The Islamic State (IS) group continues to expand globally with some 20 affiliates, despite being forced out of Syria and the killing of its leaders, a top US counter-terror official said Thursday.
The extremist group “has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to rebound from severe losses over the past six years by relying on a dedicated cadre of veteran mid-level commanders, extensive clandestine networks, and downturns in CT (counter-terrorism) pressure to persevere,” said Christopher Miller, director of the US National Counterterrorism Center.
Since the October 2019 killing of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and several other prominent figures, new leader Mohammed Said Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla has been able to direct and inspire new attacks by its far-flung affiliates, Miller told a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.
On Thursday the group claimed responsibility for the killing of six French aid workers and their two local guides in Niger on August 9.
Inside Syria and Iraq, Miller said, IS has undertaken “a steady rate” of assassinations and mortar and IED bomb attacks. Those included an operation in May that killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi soldiers.
Miller said the group trumpeted this success with graphic videos that served as propaganda to demonstrate the jihadists were still organized and active, since being uprooted from their self-proclaimed Syria-Iraq “caliphate” last year.
He said that the group is now focused on freeing thousands of Islamic State members and their families from detention camps in northeastern Syria, in the absence of any coordinated international process to deal with them.
Outside Syria and Iraq, the IS global web “now encompasses approximately 20 branches and networks,” Miller said. It has had mixed results, but is strongest in Africa, as the Niger attack underscored.
Islamic State also seeks to attack Western targets, Miller says, but so far effective counter-terror work has prevented this.
IS rival Al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, was weakened by the loss of leaders and key figures but remains potent, Miller said.
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The group is still determined to carry out attacks on the United States and Europe, he said, and was tied to the radicalized Saudi air force trainee who killed three sailors at a US military base in Pensacola, Florida, December 2019.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and Africa retain the ability to carry out deadly attacks, Miller said, but its sub-groups in India and Pakistan have been significantly weakened.
In Afghanistan its presence has declined to “a few dozen fighters who are primarily focused on their survival,” Miller said.
Under a deal the Taliban signed with the United States in February, the insurgents agreed to stop Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to plot attacks.
However, despite the agreement, the jihadist group maintains close ties with the Afghan militants, the Pentagon said Wednesday.