Current Situation: Trump to affect militancy trends
Since his inauguration, US President Donald Trump made several statements regarding the need to take “stricter measures” against jihadist militancy trends, remarks which will potentially mark a shift towards a more proactive policy in fighting Sunni jihadist militant groups. Furthermore, on January 27 President Trump issued an executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, namely Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq from entering the US.
In response, according to Iran’s official news agency, the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated that Iran will resort to a “counter action” against Trump’s executive order, and will possibly ban the entry of US nationals to the Islamic Republic. In addition, on January 30, the Iraqi parliament passed recommendations calling on the government to enact reciprocal measures against US citizens following the American implementation of a travel ban on Iraqi citizens. Moreover, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), composed of multiple pro-government Shiite militias, called on the government to ban US nationals from entering Iraq, as well as expel those already in the country.
Meanwhile on January 30, the Pakistan government placed Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Islamic Jamaat-ud-Dawa group, under house arrest in Lahore, invoking provisions of the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act. India alleges Saeed and his organization, widely regarded as the political wing of the Lakshar-e-Taiba militant group, was behind militant attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, which killed at least 164 people. Saeed subsequently alleged that pressure from the Trump administration, in tandem with the Indian government, was responsible for his arrest. Protests over the arrest have been reported by the JuD in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi between January 30 and February 1.
In an open letter to President Trump written on January 25, the Afghan Taliban called on the new administration to accept defeat at the hands of the group in Afghanistan and to withdraw American troops from the country. The United States increased the frequency of air strikes in Afghanistan by 40 percent in 2016.
Assessments & Forecast
The potential shift in policy of the US will likely be implemented in two different forms, namely direct and indirect counter-militancy involvement. In this context, countries such as Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, which have seen widespread Jihadist militant trends, but lack a unified and stable government to confront it, will likely see an increase in direct US military measures against Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and similar groups. While these countries already witness direct US military action to varying degrees, these are liable to expand in scope, frequency and means in the coming weeks and months. This will mainly manifest in increased airstrikes and likewise affect special operation forces’ missions as well as, potentially, other limited ground operations, as underscored by the rare January 29 raid in Yemen’s Bayda Governorate, which targeted militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Other countries which face an underlying and persistent threat of Jihadist militancy but are still stable and maintain positive relations with the US, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, will likely receive increased support from the US to assist in operations to counter militancy trends. This will likely be come about in training, advising and the providing of material aid meant to support domestic anti-IS efforts.
Meanwhile, the January 27 executive order, popularly called and perceived as an “anti-Muslim ban”, has triggered widespread discontent throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Despite already resulting in threats for reciprocal measures by Iran and Iraq, neither they nor Sudan, the only countries on the list which could actually enforce such measures, are likely to implement them due to the resultant economic and political damage that would be associated with counter measures. The other countries, namely Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen lack a central government that would be able to enforce a ban of entrance on US nationals.
Similarly, while African Union (AU) leaders publicly denounced the inclusion of three of its member states in Trump’s executive order, the AU is unlikely to take any form of collective action against the US in response to the action given the close economic, commercial, and military ties between the US and many AU member states. For instance, countries of the Lake Chad region, namely Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, rely on the US military for logistical support in combating militancy from jihadist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Furthermore, Sub-Saharan African governments are especially unlikely to retaliate in any way to Trump’s recent executive action given that the order itself will likely have little to no impact on US foreign policy in the region.
Additionally, Trump’s actions are liable to increase anti-American sentiments throughout the Arab and Muslim world, which will likely result in protests near American-linked facilities, as well as harassment of Americans, or Westerners mistakenly perceived to be Americans, by both authorities and the general populace. In Pakistan, this threat remains particularly elevated, in light of the recent arrest of JuD leader Hafiz Saeed in Lahore over alleged pressure from the Trump administration. Consequently, the significant risk to Americans and Westerners in general is likely to persist during future protest rallies that Islamist groups such as the JuD may hold in major cities in the country over the coming days. Moreover, we assess that heightened sensitivities over the issue may potentially manifest in localized violence at these protests
Meanwhile, citizens of Sub-Saharan African countries with Muslim majorities or significant Muslim minority populations not mentioned in the executive order, including, but not limited to, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal, may also view the action as a broad “Muslim ban.” However, given precedent, as well as their exclusion from Trump’s executive order, negative public sentiment on the issue is likely to be somewhat tempered in those countries. As such, while the risk of outright violence aimed at U.S. facilities or citizens in those countries cannot be ruled out in this context, such violence or unrest is unlikely to transpire in Sub-Saharan African states to which Trump’s executive order does not apply.
Lastly, Sunni Jihadist groups such as IS and al-Qaeda are liable to separately capitalize on Trump’s action and rhetoric to garner support and continue Jihadists militancy trends by increasing their influence among Muslims throughout the world, including those residing in Europe and North America. Indeed, in an al-Qaeda publication recently uploaded to social media, the group cites the abovementioned January 29 operation in Yemen, framing the collateral damage from the mission as proof that the US continues to deliberately target non-combatants, including women and children, while warning and taunting President Trump, referring to him as “stupid”, that he will leave his post having failed to achieve his counterinsurgency goals.
In this context, these groups will likely invest even further in similar such publications, as well as videos, speeches, magazines and other propaganda outlets to display the West, led by the US, as directly attacking innocent Muslims. This will be intended to prioritize broadening IS and al-Qaeda’s support network in the West rather than recruitment for operations in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa. This, in turn, will be aimed to facilitate two types of operations in the West- smaller scale and more frequent “lone-wolf” attacks by Muslims inspired by the Sunni Jihadist groups, as well as the less common and larger scale attacks directly ordered, supplied and funded by the central organization which will rely on established networks of support for safe houses, intelligence collection and similar efforts.
Given the recent open letter from the Taliban directed to President Trump, militants in Afghanistan are wont to appear eager to meet any new direct military challenge. This would likely result in an uptick in militancy trends and attacks targeting American and western installations, as has already been seen in 2016 against US military bases and the American University. Additionally, as previously assessed, increased joint US-Afghan operations against militant targets usually result in an increased militant presence in the neighboring border regions of Pakistan, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan. Should counter-militancy trends operations increase in frequency under a more comprehensive and aggressive White House plan, this would therefore be liable to push militants operating in the porous border region back into Pakistan, which would likely result in an uptick of militant activity in Pakistan’s periphery.
US nationals and Westerners operating or residing in Muslim-majority countries throughout the world are advised to maintain a lower profile and remain cognizant of militancy trends at this time given the possibility of increased animosity due to the perceived anti-Muslim position of the US government. In such countries, It is advised to remain cognizant of the increased potential for militant attacks, while practicing extra vigilance near US diplomatic missions, as well as other Western, or western-allied diplomatic missions, interests and locations which may draw or be frequented by westerners or foreigners and therefore represent high value targets. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.