Thursday, August 24, 2023

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, August 24, 2023

Authors: Brian Carter, Kathryn Tyson, Peter Mills

Data Cutoff: August 24, 2023, at 10 a.m.

Key Takeaways:

Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is facing multiple internal and external pressures, which could destabilize the SDF and create opportunities for ISIS.

Afghanistan-Pakistan. Pakistani strikes against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan are unlikely to curb TTP attacks. The Taliban gives priority to maintaining internal unity, making it unlikely the movement will crack down on TTP safe havens. Tensions between the Taliban and Iran and Pakistan will further worsen as the Taliban leadership demonstrates an inability to publicly ban its movement from conducting attacks beyond Afghanistan.


Iraq and Syria

Author: Brian Carter

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is facing multiple internal and external threats, which could destabilize the SDF and create opportunities for ISIS. The SDF’s primary military force in Deir ez Zor province is the Deir ez Zor Military Council (DMC).[1] The SDF is attempting to gain greater control over some of its subordinate military forces in Deir ez Zor, but clashes between the SDF’s Kurdish forces and the DMC since July risk creating deeper rifts between the SDF’s forces or causing them to focus on one another instead of ISIS.[2] Turkey is also increasing drone and air strikes against the SDF in northeastern Syria, which has generated more local tension between the SDF and Turkey. The limited US response to the attacks prompted the SDF to question the US commitment to northeastern Syria.[3]

  • The SDF is attempting to curtail the DMC leader’s efforts to present himself as a broader, tribal leader in Deir ez Zor.[4] The DMC respond by attacking the SDF, capturing at least 47 SDF prisoners during clashes in late July 2023.[5] The SDF also arrested the DMC Busayrah Brigade commander on August 18 after clashes between the DMC and SDF.[6] The brigade name suggests it is responsible for protecting Busayrah, a town ISIS frequently attacks.[7] Arab and Kurdish constituencies in the SDF have had a complicated relationship marked by mistrust, but they remain aligned due to the threat from the regime and Turkey.[8]
  • The DMC commander identified two internal and two external enemies of the DMC on July 19.[9] The commander said that the two internal enemies are some SDF leaders and ISIS and the two external enemies are Turkey and the Syrian regime. Tensions between DMC and the SDF are not new. The commander is attempting to create a tribal alliance outside the SDF, and he also opposed SDF “demands” to deploy DMC forces in support of the SDF against Turkey in July 2022, according to local sources.[10] His comparison of the SDF and ISIS indicates deep distrust between the SDF’s General Command and the DMC.
  • Turkey has increased attacks against the SDF since Turkey’s May presidential election, which prompted the SDF to respond with limited raids against Turkey and its proxies.[11] In June 2023, Turkey conducted its fourth-highest number of strikes against the SDF since early 2020.[12] The SDF has also expressed frustration that the US and Russia are not assisting with upholding the Turkish-SDF ceasefire from 2019.[13] On August 4,the SDF called on the US to “make clear” its position vis-à-vis Turkish strikes.[14] The local perception of a lack of US response to Turkish attacks against the SDF prompted locals to hedge against a US withdrawal by maintaining a relationship with ISIS in some cases.[15]

Figure 1. ISIS Activity and Turkey-SDF Clashes in Northern Syria in August 2023

Source: Brian Carter.

Targeted SDF raids to disrupt ISIS are likely insufficient to defeat the group. These raids temporarily disrupt local ISIS forces, putting them off-balance as they reconfigure logistics and command structures. SDF raids are not followed by substantive operations that would take advantage of temporary ISIS confusion, however. The raids do help contain the group, but low claims and continued ISIS activity suggest the group is assuming a defensive posture in some areas.

  • The SDF conducted two separate raids on August 16 and 20 that killed an ISIS leader in Raqqa city and captured an ISIS logistician in Izba, Deir ez Zor province, respectively.[16] Repeated SDF raids into Izba and other areas of northeastern Syria indicate that the SDF is only temporarily disrupting ISIS support zones. ISIS resumes using the support zones after a brief pause.[17]
  • ISIS activity continues in Deir ez Zor province, despite low ISIS attack claims. A Syrian journalist reported in April that ISIS military leaders rejected a plan by the “caliph” to launch a prison break attempt in northeastern Syria, suggesting the group remains capable of a major prison break but is maintaining a defensive posture to avoid major US attacks against its cells in northeastern Syria.[18] ISIS is still successfully eliminating pro-SDF Arabs and intimidating the population into cooperation with the group, and it is attempting to collect funds in Deir ez Zor.[19]

CTP maintains that ISIS is a viable insurgency that seeks to restore the territorial “caliphate,” and the pressures on the SDF will likely provide ISIS opportunities to accelerate its campaign plan.[20] US-backed SDF counterterrorism pressure levied against ISIS contains the group.[21] Multiple distractions limit the SDF’s bandwidth and ability to respond effectively to ISIS, which over time will allow ISIS to attempt to cleave the population away from the SDF through intimidation.

  • US pressure causes the group to hesitate in launching major operations, such as prison breaks. A Syrian journalist said that ISIS leaders called a prison break operation in early 2023 “reckless.”[22] The ISIS prison break in January 2022 was a tactical success for ISIS, but it also resulted in significant casualties for the group.[23] US airpower and armor broke the ISIS attack on the prison, killed significant numbers of fighters, and limited ISIS’s ability to exploit its initial success by freeing an even greater number of prisoners or protecting its attack cells.[24]
  • ISIS has already successfully intimidated some elements of the population into providing support to the organization. ISIS is capable of expanding these efforts amid SDF distraction. SDF raids, clearing operations, and patrols temporarily disrupt ISIS activity by capturing ISIS cells or forcing their retreat.[25] This will not defeat ISIS, but it is containing the group. The SDF commander has said previously that requirements levied on the SDF during periods of Turkish air strikes and threats of intervention have caused the SDF to stop counter-ISIS operations.[26]

Figure 2. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in the Middle East

Source: Kathryn Tyson.

Figure 3. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa

Source: Kathryn Tyson.


Authors: Kathryn Tyson and Peter Mills

Pakistani strikes into Afghanistan against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are unlikely to curb TTP attacks. Pakistan has conducted a series of cross-border strikes killing TTP militants to limit the group’s ability to plan and conduct attacks from its headquarters and support zones in Afghanistan.[27] Pakistani airstrikes are not sufficient to compel the TTP to halt attacks. CTP has previously assessed that neither Pakistan nor the Taliban have the capability or will to conduct a ground campaign in Afghanistan against the TTP, which would be required to clear and hold TTP support zones.[28] The TTP has used havens in Afghanistan to increase its attacks into Pakistan since the Taliban came to power in 2021, despite Pakistani airstrikes. The Taliban facilitates, and at times participates, in TTP attacks in Pakistan.[29] The Taliban also allows the TTP to retreat to havens in Afghanistan when Pakistan targets the group.[30] The TTP and Taliban maintain a close relationship due to shared ideologies, and both remain allied with al Qaeda.[31] Prominent members of the Taliban believe the Pakistani government is “un-Islamic” and support the TTP’s insurgency against Pakistan.

  • Sources in Afghanistan reported Pakistani airstrikes against the TTP in Khost and Nangarhar Provinces on August 14 and August 16, respectively.[32] The Pakistani military flew fighter jets over Kunar Province on August 3.[33] Local sources also reported the Pakistani military conducted artillery strikes on a TTP position in Paktika on July 25.[34] TTP leaders have havens in these locations, indicating these strikes were following up on Pakistani claims in August that it would attack the TTP if the Taliban did not address TTP sanctuaries.[35]
  • The TTP continues to claim multiple attacks daily in Pakistan despite Pakistani airstrikes. The TTP destroyed a Pakistani military convoy in South Waziristan on August 20, killing at least 14 Pakistani soldiers.[36] The TTP tripled attacks in Pakistan between 2020 and 2022, using safe havens in Afghanistan and active support from the Afghan Taliban.[37] The Afghan Taliban’s support will continue to allow the TTP to withstand Pakistani strikes by using safe havens in Afghanistan.
  • Al Qaeda is training the TTP in training camps in Afghanistan.[38] The Taliban has appointed al Qaeda members to advisory roles in the Taliban government.[39] The deputy director of the Taliban’s intelligence agency, as well as the Taliban governors of Kapisa and Nuristan Provinces, are affiliated with al Qaeda.[40]

The Taliban regime’s inability to stop Taliban members from conducting attacks beyond Afghanistan almost certainly will worsen tensions with neighboring countries, namely Iran and Pakistan. The Taliban movement remains an umbrella movement ruled by a southern Kandahari elite who rely on alliances with Taliban factions elsewhere in Afghanistan to maintain their rule over Afghanistan.[41] Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his defense minister, Mohammad Yaqoub, gave speeches and issued internal decrees banning attacks beyond Afghanistan in July and on August 5, respectively.[42] The Taliban began walking back Akhundzada’s decree on August 11, after Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani did not express public support for the decree.[43] The Taliban leadership’s choice to walk back the statement coincided with rebuttals from Salafi-jihadi groups, which criticized the Taliban’s decree banning transnational attacks.

  • This decree did not reduce the rate of TTP attacks in Pakistan, which are projected to exceed attack numbers in July.[44] A long-time Afghanistan expert reported that the Taliban supreme leader’s ability to intervene in eastern Afghanistan is limited because local Taliban groups affiliated with the Taliban interior minister support the TTP.[45] CTP did not observe the interior minister expressing public support for Akhundzada’s decree. This suggests the Taliban government cannot prevent elements of the Taliban movement from supporting the TTP.
  • Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) released a Pashto booklet on August 11 arguing that Jihad in Pakistan is obligatory, in a rebuke to the Taliban’s decree.[46] Hizb ut-Tahrir, another Salafi-jihadi group, warned the Taliban on August 14 against taking action against the TTP and called for the Taliban to instead unite Afghanistan and Pakistan into one transnational state.[47] The Taliban spokesmen clarified on August 11 that the supreme leader did not issue an official edict banning attacks beyond Afghanistan, as Pakistan had requested, but instead said that a lower-level advisory committee issued the edict.[48]
  • Iran linked an August 13 terror attack to ISKP bases in Afghanistan.[49] CTP previously assessed this would heighten tensions between Iran and the Taliban.[50] Border clashes and water disputes previously resulted in increasingly hostile rhetoric and threats between Iran and the Taliban government in May and June.[51] Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban government has worsened since early 2022 due to border clashes and the Taliban’s support for the TTP.[52] Senior Taliban leaders including the interior minister and chief of army staff continue to blame Pakistan for the increase in TTP attacks.[53]

Figure 4. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Central and South Asia

Source: Kathryn Tyson.


[2] https://www.alaraby dot



[5]; https:/...

[6]; https://...

[7] Author’s research.


[9] https://www.enabbaladi dot net/archives/652191

[10] https://orient-news dot net/ar/news_show/198282;






[16]; https://sdf-press dot com/en/2023/08/counter-terrorism-one-of-the-isis-leaders-arrested-in-deir-ezzor

[17]https://sdf-press dot com/en/2023/08/counter-terrorism-one-of-the-isis-leaders-arrested-in-deir-ezzor; https://www.baladi-news dot com/ar/articles/95245/%D8%AE%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%B5%D9%81%D9%88%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-; ISIS claim for June 28 and July 17 attacks in Izba available on request.


[19] ISIS claims available on request;; https://nahermedia dot net/%d8%aa%d9%86%d9%80-%d9%80%d8%b8%d9%8a%d9%85-%d8%af%d8%a7%d8%b9%d9%80-%d9%80%d8%b4-%d9%8a%d9%86%d8%b4%d8%b1-%d9%85%d9%86%d8%b4%d9%88%d8%b1%d8%a7%d8%aa-%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%82%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d8%aa%d8%ad%d9%85;






[25]; https://sdf-press dot com/en/2023/08/counter-terrorism-one-of-the-isis-leaders-arrested-in-deir-ezzor







[32]; https://twi...




[36]; https:...







[43]; https://www dot alemarah dot af/news/%d9%85%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%a8%d8%b1%d8%a7%d8%af%d8%b1-%d8%a7%d8%ae%d9%86%d8%af-%d9%84%d9%87-%d8%aa%d8%b1%da%a9%d9%8a-%d8%b3%d9%88%d8%af%d8%a7%da%ab%d8%b1%d9%88-%d8%a7%d9%88-%d9%be%d8%a7%d9%86%da%ab%d9%88

[44]; https://twitt...


[46]; https:/...

[47]; author’s research




[51]; https...