Edmund Fitton-Brown is the Coordinator of the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities. He previously served as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen from February 2015 until February 2017. Fitton-Brown joined the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1984 with his postings including Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Kuwait, Rome, and Helsinki. Follow @EFittonBrown

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the Easter Sunday 2019 terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

CTC: What role does the Monitoring Team play?

Fitton-Brown: Our mandate from the United Nations Security Council goes back to 1999 when sanctions were first imposed on the Taliban and al-Qa`ida, and then after 9/11, an analytical support and sanctions monitoring team was established to support the committee. Later, that evolved when they split the Taliban committee from al-Qa`ida and when they added ISIL to the al-Qa`ida committee. We’re an entity that is subordinate to the Security Council and specifically to the committees that deal with al-Qa`ida and ISIL and the Taliban. As part of that mandate, we have two essential functions: one of which is to provide a threat assessment report twice a year on ISIL, al-Qa`ida, and once a year on the Taliban. The other essential part of the mandate is the maintenance of the sanctions list and dealing with that business, the technical advice that’s required for member states and for the committee to add and remove individuals, entities, and groups from the sanctions list.

CTC: What is your process for making the threat assessment?

Fitton-Brown: We are specifically mandated by resolution to liaise in confidence with member states’ CT agencies. We do not conduct investigations; we do not run sources. Our job is quite tidily encapsulated within that consultation with member states, and more specifically their CT agencies, on the threat and on the sanctions list. And of course, the two go together because it tends to be the CT agencies that are the repositories of the relevant information, whether it’s about the threat or whether it’s about specific individuals. We also do supporting work. We’ll go to conferences, give addresses, interviews. We will train or participate in capacity-building to help member states’ officials implement the sanctions.

In terms of our main mandate, we collectively as a team decide where we need to go in order to answer the key outstanding questions of the day. So, for obvious reasons, given that we serve the 1988 Committeea as well, we visit Afghanistan frequently—maybe approximately three times a year. We are a group of only 10 experts, which means that our time is somewhat scarce, and global coverage is hard work. So, we don’t always get to countries as often as we would like. The kind of countries that we’re always keen to go to would be firstly countries that had outstandingly good insights into global terrorism, and that would obviously include, for example, the United States. We conduct regular consultations in Washington, which is a relatively easy thing to do when you’re based in New York. And then secondly, there are so many key countries [that] are either affected by terrorism or are very knowledgeable about terrorism—for example, the current chair of our committee, Indonesia. Pakistan would be another good example. Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, for example, would have particularly valuable insights for us in certain areas.

CTC: As you are interfacing with counterterrorism agencies in many member states, presumably the art in making your assessment is using your expertise to weigh up what would be sometimes differing and even conflicting assessments from different member states.

Fitton-Brown: Yes. We have to triangulate effectively, and we don’t use open-source but we’re informed by open-source. We obviously read pretty widely. As you know, in addition to  CTC Sentinel, there’s an awful lot of source material out there, and we have to have a clear understanding of what is in the public domain because we need a threshold where we say, “OK, this is what’s widely understood to be the case.” Then we need to establish from our confidential consultations whether it is, in fact, the case. But equally, we can’t be completely reliant upon a single member state because some member states may either have inaccurate understandings or may have politically driven perspectives.

Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator of the ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations

CTC: In its 23rd report submitted in December 2018, your Monitoring Team concluded that while the Islamic State still has the ability to inspire terrorism in the West, “for now the ISIL core lacks the capability to direct international attacks.”1 With the group recently losing its last small piece of territory in Syria and Iraq, does this optimism continue?

Fitton-Brown: I characterize it as qualified optimism and also a reminder, I think, to member states that there’s not going to be a world without terrorism. And they need to have an accurate understanding, and indeed their populations need to have an accurate understanding, of what success looks like in counterterrorism. Of course, a huge amount of effort went into the military defeat of ISIL, and perhaps because the CT community are professional pessimists and I lean that way myself, sometimes you almost have to force yourself not to allow yourself to be a lazy pessimist. I noticed that certain people said, “Ah, it’s terrible because now that ISIL have been defeated militarily, they’re really unpredictable. And everything is worse than it was.” Now, I was very keen for us accurately, based on the insights we’re given by member states—statistics and things of that sort—to issue a corrective of that, and say, “No, it’s not worse than it was. It’s better than it was.” People shouldn’t sound like nothing is ever good news. The defeat of ISIL militarily is incredibly good news both in terms of removing a monstrous pseudo-state from the face of the earth but it has also been a major boon for counterterrorism.

Now, what does that look like in detail? Yes, the threat is still there. Of course it is. We have to live with an ambient threat. That’s the modern world, I think. I don’t see that going away anytime soon, no matter how effectively member states or the international community conduct counterterrorism business.

The first key component of this reduced threat was that when ISIL had its back to the wall, starting really in 2017 and lasting all the way through 2018 and into 2019, they, for survival purposes, folded up their external terrorist attack planning capability in Iraq/Syria. That was, I think, essentially for survival purposes, but they also did it, I think, because they considered it was not very effective. Now, of course, how effective it was was probably a function of the circumstances in which it was operating. Its external attack apparatus probably was reasonably effective in 2015, to some degree in 2016. But as ISIL started to lose ground, to lose the planning space, the safe space in which to consider its global agenda and try and produce operational plans to support it, they started to see that function as ineffective.

When they were then facing being militarily eradicated in Iraq and subsequently in Syria, they made a conscious decision to wind it up, to fold it up, and to say, “that’s no longer something that we have to have as an essential function. There are other things that are essential functions: security, finance, logistics, doctrine, media, all these things. But that one we don’t need because we’ve just got to weather this storm.” Now, at the same time, there was massive attrition of senior ISIL figures; a lot of their operational planners, a lot of key figures in ISIL leadership were killed. And these two dynamics happening at the same time decimated their external operational planning capability. And if you look at the statistics for directed attacks by ISIL, the statistics in 2015 and 2016 compared to the statistics in 2017/2018, it can be statistically termed a collapse.

So, we’re in a position where ISIL at the moment is not capable of directing complex international attacks. Now, that’s not to say there won’t be ISIL attacks because there will be. But they’re likely to be inspired attacks. This is where the message is being put out online; the propaganda is saying, “Go ahead and do these various things.” It’s angry, radicalized individuals responding to something they’re seeing online.

CTC: So, in terms of having infrastructure on the ground in Syria/Iraq to plan international terror, there’s intelligence that’s come in indicating that the Islamic State wound that up.

Fitton-Brown: Yes. But of course, when you say “on the ground,” the question is “what ground?” They didn’t have much choice. They were losing ground. So, what you then have is this attempted shift from a pseudo-state to a covert, networked terrorist group/quasi-insurgency. They’re preparing to bed down. They’re preparing to be relatively less visible. But they’re also conscious—and this is very clear from what they say and the insights that we have into them—that they have to demonstrate relevance. In other words, they may have wrapped up one department for the purposes of survival—you sort of fit yourself for survival—but their aspiration still is the so-called ‘caliphate.’ They talk sometimes about it as the caliphate of the mind or the virtual caliphate.

They occasionally get optimistic about developments in different parts of the world. At one point, they talked about the caliphate of East Asia, about Marawi, hoping that the insurgency in the southern Philippines was going to gather momentum. But, all of the time, they are conscious that their credibility; their brand depends on showing some kind of success. So, they took a conscious decision to become reliant upon inspired attacks. But they also know that those inspired attacks are not at the level that they really need. This is where we get to the qualified optimism. The optimism says that at the moment, we have an operational lull in terms of international-directed attacks. The qualifier to the optimism is that they have an established ambition to resurrect that capability as and when they have the breathing space or the permissive operational space in which to do so. And in order to do it, of course, they have to reinvest, they have to rebuild that capability. But they’ve got people with experience, and therefore, the rebuilding of that capacity, given the right location and circumstances to do so securely, is absolutely to be expected.

CTC: And we know from studying the history of terrorism that it only takes a few skilled operatives— people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for example—to organize international terror attacks. And so, an international attack infrastructure can really sometimes only amount to a few individuals with access to the appropriate resources. Which brings us onto another qualifier to the optimism that is out there, namely the assessment in your 23rd report that the Islamic State still has access to $50 million to $300 million in funds, stored inside Syria and Iraq, smuggled outside of those countries, and invested in legitimate businesses.2 That’s a lot of money, which may allow the group to do lot of different things in the future, including resurrecting this global terror campaign, especially when you consider the 9/11 plot only cost only about $500,000.3

Fitton-Brown: Yes, and it’s a good segue because in both of these instances, both the operational capability and the finance, what ISIL faced inevitably was a massive grinding of gears to go from one model to another and under that intense military pressure in which people were being killed all around them. They were basically thinking, “How do we survive?” And at the same time, “How do we transfer into this new model.” Because they thought about “what do we need to do in order to survive? What do we need to do in order to be ready to resurge at some point?” So that grinding of gears also applied to the money. They had a lot of money, unprecedented amounts of money because of the kind of assets that they controlled. They then embarked on a process of trying to make sure that they were able to preserve some of that for future use. The billions of dollars that they had as a pseudo-state, of course, they also needed to spend because they were a pseudo-state with all the liabilities and all of the expenditures that that implies.

Of course, if you go to a different model, in which you don’t have to pay so many people, then you don’t have those liabilities and those financial responsibilities, and the question is “how much have you preserved and how accessible is it?” And I think it’s fair to say that the international perspective on this is not as well informed as it needs to be. In other words, the $50-$300 million figure that we give is a kind of triangulation of a number of member state estimates, kind of the best sort of narrowing down that we could do of what we understood to be quite widely varied estimates of member states. And you could perhaps say it’s somewhere in that range. Then there’s the whole question of where the money is. There is very little information on that apart from generic stuff such as information that it is invested in legitimate companies, invested in real estate, invested in agriculture, fisheries, automobile businesses, a whole range of other things, and also stored in caches.

CTC: What countries are they investing and storing this cash in?

Fitton-Brown: Within Syria and Iraq and outside. Money absolutely was moved outside as well. And caches of money and gold were transferred to other locations.

There’s also a question that arises over how far antiquities could be a continuing source of revenue for ISIL. The general consensus is they probably operated a sort of licensing system whereby people were allowed to take antiquities out and presumably store them somewhere outside Iraq and Syria. You might expect these items to emerge onto the world’s antique markets but not for a very long time, of course, because you can’t simply turn up somewhere with something that was recently looted from Iraq or Syria. But because some of what was taken was freshly excavated and therefore never catalogued, we don’t know the full extent of what’s out there. We also don’t know whether items of high value have been stored by ISIL themselves.

So, there are lots of questions when it comes to the question of ISIL finances, and the $50-$300 million really is quite an approximate estimate. The one thing I think we can say for sure is that for the purposes of directing international terrorism, it’s more than enough.

CTC: As you noted in your most recent report, there were over 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters who joined the so-called caliphate.4 These were historic, unprecedented numbers. Many were killed. Some have returned to where they came from. And some are still there. And some are now in other parts of the world, but there is an incomplete picture about where all the surviving foreign fighters are. Out of the 40,000, how many do you assess are still a potential threat?

Fitton-Brown: It’s really hard to estimate. We deliberately cited an example in our 23rd report from the Western Balkans because we thought it was quite instructive. You had approximately 1,000 who traveled to the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq and 100 reported killed, 300 returned and that was interesting because that suggested 600 unaccounted for. But of course, that doesn’t mean that those 600 out of the original 1,000 are all still alive.5

CTC: So, when you scale the Western Balkan numbers to the 40,000+ foreign fighters, it would be fair to assume that there are thousands of foreign fighters who are still a potential threat.

Fitton-Brown: Yes.


CTC: Or even tens of thousands?

Fitton-Brown: So, put it this way, I’ve never heard a credible allegation that three-quarters of these 40,000 plus people are dead. So, we must be talking about much more than 10,000 who are alive. In fact, between the people confirmed killed and the people who were killed but not confirmed—I think we must be talking about an attrition rate in terms of fatalities over a quarter. So, we could have anything up to nearly 30,000 who remain alive, but nobody knows the true figure.

CTC: And out of those who survived some have no doubt ‘retired,’ so to speak, and want no further part in all this. And so, it’s very difficult to assess how many are still a potential active threat. 

Fitton-Brown: Exactly. We don’t know how many have died. But we can assume that at least 50 percent survive. My personal guess is more, I think probably one would be looking at more like a one-third attrition rate or something of the sort. So, you’ve then got a lot of survivors.

But as you say, what does this mean in terms of future threat? And also, even if there’s future threat, how deferred is that future threat? Some people have talked of a blow-back ratio: what proportion of people get this sort of thing out of their system and never want anything more to do with it? And what proportion are hardened, determined, longer-term terrorists? And then also, at what point does that threat manifest? Because if there’s a prolonged term in detention, then maybe there’s no threat for a while, but maybe the threat doesn’t go away and it manifests when the person is released from prison. Or maybe the person goes into some sort of holding pattern, some kind of hiding. We talk about detainees. We talk about returnees. We talk about relocators. We talk about frustrated travelers, which is another category slightly outside this one, although they may be people who started off for the so-called caliphate but never got there. So, it’s a complicated picture. The message we’re trying to put across is that the best thing you can do is look at how this threat manifested from al-Qa`ida after the Taliban regime was toppled after 9/11, where you had the very same sort of combination of how many were killed, how many continued wanting to pose a threat, and then remember that the pool, the original pool in terms of numbers, is vastly higher with ISIL. So, one assumes the threat and the after effects are also significantly multiplied. And of course, we are still living with the aftermath of al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan now, 20 years on, which suggests that these effects that we’re talking about are things that we will be having to worry about as far ahead as, let’s say, 2040.

CTC: It’s a multigenerational threat. There’s a lull right now, as the Islamic State regroups, as al-Qa`ida figures out its next steps. But to assume that that lull will continue indefinitely would be far too optimistic, given that the surviving foreign fighters are potentially the officer class in future terror networks. And an officer class that is connected given all that mixing, the social bonds that were built up in Syria and Iraq by being on the ground together. We’re talking about people with the capability to murder and the organizational skills to pull it off on a significant scale.

Fitton-Brown: Yes, we’re talking about a generation of fighters with the credibility and credentials to make them leaders in the future.

CTC: In your December 2018 report, you assessed there were between 14,000 and 18,000 Islamic State ‘militants’ still active in Syria and Iraq total.6 Has there been downward pressure since?

Fitton-Brown: I think the answer is yes, almost certainly downward. And indeed, it was downward in the 23rd report from what we said in the 22nd report. And I think you can clearly see that with ISIL losing its last pockets of territory, the numbers must have reduced. But these numbers are very elusive. It’s striking how people studying this from a position of knowledge can actually differ sharply with each other about numbers. So, we have widely varying numbers about Syria and also about Iraq. And when we came, again, to that 14,000-18,000 range, it was a little bit like our $50 to $300 million assessment for its financial resources, it was a triangulation of figures, and that was what we considered to be credible across Iraq and Syria.

It also remains important to say, “Well, what is a fighter? And if a fighter ceases to be a fighter, is that a stable state or is that temporary?” So, fighter by one definition would have been when you were dealing with the Hajin pocket, these would have been people with guns, suicide vests, and whatnot fighting an active military campaign. But already in Iraq, it was a little different from that. Already, these were fighters who had gone back into a more covert environment, an environment in which they were looking to carry out a sort of terrorist campaign. And what we see, I think, in Syria is the same scenario that played out in Iraq in 2017 now playing out in Syria. And the evolution of ISIL in Iraq back into a covert network, that also now is what we’re seeing in Syria. I think we have been seeing it for a while. So, in Syria, you had this very much reduced presence of territorial control in the far east of the country. But already elsewhere, they’d started to go to ground and do what they were doing in Iraq. So now I think we will see more of this.

Now, if somebody’s put their gun down but has it stashed somewhere, are they still a fighter? By our definition, yes they are. So, we’re trying to use that; we’re trying not to get too hung up on the definitions. We sometimes say fighters. We sometimes say militants. We sometimes say sympathizers. We sometimes say members, whatever a member is. This is really tricky. I think we have to regard sympathizers as something different. But the fighter/militant/member/terrorist, those terms sort of morph one into the other. I wonder if, in fact, as we now put the military campaign behind us, I wonder if we just have to, in fact, use the word “terrorist.”

CTC: You noted in your most recent report, “ISIL is still led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with a small, dispersed, delegated leadership group, which is directing some fighters to return to Iraq to join the network there. This network is being established at the provincial level with a cellular structure mirroring the key functions covered by the central leadership. The objective is to survive, consolidate and resurge in the core area.” You also noted that surviving leaders are multitasking by taking up multiple functions.7 The picture is of group on the backfoot having to decentralize. How do you see all of this evolving in terms of the group’s structures, the way they’re led, the role of al-Baghdadi?

Fitton-Brown: It’s a really good question. I think it’s important that we recognize success or qualified optimism where we can, and there has been this brutal grinding of gears that they’ve had to go through, and there is no strategy that you can devise that means that a catastrophic military defeat under extreme fire can just be smoothly rolled out. It’s not as simple as saying, “Come on, let’s go back to being a covert terrorist group again.” That’s their objective, but how they get there and how successfully they get there, that’s not clear. Baghdadi, we think, has been injured. We don’t know his exact physical condition and obviously we don’t know his location.

CTC: You think he’s been injured?

Fitton-Brown: We believe he was injured, yes.

CTC: Because there’s been a lot of skepticism among analysts on some of the reporting on al-Baghdadi.

Fitton-Brown: Well, then, what does injured mean anyway? I mean, that’s what we’re saying. We’ve heard that he was perhaps injured, perhaps injured seriously. But I mean, that could mean that he’s being kept alive with great difficulty in some basement somewhere, or it could mean that he’s recovered and he’s OK. So, I don’t want to make too much of that.

CTC: Any sort of notion on where he may be believed to be?

Fitton-Brown: We just don’t know. But the logic would probably be where does ISIL have the most developed covert capability and the most coherent potential support structure around it. I would be inclined towards thinking in Iraq or Syria, but that’s just guess work. What’s important, we think he’s alive and we think that he’s still regarded as being in charge.

People say, and again this is assessment by member state agencies, that his death would be a significant blow to the cohesiveness and the future capability of ISIL. Now that’s an interesting statement in itself because you would think that this would be something that ISIL must have prepared for. You don’t want to have a single point of failure. And if you have one leader and that leader’s death is going to be massively damaging to your group’s capability, then that’s actually a design fault, isn’t it? Nevertheless, that’s what we’re told, that ISIL’s morale, and to some degree its strategy, its ideological cohesiveness, is still very much embodied in the leadership of Baghdadi. So that’s an interesting point. Then you’ve got the dispersed leadership group. ISIL identified key functions, the things the organization cannot survive without. They have to have money. They have to have logistics, including the ability to move people and to accommodate people so that people can be kept safe or to store money or ammunition or things of that kind. So, finance, logistics, security to them, that’s essential. There’s obviously also the whole function of ensuring them against spies and against ideological fissure and that sort of thing. Media is very important to them as well. Making sure that their message is getting out there. And they’ve held onto that in spite of the pressure that they’re under.

Nevertheless, I think they do find it difficult when so much ISIL-related propaganda these days is locally generated way outside the core area. And a lot of that stuff is of poor quality, and the claims of responsibility for attacks are of poor quality. They used to be known for their very accurate claims of responsibility. These days, there’s a sort of fanboy industry out there, and I think that has somewhat distorted their message. And I think they’re ambivalent about that. They don’t know what to do about it. In a way, it keeps the dream alive. But also, if you spend an awful lot of time, talking about how you’re going to disrupt the Russian World Cup, you’re going to have a star player in a jumpsuit and a political leader in a jumpsuit having their heads cut off, and then absolutely nothing happens, and the Russian World Cup is a glorious, joyous success, you look pretty stupid afterwards. We understand that they have looked at that and said, “We look like we’re all talk and no action.”

Now to get back to your question about the evolution of the ISIL structures, they recognized that the functions had to be combined. There’s just a few people who can do these things, who were trusted and who’ve survived and we don’t know where they are, but we’re pretty sure they’re not all together. Hence, the leadership has become dispersed, and authority has been delegated.

In our most recent report, we noted, “In Iraq, ISIL has already started to organize cells at the provincial level, identifying suitable personnel and locations for training and military manufacturing, and replicating key leadership functions. While some funding is available from the center, provincial networks must plan to become financially self-sufficient.” What we’re seeing in Iraq, and I think it’s going to be increasingly visible in Syria, is that same group of core functions that were previously centralized are going to be the nucleus around which these provincial-level cells are built.8

And take it all the way to the Sahel, and when you see instances of operational cooperation between JNIM [Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin] and ISGS [Islamic State in the Greater Sahara] in the Sahel and then you ask yourself, “was that the product of some kind of instruction somehow conveyed from Baghdadi?” I doubt it. Communications must be difficult; command and control must be weak.

CTC: With al-Baghdadi, has there been any succession plan in place that has been detected?

Fitton-Brown: Not that we’re aware of.

CTC: Which would be a big problem for them, given all the credentials Islamic State militants, for theological reasons, believe the next ‘caliph’ should have.

Fitton-Brown: And also given that they had theological problems, ideological problems because there were significant differences within the group about how hard you went on takfir.

CTC: And that has produced tension, which has continued to play out, according to research we’ve featured in CTC Sentinel.9 All this raises the possibility that if they lose their top leader, this fitna spirals, which from an international community point of view would be a very welcome thing.

Fitton-Brown: That fitna may well may be helpful in some ways. But it also represents a potential threat. If you’re a foreign terrorist fighter and you’ve left the conflict zone and you’ve still got the fire to “carry on the fight,” you may well have by now dismissed the ISIL experiment as having been ill-advised, reckless, in the same way that Zawahiri has argued. And this could end up with highly capable fighters joining al-Qa`ida franchises.

CTC: While we’re still on the subject of the Islamic State, I was very interested in this line in your 22nd report from June 2018: “One Member State reports that some recent plots detected and prevented in Europe had originated from ISIL in Afghanistan.”10 That really jumped out at me at the time because we haven’t really seen much international attack planning from Afghanistan since 9/11. Last decade, the epicenter for such plotting was Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal region (FATA), and more recently it has been Syria/Iraq. Can you elaborate on the nature of this Islamic State international attack plotting in Afghanistan?

Fitton-Brown: There’s not much I can say because it’s a somewhat operational point. It’s not just something from last year but something that continues. We believe that the phenomenon persists.

How consistent is this with the fact that ISIL cannot direct complex, international attacks? We’re not talking here about direction of complex international attacks. Anywhere that people can get breathing space, they may in a more secure environment be able to stop and think about “are we here just to survive? What else could we do?” Afghanistan is that kind of place. A place where security is weak and where you’ve got sort of concentrations of people who have a little time on their hands to think about what they might want to be doing with themselves over the longer term.

And, of course, in some cases you’re going to have people who have foreign links of one sort of another. Either they themselves have been abroad or they have a relative living abroad or they have some established communication with people abroad. And this is what we saw on the micro level. It was not a case of an external operations department putting together a planned complex operation. It’s more of a case of individuals trying to generate trouble in Europe.

CTC: The al-Qa`ida approach in FATA in the mid- to late 2000s was to grab Europeans or Americans who wanted to go fight in Afghanistan, train them up, and persuade them to return back to Europe or the United States to launch attacks. Is that the same approach the intelligence suggests is being replicated by ISIL in Afghanistan? 

Fitton-Brown: It’s more informal than that. You could say that if there’s one person in one place trying to tell a contact of theirs in another place to get out there and do something nasty, you can call that a directed attack if you like. We’re talking about somebody talking to somebody that they know.

CTC: So, what you’re talking about here is people in Afghanistan pushing people in Europe toward terrorism.

Fitton-Brown: Yes. Exactly.

CTC: And rather than sort of camp infrastructure, training, sending back, it’s more kind of a bunch of guys in Afghanistan getting in touch with their contacts back in Europe, and saying, “you need to do something.” 

Fitton-Brown: Exactly. And I would expect that that probably is a phenomenon that’s repeated elsewhere. But this is the example we saw.

CTC: With regard to Afghanistan, there have recently been peace talks between the U.S. government and the Taliban. In March 2019, during this dialogue, a Taliban spokesman stated: “A core issue for the American side is that the soil of Afghanistan should not be used against the Americans and against its allies.”11 The problem, as is well documented, is there have historically been strong ties between al-Qa`ida and the Taliban, with al-Qa`ida three years ago renewing its allegiance to the leader of the Taliban.12 Moreover in 2015, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is believed to have close ties with al-Qa`ida, was elevated to become a deputy leader of the Taliban.13 How difficult will it be to ensure Afghanistan does not again become a launching pad for international terrorism?

Fitton-Brown: The first thing to say is that the 1988 Committee always has been fundamentally designed to support the peace process in Afghanistan. The whole point of separating al-Qa`ida from the Taliban in sanctions regimes was to say that whereas the Taliban are sanctioned as a threat to peace and stability in Afghanistan, the Talibs who show that they’re actually interested in some kind of national negotiated outcome would not need to be sanctioned. Therefore, a lot of our attention is now currently devoted to facilitating travel by the Taliban who are traveling to take part in the peace process because we don’t want to see a situation where people are willing to talk peace but they aren’t able to travel because they’re sanctioned.

The second part of this, of course, is the U.S.-Taliban dialogue. Now that is not something that I have direct insight into, but obviously I follow it with great interest. I think the Americans would argue that to the extent they have identified significant common ground with the Taliban in terms of the American desire not to have endless troop deployment in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s willingness not to see Afghanistan used in the future as a launching pad for international terrorism, that is worth something. But it’s not the end of the story. There’s a huge amount that has to follow from that. Of course, above all, what has to follow from that is an Afghan-Afghan peace process. And that Afghan-Afghan peace process has been very enthusiastically driven by the Afghan government by President Ghani, particularly starting from the Kabul Declaration,14 for more than a year now. President Ghani has been pushing very hard to try and start an Afghan-Afghan peace process. He’s made an offer to the Taliban. He’s declared unilateral ceasefires. This is very important that people don’t forget this, that the whole context of the talks between the United States and the Taliban was a really serious push from the Kabul government to try to end this war. This sense of exhaustion in Afghanistan is hard to overstate.

I think you saw when you had that Eid ceasefire last summer between the government15 and the Taliban and the joy that erupted on the streets from people just saying “this is what it would be like if we weren’t living in fear of our lives all the time. If we weren’t constantly focused on trying to kill our fellow Afghans.” And that was very visible on both sides. Ordinary Talib fighters were celebrating Eid together and embracing in the streets with people they would have otherwise regarded as enemies. That was a shock to the Taliban leadership. It suggested to them that the level of popular consent to their uprising is not very high. And I think that’s true. I rather doubt if the Taliban had to fight an election in Afghanistan, they would get very many votes. So, at some point, they’re going to need to recognize that they can’t simply impose themselves by force. The Americans have been very clear that while they can play an enabling role, eventually this will have to become an Afghan peace process.

That’s what will have to happen. Obviously, we want to see it succeed, but we’re not going to pretend for a minute that it’s going to be easy. But we should applaud the people who are trying to move things forward because it’s a moment of opportunity. Moments of opportunities are created by all sorts of political factors. And right now, the stars are relatively well aligned for some prospect of this succeeding. With regard to the CT issue, which is the threat from a sort of safe haven in Afghanistan projected outside the Afghan borders, the one thing that I must say for the Taliban is that regardless of what you think of their ideology or you think of their propensity for violence, the fact is the Taliban has shown an iron self-discipline in recent years in not allowing a threat to be projected outside the borders of Afghanistan by their own members or by groups who are operating in areas they control. You’ve got a lot of Central Asian extremists, for example, present in Afghanistan, some of which will have private aspirations to attack the Central Asian republics. But credit where credit is due, it seems to me that the Taliban with an absolutely resolute focus on their ambitions inside Afghanistan are not willing to let those ambitions be derailed by activity outside Afghanistan. And that at least gives grounds for hope that what the Americans are trying to achieve in these talks could be achieved.

CTC: What is your assessment of the current threat posed by al-Qa`ida and its affiliates?

Fitton-Brown: I think al-Qa`ida was clearly very badly wrong-footed by the explosion onto the scene of ISIL. That was difficult for them. To some degree, they held their nerve and said, “No, we think that our greater strategic patience is still the right thing.” But there must have been times when that was very challenging for them when nobody was talking about al-Qa`ida and everybody was talking about ISIL. They had a slump, but al-Qa`ida is a pretty adaptable beast. One of the things that they’ve always done is give autonomy to the affiliates. There hasn’t been an attempt to micromanage the affairs of the affiliates. And one of the consequences of that is the affiliates have burrowed down into various local disputes wherever they’re located. And you see this in parts of Africa and elsewhere as well where they become local players. Syria was in some respects an example of this.

They’re still showing resilience in Yemen, and while the country remains in a state of civil war, they will likely continue to find space there. Al-Qa`ida trusts their Arabian Peninsula affiliate (AQAP) with playing a strong role in communications and propaganda for which they still have significant capacity and for years had that fear factor because of their bomb technician Ibrahim al-Asiri. They’ve been through a few iterations of trying to hold territory, which have not gone particularly well. Where they’ve had more success is embedding with tribes, embedding with youth movements, with social organizations and things of that sort. And blurring the line between tribal identity and a terrorist identity. This has not been helpful for the Yemeni peace process because of accusations made about overlap between appointees of the government of Yemen and people associated with AQAP.

There’s a very weak IS [Islamic State] presence in Yemen. And perhaps a little bit like Somalia with al-Shabaab, there’s a temptation for the bigger group to think “we can crush these interlopers.” Now, whether they can really do that, I don’t know. If you look at some of the more recent fighting between AQAP and ISY [Islamic State in Yemen], it’s not absolutely clear that AQAP are always getting the better of it. And given the groups are also under fire from other forces, how wise is it to be involved in fighting each other? I would expect ISY to remain rather small and weak in Yemen and AQAP to remain bigger and stronger than ISY.

CTC: You mention Ibrahim al-Asiri. In your 22nd report submitted in June 2018, you noted that “some Member States report that explosives expert Ibrahim al-Asiri may have been killed during the second half of 2017. Given al-Asiri’s past role in plots against aviation, this would represent a serious blow to operational capability.”16 Some observers have expressed skepticism over the possibility he is dead because AQAP has not released a eulogy as might be expected.17 What is your updated assessment of his status?

Fitton-Brown: We still think he’s dead. We still think he was killed in 2017. But I’m not going to say 100 percent because we’ve been proved wrong before, so you always have to add a caveat. You asked the question of why they didn’t release a eulogy. My answer to that would be, it’s such a major blow to their capability that they wouldn’t want to acknowledge it. In other words, if people think “this guy was a sort of bomb-making genius, an innovator who produced some of the most threatening terrorist plots of recent times,” they would actually not want that to be known, that he was gone.

Another question that arises—and we don’t know the answer to this—is how successfully might he have passed on his expertise to others. Are there any operatives in AQAP which thanks to his teaching now have his skill-set? I do know that the assessment is probably not. Probably he would have tried, he would have been doing that at various points and there may be people who have benefited from exposure to what he knew. But because he was a genius of sorts, he will be hard to replace. It’s one thing to replace somebody just because they occupy an office and then you just put somebody else in that office and they may be not as good or they may be just as good or they may be better. But when you’ve got somebody with that kind of talent and inspiration and creativity, it’s harder. And so, the assessment is probably not. So, if he’s dead, the fear of some new, very creative explosive technology threat emerging from AQAP may now be somewhat mitigated.

CTC: This is very interesting because while there was concern for years that he was training operatives in bomb making,18 that does not mean any apprentices became a master bomb maker like him.

Fitton-Brown: Exactly. The thing about trying to clone yourself is you might be partially successful, but in the case of al-Asiri was it enough for it to single out that franchise of al-Qa`ida as still posing a unique threat in that area? If you frame the question in those terms, the answer is probably not.

Bearing in mind that ISIL also has an established interest in attacking civil aviation, again, if I were guessing, if we were to see a terrorist attack on civil aviation, where is it most likely to emanate from? I would still put my money on ISIL.

CTC: There was, of course, significant concern in 2017 after it emerged that the Islamic State was working to develop laptop bombs. And then there was the July 2017 aborted plot to target a passenger jet leaving from Sydney in which the Islamic State airmailed what amounted to a partially constructed explosive device to an alleged terrorist cell it was in touch with in Australia.19

Fitton-Brown: It’s not surprising that they would be creative and innovative in coming up with ways to try to defeat these sorts of precautions that they knew that they would be facing. And of course, in that respect, so was al-Qa`ida. A lot of the efforts that were made that were driven by Asiri were also innovative in that respect. But I believe al-Qa`ida has probably lost the genius that gave them an edge. ISIL is numerically much larger than al-Qa`ida, so you’ve got this long-term worry about people with explosives skills.

We know that the attrition of ISIL planners and seniors has been extremely damaging to their capability. But to go further and say that all of the know-how and appetite that was assembled under the so-called caliphate is now somehow or other dispersed for all time, I think that’s not a supportable conclusion. I think that would be complacent. So that’s why I think the threat to aviation is still more likely, at the moment, to come from ISIL.

CTC: What is your assessment of comparative threat posed by al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State across Africa?

Fitton-Brown: AQ is stronger than ISIL in east, west, and parts of north Africa. In Somalia, al-Qa`ida is overwhelmingly stronger than ISIL. In Mali and the Sahel, JNIM, the al-Qa`ida-associated coalition of groups, is much stronger than ISGS. And the only significant exception to this is in the Lake Chad Basin where ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] is a large, significant, and actually increasingly threatening franchise of ISIL. What I think is interesting—and this kind of thing gets back to your question about what is the threat from AQ—is this innovation, this ability to adapt to the circumstances in West Africa and the Sahel. I think it’s caught the interest of Zawahiri. It’s caught the interest of the group. The fact that they’ve been very successful, they’ve been able to sustain a significant insurgency in central Mali and started to encroach on Burkina Faso with significant attacks where they appear again to be able to join up with the local groups broadly aligned with al-Qa`ida there. And the fact that ISGS also is not seeking to rival JNIM but occasionally shows signs of working with it or at the very least exhibiting a mutual tolerance. And ISGS, of course, is much smaller than JNIM. So, you’ve got a sort of business model in West Africa that’s caught the interest of Zawahiri.

There was always this question mark with al-Qa`ida of to what extent do you get embedded in local issues. And Zawahiri was always extremely cautious about that, as we saw in Syria. Nevertheless, I think he sees an opportunity when local franchises start to threaten to overturn nation-states, which they could do in the Sahel with these relatively fragile nation-states, because you then have the possibility of creating safe space for terrorist organizations.

Now whether the dynamics we see playing out in Africa and other parts of the world lead to a sort of a reboot of al-Qa`ida or whether it ends up creating some completely new mutation, I don’t know. We didn’t really see ISIL coming in the shape it eventually took. It’s possible that we’ll see some third mutation or brand emerge. But a lot of our interlocutors are taking an interest in what sort of spins out of this embedding of al-Qa`ida in some of these local disputes in some of these fragile states. One particular area of concern is the Sahel. How serious is the threat to destabilize the government in Burkina Faso? How vulnerable are the bordering regions of the Atlantic littoral states? What could this mean in due course for Ghana, for Benin, for Togo? And then of course, if this destabilization is happening in Mali, Niger, on the borders of Nigeria and you’ve also got militants in the northeastern corner, the Lake Chad Basin, the border with Chad and the border with Cameroon, and you’ve got ISWAP, and in northwestern Nigeria you’ve got Shekau’s Boko Haram, then it’s starting to look like these ink spots of extremism are spreading, and if there’s an area where that sort of ink spot map looks rather threatening, it really is precisely in that area.

CTC: In your 23rd report, you noted “al-Qaida could take advantage of the lull in ISIL strategic terrorist activity by mounting a major attack of its own.”20 How do you assess the evolving international terrorism threat posed by the al-Qa`ida terrorist network?

Fitton-Brown: I think they’re still strategically patient, and I think we say in our report that the group overwhelmingly most likely to launch the next complex international terrorist attack with strategic impact is ISIL, not al-Qa`ida. That’s still our view. Nevertheless, as I said, ISIL at the moment is in a rut, and can’t currently direct complex attacks. It may take some time, and it’s not entirely clear when or where they regenerate that capability. But it’s still, in my assessment, more likely it will be them than al-Qa`ida.

Al-Qa`ida is playing a longer game, and it seems to be willing to extend its influence. But of course, it could come to a point where it generates a safe space from which it’s possible to do something similar to what it did years ago in Afghanistan. Now, that then brings us back to Syria, Hurras al-Din and, of course, HTS [Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham]. It’s a really interesting dynamic in northwestern Syria. What does HTS represent in terms of threat? Well, certainly it’s a big threat to the authorities in Damascus. Certainly, it is a large, very well-armed, and motivated group, which has been able to hang on in really very adverse circumstances in northwestern Syria. And it’s certainly designated by our committee as an al-Qa`ida-affiliated terrorist group. So, it’s a troubling phenomenon; it’s probably also true to say its main focus is still primarily on holding space in Syria. And that, of course, is what Zawahiri didn’t like about them. He felt that they had strayed away from the whole point of al-Qa`ida and that they had gone down a deviant path. So, he and [HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-]Julani fell out quite badly. And it was partly Zawahiri’s influence that led to defections from HTS and the coalition of a number of rather more purist al-Qa`ida groups into Hurras al-Din.

We assess Hurras al-Din to have 1,500 to 2,000 fighters and aspirations to mount international attacks. Certainly on the individual level, there are people in Hurras al-Din who are thinking about international ambitions. But then you have to factor in what they’re having to deal with. How successfully are they managing to hold their ground against HTS? Because HTS is much bigger. And if anything, the dynamic of some of the maneuvering and struggling in that rather sort of constrained area in northwest Syria has been that, if anything, HTS has probably grown relatively stronger. So, I wonder whether Zawahiri really sees this as the most promising place to have a dedicated international terrorist group? Or is Hurras al-Din, in fact, going to get one way or another, heavily disrupted either by HTS or by any subsequent fighting that may break out between the Damascus authorities and their allies on the one side and the terrorist groups on the other side?

CTC: And al-Julani revealed in an interview in 2015 that al-Zawahiri had instructed him not to use Syria as a launching pad for attacks in the West.21 So, if these are still al-Zawahiri’s instructions, you’d expect the ultra-loyalist Hurras al-Din to also hold off from launching international attacks.

Fitton-Brown: Exactly. The key questions [are]: what does he want them to do? Where does he want them to go? Is he looking for them at some point to start to disperse and go elsewhere to more promising environments? Or does he think that actually the authorities in Damascus will not be able to reassert their control in significant swaths of Syrian territory? And that these people will therefore be able to bed down successfully in Syria, and then over time become a significant asset for al-Qa`ida. I imagine all of those questions must be occurring to him. If forces loyal to the Syrian government had moved into Idlib, I wonder how much of that operational capability would have been wiped away.

Overall, I think we can say that al-Qa`ida has, first of all, survived the ISIL challenge; secondly, its belief in being strategically patient has been, in their view, vindicated; and thirdly, their aspiration to project international threat is unchanged and will therefore reemerge at some point. But I still think it’s more likely that the next big attack will come from ISIL.

CTC: The United States recently issued a $1 million-dollar reward with regard to Hamza bin Ladin,22 who many believe is being lined up to take over as the paramount leader of al-Qa`ida.23 What is your assessment of the danger he poses?

Fitton-Brown: Yes, now Hamza bin Ladin obviously is very visible. He has charisma, and he carries his father’s name. So, he matters to al-Qa`ida. There’s been some speculation in open source that he might be Zawahiri’s successor, but I’ve seen no evidence of that at all. I’ve seen evidence of him as an important and prominent member of al-Qa`ida, but not that he would necessarily be Zawahiri’s successor. Indeed, as al-Qa`ida is structured, he wouldn’t be Zawahiri’s successor. They have a succession in place.

CTC: Do we know who the next person next in line would be? Is that something there’s been analysis of?

Fitton-Brown: My understanding is that Egyptian jihadi veterans Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Saif al-`Adl are next in line. These guys to some degree have a shared background with Zawahiri.

CTC: In your 23rd report, you warned that “threats from unmanned aerial systems used in terrorism are likely to increase owing to the exponential rise in the number of drones purchased by hobbyists and the decreasing cost of the technology. Rapid advancements in the technology of drones, including advances in speed, payload, fuel cells and resistance to radio interdiction, will further make countering the threat costlier and more difficult.”24 What can be done to address these threats?

Fitton-Brown: The international community needs to do its best to increase standards and controls around this just because it is a unique technology that has wonderfully positive applications, but also it can be turned to be very destructive if used by the wrong people. I think we need to also look out for West Africa because ISWAP have already got a reconnaissance drone capability, which begs the question of how long it takes them to decide to use it for offensive purposes.CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: The U.N. Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 (in 2011) oversees the sanctions measures imposed by the Security Council.

[1] “Twenty-Third Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team … concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities,” United Nations, December 27, 2018, pp. 3, 13-14.

[2] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, pp. 8, 18.

[3] “Monograph on Terrorist Financing,” Staff Report to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, p. 131.

[4] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, p. 20.

[5] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, p. 14.

[6] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, p. 6.

[7] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, pp. 3, 5.

[8] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, p. 5.

[9] See Cole Bunzel, “The Islamic State’s Mufti on Trial: The Saga of the ‘Silsila ‘Ilmiyya,’” CTC Sentinel 11:9 (2018).

[10] “Twenty-Second Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team … concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities,” United Nations, June 27, 2018, p. 16.

[11] “US-Taliban negotiations in Qatar enter fifth day,” Al Jazeera, March 3, 2019.

[12] “Al-Qaida Chief Pledges Support for New Afghan Taliban Leader,” Voice of America, June 11, 2016.

[13] Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, ”The Taliban’s new leadership is allied with al Qaeda,” FDD’s Long War Journal, July 31, 2015.

[14] “The Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation in Afghanistan Declaration,” February 28, 2018.

[15] Rupam Jain and Sayed Hassib, “Afghanistan announces Muslim Eid holiday ceasefire with Taliban,” Reuters, August 19, 2018.

[16] U.N Sanctions Monitoring Team Twenty-Second Report, p. 9.

[17] Barbara Starr, Paul Cruickshank, and Ryan Browne, “First on CNN: Al Qaeda’s master bomb maker may be dead, UN says,” CNN, August 16, 2018.

[18] Michael Morell, “Fourteen Years and Counting: The Evolving Terrorist Threat,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015); “Source: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula training up to 10 bomb makers to supplement work of explosives master al-Asiri,” CBS News, May 9, 2012.

[19] Andrew Zammit, “New Developments in the Islamic State’s External Operations: The 2017 Sydney Plane Plot,” CTC Sentinel 10:9 (2017).

[20] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, p. 6.

[21] “Nusra leader: Our mission is to defeat Syrian regime,” Al Jazeera, May 28, 2015; “Al-Qaeda ‘orders Syria’s Al-Nusra Front not to attack West,’” BBC, May 28, 2015.

[22] Faith Karimi, “Osama bin Laden’s son is taking over as al Qaeda leader, US says,” CNN, March 1, 2019.

[23] Ali Soufan, “Hamza bin Ladin: From Steadfast Son to Al-Qa`ida’s Leader in Waiting,” CTC Sentinel 10:8 (2018).

[24] U.N. Monitoring Team Twenty-Third Report, p. 23.

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