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Exploring Nigeria’s Vulnerability in cyber warfare

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In August 2012 Boko Haram reportedly hacked the personnel records databases of Nigeria’s secret service.  The individual who successfully compromised the covert-personnel data system indicated the breach was executed in the name of Boko Haram and as a response to Nigeria’s handling of interactions with the group

.[1]   The retaliatory attack revealed the names, addresses, bank information and family members of current and former personnel assigned to the country’s spy agency. The attack would not have tremendous significance in and of itself.  However, it represents a substantial shift in tactics for a group whose name connotes an anti-Western stance. Until recently Boko Haram attack strategy was far from technological.  However, since its association with Al Qaeda, Boko Haram has demonstrated a vastly changed approach to executing its attacks.  Attacks are now more violent and reflect the markings of training by al Qaeda personnel.  Given that cyber space has been part of the terrorists’ warfare tool kit since 1998 when the Tamil Tigers executed a distributed denial of service attack, [2] and al Qaeda has used the Internet as a vital communication vehicle since 1996, Boko Haram’s incorporation of cyber into its arsenal is almost inevitable.  More importantly though, Boko Haram’s access to an individual who can execute such a successful attack is indicative of the cyber arsenal workforce capability available to any group or nation that wants to employ it.  Boko Haram’s tactic advancement clearly demonstrates that Nigeria and its neighboring Sahel region neighbors are ripe for exploitation as a cyber warfare hub.

Cyber warfare is experiencing a boon.  The success of activities like Ghostnet, Stuxnet, Byzantine Hades, and Titan Rain has shown that the demand for such products will not slow anytime soon. Nation-states have begun to incorporate cyber warfare against opponents’ cyber space attacks into their national security strategy.[3] However, the reality is that nations executing these attacks do not always want to be identified as the perpetrators.  Case in point- after a student from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China executed a vast nation-state intrusion called “Ghostnet,” several media accounts of the attack wondered if China was involved.  China denied any knowledge of the attacks and the sensitive information retrievals from 103 invaded national security databases remained unclaimed.   The Chinese continued their public stance of denying culpability when a report on corporate intrusions specifically named the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army’s Unit 61398.  According to the report investigators traced several intrusions into United States (U.S.) corporate and government secure information technology systems to the PLA unit.

Just as China prefers a public stance of denial, so might other nations. Public response to Ghostnet and Stuxnet made it apparent nations would not always want it known that they were perpetrators of an attack.  It was clear that for nation-states to continue to incorporate this new weapon, they had to accommodate the sensitive diplomatic nature of such attacks by finding an alternate approach.  But we have to acknowledge that their appetites for these attacks will not diminish.  If anything, they will grow. What could this mean? If we use Boko Haram as an example, we can suggest an alternate approach that leverages the chaotic political situation and burgeoning supply of talented cyber personnel within Nigeria and the Sahel.  Executing attacks from this third-party cyber location, offers attack perpetrators and the cyber arms industry the ability to outsource, just as manufacturing does.[4]

If we use the impact of improvised explosive devices on Afghanistan and and Iraq as an example, Nigeria and the Sahel can offer resources for “niggling” attacks that target nation-states with “improvised explosive device” level attacks.  These attacks would cause damage that is cumulatively significant, but individually not.[5] The costs could remain low, as the readily available workforce functions in a region with an average annual income of $1180 (U.S. dollars). The nation-states employing this workforce will have a great cost-benefit ratio and the workforce itself will achieve success in their chosen field.[6] While the Vice Chancellor of Osun State University is not pleased that the stated goal of computer science students was “making money in cyber crime”[7] the reality is perpetrators of cyber warfare can use the demographic of Nigeria and the Sahel to train recruits and execute attacks without impunity.  The Sahel has an economic environment that is conducive to cyber crime activities, an exploitable sophisticated cyber highway, and an area where officials are more focused on political distractors than enforcing information communication technology regulations.

Nation-state with Sufficient Political Distractors

Nigeria and its Sahel neighbors have many cultural influences, particularly from a tribal perspective.  In addition, there are many natural resources available for state use to contribute to the country’s gross national product. But while this should be a positive, they are heavily affected by the corruption and direct disregard demonstrated by government leaders.  As a result, unemployment is high, there is minimal foreign investment, and the black market runs the shadow economy with money laundering, bank fraud and identify theft running rampant.  These factors contribute significantly to many of the nations in the region ranking high on the Failed State Index, from a total perspective and reflecting a high economic decline total.[8], [9]

Modern Fiber-Optic Information Communication Infrastructure

In the year 2000 only 4.5 million of Africa’s one billion people were categorized as Internet users.  That was a little more than .42%. However, as the continent, its resources, and potential 2050 workforce were combined to become opportunities for investors, it became apparent to these investors, and the African nations where this workforce lives, that tremendous improvements to the continent’s information highway were imperative.

Those improvements started with the Eastern Africa Submarine System (EASS) fiber-optic cable proposal in 2003.[10]   Other improvements were the 2009 fiber-optic submarine cable system Seacom, the 2010 Western Africa cable system, and the 2014 projected finish “connectivity” project. The continent now boasts over 15% Internet users, with some individual states experiencing much higher usage.[11] World bank nations that recognized this need and invested in the highway’s improvements include Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). South Africa joined the effort when it became a part of BRIC in 2010.

With these state of the art advancements, countries like Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia and the Sudan enjoy connectivity via mobile telephone technology to almost anywhere in the world.  The continent is now seen as an attractive foreign investment destination pursued by more than the initial chance takers. Residents of almost any state can access mobile technology, changing the definition of “remote Africa” and the number of marginalized populations.

But these same potential economy-boosting continental links also serve as the tool for cyber criminals to advance their entrepreneurial skills.

Cyber Warfare Attacks

The attacks executed by the perpetrators of Stuxnet, Ghostnet, and even Flame, were initially conceived and deployed incognito.  Flame functioned for almost two years before discovery; and when found, the United States did not initially acknowledge its role.  The negative international response to Flame and Ghostnet was enough for nation-states to realize that today’s military strategy-international diplomacy equilibrium demands a more discreet employment of this new weapon.  One that does not jeopardize current diplomatic relations or upset conventional weapons partners. The nations left vulnerable after each of these attacks also recognized that they would be at a disadvantage if they did not begin to include strategic cyber offensive and defensive operations into their national defense blueprint.  While the Flame attack was directly attributed to the United States, the Ghostnet attack was never conclusively identified as China directed. The young researcher identified as Ghostnet’s perpetrator was a well-known hacker who never implicated any other person or entity in the effort.

What if a nation-state employed the tactic and this type of workforce on a future attack?  That is: if a nation-state employed a third-party entity that is willing to NOT implicate the nation-state, could that nation-state successfully execute such a cyber warfare attack and not have to face the wrath of its international partners?

Rafal Rohozinksi, one of the investigators of Ghostnet and cofounder of Information Warfare Monitor, has suggested that such outsourcing could become a wave of the future.  Rohozinksi cites the factors that could contribute to the trend.  Nations need an alternative that offers anonymity, preserves current diplomatic balances and employs resources that are outside the nation’s jurisdiction.  To ensure anonymity remains throughout the event and its investigation, local resources from a jurisdiction that not prone to enforcing International Communications Technology (ICT) rules and regulations.[12]

According to a 2011 Harvard School of Public Health assessment Africa is expected to contribute 49% of the world’s 2050 population growth.[13] Rohozinski insists this 2050 workforce will have a demographic that is conducive to cyber crime: young, talented, from a developing nation, possessing a value system that has previously, and would in the future, support participation in or instigation of acts of cyber crime.[14]

If Rohozinski is correct, then we have to recognize that developing nations without strong ICT rules and regulation enforcement, nations with civil unrest or nations that lack services could serve as third party locations and perpetrator source.

The perpetrator source could easily begin with the University students who have professed a desire to work in the cyber crime industry.  These University students have already participated in attacks that focus necessary to execute such missions, one potential source of such attacks could very well be outside the borders of the

Taken together these factors make Africa attractive to almost any investor, especially any who inhabit the shadowy world of cyber crime. To hacking investors the limited resources needed to establish a presence is particularly inviting.  There is already an experienced cyber crime workforce, a reduced enforcement of ICT rules and regulations, a strong malware history and an economic environment that makes the potential very attractive.  As a business venture, there are few negatives.

Which Cyber Crimes?

Criminal use of the region’s Information highway already include electronic mail scams, scam letters that range from purchase of real estate, disbursement of money from wills, to sale of crude oil at below market prices. Communication usually occurs through electronic message via fax, e-mail or cell phone. Verification is difficult so victims ultimately pay the fees without evidence to validate the claim of the perpetrator.

While these types of cyber crime are perpetrated on a large scale in countries like Nigeria, the crimes themselves are not target specific.  The perpetrators initiate several scams at a time so that the perpetrator financially benefits, on average, from some, if not all, of the scams.  No one victim is regarded as the single important prey.

 Given the ideal conditions the region offers for third party cyber warfare attacks, several questions must be answered for national security strategists to understand the threat they could potentially face: would these same Nigerian or Sahel region cyber crime perpetrators initiate their perfected scams for another entity? Are they willing to expand their skill set and advance into target specific entities?  Finally, if they were willing to initiate target specific entities, would they execute an attack on infrastructure?  If they initiate the crime, is there a limit to the type of crimes they will launch?

There is already a perception/acceptance of students who “steal trade secrets, research documents or supplier’s agreements.  A cyber warfare or cyber espionage Internet malware, its indicators and its codes are available on the web, but are the already cyber crime literate workforce members motivated to execute these types of attacks? If the Boko Haram attack is an indication, they very well may be.  An almost unencumbered access to high quality information communication technology, combined with the computer literate young of 2050, make it wise for potential target nations to understand the threat this region could represent for them.  They must accept the reality that the opportunity this new industry offers the Sahel’s employment-opportunity-constrained workforce, and the potential to earn a living far above the current $1180 (U.S dollars) annual income, make the Sahel’s attractiveness as a cyber warfare third-party haven almost irresistible. [15]

Conclusion

The Sahel is already home to a variety of illicit activities, and adding cyber warfare to that list is not far fetched. Nation-states could benefit from expanding their repertoire of weapons, terrorist actors could include it in this arsenal against the West, and both would achieve their goals and objectives without significant infrastructure modifications. This could redefine cyber crime if both the nation-state and the terrorist actors, reconcile their value system with incorporating this approach to expanding their warfare arsenal.

These perpetrators of ill intent (whether nation-state or terrorist actor) recognize that, in today’s world, their victims do not have the option of “no presence on the web.” They can, therefore, inflict damage, pinpoint attacks, and execute attacks without significant cost. Their potential victims must therefore learn how to counter this attack approach while minimizing negative impact on the already fragile economies of the Sahel and, even, Nigeria.

The nations in the region, themselves, have to also include this consideration as they develop their law enforcement approach to information communication technology regulation enforcement.  Each nation already has shadow economies from the illicit crime and that economy feeds, houses, and clothes many of its citizens.  The governments of the area have to form a coalition with investing countries and identify alternates for these potential “failed state mercenaries and their robust cyber warfare attack tools.  We underestimated Boko Haram in the past.  We should not underestimate the bellwether Boko Haram’s cyber attack may represent.

(*)Exploring Nigeria’s Vulnerability in cyber warfare

By Denise N. Baken and Ioannis Mantzikos

Speech prepared for Society for the Study of Terrorism Conference 27-28 June 2013, University of East London

Bibliography

Adedayo, Olugbenga. “Secondary School Students’ Perceptions of Incidences of Internet Crimes Among School Age Children in Oyo and Ondo States, Nigeria (dissertation).” University of Ibadan, Nigeria, 2008. http://www.kaspersky.com/images/secondary_school_students_perceptions_of_incidences_of_internet_crimes_among_school_age_children_in_oyo_and_on-10-75860.pdf.

Adeniran, Adebusuyi. “The Internet and Emergence of Yahoo boys sub-Culture in Nigeria.” International Journal of Cyber Criminology 2, no. 2 (December 2008): 368–381.

Adigun, Bashir. “AP Exclusive: Nigeria Secret Police Details Leaked.” Salon, August 30, 2012. http://www.salon.com/2012/08/30/ap_exclusive_nigeria_secret_police_details_leaked/.

“Africa Internet Usage, Facebook and Population Statistics.” Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics, June 30, 2012. http://internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm.

Baken, Denise, and Ioannis Mantzikos. “Cyberspace Improvised Explosive Device and the Failed State Catapult-The Strategic Symbiotic Relationship Failed State Status Offers Nation-State Cyberwarfare Arsenals.” In New-Old Salafi/Al Qaeda Threats.
Washington, DC: Association fro the Study of the Middle East and Africa, 2012.

Denning, Dorothy. “Cyberterrorism – Testimony Before the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism Committee on Armed Services U.S. House of Representatives.” Georgetown University, May 23, 2000. http://www.cs.georgetown.edu/~denning/infosec/cyberterror.html.

Li, Hao. “World Population to Top 9 Billion by 2050, 49% Growth from Africa.” International Business Times, July 29, 2011. http://www.ibtimes.com/world-population-top-9-billion-2050-49-growth-africa-820105.

Mills, Elinor. “Report: Countries Prepping for Cyberwar.” CNN, November 17, 2009. http://articles.cnn.com/2009-11-17/tech/cnet.cyberwar.internet_1_south-korea-cyberwarfare-cyberattack?_s=PM:TECH.

Osman, Osman Dahir. “Submarine Fiber Optic Route to Somalia.” Hiiraan Online. September 27, 2007. http://www.hiiraan.com/news2/2007/sept/submarine_fiber_optic_route_to_somalia.aspx.

Panel on Cyber Crime. 41st St Gallen Symposium. University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpRYXRNWka0&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

Shuaib, Shuaib. “allAfrica.com: Nigeria: Cyber Crime, Our Biggest Problem – VC.” News. allAfrica.com, September 1, 2010. http://allafrica.com/stories/201009010416.html.

“The Failed States Index 2012 Interactive Grid.” FFP The Fund for Peace, June 18, 2012. http://www.fundforpeace.org/global/?q=fsi-grid2012.

“UNICEF – At a Glance: Nigeria – Statistics.” UNICEF. Accessed February 20, 2013. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/nigeria_statistics.html.

[1] Bashir Adigun, “AP Exclusive: Nigeria Secret Police Details Leaked,” Salon, August 30, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/08/30/ap_exclusive_nigeria_secret_police_details_leaked/.

[2] Dorothy Denning, “Cyberterrorism – Testimony Before the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism Committee on Armed Services U.S. House of Representatives,” Georgetown University, May 23, 2000,
http://www.cs.georgetown.edu/~denning/infosec/cyberterror.html.

[3] Elinor Mills, “Report: Countries Prepping for Cyberwar,” CNN, November 17, 2009, http://articles.cnn.com/2009-11-17/tech/cnet.cyberwar.internet_1_south-korea-cyberwarfare-cyberattack?_s=PM:TECH.

[4] Denise Baken and Ioannis Mantzikos, “Cyberspace Improvised Explosive Device and the Failed State Catapult-The Strategic Symbiotic Relationship Failed State Status Offers Nation-State Cyberwarfare Arsenals,”
in New-Old Salafi/Al Qaeda Threats (presented at the 5th Annual ASMEA Conference-History and the “New” Middle East and Africa, Washington, DC: Association fro the Study of the Middle East and Africa, 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Shuaib Shuaib, “allAfrica.com: Nigeria: Cyber Crime, Our Biggest Problem – VC,” news, allAfrica.com, September 1, 2010, http://allafrica.com/stories/201009010416.html.

[7] Baken and Mantzikos, “Cyberspace Improvised Explosive Device and the Failed State Catapult-The Strategic Symbiotic Relationship Failed State Status Offers Nation-State Cyberwarfare Arsenals.”

[8] The Failed State Index rates several indicators, one of which is economic decline.  The maximum number a country receive for any indicator is 10.

[9] “The Failed States Index 2012 Interactive Grid,” FFP The Fund for Peace, June 18, 2012, http://www.fundforpeace.org/global/?q=fsi-grid2012.

[10] Osman Dahir Osman, “Submarine Fiber Optic Route to Somalia,” Hiiraan Online, September 27, 2007, http://www.hiiraan.com/news2/2007/sept/submarine_fiber_optic_route_to_somalia.aspx.

[11] “Africa Internet Usage, Facebook and Population Statistics.”

[12] Panel on Cyber Crime, 41st St Gallen Symposium (University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2011), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpRYXRNWka0&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

[13] Hao Li, “World Population to Top 9 Billion by 2050, 49% Growth from Africa,” International Business Times, July 29, 2011, http://www.ibtimes.com/world-population-top-9-billion-2050-49-growth-africa-820105.

[14] Panel on Cyber Crime.

[15] “UNICEF – At a Glance: Nigeria – Statistics,” UNICEF, accessed February 20, 2013, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/nigeria_statistics.html.

Terrorism

A shift in militants’ strategy could shine a more positive light on failed US policy

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Terrorism

A paradigm shift in jihadist thinking suggests that the US invasion of Afghanistan may prove to have achieved more than many counterterrorism experts would want policymakers and military strategists to believe.

Similarly, the paradigm shift also hints at the possibility that the presence in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan of various militant Islamist and jihadist groups could turn out to be an advantage in efforts to prevent and contain political violence.

The evolution of tensions and unfolding of differences in the world of Afghan militancy will constitute a litmus test of the shift and how history will ultimately judge the United States’ 20-year forever war in Afghanistan in terms of counterterrorism.

The shift involves a move away from cross-border and transnational acts of violence towards local militancy and the garnering of popular support through good governance based on an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. It is a difference in strategy that constitutes one of the ideological and strategic differences between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“This is not because (the jihadists’) ideology has softened: It is because they have learned that inviting overwhelming reprisals from modern militaries is the fastest way to forfeit their conquests, squander their influence and be forced to start all over again,” said scholar and journalist, Hassan Hassan, in a lengthy piece of rare up-close reporting on jihadist militancy.

“Contrary to how some understand the US withdrawal in Afghanistan, the lesson extremists are taking from the Taliban’s success is not simply that jihad works but that diplomacy and engagement are a necessary part of the process, which includes reassuring the West about external threats emerging from their areas. What can be gained from parlays in Doha is more significant and lasting than any terror attack,” Mr. Hassan went on to say.

The shift amounts to a return to the pattern of Islamic militancy that historically is rooted in local grievances and conflicts. Mr. Hassan also describes the Islamic State’s transnational jihadism that targets the West,  long embraced by Al-Qaeda, as an aberration of that history.

Mr. Hassan’s analysis is supported by research published by The Soufan Group, a research organization established by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who played an important role in the interrogation of captured Al-Qaeda officials and was involved in related cases in the United States and elsewhere.

Analyst Abdul Sayed noted that Al Qaeda, in an effort to prevent the United States from driving it out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, has “shifted focus from global terrorist attacks and external operations to supporting local jihadist groups throughout South Asia, and fuelling the narratives that underpin their objectives. This shift helped build resilience, allowing Al-Qaeda to survive despite the massive blows inflicted by the United States and its allies.”

The Islamic State’s loss of its proto-state in Syria and Iraq, and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan appear to vindicate this paradigm shift.

CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward said she walked away from an interview in August with Abdu Munir, the name used by a commander of the Islamic State-Khorasan, two days before it attacked Kabul airport, with the impression that “ISIS-Khorasan is very different from ISIS… in Syria and Iraq. Ms. Ward was referring to the Afghan affiliate as well as the Islamic State itself using common Western abbreviations for them.

Ms. Ward said that “the conversation that I had with this commander did not lead me to believe that they had the same level of transnational ambitions… They’re much more focussed on the Taliban, honestly, than they are on trying to blow up a plane…and they’re much more simple, less sophisticated.”

The jihadist strategy shift would be further vindicated if the Taliban victory also reinforces ultraconservative religious trends in neighbouring Pakistan.

Ultraconservatives and jihadists may take heart from recent opposition by Muslim clerics, including Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for religious harmony, to draft legislation that would ban forced conversions.

As a result, the shift could become one more argument to justify a possible future decision by President Joe Biden to pull US troops out of Iraq and Syria originally dispatched to fight the Islamic State, as part of the emerging contours of a Biden doctrine.

“There is no question that the GWOT has not gone as planned… Yet it would still be wrong – and rash – simply to discard the GWOT as a strategic failure. The fact that consecutive presidents have found it so difficult to extricate the United States from ongoing operations in the greater Middle East reflects the reality of a persistent threat from extremist organisations and their allies… GWOT has been considerably more fruitful than it might first appear,” said analysts Hal  Brand and Michael O’Hanlon, referring to President George W. Bush’s global war on terror launched in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Messrs. Brand and O’Hanlon may be painting an overly optimistic picture. In the best of cases, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will only partially live up to their criteria of success laid out in a recent journal article. The Taliban’s policing of jihadists may prevent them from targeting the United States and others but will continue to offer them a safe haven, allowing them to recruit.

“Being a safe haven for global jihadists and acting as a launchpad for attacks against the West are not the same thing. Under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban have committed to preventing attacks being launched from Afghanistan, but they have not pledged to cut off relations with foreign jihadist groups altogether, nor to expel them from Afghanistan,” said Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi.

Even so, on balance that could turn out to be less of a problem provided the Taliban can keep in check the Islamic State, the one jihadist group that refuses to accept its takeover of Afghanistan or make Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, adopt the shift in strategy. The fata morgana of a Taliban 2.0 could be shattered if large numbers of Taliban fighters defect to the Islamic State in protest against the group’s policing of militants on Afghan soil and/or embracing degrees of social liberalization, particularly regarding women’s rights.

That could prove to be a big if. Question marks about the Taliban’s ability to police those groups that have welcomed its victory and/or pledged allegiance to it have already begun to emerge. Mr. Giustozzi reports that in contrast to Pakistani militants Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; the TTP and Al-Qaeda have refused to negotiate agreements that would tighten Taliban control by moving them to different parts of the country. Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar-e Janghvi are groups seen as having close ties to Pakistani intelligence.

The proposed agreements reportedly stroked with demands put forward by China that the Taliban ensure that militants on Afghan soil are prevented from training, raising funds and recruiting.

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson in Qatar, appeared to acknowledge the demands in an interview with the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper. “First, we will not allow any training on our territory. Second, we will not allow any fundraising for those who intend to carry out a foreign agenda. Third, we will not allow the establishment of any recruitment centre in Afghanistan. These are the main things,” Mr. Shaheen said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson in Kabul, however, last month left the door open on the Taliban’s relationship with the TTP.

“The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani Islamic scholars and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response,” Mr. Mujahid told a Pakistani television program. The spokesman stopped short of saying whether the Taliban would abide by a decision of the scholars.

The TTP is believed to be responsible for a recent spike in attacks on Pakistani security forces, including a suicide attack in Pakistan that killed three paramilitary soldiers and wounded 20 other people. The stepped-up attacks prompted the New Zealand cricket team to last week abandon its first tour of Pakistan in 18 years and abruptly leave the country while England cancelled its visit that had been scheduled for next month.

Similarly, behind the facades, cracks had already emerged between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, prompting the group, like the TTP, according to Mr. Giustozzi, to refuse to negotiate a deal with the Afghans and build support among factions of the Taliban that are more sympathetic to the jihadists.

Al-Qaeda was wary of what the Taliban’s agreement with the United States would mean for the group and suspected the Afghans of having a hand in the killing of several of its senior members in recent years. Al-Qaeda worries, moreover, that Taliban understandings with China and Russia could put its freedom of movement and/or existence into further jeopardy.

Apparently anticipating a Taliban failure to control all jihadists on Afghan soil and/or adoption of the paradigm strategy shift by some major jihadist groups, US intelligence officials predicted that Al-Qaeda would be able to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan and be capable of orchestrating attacks inside the U.S. in one to two years.

Their predictions were bolstered by the return to Afghanistan of Anwar ul Haq Mujahid, a leader of Osama bin Laden’s former “Black Guard,” who allegedly helped plan and orchestrate the jihadist leader’s escape in 2001 as the United States bombed his Tora Bora hideout. Mr. Mujahid, no family of the Taliban spokesman, reportedly returned to Jalalabad to command Taliban forces and foreign fighters in eastern Afghanistan. Several of his associates are said to also be back.

However, Mr. Mujahid’s return does not by definition deny the potential shift in Al-Qaeda strategy that is supported by the Taliban. It could be the Taliban’s way of placating the group as well as the more militant within its own ranks.

“Despite the persistence of the relationship…the Taliban have a strong interest in holding Al-Qaeda in check… It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Taliban provide space and financial support for Al-Qaeda to operate while also restricting the activities of the group to plot and stage attacks,” said scholar Cole Bunzel.

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Terrorism

Islamic State threat moves online, expands across Africa

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Two decades after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, terror networks Al-Qaida and Islamic State – also known as Da’esh – continue to pose a grave threat to peace and security, adapting to new technologies and moving into some of the world’s most fragile regions, the top UN counter-terrorism official told the Security Council on Thursday. 

UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov presented the Secretary-General’s latest report on the threats posed by terrorist groups, saying that Da’esh continues to exploit the disruption, grievances and development setbacks caused by the pandemic to regroup, recruit new followers and intensify its activities – both online and on the ground.    

Ever-evolving threat 

“Today, we face transnational terrorist threats like Da’esh and Al-Qaida that are enduring and able to adapt to new technologies, but also expanding to include individuals and groups that commit terrorist attacks connected to xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance”, said Mr. Voronkov. 

The UN counter-terrorism architecture, largely set up in the wake of the 9/11 attack, helps Member States implement effective frameworks to prevent, address, investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism.  

It is also ramping up efforts to help countries adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the threat, which has become more digital and de-centralized in recent years.  

Noting that the world is currently witnessing a rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan “which could have far-reaching implications” around the globe, he cited Da’esh’s expanded presence in that country and pointed out that several members of the Taliban have been designated as terrorists by the Security Council.   

We will need to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as launching pad for global terrorism“, stressed the UN official. 

He briefed the Council on the eve of the fourth commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism, observed annually on 21 August. 

Islamic State in Africa 

While Da’esh remains focused on reconstituting its capabilities in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Vornkov said the most alarming development in recent months is the group’s relentless spread across the African continent.

The so-called “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” has killed several hundred civilians since the start of 2021 in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, while the group’s “West Africa Province” will likely gain from the weakening of Boko Haram, with additional spillover of terrorists and foreign fighters from Libya. 

Meanwhile, the expansion of Da’esh in Central Africa – and especially in northern Mozambique – could have far-reaching implications for peace and security in the region. 

A global response is urgently needed to support the efforts of African countries and regional organizations to counter terrorism and address its interplay with conflict, organized crime, governance and development gaps”, said Mr. Voronkov.  

Repatriating women and children 

Alongside Da’esh’s expansion in Africa and its rapid shift online, Mr. Voronkov also cited the continued detention of thousands of individuals with alleged links to terrorist groups as another factor exacerbating the threat. 

Deteriorating conditions in detention facilities and displacement camps in northeast Syria, in particular, are serving as a rallying cry for terrorist activities.  They have already fuelled instances of terrorist radicalization, fund-raising, arms smuggling, training and incitement to terror. 

Against that backdrop, he echoed calls from officials across the UN for Member States to voluntarily repatriate all concerned individuals, with a particular focus on children.  

In September, the Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will jointly launch a global framework to support countries requesting assistance with protection, voluntary repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals with suspected links to designated terrorist groups returning from Iraq and Syria. 

The framework has already been deployed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. 

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Terrorism

Taliban and Al Qaeda: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?

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Abu Omar Khorasani was taken from Kabul’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison and unceremoniously shot.

The first and only person to have been executed since the Taliban gained full control of Afghanistan, Mr. Khorasani was the head of the Islamic State in South Asia until he was arrested by government forces last year.

The precise circumstances of his execution are not known. His killing was, however, at least in part designed to send a message to the international community, and particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China and Iran, as well as Russia, Central Asia’s security overlord.

The message was that the Taliban were cracking down on foreign jihadists and militants in Afghanistan.

Mr. Khorasani was an easy symbol. The Taliban and the Islamic State, whose ranks of foreigners are primarily populated by Pakistanis and a sprinkling of Central Asians, Uighurs, Russians, Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Indians, and Frenchmen, have long been adversarial. The Islamic State recently accused the Taliban of being more nationalist than pious in their negotiations with the United States.

The Taliban message is a partial truth at best. What is true for the Islamic State is not true for Al–Qaeda and others such as the Uighur Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Taliban appear to believe that they can get away with the differentiation because they perceived the United States as more focused in the withdrawal negotiations on ensuring that the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other militants will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for international operations rather than on getting them expelled from the country.

The perceived US focus may have been rooted in a concern that if Taliban’s hands were forced, they would let militants slip out of the country and not hand them over to authorities. That would make it difficult to control their movements or ensure that they are either entered into deradicalization programs or, if warranted, brought to justice.

“It’s a Catch-22. The Taliban ensuring that Al Qaeda sticks to rule risks putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. How much better that is than having foxes run wild remains to be seen,” said a retired counter-terrorism official.

Officials of the Trump administration that negotiated the agreement suggest that the continued presence of Al-Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan would violate the accord with the Taliban.

Former Vice President Mike Pence as well as Trump era State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales argued that the deal “required the Taliban…to refuse terrorists safe harbour.

Russia and China, while publicly more measured in their statements, are likely to share western concerns. Russia held military drills earlier this month with Tajik and Uzbek troops in Tajikistan, 20 kilometres from the border with Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda may have been boosted in recent weeks by multiple prison breaks in which the Taliban freed operatives of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups. It remains unclear however to what degree the breaks will help the group strengthen its presence in Afghanistan.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned this week that al Qaeda and the Islamic State could quickly rebuild their networks in Afghanistan.

The United Nations recently reported that Al-Qaeda “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces”, and that its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent, “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.” 

“Without information on who exactly escaped, it is difficult to determine whether historically significant figures remain within AQ’s AfPak network, or if it is mainly composed of newer figures these days, whether local or regional foreign fighters,” cautioned political violence scholar Aaron Y. Zelin. Mr. Zelin was referring to Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network.

Also unclear is whether Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran will be allowed to relocate to Afghanistan.

The prison breaks further go to concerns about relying on the Taliban to police jihadists and other militants with aspirations beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Of particular concern is the fact that the balance of power has yet to be determined between Taliban leaders who in recent days have been eager to put a more moderate, accommodating foot forward with security guarantees for their opponents, minorities and women and the group’s far-flung less polished rank and file.

The concern about the Taliban’s ability and willingness to control militant activity on Afghan soil is magnified by worry regarding the continued existence of warlords with the power to organise violence, provide jobs and public services, and forge or strengthen ties with militants.

Warlords will play an active role in the future of Afghanistan. They will remain businessmen and political leaders, connected to global economic processes and networks. They will develop the military power that they need to control territory and wage war. They will, finally, continue to fight for more autonomy and, in some cases, might even manage to partially form their old regional polities once again,” said Romain Malejacq, author of a book on Afghan warlords.

“Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a warlord-ridden wasteland,” said journalist and author Graeme Wood.

The Taliban’s refusal to expel militants not only complicates the group’s efforts to garner legitimacy in the international community and particularly its neighbours, even if Al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened since 9/11 and is less focussed on attacking the United States and more on the Muslim world.

It also strengthens those who fear that Afghanistan will again emerge as a launching pad for trans-national political violence. “We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state—a breeding ground for terrorism,” warned Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They (the Taliban) will not restrict terrorist groups, just ask them to operate low-key,” added Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia.

The Taliban proved already 20 years ago that they valued loyalty when they rejected US and Saudi pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden no matter the cost. The Taliban have since come to appreciate Al Qaeda’s fighting skills and contributions to the Afghan militants’ cause.

Taliban fighters this week, in a violation of their pledge to inclusiveness, demonstrated their ideological anti-Shiite affinity with Al-Qaeda by blowing up a statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Shiite Hazara militia leader killed by the Taliban when they first took power in 1996.

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