Much media attention has recently focused on a statement issued by al-Qaeda’s central command on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border under Ayman al-Zawahri’s leadership, declaring that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has no relationship with the central leadership of al-Qaeda.
On the basis of this development, one might think that ISIS, which has hitherto been described in the media as an “al-Qaeda affiliate,” may lose ground and standing in the eyes of jihadis and their supporters both inside and outside Syria. Indeed, in Jordan, the Salafist-jihadist movement has come firmly on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra against ISIS, maintaining strong links with Jabhat al-Nusra in the southern Syrian border province of Daraa, which lacks an ISIS presence.
One should also note the extent to which tensions on the ground have grown between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Beginning with infighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in the city of Raqqa, clashes have since spread further out east.
On Feb. 7, Jabhat al-Nusra released a statement criticizing ISIS in Deir Ezzor province and the wider east of Syria, pointing to long-standing grievances like ISIS’ besieging the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Hassakeh province locality of Ash Shaddadi, despite their cooperation against Kurdish and regime forces.
Indeed, now that al-Qaeda’s central command has officially disavowed ISIS, Jabhat l-Nusra’s leadership no longer has to consider ISIS a part of the same al-Qaeda family and therefore, it may side with ISIS’ enemies.
These issues notwithstanding, it is unlikely that ISIS’ role in Syria and among jihadis and their supporters across the world will be diminished. First, the media’s constant descriptions of ISIS as an “al-Qaeda affiliate” until this recent statement have been deeply misguided and reflect a misunderstanding of how ISIS has seen itself.
According to ISIS supporters and fighters I know, ISIS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), have been independent of al-Qaeda since the inception of ISI in October 2006. This line of narrative — articulated by them long before this statement — argues that when ISI was formed, it absorbed what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq (which was certainly the main component of the ISI umbrella coalition), as the pledge of allegiance was switched from al-Qaeda to the emir of ISI.
ISIS’ supporters and fighters further point to Zawahri’s statement in 2007 explicitly stating that there is no “al-Qaeda in Iraq” anymore, as it had joined other jihadist groups in the ISI.
Regardless of whether one wishes to accept this narrative of independence from al-Qaeda from the very beginning, there is no doubt that the ISI quickly became an organization capable of supporting itself financially and supplying its own manpower.
Today, as has been the case for years, ISIS’ vast financial resources are in large part being driven through the extensive networks of extortion and other crimes it runs in Mosul and wider northern Iraq, making at least $1 million a month from the city alone. Despite its setbacks during the US troop surge and the Sahwa tribal revolt, ISI was never quite dislodged from Mosul.
More recently, ISIS has been able to acquire additional funding through controlling oil and gas resources in eastern Syria, constituting what we call a major “crime family” in opposition to two other major groupings: Jabhat al-Nusra working with the Islamic Front, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
ISIS’ considerable financial clout — as well as the fact that members and supporters take offence to being described as a mere “group” or “faction” — has been a key factor behind the group’s vast territorial expansion, such that the group now has more strongholds than before the infighting.
Indeed, there has also been a misunderstanding of how ISIS organized itself prior to the large-scale conflict with other rebel groups. Rather than focusing on acquiring strongholds, ISIS previously tried to gain footholds in as many localities as possible, and as a result became too thinly spread and vulnerable to a multi-pronged attack.
Since then, ISIS has regrouped, allowing it to seize exclusive control of the important Aleppo provincial towns of al-Bab and Manbij. In Raqqa province, the gains have been even more impressive: exclusive control of the provincial capital, the key border town of Tel Abyad and all other localities apart from a PYD stronghold just west of Tel Abyad and a couple of regime air bases — the Tabqa military airport and Brigade 17.
Such territorial control, along with a heavy, open emphasis on proto-state building and the goals of re-establishing the caliphate and achieving eventual world domination (goals also supported by Jabhat al-Nusra, though hardly ever articulated openly except by foreign fighters in unofficial video footage), has meant that ISIS continues to be the No. 1 banner to which Sunni jihadist foreign fighters congregate.
On the wider international scene, al-Qaeda’s disavowal of ISIS has only hardened pre-existing divisions among the global jihad movement that have long been apparent.
For example, over the last summer and in subsequent months, I noted signs of support for ISIS from the Gaza/Sinai region. This trend has been reinforced by recent affirmations of support from two major jihadist groups in this area: Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which is behind attacks in Egypt beyond the Sinai Peninsula, and the Majlis Shura al-Mujahedeen, active in both the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip and at strong odds with Hamas. As for the Jordanian Salafist support for Jabhat al-Nusra noted above, this trend can be traced back to the very beginning of the dispute.
The question of whether ISIS’ influence can be reduced ultimately depends on how well other rebel groups can form a united front against it. So far, events on the ground still point to the obstacle of localization for such an effort to come about.
In short, the current situation suggests a cementing of current positions, similar to what happened in the wider rebel-PYD conflict that broke out in mid-summer 2013, rather than a decisive victory for ISIS or its rivals.
In real terms, it is ISIS and not al-Qaeda that is making headway in building a caliphate, with extensive advertising of its projects on social media. Combined with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi‘s projection of himself as a caliph (in calling himself Emir al-Mu’mineen), ISIS and al-Qaeda are effectively in direct competition with each other over who gets to set up and rule an envisioned caliphate, the greatest challenge yet to al-Qaeda’s status as the leading face of global jihad.
Despite sharing a virtually identical ideological program and being much younger than al-Qaeda, ISIS looks set to retain the upper hand for the time being, so long as it does not incur substantial territorial losses and can showcase its caliphate-building better than al-Qaeda and its official affiliates.
UN launches new project to address link between terrorism, arms and crime
Cheap and easily accessible small arms are increasingly becoming the “weapon of choice” for many terrorist groups, the UN counter-terrorism chief told an event on Friday aimed to raise awareness of the nexus between terrorism, organized crime and illicit small arms trafficking.
“Insufficient international response in countering the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons, the challenges that Member States face to detect and seize them, as well as porous borders, allow terrorists and criminals to move illicit weapons from one country or region to another,” said Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism.
It is widely acknowledged that the connection between terrorism and organized crime, including illicit small arms and light weapons trafficking, is a serious threat to international peace and security. It is also an obstacle to sustainable development and a menace to the rule of law.
To illustrate the challenges, Mr. Voronkov, who is also Executive Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT),
of the UNOffice of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), revealed estimates indicating that the African continent alone has one hundred million uncontrolled small arms and light weapons concentrated in crises zones and security-challenged environments.
“With an estimated population of 1.2 billion in Africa, this is an unfortunate and significant ratio of one to 12”, he lamented.
Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy
Without a strong international response, terrorists and criminals would easily be able to move illicit weapons from one country or region to another.
The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy underlines the connection between terrorism and the illicit small arms trafficking, conventional ammunitions and explosives, and calls on Member States to strengthen coordination and cooperation to address this challenge.
The UNOCT chief illustrated this through the example that “illicit weapons originating from Libya were finding their way into the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel”.
Since ast year, UNOCT and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) worked closely with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) and UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (ODA) to develop a project enhancing national legislative, strategic and operational capacities to prevent, detect and counter the firearms trafficking and other illegal activities related to terrorism and organized crime in Central Asia.
“The project is also another example of our ‘All-of-UN’ approach to support counter-terrorism efforts of Member States”, concluded Mr. Voronkov.
No country alone
In her video statement, UNODC Executive Director Ghada Fathi Waly affirmed her Office’s “unique approach” to addressing the complex interlinked challenges of terrorism, crime and corruption.
Using a “holistic approach”, Ms. Waly maintained that the project tackles “the full range of obstacles”.
She singled out adequate legal frameworks, strengthening law enforcement and criminal justice capacity, improving data and addressing cooperation gaps, saying that it is “essential to deal effectively with threats that no country can face alone”.
UNODC supports nations in implementing global counter-terrorism instruments, as well as the Firearms Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, through the UNODC Global Firearms Programme.
“I will be eagerly following the project’s advancement and I hope that its outcomes and learnings can inform the international community’s efforts, feeding into the next reviews of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, this year and in 2022”, concluded the UNODC chief.
Preventing terrorists’ access
Meanwhile, CTED Deputy Executive Director Weixiong Chen pointed out that the new initiative is “one of the important requirements of several relevant Security Council resolutions”.
Citing five resolutions, he noted that “the Council has repeatedly stressed the importance to prevent terrorist access to weapons”.
Mr. Chen noted that the most recent resolution, 2317, brought a comprehensive new set of topics and domains, saying that they have strengthened CTED’s mandate, particularly through its “assessments, analyses and identification of gaps”.
The CTED chief underscored the importance of Member States’ will to implement Security Council resolutions on preventing illicit small arms and light weapons trafficking and concluded by sharing his hope “that OCT and UNODC will be able to fully utilize CTED’s expertise and recommendations in this field”.
The launch also introduced the new project’s activities, including missions to assess regional situations, relevant legislation and response capacities to the threat posed by firearms trafficking, terrorism and related crimes.
Escaping IS: What Exiting an Armed Group Actually Takes
Authors: Dr Siobhan O’Neil and Dr Mara Revkin*
Although Islamic State’s territorial control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria came to an end in 2017, civilians, and particularly children, in these areas are still living with the long-term consequences of the group’s violence and exploitation. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, this includes thousands of children abducted by Islamic State (IS) who remain unaccounted for today and thousands of children who cannot move on from conflict because they are viewed as threats and won’t be allowed to reintegrate back into society.
Last week, International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers was marked around the world to reflect on the policies and programmes that are most likely to protect rights, promote accountability, and enhance security of young people in armed conflict. In doing so, it is clear that many of the current approaches to those once associated with armed groups do not always strike the right balance. Children’s rights and best interests risk being trumped by short-sighted security considerations, which may ultimately put us all at greater risk.
One such child is “Amr”* – a juvenile detainee at a reformatory in Kurdish Iraq – who we met while undertaking research examining the recruitment and use of children by armed groups. After dropping out of elementary school at the age of 12, Amr worked at a steel factory. One year later, he would become employed as a cook by IS.
Amr was an unlikely recruit. For one, the group had murdered his father. But Amr needed the job in the IS kitchen. It paid better than the steel factory, and he was now responsible for helping support his mother and six siblings, so he felt that he had little choice. A few months after he started to work for IS, Amr was recruited by a family member to spy on the group for a state-sponsored militia. After he was caught taking photographs, Amr was thrown into an IS prison. He eventually managed to escape, only to be caught by security forces and imprisoned again for the crime of having joined a terrorist group.
In many ways, Amr’s story exemplifies the complexity of association with armed groups today. It is often assumed that anyone who becomes involved with such groups must have been brainwashed or be driven by deep-seated ideologically-motivated hate. Yet, involvement with armed groups – even those deemed “violent extremist” like IS or Boko Haram – is never as simple as this conventional narrative, nor is exiting their grasp.
For many like Amr, ideology played no role in motivating or facilitating his involvement with IS or the anti-IS militia. Indeed, our previous research in conflict areas found that young people associating with armed groups are usually influenced by a multitude of interrelated structural, social, individual, and historical factors, of which ideology was rarely the driving determinant. Rather, physical and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion, and the pursuit of status and identity were more central for explaining the involvement of many young people with armed groups.
In many countries there is little differentiation made in how or why individuals were associated with such groups. As documented in related research, the use of indiscriminate “iron fist” approaches means that tens of thousands of people – not just those associated with military functions, but also tax-payers, cleaners or cooks like Amr – have been detained on terrorism charges, with thousands believed to have been sentenced to death. Thousands of children languishing in Syria have been barred or discouraged from returning to their home countries, despite the fact that many had no choice in living under IS. This sort of collective punishment could further encourage cycles of violence. We must find ways out for the vast majority of individuals who are associated with armed groups but who do not pose a risk to society.
To create a safer future, and to avoid denying one to the children who have lived under or been associated with armed groups, we need to better understand their experiences and needs for transitioning to a life oriented away from conflict. We need to rethink our assumptions about armed group association and neutrality in conflict, engage children and youth as partners in their own recovery, and support them in the long-term exit process from armed groups. Only then will young people like Amr have a real chance to escape the pull of violent conflict and give back as productive members of their communities.
* Name has been changed for safety reasons.
*Dr Mara Revkin was the lead researcher on the Syria and Iraq case study featured in Cradled by Conflict and the Iraq case study for The Limits of Punishment: Transitional Justice and Violent Extremism. She is a National Security Law Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Foreign fighters: ‘One of the most serious dimensions’ in global counter-terrorism struggle
Over the past few years, ISIL and Al-Qaida terrorist fighters have posed an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, the UN counter-terrorism chief said on Wednesday in Vienna, at the close of a joint UN- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regional conference on addressing challenges posed by terrorists who have gone to fight overseas.
Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, recalled that last week he presented to the Security Council the Secretary-General’s report on the continuing threat posed by ISIL.
“ISIL is resurgent as a covert network in Iraq and Syria”, he said. “Thousands of foreign terrorist fighters remain at large, posing a threat to Iraq, Syria, and the countries they might return or relocate to”.
Mr. Voronkov stressed that all sessions of the conference underlined the need to further strengthen international, regional and bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation – with many participants highlighting the centrality of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
He highlighted that the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) for implementing the Strategy in Central Asia “could serve as a model for collaboration in other regions”.
“We are also working closely with the Arab Interior Ministers Council to strengthen Arab countries’ measures to effectively counter terrorism”, using JPOA as a model, he said.
According to the Counter-Terrorism chief, participants stressed the urgent need for gender and age-sensitive programmes to assist children linked with terrorist groups.
As thousands of children remain trapped in Syria and Iraq, facing a multitude of challenges, including rejection and life-long stigmatization, Mr. Voronkov stressed that Member States have “the primary responsibility to address the plight of their nationals, including children trapped in conflict zones”.
“Children should always be seen as victims and efforts to address their plight should be based on the best interest of the child”, he spelled out.
Disrupt terrorist travels
The need to prevent, detect and disrupt the travel of foreign terrorist fighters, in accordance with international law, was front and centre during discussions as well, drawing attention to the importance of enhancing Member States’ capacities to do so.
“Both the OSCE and the UN are helping countries adopt and use Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data systems”, he informed those gathered, calling the UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme “a flagship demonstration” of how the UN system, together with international policing organization INTERPOL and others, are “working as one” to provide tailored, impactful assistance to Member States.
Noting that “the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is one of the most serious dimensions of the terrorist threat”, Mr. Voronkov concluded by urging Member States to continue working together, through the UN and other platforms, “not only to protect people on their own territory, but extend solidarity and assistance beyond their borders”.
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