May 4, 2018

IntelBrief: The Battle for Ballots 

Afghan employees of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul).
  • On May 2, members of the Islamic State attacked an election commission in Tripoli, Libya, killing at least 12 people.
  • The group issued a statement saying it had specifically targeted ‘the apostate ballot stations’ in the leadup to upcoming elections.
  • In Kabul, an April 22 attack on a voter registration center killed at least 57 people trying to register for the country’s October elections.
  • There will be more attacks in both countries, and in Iraq, as terrorist groups cannot flourish in countries that have free and fair elections and effective democracies.


In the United States, pundits talk about elections as a ‘battle of turnout,’ and expend extensive time and money motivating supporters to get out and vote. In countries that are struggling to establish democracies, including Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the ‘battle of turnout’ is all too literal. Terrorist groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State reject the notion of free and fair elections and inclusive governments with elected representatives. Elections are antithetical to terrorist groups, and they engage in relentless attacks on the election process.

On May 2, two Islamic State members stormed the High National Election Commission (HNEC) office building in the Ghout al-Shaal area of Tripoli, Libya. Even in a nation as troubled as Libya, Libyans have been working to register voters and do the extensive groundwork that precedes free and fair elections. The two attackers murdered 12 people inside the HNEC office, using a combination of gunfire and explosive vests. The Islamic State claimed responsibility a few hours after the attack, saying that it had deliberately targeted the HNEC because it was one of the ‘apostate ballot stations.’ The Islamic State, which has suffered dramatic loses in Libya over the last two years, is still a significant enough threat to conduct one of the worst attacks in Tripoli in years. The selection of the election commission offices was enormously symbolic.

Recent attacks are not limited to Libya. On April 22, the Islamic State conducted a suicide bomber attack outside of a voter registration center in Kabul. The attack killed at least 57 people and wounded more than 100. The majority of those killed or wounded were either trying to register themselves or help others register for Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 2018. The Afghan government is under extreme pressure to safeguard not just the elections in October, but the leadup required to make those elections successful.

Encouraging people to register to vote is crucial; the Taliban and the Islamic State know this and have made targeting registration centers a priority. Along with a free press—an attack on which occurred on April 29 when 10 journalists were killed in Afghanistan—free elections are anathema to terrorist groups. Candidates run for office at great personal risk, and voters register with similar risk. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the battle for the ballot is real.


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