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Social Media Terrorism: DAESH’s New Caucasian Province

Brian Hughes

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The militant group Islamic State (DAESH) has filled power vacuums from Syria to Iraq. As its advances struggle forward due to increasing external resistance, it is continually searching for new recruits and new territory to push its message and power.

One of the most important new regions for this militant message is the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus, a formerly war-torn region that knows its share of terrorist strife and has seen Russia use drastic force to incorporate a pro-Kremlin government and keep the region from gaining radical Islamic independence on its southern flanks. The youngest Chechen generation has slowly become begrudging Russian supporters as the spiral of war mercifully ended and the region has witnessed the economic benefits of a rebuilt and slowly stabilizing economy. Conversely, older generations and the most devout of local Muslims reject Russian influence and continue to strive for separation from not only the Soviet past but from modern Russian governance. In this space of little autonomy and reliance on Moscow, DAESH has tried to initiate an alternative voice of independence, declaring a new Islamic province, ‘Wilayat Qawqaz,’ spanning the North Caucasus region.

DAESH relies heavily on an innovative and polarizing message to recruit and expand its illusory borders. In the North Caucasus, it has relied on sympathy for the so-called fight for Islamic independence and an ardent rejection of Kremlin influence. With this message, it has aligned itself with al-Qaeda’s Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, with four of the six most powerful divisions formally aligning themselves with DAESH after the announcement. While it’s unclear how the divisions of allegiance with other al-Qaeda affiliates will ultimately affect the region, the declaration of Wilayat Qawqaz and loyalty with some al-Qaeda affiliates clearly demonstrates the brazen and confident nature of DAESH to operate away from its base in Iraq. Interestingly, DAESH did not declare the new Wilayat in any simple or crude way, but advanced the announcement through an impressive technological and media blitz.

The most visual and advanced propaganda tool for this in Russia, released just weeks after declaring Wilayat Qawqaz, is an Android-only app simply titled ‘Caucas,’ (sic) and provides daily news from DAESH offensives in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, it provides Russian translated videos of DAESH leaders, such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It’s not clear who precisely is behind the app, but it clearly shows that DAESH factions are increasingly interested in the future of the North Caucasus. Although a technologically simple app, it marks the first time a Russian-only DAESH app has been created and maintained daily. Another DAESH media outlet in Russia, Furat Media, made its debut just weeks before the announcement of the new province. Furat appears to be a professionally-managed organization that propagates DAESH viewpoints along with traditional news and wartime updates. Along with a website, Furat utilizes Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr accounts and used these platforms to initially announce the establishment of Wilayat Qawqaz. DAESH factions created outlets to not only announce the establishment of the new province, but to unify its Russian base with up-to-date news coverage from the so-called Caliphate’s front lines.

Thus, the release of these two new media platforms weeks from each other and timed with the declaration of the new Caucasian province signals that DAESH clearly wants to expand its influence into the post-Soviet space, where admittedly there are plenty of radical Islamic terrorists waiting for new support. This marks a bold progression in DAESH’s vision. With thousands of Chechen separatists and terrorists potentially filling the ranks of DAESH, it must consider Russian-speaking initiatives of great importance. These apps, videos, and media outlets have allowed the Arabic-speaking leadership to engage Russian-speaking zealots, communicating daily a dangerous unifying mission to all fighters.

Current estimates of the combined DAESH forces of Wilayat Qawqaz stands at 15,000 combatants. With recruitment becoming the primary focus, those numbers could ultimately swell in the coming years. With terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus dwindling drastically from 2010 to 2014, DAESH has deftly stoked dying embers into a real potentiality for renewed insurgency. It’s unclear what the implications for Russia will be in the coming months as DAESH pushes for general population acceptance of the new Wilayat. While the Chechen population has long strived for independence throughout their history, a large majority now accept a somewhat autonomous role under the Russian Federation. For Russia to recreate a heavy-handed security state inside Chechnya in response to the DAESH threat would only recall echoes of the first and second Chechen Wars of the 1990s and 2000s.

In addition to North Caucasus terrorists, Moscow’s Security Council chief in June stated that there was a real problem with containing the flow of Chechen fighters to Syria and Iraq. While estimates vary, there is some consensus that there are at least 2,000 Russian nationals fighting alongside DAESH. However, it is unclear if the goal of the new media platforms is to bolster the North Caucasian causes or for DAESH recruitment efforts for the Levant Caliphate. Either way, Russia may eventually need to address its national security concerns there, but will be hard-pressed to find a solution that honors the relatively effective soft power approaches Moscow has used since the Chechen ceasefire of 2009. More likely, security will once again be tightened, with human rights restricted, and Russian soldiers free to act on their own discretion. This will only bolster DAESH’s cause and degrade the influence Russia has built in the North Caucasus. For the Kremlin, it marks yet another challenge in an atmosphere of lowered Russian morale, declining support for Vladimir Putin in the southern region, and the realities of a fairly severe economic recession because of Western sanctions. Ultimately, it is unclear if DAESH can truly begin a dangerous and more intense offensive in Chechnya and beyond or if the ultimate goal is advancing just recruitment bases. Either way, there is no doubt that Russia will need to address this new threat as DAESH is proving its technological savvy and media-support efforts are highly effective in spilling influential propaganda and deadly terrorism across any borders.

Brian Hughes is currently a student in the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA.

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Terrorism

ISIL’s ‘legacy of terror’ in Iraq: UN verifies over 200 mass graves

MD Staff

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Investigators have uncovered more than 200 mass graves containing thousands of bodies in areas of Iraq formerly controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), according to a United Nations human rights report out on Tuesday.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said the 202 mass grave sites were found in governorates of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Anbar in the north and western parts of the country – but there may be many more.

In the joint report, Unearthing Atrocities, the UN entities said the evidence gathered from the sites “will be central to ensuring credible investigations, prosecutions and convictions” in accordance with international due process standards.

Ján Kubiš, the top UN official in Iraq and the head of UNAMI, said that the mass grave sites “are a testament to harrowing human loss, profound suffering and shocking cruelty.”

“Determining the circumstances surrounding the significant loss of life will be an important step in the mourning process for families and their journey to secure their rights to truth and justice,” he added.

Between June 2014 and December 2017, ISIL seized large areas of Iraq, leading a campaign of widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, “acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possible genocide,” the report states.

Traumatized families have the ‘right to know’

The UNAMI-OHCHR report also documents the “significant challenges” families of the missing face in trying to find the fate of their loved ones.

At present, they must report to more than five separate authorities, a process that is both time-consuming and frustrating for traumatized families.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, underscored that the families “have the right to know.”

“ISIL’s horrific crimes in Iraq have left the headlines but the trauma of the victims’ families endures, with thousands of women, men and children still unaccounted for,” she said.

“Their families have the right to know what happened to their loved ones. Truth, justice and reparations are critical to ensuring a full reckoning for the atrocities committed by ISIL.”

The report documents 202 mass grave sites across Iraq, amid fears that there could be more. Source: UNAMI-OHCHR report

Victim-centred approach needed

Among its recommendations, the report calls for a victim-centred approach and a transitional justice process that is established in consultation with, and accepted by, Iraqis, particularly those from affected communities.

It also urges a multidisciplinary approach to the recovery operations, with the participation of experienced specialists, including weapons contamination and explosives experts and crime scene investigators.

Alongside, it also calls on the international community to provide resources and technical support to efforts related to the exhumation, collection, transportation, storage and return of human remains to families, as well as their identification, particularly by helping strengthen the national Mass Graves Directorate.

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The Islamic State’s reviving scheme

Ahmed Genidy

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Despite the fact that ISIS lost 98 percent of its controlled territory, it is aiming for a reforming and coming back in the Sunni populated areas in Syria and Iraq. Due to the current war situation and its developed financial resource. ISIS used to relay on the territory under its control to collect billions of dollars through criminal activities such as taxation, extortion, robbery and the illegal sale of the curd oil. Now the group has shown its ability to collect money regardless of controlling large areas.

After the rise of ISIS in 2015 and the takeover of vast areas in Syria and Iraq, its budget estimation reached $6 billion, as a result, the Islamic State is considered as the wealthiest terrorist entity in the history. The question posed is how such a terrorist group budget could become equivalent to a state-nation budget? In 2015 the Islamic State main financial resources were; oil and gaze which gathered about 500$ million in 2015; taxation that generated approximately $360 million in the same year and finally; about $500 million robbed from bank vaults in Mosul.

Today the situation is different, the Islamic State has lost the majority of its territory. The global coalition had destroyed ISIS infrastructures in the Middle East as well as its communication routes and had killed the idea of the hegemonic Islamic caliphate in the region. Meanwhile, the Islamic State is struggling to control the last 2 percent of its territory. Therefore, its revenue stream from the main resources has been rapidly shrinking out.

As a result, ISIS no longer relies on the controlled territory for its financial survival. For example, ISIS leadership may have smuggled around $400 million out of Syria and Iraq. Laundering this money through fake entity is likely to occur especially in Turkey. Some other cash could be converted into valuable items and stockpiled to be used in the future.

The stockpile cash will provide the group with more than enough fund to continue as a clandestine terrorist movement with the ability to conduct campaigns of guerrilla warfare in the region. On the other hand, ISIS has supported its financial situation with a variety of funding portfolio. It has developed a range of criminal activities that do not require controlling territories such as kidnapping for ransom, drug smuggling and trafficking in antiquities.

Over the next years, the international community seeks to provide help for Syria and Iraq to recover. The reconstruction aid could provide an attractive target for the Islamic State and a possible financial boost to its comeback. It is possible that the Islamic State begins skimming off reconstruction contracts, the only way is to establish connections with the local officials which is not difficult for a terrorist entity with a huge amount of cash. Finally, the rise of the Iranian threats in the region reflects in many stakeholder’s fears from an Iranian’s control through Hezbollah over ISIS past territories. Therefore, a continuing support from regional states to the terrorist group is possible if ISIS adopts a suitable strategy to the supporters interests in the region.

The combination of the criminal activities, the reconstruction plan and the regional states financial support in the future will encourage the Islamic State to regroup and reorganize. For instance, in Kirkuk, the militants created a fake checkpoint to attack security forces earlier this year. Moreover, in Diyala and Saladin, sleeper cells activity began to hit back. The U.S. policy in the Middle East tends to view the war on terror as separate phases while jihadis consider it as one long war. Until the West recognize this, ISIS is likely to come over to repeat its strategy and to reviving the Islamic caliphate project in the future.

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Religious radicalism as a trend

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IN RECENT YEARS, much has been said about radicalism and its varied offshoots. True, the number of terrorist acts climbs up, the popularity of extreme right political forces grows, and the wave of left radical and anti-globalist movements, migration crises and international tension is rising. This is how everyday realities look in many countries of the world.

France is one of the European countries in which radical trends are only too obvious. At the 2017 presidential election, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, two radical politicians who represented anti-establishment political movements, reaped 41% and 51% respectively of the votes cast by young voters aged between 18 and 24. On the whole, the Fifth Republic is getting accustomed to violence against the law and order structures, destruction of material assets during rallies, protest acts that keep lyceums and universities blocked for a long time, and rejection of republican values that looked unshakable not long ago. Today, when fifty years separate us from the May 1968 events, we can talk about “banalization of protests” not only among the groups on the margins of society but also among its law-abiding part.

Late in 2015, after a series of terrorist acts in France a group of scientists, mostly sociologists of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) launched a large-scale research project to identify the factors responsible for the spread of radical ideas among the younger generation. In April 2018, the results were published in a monograph The Temptation of Radicalism  one of the hits on the French book market.

The project is a unique one: for the first time, academic science turned its attention to the younger generation rather than to terrorist acts and those who commit them; it has become interested in the process of radicalization and the factors that plant the ideas of radicalism in the minds of high school students.

A vast, and most interesting, part of the book that deals with religious radicalism, one of the main objects of attention of the public and the media, offers two important conclusions that devalue the old and generally accepted opinions.

Sociologists have detected two component parts or two stages in religious radicalism: the “ideological” as devotion to the fundamentalist religious trends and “practical,” the adepts of which are more than just religious fanatics – they justify violence for religious reasons.

The authors of the book under review who obviously prefer the term “religious absolutism” to “religious fundamentalism” have repeatedly pointed out that it is present in all world religions; the poll, however, revealed that religious absolutism was more typical of Muslim high school students.

Religion, or to be more exact, extreme Islamist trends combined with the male gender is the main factor of religious radicalization of the French youth.

This sociological study has demonstrated that the French national and confessional politics that for many years relied on the thesis that radicalization among the younger generation was caused by social and economic factors should be revised. This book made a great contribution to the broad and far from simple discussion of the place and role of Islam in French society, into which not only extreme right political movement are involved. In his speech of May 22, 2018, President of France “poured cold water” on the plan to shake up the banlieues devised by Jean-Louis Borloo. The president pointed out that more money poured into sensitive zones would not solve the main problem of radicalization.

first published in our partner International Affairs

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