Al-Qaeda is back in Iraq, a fact underscored by a wave of spectacular attacks this summer. With 325 Iraqis killed by militants, according to statistics released on August 1 by the Iraqi Health Ministry,
July was the country’s deadliest month in two years.Al-Qaeda, believed to be on the wane in the country when U.S. forces withdrew troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, played a direct role in the violence through affiliates.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which carried out numerous large-scale attacks in 2004-07, has taken the opportunity provided by the U.S. withdrawal to regroup and even expand its reach abroad.
And the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella group of militant organizations that includes Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has taken responsibility for a number of deadly attacks recently.
One, on July 23, involved tens of coordinated strikes across the country that targeted Shi’a and left more than 100 people dead.
Both appear to have benefitted from the unrest in neighboring Syria.
The U.S. State Department reported this week that Al-Qaeda worldwide is “on the path of decline,” particularly after the death of its founder and leader Osama bin Laden.
Nonetheless, it also noted the resiliency of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Sunnis Against Shi’a
“In fact,” the report read, “towards the end of 2011, AQI was believed to be extending its reach into Syria and seeking to exploit the popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.”
Meanwhile, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared the conflict in Syria to be part of the broader struggle between Sunnis and Shi’a in the Middle East.ISI poses as the champion of Iraq’s disgruntled Sunni minority, and regional specialists see it as trying to link itself to the Sunni majority in Syria, which is fighting against al-Assad’s Alawite Shi’ite regime.
Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, points to Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Sunni-populated eastern and central Iraqi regions since the beginning of this year and believes the group sees opportunities arising out of the volatile situation in Syria.
“To a great extent, the conflict between the Sunni rebels in Syria and the Shi’ite or Alawite government there is definitely granting Al-Qaeda’s activities in Iraq more legitimacy and more momentum,” he said.
Seth Jones, a counterterrorism specialist at the Rand Corporation in Washington, agrees. He says Al-Qaeda in Syria is an offshoot of the group’s Iraqi affiliates. He says that Al-Qaeda in Iraq provides weapons, fighters, and bomb-making expertise to its Syrian contingent.
According to Jones, ISI leader Al-Baghdadi also has some influence on Abu Muhammad al-Julani, head of Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant. He maintains that such links provide Al-Qaeda with an opportunity to carve out a sanctuary in Syria.
“I think the instability in Syria and the Al-Qaeda in Iraq footprint in Syria provides an opportunity to revitalize in Iraq; recognizing though, that at the moment Al-Qaeda in Iraq is in a much weaker position than it was, say, in 2004 and 2005,” he said.
‘Worse To Come’
But the growing strength of Al-Qaeda has united Baghdad and Damascus in an unspoken alliance.
Syria characterizes the rebels as “terrorists”.
Senior Iraqi official see branches of Al-Qaeda in both countries as one organization. The Iraqi government has distanced itself from Arab League calls for Al-Assad to step down.
While Syria hosted more than 1 million Iraqi refugees, Baghdad has imposed tight restrictions on the entrance of those attempting to flee fighting in Syria.
Soltan sees this as a sign of worse things to come.
He envisages the situation continuing to deteriorate in Iraq as the country’s politicians fail to muster a workable power-sharing settlement. This, he says, has angered many Iraqis who are facilitating Al-Qaeda’s return.
Soltan predicts that given the transnational nature of identities and ethnic and religious affiliations in the Middle East, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are likely to merge in future.
Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
India’s Hybrid / Cyber threats and its regional implications
Hybrid threats are designated as a swing from a traditional force model to an approach which combines kinetic and non-kinetic tools in a deliberate and synchronized campaign to destabilize and gain political leverage over an opponent. However, Hybrid warfare is widely understood as a blend of regular, irregular, information and cyber warfare. After the nuclearization of South Asian region, there has been a growing realization within the Indian military that a conventional war could be both untenable and cost prohibitive. Such conception gave rise to hybrid war under the rubric of nuclear weapons as the preferred strategy by India.
One can observe the evident growth of hybrid warfare in the Indian strategy of pressuring Pakistan through media, subversion, cyber warfare and diplomatic maneuvers aimed at its isolation. Doval doctrine is the clear evidence that India has already strategize against Pakistan. India’s hybrid warfare strategy against Pakistan is built on five major fronts around Pakistan’s perceived weaknesses to achieve the “3D Objectives”. 3D indicates the Destabilization, Demoralization and Disintegration of Pakistan. This doctrine furthermore includes five more fronts under the regime of hybrid threats which are proxies, information war, cyber warfare, economic war and political war. The stipulated objective is weakening of Pakistan to the extent that it accepts Indian hegemony in the region.
India is proficiently using hybrid-warfare capabilities to pursue its objectives in South Asian region since the end of Cold War. Nevertheless, Islamabad has been resisting New Delhi’s endeavors to establish its hegemony in the region. India has been frequently violating the Line of Control. Within the military domain it is against the law and not allowed to launch fire on the civilians’ working or moving near the border during the peacetime. India always tries to defame and malign the image of Pakistan by manipulating and misguiding international media. By the end of March 2020, a RAW funded group caught in Karachi University fueling anti-state activities including terrorism and anti-state narrative propagation against Pakistan. Although Pakistan very efficiently embarks upon curbing India generated conspiracies, such type of activities being carried out, increasing hybrid threats pose serious security concerns for Pakistan.
As stated above, hybrid threat involves cyber warfare techniques as assisting tools of hybrid techniques. Cyber threat is another hazard in South Asian region to be handled and manipulated to win advantages over enemy. New technologies are quickly integrated into both nations’ strategies; utilizing cyberspace has become a useful tool for both India and Pakistan. Cyberspace has become a space where hacktivists and patriotic hackers from both sides can express their patriotic feelings and denigrate the adversary. Cyberspace also acts as a means for Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), which are groups that hold highly probable links to state institutions, to spy and gain information on their opponent. Technologically number of the cyber-activities observed in the India-Pakistan rivalry showed that even with relatively unsophisticated cyber-tools, APTs managed to steal information and achieve their strategic goals. Actors involved in the cyber activities and operations carried out between India and Pakistan in cyberspace used a variety of cyber tools and techniques to achieve their aims. Hacktivists and patriotic hackers used specific tools to find vulnerabilities in websites, and then exploited them to deface the site. APTs tended to use spear phishing to get access to their victim’s network and then infect them with spying malware.
Rising Security Research Institute in 2019 has captured the attack launched by the internationally renowned Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) organization “Rattlesnake” through the Rising Threat Intelligence System. This time, the organization had targeted the Pakistani Navy via Target collision hijacking method. Specifically targeting the Pakistan Naval Public Relations Bureau, the attempt was aimed at stealing vital information from secure military networks while planting misleading documents masquerading as official statements from the Pakistan Navy regarding its regional neighbors such as China and India. Based on such threats, Pakistan must be readily prepared for any kind of cyber espionage and take steps towards establishing a strong national cyber policy to protect its civilian and military infrastructure.
Hybrid/cyber threats operates below the threshold and it has deepen it’s in roots in South Asian region especially in Pakistan. War had never been smooth since its early times but hybrid war threats employ different tools in engaging low intensity conflicts which mainly include cyber threats along social disintegration, political and economic subversion. Senator Mian Raza Rabbani stated in 2019, that ‘this is a hybrid war. We need to understand it correctly.’ In hybrid warfare, the purpose is not to always achieve an immediate victory; sometimes the purpose is to demoralize it over time. Pakistan is already having a deteriorating economy and it needs to steadily address the causes that are providing leverages to conduct hybrid operations in Pakistan and leaving long term hazardous effects in form of weak economic conditions, political and social instability. Pakistan must formulate a national hybrid threats response policy to tackle and dissolve the hybrid threats posed by India. Whereas in the cyber domain Pakistan should emphasize more on indigenously developing its own cyber security industry so that in the near future it could benefit both its civilian and military infrastructure in the long run. Hence, while Pakistan may be limited in its ability to wage a strong offensive campaign within the realm of cyber warfare at the moment, such steps would go a long way in helping lay the foundations to build something greater on.
Post 2020: The Changing World Order
Since 9/11, more than 700,000 people have lost their lives; inter-state and civil wars in past decades have amounted to major nostalgia related to deaths, protests, causes and millennium challenges. More than seven million people are losing their battle against various forms of cancer every year; nevertheless, public hysteria has not been able to penetrate above our sense of normalized livelihoods. It is essential to understand the distinction; Covid-19 is a pandemic, and although other diseases might be genetic, the fear of easy human to human transmission is absent. These examples are an example in themselves; the mounting count of human deaths is not significant, the possibility of disrupting the finely manufactured cluster of capitalist class is however more consequential. News making has been largely disproportionate in the past century, agenda setting, and the priority of equivalent international tragedies are being determined as per the whims of interest groups. For the sake of imagination, let us compare why millions of people are forced into a lockdown with the pandemic’s measured mortality rate being less than 10%; while more than millions of troops from different nations are forced into war with higher percentage of likely deaths. Covid-19 is dangerous for humankind but there is lot at stakes. However, these propositions are not going to last anymore. Welcome to the new world order.
Before examining the possible nature of a new kind of international structure, it is vital to reflect on key learnings that the pandemic has put in front of us. Firstly, and most disappointingly, the month-long episode of the virus lacked consistency and the circulation of sensible knowledge. It has given the general public with more analytical time to reflect on news feeding. In all honesty, media outlets are living on the edge, the enormous batch of content consumers that were not readily available for interpretation before, are now examining realities inside their homes. Every other online platform is running live updates on the death counts; however, the cause of manufacturing vaccines is lacking major thrust.
The world has pierced a falsified version of how hegemony was defined in the past. The events since February has proven that humankind might have taken up the vocabulary too quickly. Major economies, if not the most powerful ones are displaying a dangerous level of unpreparedness to tackle a transmitting virus. It is necessary to put this into perspective; the world has enough atom bombs to kill the entire human race for more than thousand times but is lacking respiratory ventilators for Covid-19 patients. Even if hegemony was real, it can be deemed as merely being a loose term. Coming afoot with international co-operation has shaken things up as well. We are witnessing nation states resorting to state-of-the-art models to tackle the pandemic. For instance, South Korea is managing to test and isolate patients while compared to infected western nations. There is one more taking from the anomaly that has been unexpected. Nation states are not confident towards the expertise of one another. International co-operation will now need another definition altogether.
At present, the new global order is a dis-order. A biological intervention is largely to blame for the imbalance. Predictively, new forms of stakeholders will take birth in the coming time. Stringent border control over biohazards might become the new norm while localization in terms of work with the help of technology is proving to be highly useful. The world will greatly anticipate if not witness frequent seismic shocks and consequent precautionary actions against other possible pandemics in the future. The new order is still taking shape but will undoubtedly face inspiring arbitrations.
Global Tech Companies Counter Online Terrorist Content
One of the most recent trends to appear in internet governance is the tightening of control over online content. And it was China and Russia that set the wheels for this in motion. The trend has extended across the globe – just look at the impressive list of states that supported the Christchurch Call to Action to eradicate terrorist and violent extremist online content. France, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Indonesia and many other states endorsed the call, questioning the right to spread information online without any restrictions.
It is no secret that terrorists today strive to use the benefits of the nascent digital age for nefarious purposes, namely, to spread dangerous content, recruit new foot soldiers, finance terrorist groups and broadcast terrorist attacks using various internet resources. This is why many governments, fearing the radicalization of their population, demand that global internet platforms step up measures to counter extremist and terrorist content. For example, in May 2017, the Parliament of the United Kingdom criticized Twitter and Facebook for their inability to remove extremist content. At the 2018 G7 Summit in Toronto, security ministers demanded that tech companies step up the fight against dangerous content.
The Christchurch Call to Action
The Christchurch Call to Action to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online came in May 2019 from the Government of New Zealand as the peak of governmental demands for radical measures to be taken in this area.
Speaking to CNN, Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern said, “This call to action is not just about regulation, but instead about bringing IT companies to the table saying you have a role, too.”
The Call came after the tragic events of March 15, 2019, when a terrorist used Facebook Live to run a 17-minute broadcast of a mass shooting in Christchurch mosques. The video was accessible for 29 minutes on Facebook itself, and for several hours on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. The delayed reaction of global digital platforms meant that millions of users throughout the world watched the broadcast.
For New Zealand and for many other states, this tragedy signalled the need to take drastic measures. New Zealand and France spearheaded a summit held in Paris on May 15, 2019, that was attended by the leaders of 17 states, representatives of the European Commission and eight tech companies (Amazon, Daily Motion, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.) . The Christchurch Call is essentially an action plan calling upon its signatories to prevent using the internet as a tool for terrorists.
As of today, 48 states, UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the European Commission and eight tech companies have joined the call to action.
Curiously, three important actors remained uninvolved with the Call to Action: Russia, China and the United States. Beijing and Moscow did not officially comment on their refusal to join. Washington cited its respect for freedom of speech while generally supporting the overall goals of the document. The United States counters dangerous content at the state level, but it employs different methods. Instead of blocking information, the United States, according to the White House, promotes credible, alternative narratives to “defeat” terrorist messaging.
A Pure PPP
The Christchurch Call is a pure PPP. The document envisions a clear delimitation of duties between government bodies and businesses.
For instance, governments must:
-counter the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism;
-increase media literacy;
-ensure the effective enforcement of applicable laws;
-encourage media outlets to apply ethical standards when depicting terrorist events online.
Technical solutions, including content control (content filtering and blocking), are left to tech companies that, among other things, are mandated to:
-develop technical solutions to prevent the upload of violent terrorist and extremist content;
-provide greater transparency in detecting and removing content;
-implement regular reporting;
-ensure that algorithms developed and used by the companies do not lead users to extremist content.
The Call also lists several joint commitments for government and online service providers, including:
-accelerating research into and developing technical solutions;
-ensuring appropriate cooperation with and among law enforcement agencies for the purposes of investigating and prosecuting illegal online activity;
-developing processes allowing governments and online service providers to respond rapidly, effectively and in a coordinated manner to the dissemination of terrorist or violent extremist content.
GIFCT to the Rescue
Global tech companies began to respond to the governmental calls to flag dangerous online content long before the tragedy in Christchurch. For instance, in June 2017, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube formed the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) under the auspices of the United Nations. The Forum’s participants pledged:
- to develop and share technology to responsibly address terrorist content across the industry;
- to fund research and share good practices in order to develop viable methods of countering dangerous content.
The European Commission supported the Forum, allocating €10m in funding to it. Additionally, a $5m joint innovation fund was launched jointly with Google.org for countering hate and extremism. This fund financed non-profits combating hate both online and offline.
GIFCT is based on a multi-stakeholder governance model and actively cooperates with small internet companies, civil society, scientists, and governmental and non-governmental organizations. Through the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism and the Tech Against Terrorism programme spearheaded by the United Nations, the Forum has worked with over a hundred tech companies throughout the world. Conferences for stakeholders have been held in Europe, the Asia Pacific and Silicon Valley. Additionally, GIFCT members attend G7 ministerial meetings and actively interact with Europol.
At the same time, the Forum is not open to everyone. In November 2019, China’s rapidly developing internet platform TikTok was denied membership because it did not meet the established criteria, including compliance with certain human rights requirements and the publication of transparency reports. The Forum’s members are concerned that TikTok may be collecting data and engaging in censorship.
Methods of Countering Dangerous Content
The principal method of countering dangerous content is the constant updating of the general industry “hash” database. “Hashes” are unique digital “fingerprints” of terrorist and extremist content (photos and videos). This database allows any Forum member to automatically detect and remove illegal content from their digital platforms prior to it going public. In the two years since its launch, GIFCT has accumulated over 200,000 unique hashes. In addition to this database, Forum members have been able to share URLs linked to terrorist and extremist content securely with their sectoral partners since January 2019.
As of today, 13 companies and services have access to the database: Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Ask.fm, Cloudinary, Instagram, JustPaste.it, LinkedIn, Verizon Media, Reddit, Snap and Yellow. As we can see, access has mostly been granted to companies based in the United States.
To support the Christchurch Call, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft released joint statement on expanding the GIFCT’s activities and listing nine steps on countering terrorist and extremism content online. Nearly half of these steps need to involve government agencies and other stakeholders. These actions include, among other things:
- creating better feedback methods for reporting illegal content
- enhancing technology through additional investment
- cooperating with the sectoral, governmental and non-governmental bodies with a view to developing a protocol for rapid response to illegal actions
- publishing regular reports on transparency concerning flagging and removing terrorist content
More New Initiatives
The Christchurch Call also generated new institutions, instruments and forms of business cooperation with governmental agencies and civil society bodies.
In September 2019, GIFCT was transformed into an independent organization. The Forum’s participants announced that they would be expanding cooperation between companies, governmental agencies and experts.
To support the “call to action,” the companies agreed to take additional steps:
-set up formal channels of communication so they can share intelligence and content with non-GIFCT companies and other stakeholders;
-introduce joint content incident protocols to enable and empower companies to more quickly and effectively respond to illegal online activities (such a protocol describes steps companies could take for a rapid response to an attack).
The Christchurch Call Advisory Network will be set up to ensure that the measures adopted to counter dangerous content do not violate human rights. The network will comprise civil society organizations that aim to “integrate a broad range of perspectives and live up to the commitments in the Call around supporting human rights and online freedoms, as well as the rights of victims of terror.”
It is also worth noting here that, in September 2019, Microsoft, Hewlett Foundation, MasterCard and several other large IT corporations, together with a number of charity foundations, launched the CyberPeace Institute intended to aid victims of cybercrime.
“Occupational Aptitude” Test
A tragedy in Germany served as the first major occupational aptitude test for the overhauled GIFCT. On October 9, 2019, several shooters opened fire in the vicinity of a synagogue in Halle and uploaded a video of the attack. The video remained on Twitch for 65 minutes and was seen by 2200 people. Copies were distributed via Telegram, 4chan and other services (none of which are GIFCT members).
The video of the shooting was not spread via larger online platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, which GIFCT saw as a positive shift in countering extremist content. This was largely due to the abovementioned Content Incident Protocol (CIP). Actions taken under the protocol include: a) promptly uploading hashes of the attacker’s video, its derivatives, and other related content into the shared GIFCT hash database; and b) promptly notifying Europol and the government of Germany about the incident.
The official website of the Forum notes that the incident uncovered vulnerabilities where additional work on mechanisms for countering dangerous content is needed. Moreover, the Forum’s members intend to simplify the decision-making process, step up the exchange of information with various stakeholders and ensure that the blocking system is continually improved.
One Goal, Different Approaches
Russia was not involved with the Christchurch call and the new institutions and mechanisms it generated. The media reported that Russian companies had not been invited to sign the document.
At the same time, representatives of Russian online platforms said that their own rules generally comply with the contents of the Call. The Odnoklassniki social network welcomes the introduction of rules for handling extremist content. Additionally, the network continuously improves its tools for the rapid detection and blocking of prohibited content. For this purpose, it primarily uses so-called neural networks that have learned to identify depictions of violence in accordance with set patterns and hide dangerous content from public access. Another social network, VKontakte, also uses neural networks to automatically detect and block extremist content. Pursuant to requests from users or governmental agencies, dangerous posts are blocked within minutes.
The Russian government was also not involved with the Christchurch Call, since it had not been invited to join the discussion of the document and endorse it.
We can assume that the Call in its current form, despite its good intentions, would hardly suit the Russian side. We have already mentioned that the Christchurch Call is a pure public-private partnership that assigns significant responsibilities to private companies. Russia, on the other hand, invariably emphasizes the importance of public-private partnerships while maintaining the leading role of the state in handling security issues. Other stakeholders (non-governmental organizations, private companies, etc.) are assigned supporting roles. Western companies, on the contrary, stress the leading role of businesses in this issue. For instance, Tom Burt, Corporate Vice President for Customer Security and Trust at Microsoft, noted in his blog, “The internet is the creation of the private sector, which is primarily responsible for its operation, evolution and security.” He believes that governments should play an important role in observing and enforcing standards of conduct in cyberspace and in preventing harmful attacks by other nations.
Despite these different approaches, there are certain common points where Russian and Western interests overlap:
- Tightening control over online information flows.
- Involving various stakeholders in the process of resolving the problem.
The danger of illegal content spreading over the internet is a global cross-border threat. Russia does not censor the internet like China does with its Great Firewall. Millions of Russian citizens use Western internet platforms, browsers and messengers, and the dangerous content spread there is our problem too. What matters in this regard is the dialogue between parties, even if Russia (through the government or private companies) was not a signatory to the Christchurch Call to Action and is not a member of the organizations affiliated with it. It is important that we make use of those areas where Russian and Western interests overlap, since we travel different roads to the same goal – cleansing the information space of dangerous content.
Communication channels between Russian and Western stakeholders need to be set up, and agreements need to be reached on the means of interacting and cooperating. Criteria need to be defined for flagging extremist and terrorist content to prevent misidentification. And technical solutions need to be shared.
An open-ended intergovernmental expert committee could serve as a platform for sharing opinions on the problem with a view to drafting an international convention on countering the criminal use of information and communication technologies.
 A total of 17 states supported the Christchurch Call At the Paris Summit on May 15, 2019 (the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Senegal, Spain and Sweden), as did the European Commission and eight tech companies (Amazon, Daily Motion, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Qwant, Twitter and YouTube).
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