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ISIS Online: The Internet presence of a brutal and international Islamic militant group

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Within what seems like the very bowels of the internet, there lies a fully functional and multifaceted propaganda arm of one of the most brutal militant groups ever seen. The so-called Islamic State (or “ISIS”, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is not only ruthless in person, but in its virtual presence as well.

The element of the ISIS media arm that lies closest to the ‘surface’ of the internet is its usage of Twitter. It has been reported that thousands of Twitter accounts suspected of being affiliated with ISIS have been identified by the Twitter team, and the US Government has even requested information from Twitter on as many as 1,918 ISIS Twitter accounts in the first half of 2014. Most of these accounts, due to Twitter’s policy against violence, have been manually suspended/deleted by Twitter admins. However, once these accounts are suspended, additional accounts suddenly appear to take their place. Most notably to the Western world, when ISIS released its propaganda film entitled A Message to America in which the gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley was shown, Twitter and YouTube administrators sprang into action in order to thoroughly delete all uploads of the video and prevent its further distribution. Still though, due to the nature of the worldwide web, plenty of ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts still manage to fly under the radar and get their messages out. These accounts frequently tweet photos, video, and text glorifying and supporting ISIS’s actions. Some of these accounts even appear to belong to in-country ISIS militants themselves, often tweeting themselves on the battlefield, Kalashnikov in hand. In more notable instances, US-based accounts have even directly threatened or ‘trolled’ the United States, such as a tweet showing a picture of the ISIS flag in front of the White House with a threatening message.

 

    Twitter, however, is only the tip of the virtual Islamic State iceberg. Where ISIS really asserts itself online comes in the form of internet forums. These message-boards serve as the primary place where ISIS members (and more importantly, potential recruits), can somewhat inconspicuously communicate and distribute full-length ISIS-produced propaganda films. When terror/militant groups publish and distribute these films (as many Islamic militant groups have done, including the Taliban and Hamas), they are seeking not only to terrorize the outside world through fear, but also to reach those who may be seeking to join the group. Because there is no independent reporting from inside the Islamic State itself, these propaganda films offer a rare and exclusive glimpse into the Islamic State; and the glimpse is horrifying.

 

    As these films are actively deleted by YouTube and other online video-upload sites, it is fairly difficult to track down and watch ISIS-made film. It took some digging for me to find the places where these videos are dumped to be distributed to the outside world. I finally came across an Arabic-language forum which does just that. Through the use of Google Translate, as well as surfing through the English-language section of the forum, I was able to not only find ISIS-produced media, but also to find the virtual recruiting grounds for the organization. On the message boards were everything from religious advice on health and sex, to information on travelling to the Islamic State, and even to encouragement and suggestions for the planning of ‘revenge’ attacks within the Western world (one lengthy post even went on about the “success” of the 9/11 attacks and the relative “disappointment” with the small scale of the 2013 Boston Marathon Attacks).

 

    The videos themselves, which usually come in the form of episodes within several different ‘series’, can only be described as horrific, with normal human and Islamic activities playing only a sideshow/filler role. I do not exaggerate when I say that nearly every single film/episode includes at least one militant operation, suicide mission (“martyrdom”) or cold-blooded killing. For ethical reasons I will not post any links to videos here (if one wishes to find and watch these videos, they can easily do so on their own).  As I am sure an agent of any government intelligence/counterterrorism agency, who are undoubtedly researching these films would say, these videos are hard to watch and can indeed take a psychological toll on any human being. Nonetheless, I do personally believe that it is important to get the details of these videos out, even if that means only describing them in sanitized words to keep within good ethics and taste.

 

     Each video/episode generally begins with a sermon from an imam in front of a mixed crowd of fighters and local townspeople. In the few videos that are translated into English the sermons are fiery; they frequently agitate the audience in some way or another to wage jihad against any and all of the elements opposed to the lofty aspirations of the Islamic State. A special focus is placed on the most immediate ‘threats’ to ISIS: the Shiite and Christian minorities of Iraq and Syria (including the militaries of both Assad in Syria and Maliki in Iraq, which are both largely Shia), the various Kurdish factions, and the less-defined takfiri’s, whom Sunni Islamic doctrine defines as deviators from what it sees as “true” (Sunni) Islam, and thus are deemed enemies. Militants are often shown rummaging through the personal belongings of their dead enemies, excitedly showing items to the camera such as Christian crosses or Shia pamphlets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei superimposed on them. The result is the powerful ideological justification of organized and rampant terrorist operations that transcend the long-standing international borders of Iraq and Syria, consuming considerable swathes of territory within the two countries allowing ISIS to take on its current appearance of an actual, sovereign state. As one translated video titled The End of Sykes-Picot (borders established during the colonial period by the British and French) demonstrates, the ideological aims of ISIS are inspired by Medieval Islamic history; the Islamic Caliphate. In other words, what ISIS seeks to do is to physically reestablish the Islamic Empire(s) of old, which at its height extended eastward from Arabia into what is now Pakistan, and as far westward as southern Spain. In a segment titled “Live the Cause”, supplemented by background audio of English sermons given by the late American jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki, ISIS clearly explains to the outside world that it seeks “the transcendence of the Caliphate from words/theory to action and real-world results.” What we have here is the most basic explanation of ISIS ideological aims and its narrative.

 

Because most, of these videos are un-translated and strictly in Arabic, much of what is being said is lost on the typical Westerner. The clear and threatening message of ISIS’s brutal tactics of violence and terrorism, however, needs little translation. The videos are sadistic (ISIS terrorists show a consistent propensity to shoot dead bodies 10+ times), with footage of operations ranging from drive-by highway shootings of what appear to be random civilian vehicles, to the rounding up and summary execution of both combatant captives and regular unarmed civilians (there was one scene where militants literally flagged down three trucks on a highway, questioned the drivers briefly, and then lined up and shot them point-blank before yelling Allahu Akhbar and denouncing the corpses as Nusayri’s, a term for members of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam). Apart from its seemingly random and brutal treatment of unarmed civilians, ISIS also shows an ability and willingness to attacking military targets. There are even segments where ISIS militants, disguised by the use of captured Iraqi Army uniforms and equipment, conduct raids on the homes of senior Iraqi officers during the night. Night-vision HD camera and all, the footage shows the militants first deceptively questioning the men before they realize what’s going on. After enthusiastically revealing to their target that they are “Daw’lat Islam” (“Islamic State”) they proceed to execute the men with a silenced pistol shot to the head. Mission after mission is shown throughout each video series, leaving the viewer feeling extremely sorry for the innocent human beings unfortunate enough to cross paths with ruthless ISIS militants.

 

Against the background of the vast and cloudless Iraqi-Syrian Desert skies, the actions of ISIS produce an image sure to impact any Western audience. Perhaps even more frightening still are how such acts of violence are mixed in with scenes of average townspeople assembling in ISIS-occupied towns to meet their new ‘government’. Women, children and the elderly all appear amongst the men of the Islamic State and for the most part don’t seem distressed at all. It is strikingly odd to see men commit the aforementioned acts of brutality, and then afterward mingle with the common folk in such a casual way. Among propagandistic portrayals of ‘hearts and minds’ efforts by the Islamic State, one segment of interest involves an assembly of about 60-70 children from “emigrant families” that appear to be of Indonesian/Malaysian (two Muslim-majority nations in SE Asia) ethnicity. The children, whose ages appear to range from 2 to 12 years old, are shown reciting verses from the Qur’an. The young girls who are shown are all in hijab (headscarf), and some are even in full niqab (full burka showing only the eyes). Fighting-aged South Asian men, some apparently the fathers of the children, also appear among Arab fighters, all brandishing assault rifles. It is of interest to note here that translated ISIS media is always translated into languages such as Indonesian/Malaysian, Bosnian, Urdu (Pakistan), and Chechen; all Islamic-majority nations from which non-Arab foreign jihadists have traditionally originated.

 

It is rather unsettling to know that people from all over the world are ‘emigrating’ to the Islamic State, including people from Western countries, as has been well documented. It is well known to Western intelligence services that foreign fighters are a key element of ISIS, and indeed these foreigners are also heavily featured in these propaganda productions, for practical reasons. The example of the use of a man with a British accent in the executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff comes to mind. Some videos feature these foreigners participating in military actions against ISIS adversaries, including a white Canadian man called Abu Muslim al-Canadi who reveals he is a Muslim convert who “left his family and life of luxury and kufr (un-Islamic culture) to perform jihad for the sake of Allah.” When all of these propaganda elements combine, the result is an intimidating virtual presence that does not seem like it will be disappearing anytime soon. More videos are released all the time, and ISIS has no doubt made its virtual presence felt across the globe, far beyond its physical reach.

Daniel Abramson is a 2014 graduate of the University of North Florida (B.A., History). He specializes in the affairs, history, and geopolitics of the Middle East and Africa, with a particular focus on the Levant region, especially Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Lebanon.

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Terrorism

Taliban Takeover and Resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan

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As a Security and International Relations student and someone who lived in Afghanistan, I believe that the withdrawal of the U.S and NATO troops will help Al-Qaeda reorganise its activities in Afghanistan and in a very short period. The group will be able to relaunch its activities.

After several years, the resurgence of Al-Qaeda is becoming evident in the post-US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Like many other non-state actors, the year 2021 is a year of hope for Al-Qaeda because it provides an opportunity for them to launch their halted global terrorist mission.

The U.S withdrawal will limit its ability to strike the al-Qaida core in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it will be a turning point for the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and from where they can expand their activities. Familiarity with the rugged terrain of Afghanistan and northern Africa will help Al-Qaeda to re-merge and assemble their forces quickly if there is no strong censorship on Al-Qaeda activities.

The relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is inseparable, and the victory of one group will pave the way for the resurgence of another group. Al-Qaeda and its adversary, Daesh داعش (IS) دولت اسلامی عراق وشام, will seek to extend their operations in Afghanistan in post-US and NATO withdrawal.

It is always very likely that terrorist groups are willing to help other terrorist organisations and provide them safe-havens. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are very interested in conquering Afghanistan. They are not having other interests in Afghanistan; however, they believe that the Islamic Army will come from Khurasan, which is current day Afghanistan, and the last battle will take place in Syria, therefore, for that reason, without any doubt the resurgence of the Al-Qaeda is taking place in the world, and the starting point for that resurgence will be Afghanistan.

Looking to the future, it is very likely that the increasing connections between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will lead the groups to work on long-term strategic partnerships. These terrorist groups will play their disrupting roles in terrorising civilians and government officials. The U.S and NATO intervention in Afghanistan had crippled Al-Qaeda. Still, the current withdrawal will give the group momentum to maximise the power vacuum created by the foreign troops in Afghanistan.

To conclude, I believe that the current grim situation in Afghanistan is paving the way for the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which can pose a serious threat to the international community. However, the scale and scope of terrorist activities of Al-Qaeda would be different from the 9/11 attacks due to strategic shifts in the strategic culture of the group. The group will always use its influence and strengthen ties with other terrorist groups stretching from Asia to Europe and Africa to America’s.

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Terrorism

Trends of Online Radicalization in Bangladesh: Security Implications

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Online radicalization poses a formidable threat to the stability of the country. With the imposition of lockdown in the last year, the nefarious fundamentalist   factions have ramped up their activities. As the country’s law and enforcement agencies are playing a vigilant and commendable role in combating heinous fundamental radicalism in Bangladesh, these radicals have instead resorted to the online mediums to recruit, sensitize and radicalize the youths of the country.

Bangladesh has historically been a bastion of pluralism as the country’s constitution provides primacy to the secular character of the republic. However, in keeping with the global trend of militancy Bangladesh had also witnessed spate of militant activities in the preceding decades culminating in the seige of Holi Artisan Bakery.

Since the catastrophic militant activities in 2016,Bangladesh government has taken  a slew of stern measures to combat the budding radicalism in the Bangladesh and to safeguard the country’s pluralist character.Hence, terrorist and radical factions didn’t gain ground in the succeeding years and last few years Bangladesh has enjoyed enviable stability from the untoward disturbances of these militants.

However, with the technological revolution in the country, it turns out that militants have adapted their tactics to the needs of the new epoch. While previously militants had a hard time in radicalizing people owing to the vigilance of the law enforcement agencies, in the realm of the online media militant find their fortress and esconsced themselves in various social media and web platforms.

In contrast to the traditional process of radicalization, militants found online radicalization much advantageous as it provided them with the opportunity to disseminate their diabolical propaganda to more people and help them conceal their identity.

Parallel with the acceleration of the online radicalization efforts, the character of the militants victims has also changed significantly.Previously, militants sprung mainly from the disadvantaged and destitute section of the country who were ridden by poverty and devoid of traditional schooling. Radical outfits found these militants easy prey  in their efforts to mobilize gullible youths to destabilize the country.

However, with the changing mediums of radicalization, the socioeconomic background has also witnessed c. In contrast to the impoverished background of militants, the  militants radicalized through online mediums represented instead deviated youths from very affluent backgrounds and these youths possessing modern university education. 

The radicalization of these urban university-educated students has baffled the policymakers and law-enforcement agencies of the country as the motivation of these youths don’t have any compelling rationale to join these militant organizations peddling medieval agendas.

The online radicalization is attributed as the  reason for the proliferation   of more urban educated militants. These urban credulous youths are allured by the rhetoric and propaganda of the militant leaders.

The online radicalizers remain within the shroud of online platforms and try to radicalize the youths with inflammatory speeches which seek to vilify the western liberal ideals and the democratic government.

They rail against the intention of the democratic government and attribute all the blame of muslim plights to the western machination. They selectively portray  the violence in conflict ridden nations like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan and cherry-pick the graphical images and videos to sensitize the deviant youths that their religion is in peril and only the youth can safeguard the religion from the clutches of western imperialism through radical activities. This evokes a kind of jihadi zeal in the youths which persuade them to engage in millitant mission to safeguard the honor of their religion . 

 These factors prod the youths to join the radical forces  which takes huge toll on the stability of the country.Besides, online radicalization also exacerbated the comunal rifts in the country which is manifested in frequent assault on country’s minority groups based on fictitious allegation of desecration. These attacks on minority is orchestrated by shrewd fundamentist to vitiate the prevailing communa

Regulating online platforms is much more difficult than traditional platforms which make combating these propaganda very arduous. 

One of the scapegoats of their propaganda is the democratic government in the country. These propagandists portray the democratically elected government in bad light through advancing their conspiracy theories and propaganda. These propaganda distort the conception of the general people about the government even when the people don’t engage in radical activities. 

 Waging wars through propaganda have also  become an attractive option for these radicals as these radical outfits launch smear-campaigns against the government and vitiate the government image to the general people through heinous propaganda machinery. Besides, these online radical outfits peddle conspiracy theories and a simplified understanding of the history and economics of the world. Unfortunately, even the majority of the educated young youths believe in these conspiracy theories and possess a skewed vision about  liberalism and modernity. 

 During the Covid-19 era with the imposition of the repeated lockdowns, numerous such online platforms sprung up. Under the facade of providing Islamic knowledge they are pedding nonsensical and harebrained propaganda and conspiracy theories to mobilize the youth in their efforts to destabilize the country and vitiate development.

During the  languorous lockdowns the youths provided prolific idle times which have come as a windfall to these radical outfits as they have accelerated their heinous propaganda amidst Covid-19 lockdown. There are several reasons for the sudden rise in online radicalization in Bangladesh. Firstly, as mentioned above the young people are compelled to spend more time online as the day to day activities including the education of the university has shifted to online platforms. Therefore, this extra time significantly amplifies the vulnerability of the country’s youth to these terrorist activities. 

 Secondly, Covid-19 induced pandemic has unmasked the cleavages of our societies as the middle class youth find their family income shrinking and face difficulties. Besides, the pandemic has worsened the depression and grievances of the youths with the prevailing system which further increase their vulnerability to the radical impulses. 

 Thirdly, unemployment remains one of the persistent blights in youth vitality. While the country has been  significantly developed in the previous decades, the economic prosperity didn’t translate to adequate job creation which has failed the country to channel youthful energies to the further development of the country. Instead, unemployment has reached epidemic proportions. The Covid-19 pandemic has further thrown into uncertainty the future of the country’s youth, exacerbating the employment scenario of the country and disrupting education for a prolonged period. These unemployed youths find the radical ideologies attractive as these ideologies are capitalized on the grievances of these disenchanted youths. Therefore, unemployment greatly heightens the risk of youth falling prey to radical preachers. 

 Against this backdrop, the government needs to take adequate measures to counter the surging trends of  online radicalization. To that end, the government should enact proper legal measures to incorporate the online area into the laws. Besides, the government should avert the heinous propaganda campaigns by meting out proper justice to nefarious propagandists. Moreover, the government should ensure a counter sensitization of the country’s youth with the ethos of liberation war and the pluralism of the country. 

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Russia’s War on Terror(ism)

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The chaotic US exit strategy from Afghanistan, the quick Taliban takeover, the resurgence of Isis-K attacks and the rise of militant factions have emphasized the need for other international actors to fill the void left by the United States and map out a strategy for Central Asian stability. In the words of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the US withdrawal has opened “a Pandora’s box full of problems related to terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and, unfortunately, religious extremism”. What if Afghanistan turns out to be a hotbed for international terrorism?

Terrorism in Russia has always been a pain in the neck since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not by chance that the very word “terrorism” is mentioned at least fifteen times within the new 2021 Russian National Security Strategy. In late August, Putin took a hard line against the West’s proposal of housing refugees in Central Asia before they apply for visas to move to the United States and Europe. The message was pretty clear: “we don’t want to experience again what happened in the 1990s and the beginning of 2000s”. The traumatic years of the two Chechen Wars, the 1999 apartment bombings or the Dubrovka theater hostage crisis are still considered to be haunting phantoms. The question came up again especially in mid-2015, when the Kremlin began to fear North Caucasian returnees who had joined the Islamic State’s insurgents in the Syrian conflict.

If it is true that Russia may not have recovered from the Afghan syndrome yet; still, the risk of a fresh terrorist wave truly seems to be around the corner. In the last weeks, three special operations were conducted by the Federal Security Service (FSB) which ended up in the detention of a group of fifteen terrorists coming from Central Asia in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. Another similar operation was carried out in Ingushetia, where some supporters of the Islamic State planning attacks.

The formation of a new Taliban government ad interim itself poses serious threats to the stability of the entire region. The new Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund and the Minister of Internal Affairs Sirajuddin Haqqani are considered “terrorists” by the United Nations. The latter is the leader of the renowned Haqqani network which is said to have ties with Al-Qaeda. Last but not least, the Taliban themselves as an organization are still officially believed to be a terrorist group in Russia under a 2003 Russian Supreme Court’s ruling. According to the Russian political scientist Andrey Serenko, the Taliban victory may be a factor pushing for radicalization in other countries such as Russia.

In the last days, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov took part in a discussion hosted by the new government in Kabul with the representatives of China and Pakistan. Terrorism was among the covered topics. Immediately after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban sought to reassure the neighboring countries that the Afghan soil would not turn out to be a mushrooming ground for militant groups. However, as both Lavrov and Peskov stated, Russia is so far watching how their security promises will be kept before attempting any risky move. While keeping an eye on Kabul, Moscow is not sitting back.

Peace Mission-2021

Between September 20 and 24 the annual drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization were hosted by the Russian Federation at the Donguz training ground in the Orenburg Oblast. According to the commander of the troops of the Central Military District, Colonel General Aleksander Lapin declared that about 5,000 troops took part in the exercise.

Nine countries were involved, among which Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan. The exercise simulated the scenario of a sudden escalation of tension in Central Asia due to terrorist threats. In Colonel General Lapin’s words, the exercise was as a complete success as it showed joint combat readiness and proved to be the largest drills in the history of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Peace Mission-2021 shows the need for Russia to engage with relevant actors in Eurasia such as China. As the Chinese fear about their Wakhan corridor and the risk of extremism increases in the Xinjiang province, both Moscow and Beijing highlight the strength of the Russo-Chinese entente also in the field of anti-terrorism.

Building a thick security belt

Just as the SCO drills were unfolding, some Russian troops were involved in another exercise at the Doytym An practice range in Mongolia. No need to say that the annual drill Selenga 2021 between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar focused right on fighting international terrorism. At the beginning of September, a major counterterrorism exercise, Rubezh-2021 (Frontier-2021), together with Kyrgyz and Tajik units. Such an extensive commitment from the Mongolian steppe to the Edelweisse training range is indicative of Moscow’s will to build a thick security belt around its borders.

However, the five Stans are now not acting as a unified bloc against the Taliban threat. Kyrgyzstan has decided to send a delegation to Kabul and Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan has shown its readiness to do business with the Taliban. Tajikistan, instead, is now holding the lead of the anti-Taliban front.

As there is no “Central Asian way” to deal with the newly formed government in Kabul, Moscow is trying to tighten its grip on the region especially by betting on Dushanbe. As the risk of extremist spillover appears to be increasingly tangible, Moscow has equipped its 201st military base in Tajikistan with a batch of 12.7-mm large-caliber machine guns Utes to strengthen its combat capabilities. Moreover, after a CSTO high-level meeting in Dushanbe and the assessment of an exacerbating security situation in Central Asia, the member states decided to deploy troops along the 1300-kilometer border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Despite this, looking at the Afghan developments only as a threat is misleading. This is a unique opportunity for Moscow to reaffirm the importance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and to secure its role as top security provider in Central Asia. Despite talks between Rahmon and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to safeguard regional peace and stability, Moscow’s towering military presence and influence in the region is hard to overcome.

Resuming international cooperation?

Russia’s commitment within its backyard, however, seems not to be enough in order to fight international actors such as terrorist groups. On the anniversary of the 9/11 twin towers attacks, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov released a statement in which he called for the revival of anti-terrorist cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Back in 2018 and 2019, the Foreign Ministries of the two countries had in fact contributed to build bilateral dialogue on counterterrorism despite a conceptual gap about the nature of this threat.

In July, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned that Moscow would not approve any US troops deployment in Central Asian countries. Despite this, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and the Chief of Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov met in Helsinki to discuss joint ways to fight terrorism and extremism.

Still, resuming dialogue on anti-terrorism does not reveal a total opening toward the United States. During the UN General Assembly, in fact, Lavrov did not miss the opportunity to criticize the US for its withdrawal. The Finnish meeting must be rather understood as a sign of the Kremlin’s pragmatism in foreign policy. A few weeks after the seventeenth anniversary of the Beslan school siege, Russia is firmly committed to fight any direct or indirect threat by all means. The War on Terror(ism) continues.

From our partner RIAC

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