Chapter 1. Strategic Assessment

Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism



The global terrorist threat continued to evolve rapidly in 2015, becoming increasingly decentralized and diffuse. Terrorist groups continued to exploit an absence of credible and effective state institutions, where avenues for free and peaceful expression of opinion were blocked, justice systems lacked credibility, and where security force abuses and government corruption went unchecked.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remained the greatest threat globally, maintaining a formidable force in Iraq and Syria, including a large number of foreign terrorist fighters. ISIL’s capacity and territorial control in Iraq and Syria reached a high point in spring 2015, but began to erode over the second half of 2015. ISIL did not have a significant battlefield victory in Iraq and Syria after May. At the end of 2015, 40 percent of the territory ISIL controlled at the beginning of the year had been liberated. In Syria, local forces expelled ISIL fighters from several key cities along the routes connecting the two ISIL strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul, and reclaimed about 11 percent of the territory ISIL once controlled. These losses demonstrated the power of coordinated government action to mobilize against and confront terrorism.

ISIL’s loss of territory it governs and controls in Iraq and Syria in 2015 also diminished funds available to it. ISIL relies heavily on extortion and the levying of “taxes” on local populations under its control, as well as a range of other sources, such as oil smuggling, kidnapping for ransom, looting, antiquities theft and smuggling, foreign donations, and human trafficking. Coalition airstrikes targeted ISIL’s energy infrastructure – modular refineries, petroleum storage tanks, and crude oil collection points – as well as bulk cash storage sites. These airstrikes have significantly degraded ISIL’s ability to generate revenue. The United States led the international effort, including through the UN, to confront ISIL’s oil smuggling and its antiquities dealing, delivering additional blows to its financial infrastructure.

Toward the end of 2015, ISIL fighters conducted a series of external attacks in France, Lebanon, and Turkey, demonstrating the organization’s capabilities to carry out deadly plots beyond Iraq and Syria and also exposing weakness in international border security measures and systems. These attacks may also have been staged in an effort to assert a narrative of victory in the face of steady losses of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Along with ISIL, al-Qa’ida (AQ), and both groups’ branches increased their focus on staging mass-casualty attacks. This included attacks on international hotel chains in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Tunisia; other popular public locations; and the bombing of a Russian passenger plane. These plots were designed to undermine economic security, damage fragile economies, diminish confidence in governments, and foment further discord along religious and sectarian fault lines.

In 2015, ISIL abducted, systematically raped, and abused thousands of women and children, some as young as eight years of age. Women and children were sold and enslaved, distributed to ISIL fighters as spoils of war, forced into marriage and domestic servitude, or subjected to physical and sexual abuse. ISIL established “markets” where women and children were sold with price tags attached and has published a list of rules on how to treat female slaves once captured. Boko Haram has also abducted women and girls in the northern region of Nigeria, some of whom it later subjected to domestic servitude, other forms of forced labor, and sexual servitude through forced marriages to its members. (For further information, refer to the Trafficking in Persons Report 2015, //

Although ISIL did not claim responsibility, it was likely responsible for several attacks involving chemical-filled munitions in Iraq and Syria, including a sulfur mustard attack in Marea on August 21, 2015. The United States worked with the counter-ISIL coalition to dismantle this chemical weapons capability, as well as deny ISIL and other non-state actors access to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN)-useable materials and expertise through interdictions and strengthening the ability of regional governments to detect, disrupt, and respond effectively to suspected CBRN activity.

While ISIL lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria during the second half of 2015, the group made gains in Libya amidst the instability there. According to open-source reporting, ISIL’s branch in Libya was estimated to have up to 5,000 terrorist fighters. The group expanded its territorial control in Sirte and its surrounding coastline. It also conducted attacks in Libya’s oil crescent and in Sabratha, near the border with Tunisia. However, ISIL also suffered losses in Libya in confrontations with militia groups, in particular in the eastern Libyan city of Darnah.

ISIL’s branch in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula (ISIL Sinai Province or ISIL-SP) increased its attacks against Egyptian security forces and become more sophisticated, exemplified by ISIL-SP’s multi-pronged attack in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid in July. The group also claimed responsibility for an operation that brought down Russian Metrojet 9286 in October 2015 that killed 224 passengers and seven crew members.

On January 26, 2015, ISIL publicly announced the establishment of an affiliate, known as ISIL-Khorasan (ISIL-K), in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At year’s end, the group had focused the majority of its attacks against Afghan government and civilian targets, although the group has also claimed a small number of attacks in Pakistan’s settled areas. ISIL-K gained a small foothold in southern Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, but was significantly challenged by the Afghan government, Coalition Forces, and the Taliban, and had little support among the region’s population.

ISIL-aligned groups have also emerged in other parts of the Middle East, Africa, the Russian North Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, although the relationship between most of these groups and ISIL’s leadership remained symbolic in most cases. Many of these groups are made up of pre-existing terrorist networks with their own local goals and lesser capabilities than ISIL.

In March, the Nigeria-based terrorist group Boko Haram declared its affiliation to ISIL. During 2015, Boko Haram killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands in the Lake Chad Basin region of Africa. Regional military forces made progress during 2015 in degrading the group’s territorial control, in particular following the election of Nigerian President Buhari, but Boko Haram responded by increasing its use of asymmetric attacks. Of particular concern, Boko Haram continued and even increased its practice of using women and children as suicide bombers.

Beyond affiliated groups, ISIL was able to inspire attacks in 2015 by individuals or small groups of self-radicalized individuals in several cities around the world. ISIL’s propaganda and its use of social media have created new challenges for counterterrorism efforts. Private sector entities took proactive steps to deny ISIL the use of social media platforms by aggressive enforcement of violations to companies’ terms of service. Twitter reported in 2015 that it had begun suspending accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist attacks, primarily related to support for ISIL.

While AQ’s central leadership has been significantly weakened, the organization remained a threat and continued to serve as a focal point of inspiration for a network of affiliated groups, including al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); al-Nusrah Front; al-Shabaab, and al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent. The tensions between AQ and ISIL escalated in a number of regions during 2015 and likely resulted in increased violence in several parts of the world as AQ tried to reassert its relevance.

AQAP remained a significant threat to Yemen, the region, and to the United States, as efforts to counter the group were hampered by the ongoing conflict in that country. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Yemen also exploited the political and security vacuum to strengthen its foothold inside the country.

Efforts by French and regional military forces – notably Chad and Niger – have significantly degraded the capacity of AQIM and al-Murabitun in northern Mali and across the wider Sahel. However, in 2015, these groups reverted to asymmetric warfare using remnant groups still located in northern Mali. AQIM increased its attacks on the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. Toward the end of the year, AQIM also directed attacks on hotels in Mali and Burkina Faso.

In East Africa, al-Shabaab continued to commit deadly attacks in Somalia, seeking to reverse progress made by the Federal Government of Somalia and weaken the political will of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troop contributing countries. In the first half of 2015, al-Shabaab launched attacks across the border in northern Kenya, including one against a university in Garissa in April that left nearly 150 people dead. While attacks in Kenya decreased in the second half of 2015, al-Shabaab reportedly maintained access to recruits and resources throughout southern and central Somalia.

Regional forces from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda continued to contribute troops to AMISOM in 2015 despite a number of mass-casualty attacks by al-Shabaab that killed hundreds of AMISOM soldiers. With U.S. support and in partnership with Somali forces, AMISOM maintained pressure on al-Shabaab and weakened the group’s territorial control in parts of Somalia. In particular, a coordinated operation by Ethiopian and Kenyan AMISOM forces pushed al-Shabaab from major strongholds in southern Somalia in the second half of 2015. However, al-Shabaab increased its attacks on AMISOM forward operating bases, resulting in increased AMISOM troop casualties and stalled offensive operations.

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In addition to working to degrade these groups, countries across the international community mobilized to put in place fundamental reforms to address the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to and from these conflict zones and to increase their counterterrorism capabilities.

UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2178 – adopted at a UN Security Council session in September 2014 chaired by President Obama – provided a framework for this effort, with countries taking steps to bolster their ability to tackle the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon. Partner nations also actively implemented sanctions against ISIL pursuant to the UN 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida sanctions regime, which obligates all member states to freeze the assets and ban the travel of AQ-associated individuals and entities, including ISIL. In February, the UNSC adopted UNSCR 2199 to degrade ISIL, al-Nusrah Front, and other AQ-associated groups’ financial support networks, paying particular attention to halting oil smuggling, kidnapping for ransom, and the illicit trade of antiquities from Syria. On December 3, each of the Global Coalition partners reaffirmed their commitment to counter-ISIL financing in a joint statement at the Global Coalition Ministerial in Brussels.

In all, 45 countries passed or updated existing laws to more effectively identify and prosecute foreign terrorist fighters. Thirty-five countries reported arresting foreign terrorist fighters, and 12 have successfully prosecuted at least one foreign terrorist fighter. Turkey – a critical geographic chokepoint in the flow of foreign terrorist fighters – increased detentions, arrests, and prosecutions of suspected foreign terrorist fighters, increased its information sharing with international partners, and is taking steps to improve the security of its borders. By the end of 2015, the United States had information-sharing arrangements with more than 50 international partners to assist efforts to identify, track, and deter the travel of suspected terrorists.

The United States also continued to work with partners to increase security at their borders and eliminate existing security vulnerabilities, enabling them to better identify, restrict, and report travel of suspected foreign terrorist fighters. There has been a significant increase in coordination among partners adding suspects to terrorist watchlists and sharing that information more broadly, however more work remains to be done.

Notably, in December, the EU took steps towards adopting an EU-wide Passenger Name Records (PNR) system, with agreement between the Council and Parliament on a draft directive that would require airlines to share passenger data with all EU member states and enable this information to be shared within the EU. A European Counter Terrorist Centre at Europol, and mechanisms to expand information sharing on the migration of foreign terrorist fighters, were also established in 2015.

President Obama convened the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February 2015, in which more than 60 countries, 12 multilateral bodies, and representatives from civil society, business, and the faith community launched a global “whole-of-society” effort to tackle the broad range of factors fueling violent extremism. The Summit underscored the need for a comprehensive approach that seeks to both limit the growth of current extremist groups and prevent new ones from emerging. Algeria, Australia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mauritania, and Norway hosted regional CVE summits in 2015 to engage additional states, municipal governments, and civil society and private sector participants in preventive approaches to violent extremism. A number of countries have developed National CVE Action Plans charting their way forward. And on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September 2015, mayors from around the world launched a new Strong Cities Network to identify and share community-level best practices for building social cohesion and resilience against violent extremism.

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Iran remained the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in 2015, providing a range of support, including financial, training, and equipment, to groups around the world – particularly Hizballah. Iran continued to be deeply involved in the conflict in Syria, working closely with the Asad regime to counter the Syrian opposition, and also in Iraq where Iran continued to provide support to militia groups, including Foreign Terrorist Organization Kata’ib Hizballah. In addition, it was implicated for its support to violent Shia opposition group attacks in Bahrain. Iran was joined in these efforts by Hizballah, which continued to operate globally, as demonstrated by the disruption of Hizballah activities in Peru in 2014 and Cyprus in 2015.