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Al-Qaeda Expands into Northern Syria

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In a post for Jihadology a few weeks back, I identified how the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) was playing an important role in the fighting on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo and in the surrounding countryside.

Since that time, it has become apparent that the group has been seeking to expand outwards and to consolidate control over outlying towns in both the Aleppo and Idlib regions, particularly those of strategic importance along or near the border with Turkey.

Azaz

This initiative has already served to foster division. For example, in the town of Azaz, which is in close proximity to the Turkish border, a protest ocurred on July 1 against ISIS’ entry into the town and its attempt to establish headquarters there. Yet on July 5, Azaz saw a counter-rally in favor of ISIS featuring a slogan common for such demonstrations—’Labbayka ya Allah’ (‘I am at your service, God’)—accompanied by conspicuous numbers of ISIS flags.

It should be noted that this pattern of division—between those members of Syrian society who support ISIS vs. those who do not—is also observed in the city of Aleppo itself, where ISIS supporters have generally held separate rallies from those of other demonstrators. (I have found one notable exception: a rally on June 4 for the then-besieged city of Qusayr in the area of al-Firdus, featuring both ISIS and Free Syrian Army [FSA] flags).

Resentment over the ISIS presence in Azaz grows. One notable outlet for this disapproving sentiment is a youth activist Facebook page called ‘The Youth of Aleppo—Azaz‘ which posted the following status: ‘We ask the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham to establish their state from Iraq [meaning ‘in Iraq’?] since the system of prostitution [there] has not yet fallen.’

The group has also circulated an alleged statement from a local council in the town of Tel Abyaḍ in Raqqah Governorate claiming that the ISIS has confiscated internationally-donated generators intended to provide drinking water for the residents of the town.

On the other hand, ISIS is attempting some outreach to the locals of Azaz, offering Qur’an and Sunnah recitation competitions—among other religious activities—for the population during Ramaḍān.

Jarabulus

As for other towns, here is a photo of the ISIS headquarters in the northern border town of Jarabulus. The banner reads: ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Province of Aleppo. Emirate of Jarabulus.’

One activist page on Facebook called ‘Jabhat al-Nusra does not represent me’ claims the following to give context to the first photo: ‘Photo from Jarabulus following the seizure of it by al-Qa’ida after battles with the FSA. It is said that ISIS then killed scores of civilians, among them children, during al-Qa’ida’s attempt to occupy the town.’

In a similar vein, on June 15, the Arabic news outlet al-Waie News claimed to cite a local source in Jarabulus on clashes between ISIS and a rebel battalion known as the ‘Family of Jādir,’ which uses the FSA flag.

The source claimed that the clashes started after a member of ISIS was wounded during a round of celebratory gunfire that followed a concord reached between the two groups, giving rise to a renewed violent battle between ISIS and the Family of Jādir for fifteen hours, resulting in ISIS’ seizure of the town, as well as the killing of one ISIS fighter and several from the Family of Jādir.

On 13 June, the leader of the Family of Jādir—Yusuf al-Jādir—released video testimony in which he claimed that ISIS launched an attack on the home of Ahmad al-Jādir and then began shooting at dozens of innocent civilians, resulting in the deaths of several children: among them, Mahmoud Kerkaz, Sheikho Shawish, Ibrahim al-Ahmad, and a young Kurdish girl. He continues by documenting other alleged acts of ISIS aggression in the town.

It thus appears that ISIS seized control of Jarabulus by force. One thing that is important to note from the opposing testimony is the issue of naming. The source for al-Waie News from Jarabulus merely sees ISIS as a new name for Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in the town, and Yusuf al-Jādir likewise deems the two names interchangeable.

Thus, even if my formulation for the city of Aleppo itself—that ISIS and JN are two separate entities—applies here, the perception of at least some residents of the town nevertheless differs. As in Raqqah, the two may well be interchangeable in Jarabulus.

The concept of interchangeability could make sense here in light of the fact that JN has had an active presence in the northern Turkish border areas in the past (cf. clashes with Farouq Battalions in April on the border in Raqqah Governorate). Certainly, Jarabulus has been known for a JN presence in the past: here is a video of a JN-led rally in Jarabulus from December 14, 2012, featuring the chant of ‘We are Anṣar Allah.’

In this context, one should also note a revealing report from the Damascus Bureau, which actually visited Jarabulus. The reporter, Youssef Shaikho, explains that Jabhat al-Nusra in Jarabulus supported the announcement of ISIS, and most of its fighters in the town are native Syrians, providing a notable exception to the media narrative of ISIS as a group solely composed of foreign fighters.

Further blurring the lines of group-alignment and public sentiment, not all those who, like al-Jādir, use the FSA flag in Jarabulus are necessarily opposed to ISIS’ ideological vision. For example, here is a Facebook activist page from Jarabulus that uses the FSA flag. Yet it has put up a status that laments the loss of the Khilafa (Caliphate) and denounces the UN and its decision-making as a mere front for occupation.

In any event, ISIS is now said to be operating an active Shari’a court in Jarabulus, which has allegedly executed three young men recently on charges of rape and murder. ISIS is also accused of detaining the son of a prominent martyr from the Family of Jādir known as Abu Furāt.

In terms of the reasons behind the Jādir-ISIS clashes, one should be cautious about presenting them as a simple ideological battle. It rather seems to have been a power struggle for control of an important border area. The Kurdish PYD, as the Damascus Bureau notes, also has a small activist presence in Jarabulus, yet it has been left untouched and tolerated by ISIS.

At the same time, ISIS is trying to counter the allegations put out about its conduct in Jarabulus by emphasizing local support in the town for the group, including children.

al-Bab

Another town in rural Aleppo where ISIS is establishing its presence is al-Bab. On July 5, the outlet Saḍa ash-Sham al-Islami put up a set of photos of a meeting for Dawah held by the ISIS in al-Bab. [Da’wa means “invitation” and often refers to proselytism—the inviting of others to join Islam. In this case, it refers to outreach to Muslims to strengthen their faith.]

In contrast to what appears to have been a more aggressive approach in Jarabulus, ISIS seems to be engaging in an active outreach effort to the population of al-Bab. Thus, the local outlet al-Bab Press reported that ISIS is running school bus services for children who have seen their education disrupted for many months by Assad regime bomb attacks. A local FB page in al-Bab also gave an account last month from an ISIS fighter of clashes between ISIS and Assad regime soldiers aided by Hezbollah fighters in the wider Aleppo area.

Manbij

The town of Manbij offers a case contrasting with that of al-Bab. Recently, Manbij has seen a protest rally against ISIS. The demonstration was sparked by two grievances against ISIS: first, ISIS is accused by some local activists of destroying works of art in Manbij, and second, of kidnapping a local sheikh. Protests continued into Friday of last week, on which day ISIS had been holding a daw’ah meeting in Manbij featuring a number of locals in support of the group.

Prior to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of the formation of ISIS in early April, Manbij had been known for an active JN presence in alliance with Ahrar ash-Sham, who together took on the Farouq Battalions in violent clashes in the town at the beginning of the month, resulting in the expulsion of the Farouq Battalions from Manbij.

The clashes began after Ahrar ash-Sham had arrested a certain Abu Khaldun, a friend of the leader of the Farouq Battalions in Manbij. Ahrar ash-Sham and its allies justified the arrest on the grounds that this man had been one of the leading criminal figures in Manbij and had to be put on trial by the Shari’a committee in Aleppo, while emphasizing that there was no fundamental conflict between them and those under the banner of the FSA.

Following the defeat of the Farouq Battalions, Ahrar ash-Sham held a victory rally in Manbij on 6 April with dozens of supporters and allies, featuring the al-Qa’ida flag and a banner reading ‘The Ummah wants an Islamic Khilafa.’ The person who uploaded the video described it as being held in celebration of the expulsion of ‘gangs of thieves’- a common charge leveled against the Farouq Battalions in the north, which unlike the Ikhwaan-aligned Homs division lack ties to any major Islamist groups.

On a side note, the rally itself should illustrate that those who posit a strict dichotomy between supposedly ‘nationalist’ Salafists in Ahrar ash-Sham as opposed to transnational jihadists are mistaken. This rally in Manbij and Ahrar ash-Sham’s statement on JN’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qa’ida show that concepts of the transnational ummah that supersedes “artificial borders” and the nation-state of Syria are often blurred in Ahrar ash-Sham’s ideological thought.

Of course, one also must not generalize in the opposite direction and portray all of Ahrar ash-Sham as bent on an international Khilafa. Yet whenever non-Islamists protest against groups like ISIS, as a rule Ahrar ash-Sham can be expected to side with the latter (cf. the case of Raqqah which I documented last month).

In the context of Manbij, therefore, one should not be surprised about a blurring of distinction between Ahrar ash-Sham’s support base and what is now known as the ISIS presence. Indeed, it is also apparent that there is another virtual mirror front of ISIS active in Manbij: namely, Ansar al-Khilafa, which is composed of a mix of native Syrians and foreign fighters, though exact proportions are unclear.

Ansar al-Khilafa is most prominent in rural Aleppo and Latakia. In the April rally led by Ahrar ash-Sham, it is likely that there were Ansar al-Khilafa supporters among the crowd.

ad-Dana

 

The final case we come to on the subject of ISIS’ expansion is that of ad-Dana in Idlib, near the border with Turkey. Here, a protest rally is said to have taken place against ISIS (though no video footage of it has emerged so far), sparking violent clashes. Yet it is the only case where we have a mainstream media outlet allowing ISIS to give its full side of the story thanks to an al-Jazeera English report (H/T: @khalidelmousoui) from the town. In the report, ISIS fighters claimed that those denouncing their presence were actually agents of the Assad regime.

 

However, it appears that this testimony is contradicted in an account given by pro-ISIS activists in Idlib, who denounced the clashes as ‘the work of some of the apostates of the Free Army.’ Meanwhile, a pro-ISIS Twitter user complained at the time of the clashes that the ‘malicious Free Army’ was besieging ISIS and expressed concerns about the beginnings of a ‘Sahwa’ movement against ISIS.

 

As of now, the al-Jazeera report says that ISIS is the only remaining armed group in the town. This is corroborated by local Idlib activist testimony that there are now no armed clashes in the town and reconciliation initiatives are underway. At the same time, claims that ISIS executed dozens of supporters of those identifying under the banner of the FSA—stemming chiefly from an ad-Dana rebel leader’s testimony were denied.

 

That said, both the rebel leader whose testimony is given by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the al-Jazeera report corroborate each other on the ISIS fighters as being from outside Syria.

 

Now in control of the town, ISIS is running a school for the children, and the ISIS presence as reported by al-Jazeera is corroborated by a video that has now emerged of ISIS fighters manning the entrance into ad-Dana.

 

Conclusion

 

In short, these various cases illustrate ISIS’ growing power in the north of Syria. ISIS is clearly not a force to be dismissed as marginal without any real support on the ground, even as its presence is undoubtedly sparking backlash in many areas. Above all, these recent developments as regards ISIS’ expansion vindicate to an extent my prediction in March in a guest post for Syria Comment about the emergence and establishment of jihadist strongholds in the north and east of Syria.

 

In terms of the future, one needs to be skeptical of the narrative being put out by Supreme Military Command (SMC) supporters of a looming, grand-scale FSA effort to take on ISIS in the north of Syria in a fundamental clash of ideologies. Resentment at the ideological level is more to be expected from civilian protestors rather than armed rebels.

 

One should particularly note my distinction here between SMC supporters and those in general who go by the banner of the FSA. While SMC supporters would like to portray all of those under the banner of FSA as opposed to ISIS, the evidence speaks otherwise, exemplified in this recent statement by an FSA military council in Aleppo denying rumors of clashes between their ‘brothers’ in ISIS and JN.

 

SMC supporters are likely the source of at least some of the allegations against ISIS, including the recent claim that ISIS is planning to declare a wider northern state after Ramaḍān: plausible in light of ISIS’ expansion in northern Syria but as of now uncorroborated in pro-ISIS circles.

 

Other rumors likely originating from pro-SMC sources include an alleged statement by JN distancing itself from ISIS (not released through JN’s official channel al-Manārah al-Bayḍā, so therefore suspect) and claims that ISIS killed Abu Furāt of Jarabulus, when his funeral actually took place a few months before ISIS was announced.

 

In particular, the reports attempting to portray JN in open conflict with ISIS are building on a narrative stemming from a Reuters piece in which JN was portrayed as a group of native Syrians disillusioned with the machinations of the foreign fighters of ISIS, hinting at the possibility of JN teaming up with other rebels to take on ISIS.

 

The motivation for spreading rumors about ISIS is quite apparent: namely, the SMC’s bid to secure Western arms, which will then be supposedly used to take on what Western nations like the UK perceive to be the number-one threat emanating from Syria.

In any case, the current PR war between SMC supporters and ISIS supporters will continue. Feeling the pressure, the latter have recently announced the formation of a new forum intended to counter purported media disinformation about the group. Thus can the exchange of claims and counter-claims be expected to intensify. Ascertaining the full truth short of getting on the ground will remain elusive.

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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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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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Drones in the Hands of Terrorists: What Happens Then?

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Ardian is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with a field research experience in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, Somalia and Central Asia. Ardian is the co-founder and director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research institute focused on studying translation left-wing, right-wing, and militant jihadi forms of political violence. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.

Interviewed by Tatyana Kanunnikova.

What will be the role of drones in future terrorist attacks?

If we look at some of the most recent examples in Europe—for instance, the Gatwick Airport incident where drone sightings were reported—these led to a lot of confusion among airport officials as well as policymakers and law enforcement. In this specific case, we are talking about dozens of flights canceled, millions in costs for the airport as a result of the shutdown. We are also talking about the anti-drone technology that needs to be implemented by the airport, which translates into substantial financial costs. If we look at other places, such as active conflict areas, we’ll see that Houthi rebels used drones to target and assassinate Yemeni leaders and they were also striking key national infrastructure in places like Saudi Arabia. Even here, in the United States, sightings and illegal actions of drones flying over cities and close to government facilities in some cases speak to the fact that drone operations may be a thing in the future.

Here, in the United States, there are examples of individuals who have attempted or actively pursued ways to utilize remotely piloted aircraft or drone technology in general to cause harm to U.S. interests. For example, in 2012, a group of Virginia-based individuals, with direct or indirect affiliation with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, sought to acquire this sort of technology for the terrorist group. In 2011, we had a U.S. national, who actually was a student at one of the reputable universities here in the United States and who plotted to pilot explosive-laden, remotely controlled planes and attack U.S. government facilities and military installations. If we look at the issue from this particular standpoint, there is potential for malicious use of drones in not only active conflict zones but also here in the West, which should not be overlooked.

In 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that drones constituted an imminent terrorist threat to U.S. cities. Is this threat still considered imminent?

That is a good question and that has been part of the discourse here in the United States as well. The concern is that they come with a very low acquisition cost, which presents an opportunity to pursue that kind of technology to many groups, state and non-state actors, including private individuals. One can easily procure parts to build it. It does not require sophistication in terms of running the aircraft as well.

These are all areas of concern for officials and law enforcement, especially here in the West. While I would caution against labelling drone usage for malicious or harmful purposes as the most pressing threat in the West, one should still not discount the fact that local law enforcement and other entities may not be best positioned to counter the drone threat. They are not necessarily best equipped and staffed to adequately address such a threat. I would say it is one thing to confront or operate against drone threats in active conflict zones, where the military has the resources and the capability to address that kind of threat. Domestically, in the West in general, that could be an issue given that we arguably lack the sort of sophistication needed to detect, monitor, and counter drone threat at the local level, in our cities.

Are modern terror groups capable of modifying consumer drones to conduct improvised attacks?

Terrorist groups, especially those of the modern day, have been very capable of doing that. I have witnessed first-hand such cases during our research in Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen a number of modified consumer drones used by ISIS to target the Peshmerga in the North of Iraq, Iraqi security forces in Mosul and other places. From a structural standpoint, [ISIS] were known for their Phantom DJI models. They often utilized Styrofoam, a light, easily accessible, cheap material to build drones, as well as to modify and turn other drones into actual weapons. In many cases, we saw that they were able to mount certain amounts of IEDs or other explosive devices.

There was, of course, the ability to pursue that kind of technology given a low acquisition cost. One thing that we also see is the mimicry in the use of drone technology. For example, the drone technology that has been used by ISIS is being mimicked by ISIS affiliates in other parts of the world as well because, again, of the low acquisition costs and the ease with which it can be built.

What tactics and techniques do drone-using terrorist groups use?

From my personal research experience as well as experience in places like Syria and Iraq, the drone technology was primarily used to gain intelligence, for surveillance purposes. Drone usage has also proven powerful for propaganda purposes, namely imagery that was captured through drones and exploited for propaganda purposes. Of course, one must not overlook the military-strategic component, such as the ability to mount explosive devices and drop them onto enemies. It also serves to demonstrate “aerial power,” which comes, again, with a huge propaganda value that VE and terrorist groups have been able to put to use as well.

Another thing that we see, which is very interesting, is that the drone usage, especially as far as ISIS is concerned, has given them this opportunity to claim the alleged power and control not only on the ground but also in the airspace. This gives the illusion as though—especially as it [ISIS] started losing its controlled area in 2016-2017 and onwards—the drone operations afforded the group with this sort of aerial superiority, the operational capacity to penetrate into the airspace and attack enemy forces. This did give them [ISIS], from a propaganda perspective, a huge boost as well. And we have seen, for example, that ISIS would launch their drones laden with explosives into enemy lines, accompanied by other drones equipped to record such attacks, which was then shared via Telegram or other social media platforms utilized by ISIS for their propaganda purposes. As for the success of their drone-led attacks, it is really debatable; firstly, because they [ISIS] are only going to advertise their successes. We actually do not know much—at least publicly—about their downfalls or any limitations. Some of the images, if we look at some past attacks, in 2017, for example, when ISIS dropped several IEDs via drones onto the Syrian army base storing significant stashes of weapons in a stadium, showed significant damages to the Syrian military. But we do not know with certainty about their successes, the level of their success, as we often see what they choose to share on their media.

What we do know is that it is important for us to differentiate between terrorist groups or non-state actors that have utilized drones in a limited capacity and those that have active drone programs. If we look at organizations like Hezbollah (Kataib Hezbollah), Hamas, ISIS or even Houthis, they do have a record of successfully running drone programs, weaponized drone programs. In fact, these programs are sponsored by a state. For example, we know that Iran has played a significant role in sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of drones, and so on. Again, when trying to differentiate where the drone threat might come from, it is important to understand the difference between the usage of drones by certain groups or entities in limited capacity versus those who have been running or supporting drone programs.

Are drones more likely to be used as means of transportation or as autonomous weapons?

In many cases, aside from the primary surveillance function, they have been utilized by terrorist groups as a means of transporting explosive and other materials from point A to point B. But as for the use of autonomous weapons, to my knowledge to date, to be able to drive this sort of autonomous drone weapons, they lack such a capability given that such drone technology needs to be accompanied with artificial intelligence. Most of these [drones] are programmed to, say, carry out attacks, drop a bomb, and so on. There has to be artificial intelligence incorporated with these autonomous weapons for them to be effective in other ways. But I have not seen this sort of technology, especially with ISIS. Perhaps, this could be the case with other groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

What targets would terrorists prioritize when conducting drone attacks?

As for the targets, what we have seen in places like Iraq and Syria, much of the drone strikes targeted, of course, the military, those perceived as enemy. As I mentioned earlier, in 2017, there was a highly publicized attack where ISIS dropped a significant number of explosives onto the Syrian army positions and weapons supply points. Attacks were also carried out against the Iraqi security forces during operations in Mosul. Surveillance function is an important component because it affords this sort of “pre-attack” planning ability to ISIS and other terrorist groups to better organize and coordinate their attacks. They would normally send out drones to collect information and then follow up with an attack, as is often the case. What we have seen is not only the use of drones for attack purposes but also the demonstration of power by sending many drones at the same time to create an illusion or perception that ISIS is capable of attacking with multiple drones and penetrating the enemy’s aerial space.

There is a nightmare scenario that small drones can be used to deliver chemical or biological agents in an attack. Or disperse deadly viruses over a public gathering place. Is it real?

In Iraq or Syria, where ISIS or other operating terrorist groups are involved, it is a matter of being able to gain access to chemical or biological weapons. It is not a far-fetched notion. And there are some examples of such incidents taking place. There were some efforts on the part of ISIS to deliver chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction via drones.

Are drone strikes effective against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS? If yes, why?

As regards counterterrorism, if we ask government officials, they would argue that they are effective. The way to measure such effectiveness would be to look at how certain terrorist leaders—or those associated with terrorist actions at some level—have been targeted. Most recently, Qasim al-Raymi from al Qaeda in Yemen was killed via drones, so that was one measure of success. During the Obama administration, in Yemen alone, we had upwards of 1200 drone attacks targeting different militants. During President Trump, we delivered hundreds of attacks, specifically targeting militants in Yemen, Somalia and other places. In Pakistan alone, the drone targeting campaign lasted over 10 years. We also have the recent example where the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was targeted and killed via a drone strike.

But again, if we look at terrorist organizations as unified and cohesive organizations, then we could say that killing their leaders specifically should reduce terrorist attacks as well. But we also know that terrorist organizations are not cohesive or unified in many ways. In that regard, the effects of killing a terrorist leader become perplexing or complex. For example, when a terrorist leader is killed, in theory, it should lead to a situation where a terrorist group’s leadership and control is undermined. On the other hand, depending on who comes next in the line of succession, the successor may be more prone to violence.

It is a really complicated question. In retaliation, groups may also increase terrorist attacks against civilians. And we have also seen this in terrorist groups with centralized leadership. One must also consider drone attacks leading to civilian casualties and significant grievances. I conducted research with my colleagues in Somalia last year. And during the course of interviews, drone attacks were largely criticized and raised as the source of grievance by some, even leading to recruitment and joining Al Shabaab in some cases. Although those attacks were aimed at Al Shabaab leaders or affiliates, or ISIS operatives, grievances were raised that they did lead to civilian casualties as well.

What are the risks associated with drone operations? Are there ways to mitigate those risks? How do we prevent them?

Some drones can fly at a very high altitude, while some fly only at low altitudes, which can be problematic under either scenario. From an anti-drone technology standpoint, that becomes a problematic proposition and requires a better understanding of how drone technology may be applied in the future. But again, as I mentioned earlier in the example of drone sightings at the Gatwick airport, when it led to significant confusion and material damage, the same thing applies here [in the West] in local contexts because of the inability to fully grasp and understand this emerging technology, but we’re also talking about the need to counter that technology if deployed in cities or in other places where it could pose significant difficulties and strains, especially on local governments and law enforcement.

Last year, for the first time in history, drones autonomously attacked humans. According to the UN report, these drones were supplied by Turkey to the Libyan forces. Can machines be allowed to make their own decisions to kill or should autonomous drone attacks be banned?

I have not done much research on the topic, and I do not know if these autonomous attacks led to human casualties. If this is the case, that would change the course of how we understand autonomously driven objects, specifically as it relates to drones. As stated earlier, autonomous weapons, coupled with this sort of artificial intelligence, do make sense in some way, provided that humans exercise some level of control. We have to understand the decision-making process that goes into creating this sort of autonomous technology [drones].

We know from our research that we could feed a certain image to a drone, which would enable that particular drone to carry out an attack based on the image fed. Having said that, a slight change, modification, misreading of that image (or its pixels) by the drone could lead to significant errors in terms of targeting capabilities. The lack of human control may always pose a level of risk. Humans need to play a role in a drone’s “decision-making” process. If we look at other fields that utilize these autonomous technologies, like self-driving, autonomous vehicles (AV), one can find errors there as well. From such a perspective, that could be problematic as well. Also, the question is not only how they [autonomous drones] are used but also where and how many of them are used. If we are talking about an autonomous drone being utilized in certain operations, say in a conflict zone like Syria and against ISIS, it may lead to different outcomes as compared to, say, using them in non-conflict areas, in cities and where large segments of civilian population are present. The room for error is especially there in the case of the latter, when operating in spaces where civilians are present. Again, we do not know much [publicly] about this emerging technology, including their decision-making process, their objectives, how they operate in different geographic areas, etc. These are all questions we need to better understand and address.

From our partner RIAC

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