Although terrorism has never been isolated to one continent, one country or one ideology, before September 11th 2001, terrorism was not a high priority security issue that dominated government policies across the globe. However, since its birth, India has witnessed terrorist activity swiftly encroach and continually penetrate its borders.
In the case of Kashmir and in India, the direct exportation of state sponsored terrorism from Pakistan was viewed more as a complication and obstacle in the India-Pakistani relationship than a formidable and dangerous threat. Until 9/11, no serious commitment was made by India’s allies in the West to challenge the assistance, encouragement and infiltration of extremism within the subcontinent.
The most suitable example includes the disregard of India’s accusations toward Pakistan’s state sponsored terror policy, with no grievous event taken seriously until the United States experienced an attack on her own soil.
Only four years after 9/11, the United Kingdom experienced its worst terrorist incident since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. No stranger to domestic terrorism with the Real IRA bombings failing to cease after three decades, the 7/7 bombings marked the first Islamist suicide attack in the country.
These incidents forced the West to reconsider their current stance on terrorism, leaning their ears towards countries that had been heavily afflicted by terrorist activity. After correcting previous policies, redrafting laws and creating counter-terrorism acts, the impact of these changes in national security inevitably rippled into international relations. For example, Pakistan enjoyed a beneficial bilateral relationship with the United States until 9/11 and the consequent intervention in Afghanistan. However the relationship between the two nations continues to deteriorate under the strain of each others criticism of the War on Terror, along with several high profile incidents that fuelled already high levels of mistrust. In addition to this, members within the U.S congress have passed an amendment that seeks to restrict aid to Pakistan because of its close relations with the terrorist organisations. These restrictive tactics by the United States continue to fail in thwarting Pakistan’s objectives, with China now using Pakistan to gain geopolitical leverage and counter India’s growing influence in the region.
Terrorism has three formats.
First, state sponsored. An example of this includes the United States facilitating arms shipments and financial aid to the insurgent group “the Mujahideen” during the Cold War. With the help of Pakistani government contacts, the objective was to restrict Soviet forces in Afghanistan. However, the repercussion of this action has a regional ripple effect that continues for decades, particularly in the case of Pakistan, where terrorism has been given a breeding ground.
Second, the growth of non-state actors world wide, namely ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Hezbollah. Identified as an entity that participates and wields power and/or influence in international relations without belonging to an established state, these non-state actors thrive because of their ability to shift their operations and activity. This means that any terror activity carried out by these actors are quickly claimed as a way of establishing, recognising and legitimising their presence. For example, September 11th in New York, the 2008 Mumbai terror attack and the 2014 attack on the Peshawar military school in Pakistan were all taken responsibility for by the concerned non-state terror outfits.
And third, terrorism completely based on ideology. This is one of the deadliest virus’ the present time has witnessed, with anyone vulnerable to being radicalised by an ideology. Unlike non-state actors, ideological based terror is more reluctant and sometimes unable to fully claim for their activity. We can see this pattern emerging in some recent cases, where terrorist groups are not ready or informed enough to take responsibility for atrocities. This is evident in the rise of lone wolf attacks and small, but organised factions across Europe claiming allegiance to Islamic State without IS having full knowledge or participation in the recruitment and radicalisation. By urging followers to carry out acts of terrorism without official planning, instruction or material contribution from senior leaders, IS manages to remain an infectious and deadly enigma in which global leaders still remain uncertain on how to effectively tackle and defeat.
The shift from non-state actor terrorism to ideological based terrorist activity is extremely alarming. It does not require traditional leadership or direction, and it can penetrate borders without a passport or visa. The recent attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Kabul, Bangkok, and Dhaka and in US cities demonstrate this. Post-9/11, the entire concept of terrorism has drastically changed, domestically and globally. A cowardly attack against innocent civilians continues today without any hard policy restrictions from the international community. Western countries in particular have strong condemnations but are restrict their acts of responding to terror, leaving their societies fearful, shaken and heartbroken.
In regards to analysis, we do not have any correct perception of these attacks. We are not ready to analyse the real issue behind this new enemy. Many agree that terrorism has ushered an ambiguous form of war into the modern era, and into parts of the world where it was previously unknown or unrecognisable. Moreover, it has support from all radicalised groups. Glorifying death by killing others allures many young, misguided minds across the globe. It is worth noting, those involved in ideological based terror acts all are rarely from poor socio-economic backgrounds. For example, the Dhaka attackers were well-educated individuals from middle class families.
All our security and intelligence operations are based on old, outdated perceptions and information. Now we are forced to deviate from traditional security perspectives and review alternative, contemporary outlooks. However, there is currently no consensus on how to target and destroy an enemy based on ideology. The former secretary of state Hillary Clinton endorses this point. Following the attack on the city of Nice in France, she said that the enemy was “an ideology and not a nation state”.
The state sponsored enemy can be at least identified and action can be taken to handle them. Negotiations can be organised with the state who has sponsored or who is behind the attacks, targets can be identified, preparations can be made to hinder breeding grounds and/or plans can be formulated for an offensive retaliation.
But the ideological based enemy flourishes with fear, by spreading insecurities and apprehension among the public when gathering in cities, organising group events or celebrating anything in a common place. It is tough to predict who would succumb to radicalisation and inflict destruction and death upon innocent civilians, and it is extremely difficult to adequately prepare for such sporadic and unpredictable events. In addition, these enemies have deadly weapons available, which are no longer restricted to guns and/or suicide bombs. The recent attacks in the city of Nice in France in which the radicalised driver, motivated by his ideology, used his 19-tonne lorry as a weapon to kill more than 80 people and injure hundreds. The target remains largely in-discriminatory, with the goal being to kill the maximum number of people as possible. The attacker is no longer a known, identifiable enemy we share a border with, or is perhaps a sea, mountain range or land mass away. The attacker is the ’enemy at the gates’, and waits patiently at the gate of every country to unleash its wrath.
But the ideology based enemy is really panicking anyone to gather in the cities or to organize any group events or to celebrate anything in a common place. It is tough to predict who would turn toward the radical way and become a attacker. They simply occupying by the evil mind passionate in killing the innocence people for their ideology. It is extremely difficult to predict and act on it. These enemies are using the available deadly weapons. Not restricted with guns or suicide bombs. The recent attacks in the city of Nice in France the radicalized driver motivated by his ideology used his lorry as a weapon to smash the 80 plus lives. Their targets are just to kill the maximum number of human. You cannot say the attack is on our neighbor we are nothing to do with that. It indicates that the ‘enemy at the gates’ of everyone. It is on every state gate to breath its wrath.
What would be the best policy solution?
First, the UN protocol on terrorism should be adopted. The earliest should be the 71st session of the UN General Assembly by September this year (2016). The international community should coordinate the adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). If the CCIT is adopted at the UNGA, this would enable a huge leap forward to counter this ideological enemy, particularly in regard to cooperating with other states for joint action efforts and shared communication.
Second, everyone agree with the statement of Clinton: “We’re at war against radical jihadists who use Islam to recruit and radicalise others in order to pursue their evil agenda”. This recruitment drive is accelerated through social media, used largely by youthful members of society. In addition to ease of access, the monitoring of social media is difficult, especially with legal challenges. However, it is the responsibility of each state to contribute counter greater efforts in combating radicalisation online.
Third, society should encourage and promote a united voice in opposing those who follow this ideology. This would effectively give a strong stance and warning to those who are vulnerable to accepting and acting on this ideology. Parents should closely observe their children while they are abroad for their higher education or for employment, frequent communication between family members, and between families and religious figures in some cases, would dismantle the idea if they are already poisoned.
Fourth, the government should take stringent action against radicalised preachers. Even a small intelligence warning should be carefully analysed and action should be taken to uproot their existing presence and influence. Their financial foundation should be demolished and any supportive infrastructure should be completely shutdown.
Fifth, the government cannot give protection for all events or gatherings. However, organisers should carefully supervise entrances and scrutinise entry passes. Festivals, large gatherings, celebrations, rallies should be strictly monitored, with local governments and police informed prior. Moreover, airports and bus stations are always a prominent target. Security arrangements should always be motivated to be vigilant, with intermittent drills and training exercises for various security breaches, eliminating any potential for would-be attackers. Small harbours and/or coastal areas should be given added surveillance which are fitted with mechanisms that connect local police stations.
And finally, the governments and the ruling elites should speak for everyone in the society. They should comfort marginalised and minority groups whilst standing with them as they all, side by side as one society, face and deplore violent harassment. The enemy is waiting and watching at the gates, and will radicalise anyone that falls to their hands.
Currently in the United States, the Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to advance the opposite of these ideas, preying on domestic fears for political gains. In India too, Prime Minister Narandera Modi’s speeches are carried out to polarise voters for domestic political gains. Ultimately, this enables the enemy and their agenda by escalating xenophobia and isolating already susceptible individuals, which in turn aids their recruitment, strengthens their devotees and encourages unrestrained, bloody action.
Whether you like it or not, the barbarians are at the gates. It is up to society and their state leaders, do we destroy them or let them destroy us.
Islamic State threat moves online, expands across Africa
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.
“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.
Taliban and Al Qaeda: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?
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.
Drones in the Hands of Terrorists: What Happens Then?
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
A Glimpse at China’s Nuclear Build-Up
The People’s Republic of China is now the second largest military spender after the United States, and the country has...
Better Targeting of Social Protection Programs can Significantly Reduce Poverty in Bangladesh
Social Protection Programs remain central to Bangladesh’s sustainable development policy and are progressively benefitting the poorer households. By improving targeting...
Was Trump better for the world than Biden, after all?
Joe Biden and the State Department just approved a major deal with the Saudis for 500mln in choppers maintanance. Effectively,...
Eritrea: Release journalists and politicians arrested 20 years ago
The Eritrean authorities must immediately and unconditionally release 21 journalists and politicians who were arrested in a sweeping crackdown on...
Torture, killings, lawlessness, still blight Burundi’s rights record
The people of Burundi continue to endure serious human rights violations including possible crimes against humanity, the majority committed by...
Appliance standards and labelling is highly effective at reducing energy use
Policies that introduce minimum efficiency performance standards and energy-consumption labelling on appliances and equipment have led to reduced power consumption,...
Women in Albania to Gain Greater Access to Global Digital Jobs Market
“Digital Jobs Albania” is a new World Bank initiative that will help women in Albania gain better access to online...
South Asia4 days ago
Afghanistan: Hazaras in danger of extinction
Economy3 days ago
The Economic Conundrum of Pakistan
Finance4 days ago
2021 China-ASEAN Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum
South Asia4 days ago
Why the Taliban Had to Change
Americas3 days ago
China And U.S. Are On the Brink of War
Africa4 days ago
African Union’s Inaction on Ethiopia Deplorable – Open Letter
Americas3 days ago
20 years after 9/11: American decline in the Islamic world and China- Russian emergence
Central Asia4 days ago
The Effectiveness of Confucius Institutes in Promoting Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan