The territorial defeat of ISIS in March 2019 was a significant victory in the fight against terrorism, but the struggle to defeat violent extremism is far from over. Ambassador Edmund Fitton-Brown and Charles Lister join guest host Gerald Feierstein to discuss the latest developments in policy to combat regional terrorist threats.
Gerald Feierstein [00:00:10] Welcome to Middle East Focus. I'm Jerry Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute, filling in this week for vacationing Alistair Taylor. The territorial defeat of ISIS's self-declared caliphate in March 2019 was a significant victory in the fight against terrorism. But the struggle to defeat violent extremism is far from over. The ISIS threat itself remains an urgent challenge and has metastasized throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Gerald Feierstein [00:00:42] Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has learned lessons from the past and has adapted its operations to fit within existing — and likely intractable — local conflicts. And Iran has built its regional strategy around local affiliates — some designated as terrorist organizations — to become permanent fixtures in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. There's a lot to talk about in this field, and here today to discuss these developments are two of the leading experts on the global terrorist challenge. Ambassador Edmund Fitton-Brown is the co-ordinator of the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Daesh, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated individuals groups undertakings and entities. He previously served as Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen from 2015 until 2017. Charles Lister is a senior fellow and the director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program here at the Middle East Institute. Charles focuses primarily on the conflict in Syria and on issues of terrorism and insurgency across the Levant. Prior to this Charles was visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha and a senior consultant to the multinationally backed Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative. Gentlemen, thank you both for coming today's podcast. Edmund let me start with you. An ISIS video in early May showed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the first time in years administering what ISIS was trying to demonstrate as an ever-expanding global organization. What does this mean in terms of that organization's durability? Has it abandoned the idea of controlling territory and converting or reverting to a pure terrorist organization?
Edmund Fitton-Brown [00:02:48] Well I think Baghdadi had a long time to think about this, and ISIL had a long time to think and plan about the day after once they had been militarily defeated in both Iraq and Syria because this was a long time coming. The defeat in Iraq was 2017. It took it took longer in Syria. And of course this is a planning organization, an organization with a brain and with a habit of planning. So what we saw I think in the video was something that had been coming for a long time. They didn't want to do it until after the fall of Baghuz in March. But once that had happened and it was a question of setting out their stall for the continuing relevance of ISIL after Baghuz, it made sense that this would happen and they would take the, you know, the risks inherent in doing it. They obviously felt that that was worthwhile, and they wanted to say that the project had moved on to a new phase, that they couldn't be defeated unless they gave up, and that this would be kept alive, and that there were one or two sort of interesting features of this which showed that they wanted to sort of show Turkey province reference. They wanted to sort of stress their global relevance. There was an afterthought reference to the attacks in Sri Lanka which again clearly happened at a moment where they were just able to squeeze that in before they broadcast and they clearly felt that that was a very important example for ISIL of its ability to continue to carry out attacks even after the fall of Baghuz.
Gerald Feierstein [00:04:28] And was there any surprise about Baghdadi himself that he suddenly reappeared after all this time?
Edmund Fitton-Brown [00:04:35] We had understood based on our contacts with member states that he was still alive, that he was still the leader. We had some sense that he was probably broadly in the core area. We don't know for sure, of course. I don't think anybody knows for sure but there's a fairly strong presumption that he's in Iraq somewhere. For him it's a calculated risk to appear. But I think for the purpose of communicating at what is obviously a critical period of transition you can see why he calculated that it was worthwhile.
Gerald Feierstein [00:05:09] Okay thanks. And Charles, al-Qaeda loyalists have regrouped in northwestern Syria and remain engaged in the fight against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. Can al-Qaeda regain its position as the face of the Sunni resistance to the Damascus regime? And what does it mean in terms of the fighting that's going on in the Northwest these days? What is the impact on the civilian population?
Charles Lister [00:05:41] I mean first off the escalation in northwestern Syria has been horrendous. We've seen I think over 300 people killed, over 300,000 displaced, some 20 schools targeted in targeted airstrikes, at least 50 medical facilities taken out of action. And so the humanitarian impact is immeasurable. It's huge and it was always going to be. Cramming three million people into three or four percent of Syrian territory was always going to result in a humanitarian catastrophe even though in Russia's parlance this is still a limited operation in terms of the al-Qaeda dynamic. I mean al-Qaeda has, as I would actually say, struggled a little bit over the last few years in Syria. Its original strategy was to embed very deeply into the revolutionary fabric to become a representative of the mainstream but albeit a jihadist representative of the mainstream. And over the years its ability to do that was limited over and over again. Syrians voted with their feet and said, "No, we distrust the name al-Qaeda, we distrust the brand, and we'll never, you know, entertain that kind of unity." And as a result of that it's actually ended up, de facto I think, in my opinion, losing control of its main affiliate. It used to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra, now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This is an organization that, for want of a better term, is pursuing a nationalistic jihadist project. Now it maintains very much the same ideology, but it is limiting that to within the boundaries of a nation-state, which is a controversial concept within the global jihadist community. Al-Qaeda loyalists, on the other hand, have sort of broken away from that affiliate project. Zawahiri as the global leader has instructed all of his affiliates, but specifically to Syria, to forego territorial control. Don't invest in governance. Don't invest in, you know, teaching the sharia on a political level and instead to go back to a kind of Bin Laden model of being an elite military vanguard. That's what they're pursuing. They are doing it against the Assad regime and Russia and Iran. But they are not doing it in a way that in my view, again, and in many Syrians' opinions, means that they are a representative of the revolution of the anti-Assad movement. They are still very much a clique on the far fringes, albeit a very capable and a very potent one. The last thing I'll say is that the danger, of course, is that we do have this HTS dynamic, which looks a lot like the Taliban in Afghanistan, frankly a kind of Syrian version. And we have this smaller clique of al-Qaeda loyalists who have a global view —very outwardly have a global view. Without wanting to draw as strict a parallel, that does look like Afghanistan before 9/11, where you have a nationalistic jihadist movement Taliban or HTS. And swimming within their circles in what I think was an awkward relationship we have al-Qaeda, who does have one eye on the far enemy. And so the danger, of course, is that we have two very different but somewhat complementary challenges to face down. Both of them are equally out challenging, and frankly the U.S. and much of the international community have very little that we can actually do to tackle those challenges.
Gerald Feierstein [00:08:55] Which leads me to another question, Edmund, and drawing both on your current experience but also your background in Yemen the subject of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and where we see AQAP today what their goals and objectives are: Have they been able for example to make the adjustment? We talked a little bit before in the introduction about how these organizations are adjusting to operations in areas of conflict, probably intractable conflict. Has AQAP been able to do that in Yemen, caught in a sense in the middle between the regime, the Hadi government, and the Houthis, who at least on paper declare themselves to be opposed to al-Qaeda. So how do you see that situation and even beyond that? Do you see AQAP still harboring ambitions to be a global jihadist organization to regain their status as the most dangerous AQ affiliate, or have they pulled in and become more of a national and local group that is really focused on the situation in Yemen?
Edmund Fitton-Brown [00:10:18] I think it's important to stress, as you imply, that the dynamics of Yemen are quite specific. So a lot of the factors operating here are linked with the prolonged civil war, the prolonged humanitarian crisis, and some of the international dimensions of the conflict. AQAP, of course, was regarded as, again as you say, major threat, a leading franchise of al-Qaeda long before the Yemeni civil war reached this sort of critical phase in 2015. And so we've seen it go through a number of iterations, and those have included a couple of iterations of occupying territory and then being thrown out of that territory, and they've never quite resolved this. You know, what are they for? You know, are they are supposed to be trying to be a force on the ground in Yemen? But then, of course, that makes them vulnerable. It makes them easy to locate. Or are they primarily supposed to be doing something external to Yemen, projecting some kind of threat? And I don't think they've entirely resolved that. And the fact that they went through the McCullough experience after they'd already previously been through the experience of holding and then losing territory and taking a lot of casualties in the process shows that they've never quite resolved this couple of key things that have happened. One of them of course is the death of Asiri the master bomb maker, which we date in late 2017. It took a while for this to be confirmed, but I don't think anybody doubts any longer that he is dead. Now of course he really did personify the IED threat from Yemen. So much of the concern that existed in the international community was about the threat to civil aviation. And this guy was an exceptionally talented technician. Question is, what has that done to the ability of AQAP to project a threat against international civil aviation? I think probably that he was unable to hand on his skills. Certainly in the kind of the quality that he had I think we have to conclude that that threat has been reduced. But another thing also that has happened has been — and this varies between different arenas around the world — whether al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates are able to tolerate each other or not. And in Yemen it's very clear that they can't tolerate each other. And it's hard to be clear about why that is. I think part of it is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a much more sophisticated history of embedding itself in the tribes of becoming accepted broadly accepted across wide swathes of Yemen so that it never alienated the population, whereas ISIS is more aggressive. It seems that the ISIS philosophy just doesn't command a great deal of sympathy or support in Yemen. Nevertheless rather than concluding that there's enough space for both of them they choose to knock lumps out of each other. And I think this has genuinely weakened both of them. I think I.S. Yemen is not strong at all, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has certain strengths. It's certainly very well embedded. It has links into civil society, into the tribes. It's pretty adept at creating those connections, but because it's been focusing on infighting I think it's also been further weakened. We understand that they are worried about their internal security as well. When you bring all of these factors together, I think that for the moment — and of course one can never say that these things will not revive and we mustn't be complacent — but for the moment I think AQAP poses a much-diminished threat.
Gerald Feierstein [00:14:22] The idea of embedding themselves into the local culture, into local tribal organizations of course predates the arrival of AQAP in Yemen, although it was much easier for them in Yemen because so many of them actually did have family roots there. But you can look back of course to Afghanistan and how they established themselves when bin Laden left Sudan and transitioned to Afghanistan and the intermarriage with Afghan families and of course has a lot to do with the close relationship between the Taliban and AQ that persisted certainly through the 9/11 episode. And so now of course we are talking to the Taliban. There is some question about whether or not there may be a deal that would allow the Taliban in some way to reintegrate into Afghan political life. And the big question I think that people are asking themselves because certainly one would assume that one of the prices for admission for the Taliban would be a clear break with AQ. And how do you see that, given your following of the Afghan situation? Is that plausible?
Edmund Fitton-Brown [00:15:38] I think we have to explore every opportunity. I mean, this is a war that has dragged on for a very long time and caused a great deal of misery. From the point of view of my role, the 1988 committee, to which the monitoring team works, wants to make itself as helpful as possible to anything which encourages peace and stability in Afghanistan. For example, the committee has approved travel ban exemptions to enable Taliban negotiators to travel for the purpose of peace talks. And this is a useful thing to do. It's helpful. Of course nobody says that this is easy, and the other side of our work is that we are responsible for the threat assessment from ISIL and al-Qaeda, and we are responsible for writing an annual report on the situation in Afghanistan and particularly as it pertains to the Taliban and what the Taliban is doing. And that report which we write is not prettied up at all. So we recognize that the Taliban is an extremely aggressive organization, maybe a somewhat internally divided organization but nevertheless with a very high level of discipline and therefore able to function effectively. And it has pursued very aggressive policies in spite of the continuing peace talks, including launching a very vicious fighting season this spring. Now I think what the U.S. is trying to do, and what we strongly support the U.S. in trying to do, is to create the conditions for an Afghan-Afghan peace process. And that is, I think, what everybody wants. But the U.S. can create certain initial groundwork upon which that can then succeed. And I think that the dynamic impact of the new U.S. policy and of Ambassador Khalilzad has been very clear. It's very clearly driven a belief in Afghanistan, which I've perceived whenever I visited, that this peace process is happening, however difficult it is. But that's the second part of it. It is very difficult, and for it ultimately to be successful the Taliban will have to be willing to make certain compromises. And that's where our slightly more hard-nosed analysis comes in. And we have to say honestly we don't yet see the Taliban making any clear compromises.
Gerald Feierstein [00:18:07] Charles, we've talked a little extensively now about Sunni extremist organizations. We really haven't touched on the other side, particularly on Hezbollah. And so question of where you see Hezbollah going. Rich Armitage we all remember back in the day referred to them as the A-team of global terrorism. What do we see as the future for that organization in a post-Syria conflict era?
Charles Lister [00:18:37] Well, it's a good question. It's a question that's difficult to answer at this period because, I mean, there's so much claims and counterclaims going on around right now in terms of the effect or lack of effect of U.S. sanctions, not just on Iran but on Hezbollah. And frankly I don't think there's a lot of agreement, and I haven't seen at least in the open source a great deal of evidence either way. My impression is that, yes, sanctions are having an effect, but Hezbollah's ability if it needed to be a significant player in Syria or anywhere else in the region is still probably there. Talking to people who are on the ground, talking to people in Lebanon who are extensively well connected with Hezbollah: Yes, they're concerned about salaries. They're concerned about their ability to provide the same level of, sort of, social services to their support community is again still there. But I think if Iran and Hezbollah together — and today they do come as a package — had a strategic need to be somewhere or to be doing something, I still think they have the capacity to do that. Some of the people who are suggesting that Hezbollah has really suffered in recent months are using Syria as the case study. I do think, I mean, certainly when we're looking at the escalation of violence in Idlib, for example, the Iranians have made it very clear in fact. They made it clear to Russia in February this year that Iran and none of its proxies or partners would play a role in an Idlib offensive. I don't think that was an economic reason. It's just simply not a strategic zone or theater of operation for Iranian interests or for Hezbollah's interests. Where we have seen Hezbollah deploy more heavily is in central Syria. But that's an area that gets no headlines but central Syria is seeing an ISIS resurgence in regime-held areas and Hezbollah is manning and coordinating a lot of those front lines, albeit frontlines that are aiming at containment right now, not offense. But they've certainly reinforced their positions there, so they haven't gone away. But the mission in Syria has shifted. But I think what we've seen in Yemen, for example, is that Hezbollah has played a role in training and facilitating Houthi and Iranian interests in Yemen. There was a lot of speculation about that very early on. But I think we know that with pretty good confidence now that Hezbollah has been playing a role. So regionally I think the most interesting thing is we've seen Hezbollah become almost as capable in some respects as Iran in actually sending out specialists to theaters of conflict and playing very much the same role that the Quds Force has been playing, but complementarily. And again, as I say, if there's a strategic need to do that, I haven't seen any evidence to suggest they can't today. If sanctions continue to bite who knows. But it's very hard to predict. If talk of the town in D.C. right now is that eventually they're all going to be U.S.-Iranian negotiations again, some of those sanctions will presumably be pulled back, and then Hezbollah will be more free to do some of the things that it may want to do. So the future is uncertain, but I haven't seen anything dramatic shift, at least not yet.
Gerald Feierstein [00:21:27] Well, there's a thought. And I'm afraid that that's the last word. That's all we have time for today. I want to thank our two guests, Ambassador Edmund Fitton Brown and Charles Lister, for joining us for this conversation. And to our listeners: If you enjoy this program, please be sure to subscribe and share it with your friends. You can send us comments on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next week.