Connect with us

Terrorism

Not All ISIS Returnees are Defectors

Published

on

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] C [/yt_dropcap]NN has been hawking this story of Younes Delefortrie as From Altar Boy to ISIS Fighter. Here is my interview of Younes from February 2016. Excerpted from ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the ISIS Terrorist Caliphate – Chapter Fourteen

One can never know for sure.

ISIS DefectorsTwenty-seven years old, Belgian, Younes Delefortrie is telling me about his return to Belgium after spending five weeks with ISIS in Syria in 2013. “I hid in the house. Even the children didn’t know I was there. For three days the police came by asking [my wife], ‘Did you see him?’”

It’s February 2016, and I’ve come here to interview Belgians and family members of those who have traveled to Syria to join ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, or other groups in the Sunni uprising. Belgium is disproportionately represented among ISIS foreign fighters coming from European countries. Five hundred Belgians have disappeared into Syria, many to ISIS, and one hundred and twenty-five have returned.[1] Half of those are imprisoned and the other half are on the streets of Belgium. Younes is one of them.

Only a few months ago, it was a handful of Belgians who had returned from ISIS training in Syria, took up arms and suicide belts, to nearly simultaneously attack the Paris concert hall, stadium, restaurants and bars. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged ringleader of the attacks, was a Belgian national from the Molenbeek area of Brussels. He was discovered hiding out in a Paris apartment and killed by the French police shortly after the attacks. Likewise, Salah and Brahim Abdeslam, brothers and French nationals had been raised in the Molenbeek neighborhood. Brahim exploded himself while Salah ran and returned to this neighborhood to hide out. Twenty-five-year-old Chakib Akrouh, also born and raised in Belgium, exploded himself after the Paris bombing, during a police raid. He is believed to have been involved in the bar and restaurant attacks. Other Belgians of North African descent were involved in preparing the attacks and aiding Abdeslam’s escape. Many of their identities will be discovered in the coming months and it will be discovered that they traveled through Turkey to Syria and back again through Turkey and Greece to attack. However, at the time we are interviewing Younes, only some of this is known.[2]

When I lived in Brussels from 2000 to 2007 during my husband’s diplomatic career, I traveled to places like the West Bank, Gaza, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Uzbekistan and Russia to interview hundreds of terrorists, their family members, close associates and even hostages.[3] Eventually it dawned on me—I didn’t need to leave Belgium to find militant jihadi extremists. There were plenty right in my neighborhood. In fact, numerous al Qaeda-inspired plots involving Belgian cadres had been stopped during the seven years I lived in Belgium, including a suicide operative who planned to detonate himself inside the U.S. embassy in Paris.[4]

It is against this backdrop that I find myself in Antwerp, one of Belgium’s main cities, sitting in a small office just off of the Radisson hotel lobby, drinking Belgian coffee and listening to Younes tell his story. Having arrived in pants that are cut short, well above his ankles, in the regulation manner of Salafi traditional dress, Younes greeted me with a friendly, but nervous smile. According to his brand of Islam, it’s forbidden to take a woman’s hand he explained, as he tensely said hello without a handshake and I wondered if I would be able to get much of an interview with him. But now that we are into it, I see that I’ve gotten him talking freely. I think I may have hit the mother lode.

With the Islamic State’s declaration of a “Caliphate” in June 2014, what had been low-level but significant, militant jihadi activity in Belgium ramped up on steroids. As the Sunni uprising against Assad began and no one came to the aid of the rebels, alienated young Belgian men and women, already resonating to the call of groups like al-Qaeda, began thinking they could help the anti-Assad rebels. Salafi extremists had been cultivating the ground in Belgium for years, working in the streets and out of garage mosques, converting disaffected immigrant youth to their extremist brand of Islam. The young recruits already accepted al-Qaeda’s premise that jihad against the West was called for because Islamic peoples and lands, and even Islam itself, were under attack, and “martyrdom” missions against the enemy were an instant pathway to Paradise. Already primed, they easily fell for the call of ISIS.

From 2013 onward, Belgian youth became enamored of the idea of adventure, upset by the lack of global support for the Sunni uprising against Assad, and strongly resonated with the idea of an Islamic utopia and the alternative world governance of the “Caliphate” offered by ISIS. They began streaming by the hundreds through Turkey into Syria. These Belgians joined the monthly deluge of a thousand to fifteen hundred foreign fighters flowing in from around the globe who made it possible for ISIS to suffer the steady degradation of Coalition airstrikes and still renew its ranks.[5] These recruits from Belgium are part of the group of foreign fighters who our Syrian ISIS defectors consistently described as “true believers,” fully indoctrinated into militant jihadi ideas upon their arrival.

Ten years ago in Antwerp, these North African second-generation youth were already disaffected “true believers,” telling me how alienated they felt in Belgium and France and how angry they were over geopolitics. In fact, when the Paris attacks happened in November 2015, I would have pointed to Antwerp as more of a hotbed of militant jihadi activities than the well-known Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, from where the Belgian Paris attackers came.

This trip, I was here to try and interview some of these ISIS “true believers”. I wanted to know why young men and women from Belgium would leave circumstances so different from the Syrians who often joined ISIS out of a lack of alternatives, coercion, and pressure to provide for themselves and their families. Were the true believers who returned to Belgium, defectors, like the Syrians we’d been talking to? Or were they simply returnees—still deeply entrenched in militant jihadi beliefs and hence dangerous? Here in Belgium, and across all of Europe, government security officials were especially concerned about their citizens returning home after serving time in groups like ISIS, a concern now greatly heightened by the Paris attacks. How many of those who went to Syria might constitute a threat if they returned home? How many would remain ideologically indoctrinated and were already weapons trained?

I knew it wouldn’t be easy to make contact with ISIS defectors inside Europe. We had hit a pipeline of them in Turkey thanks to Ahmet’s efforts at winning trust, but those who return to Europe would be reticent to talk for a number of reasons. These defectors would fear ISIS just like the Syrians in Turkey. They might not want to admit they had joined ISIS because doing so means they could face prosecution in their European home country. They also might not appreciate an American asking them questions, given the Coalition bombings in Syria. And if they hadn’t really defected, they might be seriously dangerous. I knew if it was the latter I could potentially be putting my life in danger. It was a calculated risk.

Before I left Ahmet commented, “You always have a police guard with you on these interviews, no?” I turned to him, incredulous. Sure, I would have loved a trained police chief, like Ahmet, along on these interviews, but our budget didn’t allow it. So I went alone—unprotected—as I had done for most of the hundreds of interviews I’d conducted over the years. I never had the luxury of a guard alongside me, except inside the Department of Defense prisons in Iraq.

Younes Delefortrie was seated across the room, speaking in English to me. [6] We are using his real name, with his permission. I already knew from reading local press about him that he was a convert to Islam, grew up in a Flemish family of five children and that it wasn’t a happy home. His mother was an alcoholic and his father was unable to control her violence or her drinking. Younes was the oldest and may have had it the worst. I’d also read that he doesn’t like talking about his childhood, so I’m treading gently as I ask him to tell me about himself—how he grew up and later became involved with ISIS.[7]

We had the camera rolling as he agreed to a video interview. I was managing to make a connection. Describing himself as a hyperactive child unable to pay attention, I nod, knowing that this description is often the fate of young boys who grow up in chaotic and violent conditions. If a child who is trying to organize himself doesn’t have a reliable attachment figure with whom to make a strong and reliable bond, he will often fail to organize himself well, or even learn to pay attention to authority figures.

“It was a difficult situation,” Younes says, describing his early family life while ruminating on whether or not he was “normal” as a young boy. “Normal needs two parents,” he reflects as a sad expression crosses his face. “I ruined a lot of things in my life—school and education, and had a lot of energy,” he says, easing into his childhood pain carefully.

“Everybody can be a mother. Not everyone can be a mom. My mother left when I was twelve or thirteen.”

“That’s a pretty tender age to lose your mother. Did it break your heart when she left?”

Younes expression becomes sardonic, as he answers, “A mother who has a drinking problem is not something you will miss very soon. I was actually relieved. It’s better for children if there is an unnatural abnormal—it’s best to change the situation. I was also sure that it would improve the situation.”

His mother got so drunk each day that she couldn’t care, cook, or clean for her children. Later, an associate of Younes tells me that his mother was violent as well and tried to make Younes responsible for the other children, blaming and hitting him in her drunken state when he didn’t manage to take up the slack. Given that, it probably was a relief when she jumped ship.

Younes’s father put their mother into alcohol treatment three times. On the third time she decided to run off with another alcoholic in the program. After abandoning her five children, she went on to have five more children with the next man. “She lost my appreciation of being a mother,” Younes sarcastically notes, shaking his head. “She was drunk, annoying, aggressive,” whereas he tells me that his father returned home to try to pull the family together after he “worked eight hours in hard labor.”

“Occasionally he’d drink on the weekends, normally after dinner, or at dinner, or before television at night, but he got up each day at seven a.m.” Younes’ father, a team boss in a metal construction factory, I’d also later learn from others who know Younes’ story, would come home and try to hold the family together. But he would also sometimes give in and drink right along with his wife. Younes’ father was not as much a saint as his son made him out to be.

After his mother left, his grandparents stepped in. “They came at six a.m., to make breakfast. My grandmother cleaned the house and they came back at four p.m. to take us from school,” he says as though everything was fine. In fact he was not fine. Like many young boys who haven’t any coping mechanisms to deal with their emotional pain and act them out through constant motion, Younes became severely hyperactive to the point that he was diagnosed and received medication. He describes how he was “bored in school, not feeling good, and eventually failed.” Rather than high school he went into a “learning contract” to learn the Belgian art of making chocolate and pastry production. It seems like such a contradiction—from pastry maker to ISIS

As a teen, Younes went on a wild streak for some years—using drugs and partying with girls. “The partying and the girlfriend relationships without any value made me realize that life without borders was not the right life to live, better to have borders and standards. At that moment I was also an altar boy. I was religious. My father and mother were very religious and took us to church, but I had only Western society borders, and those of the Catholic Church—and those two borders were not very good. They didn’t look like borders to me.”

Like all youth, Younes began searching for meaning to his life and as an alienated teenager found his answers among other youth who would sit on the riverbank smoking hashish. “They opened me to search new knowledge—what is Islam, what are the borders.” He explains: “This is clear cut, no grey. Black and white, no doubts—till today I didn’t find doubts. Before, I had non-authentic beliefs,” referring to his Catholic upbringing and likely the hypocrisy he witnessed in his family, torn by drunken violence, living out what they claimed as their creed. Younes was searching for limits, discipline, and certainty, and Islam offered all three. And his emotional pain made him receptive to more extremist versions than what he learned from his hashish-smoking friends.

“So-called moderates,” Younes calls them, “that was my [first] version of Islam. I can describe them as non-well informed. They don’t do acts that put them out of religion, but they just accepted the entry card. We have the five pillars: i.e. saying the Shahada [the Muslim testimony of faith], keeping the five daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, giving zakat [charity], and if possible taking at least one pilgrimage to Mecca; but in our [Salafi] opinion that is just the passport to calling yourself a Muslim. Human beings are what they are and quickly satisfied with those things. But they need to go deeper.”

“Converts are more motivated—‘radicalized’ is the claim—but the truth is we are just more interested in what we believe. Born Muslims think they get it all. That is a big problem of what we have now. America [American policy makers and political pundits] says we cannot change Islam from inside and said we need to change and renew,” Younes reflects. As a Salafi, he roundly rejects the idea of moderating or innovating on Islam in any manner. “Who said we wanted to renew? Our religion has been changed. Catholics made many changes over times, the Jews rejected the Torah and made their own,” Younes repeats a common militant jihadi and extremist line that Jews rejected what was given to them and therefore fell into sin, but true Muslims stick to the old interpretations and ways.

“Everything created by human beings, everything created by people, fails.” Younes seems very sure of himself and very dependent on beliefs that sustains his sense of certainty.

It makes sense that he wants something solid and unfailing. Younes grew up with failure—his mother’s failure to nurture and stay sober; his father’s failure to control her; his grandparent’s impotence in the face of her negligence; and the Catholic Church’s numb inability to step in and protect the children. For Younes, his strict version of Islam meets his needs. And like many European converts, he learned about Islam from friends who came from close knit, extended, immigrant families where he saw another way of living.

So while they smoked hashish, Younes began to take an interest in all things Islamic. Christened Michael by his parents, he converted and renamed himself Younes. As a Muslim he became convinced and calmed by a strict system of rules that promised to keep him “safe” from the dangers of his childhood—certainly from alcoholism—as alcohol is banned in Islam.

I ask him about marrying—knowing he’s married multiple times with two children. Younes explains that he went to Morocco as a young man in search of his first wife. “I was of the opinion that Muslim women here are too westernized. People told me that from the mountains of Morocco, the women are more laid back and not feminist, and if they felt oppressed, they know it’s the fault of society, not of a man.” Younes was looking for someone who would not be a repeat of his mother, who had blamed and hurt him throughout his childhood, and whom his father couldn’t control.

“So I went [to Morocco] in Ramadan. I met the family of the mother of my children. The guy said to me we have a sister that wants to marry. She stayed [with me] five years so I knew she wasn’t just looking for citizenship. I knew it was risky. It took a year to finish the papers—sixty [government] stamps to get the marriage papers. We have two children, but the marriage didn’t last,” he explains getting a pained expression on his face. “I am very strict, and not easy to live with.”

He was also looking for more than this Moroccan woman saw as her wifely role. “I expected love, Romeo and Juliet, and she thought she was doing enough to cook and clean and take care of our children. I expected love, but I got the boring sheep. She’s a good mother and takes care of my children,” he admits, “But that was not enough for me. I wanted love.” Of course he did. He hadn’t been loved as a boy and he grew up in the West where love and romance are normal expectations in marriage.

“So it didn’t work,” Younes continues. “I was alone.” Still anxious for limits, certainty, and strict guidelines, Younes fell in with Sharia4Belgium.

In 2010 British extremist, Anjem Choudary, who headed the extremist organization Islam4UK, began working with Belgian extremists, including one named Fouad Belkacem, formerly arrested for possession of drugs and burglary, to set up a similar organization based in Antwerp. The Antwerp based organization was called Sharia4Belgium. At its inception, Belkacem stated in a video message: “We believe sharia will be implemented in Belgium and worldwide… Democracy is the opposite of Islam and sharia… This is a dirty, perverted community [Belgium].”[8]

Sharia4Belgium, like al Qaeda and ISIS, followed an extremist version of Islam that encourages practicing Takfir, meaning they believed only they had the true Islam and could declare other Muslims as apostates worthy to be killed. At first Belgian authorities were lenient toward the group. Perhaps because they made laughable statements like Belkacem’s call for ex-first lady of France, Carla Bruni, to convert to Islam: “I ask Allah to guide Carla Bruni, to turn her into a niqab-wearing Muslim, and to make her divorce that unbeliever, [French ex-president] Sarkozy, may Allah fight him.”

As the Sunni uprising occurred in Syria, Sharia4Belgium quickly aligned itself with Jabhat al Nusra, and later ISIS. Over time it became a feeder organization for unemployed and disenchanted Belgians who wanted to join the uprising, sending them off to Syria to train with these groups. Now Belgian authorities took notice. In 2014, Belkacem and forty-five other members of Sharia4Belgium were indicted and in December 2014, found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization—half of them sentenced in abstentia—as they were either suspected dead, or still fighting in Syria.

As Shariah4Belgium was activating in Belgium, Younes remarried, “a Moroccan lady from Holland,” he tells me, but was again quickly disappointed. “She was divorced and was not at the point to start over again, so that became difficult.” Younes lacked the social skills to keep a relationship with a woman intact; never learning from his own parents and with a raging hurt inside, he feared that his wife might turn out like his mother. Unable to make this second troubled marriage a success, he escaped—by going to Syria.

“In December 2013, we broke up again and I left to go to Syria. The war was getting heavy” as was the political situation with Sharia4Belgium. “In Belgium there was no place to talk freely anymore. We got arrested every time on the street [proselytizing], put in jail for twelve hours, and we were under surveillance, with them checking us, and everyone’s phones tapped. We were under the eye of the state security. It’s not fun to live without privacy or freedom of speech.”

Younes glances around and gestures beyond the room as he continues, “If you see this neighborhood, twenty meters further there is an African church. They try to gather people to their church, but if we tried to do it in the streets, [the state accuses us] ‘he’s radicalizing and calling for hate and violence.’ We were confronted every day of the week with double standards, on television and in the news,” Younes complains. Although the African church was probably not offering to send anyone off to join a terrorist group in Syria, whereas Younes’ group was engaging in such activities, I reflect.

“If you don’t see the possibility to make yourself in your society, you change your society to where you can be useful,” Younes continues, echoing hundreds of interviews I’ve made in Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris with North African, second-generation immigrants. The significant discrimination leads them to believe they can never be accepted and succeed in mainstream Belgian or French society. In France, youth in the ghettoized North African immigrant suburbs of Paris told me during the riots and fires in Paris in November of 2005, “Liberté, égalité & fraternité [Liberty, equality and fraternity]—these things don’t apply to us.”[9]

That was before the rise of ISIS, and it was mainly al Qaeda that, as a result, could recruit such youth into their ranks. But to join al Qaeda, one had to really prove himself, ideologically and as a trusted cadre, before he’d be accepted into going to an al-Qaeda training camp. Today under ISIS, there is the declared “Caliphate” to escape to, and the dream of a utopian, alternative world order where frustrated young men and women are promised significance, purpose, belonging, honor, adventure, jobs, and marriages. And for the men—even sex slaves. The rise of ISIS gives these disenfranchised youth a place to go, and it’s not hard to get there—a quick flight to Istanbul, then a bus or an internal flight to a town close to the border–and then an ISIS-arranged smuggler to get them into Syria.

Younes references the militant jihadi view that hijra [migration] to Muslim lands and joining jihad are duties of every Muslim. It’s a view that was popularized to Westerners by al Qaeda’s Anwar al–Awlaki (see Chapter ?). Younes explains to me, “You have to prepare for your life after. It’s a religious duty—hijra to Syria and Iraq. It is religious aspects of why they leave.” Then suddenly turning defensive, he adds, “My history, my choice to go over there has nothing to do with my childhood. It’s very sad that people try to search for another reason [aside from religious duty]. We are honored when we take this step. I hope it is religion that motivates everyone else.”

“Also, not everyone is going to fight. I know five people who went to live there with their families. Why go to a country at war? Why, when one hundred thousand families are running from it, you go to live there?” he asks and then blames the political situation in Belgium. “ That is the fault of the society we live in. They are making peoples lives unlivable.”

Then turning to the immigrants who are streaming into Europe from Syria he states, “They can leave the women and children here. They have no protection anymore, they are more breakable. But all the guys from ages twenty to twenty-four should be sent back. Half are war criminals. They fought with the army of the regime. The rest are running away from shariah and Islam and don’t want to live under those rules so they run. But they are going to confront their Creator sooner and later. They are blinded by democracy here. They have to sell their religion to live under the safety of democracy.” Younes still believes that life is better under the “Caliphate.”

I want to know about his journey to Syria, how he made it in, and why he then left and returned to Belgium.

“I went in the evening. I took a bus to Cologne [Germany].” Typical of his impulsive nature, he failed to let the “brothers” know he was coming and to make arrangements to be met by ISIS cadres at the Turkish border. “I left without asking someone,” he says but defensively adds, “I didn’t have to ask permission to go where I wish to go. I went to Dusseldorf, then flew to Istanbul, and took another plane to Adana [in Turkey] near the border of Syria. I stayed a week in a hotel but didn’t find someone to help me cross the borders. At these times it’s more difficult to join, but at that time in 2013, the Turkish [authorities] had one eye closed. For everything related to Kobani [a Syrian city on the Turkish border overtaken at that time by ISIS], the Turkish government was helping—with weapons, shotguns and pistols—unofficially or not, I don’t know. The logic was that it was official.” So once again, we hear about Turkish complicity in supporting rebel groups—including ISIS.

“I was searching on Facebook. I was searching for someone already there, profile pictures, asking, ‘Abu [xxx], do you have a connection [inside ISIS]?’ The ball gets rolling. After six days I found someone to take me in. We went then and stayed five days right on the border in a Turkish house.” Indeed, Ahmet later confirms that in some places in Turkey, the houses are very near the border, their backyards only meters away from Syria. Younes went to stay in an ISIS smuggler’s home, making it easy to run through backyards late at night to cross into Syria.

“[Before crossing into Syria] I met two women from Holland. I was asked to escort them through the border. We went to the [smuggler’s] house and met also a Kazak family there—a father and his son, his wife and two daughters staying in another room. They tried to cross a big field where there was big barbed wire, but they were stopped and sent back.”

“So the Turks do control the border and try to prevent people from going to join the rebel groups?” I ask.

Younes smiles mockingly. “They didn’t want to see it openly. It’s like the child’s game—one, two, three, piano—you turn around and if you are caught moving you have to go back.” He returns to his story. “We crossed at five in the morning. The sisters and me were allowed to take only one bag. The rest came later.”

“All of the people who were gathered in the house crossed. We went over the barbed wire. There was a place where it was pressed down.” Then a small comic tragedy occurred as Younes ran, carrying a bag for the sisters. “I was trying to get over the barbed wire and the bag I was carrying opened and burkas fell out. The barbed wire caught and tore these burkas. The women over there asked for good quality burkas, so they [the Dutch women] brought a lot for the other sisters. They ended up all hanging on the barbed wire! She was not happy,” Younes looks rueful over the mishap. I laugh to myself imagining the sun rising on black burkas, caught on the barbed fence, flapping in the wind—the symbolism shining in the morning sun.

“When we’d crossed two hundred meters there was someone waiting in a big van. We stayed in the van until the morning. Then we went to the Islamic police. It was not yet the Islamic State. It was ISIS, but they hadn’t declared the Caliphate yet.”

Just as the Syrian ISIS defectors have been telling Ahmet and me, the European newcomers were housed near the border and checked carefully before gaining free entrance to the group. “They checked everything. There was another Younes—Younes Bunting. He left a month before I came. He was also a convert and they discovered he was working with the Mossad [Israeli intelligence]. So when another Belgian Younes came without announcing, they found it strange and suspected me. They searched my phone, my computer, everything. Their lives and security depend on it. If a spy is able to infiltrate and tell their location, the Coalition can send a drone to kill all the foreign fighters.”

Shaking his head regretfully, Younes adds, “All those American soldiers who died after 9-11—their blood is spoiled for nothing; but in our situation our blood is not spoiled. We believe Muslim blood that is spilled for implementing the sharia state—you get your efforts rewarded in the afterlife.” I nod, thinking this belief in the afterlife gives a lot of terrorists courage to risk their lives.

“They gave me a choice. They asked me, ‘What are you going to do here?’”

“‘I want to make myself useful in everyway possible, as good as I can handle, according to my capacities,’ I answered. “They searched for a place [for me] with some Belgian fighters, but there were some issues with the guys from Belgium who were still upset over the Younes who came before me. They didn’t want another troublemaker. So [the ISIS leaders] assigned me to a group of Frenchmen and Libyans. It was not a bad idea, my French was not that bad,” Younes tells me. As a Flemish Belgian living in Antwerp where Flemish is the dominant language, French would be less necessary. Being tri-lingual says something about his intellectual abilities. It’s obvious to me that he’s smart, despite having failed in school.

“It is something special—all these people speaking many foreign languages,” Younes says, his voice filled with appreciation. “They put me in a house and I was welcomed. The first day when I came in they were doing evening dinner, eating on the ground [in the traditional Arab style] in a big house—a mansion really,” Younes’ face lights up describing it. Clearly it fit his fantasies of belonging to a traditional and welcoming culture and religious community where men are honored and share a strong sense of brotherhood. But all was not good—even from the start.

“I got in and then in the first week, I started noticing the situation—evening bombings. It’s overwhelming at first but you get used to it very quickly.”

“Was it loud and frightening?” I ask.

Younes nods looking like he was quite frightened but tries to downplay it, saying, “You just try to find your tranquility.”

“Did you take shariah training?” I ask, knowing it’s the pattern in which ISIS moves its new recruits to swearing their bayats before becoming trained fighters.

“There was no shariah training at that house,” Younes responds. “They asked me to give allegiance, bayat, but I rejected and they found that strange. ‘I don’t want to be stuck to an organization,’ I explained to them. ‘I want to know what it’s all about. I am not against you. I want to make myself useful. I will check out the houses, do guard duty, but I don’t want to be forced to stay with you.’”

“They accepted this,” Younes explains. “Now, with the Caliphate, it will not be accepted. If they are soldiers [of ISIS] they must give bayat. You cannot make hijra and then have them say, ‘okay you can leave.’ Adani’s statement [the spokesman for ISIS] says, ‘You will leave with a bullet in your head.’ It’s logical,” Younes says, justifying the murderous deserter policies that ISIS now implements as normal for any state.

“So what kinds of things went on while you were there?” I ask.

“After the second week, they gave me an AK-47 and explained how to clean and reload it, and grenades—two grenades. I slept with them under my pillow. Once we were attacked by the Free Syrian Army and I carried five RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] on my back.” He also posted photographs of himself posing with weapons on his Facebook page, where he named his employers as Jabhat al-Nusra and Revolusi (Revolution) Dawlah al-Islamiah (ISIS).[10]

“The regime attacked our village in the beginning,” he explains. “It was a mixed up place—with Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army—but everyone was cooperating at first. Since January 2014, it all changed.” Younes looks perplexed and abruptly stops this line of conversation. Perhaps he doesn’t want to doubt ISIS, or he doesn’t want to talk about carrying arms for a terrorist group.

“Why did you leave so quickly after arriving to ISIS?” I ask him.

“The [second] wife from Holland—our relationship was tough. She was missing me and I was missing her. I didn’t find it smart for her to come. Everyone was starting to fight each other. We decided that we will meet up in Turkey and decide what to do. I ended up coming instead to Holland. I thought then we can get money. The Free Syrian Army stole my laptop, money, and things, and I saw the opportunity to replace my money and materials, and perhaps get my wife back.”

Younes likely knew that as a Belgian he might be lucky enough not to show up on another European country’s terrorism lists for having departed to Syria. “The airport of Holland was not a problem,” he tells me; he passed through Dutch security unchallenged. This is a fundamental problem in Europe—the national borders are open, but the intelligence agencies and police do not always share information as openly across these same borders. Younes makes sure I understand how he departed ISIS. “I didn’t run away, I asked them, ‘Is it okay to go back?’ They [ISIS] tried to convince me to stay, that it’s not a good idea [to leave]. They were totally right. Now, I’m in the exact situation they predicted.”

His broken second marriage underwent its final twisted challenge. “I had my last one hundred euros with me that I had from the brothers. She was at the airport but [not realizing she was there waiting for me] I took a taxi to Rotterdam. We missed each other! Even at home, she came to the front door, but I went to the back, to not let the neighbors see me. At the front, there were police waiting at the door so I hid in the trunk of the car. The police arrested her. They didn’t know that we were texting each other.”

“The Dutch police try to manipulate, use people, and not be according to the law. We cannot expect something else,” Younes complains. “They released her and she returned home with her ex-husband and children. I wanted to kill him at that moment. I was so disturbed. ‘You cannot stay, they will watch the house,’ she said, so I decided to call the police myself.”

“I called and asked, ‘What do you want from me?’ I met them at the gas station. They asked me to raise my shirt. They thought I had a [suicide] belt. Then they let me go.” It seems incredible that a young man who could be a suicide attacker is so easily let go after being checked, but that’s how he tells it.

“I went and I hid in the house. Even the children didn’t know I was there. This went on for three days. The police came and asked my wife, ‘Did you see him?’ Then they came with papers from Interpol saying the Belgian police want to speak to me.”

Realizing he needed to face the music, Younes explains, “I returned to Belgium after a week. I did five interviews with the media. I didn’t want to be put silently in prison. I did my story before I reported myself to the police. That way they cannot do whatever they want. They have to apply [the law] according to the book,” Younes explains, as I think, This guy is a clever operator.

Younes was prosecuted and received a sentence of three years with suspension and a fine of fifteen thousand euros also with an extension. “If I am brought in court again, I have to pay it,” Younes explains. “I had an empty file [no criminal charges] before this situation. The judge told me, ‘You have a critical profession—to be a baker, so go make some bread and be quiet.’” This makes me laugh—it’s so Belgian. But on the other, I am convinced that Younes should have been sent to some kind of de-radicalization or disengagement treatment, at a minimum.

Younes did go back to baking and even opened his own bakery, but Girt Wilders, a far right, Dutch, anti-immigration politician saw fit to shut him down by publicizing his terrorist affiliation. “‘There is blood on this bread,’ he said in the papers,” Younes tells me. As a result, people stopped coming to the bakery. “He’ll pay for it—legally,” Younes threatens, making sure not to issue an actual threat to the politician, “in this life or the next.” This is no light thing in the Netherlands. Another outspoken Dutch critic of Muslims, Theo van Gogh, was stabbed to death; implying violent wishes against Girt Wilders is risky. I wonder what Wilders was thinking when he shut down the business of a known extremist who was trying to make it in society and earn an honest living. Didn’t he see how that could drive Younes right back into his former extremist activities, increasing the danger to himself and to society?

Younes, wearing a black hoodie adorned with the drawing of a Kalashnikov and the ISIS logo on the back, tells an al-Jazeera journalist a month after our interview that since his conviction he finds it hard to find work, and when he did land a job, found that his mid-length beard doesn’t sit well with his new boss who urged him to “trim it a bit”. Likewise he complains about his own father’s racial slurs against “brown” Moroccans, adding that in Antwerp he faces a barrage of continuous assaults on his Muslim identity.[11] An associate of Younes’ also tells me that he lives a very isolated and lonely life, caught inside the certainty of his extremist beliefs that keep his childhood pain at bay, and unable to reach out for the help he so obviously needs to socialize and rehabilitate himself back into society.

When I ask Younes, who is not wearing any ISIS branded clothing in our interview, how he feels about the recent Paris attacks he tells me that they are “understandable.” I ask if he thinks it’s appropriate for a group to target innocent civilians to which he answers that these civilians vote for their governments who are carrying out troubling actions in Islamic lands.

“Targeting women and children?” I push.

Younes agrees that children are always innocent, but won’t go further than that. “The Ottoman empire was not created by honey and bees. It started in war, crusades,” he argues. “Even your American revolution was won by shedding blood.” I don’t think to tell him that our rebel forces never pointed their guns at civilians in their marketplaces.

“I still believe it’s better to be living under Islamic law than to live under a democratic system that is not applying the laws of our Creator. I’m sure of it,” Younes says with conviction. “We will never be able to practice our religion completely,” and tells me that he still believes in the dream of the “Caliphate” and wants it to be extended throughout Europe. In an interview only months earlier with Paris Match, Younes is reported to have shown reporters the black flag of ISIS proudly hanging over his bed.[12] He still clings to the certainty of convictions, identity, and hope in a utopian Islamic future that ISIS offers troubled youth.

I ask him, if I were Belgian, would I be able to practice my religion freely if there were a “Caliphate?” He cracks a dour smile and tells me, “there will be rules to follow.”

As I listen I again wonder why the Belgian judge let him go back freely into society and failed to address the fact that Younes is still heavily radicalized and in need of treatment to disengage from the extremist mindset. He’s still vulnerable to becoming a dangerous element in Europe. Moreover, during his prosecution, Younes spent only a few months in prison but he says to me, “Thirty years in prison—your life is over. Better to kill me now—so I don’t have to sit in jail.”

That gives me a chill, remembering how Zakaria Zubedi, the head of al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade in Jenin, on the West Bank, also told me that he’d rather die than be imprisoned again and was nearly killed, rather than be re-arrested. We also know that Chechen would-be suicide bombers-turned-fugitive have booby trapped their homes and bodies so they can explode themselves upon arrest rather than undergo torture and imprisonment by the Russians.[13] We even heard the same about Chechens operating inside Syria—that they constantly wore suicide vests. Victory or Paradise! their motto.[14]

Indeed, the threat of imprisonment can drive individuals who believe in “martyrdom” into enacting it and that makes them especially dangerous. Little do I know, as Younes and I finish up our interview and part ways, in only a month’s time we will see exactly that scenario play out in Belgium. And I will be there.

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Not All ISIS Returnees are Defectors ICSVE Brief Reports

[1] Personal communication from the Belgian national police, January 2016.

[2] See: Akbar, J. (November 22, 2015). Mastermind of Paris terror attacks was linked to at least six UK hate preachers including ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ Omar Bakri Muhammad. Mail Online. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3329327/Mastermind-Paris-terror-attacks-linked-six-UK-hate-preachers-including-Tottenham-Ayatollah-Omar-Bakri-Muhammad.html#ixzz3sKlTss7V; BBC News. (December 9, 2015). Paris attacks: What happened on the night. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34818994; Jayalakshmi, K. (November 20, 2015). Paris attacks: Salah Abdeslam tells friend he regrets terror act and could be on the run from Isis. International Business Times. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/paris-attacks-saleh-abdeslam-who-regrets-act-could-be-run-isis-1529618; Lichfield, J. (November 20, 2015). On the run from Isis: Jihadists ‘targeting Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam for chickening out of killings’. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-attack-eighth-attacker-salah-abdeslam-could-also-be-on-the-run-from-isis-amid-fears-the-group-a6740781.html; and Perring, R. (November 21, 2015). Europe’s most wanted man was ready to BLOW HIMSELF UP after Paris terror attacks. Sunday Express. Retrieved from http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/621149/Paris-terror-attack-Salah-Abdeslam-suicide-bomber-Islamic-State

[3] See Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

[4] Johnson, Z. (January 25, 2005). Chronology: The Plots. Frontline. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/front/special/cron.html

[5] See: Naylor, S. (June 9, 2015). Airstrikes killing rhousands of Islamic State dighters, but it just recruits more. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/09/airstrikes-killing-thousands-of-islamic-state-fighters-but-it-just-recruits-more/; Kirk, A. (March 24, 2016). Iraq and Syria: How many foreign fighters are fighting for Isil? The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/03/29/iraq-and-syria-how-many-foreign-fighters-are-fighting-for-isil/; Ginkel, B. v., Entenmann, E., Boutin, B., Chauzal, G., Dorsey, J., Jegerings, M., . . . Zavagli, S. (April 1, 2016). The foreign fighters phenomenon in the European Union. Retrieved from http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ICCT-Report_Foreign-Fighters-Phenomenon-in-the-EU_1-April-2016_including-AnnexesLinks.pdf; and The Soufan Group. (December 2015). Foreign fighters: An updated assessment of the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. Retrieved from http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate_FINAL3.pdf

[6] Younes spoke English well, but occasionally inverted word order or used poor grammar, which I have corrected here to help make his meaning clear.

[7] See: Leherte, O. (October 15, 2015). Etat Islamique : le djihadiste belge qui ne regrette rien (The Islamic State: The Belgian Jihadist who regrets nothing. RTBR. Retrieved from https://www.rtbf.be/info/societe/detail_etat-islamique-le-djihadiste-belge-qui-ne-regrette-rien?id=9108437; Sminate, N., & Metsu, K. (October 15, 2015). Hoort een manipulator als Younnes Delefortrie niet veeleer thuis in de gevangenis? DeMorgen.

[8] See: Esman, A. (December 17, 2011). Never mind “occupy.” The new solution Is sharia. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/abigailesman/2011/12/17/never-mind-occupy-the-new-solution-is-sharia/#28ec32292697 and Your Daily Muslim. (November 28, 2013). Your daily Muslim: Fouad Belkacem. Retrieved from https://yourdailymuslim.com/2013/11/28/your-daily-muslim-fouad-belkacem/

[9] See Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

[10] De Bode, L. (March 5, 2015). From Belgium to Syria and back: How an altar boy became an ISIL admirer. Al Jazeera. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html

[11] De Bode, L. (March 5, 2015). From Belgium to Syria and back: How an altar boy became an ISIL admirer. Al Jazeera. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html

[12] Leherte, O. (October 15, 2015). Etat Islamique : le djihadiste belge qui ne regrette rien (The Islamic State: The Belgian Jihadist who regrets nothing. RTBR. Retrieved from https://www.rtbf.be/info/societe/detail_etat-islamique-le-djihadiste-belge-qui-ne-regrette-rien?id=9108437

[13] See Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

[14] Speckhard, A., & Akhmedova, K. (2006). The New Chechen Jihad: Militant Wahhabism as a Radical Movement and a Source of Suicide Terrorism in Post-War Chechen Society. Democracy and Security, 2(1), 103-155.

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

Terrorism

India’s view of “terrorism: at the UNGA?

Published

on

pakistan-terrorism

At the recent United Nations’ general Assembly session, India was furious at mention of Kashmir by Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. India’s ennui is understandable. It considers the freedom movement in the occupied Kashmir as “terrorism”.

There are unanswered questions why India shrugs off terrorist acts sponsored by it in its neighbourhood. Several books by Indian diplomats and its intelligence officers have confirmed that India has been involved in sabotage, subversion and terrorism in neighbouring countries.

Terror in Islamabad

The book Terror in Islamabad has been published by an officer Amar Bhushan who happened to have served as a diplomat at the Indian High Commission Islamabad. Before being posted to Islamabad, Bhutan had served an officer of India’s premier intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, Border Security Force Intelligence, and State Special Branch for quarter of a century. His book mentions another RAW officer, Amit Munshi (real name Veer Singh) posted as Cultural Attache.

Bhushan’s book reveals that Singh’s assignment was to “identify potential Pakistanis for subversion”. The familiar elements of intelligence craft are espionage, sabotage and subversion.

Insurgencies in neighborhoods

India added one more element “insurgency” to the intelligence craft if we go through another RAW officer’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane. B. Raman makes no bones about India’s involvement up to the level of prime minister in Bangladesh’s insurgency. India’s army hief, in a video interview, acknowledges that Indira again and again directed him to attack Bangladesh.

 RAW officers Raman’s and RK Yadav’s disclosures

In a published letter, Yadav made  startling revelation that India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi, parliament, RAW and armed forces acted in tandem to dismember Pakistan’s eastern wing. The confessions in his letter are corroborated by B. Raman’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW. He reminds `Indian parliament passed resolution on March 31, 1971 to support insurgency. Indira Gandhi had then confided with Kao that in case Mujib was prevented, from ruling Pakistan, she would liberate East Pakistan from the clutches of the military junta.

Kao, through one RAW agent, got a Fokker Friendship, the Ganga, of Indian Airlines hijacked from Srinagar to Lahore. Indian army chief Manekshaw initially refused to carry out Indira Gandhi’s order because of the impending monsoon when rivers flooded in East Pakistan and troops’ movement became difficult. Not only intelligence officers but also officers of armed forces were employed to carry out subversion and sabotage inside Pakistan.

Doval’s revelations

Doval is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s sensitive provinces. He is inspired by India’s nefarious efforts which resulted in the secession of East Pakistan. Naila Baloch’s `free Balochistan’ office has been working in New Delhi since 23 June 2018. BJP Indian legislators and RAW officers attended its inauguration.

 Doval publicly claims that he acted as a spy under a pseudonym in Pakistan for 11 years, seven years in Lahore.  Doval is a retired director of Indian Intelligence Bureau. He boastfully dons the title of “Indian James Bond”. He lived in Pakistan’s Lahore, disguised as a Muslim for seven years. During his years in the country, he befriended the locals visiting mosques and lived among the predominantly Muslim population. “

Acknowledged as a master of psychological welfare” in India, Doval, as a part of his job also spied on Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence. Doval, credits himself with brainwashing a group of freedom fighters led Kukkay Parey who detected Kashmiri freedom fighters and killed them.

Sharing an incident from his time in Pakistan, he said that he was once identified as a Hindu by a local from his pierced ears. Doval then underwent plastic surgery to prevent his cover from blowing. Narrating his account, Doval shared, “I was coming back from a Masjid. A man sitting in the corner, who had an intriguing personality and a white beard, called me. He asked, are you a Hindu? I replied saying no. He asked me to come with him, and took me to a small room and shut the door. He told me, ‘See you are a Hindu. Your ears are pierced.’ The place I come from, as a child there is a tradition to pierce the ear. I told him it was pierced when I was born. He told me, get plastic surgery for this, it’s not safe to walk like that. Then I got it (plastic surgery) done.”

India’s ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar’s role in Afghan insurgency

With the consent of then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, he `coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces’… `helicopters, uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud’, delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach’. When New Delhi queried about the benefit of costly support to Northern Alliance chief Massoud, Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”

Kulbushan Jadhav unmasked

 Jadhav was an Indian Navy officer, attached to RAW. His mission was to covertly carry out espionage and terrorism in Pakistan. Pakistan alleged there were Indian markings on arms deliveries to Baloch rebels pushed by Jadhav. To India’s chagrin, India’s investigative journalist Praveen Swami ferreted out the truth from Services Gazettes of India that he was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1987 with the service ID of 41558Z Kulbhushan Sudhir. A later edition of the Gazette showed his promotion to the rank of commander after 13 years of service in 2000. His passport, E6934766, indicated he traveled to Iran from Pune as Hussein Mubarak Patel in December 2003. Another of his Passports, No. L9630722 (issued from Thane in 2014), inadvertently exposed his correct address: Jasdanwala Complex, old Mumbai-Pune Road, cutting through Navi Mumbai. The municipal records confirmed that the flat he lived in was owned by his mother, Avanti Jadhav. Furthermore, in his testimony before a Karachi magistrate, Karachi underworld figure Uzair Baloch confessed he had links with Jadhav.

India’s prestigious magazine Frontline surmised that Jadhav still served with the Indian Navy. Gazette of India files bore no record of Jadhav’s retirement. India told the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Jadhav was a retired naval officer. But, it refrained from stating exactly when he retired. The spy initially worked for Naval Intelligence, but later moved on to the Intelligence Bureau. He came in contact with RAW in 2010.

Concluding remarks

India portrays the freedom movement in Kashmir as `terrorism’. What about India’s terrorism in neighbouring countries? The conduct of Indian diplomats amounts to state-sponsored terrorism. For one thing, India should close the `Free Balochistan’ office on her soil, and stop resuscitating propaganda skeletons of pre-Bangladesh days. Will the world take notice of confessions by India’s former intelligence officers and diplomats?

Continue Reading

Terrorism

A shift in militants’ strategy could shine a more positive light on failed US policy

Published

on

Terrorism

A paradigm shift in jihadist thinking suggests that the US invasion of Afghanistan may prove to have achieved more than many counterterrorism experts would want policymakers and military strategists to believe.

Similarly, the paradigm shift also hints at the possibility that the presence in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan of various militant Islamist and jihadist groups could turn out to be an advantage in efforts to prevent and contain political violence.

The evolution of tensions and unfolding of differences in the world of Afghan militancy will constitute a litmus test of the shift and how history will ultimately judge the United States’ 20-year forever war in Afghanistan in terms of counterterrorism.

The shift involves a move away from cross-border and transnational acts of violence towards local militancy and the garnering of popular support through good governance based on an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. It is a difference in strategy that constitutes one of the ideological and strategic differences between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“This is not because (the jihadists’) ideology has softened: It is because they have learned that inviting overwhelming reprisals from modern militaries is the fastest way to forfeit their conquests, squander their influence and be forced to start all over again,” said scholar and journalist, Hassan Hassan, in a lengthy piece of rare up-close reporting on jihadist militancy.

“Contrary to how some understand the US withdrawal in Afghanistan, the lesson extremists are taking from the Taliban’s success is not simply that jihad works but that diplomacy and engagement are a necessary part of the process, which includes reassuring the West about external threats emerging from their areas. What can be gained from parlays in Doha is more significant and lasting than any terror attack,” Mr. Hassan went on to say.

The shift amounts to a return to the pattern of Islamic militancy that historically is rooted in local grievances and conflicts. Mr. Hassan also describes the Islamic State’s transnational jihadism that targets the West,  long embraced by Al-Qaeda, as an aberration of that history.

Mr. Hassan’s analysis is supported by research published by The Soufan Group, a research organization established by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who played an important role in the interrogation of captured Al-Qaeda officials and was involved in related cases in the United States and elsewhere.

Analyst Abdul Sayed noted that Al Qaeda, in an effort to prevent the United States from driving it out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, has “shifted focus from global terrorist attacks and external operations to supporting local jihadist groups throughout South Asia, and fuelling the narratives that underpin their objectives. This shift helped build resilience, allowing Al-Qaeda to survive despite the massive blows inflicted by the United States and its allies.”

The Islamic State’s loss of its proto-state in Syria and Iraq, and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan appear to vindicate this paradigm shift.

CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward said she walked away from an interview in August with Abdu Munir, the name used by a commander of the Islamic State-Khorasan, two days before it attacked Kabul airport, with the impression that “ISIS-Khorasan is very different from ISIS… in Syria and Iraq. Ms. Ward was referring to the Afghan affiliate as well as the Islamic State itself using common Western abbreviations for them.

Ms. Ward said that “the conversation that I had with this commander did not lead me to believe that they had the same level of transnational ambitions… They’re much more focussed on the Taliban, honestly, than they are on trying to blow up a plane…and they’re much more simple, less sophisticated.”

The jihadist strategy shift would be further vindicated if the Taliban victory also reinforces ultraconservative religious trends in neighbouring Pakistan.

Ultraconservatives and jihadists may take heart from recent opposition by Muslim clerics, including Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for religious harmony, to draft legislation that would ban forced conversions.

As a result, the shift could become one more argument to justify a possible future decision by President Joe Biden to pull US troops out of Iraq and Syria originally dispatched to fight the Islamic State, as part of the emerging contours of a Biden doctrine.

“There is no question that the GWOT has not gone as planned… Yet it would still be wrong – and rash – simply to discard the GWOT as a strategic failure. The fact that consecutive presidents have found it so difficult to extricate the United States from ongoing operations in the greater Middle East reflects the reality of a persistent threat from extremist organisations and their allies… GWOT has been considerably more fruitful than it might first appear,” said analysts Hal  Brand and Michael O’Hanlon, referring to President George W. Bush’s global war on terror launched in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Messrs. Brand and O’Hanlon may be painting an overly optimistic picture. In the best of cases, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will only partially live up to their criteria of success laid out in a recent journal article. The Taliban’s policing of jihadists may prevent them from targeting the United States and others but will continue to offer them a safe haven, allowing them to recruit.

“Being a safe haven for global jihadists and acting as a launchpad for attacks against the West are not the same thing. Under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban have committed to preventing attacks being launched from Afghanistan, but they have not pledged to cut off relations with foreign jihadist groups altogether, nor to expel them from Afghanistan,” said Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi.

Even so, on balance that could turn out to be less of a problem provided the Taliban can keep in check the Islamic State, the one jihadist group that refuses to accept its takeover of Afghanistan or make Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, adopt the shift in strategy. The fata morgana of a Taliban 2.0 could be shattered if large numbers of Taliban fighters defect to the Islamic State in protest against the group’s policing of militants on Afghan soil and/or embracing degrees of social liberalization, particularly regarding women’s rights.

That could prove to be a big if. Question marks about the Taliban’s ability to police those groups that have welcomed its victory and/or pledged allegiance to it have already begun to emerge. Mr. Giustozzi reports that in contrast to Pakistani militants Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; the TTP and Al-Qaeda have refused to negotiate agreements that would tighten Taliban control by moving them to different parts of the country. Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar-e Janghvi are groups seen as having close ties to Pakistani intelligence.

The proposed agreements reportedly stroked with demands put forward by China that the Taliban ensure that militants on Afghan soil are prevented from training, raising funds and recruiting.

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson in Qatar, appeared to acknowledge the demands in an interview with the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper. “First, we will not allow any training on our territory. Second, we will not allow any fundraising for those who intend to carry out a foreign agenda. Third, we will not allow the establishment of any recruitment centre in Afghanistan. These are the main things,” Mr. Shaheen said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson in Kabul, however, last month left the door open on the Taliban’s relationship with the TTP.

“The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani Islamic scholars and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response,” Mr. Mujahid told a Pakistani television program. The spokesman stopped short of saying whether the Taliban would abide by a decision of the scholars.

The TTP is believed to be responsible for a recent spike in attacks on Pakistani security forces, including a suicide attack in Pakistan that killed three paramilitary soldiers and wounded 20 other people. The stepped-up attacks prompted the New Zealand cricket team to last week abandon its first tour of Pakistan in 18 years and abruptly leave the country while England cancelled its visit that had been scheduled for next month.

Similarly, behind the facades, cracks had already emerged between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, prompting the group, like the TTP, according to Mr. Giustozzi, to refuse to negotiate a deal with the Afghans and build support among factions of the Taliban that are more sympathetic to the jihadists.

Al-Qaeda was wary of what the Taliban’s agreement with the United States would mean for the group and suspected the Afghans of having a hand in the killing of several of its senior members in recent years. Al-Qaeda worries, moreover, that Taliban understandings with China and Russia could put its freedom of movement and/or existence into further jeopardy.

Apparently anticipating a Taliban failure to control all jihadists on Afghan soil and/or adoption of the paradigm strategy shift by some major jihadist groups, US intelligence officials predicted that Al-Qaeda would be able to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan and be capable of orchestrating attacks inside the U.S. in one to two years.

Their predictions were bolstered by the return to Afghanistan of Anwar ul Haq Mujahid, a leader of Osama bin Laden’s former “Black Guard,” who allegedly helped plan and orchestrate the jihadist leader’s escape in 2001 as the United States bombed his Tora Bora hideout. Mr. Mujahid, no family of the Taliban spokesman, reportedly returned to Jalalabad to command Taliban forces and foreign fighters in eastern Afghanistan. Several of his associates are said to also be back.

However, Mr. Mujahid’s return does not by definition deny the potential shift in Al-Qaeda strategy that is supported by the Taliban. It could be the Taliban’s way of placating the group as well as the more militant within its own ranks.

“Despite the persistence of the relationship…the Taliban have a strong interest in holding Al-Qaeda in check… It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Taliban provide space and financial support for Al-Qaeda to operate while also restricting the activities of the group to plot and stage attacks,” said scholar Cole Bunzel.

Continue Reading

Terrorism

Islamic State threat moves online, expands across Africa

Published

on

Two decades after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, terror networks Al-Qaida and Islamic State – also known as Da’esh – continue to pose a grave threat to peace and security, adapting to new technologies and moving into some of the world’s most fragile regions, the top UN counter-terrorism official told the Security Council on Thursday. 

UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov presented the Secretary-General’s latest report on the threats posed by terrorist groups, saying that Da’esh continues to exploit the disruption, grievances and development setbacks caused by the pandemic to regroup, recruit new followers and intensify its activities – both online and on the ground.    

Ever-evolving threat 

“Today, we face transnational terrorist threats like Da’esh and Al-Qaida that are enduring and able to adapt to new technologies, but also expanding to include individuals and groups that commit terrorist attacks connected to xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance”, said Mr. Voronkov. 

The UN counter-terrorism architecture, largely set up in the wake of the 9/11 attack, helps Member States implement effective frameworks to prevent, address, investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism.  

It is also ramping up efforts to help countries adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the threat, which has become more digital and de-centralized in recent years.  

Noting that the world is currently witnessing a rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan “which could have far-reaching implications” around the globe, he cited Da’esh’s expanded presence in that country and pointed out that several members of the Taliban have been designated as terrorists by the Security Council.   

We will need to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as launching pad for global terrorism“, stressed the UN official. 

He briefed the Council on the eve of the fourth commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism, observed annually on 21 August. 

Islamic State in Africa 

While Da’esh remains focused on reconstituting its capabilities in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Vornkov said the most alarming development in recent months is the group’s relentless spread across the African continent.

The so-called “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” has killed several hundred civilians since the start of 2021 in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, while the group’s “West Africa Province” will likely gain from the weakening of Boko Haram, with additional spillover of terrorists and foreign fighters from Libya. 

Meanwhile, the expansion of Da’esh in Central Africa – and especially in northern Mozambique – could have far-reaching implications for peace and security in the region. 

A global response is urgently needed to support the efforts of African countries and regional organizations to counter terrorism and address its interplay with conflict, organized crime, governance and development gaps”, said Mr. Voronkov.  

Repatriating women and children 

Alongside Da’esh’s expansion in Africa and its rapid shift online, Mr. Voronkov also cited the continued detention of thousands of individuals with alleged links to terrorist groups as another factor exacerbating the threat. 

Deteriorating conditions in detention facilities and displacement camps in northeast Syria, in particular, are serving as a rallying cry for terrorist activities.  They have already fuelled instances of terrorist radicalization, fund-raising, arms smuggling, training and incitement to terror. 

Against that backdrop, he echoed calls from officials across the UN for Member States to voluntarily repatriate all concerned individuals, with a particular focus on children.  

In September, the Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will jointly launch a global framework to support countries requesting assistance with protection, voluntary repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals with suspected links to designated terrorist groups returning from Iraq and Syria. 

The framework has already been deployed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. 

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending