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Extreme Right and Islamic Extremists: an evident comparison?

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The problems related to security, lack of dialogue between different cultures and religions, as well as the issues relating to mass migrations, are increasingly influencing the political and social confrontation in different parts of the world.

The further establishment of extreme Islamist movements in Middle East and Africa, paired with the parallel rise of extreme right parties in Europe, are progressively creating hurdles to pacific confrontation and development, apparently fuelling each other’s violence in words as in actions.

In this short article, we will try to reflect on the similarities between such extremist movements by constructing an empirical comparison between them.

The new challenges to the stability of contemporary society – as the difficulties of integrating the rising number of foreign workers and the perceived hurdles of the dialogue of civilizations – are more and more pushing towards polarization and extremization of political confrontation. With part of the mass media – especially in the so-called “Western” world – apparently putting (in bona fide or not) the focus only on the threats to the consolidated democratic way of life from large religiously-driven terrorist organizations, the analysis on how different forms of extremism are developing themselves is lacking an important aspect: the comparison between socio-political modus operandi of Islamic extremists and far right extremists.

While the analogy between Islamic extremist movements of the past – characterized by authoritarianism and racist elements – and the ideological predecessor of the European Extreme Right – i.e. Italian Fascism and German Nazism – has already been drawn and analysed in academic literature, the comparison between current Islamic extremism and current European Extreme Right political parties has not been attempted yet. Before delving into the crux of the issue, it is necessary to map out the essential features defining a diverse array of European Extreme Right political parties, such as the Italian Lega Nord, the British BNP (British National Party), and the Swiss SVP (Swiss People’s Party). To begin with, the European Extreme Right parties construct their identity in a negative way, since they delineate their identity features as opposed to a seemingly threatening “Other”, precisely immigrants in general, Muslim immigrants in particular. At this point it is worth, for the sake of clarity, making a brief digression to point out that the concept of the Other is rooted in the Hegelian notion that the definition of the identity of the self hinges on the definition of the identity of a negative Other, which is inherently different from the self. Consequently, the following Extreme Right’s features are to be considered as remarking the opposition between the European, Western self, also defined as the in-group, and its negative Other, also referred to as the out-group.

This said, we can start by pointing out xenophobia as an essential feature of the Extreme Right. Xenophobia, sadly, is an almost omnipresent feature of a not-properly developed (or simply “gone bad”) multicultural society: it is exploited by such parties as a main aggregator for unsatisfied citizens blaming problems (be them theirs, or of society in general) on the different “other”. Its ideology stresses the importance of the native ethnicity vis-à-vis the out-group. For instance, the BNP emphasizes the belonging to the British ethnic group, though vague the concept of ethnicity may be in this case. Indeed, the Extreme Right adheres to and promotes a form of nationalism of the ethnic type, conceptualizing the belonging to the nation as ascribed by blood, primitive, and irrational. It follows that the Extreme Right takes on an anti-immigration stance, thus appealing to public anxieties and frustration over the Other, which is depicted as a danger to the integrity and the security of the ethnic nation. Interestingly, it should be noted that some extreme right parties as the Lega Nord debuted by promoting an “intra-national” racism, fomenting discord between citizens of the same country originating from different areas, regions or cities.

Secondly, an anti-establishment position characterizes the Extreme Right. Extreme Right political parties are, indeed, often populist, as they harshly criticize the existing political, social, and economic structure of their respective states and, in doing so, they intend to appeal to the people as a whole. On the contrary, they do not appeal to the elites, which are deemed responsible for the grievances affecting their states. Within the frame of their anti-establishment stance, the European Extreme Right parties are hostile to traditional democracy, linked to diversity and liberal values, and are in favour of a form of post/ pseudo-democratic politics. Thirdly, authoritarianism distinguishes the Extreme Right political parties. In fact, they promote repressive and quasi-violent measures in the field of security, which ties into the discussion about the Extreme Right’s anti-immigration stance. For instance, the BNP, the Lega Nord and the SVP advocate the introduction of the death penalty and promote the expulsion of clandestine immigrants. Finally, the European Extreme Right upholds reactionary values, promoting traditions vis-à-vis modernity, and showing a deep nostalgia towards an idealized past, when the ethnic nation was, in their opinion, pure, safe, and unspoilt by the Other.

Turning the focus onto Islamic extremism, it is possible to start finding analogies. The first and most apparent one regards, not surprisingly, xenophobia: the West, for a paradoxical twist of fate, becomes Islamic extremism’s threatening Other. Some examples of this can be seen in Boko Haram fundamental ideology – the same very name of the organization literally translates to “Western education is forbidden”, which conveys its acute anti-Western stance that is ultimately driven (very often violently) against Western-style educational institutions and Western-derived religious institutions. Similarly, IS is antagonistic to the West, planning terror attacks against it and unleashing pitiless violence against Christians in the Middle East and more recently in Northern Africa via its affiliate sub-organizations. It is important to underline, however, Islamic extremism does not emphasize (yet) the belonging to any ethnic nation, but rather the belonging to Islam: it is not possible to classify it as a form of ethnic nationalism, as the Extreme Right is. Paradoxically, Islamic extremism can be considered as “inclusive” when compared to the other kind of extremism since that adhering to its religion can open its doors to foreigners, as seen with the various “foreign fighters” who joined the ranks of IS.

Secondly, similarly to the Extreme Right, Extremist Islamic organizations have an anti-establishment hue which, however, is expressed in a different way. Ideologically, Islamic terrorists oppose democracy – in particular, Western/European-inspired democratic values and institutions – because they are seen as Western, foreign and non-native imposed product. Practically, this is expressed by the direct violent attacks to institutions and their representatives, as well as different attempts to boycott elections or other steps of the democratic process. The capacity of appealing to the people as a whole – provided they are Muslim – is an important lever for consensus, especially when new followers are made by capitalizing on the problems of the (more or less) democratic institutions of the countries where extremists operate. Corruption, inequalities and widespread poverty, and are among the main reasons which helped the establishment (and the strengthening) of such organizations. This way, thanks to a general feebleness of the institutional structure – summed up with a lesser, or simply different, acceptance of often European-derived institutions – Islamic extremist organizations arrange their fight with more violent means, often leaving the political dialogue in favour of menaces and attacks or various nature. This way, even if such organizations (like IS and its parent groups, as well as Boko Haram) share with the Extreme right the element of authoritarianism, the different socio-political and historical context in which they are active influences their modus operandi. If it is legitimate to think how a different and better consolidated institutional framework could have influenced the formation of extremist religious movements, it is interesting to think what could have happened in a far weaker and lesser interconnected Europe, with an eye on the history books and the first establishment of far right regimes in the Old Continent.

As a last point, an easier analogy to be analysed is the one that can be drawn between Islamic extremism, in particular IS, and Fascism. The neologism “Islamofascism” has been coined to describe the similarity between Islamic extremism and the Italian Fascism. This analogy allows for a greater range of elements to be included in the analysis, in addition to a xenophobic and anti-establishment ideology, and an authoritarian and reactionary strategy. For instance, both Fascism and Islamic extremism are movements that depict themselves as the liberators ushering in a golden age, which will benefit the masses and lift them out of economic, social, and political crises. Moreover, both movements are driven by the willingness to form an empire. While Fascism dreamt of building an Italian Empire, in order to revive the imperialist glories of Ancient Rome, IS and Boko Haram want to create (or re-create, in some specific regional cases) an Islamic caliphate trespassing state borders and resembling an empire in dimensions and rule.

To sum up, the European Extreme Right and Islamic extremism share a xenophobic and anti-establishment ideology and an authoritarian, reactionary strategy. Moreover, they both exploit the population’s discontent regarding the existing economic, social, and political conditions. However, probing beyond the surface, these movements are not fully comparable. Indeed, the Extreme Right’s anti-immigration stance is alien to Islamic extremism, due to the different context in which the two movements operate.

On such bases, could be useful to make a last reflection: are such movements “sons of their times”, sprouting from an unexpressed miscontent for determined living conditions, or are they the expression of different powers trying to impose a precise way of seeing (and then defining) society for their vested interests? Behind mere violence and ideology, it is important to take note of the fact that these factions have an agenda of theirs with clear economic, political and strategic objectives. The rise of organizations like IS and Boko Haram is also linked to complex economic interests, related to the control of strategic areas and commodities, as well as arms dealing if we enlarge the focus to Eastern Africa and Al Shabaab. The religious or the ideological element is exploited to force “change” and gather followers in order to topple the current elite and obtain its power and revenues. Similarly, even if without the element of the extreme violence, this is happening with the Extreme Right in some areas of Europe. An example comes from the Italian case, where the Lega Nord formed to “defend” local economic interests by promoting destabilizing (and not sufficiently evaluated) measures for the country’s management, next to the overall anti-immigration and xenophobic stance. Material interests drive ideology, which becomes an instrument built in and for social, political and economic exclusion to the advantage of a restricted clique demonstrating limited interest for its own followers.

Ultimately, we can reach the conclusion that these two kinds of extremism – with their analogies and differences – capitalize on each other strength, thus ultimately reinforcing themselves in their quest to annihilate each other, be it verbally or practically. In absence of sound policies and concrete solutions to the problems that gave birth to these movements, more the “violence” of the confrontation is raised, more discontented citizens will feel attracted by extreme measures.

Related to this, it is important to remember the role of Europe and the “West” in general in the strengthening of extremist organizations in ME and in the Mediterranean. As during Cold War times, in a broader (but surprisingly narrow-minded) geopolitical strategy based on the assumption that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, extremist organizations have been used as a filler or pressure item to damage non-collaborating leaders and States instead of being annihilated, bringing to the results we know. On the other hand, a real engagement against the development of Extreme Right movements has usually been absent, sometimes replaced by a more dangerous act of capitalization on these movements for national (or regional) short-term political objectives by other factions – as securing government stability, slowing down specific steps of the European integration process. Furthermore, even in countries where the reformation or even the apology of former Extreme Right factions is illegal (again, as in Italy), enforcement has often been poor or sporadic.

In conclusion, with these reflections referring to a wider picture, it is worth mentioning a promising avenue for future thought and research on this comparative topic. Indeed, in this age threatened by the Extreme Right and Islamic extremism, it is useful to think about how these two dangers can be related by a causal nexus. The menacing spread of Islamic extremism may fuel the growth of the support for European Extreme Right parties, as Islamic extremism becomes the enemy, namely the Hegelian Other, to fight against both within Europe- where it is embodied by the immigrants – and outside Europe – in the cradles of Islamic extremism – by invoking the ethnic and pure nation. The most serious consequence of this process is that it may undermine multiculturalism, which is only incipient in some states, such as Italy, but belongs to an established and deep-seated political and social configuration of other states, such as the United Kingdom.

(special thanks to Ms. Marianna Griffini for the help and support)

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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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