Key Reflections

* The global terrorist threat in non-conflict zones is comparatively low due to counter-terrorism cooperation and the pandemic, which has limited people’s travel. However, it is important to avoid complacency. 

* The threats in conflict zones remain at serious levels, and affiliates of ISIS and al- Qaeda are able to exploit safe havens in conflict zones, which could lead to the regeneration of their operational capabilities.

* The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is ominous for the international community and potentially beneficial for al-Qaeda who have adopted a mode of strategic patience and are growing in confidence.

* The Haqqani Network is committed to the strategic interests of the Taliban, but it has the operational and tactical autonomy to pursue its own strategic objectives.

* Al-Qaeda is embedded in conflict zones and getting involved in various regional and local conflicts such as in the Sahel and western parts of Africa.

* The camps and prisons in north-eastern Syria for ISIS fighters and their families are not strong or well-fortified. Prison breakouts serve as an important propaganda tool for ISIS.


SG – Dr. Sajjan Gohel

EFB – Edmund Fitton-Brown

SG: Hello, and welcome to DEEP Dive, brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. Each episode, we speak to experts and practitioners in international security and defence, counter-terrorism, and geopolitical current events to gain insight into the most pressing matters of global affairs.

In this episode, we speak to Edmund Fitton-Brown who is the Coordinator of the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team. His remit focuses on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, as well as associated individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities. Edmund previously served as the British Ambassador to Yemen and has had postings in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Italy, and Finland. 

Please note, this podcast was recorded just prior to the U.S. military counter-terrorism operation in Syria that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, which occurred on 3 February 2022

Edmund Fitton-Brown, we are most fortunate to have you join us for NATO DEEP Dive, thank you very much. 

EFB: Most, most welcome. Good to be here.

SG: It’s a pleasure for us to have you. You’re the coordinator of the UN analytical support and sanctions monitoring team, which concerns ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban. Although I appreciate no two days are ever going to be the same in your work, what does an average day entail for you?

EFB: Well, it’s changed a little bit, because of the pandemic, as I guess has been true for so many people and their work. If you’d asked me this question, before the pandemic, I would have said, well, a typical day in New York as opposed to a typical day overseas. And, you know, be sort of 50/50 as to whether I would be in New York or overseas. Nowadays, we’re not travelling as much. We’re travelling more now than we were during the worst of the pandemic, but there was a prolonged period when it was very difficult to travel as you can imagine. 

So, I’ll take that question as assuming that it’s a normal day in New York. And a normal day in New York would involve a combination of duties. These days, of course, much of it online, but again, in pre-COVID times, more of it in person, I would be dealing, of course, with a certain amount of office work as everybody does, I would be managing my in-tray, which does take some time. But in terms of the more proactive side of the work, I would be attending committee meetings in the United Nations. And that would be perhaps meetings, which are our committees, the 1267 or the 1988 committees dealing with ISIL [ISIS] and al-Qaeda, or with the Taliban, or sometimes other committees or other UN fora. There are a lot of wider counter-terrorist fora in the UN, which I am involved in. 

I would be having contact with some of the member state delegates here in New York. And that might be on relatively technical matters, like for example, a proposal for somebody to be added or removed from the sanctions list or a proposal to make an amendment to somebody’s list entry on the sanctions list. Or it might be focused more on threat assessment, and it might be with some authorised briefer or some visitor to New York, who was able to talk to us about that member states perspective on the threat from ISIL, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban.

SG: Well, it just shows what a diverse array of things you have to deal with. And certainly, it’s clear that none of it is very mundane, it seems to be always keeping you active and having to focus on literally things as they’re unfolding globally.

EFB: Yes, that’s true. And I probably should say that as coordinator of the team, of course, some of my work is also to do with just helping to coordinate and manage the affairs of my fellow experts, the other members of the team, there are 10 of us in total, and I’m obviously the focal point who helps the others to interact with the UN or reinforces some of the work that they do with their own interlocutors.

SG: And in terms of the global security challenges in 2022, what do you expect is going to take up most of your time?

EFB: Yes, it’s a great question. 2022, I think, is going to be interesting from a number of points of view. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of it is where are we on the debate on the relative significance of counter-terrorism to other challenges and threats? And, you know, this has been coming for a while. I think probably because of the success that member states have had in the field of counter-terrorism, relative success, you know, of course, there’s a lot of bad stuff still out there. But compared to the days of 9/11, or the days of large-scale attacks in Europe, at the moment, we believe that the threat level in most non-conflict zones around the world — I mean most countries which are in a reasonably good state of prosperity and law and order — that threat is lower than it used to be. 

And so that has led to some people saying “well, perhaps ISIL and al-Qaeda have been defeated; perhaps we don’t need to do all this counter-terrorism any longer,” and that can lead to the sort of the “bring the troops home narrative,” it can lead to the sort of “oh that problem is over there, it’s not over here” narrative. And we want to caution against that. I mean, I’m not a Cassandra saying that it’s all about terrorism, and they’re out there, and they’re waiting to attack us again. I fully recognise that state resources are finite, I recognise that there are other priorities that member states have to deal with. And I don’t even claim that counter-terrorism is the most important priority that member states have to deal with. I’m perfectly open to arguments about geostrategic threats or about climate change or about goodness knows the pandemic has helped to put everything in some form of perspective for us. 

But what I would argue is that there’s a reason why the threat is low at the moment, it’s partly the pandemic, the pandemic has sort of muffled the threat, it’s limited people’s travel, its limited people gathering together, so there are fewer targets. And of course, when we get to a more normalised phase of dealing with the pandemic, we should expect that to some degree, that sort of muffling of the threat will lift off and the threat will increase somewhat. 

But the main point is that the defeat of the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria was a major blow to ISIL and it reduced ISIL’s capability. And al-Qaeda also has been under constant counter-terrorism pressure and that’s reduced al-Qaeda’s capability. But this has all been achieved through the application of hard work. Member states’ counter-terrorism agencies working closely together, and their law enforcement agencies working closely together, improved international cooperation in a whole range of relevant areas have helped us to reduce the threat in non-conflict zones. If we stop doing that, then that threat will reassert itself because the intent is clearly still there, we see plenty of evidence of that intent. 

And of course, the other point that we try to make in all of the reports that we publish, is that the problem in conflict zones is as serious as — perhaps more serious — than it’s ever been. And you can’t simply draw a line between the two and say, well, that’s over there and this is over here. What goes on in the conflict zone, ultimately will not stay in the conflict zone. And if affiliates of ISIL and al-Qaeda are able to exploit safe haven in conflict zones, over a prolonged period, that will inevitably lead to the regeneration of their international, directed, operational capability.

SG: Well, let’s look at that potential regeneration that you’re cautioning everyone about because it is important, as you said, that in conflict zones, in places where there’s insecurity, it’s also where terrorism could potentially breed and we’re at a critical juncture with al-Qaeda in terms of its future direction. There’s been much discussion that they could return to Afghanistan, but then there’s also the perspective that they’ve already been in Afghanistan and its fighters, the affiliated group, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, has been embedded with the Taliban. What do you think al-Qaeda’s goals are? Are they wanting to rebuild, reconstitute, lay low? Or are there concerning signs that perhaps with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that those ambitions that were once there for a much wider transnational objective could return?

EFB: I think the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is very ominous for the future ambitions and threat from al-Qaeda. I mean, ominous, from, from the point of view of the international community, not ominous for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda are, of course, delighted about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. And yes, I think, you know, you raise a really important point. The story over the last few years, has been more about ISIL, particularly over the last sort of seven/eight years, where ISIL rather eclipsed al-Qaeda and achieved things which al-Qaeda had not achieved. 

But al-Qaeda was in a sort of mode of strategic patience. It was looking to embed in conflict zones and to keep its narrative alive and, ultimately, to pose an international threat again, in the future. There’s no question that al-Qaeda has not renounced any of its previous ambitions. It’s still immensely proud of 9/11 as the largest terrorist attack, the most strategically successful terrorist attack that’s ever happened. And, of course, many of the attacks that it then mounted over the following decade or so, this is still very much who al-Qaeda is. And what they had done was that they had dismissed the ISIL experiment as premature and reckless. And they were, of course, very pleased when ISIL was militarily defeated during the period of 2017 through 2019. And they celebrated it loudly and said “we told you so” effectively. So, what they’re saying is that “our way is better, we will achieve all this and more, but we are patient in, in our, in our approach to achieving it.” 

And so, al-Qaeda had become a beast that largely lived in the conflict zones where it was embedding and getting involved in various regional and local conflicts. You know, one good example of that has been the al-Qaeda affiliated coalition, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), which is sort of, essentially Mali based in the Sahel in sort of the western part of Africa. And its whole approach has been to be a party to the various conflicts that exist in that part of the world, and gradually asserting its ideological importance and influence in that area. And, you know, we can see that over time we’ve seen coup d’état in Mali now, coup d’état in Burkina Faso, these are not directly related to the activities of JNIM, but what you have is weak jurisdictions in which it’s possible for an al-Qaeda affiliate like that, very intelligently to exploit the divisions that exist, and gradually to grow stronger and more influential. 

SG: It really does show how matters can proliferate globally.  You mentioned at the start of your previous point the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is very ominous for the international community as it could potentially further the ambitions of al-Qaeda primarily because the two remain allies. We seem to be in a situation where everything pivots to what may now unfold in the evolving situation in Afghanistan?

EFB: Now, then we come to the Afghanistan point that you raised, and you have this sudden change in Afghanistan. The Taliban and al-Qaeda, as you’ve pointed out, as we’ve said, are close allies, organically linked with each other, there’s intermarriage between the groups, there’s a very, very strong fellow feeling between the groups. And the Taliban have made no indications that they intend to suppress al-Qaeda, they’re supposed to under the Doha agreement, they’re supposed to ensure that Afghan soil is never again used for international terrorist purposes. And what the Taliban is essentially saying is, you know, “you can leave it to us, don’t worry, there won’t be a problem, we will make sure that nothing of that kind happens,” but they are unwilling to take any kind of coercive action against al-Qaeda. And of course, we immediately saw people like Amin ul-Haq, who is one of our sanctioned individuals, returning to his home in Nangarhar as soon as the Taliban took over. 

There’s a kind of confidence about al-Qaeda in being in Afghanistan now. They have one of their closest allies in Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani Network, one of the deputy leaders of the Taliban, and now the de facto interior minister of Afghanistan. So, they have a lot of top cover in Afghanistan now. That doesn’t mean to say that they will mount an attack, at least not in the near future, apart from anything else, they actually don’t currently have that capability. But they can now confidently regroup in Afghanistan, recruit, raise funds, train, I would expect to see people move back to Afghanistan. 

At the moment Ayman al-Zawahiri, we believe, is in Afghanistan. We only have proof of life for him up until early last year. And there’s another statement that’s issued from him recently, but it’s hard to know exactly what his current status is. We believe that he is unwell, but alive, still the leader of al-Qaeda, but not able to lead it in a very dynamic way. And we think that al-Qaeda will probably face a succession challenge fairly soon, when Zawahiri either dies or becomes too infirm to continue to lead al-Qaeda. We think that Saif al-Adel would be the successor to Ayman al-Zawahiri. And whereas before the summer, we thought that Saif al-Adel faced something of a dilemma over where he would base himself if he took over as the leader of al-Qaeda, we think that he would very likely go to Afghanistan in present circumstances. 

The one other thing I’ll just add on this is that the example of Afghanistan is also an inspiration to al-Qaeda and to a lesser extent, of course, ISIL and affiliated groups around the world. ISIL affiliated groups don’t like it, because they don’t like to see the rival brand doing well and they don’t like the Taliban because they consider the Taliban to be Godless nationalists. But even so, if you are essentially a sort of Salafi jihadi, who would love to have some sort of similar success in your arena to the one that the Taliban have had as a jihadi group in Afghanistan, then you would be somewhat inspired by what has happened, and the arena where that is most obviously troubling, is in Somalia, where al-Qaeda, excuse me, where al-Shabaab, which of course is an affiliate of al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab has loudly and repeatedly celebrated what’s happened in Afghanistan, and definitely sees a parallel with its own ambitions for increased power in Somalia.

SG: Well, you provided very important perspectives about how the Afghanistan dynamic has much wider ramifications and the examples you gave in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Mali, and then also in the Horn of Africa with Somalia, that raises a lot of concerns. There was something else also that you mentioned that I thought was so telling, in that you brought up the name of Amin ul-Haq, who was effectively like an intermediary for the Taliban and al-Qaeda during the 1990s. He was a friend of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. And you mentioned the al-Qaeda leader, the current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri is believed to be back now in Afghanistan, albeit perhaps with some health issues. I guess the thing I was curious about when you said that he is then being protected by elements such as the Haqqani Network. Sirajuddin Haqqani who is the Interior Minister in the Taliban regime, is the Haqqani Network critical to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s well-being in Afghanistan? as well as extending a wider to al-Qaeda and then potentially for the future to affiliated groups if they want to return to Afghanistan? So, I guess that is a two-part question, is Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, and is this very much down to the Haqqani Network?

EFB: Well, so the first thing I would say is that there’s no suggestion that Ayman al-Zawahiri has himself returned to Afghanistan, we don’t think his status has changed since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. We’ve always said that he was in the Afghan-Pakistan border area. We have always believed that he’s been in Afghanistan itself, but positioned in such a way that he was inaccessible, unlikely to be found or targeted, and able to move or escape if necessary. So, we don’t think that has changed. 

The question of who provides that assistance to him, that coverage, yes, we have always said that the Haqqani Network is the most important liaison point within the Taliban with al-Qaeda. And it makes sense that they have a role in securing Ayman al-Zawahiri, but I don’t know in detail, again, this is one of those things that is a remarkable thing that Zawahiri has survived as long as he has given that he’s the leader of such a notorious group, and that he was a leadership figure even at the time of 9/11. So, you know, he must be one of the biggest targets for counter-terrorism around the world. So, there’s been a need to keep him safe. And I think, you know, Afghanistan is complex. You’ve got within Afghanistan, even within the Taliban, you have a number of different groups and factions. The Haqqani Network, obviously, being one of the most important and certainly the most important with regard to al-Qaeda. But how they actually manage the interface with Zawahiri and keeping him safe, we don’t know, and I guess that’s a fairly well-kept secret.

SG: Yes, and it’s one thing that’s always been curious about al-Zawahiri is that his ability to keep himself safe seems to be of paramount importance, whereas other al- Qaeda leaders, Osama bin Laden, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Tawfiq bin Attash, Abu Zubaydah, they were all found in urban centres inside Pakistan. But it’s interesting that you say that, with al-Zawahiri, he, for some reason, always wanted to keep himself in that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which there have been attempts to eliminate him in drone operations or other means, but he seems to have always been able to withstand any counter-terrorism operation. And maybe it’s only going to be age and ill health that ultimately will see his demise.

EFB: At the moment, it looks that way. Yes, I mean, and of course, because of this importance of staying safe, it means that messaging comes through in a very disjointed way. And you know, you see a message, you don’t know exactly when it was made, sometimes there’s a clue in it, you may remember that there was some messaging around Myanmar, which, at the time when it came out, and this is quite a while ago now, a year or so, it almost added to speculation about whether Zawahiri was either ill or dead, because it made no reference to recent changes in Myanmar and it could, it seemed, although it wasn’t specifically dated, the footage appeared to date it to be two or three years old and that made people think, well, if that’s the best they can do to sort of show his leadership, then they’ve got a real problem. 

Then more recently, of course, as I said, we’ve certainly seen proof of life as recent as January 2021. So, we believe he’s alive, but of course, he has a number of well-known medical complaints, including a heart complaint. And he’s having to exist in what must be physically quite difficult circumstances and stressful circumstances and of course, during COVID, he would have been at an extraordinarily high risk if he were to catch COVID. So, we’ve tended to see his mortality as being much more likely medical than kinetic.

SG: Absolutely. I have to ask this pedantic question, but what other health issues does he actually have?

EFB: I mean I couldn’t give you a full breakdown. I believe he’s diabetic, but I think there’s enough there with his age and with his heart complaint, to indicate somebody who is fragile.

SG: Absolutely. If we pivot to one of the other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and that is the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), they are an ISIS affiliate. And there seems to be much debate about this group, because on the one hand, they’ve definitely fought and clashed with elements of the Taliban and there is the perspective, they’re sworn enemies. But there also seems to be another school of thinking, which suggests that on occasions, there’s even been a degree of cooperation, because they are both ethnic Pashtun groups with tribal ties and connections. So, effectively, you could have cooperation one day, and then a bloodbath the next day. But it never seems very clear in understanding this Taliban-ISKP dynamic. Where do you stand on it?

EFB: Yes, and I think that’s a very well framed question and it’s an important one. The monitoring team has reported on this. And I think the reports I would particularly highlight would be the report that we published in, I think it was May of 2020. And that was on the Taliban and Afghanistan. And then additional comments that we made in the report published in January of 2021, which was a 1267 report on ISIL and al-Qaeda, obviously ISIL Khorasan [IS-KP] features in both of these, because it’s relevant to the Afghanistan reporting, and it’s also relevant to the global ISIL/al-Qaeda reporting, so we sort of covered it in both.

And in those earlier reports, we had some indications from member states of a very complex and sort of nuanced relationship between the Taliban and ISIL Khorasan. I mean, first of all, you’re absolutely right, in what you’ve said first of all, about the clashes between the two. I don’t think there’s any doubt that there is a strategic enmity between ISIL-K [IS-KP] and the Taliban. And certainly ISIL-K has killed members of the Taliban, since the Taliban has taken control in Afghanistan, and the Taliban has conducted operations against ISIL-K in which ISIL-K have also lost personnel. So, it is very important to say that there is a genuine rivalry or enmity between the groups.

But why do I say it’s complicated? Well, first of all, before the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, there was an element of a multi-sided conflict going on in Afghanistan, where the Taliban were rivals with ISIL-K, but they were both enemies of the government of Afghanistan and its international allies. And so, in a way, the Taliban benefited from ISIL-K operations that weakened the government of Afghanistan. And so that then, I think, as we covered in some of our earlier reports, led to question marks over some of the ISIL-K claims of responsibility for operations in Afghanistan at that time, because the Taliban had a highly developed capability to mount attacks, but it also had a political sensitivity of not wanting to be associated with civilian casualties. And ISIL-K had a limited operational capability, but no such qualms about killing civilians. And so, there were some attacks that took place during that period, which bore the operational hallmarks of a sophisticated terrorist group, a group with the capabilities of the Haqqani Network. And then they were claimed by ISIL-K, and we said in some of those reports that we were not satisfied that those were ISIL-K attacks and that they might have been Haqqani Network attacks, which then suited the Taliban to allow ISIL-K to claim. And of course, that’s one of the features of the Haqqani Network—its operational autonomy. It’s part of the Taliban, it’s committed to the strategic interests of the Taliban, but it has the operational autonomy, tactical autonomy to pursue Taliban strategic objectives by whatever means it judges to be necessary. So that was one aspect of this complexity. 

Another aspect was that there was some shift in the nature of ISIL-K or the emphasis of ISIL-K, which took place broadly over the period 2019-2020. And that was where it moved from being a ground holding franchise, primarily based in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, and with some presence elsewhere, and it lost that territory. It had sort of an outpost in Jowzjan province that was suppressed in 2018. Then in late 2019, it suffered severe defeats in Nangarhar province. Some of the ISIL-K people spilled over into Kunar Province, and then they were pretty badly hammered in Kunar province as well in early 2020, during the winter, very, very harsh climatic conditions. And all of that left ISIL-K reduced in numbers and also unable to hold territory, unable to sort of pursue its objectives in the way that it had been doing up until then, and there was also some leadership attrition. 

Then we saw the emergence of this new leader: Shahab al-Muhajir is the name by which he’s most widely known, Sanaullah is his given name that we have listed him under in the 1267 committee. Now, Shahab al-Muhajir had apparently been the leader of the ISIL-K’s attack cell or attack operations in Kabul, before he became the overall leader of ISIL-K. And ISIL-K shifted towards an emphasis on these urban attacks and particularly attacks in Kabul. And Shahab al-Muhajir, we’ve had reports from a number of member states, is himself a former member of the Haqqani Network. And it begs the question of, did that shift of emphasis of ISIL-K also serve some strategic objective of the Taliban? Again, I can’t give a clear answer to this question, but these are important factors that we ultimately, over time, will need to bottom out. The other thing I think that is clearly true, and I think widely accepted, because member states are divided on this, some see more of a possible overlap between the Haqqani Network and ISIL-K, and some don’t see it. But what most agree on is that there are a lot of guns for hire in Afghanistan, there are a lot of people who are essentially fighters or terrorist technicians, and they will work for whoever will pay them. And we certainly understood that there were some people who, at different times, worked for the Haqqani Network and worked for ISIL-K.

SG: It’s quite incredible; the murky hand of the Haqqani Network seems to touch so many different facets of extremism and terrorism and violence inside of Afghanistan. Does ISKP, in your assessment, take direction and guidance from ISIS core in Syria, or is there a separation, and it’s more just a franchise that may have a degree of ideological and tactical similarity?

EFB: It certainly does take an element of both guidance and support and even, I can allude to some instances of elements of command and control from ISIL core, but you’re right, it is a rather distinct affiliate of ISIL. And of course, this is an interesting feature of ISIL globally is that people who have been inspired by the ISIL message and then pledged allegiance often carry a very strong local flavour, and in some cases, ISIL core has not wanted to be associated with them. Best example of that, of course, was Abubakar Shekau and Boko Haram—Shekau’s attempts to court the favour of ISIL core were actually rebuffed. But then there are many other cases where those pledges of allegiance have been accepted. And I think this was ISIL core recognising that as it was losing militarily in Iraq and Syria, it had to try to secure its legacy by making sure that there were that there was a sort of global caliphate, the caliphate of the mind, or the online caliphate—there’s various different ways that it’s been described—that would keep things going. 

And, of course, a lot of what keeps ISIL’s message going at a time when it’s not able to mount significant attacks, particularly in non-conflict zones, a lot of it is based on the propaganda, the very sort of slick and sophisticated propaganda operation that ISIL has, and that itself feeds off the operations that are carried out in the most active affiliates. So, ISIL-K is a good example of that. The non-Shekau part of Boko Haram that became ISIL-West Africa Province, another good example of that. The very striking activities by the so-called Central Africa Province, which is operating in northern Mozambique, the attack on the town of Palma in March and April of 2021. 

So, in that respect, we acknowledge that ISIL core has loosened the reins and delegated a lot of authority for these franchises, these affiliates to just do their best. ISIL core has offered a structure for this as well, they’ve offered a sort of a hub and bespoke structure, so that some of the more developed affiliates serve as, if you like, outlying core support for some of the less developed what we might call the spokes in those regions. And so, examples of that would include, to the degree that I saw has a presence in the Maldives, it’s linked to the hub in Afghanistan rather than directly to ISIL core in Iraq or Syria.

So, coming back to ISIL-K—ISIL-K is very much a local manifestation in the first instance. It’s not primarily populated with people who have previously been in Iraq or Syria. It’s primarily Afghan and Pakistani. And the vast majority of the foreign terrorist fighters in ISIL-K are Pakistani. And of course, we can also make the obvious point about the border tribes and the fact that sometimes there’s a slight blurring even there, that these are these sort of border tribal people in some cases, who would not necessarily specifically identify as which side of the border that they come from. But throughout its iterations, it’s been interesting to see that ISIL-K has remained locally led, and primarily the biggest feeder group to ISIL-K has been the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP. And even after the fall of who was in Syria in 2019, when people talked a lot about the likely relocation of people from Iraq and Syria…actually, the numbers that have relocated from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan are very low; very few people have done that. And those that have come have not taken over the leadership of the group; the leadership of the group is still solidly Afghan/Pakistani. And of course, Dr. Shahab al-Muhajir himself is an Afghan, an Afghan national. So that by way of saying that it’s got a very strong local flavour, and also, it’s the hub of the, if you like, South Asian network of ISIL. 

Nevertheless, in the appointment of leaders of ISIL-K, certainly in several cases over the last few years, has been only made with the approval, the imprimatur of ISIL core. And ISIL core also provides some finance to ISIL-K, so there is an element of dependency and an element of authority there. And it’s an interesting question, of course, when you look at the ISIL-K approach to the Taliban since the change last year, ISIL-K clearly wanted to make a big statement of attacking the Taliban, they wanted to make a big statement of saying we are ISIL, and we expect to win, we expect that our ideology, our message will prevail. And in doing so, of course, they take a considerable risk, because ISIL-K is quite small, and the Taliban is very large, and now, of course, has the resources of a state at its disposal. So, it’s interesting to ask oneself, was there a debate within ISIL-K between those who are mindful of the responsibility to lead the South Asian network and those who are primarily concerned with Afghanistan? Were there people saying, “Don’t antagonise the Taliban, don’t make it more likely that the Taliban will wipe you out?” Because that would also wipe out an important function of ISIL globally. And I don’t know what that debate was, and I don’t know where it came out. But what we can say is that ISIL-K has adopted a remarkably confrontational approach.

SG: Well, it just demonstrates again how complicated the situation has become with the role of the ISIS franchise in Afghanistan, and you spoke about ISIS core, or ISIL core. In your assessment, where are we at with ISIS core now in Syria, because there was this very disturbing incident recently, where you had ISIS fighters trying to free ISIS prisoners from Hasakah in northeast Syria from a prison being run to house them. And it was a very bold and brazen attempt. And it seems that some several hundred may have actually managed to escape. Are we seeing signs of ISIS renewal? Or is this just an isolated moment?

EFB: Well, it’s an important moment, but, I think, not a watershed. First of all, it’s important to say that the precariousness of the holding arrangements in north-eastern Syria, both of the displaced persons camps, and of the prisons, like this one that was attacked…these are not strong, well-established facilities. In many cases, the facilities are somewhat improvised. And, of course, they’re under sort of a local management. And that brings obvious jurisdictional issues. The government of Syria and the government of Turkey would both have a lot to say about the legitimacy of those facilities. But the practical reality is that those, both the displaced persons and the prisoners, are being managed by the local authorities there, primarily Kurdish, known as the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

So, the monitoring team said in a number of our previous reports that these holding arrangements were precarious, and that it was to be expected that there would be jailbreaks and that there would be escapes and people leaving the camps. And so, I was not at all surprised by this incident. This is something that was very, very well-predicted and expected. So, we’re not saying that this is ISIL coming, demonstrating some unexpected capability—it was ISIL getting its act together, and deciding to go through with something that had been threatening to do for a long time. The main visible threat or the main sort of public threat was made by the ISIL spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who in several of his recent communiques had emphasised jailbreaks as being one of the big things that ISIL had to do. And there’s been this long-standing—going way back to when Baghdadi was still the head of ISIL—this emphasis on “we must free our imprisoned brothers and sisters.” So, this has been in the making for a long time. 

And, of course, the number of small breakout incidents that have taken place before this, although nothing on this scale before. But of course, there have been things on this scale outside the core area. There was a huge breakout in the DRC not so very long ago. So, this is a really well-established modus operandi that we’ve seen in a number of places around the world. I think the attraction of a jailbreak is that it’s very unsettling for whoever the jail or prison authorities are. And for that country, it’s sort of a massive statement of weakness and failure when a big jailbreak takes place. And of course, it creates chaos, because you then have an operation of trying to suppress the operation itself, trying to mop up the people who’ve escaped, and some of them, of course, inevitably do get away and do re-join terrorist groups. 

SG: Do the jail breaks then also serve another purpose, in that it helps to restore ISIS’s notoriety and provide it with the oxygen of publicity that it often seeks?

EFB: It’s great propaganda for ISIL. ISIL lives off its propaganda these days, because it can’t achieve all that much, particularly in non-conflict zones. It doesn’t get many headlines anymore these days, but something like this does get in headlines. And so, you can see the calculation that they were making, which was…the inhibition for them in mounting an ambitious jailbreak in north-eastern Syria is that they don’t have a very advanced capability to absorb people who get out because they don’t control territory any longer. And they also have only a limited capability to move people on and get them away to some safe haven. And so, if you get hundreds of people coming out, then inevitably, most of them will be either recaptured or killed. So that was one of the things that ISIL had to take into consideration in making its calculations over this. But they obviously concluded it was worth it anyway and that the pluses outweighed the minuses. Now, of course, they have lost people…recaptured or killed, a lot of people killed. But of course, they’ve also killed quite a few of the people who were managing the facility, the prison guards. And so, it’s been quite a blow for the SDF as well. And I think ISIL will see this as having been a net success for them. 

But I don’t think it speaks to an ISIL resurgence in Syria or, indeed, in Iraq. What we can say about the trajectory of ISIL operations in Iraq and Syria is that they remain active in both countries, at a slightly lower general level of activity than that was the case a couple of years ago. But they do remain active, they have a lot of people in Iraq and Syria, and their intention is to resurge in the longer term. But the calculation they make is that that resurgence will eventually be facilitated by the political difficulties that exist in different ways in both countries. So, I don’t think we can say that this incident says ISIL is back. I think ISIL is still in that phase of consolidation, before any possible future resurgence.

SG: To that point, then, how does one deal with the camps that exist in Syria, say, for example, like al-Hol, which, in many ways has become almost like a mini city, or small town even, which has grown exponentially in the last few years? It wasn’t meant to be permanent, but it effectively has been, and where you had children of ISIS fighters’ families, who have now become young adults and potentially radicalised—what can be done? Is there anything that can be done? Or is this just going to continue to have this kind of continuation without any resolution?

EFB: Well, it’s an extremely important issue, and it’s one on which the UN is very much engaged in providing as much assistance and also as much thought leadership as it can to help deal with an issue, which is a very serious issue, as you say. I think people underestimate the size of al-Hol. And I mean, obviously, we shouldn’t forget there are other camps as well, but al-Hol is rightly highlighted as being by far the largest. And this is an issue from a number of points of view. I mean…I think implicitly there, you’ve talked about the security issue of children growing into adults in horribly unsuitable circumstances. And what does that mean for the way that a person like that then views the rest of their life? 

But it’s really important to take the humanitarian dimension of this as well, because this is, in the end, al-Hol is a displaced persons camp, it is not a prison. And it’s very, very troubling that you have people in sort of a jurisdictional limbo like this. It is not clear what is going to happen to the people in that camp, ultimately. And the one thing I think that we’re all clear must not happen is that this must not just be allowed to be just a limbo indefinitely. So that comes to your question of what can be done, what is being done? And there’s the legal point here, of course, again…whatever is done has to be done both with the right humanitarian and human rights motivations and riders but also, fundamentally, legally, you have to process people legally according to due process. And a good deal has already been done. 

So, I don’t want to say that this is an issue that has been left to fester completely unaddressed—that would not be true. You were talking about the significant rise in the population of al-Hol, and yes, it did; it rose massively, especially in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghouz in March 2019. A lot of people moved from the territory that was previously held by the so-called caliphate and then found themselves in al-Hol camp, and it went massively over its intended capacity. And it’s still well over its intended capacity, but the population of the camp has reduced steadily over the last year or so. So, something is being done to deal with it. 

There have been a lot of repatriations that have taken place. These have been encouraged and supported by the UN, but some member states have been particularly active in this. Kazakhstan is an example of a member state that has been particularly proactive about bringing back family members from al-Hol and resettling in Kazakhstan. So work is being done on this, then you have other issues like enforcement issues within the camp. One of the most troubling things about al-Hol is that it’s very, very hard for the officials who administer the camp even to go inside it because of the kind of atmosphere of intimidation that exists inside the camp. And not everybody is in a hurry to bring back people who either have or have had their nationality. And then there may be issues over separating mothers from children, the issue of establishing the parentage of children. And once you overlay these issues with one another, and then add to that the complexity of COVID, which creates an additional practical difficulty in repatriation programmes. And then the fact that the question arises of, how do you get to al-Hol? How do you actually manage a consular interface with a place that is in sort of a jurisdictional limbo, in a part of Syria that is not controlled by the Syrian government? All of these things make it very difficult to address this issue. So yes, something is being done about it, but if you reframe your question to say, is enough being done quickly enough, then my answer is definitely not.

SG: Well, it’s important what you’re saying as to what is being done. And of course, this is going to be an ongoing challenge. And I can only just again express my appreciation for how much time you spent in talking to us, because I know how hard pressed you are. And I’m very grateful that you could provide such an important perspective on a variety of counter-terrorism issues, and also demonstrating the challenges that exist in 2022. So, thank you again so much for being with us today.

EFB: Thanks, Sajjan, it’s been a great pleasure. 

SG: And we look forward to having you again. 

EFB: Me too. 

SG: Thank you for listening to this episode of DEEP Dive. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. DEEP Dive is brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. The production and research team are Marcus Andreopoulos and Victoria Jones. For additional content, including full transcripts of each episode, please visit:

Disclaimer: Please note that the views, information, or opinions expressed in the DEEP Dive series are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of NATO or DEEP.