Special Briefing: Global Terror Rears Its Ugly Head

Special forces protect people at the scene of an explosion at a hotel complex in Nairobi's Westlands suburb on January 15, 2019, in Kenya. - A huge blast followed by a gun battle rocked an upmarket hotel and office complex in Nairobi on January 15, 2018, causing casualties, in an attack claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab Islamist group.

Source LUIS TATO/Getty

Why you should care

Because terrorism — for now — is here to stay.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What’s happening? Two high-profile terror attacks this week — an Al-Shabab siege on a luxury hotel in Nairobi that killed more than a dozen civilians, and an Islamic State bombing in northern Syria that left four Americans dead — have refocused attention on the resilience of Islamic extremist groups. Although global counterterrorism efforts have paid off in recent years, and terror-linked deaths have been down for three consecutive years, world leaders clearly cannot write these groups off just yet. 

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A member of Manbij’s security forces walks outside a shuttered-down restaurant which was the site of a suicide attack targeting US-led coalition forces in the flashpoint northern Syrian city of Manbij which killed four US servicemen the previous day on January 17, 2019. – The bombing, claimed by the Islamic State group, comes after US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month that he was ordering a full troop withdrawal from Syria because the jihadists had been

Source Delil SOULEIMAN/Getty

Why does it matter? The U.S. and other global players face a key decision: Do they strike deals with countries and militias to help extricate themselves from wars at the risk of undoing the gains that countries like Afghanistan, Syria and some in Africa have made against terrorist groups? Each deal has consequences: In Afghanistan, for example, a U.S. peace agreement with the Taliban would acknowledge the group as the country’s likely future rulers. Will this vault the world back to where it was before 2001, after all the human and financial sacrifices suffered in two decades of wars?

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Far from over. After losing swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State’s dream of cobbling together a caliphate in the Middle East may be gone. But recent attacks — not only this week’s in Syria, but on Christmas Day in Iraq — seem to support analysts’ claims that the group won’t be totally defeated without a comprehensive stabilization plan in place in those countries. Al-Shabab, meanwhile, is still terrorizing Somalia despite being ousted from major towns and cities in recent years. A double bombing near the presidential palace in Mogadishu killed at least 20 people last month just weeks after an attack on a religious center in a central region killed 15. And in Kabul this week, a Taliban suicide bombing killed an American and an Indian, plus two others.

Blurred lines. The apparent resilience of these groups could be partly due to their willingness to collaborate. Local al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab, for instance, deepened its ties with militants in nearby Tanzania as Somali authorities cracked down at home. On a separate continent, Russia’s Federal Security Service recently warned that the Islamic State could merge with al-Qaida amid the Syrian- and U.S.-led offensives — a tactic the group has reportedly tested before in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Such cooperation is old news for security services in Pakistan, where analysts believe several terrorist organizations, particularly the Haqqani Group, have long coordinated with counterparts to maximize their effectiveness. 

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General view of police officers, emergency workers, and media at the scene of an explosion at a hotel complex in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb on January 15, 2019, in Kenya. – A huge blast followed by a gun battle rocked an upmarket hotel and office complex in Nairobi on January 15, 2018, causing casualties, in an attack claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab Islamist group.

Source LUIS TATO/Getty

Shifting focus? Potentially troubling for global anti-terrorism efforts is Washington’s recent pivot toward planning for more traditional warfare against state actors. Last year, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis cited China and Russia as the country’s greatest threats, while the Pentagon’s reportedly prioritizing investment in space technology and artificial intelligence. Afghan officials are undoubtedly worried about President Donald Trump’s plan to pull some 7,000 U.S. troops from their country. So far, though, little has changed on the ground: After all, the American troops targeted in this week’s Syria bombing were on patrol, while their planned withdrawal doesn’t seem to be speeding up. Meanwhile, there are still more than 1,000 U.S. troops in Africa — from Niger to Djibouti —  training local forces and sometimes even venturing into the field alongside them.

Picking up the slack. Where American forces do cut back, Washington’s allies may need to devote more of their own resources to tackle terror threats. France has already signaled that it will retain its military presence in Syria after the U.S. withdraws. That’s in addition to its ongoing operations in Mali and several other countries around the southern Sahara, where French and African troops are fighting jihadists across wide swathes of desert. And despite a steady decline in Islamic State-related attacks in the Middle East, experts say the group has actually shifted its resources to North and Sub-Saharan Africa. That might partly explain why Nigeria remains the third-most terrorized country, according to the Global Terrorism Index, while Somalia and Egypt clocked the highest increases in terrorism deaths in 2017.

WHAT TO READ

Early Withdrawal Will Lead to More Terrorism, by Bruce Hoffman and Seth G. Jones in The Wall Street Journal 

“Surprise and shock are terrorists’ age-old stock in trade. If terrorism were predictable, it would lose the power that makes it the preferred tactic of America’s most intractable enemies.”

The New Face of Terrorism in 2019, by Vera Mironova in Foreign Policy

“The real threat increasingly comes from further east. In the former Soviet states and beyond, militants who once harbored mostly local grievances are turning their attention to the West.”

WHAT TO WATCH

How the Nairobi Terrorist Attack Unfolded

“It sounded like the way a tire would burst, basically. Like 10 of them. Ten tires bursting at the same time.”

Watch on The Guardian on YouTube: 

The Future of Extremism After the Fall of ISIS

“The social incubator is still there. The insecurity is still there. It takes only one person to radicalize a whole village.” 

Watch on the Heritage Foundation on YouTube: 

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Positive trend. Europe experienced the highest year-on-year decrease in terrorism deaths, with the total falling 75 percent between 2016 and 2017. France, Germany and Belgium were among the beneficiaries of that trend  — though Spain posted an increase in that same period (thanks to the August 2017 attacks in Barcelona).

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