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Is ISIS Moving its Capital from Raqqa to Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Asaad H. Almohammad, Ph.D. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]here is a recurring scene of cheerful crowds in Iraqi towns and city that have been liberated from ISIS; older women, men, and young adults exhaling cigarette smoke and grinning as they relish in this recent regained symbol of liberty and freedom. There was a moment circulated on social media of an older woman cursing ISIS on camera after her town was liberated by Kurdish-led forces. She didn’t hold back! One grievance that she ranted about more than any was ISIS’ ban of cigarettes and smoking.

On the evening of March 30, 2017 we communicated with some of our contacts in Raqqa. A number of trusted sources reported something extraordinary was taking place in the city: more and more people were smoking in public. If it were an act of defiance, it would have come at a steep price—at least 16 lashes, a prison sentence, and a fine. Smoking was not only about defiance; it was also about sating their long-repressed cravings for nicotine in the absence of an enemy that forbids it. Our sources confirmed that ISIS cadres are rarely seen in the city. It was also reported that ISIS had shut down all of its directorates there. It seemed that civilians were beginning to experience some sense of normalcy with the absence of ISIS operatives at every corner.

Since the battel to retake Tabqa dam started in March 2017, ISIS has reacted in unexpected ways. One of these reactions could be sensed by their minimal presence in the city of Raqqa, Syria. However, this limited presence resembles a similar trend that occurred in 2014. Then, ISIS was on the retreat, or at least it appeared to be, when al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-sham, and affiliates of the Syrian army were battling it to retake Raqqa. Notwithstanding their efforts, the aforementioned groups lost that battle against ISIS. ISIS fighters carried out significant attacks from the outskirts of Raqqa city, weakening their rivals, and ultimately defeating them. After that battle, ISIS grew stronger with a greater presence in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor, Syria. Currently ISIS does appear to be on the retreat in Raqqa governorate. Multiple sources have confirmed that they rarely see any ISIS operatives in Raqqa, including both foreign and local ISIS members. One source reported hearing ISIS members who were fleeing the city asking civilians to “Forgive us.” Other sources confirmed that injured ISIS members who were involving in the fighting in Rif Dimashq governorate were only in the city to receive medical treatment.

However, one might argue that ISIS is using the same strategy that previously gave its adversaries the illusion of winning, while actually out manuevering them. It would be shocking for one of the most ruthless non-state actors to flee its declared capital without a fight. In two separate investigations, one on the significance of the Tabqa Dam[1] and the other on ISIS security forces (forthcoming), evidence points to some degree of readiness and preparation to relocate its stronghold in Syria from Raqqa to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor.

Financial Operations

Trusted sources from the city of Raqqa reported that between the second half of February and first half of March 2017, ISIS security forces pressured the directorates of public services, electricity, communication (landline and satellite internet), agriculture, water, and finance to expedite the collection of all outstanding bills, fines, and taxes, according to one source within one month’s time. It was reported that other directorates that functioned within this same controlled territory experienced the same pressure. However, unlike the directorates mentioned earlier, we were not able to directly confirm that this same pressure was applied to the other Raqqa directorates. For the specified directorates, other trusted sources confirmed the reports and added that ISIS security forces assigned a financial inspector to oversee the implementation of this order. Additionally, the inspector was reported to lead a team of members from ISIS security forces. This team was tasked with listing the details of those involved in the collection of outstanding taxes and fines with each directorate. Members of the team made sure that all collected money was reported and that each directorate didn’t exceed a month to fully implement the order.

The inspector and his team were reported to meet at the Wali’s (ISIS governor’s) office every day after 5 p.m. to report to the leadership of ISIS security forces and the Wali of Raqqa. In addition, the team and inspector assisted another group formed by ISIS security forces to transport the collected money. On an almost weekly basis, the group provided security to move money collected by the directorates within Raqqa city to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor. On one occasion ISIS security forces managed to move just over USD $20 million. One source described the operation, that ISIS security forces carried out an operation to move such large amounts of money. The source added that ISIS used three taxies, two medium agricultural trucks, and three pick-up trucks to move the money. The pick-up trucks provided security and were full of ISIS fighters. The agricultural trucks had civilians and their belongings along with two armed ISIS fighters in each truck. The taxis transported the cash and had women and children in them.

The timing, pressure, and detailed workforce involved in implementing the financial collections order within Raqqa city indicate some degree of urgency. It is unclear why ISIS made such a move. Raqqa city is not only an ISIS stronghold in militant terms but also functions as the center of its financial operations. Its grip on the financial aspects of the provision of public services, oil and gas, real estate, and dealing in stolen goods (e.g., vehicles) has allowed the group to finance its operations within Syria, Iraq, and abroad.

To that effect, ISIS might be moving its cash reserves to reduce the losses it might endure if the American forces and their Syrian allies manage to succeed in their operations within Raqqa city. Another justification could be the increasing pressure of forces around Raqqa governorate. In this sense, ISIS might be planning to relocate its financial center to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor. In either case, ISIS loses much of it’s maneuvering power if its financial reserves and operations are eliminated. To execute this, American forces and their Syrian allies may need to consider simultaneous attacks, not only in Raqqa but also in ISIS controlled territories in Deir ez-Zor.

Key Figures and Their Families

Details from trusted sources showed that during the second half of August 2016, key ISIS players and their families were moved from the city of Jarabulus in Aleppo to the city of Tabqa in Raqqa governorate. In Tabqa, units from ISIS security forces hosted the members and their families for a day and then suggested moving them to Raqqa city. ISIS’ decision to get the families out of Tabqa was due to a number of mysterious assassinations of the major ISIS players in the city. On the first day of the families’ arrival in Raqqa city, ISIS security forces provided them protection and escorted them to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor. Moreover within the same month, ISIS security forces removed additional major players and their families from Raqqa city. It seemed that the additional ISIS members who were relocated from Raqqa had prior knowledge of such an order. Those members were reported to have sold their belongings (personal cars and real estate) for extremely low prices. In addition, ISIS restricted the movement of unauthorized operatives from the southern outskirts of Raqqa city. Civilians who did not reside in that area were totally banned from any entry into the southern outskirts of Raqqa city. Furthermore, it was reported that ISIS kept only trusted residents and moved the ones who were not deemed to be as such to Raqqa city.

Sources reported that during late September 2016 ISIS moved leading foreign members (not Syrians or Iraqis) to the eastern outskirts of Raqqa city. Many of those members were staying at Al-Thakanah, Raqqa city. During October 2016 over 500 fighters and their family members were resettled in Al-Thakanah. The order for that resettlement came from the leadership of ISIS security forces. All of the resettled fighters came from Mosul, Iraq. As of mid-November 2016, leading Iraqi ISIS members who had fled Mosul were settled in the southern outskirts of Raqqa city.

Recently obtained information indicates that a large number of leading foreign and local (Syrians and Iraqis) members of ISIS and their families were moved to the city of Mayadin and towns in close vicinity of it. Moreover, the movement of key ISIS members and their families were restricted to Mayadin. Those members needed to obtain permission and protection prior to any movement outside the city and towns within close vicinity.

To that effect, the city of Mayadin is clearly viewed by ISIS as safe haven. Information obtained from trusted sources has shown a trend of ISIS moving highly valued members to the city of Mayadin. The data indicates that the trend started during the second half of 2016. This makes the city of Mayadin of great significance in the fight against ISIS. If high numbers of key ISIS members are indeed operating from this place, it might be worthwhile to consider taking the fight to that city. However, the American forces and their Syrian allies are at a disadvantage there. Deir ez-Zor presents a mixed cocktail of extreme violent jihadists and Syrian regime forces, backed by the Russians and Hezbollah. It is important to note that controlling the city of Mayadin and towns in its immediate vicinity gives ISIS a financial advantage. That is to say, through the oil and gas fields in that area, ISIS may be able to generate more revenue—including selling commodities to the Syrians—to fund its ongoing operations.[2]

Conclusion

Information obtained from trusted sources presents concrete evidence of the value of Mayadin city in the fight against ISIS. Recent accounts indicate ISIS financial reserves have been moved to that city. In addition, leading foreign and local ISIS members have made the city their safe haven. As mentioned earlier, such operations might be in place to reduce the potential losses in the event that American forces and their Syrians allies take the fight to ISIS’ stronghold and self-declared capital. It might also be a ploy to draw the American forces and their Syrians allies to the city of Raqqa only to carry out a major assault against them. The American forces and their Syrian allies might try to reduce civilian causalities, slowing down their reaction time in hitting potential civilian targets. ISIS has proved that the loss of human lives is inevitable in their fight and civilian lives are expendable for them. In fact, statements from their social media operatives suggest that they might be preparing the local population in the city of Raqqa for such a loss. ISIS social media operatives presented on Telegram a hadith, a saying from Mohammad, the Islamic Prophet that suggests that out of a hundred, only one righteous believer will survive to carry out Jihad. [3] Below are some comments on it.

Moreover, the Russians, through their forces and influence on the Syrian regime, have an advantage in taking the fight to the city of Mayadin. The current American administration has been preaching about the invaluable significance of American-Russian cooperation in the fight against ISIS. The Whitehouse, insofar, has given the Russians the benefit of the doubt on many domestic and foreign issues on the premise that this unusual trust will prevail in such a moment.

In this report we argue taking the fight to ISIS’ safe haven in the city of Mayadin could result in massive financial and insurgent losses on the part of ISIS. It might very well be a key operation that leads to the decline of ISIS in Syria. More fundamentally, if the United States cannot and or will not get the Russians’ support in taking the fight to ISIS’ safe haven then why is such cooperation needed? If not to eliminate ISIS operations in the city of Mayadin, then where and when will this cooperation come into play?

The sign of ISIS’ defeat in Syria might be people triumphantly cheering—and defiantly and jubilantly smoking cigarettes in the city of Mayadin. ISIS’ defeat might first be sensed in Mayadin barbershops where men are getting their previously imposed beards shaved. It might be also seen as the city dumps become littered with burqas. However, foremost it will be sealed by an older woman recounting the horrors of ISIS as she inhales the smoke from her long-awaited cigarette.


(*) Asaad H. Almohammad, Ph.D. is a Syrian research fellow and novelist. He completed his doctorate in Political Psychology and Marketing. His academic work addressed how psycho-political factors alter implicit and explicit emotional responses and to what levels these responses are predictive of political behavior. He has also spent several years coordinating and working on projects across ISIS-held territories. To date, drawing upon a strong network of sources on the ground in Syria, he has addressed a number of financial, operational, and militant activities of the terrorist organization. He is also interested in political branding, campaigns and propaganda, post-conflict reconciliation, and deradicalization. In his spare time Asaad closely follows political affairs, especially humanitarian crises and electoral campaigns. He is especially interested in immigration issues.

Reference for this article: Asaad H. Almohammad & Speckhard, Anne (April 3, 2017) Is ISIS Moving it’s Capital from Raqqa to Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor?ICSVE Brief Reports

[1] Asaad Almohammad and Anne Speckhard, “Why Taking the Tabqa Dam is Important in the Fight against ISIS and Retaking of Raqqa,” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, Washington, DC, 2017. Retrieved from http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/why-taking-the-tabqa-dam-is-important-in-the-fight-against-isis-and-retaking-of-raqqa/

[2] Speckhard, A. (April 27, 2016). ISIS revenues include sales of oil to the al-Assad regime. ICSVE Brief Reports. Retrieved from http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/isiss-revenues-include-sales-of-oil-to-the-al-assad-regime/

[3] “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would not come before the Euphrates uncovers a mountain of gold, for which people would fight. Ninety-nine out of each one hundred would die but every man amongst them would say that perhaps he would be the one who would be saved (and thus possess this gold). (Book #041, Hadith #6918)”

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Islamic Caliphate is dead, but its dangerous and infectious ideology is alive

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The year 2019 witnessed the rout of the Islamic Caliphate – the pseudo-state entity created on the territories of Iraq and Syria by the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a.k.a. the Islamic State or IG, ISIL, Daesh (Arabic), a terrorist group outlawed in the Russian Federation.

On March 1, 2019, just three or four years after the Islamic Caliphate terrorized the entire world, Kurdish units of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria launched an offensive to flush out 500 jihadist fighters holed up in the city of Baguz, ISIL’s last stronghold in the country.

Does this mean that Islamist terrorism is now done for?

During the first decade of the 21st century, ISIL emerged as the biggest threat to international security and world order. On June 29, 2014 ISIL terrorists announced the creation of an Islamic Caliphate with claims to global domination.

As seen on the map , the Islamic Caliphate, comprising numerous provinces, was to extend from China to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Central Europe and Siberia all the way down to equatorial Africa. The Caliphate encompasses all Muslim states without exception, including Iran and non-Muslim Israel, the territories “occupied by infidels,” as well as the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, the Caliphate lays claims to Western Asia and Europe, including Spain, the Balkans, Romania and Austria.

The Islamic Caliphate went on to make the Syrian city of Raqqa its de-facto capital in 2014.

Although still far from achieving global dominion, the jihadists started building the basis of their future Islamic Caliphate by enslaving between 8 million and 10 million people in the occupied territories of Iraq and Syria, and virtually annihilating Syrian and Iraqi Christians, Yezidis, Shiites and Kurds.

In addition to Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State and its affiliates controlled parts of Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

ISIL also used its substantial financial resources to increase the number of “sleeper” terrorist cells in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Indonesia, the Philippines, the North Caucasus and various European countries.

During its criminal heyday in 2014-2017, ISIL was one of the most numerous and well-armed terrorist groups in the Middle East, boasting over 100,000 fighters active mainly in Syria and Iraq.

Add to these 27,000 to 31,000 mercenaries from 86 countries who, according to the Soufan Group analytical center, fought in the ranks of this terrorist organization.

Equally noteworthy is the distribution of foreign ISIL militants by region and country (2016 – 2017):

Former Soviet republics 8,717
Near and Middle East 7,054
Western Europe 5,778
Maghreb countries (North Africa) 5,356
South and Southeast Asia 1,568
Balkans 845
North America 444

Countries –main suppliers of fighters for ISIL:

Russia 3,417
Saudi Arabia 3,244
Jordan 3,000
Tunisia 2,926
Turkey 1,910

Equally noteworthy is data pertaining to the number of ISIL mercenaries from former Soviet republics (2015)

Azerbaijan 216
Georgia 50
Kazakhstan 300
Kyrgyzstan 500
Moldova 1
Tajikistan 386
Turkmenistan 360
Uzbekistan 500

ISIL owes its temporary success in Iraq and Syria to these countries’ weak militaries, the seizure of their arsenals of advanced US-supplied weapons, and to the considerable financial resources looted from Iraqi banks.

And also to its militants’ religious fanaticism, the professional skills of former Iraqi and Syrian military officers who joined ISIL, to foreign mercenaries, the cruel and fear-instilling daily activities of this quasi-state, the ideological brainwashing of jihadist fighters and to professionally organized advocacy work.

ISIL’s bloody and ruthless way of dealing with opponents and the medieval laws it imposed on its subjects shocked the world. Even the ill-famed al-Qaeda that ISIL spun off from has come out against its “daughter,” with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri officially announcing in February 2014 that he did not recognize ISIL as a member of his group.

In their effort to secure the locals’ support, ISIL members tried, within the framework of their quasi-state, to restore the cities’ economic life by rebuilding their war-ravaged infrastructure. Imitating state authority, they paid salaries and benefits to the unemployed, collected taxes and paid monthly salaries of $700 to their militants. At the same time, in their brutal imposition of Islamist medieval order, they surpassed even the Afghan Taliban.

Propaganda and PR feature prominently in the ISIL leaders’ activity.

ISIL has “revolutionized” the field of online promotion of jihadist ideology by creating a powerful social movement and recruiting thousands of fighters from around the world, Russia included, through a web of social networks alone.

According to Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, director of the Center for Analysis and Conflict Prevention, a leading expert on the North Caucasus, ISIL created a highly professional and ramified propaganda machine for recruiting online, consisting of “central” media organizations, such as Al-Furqan and al-Hayat, and “regional” ones. In addition, the AMAQ News agency provides coverage for the Caliphate’s military operations and its everyday life even without having the status of its “official” media outlet.

Propagandists enjoy a privileged status in ISIL. According to the propaganda researcher IG Charles Winter, during the organization’s halcyon days (2014–2015), spin doctors were paid seven times as much as regular fighters.

Since its outset, ISIL has put out over 41,000 media releases, with an additional 2.3 billion releases made by its supporters (The New York Times).

“The loss of territory, resources, the retreat and evacuation of fighters, compounded by problems with the Internet has significantly reduced the flow of jihadist propaganda,” Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya writes.

“Daesh will not be able to maintain the previous level and quality of its propaganda materials any time soon. Realizing that with the loss of its ideological machine the whole project of the Islamic Caliphate will eventually be doomed, the ISIL leadership is adapting to new realities with affected references to a high mission now making way for more down-to-earth calls for one-off attacks with knives and axes on unarmed people. This change of tactic began in late-2015, after security agencies of various countries had seriously complicated the process of bringing in new fighters to Syria. ISIL initially advised its supporters to look for workarounds, and later – to move to other “provinces” of the Caliphate. Finally, last year, ISIL said that those who could not reach the Caliphate proper should stage attacks back at home,” she continues.

This is an extremely important trend. Just as the Caliphate ceases to exist as a quasi-state, its subjects, who have survived the antiterrorist battles, remain. Islamist terrorism is taking a new shape.

The Islamic Caliphate created by ISIL is perhaps the highest organizational quasi-state form of modern-day Islamist terrorism. Terror (“Fear,” “horror” in Latin) was used by ISIL as a primary method of warfare. Therefore, it could be compared (in function, if not in scale) with Nazi Germany or militaristic Japan, where international terrorism was part of official state policy.

Even though chances of a complete reincarnation of either ISIL or the Islamic Caliphate are pretty slim, dangerous options thereof can’t be ruled out.

That terrorism is often used by non-state actors – whether left-wing, right-wing or nationalist – and religious groups, is well known. In the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of political parties and groups were known to have used terror in their work.Their activities covered virtually the whole world: from small settlements and countries to continents, and were often supervised and financed by individual states to achieve geostrategic ends.

It is highly probable that the routed ISIL will still be trying to preserve its remaining terrorist groups, rebrand old ones, and recruit new fighters. Moreover, what has remained of the Daesh forces will spread throughout the world.

As BBC columnist Frank Gardner writes, “At the recent Munich Security Conference, Alex Younger, the chief of Britain’s secret intelligence service (MI6) said this: “The military defeat of the ‘caliphate’ does not represent the end of the terrorist threat. We see it therefore morphing, spreading out… within Syria but also externally… This is the traditional shape of a terrorist organization.”

Speaking at the same event, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that ISIL was going deeper underground and building networks with other terrorist groups.

General Joseph Votel, who runs US Central Command, also said that even though the ISIL network is dispersed, pressure must be maintained or its components will have “the capability of coming back together if we don’t.”

Indeed, much of the ISIL militant force has not been destroyed and is now breaking up into small terrorist groups, which is only natural since ISIL is a plethora of jihadist groups fully capable of acting autonomously. .

With the rout of the Caliphate now a hard fact, ISIL is desperately looking for a way out of the situation. There are several such “exists” to speak of.

The first is the dispersal of jihadist fighters among the local population in Syria and Iraq, and the creation of “sleeper cells” waiting for an order to resume the fight.

A second option would be to redeploy militants to remote areas of Syria and Iraq, and the formation of guerilla units there.

Thirdly, this could be gradual infiltration into other countries where ISIL already has a base, or at least has supporters necessary for the organization to function further, perhaps under a different name, but with similar ideology and military-political doctrine. Primarily into Libya, where ISIL controls the cities of Derna, Nofalia, Sirt, and the Al-Mabrouk oil field. Moreover, in Libya, ISIL could become a third party in the ongoing confrontation between Tripoli and Tobruk.

In Afghanistan, ISIL has already become a third party in the long-running standoff between Kabul and the Taliban. However, the ongoing negotiations between the international community, primarily Russia and the US, with the Afghan Taliban (though in a separate format) could eventually ease tensions in that country which, in turn, would seriously undercut ISIL’s ability to influence the situation there.

In Egypt, local jihadists, taking orders from ISIL, control parts of the Sinai Peninsula.

Also, the Boko Haram group, which controls the north-east of Nigeria and is making inroads into neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger, has recently subordinated itself to ISIL.

There are certain opportunities now opening for ISIL also in Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Another “exit” option could be the return of the remaining jihadist fighters to their home countries, either individually or as part of small but closely-knit groups.

In the wake of the Islamic Caliphate’s downfall, many militants have recently returned home. About 30 percent of the 5,000 ISIL fighters (1,500) happen to be EU citizens. Of these, 300 have returned to France, about 900 people – to the former Soviet republics (including 400 to Russia), 800 – to Tunisia, 760 – to Saudi Arabia, and 250 – to Jordan.

This process is characteristic of all 86 countries Islamist volunteers once set out from to defend the ideas of radical Islam.

Clearly, the presence of experienced and battle-hardened ISIL terrorists, sometimes even armed, in the countries of their current residence is dangerous, even disastrous for these and other countries’ security. Small wonder, therefore, that the world is getting increasingly aware of the real threat posed by this jihadist-terrorist contagion.

Religious leaders are united in their denunciation of Islamist terror.

Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Mufti Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Sheikh has branded the al-Qaeda and Islamic State jihadists the main enemies of Islam. He also quoted a verse from the Koran, which calls to kill the perpetrators of acts that “have a disastrous effect on Islam.”  Any compromises with bloodthirsty fanatics are simply out of the question. They must be eliminated once and for all.

Pope Francis has approved the use of force against Islamist radicals. The Pontiff believes that coercive methods should be used to protect religious minorities from militants.

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) has urged the entire world community to stand together against the “disgusting wave of violence” against Christians in the Middle East.

In Iraq, the Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has reiterated his call for the Iraqi people to resist ISIL militants.

Important as religious leaders’ rejection of terrorism and its perpetrators is, however, the same can hardly be said about the world community. Indeed, even in the midst of the fight against ISIL in Syria, the antiterrorist forces failed to present a shared understanding of the danger posed by their common enemy.

It is really unforgivable that a universally accepted definition of international terrorism has not yet been worked out. The term is often used as an instrument of political struggle, because each country actually decides for itself whether a certain group is “terrorists” or “freedom fighters.” In Russia, 21 Islamist organizations are recognized as terrorist, and 33 in the United States . Moreover, actual definitions of “terrorism” often vary.

Coordinated fight is the only possible and effective way of ridding the planet of the scourge of terrorism. Unfortunately, there is no international legal basis for a collective solution of the problem. The experience of the past few years shows that a slow-moving and bureaucratic UN is not capable of providing quick and effective response to the threat posed by international terrorism. The world needs a fundamentally new and mobile international mechanism, structured to counter the terrorists’ extensive and diverse criminal activities.

The proposed idea of creating a supranational system uniting antiterrorist forces that would include administrative, information, analytical, intelligence, financial, counter-propaganda and power structures – well-equipped counter-terrorist units ready for quick deployment to troubled regions looks pretty viable. However, this international antiterrorist system must be established under the auspices of the United Nations, with its blessing, and rest on a solid legal foundation.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Cyber Warfare: Competing National Perspectives

Leann Maloney

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The threat of cyberwarfare is a growing fear among all intelligence communities. “In June 2009 the U.S. Cyber Command was created and in July of 2011 Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III announced that as a matter of doctrine, cyberspace will be treated as an operational domain similar to land, air, sea, and space” (Colarik & Janczewski, 2012, 35). Cyber warfare is conducted by infiltrating the country’s computer networks to cause damage and/or disruption to various infrastructures. This could be as minimal as spying on another nation or as in-depth as implementing acts of sabotage directed towards specific targets such as military operations or the power grid. The threat of cyber warfare is not specific to one country. This is a potential threat that effects each country across the globe.

China is a dominant power within the global arena and is consistently evolving with potential threats especially cyber technology. Chinese colonels Liang and Xiangsui claimed advanced technology gave the country’s adversaries a significant advantage, and proposed that China ‘build the weapons to fit the fight. Recently, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) confirmed the existence of its Online Blue Army (Colarik, &Janczewski, 2012, 35). China’s fear of the impact and devastation that can be caused by the internet has forced them to implement strict policies governing the freedom and use of the internet within the country and creating strong security measures against infiltration by outside sources.

In 2014, China implemented the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group to oversee all internet security. “This leading group is to deepen reform, protect national security, safeguard national interests, and promote the development of information technology. The group will have complete authority over online activities, including economic, political, cultural, social, and military” (Iasiello, 2017, 5). This group disseminates and monitors all information found on the web to ensure that there are no security breaches and the people are not in violation of the law.

In 2015, China drafted a national cybersecurity law.“The chief goals of its 2015 draft national cybersecurity law are (1) ensure cybersecurity, (2) safeguard cyberspace sovereignty, national security, and the public interest, (3) protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, legal persons and other organizations, and (4) promote the healthy development of economic and social information” (Kolton, 2017, 126). Whereas the United States promotes a free internet, China’s main focus is on establishing an internet that is secure from all potential threats both external and internal.

In 2016, China passed the “Cyber Security Law” that focused on the security of the internet and information systems and extended the ability of the government to oversee the information that was being shared to determine if it was done within accordance of their strict cyber security laws. This law helps the government to monitor any potential breaches of security by outside or internal sources. By implementing a stronger grasp of control over the internet, the government is able to reduce the potential of an attack or intrusion. Within this law, government agencies would be able to implement more guidelines for network security within industries to include energy, transport, military, defense, and many more (Iasiello, 2017, 6).These restrictions increase the control of the government over cybersecurity but also limits the freedoms of its citizens to explore the internet.

China has created new training for its military to be prepared against potential cyber warfare attacks. It has “developed detailed procedures for internet warfare, including software for network scanning, obtaining passwords and breaking codes, and stealing data; information-paralyzing software, information-blocking software, information-deception software, and other malware; and software for effecting counter-measures” (Ball, 2011, 84). It has also increased its number of training facilities to focus only on network attacks on cyber infrastructure and defense operations. The amount of money China is investing in facilities and training of military personal increases its ability to remain secure within this global threat of cyber warfare. One fear for China is its dependence on Western technology. “China’s capabilities in cyber operations and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are becoming more sophisticated, the country still depends largely on Western technology. Beijing is hoping to break that dependency through the Made in China 2025 plan” (Bey, 2018, 33). This is a mutual fear for both the US and China as they both rely on each other’s manufacturers with the fear that they will implement a trojan horse to intervene.

Like China, Russia has increased its abilities in combating the potential threat of cyber warfare. However, Russia has taken a different approach to this threat by going on the offensive. Russia has focused on non-linear warfare within the cyber world, which is defined as “the collection of plans and policies that comprise the state’s deliberate effort to harness political, military, diplomatic, and economic tools together to advance that state’s national interest. Grand strategy is the art of reconciling ends and means” (Schnauffer, 2017, 22). To assert its dominance in the global arena, Russia has been utilizing its own forms of cyber attacks to collect information and become a dominant cyber power.

Russia began its experiments with cyber warfare in 2007 in the clash with Estonia. This was done to determine its cyber capabilities as well as create a stronger resilience against future attacks. “Russia’s cyber experiment effectively shut down day-to-day online operations in Estonia’s cyber infrastructure for weeks, from news outlets to government institutions” (Shuya, 2018, 4). After this successful movement, Russia began to expand its focus to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and then in 2015, to offset local initiatives there which it considered to be against Russian national security interests. Russia has “developed multiple capabilities for information warfare, such as computer network operations, electronic warfare, psychological operations, deception activities, and the weaponization of social media, to enhance its influence campaigns” (Ajir& Valliant, 2018, 75). Russia has had a strong focus on using the tool of propaganda to disseminate key information to its citizens with the hope that they will abide by it as the real truth.

Russia’s investment into technology and the freedom of speech allotted by the West has made the West not only extremely vulnerable to Russia, but also has expanded the reach of the Russia globally. Ajir and Valliant (2018) highlight several key points of the Russian strategy:

Direct lies for the purpose of disinformation both of the domestic population and foreign societies; Concealing critically important information; Burying valuable information in a mass of information dross; Simplification, confirmation, and repetition (inculcation); Terminological substitution: use of concepts and terms whose meaning is unclear or has undergone qualitative change, which makes it harder to form a true picture of events, Introducing taboos on specific forms of information or categories of news; Image recognition: known politicians or celebrities can take part in political actions to order, thus exerting influence on the worldview of their followers; Providing negative information, which is more readily accepted by the audience than positive.

This approach allows the Russian government to remain in control of information that is filtered to its citizens. The restriction of freedom reduces the capability of deciphering fact from fiction.

Russia has also taken a defensive approach to cyber warfare by implementing strict laws that govern the use of the internet. The agency Roskomnadzor scans the internet for activity that is deemed illegal and detrimental to the Russian government. It has also implemented new laws to regulate internet activity. “The laws which came into force in November 2012 provided provisions for criminalizing slander, requiring nonprofits receiving funding from abroad to declare themselves “foreign agents,” and provide additional financial information and a final law sanctioning the blocking of websites featuring content that “could threaten children’s lives, health, and development” (Cross, 2013, 14). Many have deemed these laws as means to censor the internet, but the Russian government argues it is for the protection of its citizens.

An opposite example of failing to employ measures to protect the country from a potential cyber warfare attack is Mexico. The main focus for Mexico has been on drug cartels and eliminating internal threats within their own government. Mexico has begun to implement its own version of cybersecurity due to its substantial growth in cyber-attacks over the years. However, its overall success has been limited due to a lack of understanding and outdated systems. “Incidents in cyberspace pose a challenge to Mexico due to a lack of institutional structures and there is a need to strengthen capabilities since it does not have any specialized government or public sector agencies certified under internationally recognized standard” (Kobek, 2017, 8). Without the establishment of a specific agency dedicated to cybersecurity, Mexico will continue to struggle against cyber warfare threats. Mexico must implement new security measures that are applicable to all main threats beyond the drug cartels.

Currently, the government presence in Mexico is focused solely on actionable and tangible threats. There must be a reform to its current laws for “the armed forces require a law that reframes and modernizes the concepts of public safety, internal security, and national defense; clarifies the role, conditions, terms, and limits of the armed forces’ engagement; and establishes mechanisms to hold them accountable” (Payan& Correa-Cabrera, 2016, 3). The lack of accountability and oversight by the government to control key aspects, such as the military, and impose a stronger presence in the more demanding field of cybersecurity opens up the potential for a catastrophic event to occur within Mexico.

China and Russia are prime examples of how strict policy governance of the internet will help to reduce the potential threat of an attack. They are micromanaging every aspect of the internet from restricting specific websites (social media) or establishing specific agencies to monitor and analyze all information that is being viewed from all sources. “With the United States and European democracies at one end and China and Russia at another, states disagree sharply over such issues as whether international laws of war and self-defense should apply to cyber-attacks, the right to block information from citizens, and the roles that private or quasi-private actors should play in Internet governance” (Forsyth, 2013, 94). The failure of this policy is the restriction of freedoms to citizens. As stated above, one of Russia’s main focuses is promoting propaganda that is anti-west and pro-Russia. The control over the internet does not allow their citizens to research the truth or have global interaction. This increases the risk of upheavals among the people, especially as technology continues to improve and loopholes are found to circumvent existing policies and hidden content is exposed.

Another approach to cybersecurity is seen with the actions of NATO. It is focusing on improving its relationships with private security companies and “developing a Cyber Rapid Reaction Team (RRT)19 to protect its critical infrastructure, much like U.S. Cyber Command’s Cyber Protection Teams (CPTs)” (Ilves et al, 2016, 130). One downside to this approach is NATO is only able to apply defensive measures. It does not have the ability to implement an offensive attack. Creating a partnership with private companies provides it greater access and resources to potential cyber threats. Private companies have more funds available to pursue a stronger cyber security defense. A recommendation would be to create a joint European Union, United States, and NATO partnership against cyber warfare. Each has its own strengths that can be applied to a joint force against one common threat. A stronger partnership among key global powers will help to create a multifaceted approach to the threat of cyber warfare. The end goal of cyber warfare is the same for each country targeted. There is no specific adversary, but rather the substantial disruption or sabotage of key infrastructure.

Although facing intense criticism and skepticism, it would be beneficial for the US, China, and Russia to form a partnership against cyber warfare. As each country is already connected via their technology companies, they are each a global power that encompasses a vast majority of the world. A collaboration of information and resources would provide a stronger protection amongst common non-state threats. However, the chief obstacle is the ability to trust each country to act within the realm of security, instead of using it as an opportunity to gain substantial access to an inside look of the country. Since the US often accuses China and Russia of being the biggest state perpetrators of cyber actions, this criticism may be near impossible to overcome, despite the possible advantages. According to the World Economic Forum, the table below lists the top countries best prepared against cyber-attacks.

Table 1: World Economic Forum Countries Best Prepared Against Cyber-Attacks

The United States is ranked number one with a significant margin above Canada. China and Russia who have implemented a very strict cyber security policy are not listed within the top 20. This is determined by the Global Cybersecurity Index, a partnership between private industries and international organizations that analyze all aspects of cybersecurity. This argues that the approach by countries such as China and Russia is geared more to the control over its citizens rather than executing a strong cybersecurity policy focused on legitimate external threats. Although, the table above does show that the United States is ranked number one in being able to protect the nation from potential cyber threats, it is only ranked at 82.4% effective. Russia and China have employed a different approach to cyber security that could be utilized to increase the overall effectiveness globally if each side was able to work together towards common threats. Ideally, such partnership would not only create new channels of connection and collaboration between adversaries, but would also set the stage for the more heavy-handed and restrictive policies of China and Russia to be loosened to the benefit of its citizens’ virtual freedom.

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Intelligence

Cybersecurity between Enemies and Allies

Desta Bailey

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Operational success, whether state or non-state, begins with a solid strategic plan that encompasses key objectives or targets. In today’s globally connected world, cybersecurity is holding the forefront space of challenges, vulnerabilities, and growth (Barrinha 2018). Success, in a globally connected environment, requires an understanding of the environmental systems and connections to appropriately identify the gaps in security and potential points of entry from adversarial actors (Barrinha 2018). Understanding the connected nature and networked capability of potential adversaries’ drives a need to analyze social networks as they relate to the interrelated environmental systems (Tsvetovat and Kouznetsov2011). Therefore, the ability to effectively engage within an interconnected and globalized operational environment is to understand the cybersecurity policies, trends, and vulnerabilities across western and non-western states like Russia, United Kingdom, China, and Israel.

Internationally, states are viewing cyber as the fifth domain of operations, added to air, space, land, and sea.  In 2013, fifteen countries agreed with a need for international law for the elaboration of measures, norms, rules, or principles over the cyber domain.  Today, military cyber capabilities exist in more than 40 states and of those 12 have explicitly offensive cyber capabilities.  Despite the growing application of cybersecurity strategies and advancements in the development of international laws, a standard definition of cybersecurity does not exist (Greiman 2015). 

Regardless of the state’s abilities or interest in cybersecurity, the intent is to create an ability to protect domestic networks against domestic or foreign intrusion and attack (Fischer 2016).  Cyber-attacks come in many forms. Though attacks vary widely, they generally have a geopolitical, diplomatic, or economic interest, causing business and economic organizations to get involved with political structures to consider policy-setting and strategic capabilities (Jaquire et al. 2018).  The difference is that instead of defending against states physically, the defense efforts are against actions exclusively housed within the cyber arena (Duvenage et al. 2018). 

National cybersecurity strategies in general tend to possess three main components: strategies with intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities, personal security on information held in databases, and corporate security (Vancouver 2018).  As Adamsky (2017) described Israel’s cybersecurity plan, the three interrelated vectors work together to provide robustness, resilience, and defense.  The overall intent of national cybersecurity strategies is to provide a means by which the state can protect local networks from adversary threats.

The criticality and concern coming from the international community when dealing with increasing threat potential and vulnerabilities within the cyber domain is reflected by the more than 40 countries working to establish cyber policies.  The United States and the United Kingdom both view “terrorism and cyber-attacks as the two greatest threats to national security” (Greiman 2015).   As states look at the threat posed by the cyber domain, they must consider non-traditional ways in which foreign non-state actors are leveraging networks to spread their messages — to incite fear, spread support for their anti-state ideologies, or the ability to use virtual space as a meeting location to create extremist support (Cross 2013).  

In efforts to standardize, Russia, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan joined forces to submit an international code for information assurance (Grieman 2015). Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States banded together to create a stronger shared level of intelligence, known as the “Five Eyes” Community (Walsh 2015).  However, Israel is still leading the way in the cyber policy, strategy, and successful operations (Adamsky 2017).  Though all countries possess a mix of security interests and priorities, there is not a single consensus on how to internationally address threat conditions (Crosston 2016). In an attempt to address those conditions, countries must seek innovative and creative means to establish operations and policies to protect against globalized threats (Cross 2013).

Israel has the lead in leveraging innovation and creativity to develop tangible results and an example for other countries to emulate.   In 2002, Israel established the goals and means by which it intended to secure its portion of the cyber domain.  Seeking to find a balance between commercial and private needs with a need for national security, Israel established policies to “protect vital computerized systems of selected public and private civilian organizations.”  Not wanting to fall short on future threats, Israel included concepts of “education, R&D, security, economic development, and international cooperation” into their policy design (Adamsky 2017).  In 2015, the government established a concept of operations (CONOP) to regulate cyber mechanisms and operations focusing on cyber defense, capacity building,and structure.  Using an interrelated framework of robustness, resilience, and defense, Israel can operate, sustain, and defend their local cyber domain from intrusion and attack better than most (Adamsky 2017). 

Russia and China have similar approaches and practices.  In their efforts to collect intelligence, neither country relies solely on confidential sources or methods, nor does collection tie singularly to state-sanctioned collection requests.  More importantly, collection in Russia and China does not focus on collection against foreign agencies alone (Crosston 2016).  As part of the policy process in Russia and China, the government opts to control exposure and risk by limiting the availability of sites that threaten the influence their control over the population (Cross 2013).  While similar in their approaches, Russia and China developed individual strategies to protect their networks (Fei 2010).

China opted for a strategy with a longer-term outlook and sought to respect other nation’s objectives while fostering mutually beneficial cooperation.  China’s strategy emphasizes multilateral ties and dealing with both traditional and non-traditional threats.  China’s strategic approach consists of four prongs: the inclusion of complex, non-traditional aspects; issue-orientation over country interests; economic development to be independent of foreign technologies; and, a supposed practice of good governance and transparency.  

United Kingdom announced, in 2010, a plan to spend $1 billion US dollars over a four-year period to launch a “transformative national cybersecurity program” focused on closing the expanding gaps between current capabilities and emerging technological advancements.  The UK outlined its plan with the intention of leveraging private-public partnerships to create a single point-of-contact for cyber-crimes and security issues.  The strategy also outlined a plan to develop international cooperation with like-minded nations (Hammond 2010).  Not unlike Israel, the United Kingdom is focusing on policy development to protect privacy and reduce crime, while establishing a resilience capability.  Through private-public partnerships, the UK aims for capacity building and to implement a risk-based approach to defending against cyberattacks (Greiman 2015).

Private-public partnerships, coupled with dynamic state policies, contribute to the state’s ability for capacity building.   This is particularly important with the understanding that the private sector mainly owns and operates activities within the cyber domain for most states (Grieman 2015). While Russia and China understand this phenomenon, they opt to block sites and access as a means of controlling the internet.  The efforts of Russia are generally politically inclined, focused on the interest of making the president appear stronger. In China, the state leverages cyber abilities for economic maneuvering.  Israel selects a more comprehensive and holistic approach to managing the cyber environment.  

Tsvetovat and Kouznetsov (2011) explained the connected nature and networked capability of potential adversaries as driving social connections and purposes.  Within the cyber domain, states are able to leverage the connections and networks to shape policy, offensive operations, and international relationship development.  As Russia and China continue to work through their controlled approaches to cybersecurity, there is a need for international consensus towards cybersecurity.  In an effort to standardize an approach to cybersecurity, the international community should seek to follow in the steps of Israel (Adamsky 2017).As a soft power instrument, Israel is leveraging opportunities and threats to harness the potential of cybersecurity.  Over the last decade Russia, China, and many others have reached out to Israel. Additionally, the more success Israel has in leveraging cybersecurity to promote international ties, the greater likelihood it will lead an effort to normalize cyber across the globe (Adamsky 2017). 

As academics and practitioners continue to work toward a standard definition and understanding of cybersecurity, there is a distinct need for various states to come together in an effort to establish international norms and standards for the execution of cybersecurity.  This effort should be much the same as joint operations govern telling time or tracking targets. It is crucial that the United States continues to find ways to lead the effort to establish agreements that focus on commonalities that can benefit the reduction of cyber dangers between China, Russia, and Israel.

The effort to understand the cyber environment and its various network of connections is vital in working through concerns faced by countries emerging as a new power (i.e.,Brazil, India, Argentina, and Australia among others).  The importance of this understanding links back to Brafman and Beckstrom’s (2012) starfish and spider concepts, demonstrating the capability of groups to operate from geographically dispersed locations without a centralized leader.  Improved security within the cyber domain will assist in mitigating political, economic, and criminal activities that are counter to a state’s security strategies. Perhaps most importantly, he ability to increase cybersecurity and cooperation in the cyber domain internationally creates a possible platform to work against other threat issues such as transnational organized crime, terrorism, human trafficking, and migration from failing states. Understanding critical elements and the approach other countries use to navigate through their domestics and external threat will continue to prove to be as crucial for the United States and the interaction with other countries in the future.

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