Terror groups take advantage of power vacuums, insecurity to thrive at home

Story highlights

  • Politically unstable places such as Yemen and Libya are good for terror groups
  • Nigeria's government has been fighting Boko Haram for years, yet attacks continue
  • ISIS is a huge problem in Iraq, Syria and now in other places, such as Libya

(CNN)As leaders around the world say, terrorism can be anywhere.

But some places have it worse than others.
For all the well-founded worries in the West and elsewhere around the developed world, these kinds of locales are more likely stopping points than long-term homes for terror groups. Such violent, extremist organizations tend to gravitate toward less stable, more turbulent areas where they can operate more freely, recruit from a desperate populace and build up resources and momentum.
    If there's a power vacuum, in other words, militant groups can more easily amass power. And that creates big problems for those trying to root them out at the source.
    Below is a look at some places where terrorists are operating -- oftentimes in the absence of a central government with the resources to stop them -- and what is being done about them.

    LIBYA

    What's the threat?
    Well-armed groups are increasingly asserting themselves in the North African nation. Some of them aim to ensure that their tribes have control of their future, while others are stepping up to prevent worse alternatives from taking over.
    Such chaos has opened the door to terror, some of it coming from outside Libya's borders.
    One chilling example came in 2012, when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others died in an attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Three or four members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula participated in that incident, according to several sources who have spoken to CNN.
    Then there's ISIS. The group's link to Libya first became clear in October, when amateur video showed a large crowd in Derna affiliated with the Shura Council for the Youth of Islam chanting their allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
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    At that time, ISIS had up to 800 fighters in the area, plus training facilities in the nearby Green Mountains, sources told CNN. Al-Baghdadi would go on to characterize three Libyan "provinces" as being part of the Islamic State's "caliphate," with attacks in Tripoli and on a Libyan army checkpoint.
    The most recent glaring example of ISIS' barbarity in Libya came in a video released Sunday. It showed the mass beheading of over a dozen members of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, all dressed in orange with their hands cuffed behind them, at the hands of black-clad jihadists.
    What's up with the government?
    Three years ago, rebels backed by NATO aircraft toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Many saw this turnover as an opportunity for Libya to emerge as a more peaceful, more prosperous nation.
    Neither has happened. Instead, Libya has been beset by ongoing fighting between Islamists and the weak, internationally recognized government.
    That violence has seeped into the capital, where most embassies have closed and multiple bombings have occurred. Still, Tripoli is calm, relative to eastern Libya, where ISIS (and al Qaeda before it has thrived.
    What's next?
    Libya's central government appears powerless to stop groups like ISIS, at least in areas it doesn't firmly control. Others have tried to fill the breach.
    In August, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and sanctions for those involved in violence there. Around the same time, U.S. Pentagon and State Department officials said they believed Egypt and the United Arab Emirates had been carrying out secret airstrikes against Islamist militants -- a claim apparently dismissed by a UAE minister and denied by Egyptian leaders.
    Egypt, though, didn't deny its bombing of ISIS targets in Libya after the Christians' killings. "Avenging Egyptian blood and punishing criminals and murderers is our right and duty," its military said Monday, according to a statement broadcast on state TV.
    Bernardino Leon, the United Nations envoy to Libya, has floated the idea of international monitors when a peace agreement between rival factions is hammered out. But "when" seems a long way off, despite the beginning of talks between rival factions in Geneva, Switzerland.

    YEMEN

    What's the threat?
    The chief threat facing the average Yemeni may depend on whether he or she is Sunni, like 70% of the country, or Shiites, like the Houthi rebels that marched into the capital Sanaa, spurred the departures of Yemen's political leaders and asserted control. This violence and insecurity threatens citizens' ability to maintain their health, provide for their families and have much hope for a better future.
    For the rest of the world, though, the biggest threat in Yemen is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
    The group, known as AQAP, is probably the most well known and most feared branch of the terrorist network. Yemen is where al Qaeda's glossy magazine, Inspire, is published, and where Anwar al-Awlaki -- an American who was one of the world's most prominent terrorists before dying in a drone strike -- was based.
    Some of the West's biggest terrorism-related headlines in recent years have come from the work of AQAP in Yemen. In 2009 alone, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan exchanged emails with al-Awlaki before his deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Then, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab -- who later admitted traveling to Yemen and being inspired by al-Awlaki -- tried unsuccessfully to detonate explosives in his underwear on an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight.
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    More recently, Cherif and Said Kouachi are both thought to have traveled to Yemen for terror training before carrying out last month's massacre at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
    What's up with the government?
    Who controls Yemen, and who will control Yemen, is very much up in the air.
    There's no doubt that the Houthis, a group that's long felt marginalized in Yemen, are the pre-eminent power in Sanaa and elsewhere in the Arab nation.
    Yet their takeover hasn't been smooth and it's no guarantee it will ever be complete. There has already been resistance from different groups in Yemen, particularly in the south, where there's a long-running secessionist movement, and in the oil-rich province of Marib to the east of Sanaa.
    The United Nations-sponsored talks were aimed at breaking this impasse. But after two weeks, the Houthis declared these negotiations over and announced they will chart Yemen's political future by setting up groups to replace parliament and form a presidential council.
    It's highly unlikely that this plan will ever be universally embraced. Nor is there any telling when or even if Yemen will become stable and secure.
    What's next?
    Amid all the chaos, country after country has shuttered their Sanaa embassies in recent weeks. Yemeni leaders are focused on the domestic situation. Meanwhile, the exit of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi leaves the United States without a key ally in its fight against terror.
    Al Qaeda has taken advantage. Just in the last week, its forces took over a military camp (and all its weaponry) and freed six fighters from a southern Yemeni prison, according to security officials.
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    Still, even if its diplomats and its longtime allies in Sanaa are gone, the United States military isn't leaving Yemen just yet. U.S. Special Forces personnel will continue to operate in Yemen, doing training missions with Yemeni forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations.
    They proved as much late last month, with a drone strike that killed senior AQAP cleric Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari and three other people in Shabwa province.

    NIGERIA

    What's the threat?
    While its name translates from the Hausa language to "Western education is forbidden," Boko Haram hasn't lashed out in the West like al Qaeda or ISIS. Still, it has managed to cause plenty of violence and mayhem in and around Nigeria.
    This Islamist extremist group has gone after Nigerian troops, sure, but it's also shown little mercy for civilians. Deadly raids of peaceful villages, bombings of crowded markets and mass abductions -- most infamously the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok -- are the grisly norm for Boko Haram.
    The majority of its savagery has been concentrated in northeastern Nigeria, where the central government appears to have only a modicum of control.
    And in recent months, Boko Haram has increasingly lashed out into neighboring countries. Deadly attacks have been reported in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, most of them in areas near those countries respective borders with Nigeria.
    What's up with the government?
    After decades of coups and military rule, Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. But how the government of President Goodluck Jonathan has handled Boko Haram -- from criticisms that his government hasn't done enough to accusations that Nigerian forces are guilty of war crimes and other abuses -- has raised major questions about Nigeria's ability to emerge victorious, at least anytime soon.
    His challenge is exacerbated by existing divisions in the West African nation, the north of which is mostly Muslim while the south is predominantly Christian. Can any leader bring all sides together to defeat what's proven to be a resilient, powerful and ruthless enemy?
    That fight has already affected Nigeria's fragile democracy in one way: Elections were pushed back six weeks to late March due to concerns about "adequate security" at ballot boxes nationwide.
    The idea is that the Nigerian military needs time to finish off its offensive, i.e., finish off Boko Haram. But given its longstanding struggles on this front -- plus other problems, like a faltering stock market, a depleted currency and an oil-rich economy hit hard by low oil prices -- there's a lot of skepticism that Nigeria's government will be up to the task.
    What's next?
    The central government in Abuja has a lot hinging on its ongoing offensive. And it's too early to tell whether Jonathan will win re-election, assuming next month's vote actually happens.
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    Still, at least the Nigerian government is getting more and more help in its fight.
    Earlier this month, Benin, Cameroon, Niger and Chad pledged to deploy -- alongside Nigerian soldiers -- 8,700 troops, police and civilians, as part of a regional effort against Boko Haram.
    This seemingly coordinated effort comes at a time when Boko Haram has increasingly lashed out into other countries, to deadly effect. Is this a sign of strength, as evidence that the terrorist group is more capable than ever? Or could it mean that Boko Haram has overextended itself and ticked off too many players, something that it will someday regret?
    Time will tell.

    SOMALIA

    What's the threat?
    Al-Shabaab emerged in the mid-2000s, and despite a concerted international effort since then, it's still a threat to East Africa and Somalia, in particular.
    According to the U.S. government, Somalia's gross domestic product per person ranks 226th out of 228 countries. Such rampant poverty can be fodder for extremists to recruit people who don't see a better future elsewhere. And for many years, a weak central government didn't give them much reason for hope.
    Taking control of Somalia was long Al-Shabaab's main focus, as illustrated by its repeated targeting of soldiers, officials and institutions in the country. Yet, especially since the group's then-leader, Ahmed Godane, in 2012 announced that his followers "will march with (al Qaeda) as loyal soldiers," al-Shabaab has broadened its scope.
    The Islamist extremist group's international attacks include twin suicide bombings at a 2010 World Cup final watch party in Kampala, Uganda. But the most glaring, by far, came in September 2013, when its militants walked into the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and began gunning down shoppers -- allegedly torturing some hostages before killing them. The four-day long siege ended with as many as 67 dead and parts of the mall destroyed.
    What's up with the government?
    While it increasingly wages attacks elsewhere in East Africa, most of Al-Shabaab's violence has been in its home base of Somalia.
    The Somalian government, especially of late, has managed to hit back effectively.
    That's a tribute in part to Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised in 2013 for reducing the level of extremism in his country. In January 2009, "Al-Shabaab controlled most of Mogadishu and south and central Somalia, and looked like it would gain more territory," Clinton said at the time.
    Since then, the terrorist group has been on shaky ground -- in part, due to Somali government forces, which claimed to have captured Al-Shabaab's intelligence chief late last year. And some of it is thanks to the government's allies from the African Union and the United States, the latter of which killed Godane in an airstrike.
    What's next?
    It's hard to say that, even with all its setbacks, Al-Shabaab is on its deathbed. Not when you consider what the group has done and continues to do.
    Take, for instance, the suicide blast last month of a Somali army convoy in Mogadishu, the bombing of a bus carrying Kenyan teachers in Galkayo, Somalia, or an attack on an African Union military base.
    Still, one thing that Somalia has going for it -- compared to, say, Yemen or Libya -- is a strong central government that's not only taking the fight to terrorists, but doing it with the help of powerful allies such as the United States, the African Union and the United Nations.

    IRAQ AND SYRIA

    What's the threat?
    Iraq and Syria have their own unique problems. Keeping their countries united is a major, continuing challenge for both. They both have been dealing with violence for years, from various sources.
    But one thing that unites them -- besides a shared border -- is ISIS.
    This terror group can trace its origins to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who in the early 2000s led the group then known as al Qaeda in Iraq. A U.S.-led offensive put that group on the ropes, but didn't knock it out. The self-declared Islamic State has emerged in recent years as a powerful, successful force in taking over vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
    It's not just that ISIS has conquered so much territory. It's how: with large-scale killings, highly publicized beheadings and basically treating "unbelieving" civilians -- meaning anyone who doesn't subscribe to its extreme, twisted version of Islam -- as almost subhuman, then daring to somehow justify its barbarity.
    When even al Qaeda "disowns" you, there's a good chance that most of humanity will agree that you've gone way too far.
    What's up with the governments?
    Syria wasn't ISIS' first home, but it is where the militant group was effectively reborn.
    Capitalizing on the nation's instability during the years-long civil war, ISIS emerged as one of the most powerful threats to President Bashar al-Assad's government. Al-Assad is fighting back, though his government's ability to topple ISIS -- which has made the northern Syrian city of Raqqa its de facto capital -- is questionable, given its many other armed foes, the impact of international isolation on its economy and capability and the drain from years of war.
    Iraq has things going for it that Syria does not, such as more powerful international allies like the United States, an effective regional fighting force in the semi-autonomous Kurds and a government that has become more open to bridging the country's Sunni-Shiite divide.
    And yes, a U.S.-led coalition has provided much-needed airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, as well as Syria. But this group hasn't provided ground troops. That has left tribal militia and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, both of whom Baghdad has long been reluctant to support militarily, and sometimes overmatched Iraqi troops to battle ISIS to retake territory.
    What's next?
    More fighting, more fighting, and likely more fighting.
    While it's difficult to ascertain exactly how strong ISIS is, reports indicate that it is attracting people from around the world. Some join its fighters in Iraq and Syria; others opt to lash out in the West or elsewhere, the latest example being the Danish terror suspect who swore fidelity to al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, on Facebook.
    The groundswell of international opposition to ISIS is growing, not just in the West but also in the Middle East, where nations such as Jordan and Egypt have made big, public points of going after the group.
    But can ISIS be totally defeated if no one outside of Iraq and Syria puts troops on the ground?

    AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN

    What's the threat?
    When it comes to threats to peace and stability, the Taliban is exceptional, in part, because it once ruled a country and because of its staying power.
    Nineteen years after it assumed control of Afghanistan and nearly 14 year after it lost power during the U.S.-led onslaught following the September 11 terror attacks, the Taliban remains a violent, conservative force in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
    There are Taliban branches in the two nations, and they sometimes publicly differ. The Afghan Taliban, for instance, criticized the "deliberate killing of innocent people" after December's slaying of 145 victims, mostly children, at a school in Peshawar by the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.
    But in terms of ideology and tactics, there's not much difference. On both sides of the nebulous border, Taliban have been blamed for attacks on both civilians, government soldiers and officials alike.
    What's up with the governments?
    Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments have had a two-pronged approach to the Taliban: engage them in peace talks and also engage them on the battlefield.
    The former hasn't produced anything resembling peace in either country. Now their governments are publicly doubling down.
    After the Peshawar school attack, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, after the "unsuccessful" talks, "there was no option other than to engage in an operation against these people."
    "The Taliban, these extremists, the terrorists, they are the biggest threat to peace in this region, to peace in Pakistan, to the existence of Pakistan," Defense Minister Khawaja Asif has said.
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    Neighboring Afghanistan hasn't gotten much calmer, either, since Ashraf Ghani became president last year. Violent attacks are frequent, with scant hints of a diplomatic breakthrough.
    What's next?
    Probably more of the same.
    While U.S. and NATO troops were on track to nearly completely pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, that process has been adjusted. Ghani told CBS' "60 Minutes" that he thinks U.S. President Barack Obama should "re-examine" his timeline.
    Pakistan's military offensive against the TTP continues. But will the Pakistani government, with its long reported ties to the Taliban, put its full might behind defeating the group?
    That's an open question, as is whether the Afghan and Pakistani governments could really defeat the Taliban militarily, at least without significant outside help.