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Abu Luqman– Father of the ISIS Emni: Organizational Structure, Current Leadership and Clues to its Inner Workings in Syria & Iraq

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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” ] I [/yt_dropcap]f ISIS were the German Nazis, the Emni (al-Amnyah in proper Arabic), i.e. the ISIS security/intelligence forces would be the Gestapo and the Abwehr combined. The civilians in its held territories would be the Imperial Japanese Army’s comfort women. The Emni is feared by ISIS members and civilians alike. As one of the most ruthless non-state actors,

ISIS is terrorized by a devil of its own making, with Saddam’s former intelligence officers in the core of its inception.[1] Since its origin, the Emni has instilled fear in its members, rival fighting groups, and civilians alike. From the killing of journalists and rivals, both in their strongholds and abroad, to plotting terrorist attacks in Europe, the Emni is instrumental in the execution of most, if not all, of ISIS’ atrocities. Arguably, the Emni also has far reaching influence on the global psyche and policy. This faction of ISIS is creating events on a monthly basis that are fuelling anti-immigrant sentiments and Islamophobia globally. From the rise of right wing movements and parties in Europe to the Muslim travel ban in the United States, the Emni, through their continuous operations and threats, have elicited tribalism across the globe as well as eroded sympathy for Syrians fleeing both Assad’s and ISIS’s brutal atrocities.

We are not asking you to be Philip K. Dick, but if you were to imagine a world without ISIS, would Brexit have happened? Would the United States limit, or prevent, victims of the Syrian war from finding a refuge in the nation of immigrants? If you have that vivid of an imagination, would Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders be global household names? The irony here is of course is that these three loathe nothing more than globalization. Which leads to the question of whether ISIS has had significant influence in making the liberal world order and globalization become so indecent in the West? Would the party of Reagan have abandoned its President’s hallowed faith in the brotherhood of men if it weren’t for embracing public paranoia fuelled by free trade and amplified by terrorism? If terrorism is a tool to exert influence on a rival’s psyche, then unfortunately ISIS is already winning. Terrorism only works when we are scared of the perpetrators enough to radically change our behaviors and political stances. For ISIS, Islamophobia and fear great enough to block helpless Syrians fleeing the terrorist group, equate to their mission accomplished. We cannot imagine that the mess we are in is the result of some sort of grand strategy by the Emni. However, we are witnessing devolution from the new world order; the EU has been hit hard and members of NATO have had to put up with many compromises, and the West is increasingly abandoning its multilateral commitments and liberal values.

Even if the Emni has only a marginal influence on the aforementioned historical events, we must understand the impact and role of this entity within ISIS. However, to reach this understanding we need to know what is the Emni? How did it come into being? Who is behind it? What kind of influence does it exert? Where does it operate? Why does it cultivate such a reputation of forcefulness? Approaching this topic we have both the need and the urgency to learn more. The first step to resolve a problem is to identify and gather as much information as possible about it. Realizing this mission would be insufficient if it relied only on published research and open-source information, it also incorporates a number of trusted on-the-ground local Syrian sources to gather intelligence information about the Emni and relies on previous ICSVE research.[2]

The Arabic Teacher

Delving deep into our investigation endeavouring to understand the Emni, a pattern in the puzzle pieces starts to emerge, the repeating name of Abu Luqman or Abu Luqman al-Soori. To even our bravest and most courageous sources, the name brought horror, dismay, and bitterness. It became clear that only way to learn about the operations of the Emni lay in our sources’ ability to collect information about Abu Luqman who was born as Ali Juma al-Shwakh in the Syrian town of al-Sahel, Raqqa governate in 1973. At thirty-four years of age, he is a father of five; three boys and two girls. Abu Luqman graduated in 2002 from the faculty of Arts and Humanities (Department of Arabic) from the University of Aleppo.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Arabic literature, he started his mandatory military service in the Syrian army. As a first lieutenant in the Syrian Military Intelligence, Abu Luqman spent a part of his uniformed service in the city of Ras al-Ayn, al-Hasakah. During his time in Ras al-Ayn, he was an effective operative and was well liked by his superior. First lieutenant is the highest achievable rank for mandatory service recruits, suggesting that Abu Luqman managed to get the recognition of the permanent professionals at the Military Intelligence Directorate. That recognition took him to the headquarters of Military Intelligence at the Defence Ministry in Damascus. As a Sunni Syrian, a minority in Syrian intelligence, his Damascus assignment implies that he was highly trusted—for a Sunni.

After concluding his military service Abu Luqman returned to al-Sahel, Raqqa governate to teach Arabic in al-Sahel al-Garbi School from 2005 to 2010. During his time as an Arabic teacher, he used to frequent Iqra book store in the city of Raqqa where he was exposed to Salafi books, CDs of executions and their sharia justifications, speeches and audio books promoting militant jihad. In hindsight and in reconciliation with available data, we suspect Abu Luqman’s second half of uniformed service at the Military Intelligence Directorate headquarters may have pushed him towards the dark and extreme corners of the Sunni sect alongside political events occurring in the region. The Military Intelligence Directorate is largely made of Alawites, a sub-branch of Islam that is also al-Assad’s sect. Sunni Syrians are mostly excluded when it comes to permanent positions within the directorate. Abu Luqman was not a permanent professional but rather among the recruits serving their mandatory service. The general sentiment within the directorate is that Sunnis are not to be trusted or promoted to high ranks, something that may have weighted heavily on a Sunni who had managed to penetrate their ranks.

Meanwhile as of 2002, the Syrian regime permitted Iranian agents to preach in Raqqa governorate. One of the Iranian Islamic Revolution’s missions was to spread Shiites’ values and revolutionary ideals globally. In this same time frame the U.S. Coalition forces had invaded Iraq followed by Jordanian leader Abu Musab Zarqawi having entered the fray and setting of horrific sectarian violence there. Zarqawi named the Shia as al-Qaeda in Iraq’s main enemy and strongly encouraged all Sunnis to unite under the banner of militant jihad. This at a time when Syrian Sunnis were also feeling increasingly marginalized and targeted. It is suspected that the discrimination and lack of trust that Abu Luqman experienced during his time at Military Intelligence Directorate, anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq along with the increasing sectarian tension between Shiites and Sunnis there, precipitated his finding refuge in an Islamist political movement that opposed the Syrian regime and claimed to unite Sunnis in the search for a just Islamic form of governance. Moreover, information obtained from trusted sources confirm that Abu Luqman idealized Saddam Hussein and had some positive views of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

For a marginalized Sunni Baathist (the Baath Party currently leads Syria and used to be Iraq’s leading party, although in Iraq—unlike Syria, the Iraqi Baathists were predominantly Sunni), al-Qaeda in Iraq appealed to him. One element would have been their common enemy i.e. Shiites as rivals and proxies of the Iranian-led anti-Sunni campaign which was becoming bloodier and increasingly barbaric in neighbouring Iraq. This occurring as Shiites were increasingly put into power in Iraq while prominent Sunni Baathists serving in the military and intelligence had been sent home without jobs or even pensions. Being a marginalized Sunni and a Baathist, Abu Luqman likely identified with al-Qaeda in Iraq given the role former Iraqi Baathists played in that organisation.

Abu Luqman’s affection to al-Qaeda in Iraq put him on the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate’s radar. In early months of 2010, Abu Luqman was arrested on charges of sedition. He was detained at the Sednaya military prison. On the surface he was just an Arabic teacher, a marginalized Sunni who was arrested in a wave of another political suppression campaign. However, information obtained from trusted sources suggests that Abu Luqman was already at that time at least an al-Qaeda sympathiser and perhaps already much more.

Sednaya-Jihad Connection

The Sednaya military prison, 30 kilometres north of Damascus, is known for torture and extrajudicial executions[3]. The facilities are used to detained political opposition, be it Islamists, Kurds, or Communists[4]. According to WikiLeaks, the American embassy in Damascus cabled the Central Intelligence Agency, among others, details confirming a massacre that took a place in Sednaya prison in 2008[5]. Contents of the leak suggest that most of the detainees at the facilities were Islamists and Kurds.

It is known that Bashar al-Assad feared the U.S. led coalition of Iraq and worried that he might be next on the list of dictators toppled by Western powers. As a result, Sunni insurgents and suicide bombers were allowed to launch through Syria. Haji Bakr, a former Saddam’s Iraqi intelligence official who is credited with providing the game plan for forming ISIS in Syria and later its launch into Iraq worked hand-in-hand with Assad’s intelligence during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq to launch these Sunni actors to fight the Americans.[6] Based on obtained leaks information[7], after the toppling of Saddam’s government the Syrian regime also offered Islamist detainees in Sednaya prison military training in Syria to join the Islamist insurgency fighting against American forces in Iraq. Moreover, the cable also showed that upon the return of these militant Islamists from their time in Iraq, some were sent by the Syrian regime to Lebanon, some remained at large, and others were rearrested and detained at the Sednaya prison. Starting in July 2008, a cadre of those re-incarcerated led two riots in the prison resulting in the deaths of approximately one hundred detainees, a number of military personnel, and unspecified numbers of injuries. By December 2008 the Syrian regime regained control of the facilities. The cited leak suggests that one justification for the Islamists’ success in holding hostages, getting their demands of food met, and retaining control over parts of the facilities was due to the training they received from the Syrian regime and the combat experience they had gained in Iraq.

As mentioned earlier, Abu Luqman was arrested and detained in the Sednaya prison in early 2010. In the course of our investigation we obtained evidence indicating that during the period of his incarceration, Abu Luqman became a very close friend of Fiwaz Muhammad al-Kurdi al-Hiju (a.k.a. Abu Ali al-Shari) and Ahmad al-Nasir (a.k.a. Abu Yousif). Sources reported that al-Hiju had fought against the American forces in Iraq sometime before 2008. He was born in 1956 and spent some time in Saudi Arabia before 2002. Al-Hiju was also a Salafist whose knowledge of sharia rules and justifications was highly respected among Islamists in the prison. It is suspected that al-Hiju tipped the scale in transforming Abu Luqman from a radical Islamist sympathizer into a violent jihadist.

In early stages of the Syrian uprising, Assad’s regime blamed the upheaval on foreign conspirators, the U.S. and its allies, and terrorists. That narrative was largely ridiculed by the media and watchdogs. The Syrian regime issued a number of amnesties releasing a large number of Islamists from the Sednaya prison perhaps in hope of their subsequent actions supporting Assad’s narrative of terrorists threatening the regime. Three of the most prominent prisoners released at that time went on to become the heads of three of the most powerful Islamist groups in Syria. Those Islamist leaders are: Hassan Abboud, the former leader of Ahrar al-Sham; Zahran Alloush, the former leader of Jaysh al-Islam; and Ahmad Aisa al-Shaykh, the former commander of Suqour al-Sham Brigade[8].

Our investigation shows that Abu Luqman and his friends, Fiwaz Muhammad al-Kurdi al-Hiju and Ahmad al-Nasir; all became key members of ISIS. Al-Hiju became the highest sharia judge during the early months of ISIS’ takeover of the city of Raqqa. As of late March 2017, Ahmad al-Nasir was the Emir (head) of ISIS’ death squads and Abu Luqman had become the Wali (general director) of the ISIS Emni (ISIS’s intelligence and security forces). To establish a better understating of the Emni, it is important to examine Abu Luqman’s activities after his release from prison and before he became its Wali, or general director.

Al-Nusra Front and the Conspiracy

A while after his release from Sednaya military prison, sometime after February 2012, Abu Luqman joined the ranks of al-Nusra Front (a.k.a. Jabhat al-Nusra, renamed now as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. He operated as a low-rank fighter for the group in Tabqa in Raqqa governate, Syria. In March 2013, Abu Luqman appeared in Raqqa governorate emerging as a key player there for al-Nusra Front. During his rise in the ranks, he was in contact with Fiwaz Muhammad al-Kurdi al-Hiju (a.k.a. Abu Ali al-Shari), his friend from the Sednaya prison. As mentioned earlier, al-Hiju was one of the detainees trained by the Syrian regime to fight against the American forces in Iraq who was then rearrested and detained in the same prison after returning to Syria and who later rose to a leadership role in ISIS.

At the time Abu Luqman recontacted his friend, al-Hiju had become a key player in ISIS. A number of trusted sources reported that the two men held five meetings in al-Sahel, Raqqa. Through al-Hiju, Abu Luqman clandestinely met the leadership of ISIS in Raqqa during his time in al-Nusra. ISIS has shown itself adept at co-opting al-Nusra leadership into their ranks but not openly, instead sending them back to gather intelligence, assassinate key leaders and clear a path for overtaking the rival group in battles. Many defectors told the second author of such plots carried out by ISIS to overtake al-Nusra leadership.[9] Abu Luqman is reported to have clandestinely switched over to ISIS and that he proposed a plan through which he would eliminate Abu Saad al-Hatherami, the leading figure of al-Nusra Front in Raqqa, thereby helping ISIS to takeover their territory.

Abu Luqman’s uniformed service in Syrian Military Intelligence as a first lieutenant had arguably made him an effective undercover operative. He succeeded in providing evidence against al-Hatherami to the Nusra leadership, casting doubt on his superior loyalty to al-Nusra Front and causing al-Hatherami to be labelled an infidel and enemy of Islam. Abu Luqman proved his worth to ISIS’ leadership after executing al-Hatherami and succeeding him. Already as a leading figure of al-Nusra Front in Raqqa, Abu Luqman had gained the respect of violent jihadists in Raqqa. He alone had executed around 50 solders of al-Assad’s army in a public display of ruthlessness. That act of savagery alone made him the most feared jihadist in Raqqa.

Abu Luqman’s mercilessness, calculating, increasing popularity and rise in al-Nusra Front’s ranks did not deter him from pursuing the plan he proposed to ISIS’ leadership in Raqqa. In fact it helped him to rise in ISIS as well as he defected from al-Nusra while helping to destroy it from the inside. Abu Luqman, while still inside al-Nusra, but already working for ISIS effectively facilitated the desertion of around 630 foreign and local fighters from al-Nusra Front, persuading them to join ISIS when his defection and switch to ISIS became publically known, which raised the number of ISIS fighters to 2,300 in Raqqa city. That in turn weakened al-Nusra Front significantly. Two weeks after his public desertion from al-Nusra Front, Abu Luqman emerged as a key player in ISIS’s ranks.

The Rise of the Emni’s “Father”

As already discovered, the ISIS plans to take over villages, set up intelligence cells and to conquer from within was conceived by Saddam’s former intelligence operative, Haji Bakr whose files were discovered in Syria after his death and reported by Christopher Reuter of der Spiegel[10]. Haji Bakr conceived the blueprint to set up the ISIS Emni, but now following Haji Bakr’s death, Abu Luqman was rising to become an increasingly prominent member of ISIS as the Emni became a formalized entity within the now declared Islamic State. Two events were reported to be behind his rise. First, he managed to use his tribal connections to recruit a significant number of fighters. Belonging to the Syrian al-Ajeel tribe, he used the help of Ibrahim al-Hindi, a key tribal figure, to recruit members of al-Ajeel. Secondly, he led a large group of hundreds of hardened fighters that had deserted al-Nusra Front to operate for ISIS. Under his leadership, that group managed to defeat a number of groups that were affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) –one of ISIS’s most hated enemies.

In April 2013, Abu Luqman and his fighters executed 1,273 captured fighters from groups affiliated with the FSA, making a public display of their remains in the yard of the Public Hospital in Raqqa. Moreover, he gave the remaining FSA’s affiliates an ultimatum: “Either join ISIS or suffer the same fate.” The remains of the executed FSA’s affiliates were buried in two locations; one in Salhabia Charqui, Raqqa governorate, and the other to the south of the main irrigation canal. A week after that ultimatum, around 5,750 new recruits joined the ranks of ISIS. A significant portion of these new recruits was from his tribe and former FSA affiliates. A middleman was entrusted by Abu Luqman to oversee the recruitment and vetting of former FSA affiliates to ensure their loyalty. Assigned because of his tribal connections and friendship with Abu Luqman, this middleman was Hwaydi al-Shlash from al-Mishlab, Raqqa governorate.

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Photos of Abu Luqman (al-Shwakh) with his brother and of al-Shami

During the first few months of ISIS’ takeover of Raqqa, (after April 2013) Abu Luqman became an increasingly prominent member and key operative for ISIS. He was reported to oversee and conduct the public executions and following display of the corpses of foreign nationals (fighters and civilians), journalists (local only), and fighters from rival groups (e.g., Ahrar al-Sham, al-Nusra Front, FSA’s affiliates). At first, he used the administrative building at Tabqa Dam as an operations base. It was from this base that he established a key detention facility, ran the ISIS Emni (ISIS’ security and intelligence forces), Nukta 11 (Point 11) death squads, Chechen squads (i.e. the hardened fighters coming from the Caucases Emirate), Islamic police (i.e. the hisbah), military police, and the special operations office[11].

Within a year of joining the ranks of ISIS, Abu Luqman became Raqqa’s Wali or governor. Notably, ISIS also set up sharia and training camps for its new recruits near the Tabqa prison making it possible that beheadings of prisoners could be arranged for new recruits to carry out at the end of their sharia training as they gave their bayats to ISIS.[12]

It is remarkable that Abu Luqman has chosen to leave the position of the Wali a number of times. It is reported that he currently spends most of his time with the organization as the leading figure of the Emni in Syria and a leader of infiltration squads in the battlefield. The infiltration squads (a.k.a. Anghmasiiyn) are made of armed units that penetrate rival forces. They do so by advancing undetected or stay behind to cause maximum damage, as major forces retreat. Moreover, Abu Luqman was very close to Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (born as Taha Subhi Falaha). Al-Adnani was the official spokesperson and a senior leader of ISIS, acting as the second in charge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was also in charge of the ISIS Emni including planning and executing operations outside of ISIS territory Abu Luqman and al-Adnani were seen together a number of times in the city of Raqqa. Additionally, before U.S. forces killed al-Adnani in the city of al-Bab, (near Aleppo) Syria in August of 2016, Abu Luqman was fighting alongside him. As of late August 2016, Abu Luqman was seriously injured around al-Bab city, sustaining injuries to his back. And in early September 2016 he was brought to the outskirts of Raqqa to obtain medical attention.

Taken altogether, in reconciliation with information obtained from trusted sources, a number of factors that facilitated Abu Luqman’s radicalization and rise in ISIS’ ranks were thoroughly demonstrated. His story, at certain level, resembles the one of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Both were educated, spent time in detention in the company of violent jihadists, and were part of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in some capacity before joining ISIS and turning against al-Qaeda. This section mentions that Abu Luqman is one of the key architects of the ISIS’ security/intelligence forces or the Emni. It is noteworthy that the Emni’s operations and structure has evolved over the years following its inception. Like Saddam’s former intelligence officer, Haji Bakr before him, Abu Luqman’s years of uniformed service in Syrian military intelligence allowed him to put his same experience of tactics employed by the Syrian regime into practice.

The Current Organizational Hierarchy of The Emni

The organizational structure of the Emni has been deduced from collected intelligence. As shown in the following figure, the Emir or General Director reports to the Caliphate House Office. The Emni encompasses two committees; one operates from Syria and the other from Iraq. Each committee is made up of six members, including the Emir or director of the committee. Information obtained indicates that the Emir of the Emni in each country maintains influence over death squads, Chechen squads, Islamic police or the hisbah, military police, and the special operations office. The aforementioned squads, both police units, and the special operations office also operate independently of the Emni. However, the later maintain a supervisory role over them. The intelligence also uncovered that orders, as usual for ISIS, flow top to bottom while operation reports go in the opposite direction.

It is unclear whether the key architect of the Emni as it now stands, Abu Luqman, had this grand scheme in mind when he established the forces. Given Haji Bakr’s similar structure that he was putting in place before Abu Luqman came to power it appears it was their mutual grand design, one building on the foundation left by the other[13]. That said, the structure of the Emni provides its Emir or general director with the ability to influence critical operations and departments. To that effect, presenting the organizational hierarchy at this stage is the appropriate point of departure before delving into the complex relationships and operations associated with the Emni.

Making of a Wali

As of late September 2016, following the assassination of al Adnani, Abu Luqman stepped up to becoming the Emir (director) of the Emni in Syria. At that point Abu Luqman seemed unstoppable. He managed to gain even more power and influence. In just two weeks he was promoted to lead and oversee the militant operations of foreign fighters in ISIS-controlled territories in Syria. His expertise and connections allowed him to become the direct commander of ISIS fighters (foreign and local) in Raqqa governorate. As the Emir of the Emni in Syria, one of his first actions was to lead a successful operation to apprehend Sadam al-Jammel, the Wali (governor) of Raqqa and his accomplices who tried to desert from ISIS and escape into Turkey.

As of late October 2016, Abu Luqman ordered the release of Abdul Rahman al-Faisal form a detention center belonging to the Emni. Al-Faisal had been sentenced to death by the general sharia judge for reasons we were unable to discover. This release escalated an existing feud between Abu Luqman and his Iraqi counterpart, Abu Anas al-Iraqi. Al-Iraqi was the Emir (director) of ISIS security forces in Iraq and was, in part, behind the arrest of al-Faisal. Abu Luqman totally rehabilitated al-Faisal, making him his assistant.

Intrigues occur everywhere and ISIS is no exception. According to chatter that was difficult to verify by sources with direct contact with ISIS, Abu Luqman was detained briefly due to ordering the release of al-Faisal. Moreover, it was reported that it was Abu Anas al-Iraqi who ordered Abu Luqman’s arrest. However, according to these reports, Abu Luqman was released by his loyalists in the Emni. By the end of October 2016, Abu Luqman was promoted to the Wali (governor) position of Raqqa governate He also became in charge of the Emni’s committee in Syria. So far, he has been the only Wali who also oversees the operation of the ISIS Emni. It is noteworthy that he had left that position of Wali a number of times before this promotion, seeming to prefer the battlefield.

The Wali and Bureaucrats

As the Wali of Raqqa, Abu Luqman has two deputies. First, the head of his executive office is an Iraqi national from Rawi, Iraq known as Maktab Tanfithy, though his real name is Usama al-Abdul al-Gani (a.k.a. Abu Haritha Rawi). Al-Gani is in charge of overseeing the operations of directors from departments that fall under the control of the Wali (e.g. public services, energy, communication, finance, etc.). He delivers orders from the Wali to directorates in Raqqa governorate, oversees the implementation of such orders, and assists in nominating potential directors of these sectors (a.k.a. Emirs). Moreover, the Emir of the directorate of administrative affairs, Abu Muhammad al-Magribi, reports to al-Gani. The directorate of administrative affairs oversees the operations of administrative departments within the directorates falling under the control of the Wali.

Second, the Wali’s security adviser is a Syrian national from Idlib Governorate. He is known as Abu Muhammad Tarmini. Originally from Mount Zāwiya, Idlib, less is known about Tarmini compared to Abu Luqman’s other deputy. What is known was that he used to lead ISIS operatives in al-Dana town in Idlib. He then joined the fight in Idlib and moved to Raqqa after Abu Luqman was promoted to the Wali of the city. The two deputies operated from the same building where the Wali’s office is located.

In early November 2016, Abu Luqman promoted two loyal operatives to head the directorates of fighters and of agriculture. Moreover, as the Wali of the city he was actively engaged in recruiting new fighters. Information obtained from trusted sources show that Abu Luqman managed to recruit around 730 fighters from his tribe at this time. The lion’s share of these recruits was less than 18-years-of-age and a significant portion of their recruitment was not voluntarily. The measures that he took as Wali to increase taxes and these forced recruitments had, arguably, made him unpopular in Raqqa governorate.

By late November 2016, Abu Luqman was injured for the second time. His injuries, however, were not life threatening. After incurring these injuries he went into hiding. Trusted sources reported that, as of late December 2016, Abu Luqman was staying with his family in a military compound in Tabqa, Raqqa governorate. However, he frequently visited the city of Raqqa to hold meetings with the leadership of the Emni. During those visits he was heavily guarded. The aforementioned meetings took place in his Wali office.

During his time in Tabqa from late December 2016 to mid-January 2017, Abu Luqman managed to get an exemption from having to obtain permission to carry out executions from ISIS’s general sharia judge. For the period between December 2016 and early January 2017, a period in which Abu Luqman operated from the administrative facilities at Tabqa Dam, the executions numbered 3 per day. As described in a previous report[14], the Emni managed a detention center in the administrative facilities of the dam. The detainees were those accused of threating the security of ISIS. To that end, it is noteworthy that the aforementioned number of executions per day represented a significant rise from earlier months. In addition to those executed were others charged with threatening the security of ISIS.

ISIS’ Chief Spooks in Syria

In late January 2017, Abu Luqman returned to the city of Raqqa and started operating from the Wali office working as the Wali (governor) of Raqqa. Abu Luqman was also the highest ranked member of the Emni in Raqqa. It is important to note that it is uncommon for the Wali to retain influence over members of the Emni. It is within the power of the Emir (director) of the Emni and his deputies to remove a Wali of a city. However, having been the chief architect of the Emni as it is now formulated and given his previous position as the Emir (director) of the Emni in Syria certainly made have made him more powerful than most Walis. His particular background implies that he cannot be removed from the position of the Wali by the Emni operating in Syria.

In late January 2017 Abu Luqman operated from the center of Raqqa city. His office faced Naem Roundabout, a famous spot in the city where public executions, including brutal beheadings, frequently take place. He was in the office from 10 am to 4 pm. As a display of power he patrolled the city every Friday. Abu Luqman resided with his wife and five children in a house with an exterior of yellow marble. The house used to belong to a former figure in the Baath party. Pedestrians and those driving were not allowed to enter the street where Abu Luqman resided unless they lived there and there was a checkpoint at the entrance of the street. Before he moved into that house, the Coalition forces hit a gas station in its immediate vicinity. To go to work, Abu Luqman drove in a grey van with a motorcade of two other cars.

During that time, Muhammad al-Abdullah (a.k.a. Abu Atika, Haj Idris), a lanky man from Tunis, became the Emir (Director) of the Emni in Syria. As the Emir of the Emni he reported to Abu Luqman, the Wali of Raqqa and director of the Emni’s committee in Syria. Al-Abdullah was also the sharia judge of the Emni and a member of its committee in Syria. That judgeship meant that he received details on potential attacks, both in ISIS-held territories and abroad. In addition, it also made him a source of theological and ideological justification for such attacks.

Information obtained from trusted sources uncovered a number of key operatives who reported to Muhammad al-Abdullah, the Emir of the Emni in Syria, and Abu Luqman, the Wali of Raqqa and director of the Emni’s committee in Syria. Our investigation showed that the operatives we learned about are members of the Emni’s committee in Syria. Their roles and details are as follow:

Abdul Rahman al-Sahu (a.k.a. Abu Adam), a Syrian man, is reported to be in charge of infiltration and intelligence operations conducted by the Emni. The infiltration squads are units that penetrate rival forces. They do so by advancing undetected or stay behind to cause maximum damage, as major forces retreat. Emni has used more sophisticated infiltration tactics like activating sleeper cells or ordering their spies to carry attacks within rivals’ territories. Al-Sahu was also a sharia judge within the forces. He is in charge of the office of the Emni in the town of Maadan, Raqqa governorate.

A Syrian man by the first name Abdul Aziz (a.k.a. Abu Al-Zahraa and commonly known as al-Khal) is one of those in charge of ISIS armaments in Syria. He operated from a weapons arsenal in the immediate vicinity of the General Organization for Drinking Water and Sanitation.

A Syrian man by the alias Abu Muhammad al-Jazrawi was reported to be in charge of death squad raids conducted by the Emni.

An Iraqi man by the alias Abu Hasan al-Iraqi was reported to oversee the medical care and protection of key figures. He operated from the Modern Medicine Hospital, Raqqa. A civilian population is always present in the hospital.

Mosul, Sirte, and Raqqa

Based on details obtained from trusted sources, as of early March 2017, Abu Luqman was in Mosul, Iraq. He was promoted from his position as the Wali of Raqqa to the general director or Wali of the Emni in Syria and Iraq, the highest rank within the Emni. That gave him the power to oversee the operations of the two committees of ISIS security forces. As such, he would report to the Caliphate House Office. Moreover, from Mosul, Abu Luqman managed to promote his assistant, Abdul Rahman al-Faisal (a.k.a. Abu Faisal), to both the position of Wali of Raqqa and as the head of the committees of ISIS security forces in Syria.

By mid-March 2017, Abu Luqman emerged, according to our sources, in Sirte, Libya. It is unclear whether he had travelled to Syria before appearing in Libya or travelled there directly from Mosul, Iraq. Forces loyal to Abu Anas al-Iraqi, the leader of the Emni’s committee in Iraq, arrested Abu Luqman soon after he arrived in Sirte. The tensions between Abu Luqman and al-Iraqi were mentioned earlier. The feud had escalated in the past when Abu Luqman released Abdul Rahman al-Faisal who had previously been detained by al-Iraqi’s forces. The drama between the two operatives, more on al-Iraqi’s side, might have reach its tipping point after Abu Luqman became the highest ranked member of the Emni for both Iraq and Syria and al-Faisal, who al-Iraqi hated, was promoted to be al-Iraqi’s counterpart in Syria. However, sometime around the 20th of March 2017, Abu Luqman managed to communicate with the Caliphate House Office, which then ordered his release.

As of early April 2017, Abu Luqman arrived back in Raqqa. Information obtained from trusted sources indicates that he and his brother-in-law had travelled to the cities of Mosul and Sirte before that. It was clear that Abu Luqman was on a mission. However, the nature and objectives of such a mission remain unclear. Upon his arrival in Raqqa, Abu Luqman summoned Abu Nasir al-Shami an Iraqi national who is in charge of ISIS’s forces in Tabqa. It appears that they had a meeting regarding the developments around the Tabqa dam.

To that effect, as the Wali of the Emni, Abu Luqman might have travelled to Sirte to establish another Emni’s committee in Libya. ISIS currently seems to be on the defeat in Syria and Iraq and is assessing its next moves. Moreover, the terror group has a history of carrying out attacks in Europe when pressure on their strongholds mounts. If Abu Luqman was on a mission to expand the presence and operations of the Emni in Libya, such a move likely also has significant national security implications for European countries. In other words, having an operations base for the Emni in Libya is especially dangerous given the smuggling routes from Libya, and North Africa in general; to Europe and the access it could provide ISIS in plotting and conducting terrorist attacks in European cities. Additionally, such a move would also be expected to strengthen ISIS in North Africa. As already radicalized North Africans reside in Europe, particularly Belgium, Netherlands and France, this may also bode badly for Europe.

Furthermore, being the highest ranked member of the Emni, Abu Luqman is arguably the most significant target for American forces in Syria. As demonstrated earlier, Abu Luqman groomed his assistant and most loyal operative, al-Faisal, to be the director of the Emni’s committee in Syria and the Wali of Raqqa city. Having such influence arguably makes Abu Luqman the most prominent member of ISIS-held territories. He is also expected to have access to potential terrorist attack plots in the West.

The Emni’s Intra-Departmental Influence

As displayed in the organizational hierarchy, the Emni maintains influence in Syria and Iraq on: death squads, Chechen squads, Islamic police (the hisbah), military police, and the Special Operations Office. Details obtained from trusted sources uncovered some aspects of the operation and leadership of the aforementioned departments. However, we were unable to gather information on the Special Operations Office.

Death Squads are unique in the sense that they don’t need to get the permission of the sharia judge to conduct operations, carry out arrests, or eliminate targets that the Emni decides upon, be it enemy fighters, civilians, or other ISIS members. Up to now the whereabouts of their bases were unknown. In mid-March 2017, one of their bases was uncovered. The base was located at the administrative building at the Tabqa Dam11. The squads operate under the full control of the Emni. Its current leadership was put into place and promoted by Abu Luqman and thus likely totally loyal to him. Ahmad al-Nasir is the Emir (Director) of the death squads. He was promoted to that position in December 2016. Like Abu Luqman he was born in the 70’s and graduated from the faculty of Arts and Humanities (Arabic Department), University of Aleppo, and was also detained in Sednaya military prison. Al-Nasir was also an Arabic teacher. Al-Nasir was a major player who was intrusted with very critical positions, one, which was the Emir of the Syrian Emni sometime around May 2015. Al-Nasir has green eyes; but he is always masked when in public.

The Military Police is led by Abdul al-Kafi al-Shmari (a.k.a., Abu Hajir), a Saudi national from the city of Tabuk. As the Emir of the military police, he oversees the enforcement of sharia laws related to jihad (e.g. paying jihad-based taxes, arresting ISIS members who don’t have legitimate reasons to abstain from fighting jihad) and military cases (e.g. cases against fighters). He had a feud with operatives from the Emni. However, he obeyed and reported to the Emir of the Emni to resolve this feud. Al-Shmari is thirty years old. He has a degree in architectural engineering and used to work in real estate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic Police or hisbah is led by Muhammad al-Bazi, a Syrian national who was born in 1972. Before becoming the Emir of the Islamic police, he was the Emir of al-Jarnia, Raqqa and the Emir of Tishrin Dam. As the head of the Islamic police he is associated with torture and death. It was reported that he managed to lure two men who had been on the run by detaining their wives and children. The two women and children were put in small cages. The display was shown to the tribal leaders of the two men, who then surrendered themselves to the Islamic police so that their families would be freed. The men were accused of conspiring against ISIS and executed by operatives of the Islamic police. It is noteworthy that al-Bazi moved to Raqqa after Kurdish forces took control of the town of al-Jarnia. He was selected by Abu Luqman to lead the Islamic force after the Emni executed his predecessor. Clearly crossing the Emni can have disastrous results.

Chechen Squads are led by Abu Omar al-Shishani. His kunya implies that he is Chechen. Al-Shishani is the Emir of al-Muhajirin (immigrants/foreign fighters) Directorate. This man with three silver teeth is in his 50s. Al-Shishani oversees social, economic, and legal affairs that relate to foreign members of ISIS who come from over 80 countries worldwide. Under his leadership, the directorate gained a reputation of spying on foreign members who may have been sent from their home countries to infiltrate and spy on ISIS. Upon their arrival new members are sequestered temporarily and hand over their passports, phones and fill out paperwork about their previous military training and desires for serving ISIS. During this time period the Emni conducts investigations on all new foreign fighters and immigrants to ISIS, checking on the references they provide, searching their phones which are turned over upon joining, downloading their contacts and trying to ascertain that they are who they say they are.[15] Al-Shishani constantly reports to the Emni to handle the arrest of suspected members.

The Emni gave the Directorate of Immigrants the permission to be the sole trader of cars in Raqqa. The money generated from the trade goes to the directorate budget which is responsible, we have learned, for arranging housing for foreign fighters, paying widows pensions, paying salaries of foreign fighters, etc. Also, under the supervision of the Emni, al-Shishani was allowed to conduct business in Raqqa to generate more income for the Directorate of Immigrants. His business activities include real estate, agriculture, and hospitality. As of March 2017, Al-Shishani had generated just above USD 10 million. Al-Shishani managed an operation through which estates and businesses of those departing the city get redistributed to agents of the Directorate of Immigrants. Al-Shishani had been in charge of the directorate since the 9th of December 2015. The directorate reportedly has two clandestine offices outside ISIS-held territories; one in Turkey and the other in Germany. These offices report to al-Shishani. Reports from the aforementioned offices are submitted to the leadership of the Emni. The Chechen squads are Caucases Emirates fighting forces operating under the leadership of al-Shishani.

Conclusion

The involvement of the ISIS Emni in both inspiring and actually directing terrorist attacks and assassinations, both in neighbouring countries to Syria and Iraq, and in Europe and beyond, makes its operations and leadership of special interest to policymakers worldwide. Through terrorizing civilian populations, it has made itself instrumental to spreading ISIS’ message of fear and also helped divide democratic societies against their Muslim populations. This sowing of suspicions and hatred that plays right into ISIS’s recruiting methods and ideology that intones that Muslims are reviled and being attacked by the West. The Emni’s shrewd terrorist plotting and ability to portray the after-effects of their attacks in slick videos has also helped the terrorist organisation to preach its doomsday ideology, portray itself as still strong even while losing its territory and whip up support for further recruitment. Clearly, its activities have resulted in Islamophobia and anti-refugee sentiments—to the sorrow of many fleeing ISIS’s brutality, reinforcing ISIS’ narrative among radical and marginalized Muslims in the West. The Emni’s far-reaching influence reveals an immense need to understand the entity. Using our limited resources and contacts on the ground, the operations and leadership of the Emni were investigated as deeply as we were able to penetrate. Reporting on information obtained from trusted sources in ISIS-held territories and neighbouring countries, the organizational structure of the Emni is demonstrated here including biographical details of its leadership. However, elements of the hierarchy in Iraq require more information. That said, the details discussed in earlier sections allow a clearer understanding of the leadership and operations of the Emni in Syria.

Moreover, the obtained details enable an inference of the stages of one of the Emni’s chief architect’s radicalization, which is similar for many of the Syrian ISIS leaders. As shown in this report, his prior grievances as a marginalized Sunni during Assad’s regime while watching the Coalition invasion of Iraq and the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the sectarian violence that followed, coupled with his intelligence experience, effectiveness in the battlefield, callous nature, Machiavellianism, and recruiting skills have facilitated his rise to the highest rank in the ISIS Emni. The network of Islamists who have spent time fighting alongside the insurgency in Iraq and those loyal to him have made Abu Luqman, the Emni’s father, one of the most popular and feared operatives.

Furthermore, the Emni’s powers within ISIS allow its leadership to micromanage and exert influence on the various directorates that operate in its strongholds. The Emni in Syria has started to promote its operatives to govern cities and towns while having permanent seats in the committee. That in turn provides the Emni with enough power to seize control of all major functions within its territories in Syria. It is unclear whether the same trend applies in Iraq. It is noteworthy that with this level of influence the Emni should not be viewed only as intelligence forces. To that end, the tension between the Emni and other entities within ISIS has been steadily increasing but it’s likely that with its ruthless power it will continue to dominate, at least in Syria.

This report also documents the movement of the Emni’s leadership between Raqqa, Mosul, and Sirte. Notwithstanding Sirte’s drama, the Emni seems to be expanding into North Africa. Having access to the smuggling route between Libya and Europe could result in devastating events in Europe, although the Emni has also been successful directing attacks within Europe without it. The Emni presence in Sirte will likely also complicate the Libyan government’s operations against ISIS. They might also direct attacks to capture oil and gas fields in Libya. That might trigger illegal oil and gas trade across North Africa and increase the resources ISIS has for further attacks and payments to its cadres. The Emni’s expansion into Libya also presents a nightmare to neighbouring countries. The potential expansion from Libya to Mali, through Niger or Algeria, has highly significant military implications.

Recent activities of the Emni suggest that the entity is also overseeing ISIS operations in battling American forces and their Syrian allies. Recently obtained information indicate the instalment of IEDs and presence of BM 21 Grad multiple Launch Rocket Systems in the north of al-Mansoura, Raqqa. The operation of the aforementioned capabilities is believed to be handled by forces within the Emni. The leadership of the Emni is recently more present in the city of Raqqa. To that effect, the entity might be plotting retaliatory attacks around Tabqa against the American forces and their Syrian Allies.

Clearly it is to the West’s advantage to understand and then destroy the ISIS Emni, which as this report makes clear, grew out of expertise and knowledge gained from operatives serving under Saddam Hussein’s and Bashar al- Assad’s intelligence operations who have taken that knowledge and expertise and turned it into building a terrorist “state” and an intelligence operation which has shown itself to be a formidable opponent to the West.

Reference for this article: Asaad H. Almohammad, Speckhard, Anne (April 12, 2017) ReportsThe ISIS Emni: It’s Organizational Structure, Current Leadership and Clues to its Inner Workings in Syria & Iraq. ICSVE Research Report.

References:

[1] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2017). The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573

[2] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2017). The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573

[3] Amnesty International, “Syria: Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria,” Amnesty International Ltd, London, UK, 2017.

[4] Amnesty International, “About Saydnaya,” 2017. [Online]. Available: https://saydnaya.amnesty.org/en/saydnaya.html. [Accessed 2017].

[5] WikiLeaks, “Public Library of US Diplomacy,” [Online]. Available: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08DAMASCUS482_a.html. [Accessed 2017].

[6] Reuter, C. (April 18, 2015). The terror strategist: Secret files reveal the structure of Islamic State. Speigel Online. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2017). The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573

[7] WikiLeaks, “Public Library of US Diplomacy,” [Online]. Available: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/10DAMASCUS158_a.html. [Accessed 2017].

[8] Joshua Landis, “Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders,” 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/biggest-powerful-militia-leaders-syria/. [Accessed 2017]

[9] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (December 2015). Eyewitness accounts from recent defectors from Islamic State: Why they joined, what they saw, why they quit. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(6), 95-118. Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/475

[10] Reuter, C. (April 18, 2015). The terror strategist: Secret files reveal the structure of Islamic State. Speigel Online. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html

[11] Almohammad, Asaad & Speckhard, Anne (March 29, 2017) Why Taking the Tabqa Dam is Important in the Fight against ISIS and Retaking of Raqqa. ICSVE Brief Reports http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/why-taking-the-tabqa-dam-is-important-in-the-fight-against-isis-and-retaking-of-raqqa/

[12] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (December 2015). Eyewitness accounts from recent defectors from Islamic State: Why they joined, what they saw, why they quit. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(6), 95-118. Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/475

[13] Reuter, C. (April 18, 2015). The terror strategist: Secret files reveal the structure of Islamic State. Speigel Online. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2017). The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573m

[14] Almohammad, Asaad & Speckhard, Anne (March 29, 2017) Why Taking the Tabqa Dam is Important in the Fight against ISIS and Retaking of Raqqa. ICSVE Brief Reports http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/why-taking-the-tabqa-dam-is-important-in-the-fight-against-isis-and-retaking-of-raqqa/

[15] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2017). The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(1). Retrieved from Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (December 2015). Eyewitness accounts from recent defectors from Islamic State: Why they joined, what they saw, why they quit. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(6), 95-118. Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573m;

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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The Nature of Islamist Violence in France

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France faces a persistent jihadist threat, and all indications suggest the violence afflicting the country will continue. France has been targeted for upwards of three decades, but the frequency of attacks has increased quite dramatically over the past ten years or so. There are several reasons why it is distinctly fertile territory for jihadist activity and why militants have declared France an enemy and priority Western target. France is a European hub of jihadism and has been hit particularly hard in recent years. It has the largest Islamic population in Western Europe and, recognizing this, militant organizations devote time, effort, and resources to media production aimed at existing supporters and potentially receptive elements within French society. While only a small percentage of this varied demographic is involved with jihadist activity, individuals residing in France conduct most attacks. In other instances, militants travel to France and gain entry prior to committing violence. The country’s population profile is important to consider but does not explain why some are willing to kill and die for their cause on French soil.


Historically, much of the Islamist violence against France has been motivated by French interference in Muslim lands. This was true of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in the 1990s and is largely the case with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) today. Jihadists have consistently made this clear in their propaganda and martyrdom statements. In addition to this, militants have struck religious targets and there has been imported conflict related to external events.


The 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices and recent series of blasphemy-motivated incidents represent a marked typological development for jihadism in France. In response to the public’s demand for action, French President Emmanuel Macron has announced measures to fight “Islamist separatism” and has been working with European and international partners on matters of border security. Macron’s statements and announced policies have evoked outrage from some within France and internationally. Jihadists are capitalizing upon this and propagandizing Macron’s strategy in a way that hardens the enemy distinction of France, framing it as a nation that is waging war against Muslims at home and abroad. This is a very potent narrative for inciting violence.

National Security Profile
Emmanuel Macron has been criticized for his strategy as well as his comments about Islam being “in crisis”. Macron’s remarks are particularly noteworthy given the composition of French society. Islam is the second largest religion in France and Pew Research Center estimates there are 5,720,000 Muslims living in the country, accounting for 8.8% of the total population. Other sources place this figure closer to 5 million. Macron is accused of over-generalizing and stigmatizing the nation’s Islamic population in response to the actions of a comparative few.


The veracity of Macron’s claims can be debated, and the efficacy of his plan is unknown at this time but there is significant public pressure on the government to address the momentum of militant violence. The attacks have spurred discussion about strengthening French border security and immigration policy. Macron has called for the “refoundation” of the Schengen area and has urged Europe to do more to prevent illegal immigration, citing threats posed by trafficking networks with terror links.
 The global context saw tremendous geographical expansion and numerical growth in Islamist militancy over recent decades. These broader international trends have notably affected the European jihadist landscape and associated ideological currents have influenced some elements within France. France is as well a site of militant network formation and there is a degree of interplay between domestic and international dynamics.
In 2018, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated the number of “Sunni Islamic militants” worldwide to be around four times higher than on September 11, 2001. A study by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) found that France was the Western nation most often attacked from January 2004 to December 2018, accounting for 27% of all incidents. The AIVD says the first jihadist attack on French soil during this period was in 2012 and since then, the country has experienced frequent violence. Additionally, the Program on Extremism estimated that France has been the target of 35% of all combined attacks conducted in Europe and North America since 2014.


Several other assessments have illuminated the scale of France’s security troubles. In 2017, European Union anti-terror chief Gilles de Kerchove warned there were 17,000 militant Islamists living in the country. Following the December 2018 Christmas market attack in Strasbourg, France 24 reported that approximately “26,000 people who are believed to pose a danger to France are currently categorised as fiché S,” and “roughly 10,000 of those are believed to be religious extremists who have been radicalised, some in fundamentalist mosques, some online, some in prison and others abroad.” Upwards of 2000 French nationals have reportedly joined the Islamic State and in 2016 the French government estimated that 1,400 prison inmates were “radicalized”.


Foreign Policy
From the Armed Islamic Group in the 1990s to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State today, France’s enemies have been forthright about what motivates them to conduct attacks. French intervention in Muslim lands has fueled decades of Islamist resentment. Jihadist leaders continually reiterate this in their messaging, as do attack perpetrators in their martyrdom statements and claims of responsibility.


France had various degrees of involvement in the Algerian Civil War, the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, the Libyan Civil War, and the conflict in Mali. France has deployed 5,100 military personnel to the Sahel and has around 1,000 more troops stationed in Iraq. It maintains a military presence in Mali, Chad, Niger, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso as part of Operation Barkhane. This is France’s largest operational military footprint in Africa since the 1950s. France has also played a highly visible and multifaceted role in fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East.


Jihadist propaganda frames the country as an aggressor, foreign occupier of Muslim lands, and a crusader state waging war on Islam. Following 9/11 and entry into the War in Afghanistan, France and other coalition nations were increasingly portrayed in this way. Al-Qaeda propagated similar narratives following the 2013 launch of Operation Serval in Mali.
The development of media campaigns specifically geared towards Western audiences has increased the reach and traction of jihadist narratives within these societies. Incorporating this approach into the overall military strategy against their enemies helped bring the war to the streets of Western cities. Al-Qaeda’s propaganda efforts in the 2000s and early 2010s had some success with incitement, but the Islamic State drastically increased the offensive tempo against the West in 2014. Although there were jihadist plots in the 2000s, militants did not have a great deal of operational success on French soil again until the turn of the decade. France notably refrained from the 2003 War in Iraq and seemingly avoided much of the violent backlash associated with it. The general growth of Islamist militancy since 9/11 is another contextual trend to consider.


The Islamic State demonstrated its capabilities through its sweeping military victories, caliphate, unprecedented propaganda infrastructure, and vast global reach. When the US-led coalition intervened against the organization in Iraq and Syria, IS harnessed its robust media apparatus to launch targeted campaigns against participating nations. The Islamic State’s top leadership declared France an enemy and the organization produced specialized French language video, audio, and online print materials. IS has also been very effective in its use of social media and messaging applications.    


The Islamic State’s spokesman at the time, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, released a statement in September of 2014 that tracked with the evolving trends of jihadist violence in the West. Adnani was very explicit in his instructions, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.” He provided simple tactical advice to streamline the attack process, “If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”


Blasphemy
There had been demonstrations against Salman Rushdie in the late 1980s and against the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten in 2005, but not lethal attacks of this nature over such things on French soil. The recent surge in these kinds of incidents and the animosity over Emmanuel Macron’s plan to fight “Islamist separatism” have added dimension to France’s jihadist threat. Militant propaganda has focused on blasphemous acts by French citizens and has framed Macron’s strategy as a direct attack on the country’s Muslim population.


 There were several warning signs leading up to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. A 2010 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine featured a timeline of events related to depictions of the Prophet Muhammad from 2005 to 2010, which included explicit mention of Charlie Hebdo. Anwar al-Awlaki warned, “If you have the right to slander the Messenger of Allah, we have the right to defend him. If it is part of your freedom of speech to defame Muhammad it is part of our religion to fight you.” Awlaki wrote about “the hatred the West holds towards Islam and the Prophet of Islam”. He called for retaliation and claimed that “Defending the Messenger of Allah is a greater cause than fighting for Palestine, Afghanistan or Iraq; it is greater than fighting for the protection of Muslim life, honor or wealth.” Awlaki focused on Western insults towards the most sacredly held beliefs of many Muslims, sanctified anger over these offences, and gave the greenlight for reprisal.


A subsequent 2013 issue of AQAP’s Inspire included a section about the “French crusader intervention in Mali” and a wanted poster featuring individuals accused of insulting Islam. Charlie Hebdo’s Stéphane Charbonnier was among the designated figures. On January 7, 2015, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi conducted a raid on Charlie Hebdo’s offices that killed 12 people, including Charbonnier. The shooters had trained in Yemen, identified with AQAP, and executed the attack in retaliation to the magazine’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
Blasphemy-motivated violence has reemerged with intensity in recent weeks, sparked again by the republication of these cartoons. Events transpired rather quickly with the high-profile Charlie Hebdo trial, the stabbing near the magazine’s former offices, the announcement of Emmanuel Macron’s plan, the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty, and the church attack in Nice. Leaders of Muslim nations have scorned Macron, anti-France protests have erupted across the Islamic world, consumer boycotts have been promoted against French products, and there was a stabbing and subsequent Islamic State-claimed bombing targeting French diplomatic personnel in Saudi Arabia. Jihadist organizations and their online supporters have been actively stoking hostilities, celebrating the attacks, and calling for more violence. They have focused on Macron as a figurehead for insults to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The French government is accused of enabling and even encouraging blasphemy.

France is faced with a complex threat from independent actors as well as militants directed, guided, and inspired by jihadist organizations. France is in a precarious position and faces potential violence if a certain foreign policy decision is made, a citizen blasphemes, the state enacts a security measure, or an external event occurs in some foreign flashpoint. This reality informs the French desire to assert national sovereignty. France’s security environment is showing signs of deterioration and there is nothing to suggest the violence will subside anytime soon. It is clear the French people want meaningful action and time will reveal if Emmanuel Macron’s approach will have any real impact.

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Europe’s Cyber Resilience

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In today’s world, no organization or enterprise is completely safe from cyber-attacks or their possible consequences. In fact, one may even argue that the effects of Cyber Security incidents on our increasingly interconnected world have the potential to negatively affect every single individual on this planet. As a result, and aided by a progressively complex landscape of regulatory and legal requirements in this field and beyond, raising awareness of Cyber Security threats and, by extension, building Cyber Resilience, have developed from a traditionally rather technical matter into an increasingly important strategic topic for businesses, on the one hand, and into a critical diplomatic challenge for States, on the other hand.

The EU Network and Information Security Directive was the first piece of EU-wide Cyber Security legislation and aims to enhance Cyber Security across the EU. The national supervision of critical sectors, such as energy, transport, water, health, and critical digital service providers, including online market places, as well as the enhancement of national Cyber Security capabilities and facilitation of cross-border collaboration, are the key topics covered by the NIS Directive.[1] Moreover, the NIS Directive is part of the EU Cyber Security Strategy, which states “achieving Cyber Resilience” as one of its five priorities.[2] However, the fact that the NIS Directive was only adopted in 2016, with a deadline for national transposition by EU member States as recent as May 9, 2018, illustrates that Cyber Security and Cyber Resilience are relatively new topics in international collaborative efforts surrounding security and stability in Europe. One may argue that this recency inherently implies a certain lack of preparation for Cyber Security incidents; thus, vulnerability.

“The technology of today serves not only a Weberian predictability imperative – to further rationalise society. It makes society less safe and its individuals less free” – recently stated my former professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic discussing the EU cyber-related legislation.[3]Hence, a preparation, in other words – strategic investment in preventative measures and resources, is considered an essential aspect of Cyber Security as well as critical to Cyber Resilience. While Cyber Security is primarily concerned with the protection of information technology and systems,[4] Cyber Resilience aims to ensure the effective continuation of an organizations operations and to prevent demobilization of business- or organization-critical functions in the event of security incidents.[5] To be more specific, it is “the ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from cyber attacks” and other security incidents, such as data breaches, that is commonly referred to as Cyber Resilience.[6]

In this context, it has been argued that the creation of a resilience-conscious culture is a key element of successful Cyber Resilience strategies.[7] Creating such a cyber resilient culture involves raising awareness of Cyber Security threats, such as phishing and malware, and communicating ways to minimize risks stemming from them to people outside of Cyber Security functions.[8] The main goal here is to facilitate a cyber resilient mindset through awareness-building measures, leading to the question: If promoting awareness of Cyber Security threats ultimately enhances Cyber Resilience, how can we, first of all, assess the status quo of Europe’s Cyber Resilience and subsequently, monitor the progress and effectiveness of such awareness building measures, in order to better understand, compare and ultimately enhance the Cyber Resilience of individual States and Europe in its entirety?

This essay will argue that “a false sense of security” in the private sector is a warning sign regarding the Cyber Resilience of States, hence, a warning sign regarding the status quo of Europe’s Cyber Resilience. Moreover, it will argue that “a false sense of security” can serve as a valuable indicator for the effectiveness of, and increased need for Cyber Security awareness measures. This will be accomplished through the following approach:

Firstly, the essential need for and feasibility of active preparation for seemingly unlikely crisis situations, will be emphasized. To illustrate this point, the controversy surrounding the classification of the COVID-19 pandemic as “black swan event” will be discussed. Secondly, the discussion of several recent Cyber Security related incidents and their implications, will highlight that businesses and governments worldwide must, more than ever, and especially due to the C-19 related acceleration of digitalization, improve their Cyber Resilience. The main goal here will be to draw attention to the worldwide existing deficiencies regarding Cyber Resilience and, based on this, illustrate the need for and value of finding new ways to assess Cyber Resilience, but also key aspects of Cyber Resilience. Thirdly, current insights from the recently published study “Cyber Security in Austria”[9] will be discussed and contrasted with the respective risk assessment from The Global Risks Report 2019[10] to illustrate apparent discrepancies in security related self-perception in the private sector versus the reality of the risk situation. It is important to note here that “a false sense of security” means feeling safe in an unsafe environment. Therefore, such discrepancies represent “a false sense of security”. As a final step, possible implications and limitations of the presented ideas will be discussed.

A black swan event is an unpredictable, highly improbable and rare event that has serious and potentially catastrophic consequences. One main characteristic of black swan events is the widespread insistence that their occurrence was obvious in hindsight; thus, should have been foreseen.[11] In the recent past, this concept, which the Lebanese-American philosopher, professor and former Wall Street trader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, developed and already described in 2007, has, in connection with the C-19 pandemic, again become a topic of conversation – not least because of social media, such as Twitter (#blackswan). While there seems to be general disagreement as to whether the ongoing C-19 pandemic constitutes a “real” black swan event, Taleb himself stated in an interview that the eventual outbreak of a global pandemic with all its consequences was, in fact, a predictable “white swan” event, arguing that companies, corporations and especially governments, had no excuse, not to be prepared.[12]

Regardless of swan color, however, in connection with the aforementioned ability to prepare for cyber attacks, it can be argued that a particularly relevant consequence of the C-19 pandemic, in terms of Cyber Security and subsequently, security in Europe, has been the acceleration of digitalization throughout the world, affecting the public and private sector, as well as the private sphere of people’s homes. Exit restrictions and other social-distancing measures imposed by governments worldwide, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, have caused the global demand for remote working technologies to skyrocket within a remarkably short period of time. For example, the video conferencing solution provider Zoom experienced, within just a few weeks, a surge from around 10 million daily active users at the end of December 2019, to over 200 million daily active users in March 2020.[13] It was not long before data privacy and data security related problems with Zoom became apparent: “Zoom bombing” or video hijacking, which refers to the unwanted and disruptive intrusion of a person into a Zoom video meeting, a lack of end-to-end encryption and, in this regard, misleading information advertised on part of the provider, along with various IT security related vulnerabilities that allowed hackers, among other things, unauthorized remote access to end user’s Mac computers – including webcam and microphone access, Zoom’s deployment of in-app surveillance features, as well as questionable handling and alleged trade with the obtained user data were, already by April 2020, seen as a considerable cause for concern, leading security experts to describe Zoom as “a privacy disaster”, and “fundamentally corrupt”. Moreover, Arvind Narayanan, associate computer science professor at Princeton University, was quoted as saying: “Zoom is malware”.[14] The most memorable piece of news concerning Zoom was, however, arguably about the British prime minister Boris Johnson accidentally posting sensitive information, including the Zoom meeting ID and the login names of several participants, when sharing a screenshot of his first-ever digital cabinet meeting via Twitter.[15]

The example of Zoom illustrates how companies, organizations, governments and private individuals benefit to an unprecedented extent from the advantages of digitalization, especially in the context of the ongoing C-19 pandemic, but also beyond such global crisis situations, while at the same time being faced with the considerable challenges and security risks brought about by the new technologies of what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This Fourth Industrial Revolution, being “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”, is changing the ways we live, work and interact,[16] resulting in significant risks to the privacy of natural persons, as well as to security and stability in general.

Several recently occurring or publicly emerging Cyber Security incidents underpin the scope of these risks: A cyber-attack on the British airline EasyJet, in the course of which personal data including email addresses and travel plans of 9 million EasyJet customers and additionally, credit card details of over 2,000 customers, were stolen, became known in May 2020.[17] This once again demonstrates that companies of all kinds can at all times become targets and victims of cyber-attacks. Costly penalties for violations of the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (GDPR), as well as claims for damages and lawsuits by those affected and, last but not least, the loss of reputation often caused by such security incidents, pose significant challenges for companies under any circumstances. These challenges can, however, easily become existence-threatening, especially in view of the C-19 induced crisis situation, in which particularly the aviation industry currently finds itself in, as recently highlighted, when Austrian Airlines received EUR 450 million in financial aid from the Austrian government.[18]

On the one hand, the EasyJet security incident illustrates that Cyber Resilience has, in recent years, developed from a formerly predominantly technical matter into a business-critical strategic topic and, in today’s world, competitive advantage for companies, whereas on the other hand, the case of Austrian Airlines requiring millions of Euros of state aid to continue their operations, illustrates how crisis situations faced by private companies can and do affect States. 

As a matter of fact, we live in a time where the vulnerability of critical infrastructure is a real concern among security specialists[19] and States, as illustrated by the following example: A joint memo, sent out in May 2020 by German intelligence and security agencies, warned German operators of critical infrastructure against hacker attacks. The memo included a description of the hackers’ approach as well as information indicating long-standing compromises in corporate networks of companies operating in the energy, water and telecommunications sector,[20] in other words, critical sectors covered by the EU Network and Information Security Directive 2016/1148 (NIS).

It is in light of security incidents like these, that the results of and contradictions arising from this year’s “Cyber Security isn Austria” study (KPMG, 2020),[21] may be perceived as especially worrying: According to the study, 27% of 652 companies surveyed place great trust in their Cyber Security measures, while 58% “rather” trust their Cyber Security measures. At the same time, 57% of participating companies became victims of cyber attacks in the past 12 months, of which 74% where phishing attacks.[22] It is important to note here, that, when it comes to the prevention of phishing attacks, security experts consider regularly training employees on security awareness, essential.[23] In the context of such Cyber Security awareness measures, it seems especially interesting that the study highlighted the significance of employees in the detection of cyber attacks, as opposed to merely focusing on employees as a potential weakness: 79% of companies stated that they had become aware of a cyber attack through their own employees, while internal security systems ranked second (72%) as a means of detection. Awareness building measures must, therefore, remain a high priority for companies.[24]

Furthermore, the study established that one third of companies believe it would take them 1 to 4 weeks to safely remove attackers from their systems, while a fourth of companies even believe it would merely take them between 2 and 6 days. These findings are in direct contradiction with the considerably longer and demonstrably increasing average “dwell time” (100 to 170 days) of attackers in corporate networks.[25] Regarding Cyber Resilience, it is worth noting here, that although 69% of companies surveyed invest in awareness and security monitoring to protect themselves against cyber attacks, only 25% prepare for possible damage through cyber insurance coverage.[26] Also, the study found that 82% of companies would like to see established a government agency dedicated exclusively to Cyber Security issues and 77% would like to be supported more by the State, while at the same time, 57% state that they do not trust the authorities when it comes to Cyber Security. Additionally, it was found that the primary expectation (64% of companies) companies have toward the State is the provision of information and EU-wide support as well as exchange between experts from the State and private sector, in order to learn from each other.[27] Considering the companies’ expectations regarding the exchange of information between experts, it seems particularly striking that about 90% declined to comment on the effects that past Cyber Security incidents had in terms of damage caused to their reputation. Based on this finding, it was concluded that a trustful exchange of information must be encouraged and observed, that changes to the existing legal framework would help facilitate open communication on cybercrime.[28]

All in all, it was concluded that Austrian companies mistrust others, but do not protect themselves sufficiently, that they demand cooperation, however, shy away from open communication and that they feel more secure than they are.[29] In other words, “a false sense of security” in the Austrian private sector, emerged as a key finding.

It was already established earlier that “a false sense of security” means feeling safe in an unsafe environment. Therefore, it seems only logical to look in more detail at the threat environment, also known as risk environment, in which businesses in today’s world operate in. For the sake of coherence and comparability, the following section will, first of all, examine Austria’s situation before briefly considering the global risk environment:

The “Risks of Doing Business 2019” report (World Economic Forum) rates cyber-attacks as the most critical business risk in Austria (46.7%) and data fraud or theft as second critical (34.1%).[30] Taking into account the previously discussed findings regarding levels of trust companies place in their security measures (27% trust “greatly”, 58% “rather” trust)[31] and unrealistic company estimates of attacker “dwell time” in corporate networks, “a false sense of security” clearly reemerges. The top Risks of Doing Business 2019 on a global scale are fiscal crises (28.9%), closely followed by cyber attacks (28.2%) as the second critical risk and unemployment or underemployment (28.2%) as the third critical risk, while data fraud or theft ranks seventh (22.4%),[32] firmly establishing technological risks among the most critical risks globally.

Overall, and especially against the background of the global risk environment and increasing interconnectedness of the public and private sector, “a false sense of security”, or to be more precise, “a false sense of Cyber Security” in the private sector must, therefore, be considered a significant threat for the security of private companies and, consequently, the security in Europe, a warning sign regarding the status quo of Europe’s Cyber Resilience and, one may argue, valuable instrument in assessing the effectiveness of Cyber Security awareness measures.

While the scope and purpose of this essay did not allow for an in-depth analysis of how “a false sense of security” may practically be translated into a quantifiable, clearly defined key performance or risk indicator, it may serve as a starting point in doing so. Also, it may rightfully be argued that any indicator of performance or risk must be evaluated in the context of already established key performance and risk indicators, as well as existing efforts, procedures and best practices in the field, in order to fully assess its value and usefulness. Again, the scope of this essay did not allow for an in-depth analysis in this regard. Nevertheless, it may prove useful as a starting point in doing so. Other limitations and challenges arising from the scope, purpose and choice of approach as well as ideas advanced in this essay, include the risk of bias when generalizing from Austria to Europe and the risk of response bias (demand bias) when utilizing survey questions to identify “a false sense of security” with the same participants.

Nevertheless, despite these limitations, it seems possible to derive the following conclusions from the analysis conducted in this essay: a) the security and stability in Europe depend on the ability of States to continuously improve and maintain their Cyber Resilience, b) Europe’s Cyber Resilience is closely tied to the Cyber Resilience of each States’ private sector and, as a result, the actors operating within them, c) improving cooperation and trust between the public and the private sector as well as between States is necessary to improve Europe’s Cyber Resilience and, d) an organization with the appropriate authority, financial and professional capacity as well as reach, such as, one may argue, the OSCE, must act as the initiator and governing body of projects aiming to utilize “a false sense of security” to assess Europe’s Cyber Resilience and existing security awareness measures.

All in all, one may conclude that in order to ensure and enhance security and stability in Europe in our increasingly interconnected world, especially in the face of rapid technological progress, new technologies and the recent acceleration of digitalization, an urgent need to continuously improve and monitor Europe’s Cyber Resilience exists. This will call for more and more cooperation between the public and private sector, as well as between States and will, consequently, likely even heighten the significance of international organizations, such as the OSCE, in initiating, financing, overseeing and supporting Cyber Resilience initiatives in Europe.


[1] ENISA. NIS Directive. n.d. https://www.enisa.europa.eu/topics/nis-directive (accessed June 25, 2020).

[2] European Commission. EU Cybersecurity plan to protect open internet and online freedom and opportunity. February 7, 2013. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_13_94 (accessed June 25, 2020).

[3]Bajrektarevic, Anis. Twinning Europe and Asia in Cyberspace: the EU GDPR Legislation and its Transformative Power.January 2019. Diplomat Magazine (Hague-Brussels)

[4] RSI Security. What is cyber resilience and why is it important? August 14, 2019. https://blog.rsisecurity.com/what-is-cyber-resilience-and-why-is-it-important/ (accessed June 25, 2020).

[5] De Groot, Juliana. What is Cyber Resilience. February 4, 2019. https://digitalguardian.com/blog/what-cyber-resilience (accessed June 25, 2020).

[6] IT Governance Ltd. What is cyber resilience? n.d. https://www.itgovernance.co.uk/cyber-resilience (accessed June 25, 2020).

[7] Hughes, Mark. Beyond awareness: Create a cyber resilient culture. September 2019. https://thrive.dxc.technology/2019/09/10/beyond-awareness-create-a-cyber-resilient-culture/ (accessed June 6, 2020).

[8] Hughes. Beyond awareness: Create a cyber resilient culture. September 2019.

[9] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. Study, Vienna: KPMG Security Services GmbH, 2020.

[10] World Economic Forum. Risks of Doing Business 2019. 2019. https://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-report-2020/survey-results/global-risks-of-highest-concern-for-doing-business-2020/ (accessed June 25, 2020).

[11] Chappelow, Jim. Black Swan. March 11, 2020. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blackswan.asp (accessed June 25, 2020).

[12]Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, interview by Bloomberg TV. Taleb Says “White Swan” Coronavirus Was Preventable (March 31, 2020).

[13]Fuscaldo, Donna. Zoom’s Daily Active Users Surged to 200 Million in March… and That’s Part of the Problem. April 2, 2020. https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/zooms-daily-active-users-surged-to-200-million-in-march…-and-thats-part-of-the-problem (accessed June 25, 2020).

[14] Paul, Kari. ‘Zoom is malware’: why experts worry about the video conferencing platform. April 2, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/02/zoom-technology-security-coronavirus-video-conferencing (accessed June 25, 2020).

[15] futurezone. Netzpolitik: Boris Johnson postet aus Versehen sensible Infos.April 1, 2020. https://futurezone.at/netzpolitik/corona-boris-johnson-postet-aus-versehen-sensible-infos/400800110 (accessed June 25, 2020).

[16] Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond. January 14, 2016. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/ (accessed June 25, 2020).

[17] Hauser, Christine. EasyJet Says Cyberattack Stole Data of 9 Million Customers. May 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/business/easyjet-hacked.html (accessed June 25, 2020).

[18] Hodoschek, Andrea. Wirtschaft: AUA-Rettungspaket steht: 450 Millionen Euro Staatshilfe.June 8, 2020. https://kurier.at/wirtschaft/aua-rettungspaket-steht-450-millionen-euro-staatshilfe/400934555 (accessed June 25, 2020).

[19] Allianz. Cyber attacks on critical infrastructure. n.d. https://www.agcs.allianz.com/news-and-insights/expert-risk-articles/cyber-attacks-on-critical-infrastructure.html (accessed June 25, 2020).

[20] Tanriverdi, Hakan. Kritische Infrastruktur: Behörden warnen vor Hackerangriffen.May 27, 2020. https://www.br.de/nachrichten/deutschland-welt/kritische-infrastruktur-behoerden-warnen-vor-hackerangriffen,S0CJ1JP (accessed June 25, 2020).

[21] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020.

[22] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 6.

[23] Lord, Nate. Phishing Attack Prevention: How to Identify & Avoid Phishing Scams in 2019. July 12, 2019. https://digitalguardian.com/blog/phishing-attack-prevention-how-identify-avoid-phishing-scams (accessed June 25, 2020).

[24] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 13.

[25] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 4.

[26] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 6.

[27] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 23.

[28] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 14.

[29] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 4.

[30] World Economic Forum. Risks of Doing Business 2019. 2019.

[31] KPMG. Cyber Security in Österreich. 2020: 6.

[32] World Economic Forum. Risks of Doing Business 2019. 2019.

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Intelligence

Extortion, bio-warfare and terrorism: Extremists are exploiting the pandemic

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Criminals and violent extremists are exploiting the pandemic to build their support networks, undermine trust in government and even weaponize the virus, according to a research report published on Wednesday by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI). 

“Terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups are trying to take advantage of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic to expand their activities and jeopardize the efficacy and credibility of response measures by governments”, UNICRI Director Antonia Marie De Meo wrote in the introduction to the report, entitled “Stop the virus of disinformation”.

Social media incitement

“It is also alarming that some terrorist and violent extremist groups have attempted to misuse social media to incite potential terrorists to intentionally spread COVID-19 and to use it as an improvised form of a biological weapon”, Ms. De Meo wrote.

Social media could be used to “inspire terrorism”, motivating self-radicalized terrorists to perpetrate real attacks, the researchers found.

“There are cases in which right-wing extremist groups… explicitly asked their followers to spread the virus by coughing on their local minority or by attending to specific places where religious or racial minorities gather. Other groups…advocate to spread the coronavirus disease in countries with large populations or high levels of pollution”, the report said.

‘Inspired terrorism’ case

A notable case of “inspired terrorism” was that of Timothy Wilson, who plotted to detonate a bomb in a hospital caring for coronavirus patients in Kansas City. He died during a firefight with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in March.

He had been active in at least two neo-Nazi channels on the social media platform Telegram, and his last online comment was an antisemitic message regarding the origin of COVID-19, the report said.

The researchers examined three groups of non-State actors: right-wing extremists; groups associated with the ISIL or Da’esh terror group and Al-Qaida; and organized crime groups.

They described how extremists, especially right-wing groups, used social media to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation about the virus, expanding their networks by exploiting algorithms that identify potentially sympathetic people who have liked and forwarded particular memes.

Conspiracy theories

The conspiracy theories often melded different and contradictory stories, the report said, including “the identification of the 5G mobile phone signal as a vehicle to transmit the virus, or the false claim that the pandemic has been masterminded by Bill Gates to implant microchips into human beings, or the false idea that the virus is a hoax and does not exist”.

The economic crisis created by the pandemic was also giving criminal groups openings to take control of legitimate companies and shops that may be at risk of bankruptcy, citing the case of drug cartels trying to take over pharmacies in four Mexican states, and investigations into extortion in Italy.

Debunking tools

The UNICRI researchers identified several instruments to debunk disinformation and misinformation, including data science tools, fact-checking apps and artificial intelligence, but warned that technology countermeasures alone cannot stop abuse of social media.  

In a separate case of disinformation, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), has warned about fake information circulating on social media concerning the refugee situation in Ethiopia, such as reports that UN staff had been arrested in the Tigray region and had their vehicles confiscated.  

“These are false. All of our personnel and vehicles in Tigray are accounted for. We urge those using social media to share information responsibly and from corroborated sources only”, the UN agency said.

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