President Barack Obama presses ahead with his campaign to diminish and eventually defeat Islamic State group extremists in Iraq and Syria, but the list of radical Islamic elements the United States and many of its coalition allies are fighting does not stop there. Violent radicals inspired by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden pepper the map from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.
A look at the organizations presenting the most serious threats from South Asia to the Middle East and Africa.
SYRIA and IRAQ
ISLAMIC STATE GROUP/ISIS/ISIL: Originally al-Qaida in Iraq, it is known by various names: the Islamic State in Syria, or ISIS; the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, or ISIL; and the newest moniker, the Islamic State, based on its ambition to create a caliphate, or Islamic empire, in the ancient territory that now comprises much of the Middle East. Led by Iraqi militant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it stormed into the Syrian civil war in 2012, seeking to oust President Bashar Assad and was initially welcomed by other rebels for its experienced fighters. Known for its brutality, the Islamic State group found other anti-Assad rebels turning against it in part because it appeared bent on taking over the rebel movement to create the caliphate. Al-Qaida’s central command ejected it from the network for its clashes with other rebels, but it has thrived, backed by foreign fighters from Chechnya, Europe, the U.S. and around the Arab world. The group is headquartered in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa and commands areas near the northern city of Aleppo and a large stretch of territory in northern and western Iraq.
ISLAMIC FRONT: The Obama administration’s search for moderate anti-Assad rebels to support in Syria has been complicated by this alliance of seven powerful conservative and ultraconservative Islamic groups that merged in late November. The Islamic Front wants to bring rule by Shariah law in Syria and rejects the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition but cooperates with some of their fighters on the ground. They are the strongest force battling the Islamic State group.
NUSRA FRONT: Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, which along with the Islamic Front has been the toughest against the Islamic State militants. It has also been one of the most effective forces against Assad’s troops, using suicide bombers to back its fighters. Once a mix of Syrian extremists and foreign jihadis, it saw many of its non-Syrian fighters defect to the Islamic State group over the past two years.
KHORASAN GROUP: While the Islamic State group is getting the most attention now, this mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe is affiliated with the Nusra Front and may pose a more direct and imminent threat to the United States. Its members did not go to Syria principally to fight Assad but were sent by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans who have better ability to penetrate airline and immigration security. U.S. officials say Khorasan militants are working with bomb-makers from al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate.
AL-QAIDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA: Still considered the al-Qaida network’s greatest threat to U.S. territory, the group is based in bin Laden’s ancestral home. It hatched the failed “underwear bomber” plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009 and attempted to ship explosive devices into the U.S. on cargo planes in 2010. Despite repeated U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni military operations, AQAP remains a challenge to both the government and the West.
AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN and INDIA
AL-QAIDA: Led by Egyptian al-Zawahri since U.S. special forces killed bin Laden, core al-Qaida is no longer the force it was. Militant infighting, particularly with the Islamic State group, and 13 years of fighting on its home turf in Afghanistan has blunted its reach, although it still claims attacks and the allegiance of affiliates.
AFGHAN TALIBAN: Led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, it’s held responsible for numerous strikes on international forces in Afghanistan, including attacks on foreign troops by insurgents dressed as, and in some cases, members of the Afghan military. Attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have failed to date.
HAQQANI NETWORK: The Pakistan-based extremist group allied with al-Qaida is accused of staging numerous cross-border attacks from its base in North Waziristan, Pakistan, including the 19-hour siege at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September 2011. During the Reagan administration, members of the Haqqani network were considered freedom fighters for their efforts to oust the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
PAKISTANI TALIBAN: Along with the allied Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, it has used North Waziristan as a base for carrying out attacks across the porous border with neighboring Afghanistan for years. The group is a loose network of local militant groups who want to overthrow Pakistan’s government and install a harsh brand of Islamic law.
QAIDA AL-JIHAD IN THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT: Zawahri said this month that al-Qaida would expand its reach into India, which has a large Muslim minority, with this group. Many believe the announcement to be a publicity stunt as analysts do not believe it has additional capabilities.
SOMALIA and EAST AFRICA
AL-SHABAB: Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia stormed a shopping mall in Kenya last year, killing at least 67 people. A U.S. airstrike on Sept. 1 killed its leader and two other officials; the group has sworn revenge. Just last weekend, authorities in Uganda said they arrested 19 people in connection with a terrorist plot that may have been intended as retaliation. In 2010, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for bomb attacks that killed at least 76 people watching a World Cup final in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
WEST and NORTH AFRICA
BOKO HARAM: This al-Qaida-linked group grabbed the world’s attention by kidnapping more than 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria in April and continues to stage attacks on schools and other civilian targets. Although once very active in Nigeria’s neighbors, it has largely started to cement control of territory in northern Nigeria after announcing in August it was creating an Islamic caliphate.
AL-QAIDA IN THE ISLAMIC MAGHREB: Allied with AQAP, this group operates in the Sahel region, an arid strip of land including the Sahara desert across West Africa that touches Algeria’s south. The group began as an Islamic insurgency in Algeria and became linked to al-Qaida in 2006. Its militants have prowled the vast terrain, particularly in Mali, to kidnap people and seek ransom to fund their activities. French and West African forces drove them out of a fledgling Islamic state in northern Mali last year, but it remains a threat.
ANSAR AL-SHARIA: One of several militias formed from rebel brigades that fought Libyan forces in the 2011 uprising that ousted Moammar Gadhafi. The group is accused of being involved in the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission and annex in Benghazi. It’s been involved in terrorist attacks against civilian targets, assassinations and attempted assassinations of security officials and political figures in eastern Libya.
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