The last twelve months saw massive changes in the structure and activities of terrorist organisations. The Islamic State (IS) saw the end of its caliphate in March 2019. In the immediate wake of the collapse there was a sharp increase in IS-linked terrorist operations which then subsided following the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in the last quarter of 2019. The same period saw growing conflict between terrorist organisations, and between Al-Qaeda and IS in particular.
During the first three months of the year the international coalition intensified its campaign against IS. It seized control of the organisation’s last stronghold in Baghour, Syria, in March 2019, signalling the end of IS pretensions to governing a state-like entity.
The period lasting from April to September saw a sharp rise in IS activities across the region, with the bulk of attacks taking place in June, July and August. About 550 terrorist operations were launched in this period, in areas ranging from West Africa to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, killing and wounding 2,900 people. For the most part the operations were undertaken in the name of revenge - in retribution for the defeat of the group’s last stronghold in Syria.
The spurt in IS-linked activity subsided after the death of IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on 26 October 2019. But just as the rate of terrorist attacks declined, IS attacks on Al-Qaeda affiliates increased in the areas where both groups operate.
Syria saw a number of inter-terrorist conflicts. Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS - the Nusra Front) attacked factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in north western Syria, expanding its control in the western Aleppo province. HTS also managed to infiltrate the Shashabo Mountain and Al-Ghab Plain in Hama governorate.
Similar confrontations occurred elsewhere. On 8 August 2019 IS announced that it had attacked the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) east of Miqdadiyah (Shareban) in the Diyala governorate of Iraq, killing and wounding three PMF fighters. The following day, IS shelled Houthi positions in the Bayda Governorate in central Yemen.
On 1 September 2019, an IS-affiliate in Yemen claimed to have repelled an attack by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Bayda. A day earlier the IS news outlet Amaq reported that AQAP had attacked IS positions in Al-Hamida, Al-Najd and Liqah .
The AQAP offensive was in retaliation for a series of IS attacks against it during the previous three months. In August, IS claimed responsibility for killing four Al-Qaeda members in Bayda: according to a report by Amaq, IS elements had earlier infiltrated an Al-Qaeda camp and carried out a surprise attack killing and wounding many Al-Qaeda members, including a commander. In mid-June a Qaeda operative was killed by IS sniper fire in Bayda. AQAP has itself attacked a number of IS bases in Yemen, and a tribal group affiliated with AQAP in Yemen took the unusual step of posting a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest or death of the IS commander in Yemen.
While the ferocity of inter-terrorist fighting escalated during 2019 the phenomenon is not new. IS and the Houthis traded attacks during 2017, as did HTS, Ahrar Al-Sham Al-Islamiya and the Guardians of Religion (another Al-Qaeda affiliate) in Syria in 2018. But the higher incidence of this type of fighting in 2019 suggests the phenomenon will continue, and perhaps increase, into 2020.
Attacking rival groups is seen as a means to regain lost appeal. IS’s drive to intensify attacks against AQAP and the Houthis in Yemen, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq and the fighting between HTS, Ahrar Al-Sham and other organisations in Syria, is an attempt by the group to regain some allure after its almost existential defeat, and to show to regain lost allure the organisation remains able to fight and still commands advanced weaponry.
The conflict between Al-Qaeda and IS is also a leadership struggle. The two organisations are fighting to assert their authority over groups that often overlap in terms of membership and ideology. This rivalry is expressed in the doctrinal competition between leaders who, in their publications, attempt to show they are the ideologically fittest to lead.
Another important trigger for the clashes between terrorist groups is the attempt to attract sponsors. Terrorist organisations constantly look out for more funding and their attacks serve as a shop window to attract potential sponsors among countries willing to use terrorist organisations to advance their political agendas in the Middle East. For IS, which lost major sources of autonomous funding after the defeat of its so-called caliphate, the search for alternative sources of finance has become urgent. To win the largest piece of the funding cake it has to show potential sponsors that it is more worthy than other groups.
Recruiting new members is crucial to the survival of terrorist organisations and especially for IS given the magnitude of its losses in Syria and Iraq and the flight of its members after the defeat. The phenomenon of IS returnees best illustrates the problem: after escaping the war theatres of Iraq and Syria IS members have become targets for the recruitment drives of Al-Qaeda affiliates and other militant Islamist organisations.
The intensification of the international war against terrorism combined with the declining power of some terrorist organisations has led to increasing rates of desertion - a phenomenon any terrorist organisation would want to nip in the bud for fear it could spread among its ranks. Attacks as a demonstration of strength over rivals is also a way to retain internal cohesion.
Egypt itself has been successful in bringing a halt to the activities of terrorist organisations in the Nile Valley and Delta. Attacks in Sinai also declined significantly in 2019, both in terms of the number of attacks and their range.
The sharp decline of terrorist attacks in Cairo, the Nile Valley and Delta is a result of the debilitating strikes delivered by security strikes against the groups and organisations that had been most active in these areas, especially the relatively new Hasm and the Revolution Brigade groups.
The losses sustained by security forces also declined significantly in 2019 compared to the five preceding years. At the same time, Sinai Province lost a large number of commanders to security forces and the army, undermining the organisation’s structure and combat efficacy.
In short, 2019 marked a major turning point for IS which lost much of its influence following the collapse of its caliphate and the death of its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Its reversion to being a non-territorial organisation combined with inter-terrorist rivalries raises many questions concerning the fate of extremist groups in 2020. The questions become all the more complex in light of the unresolved political and security problems in a number of crIS-ridden countries in the Arab region and the eruption of protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon. What are IS’s chances of reordering ranks and re-establishing itself in the Levant and other countries? What opportunities has the IS collapse in Syria opened to other terrorist organisations? Will, for example, fighters leaving IS see Al-Qaeda as a refuge? And what are Al-Qaeda’s prospects in the region and elsewhere? The coming year will hold at least some of the answers to these urgent questions.
The writer is an expert on terrorism at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Terrorist groups turn on themselves