no significant links to militants and likely carried out the shooting independently. Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to respond to the incident by demolishing the assailant’s home, but did not threaten any wider action.

The Hamas-Fatah agreement (see above) is likely to anger those Palestinians who favour greater violence against Israel, as they will see Hamas’ agreement with Fatah, which co-operates with Tel Aviv on security issues, as evidence of the group softening its commitment to armed resistance. As a result, there may be an increase in attacks by individual hardliners in the coming few weeks, and especially over the ongoing Jewish holiday period, in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Nonetheless, most such incidents will be unsophisticated and limited to stabbings and car rammings. In addition, hardline Islamist militants in Gaza could attempt to fire rockets into Israel, in an attempt to increase their support at the expense of Hamas, by forcing the group to prevent such attacks and so be seen as defending Israel.

Iraq: Massive Islamic State attack on restaurant and checkpoint underlines elevated threat to Shia around Ashura

Three teams of IS jihadists killed over 80 people in a gun and suicide bomb attack in Nasiriyah, 300 km south-east of Baghdad, on 14 September. The fighters targeted checkpoints and a restaurant frequented by Shia pilgrims, situated on a major road from Dhi Qar Province to Baghdad. IS also claimed to have ambushed a Shia militia checkpoint the day before in Musayyib, a Shia-majority town around 60 km south of the capital. The violence underlines the group’s heavily sectarian agenda; IS believes that attacks against Shia interests will fuel sectarian tensions and trigger retaliation against the Sunni community, which it can then exploit to gain recruits and support. It therefore places a high value on successful attacks against Shia, particularly in the Shia-majority South.

Our 21 June Report noted that IS’s focus on defending Mosul would limit its ability to conduct a high tempo of violence in the South, and that it would instead seek to carry out occasional one-off major attacks there. Although the group has now lost Mosul, it is pre-occupied by efforts to retain control of its remaining urban centres, and so attacks in the South will continue to be periodic. The recent violence also indicates that IS will look to strike soft targets such as shrines, religious events and public spaces, and security checkpoints.

Iraqi forces have now delayed plans to liberate Hawija, the last major IS-held town in Kirkuk Province, likely due to concerns that Kurdish forces would seek to exert influence over the operation. Instead, the Army has turned its focus to Anbar, where our last report noted an increase in Iraqi and coalition airstrikes. In a joint operation with the Syrian Army, Iraqi forces on 16 September retook the border town of Akashat, which is one of several small outposts on the road to Qaim, Rawa and Anah, which link Anbar to IS-held territory in Syria.

The eventual liberation of these towns will be a major blow to IS, but its presence in Anbar will not be eradicated entirely because the group will likely be able to retain a presence in isolated areas of the province. At this point, it will shift its focus from defending territory to launching a higher tempo of attacks nationwide, in an effort to maintain its relevance. Such violence will likely prioritise Shia interests, the security forces and foreign military interests. IS may also step up attacks against infrastructure, possibly including energy facilities, in an attempt to delay recovery efforts in war-torn Sunni-majority provinces. It hopes that this will be a long-term source of tension between Sunnis and Baghdad, which it intends to exploit to rebuild its support. Until then, IS attacks outside territory it controls will remain sporadic, though Shia interests will face an elevated threat around Ashura on 30 September, particularly in Baghdad where IS could target religious events and public areas.