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An endless war on terrorism

This year has seen a downward trajectory in the activities of terrorist groups in the Middle East, but there is little room for complacency

Hany Ghoraba , Monday 7 Jan 2019

The term the “War on Terrorism” was coined on 11 September 2001 when the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington gave rise to a new era of asymmetrical warfare between the world’s governments and terrorist groups.

The term still represents a state of ongoing war that has moved from Afghanistan and spread across the globe since its declaration by former US president George W Bush in retaliation to the 9/11 attacks.

Starting with the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, the Middle East has become a major front in this war and has witnessed an unprecedented spike in terrorist activities that have included countries still fighting against miscellaneous terrorist groups.

Compared to previous years, 2018 saw a downward trajectory in the activities of groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations. The following is an overview of the War on Terrorism in some hotspots of this conflict.


It was here that the War on Terrorism really started as the location of the longest war ever fought by the US military.

This war is now in its 17th year and has been labelled the “Forgotten War”. Plans to withdraw from the conflict remain unclear, and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain active in both countries and are able to deliver deadly attacks on civilians such as the suicide bombing that took place in the Afghan capital Kabul in January 2018 killing 103 and injuring 235.

In neighbouring Pakistan, an IS suicide bomber killed 149 people and injured 186 at the same time. The war in these two countries is far from over, and it is likely to escalate further in the coming period as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and IS are still resurgent.


Terrorist attacks orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliates such Hasm and Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis have dropped off, despite attacks targeting Copts such as one in November targeting Coptic pilgrims going to a monastery in Minya, killing seven and injuring 12.

The war on terrorism in Sinai has witnessed major successes by the Egyptian army, which launched Operation Sinai 2018 in February. This has managed to quell the IS-affiliated Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group in the North Sinai governorate and restore order to a turbulent region.

The success of the operation has driven groups such as Al-Morabitoon led by terrorist Hisham Al-Ashmawi to flee to Libya, where he was captured by Libyan special forces. The Sinai operation has resulted in the killing of hundreds of terrorists along with the destruction of thousands of hideouts, smuggling tunnels to Gaza, stores and vehicles.

However, the battle is not yet over, especially since runaway IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra elements from strongholds in Syria may be tempted to rally in North Sinai.


The Libyan Civil War is far from over, but the Libyan army under General Khalifa Haftar has managed to control the tide of events and win decisive battles in 2018, including the liberation of terrorist strongholds in Derna.

The influx of Al-Qaeda and IS-affiliated elements into the vast Libyan Desert and joining forces with existing terrorist cells remains a challenge, however. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government in Tripoli represents a challenge to Haftar’s long-term plans for the reunification of Libya. But military and logistical assistance from Egypt has helped the Libyan army become a power to be reckoned with, and the successes in 2018 may be the beginning of the end of the most horrific chapter in Libyan history.


The so-called “caliphate” declared by the IS group in Iraq and Syria has descended into shambles, but IS remnants have been attempting to hold pockets in the Syria and Iraqi theatres.

At the same time, the terrorist group has changed its tactics to bombings instead of the military campaigns that characterised its earlier existence. The horrific suicide bombings in the Suwaydeya governorate in Syria that left 255 killed and 180 injured was an indication of these new tactics, and despite Syrian army victories backed by Russian assistance and assistance from the International Coalition led by the United States, IS has not been completely wiped out.

Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham has also been attempting to claim the position of IS. The Syrian army and Kurdish fighters are fighting an existential battle that will continue in 2019. Though far from completely safe, the liberated regions of Iraq and Syria are now seeing a new stability, and this has led to the return of thousands of refugees who fled the battle-torn regions years ago.


The IS-affiliated Boko Haram group has wreaked havoc in Africa’s most populous country of Nigeria and neighbouring areas. Despite massive efforts by the Nigerian army along with neighbouring armed forces, the group is far from having been neutralised.

In 2018, it orchestrated deadly attacks on military and civilian targets, the most significant taking place in November when an attack on a military base in Borno State left 118 dead and 153 injured.

The Nigerian government has not been able to quell the group, though American and French Special Forces in the continent have helped to curb some of its ambitions.


Comparisons can be drawn between the War on Terrorism and the War on Drugs, since the latter, fought mainly against Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, is similarly on-going.

The War on Drugs has caused the deaths of over half a million people at the staggering cost of over one trillion US dollars since 1971. Even the destruction of Colombian drug cartels such as the Medellin cartel led drug baron Pablo Escobar or the Juarez or Sinaloan cartels in Mexico have not ended the war, since this has been fought using shoddy methods, with some governments and officials even backing the narcotics traffickers and growers.

Newer cartels spawned from destroyed ones such as the Jalisco New Generation cartel control sizeable shares of the drug-trafficking business in Mexico and the US. And in the same way, the War on Terrorism which the US has spent over six trillion dollars on since 2001 has not resulted in the end of global terrorism and may even have exacerbated the situation.

It has assisted in adding hundreds of thousands of recruits to terrorist organisations that have spread mayhem and destruction in all corners of the world. The reason has been a lack of clear goals. Instead of targeting the sources of terrorism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the West has ironically treated this group as “moderate” and allowed its members to be active on its soil.

Years of reluctance in dealing with the two major financiers of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radicals, Turkey and Qatar, has rendered the War on Terrorism largely useless. A showdown with these two Islamist regimes has been averted for years, with Turkey still being an active member of NATO and Qatar hosting the biggest US base in the region.

Both countries are even used as launch pads in the fight against terrorism. It is a truly bizarre situation and a mockery of efforts around the world to fight the cancer of terrorism. It also disrespects the victims of terrorism worldwide, even as there seems to be no political will in Western capitals to deal with the roots of the problem.

This fact alone renders the War on Terrorism a never-ending one. Nothing will change until the policies of pampering terrorism financiers are over, with those behind terrorist activities held accountable.  

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An endles war on terrorism

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