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ISIS Drones: Evolution, Leadership, Bases, Operations and Logistics

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Asaad Almohammad, Ph.D. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he use of drones by terrorist organizations has been documented for over a decade [[1],[2], & [3]]. During November 2004, Hezbollah used Mirsad-1, an Iranian made drone, for reconnaissance over Israeli territories, for 20 minutes without being intercepted. Hezbollah operatives managed to fly the drone back to Lebanon.

It is reported that Hamas, the Palestinian terror group, had a development and storage facility for drones that were destroyed by the Israel Air Force during mid-November 2012 [[4]]. By mid-July 2014, Hamas also used Ababil-1, an Iranian made drone, which was shot down by the Israeli forces [[5]]. Furthermore, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another designated terrorist organization, was able to hack the video feeds of the Israeli’s army drones for the period from 2011 to 2014 [[6]].

The first successful and significant use of drones to attack rival forces by a non-state actor has only occurred recently. It was carried out by Hezbollah agents in Arsal, Syria during late September 2014 in which their aerial attack targeted and killed 32 fighters of al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’ affiliates in Syria. More recently, ISIS began using drones to drop Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), most often grenades, to successfully hit enemy targets.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) commented to The Washington Times on ISIS’s use of IED loaded drones [[7]] [[8]]:“In the end the IEDs are the terrorist’s artillery… This is not rocket science. This is a natural progression for IEDs. This isn’t crazy stuff that this is happening now. We should have seen this coming.”

Indeed, terrorist organizations’ obsession with drones is not new.

Hezbollah, a Shiite militia, and Hamas, a Sunni jihadi group and an affiliate of the Muslim Brothers, are both supported by the Iranian regime. Their drones, both the units and the training to operate them, are also Iranian sponsored. Unlike these two terrorist organizations, ISIS developed its drone program using off-the-shelf commercial drones and there is no evidence that they relied on any state actors in improving such capabilities. As ISIS started to appear on the defeat, the group increasingly began to release materials on its drone-based operations, including surveillance, command and control, and attacks. These published pictures and videos were largely employed for propaganda purposes.

By February 2017, ISIS drones became the sexy new topic among ISIS’ sympathizers and nemeses, instigating the discussion, debate, and projection of the nature and employment of these weapons in potential terrorist attacks. Alarmed by the current and potential danger of drones as a tool of terror, this report is devoted to collecting intelligence on drone-related operations within ISIS-held territories in Syria. Before presenting the obtained information, a review of the jihadi group’s activities and operations regarding this program is instrumental to inferring the current and future implications of ISIS’ progression in this area.

ISIS’ Use of Drones

In this section ISIS drones’ capabilities and activities are summarized based on a wealth of available open-source information. ISIS’ documented use of the technology has been covered thoroughly by commentators, analysts, and academics. The following list presents a chronological summary of ISIS’ rapid progression and utilization of drones across Iraq, Syria, and Libya for the period spanning August 2014 to March 2017:

  1. The National Defense Magazine reported on a YouTube video showing one of the first instances of the use of drones by ISIS in late August 2014 [[9]]. The video showed aerial footage of army bases in the close vicinity of Raqqa city. The National Defense Magazine argued that ISIS’ utilization of the technology would allow the jihadi group to gain situational awareness and use more advanced propaganda material.
  2. In a video released during early September 2014 [[10]], an ISIS operative claimed that the group used drones in surveilling and collecting intelligence on the Tabqa Military Airbase, Raqqa before they launched an assault and seized it from al-Assad’s forces. A propaganda video that was released by al-I’tisam, a media company of ISIS, on the 9th of September 2014 showed some reconnaissance footage that seemed to be taken by ISIS operatives before they attacked the base [[11]].
  3. ShamiWitness, a major twitter account that used to spread ISIS propaganda and methods, shared a guide providing beginners with instructions on how to start building multi-copter drones during mid-October 2014 [[12]].
  4. In early September 2014, ISIS captured and released aerial footage of a terrorist attack that targeted fighters in the Kurdish town of Kobane, Syria [[13]]. The video, taken by an ISIS drone, was used for propaganda purposes.
  5. In late January 2015, ISIS agents and/or sympathizers tweeted a link to a document that commented on the shortcoming of ISIS’ drones, argued the justifications behind the downing of the drones by rival forces, recommended different commercial drones, and provided instructions and resources on how ISIS can modify and improve its current drones [[14]].
  6. In early April 2015, ISIS released a video of an archaeological site, claiming the site had pagan idols, which they intended to destroy [[15]]. An ISIS drone took the opening footage. On two other separate occasions during early April 2015, ISIS claimed, through a released video and a picture, to have used its drones in reconnaissance missions to coordinate its attacks on an oil refinery in Baiji Iraq [[16]] and Ain Sheep checkpoint in Idlib governorate [[17]].
  7. In mid-December 2015, ISIS used a drone to film a suicide mission in Anbar province, Iraq [[18]].
  8. In early January 2016, an ISIS-released pictorial report surfaced online [[19]]. That report showed footage taken by an ISIS drone that was used to plan an attack on an Iraqi militia camp in the close vicinity of Fallujah. Moreover, during early January 2016, ISIS released a video captured by drones showing suicide missions in al-Anbar, Iraq [[20]].
  9. In late January 2016, ISIS released a video of the Benghazi battle in Libya. The video was largely used to threaten forces fighting ISIS and other Islamists factions [[21]]. In the video an operative appeared to be using a smartphone to control a drone that captured footage of the battle.
  10. In late February 2016, ISIS launched a Telegram channel to connect to and use the knowledge of scientists and engineers who sympathize with the militant group [[22]]. That channel discussed topics related to the assembly and development of ISIS’ drones, including remote control of missiles.
  11. In mid-May 2016, ISIS released a picture taken by a drone that captured an attack in the close vicinity of Ramadi, Iraq [[23]]. In late May 2016, a photo of ISIS’s operatives using a computer to control a drone during an attack on Iraqi forces in Fallujah surfaced in an announcement made by A’maq, ISIS’ news agency [[24]]. Moreover, ISIS also released a video that had scenes that had been captured by a drone [[25]]. The footage featured the assault on Peshmerga forces in the north of Mosul, Iraq on the 3rd of May 2016. During that attack Charles Keating, a U.S. Navy SEAL, was killed. In addition, during late May 2016, ISIS released a picture that included drone footage of its attack on Peshmerga forces in Ninawa, Iraq [[26]].
  12. In early July 2016, the Pentagon reported that ISIS was using drones equipped with full-motion cameras and IEDs [[27]].
  13. In late September 2016, ISIS released a video of a suicide attack on an Iraqi military base that shows drone footage of Belgian ISIS militants before carrying out the mission [[28]]. The video shows a Belgian jihadi, among others, calling for European Muslims not to fear death and to conduct similar attacks in the name of ISIS.
  14. In early October 2016, the Iraqi forces announced that they downed a drone belonging to ISIS in the south of Mosul [[29]]. The drone was reported to be carrying out a reconnaissance mission to surveil Iraqi forces’ advancement towards ISIS strongholds.
  15. In mid-November 2016 ISIS released a video showing its operations against Iraqi forces that were advancing to retake Mosul [[30]]. The film is full of drone footage that capture ISIS’ suicide attacks.
  16. In early December 2016, a video released by ISIS showed a more systematic and professional use of its drones in a raid in the close vicinity of Mosul, Iraq [[31]]. During that period, ISIS released drone footage of two operations, one that captured footage of an attack on Turkish and Syrian rebel forces around al-Bab Aleppo [[32]] and the other against the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces west of Mosul [[33]]. Moreover, in mid-September 2016, a pictorial announcement of suicide attack in the vicinity of Benghazi, Libya was released. That image showed drone footage of the operation [[34]].
  17. In early January 2017, ISIS released a film that contained drone footage [[35]] praising the suicide missions that were carried out by foreign and local jihadis during the battle for Mosul. In late January 2017 ISIS released a propaganda video showing its drones dropping grenade-sized munitions on Iraqi soldiers and tanks [[36]]. The video captures the damage caused by the bombs and claims that ISIS drones have become a nightmare for the forces battling the militant jihadi group. Moreover, during that period ISIS released another video showing an operation in which a drone dropped a bomb on a military site in Iraq [[37]].
  18. In early February 2017 ISIS released propaganda posters on Telegram and social media platforms. One of the posters features ISIS drones attacking and destroying U.S landmarks [[38]]. During early and mid-February 2017, ISIS released a flood of images of the damage caused by its combat drones across Iraq and Syria [[39], [40], & [41]], using them as propaganda material. In mid-February 2017, ISIS operatives or sympathizers started to call for the use of drones to target civilian populations, places of worship, and infrastructure (e.g., power grid), among other targets, in the West, Middle East, and North Africa [[42]]. This is no small thing given that when ISIS called for use of vehicular rammings and knife attacks a spate of them followed across Europe and elsewhere. Similarly when al-Qaeda and later ISIS repeated instructions for pressure cooker bombs and other homegrown attacks these calls were also heeded, although to a lesser extent.
  19. Moreover, ISIS also released a video using areal footage taken by its drones [[43]]. That video featured Iraqi and Syrian ISIS bombers, including two Yazidi children, carrying out suicide missions. In addition, ISIS operatives or sympathizers shared photos on Telegram that featured ISIS combat drones carrying out attacks during night time [[44]]. In February 2017, ISIS released a video showing their operatives in Salah Al-Din, Iraq learning how to modify and weaponize drones [[45]].
  20. In late March 2017, an Arab media outlet released an original file, which had been obtained from a hard a drive taken from ISIS headquarters in northern Syria, that showed Fadhel Mensi, a Tunisian national known in ISIS circles as Abu Yusri Al-Tunisi, who is an ISIS engineer working on increasing the weight that the drones could carry to 20 kilograms [[46]] increasing the damage they could do by dropping larger payload IEDs.

As mentioned earlier, ISIS developed its drones program without any support from state actors. That sets the jihadi militant group apart from terrorist organizations sponsored by Iran. Moreover, the program has been used to improved ISIS’ effectiveness on the battlefield since August 2014. The brief summary of ISIS’ employment of drones indicates that the group has rapidly improved its experience in using drones and has managed to improve its combat experience through use of the technology in surveillance missions, command and control, and in carrying out attacks against rival forces. The above review shows that the program has been largely used to harm the enemies of ISIS, but even more so to produce propaganda material to make ISIS look strong versus weakened under enemy assault and to instill fear in its rival forces, boost the morale of its own fighters and supporters, improve its brand, and increase recruitment. The material was also employed to provide its sympathizers across the globe with the knowledge required to use a cheap, non-suicidal tool of terror. The odds of drones being used by lone wolves in the West should alarm many [[47]]. There is a wealth of guides and instructions online, distributed by ISIS, for beginners to modify and weaponize off-the-shelf commercial drones and as stated earlier, ISIS’s calls for homegrown attacks and instructions on how to carry them out has been heeded in the past.

February 2017 marked a spike in ISIS’ use of drones and the release of propaganda associated with the program by ISIS media operatives and sympathizers. ISIS is on the defeat in Iraq and Syria and such deployment might enhance their chances of slowing the advancement of Syrian, and Iraqi forces and their American allies. Alerted to the danger of ISIS’ surveillance and combat drones, the Iraqi forces are now using the Raysun MD1, a Taiwanese made multicopter jammer, to neutralize this danger [[48]]. During late July 2016, the American forces were also seen in Iraq using a new technology known as DroneDefender (i.e., an assault-rifle-like device that functions as a frequency jammer to down ISIS drones [[49]]. Reports that a drone flew over the American Embassy Baghdad were also circulated of late. Some analyst argued that the aforementioned measures were not enough to tackle this sort of threat. For instance, Peter Singer, the New America Foundation’s analyst, reported [[50]]:

“The drone defender gun is not part of the regular kit,” implying it should be, and continued that American soldiers are “going to face this potential threat across the world, in anything from battles to doing an embassy evacuation. And that’s not good. We should have seen this coming and developed a plan and equipment, not just for us, but for allied forces.”

Furthermore, talking to reporters during the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria, deputy commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, argued that it’s critical to go after ISIS logistics, finance, leadership, and storage when it comes to the jihadi group’s drones program:

“Find how ISIS is training the pilots, where they’re storing the aircraft—not just wait until the thing shows up and then shoot it down.”

Indeed, if the group uses a swarming technique in a surprise attack it might be difficult to do so and jamming the drones could end up in them simply falling from the sky and exploding their payloads in any case.

In attempt to understand ISIS’ leadership, logistics, finance, storage, and training relating to the militant group’s drone program, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) tasked a number of sources on the ground to collect intelligence. Constrained by the duration of data collection and resources, this report does not provide exhaustive details on the aforementioned aspects of ISIS’ drones program. However, information was obtained that was related to the leadership, development facilities, training centers, operations, logistics, and the interaction between different entities involved in the program. The following section presents the information obtained by ICSVE. The details are compared to data released by researchers and analysts, when possible, to present a clear picture and to carry out analyses.

Bases, Leadership, and Logistics

The data obtained by ICSVE related to ISIS’ drone activities within its territories in Syria. Trusted sources reported that they first saw ISIS drones during mid-January 2017. Previous reports show that ISIS has been actively using the technology at least since August 2014. As of mid-January 2017, ISIS had moved over 200 young militants known as Ashbal al-Khilafa (“Cubs of the Caliphate” in English) from the city of Raqqa to the town of Maadan. Members of the Cubs of the Caliphate were armed and equipped with suicide vests. A militant led the Cubs of the Caliphate by the name Harith al-Shmari (a.k.a. Abu al-Bara). The Cubs of the Caliphate shipped 12 small multicopter drones, each equipped with a small bomb using pickup trucks. Trusted sources connected the shipped drones to Abu Ukba al-Marakshi, one of ISIS’ key engineers. Al-Marakshi, a French national, who use to operate from al-Bab, Aleppo appeared in Raqqa during late December 2016. He was seen with Ali Juma Al-Shwakh (a.k.a. Abu Luqman, the emir of Emni [the director of ISIS security forces]).[51] Abu Luqman attended an exercise in the use of combat drones. Al-Marakshi was reported to be the one testing the drone and it was reported that he demonstrated the use of the technology to Abu Luqman. Al-Marakshi took part in the modification and weaponization of multicopters. In late January 2017, he moved with the Cubs of the Caliphate to Maadan, Raqqa.

Training Center

In early March 2017, ICSVE learned that ISIS ran a center to train militants on the use of drones in surveillance and combat capacities. During that period, ISIS trainees were seen flying multicopters in the city of Raqqa. To be exact, the drones flew over the intersection of 23 Shbat and Tal Abyad Streets in Raqqa. Sources traced the drones to their launching point. In mid-March 2017, a number of trusted sources reported the location of ISIS’ drone training center (see map below). The center used to be a female clothing outlet by the name Banat al-Yawm (translates literally to Today’s Girls and loosely to Modern Girls). Other sources obtained information on the individuals running the center. These members are as follow:

  • Ahmad Banawi (a.k.a. Abu Uqba), a Syrian national from the Idlib governorate, is in charge of the center. Ahmad Banawi was seen in public, teaching ISIS operatives how to use surveillance drones. He instructed the operatives in the area opposite the center. He is reported to have a degree in aerospace engineering.
  • A Libyan national by the alias Abu Amarah al-Libi reports to Ahmad Banawi. Al-Libi coordinates with other centers that are involved in ISIS’ drone program.
  • A French national by the alias Abu Muawia al-Faransi used to be connected to the training center. He is reported to be in France as of mid-March 2017. Sources could not obtain much on al-Faransi except that he is tall and blond.
  • An Iraqi national by the name Jibril (a.k.a. Abu Suhil) reports to Ahmad Banawi. He coordinates with entities that oversee ISIS’ drone program in Iraq. Jibril originates from Rawa, Iraq

Dronemap1

Map 1. Drones’ training center (latitude, longitude): 35.9514406, 39.0125906

In mid-March 2017, ICSVE received information indicating that individuals running ISIS’ drone training center in Raqqa were in constant contact with operatives who were affiliated with three other entities. The aforementioned entities were believed to be handling a number of drone-related operations. Data obtained at later dates uncovered that the three operational bases and the training center work closely with each other under one leader.

Initial Modification and Maintenance

After obtaining commercial drones, ISIS moves them to a base close to Panorama Park in Raqqa. The facilities used to be the headquarters of the environment directorate in Raqqa (see map below). This base is in charge of initial modification and the maintenance of ISIS’ drones. It is noteworthy that the base is not exclusive to drone-related operations. It was reported that other electronic and mechanical operations are also carried out from that base. Some information regarding the names and nationalities of engineers and technicians who operate from that base was obtained by ICSVE. Their details are as follow:

  • A Jordanian national by the alias Abu Azam.
  • A Syrian national by the alias Abu Saad.
  • A Syrian national by the alias Abu Usama..

dronemap2

Map 2. Initial Modification and Maintenance Base (latitude, longitude: 35.9415194, 38.9928067)

IEDs and Weaponization

The entity that handles the initial modification of the drones works closely with another base. That base receives modified surveillance drones to weaponize them. This weaponization base’s key operation is to produce IEDs, be they airborne or otherwise. According to sources close to ISIS, a man by the name Umar (a.k.a. Abu al-Zubair) is in charge of this base. He is an Iraqi national from Diyala, Iraq. He was an Emni (security forces) operative before being reassigned to his current position. His second in command is a Moroccan national by the alias Abu Yazid. Umar and Abu Yazid commute using a black Jeep. Sources reported the address of this weaponization and IED development base (see map below). The weaponization of drones is carried out from the basement of that building. Engineers, technicians, and IED experts cooperate to equip drones with bombs. In late March 2017, sources reported that operatives working from that base tested a drone carrying an IED weighing almost 5 kilograms. However, this center does not store weaponized drones. All operational drones are sent to a storage and distribution center. Drones that malfunction or have defects are sent back to the modification and maintenance center.

dronemap3

Map 3. IEDs and Drones’ Weaponization Base (latitude, longitude: 35.9427865, 39.0200579)

Storage and Distribution

The storage and distribution center receives weaponized and surveillance drones from the former operational base. This entity also receives surveillance drones from the modification and maintenance center. The location of this base was reported in late March 2017 (see map below). Requests for combat drones from militant ISIS members are received by operatives managing storage and distribution. Combat and surveillance drones are provided.

dronemap4

Map 4. Storage and Distribution Base (latitude, longitude: 35.948772, 38.9979565)

to militants in areas of heavy fighting. In addition, this center cooperates with the training center to provide militants with trained members to operate surveillance or combat drones if needed. Moreover, this base handles the distribution of the drones within ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. A number of Europeans operate from base. Their details are as follow:

  • A British national by the alias Abu Jarir is the director of the base.
  • A French national by the name Muhammad Jalalia reports to the director of the base. He oversees operations related to the storage of the drones.
  • A Swedish national known as Islam reports to the director of the base. He is in charge of the distribution of the drones.

Leadership

In mid-April 2017, sources reported to ICSVE that the highest ranked ISIS operative who is in charge of their drone program is a militant by the name Muhammad Islam. He is in his thirties and holds a degree in information technology for a British University. Muhammad is a European citizen of Malaysian descent. This suggests that he does not have Malaysian citizenship as the Malaysian government does not allow dual citizenship. In ISIS’ ranks, Muhammad has the title of Emir that could refer to manager, director, or minister. He oversees drone-related operations. In late April 2017, ICSVE learned that a Syrian national by the name Yahia al-Abdullah was the second in command for Muhammad Islam, the Emir of ISIS’ drone program. Al-Abdullah was born in 1987. He holds a degree in software engineering from Aleppo University. Based on information obtained by ICSVE, the organizational structure that governs the operational interaction between members involved in ISIS’ drone program was inferred.

Recent Operations and Logistics

Information obtained from trusted sources indicates that in mid-April 2017, Muhammad Islam, the Emir of ISIS’ drone program, directly supervised a joint operation between the modification and maintenance center and the IED and weaponization center. Muhammad was overseeing the operations, started sometime before March 2017, to modify commercial drones to increase their operational time, distance and flying capabilities, and the IED load they could carry. The new design was modified for drones to be equipped with 6 small IEDs. Moreover, the modification and maintenance center was working on the inclusion of a solar panel on top of the drone body to further increase its operational life. The drones were also painted with a wax-like coating. Twenty-seven drones were reported to be subjected to this modification. They were all small drones; their diameter being less than 70 centimeters.

In late April 2017, the storage and distribution center received a number of drones matching the description of the drones that were undergoing modifications through the aforementioned joint operations. Each drone was equipped with a solar panel. Full motion, high resolution cameras were installed on the lower and middle sections of the drones’ bodies. However, no IEDs were installed. It is not clear whether the drones were only modified to carry out surveillance operations. It can be safely argued that those drones could be weaponized before being deployed to the battlefield. That said, that center also received drones of a different design in late April 2017. These drones were equipped with two small IEDs. The drones of this type were quickly distributed, only staying in the storage facilities for a few days. Drones that resemble the two above-described designs were seen in the training center slightly earlier than the documentation of them in the storage facilities. That suggests ISIS might have tested and trained its operatives using these drones.

In addition, sources reported to ICSVE that in early March 2017, the storage and distribution center shipped a number of surveillance and combat drones from Raqqa to the city of Mayadin, Deir ez-Zor. Those drones were carried using pickup trucks. This move corroborated an earlier report that argued an increasing significance of the city of Mayadin in the fight against ISIS [[52]].

Furthermore, as of early March 2017 ISIS’ agents were reported to have obtained commercial drones from Lebanon and then shipping them to ISIS held-territories in Syria. A recent study on tracking the supply of components used by ISIS showed that ISIS was able to obtain detonating cords and detonators through an intermediary, Maybel, based in Lebanon [[53]]. This corroborates the information received from ICSVE’s sources. Moreover, in late April 2017, it was reported that the Emir of ISIS’ drone program, Muhammad Islam, used his second in command, Yahia al-Abdullah, to procure commercial drones and electronics required by the modification and maintenance centers. Based on information obtained from trusted sources, the procurement is not exclusive to the needs of ISIS’ drone program. That said, ICSVE learned that ISIS trades antiquities and artifacts to pay for purchases made in Beirut, Lebanon. Al-Abdullah was reported to be a key operative in such dealings. The purchased products then get shipped to Homs, Syria. From there, ISIS agents smuggle them to Raqqa. To that end, extrapolating on information obtained by ICSVE, the procurement and logistics operations of ISIS drones program are illustrated in the following figure.

Conclusion

This report provides a brief review of ISIS’ use of drones. The review outlines the operations the terrorist organization has carried out using off-the-shelf commercial drones. Noticeably, ISIS’ capabilities and expertise in using drones in surveillance, command and control, and attacks have improved. It is noteworthy that in February 2017, ISIS’ use of drones and release of material documenting such employment had increased dramatically. It appears that ISIS is on the defeat in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS’ deployment of drones and disbursement of associated propaganda could have been to reinforce its brand as a terrorist organization and to do as much damage as possible while losing on the battleground. Through its recent propaganda ISIS claimed that its drones are eliciting fear and hysteria in its enemies. Moreover, the group is capitalizing on the technology and their employment of it, in claiming revenge, improving their credibility in the eyes of sympathizers, increasing the recruitment of new members, and positing drones as a cheap tool of terror to be used outside the Syrian and Iraqi theaters as well. Its sympathizers were called to use drones to inflict substantial damage and cause horror in civilian populations across Europe, the United States, and MENA. That turn of events is alarming and has multiple implications for national security.

Drones are increasingly being used by civilians in the public domain (e.g., taking aerial pictures and footage, mail delivery, etc.). This growing use of drones by the general public provides an opportunity for terrorist organizations to adapt methods they previously employed, which used other tools of terror such as delivery trucks, to drones. There seems to be a pattern in ISIS’ encouragement of using tools unlikely to raise an alert, when attacking civilian populations. For instance, the approach of ISIS’ new magazine, Rumiyah, towards the use of trucks as a tool of terror was justified in the following [[54]]:

“Though being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner” P. 10.

Modified and weaponized off-the-shelf commercial drones might present a less dangerous tool of terror for wannabe terrorists that prefer an alternative to suicide missions. Such uses could be hard to detect in urban settings, yet could lead to devastating aftermath if not intercepted. Compared to the delivery trucks, all this method requires is to get hold of instruction manuals that are available online, and ammunitions.

ISIS managed to disburse a large number of guides and instructions on the modification and weaponization of drones and ISIS-inspired lone wolves might be able to get hold of material required to produce IEDs through criminal networks [[55]]. Moreover, this new tool is likely to complicate the work of law enforcement agencies that are trying to prevent acts of terror. Giving that the use of drones for commercial and personal purposes is expected to increase in the future, policy makers may need to consider passing regulations. They could enact policies to restrict the sale of commercial drones without digital identification numbers. Police officers may then need to be equipped with the technology required to identify the number of operational drones. Such a numbering system could be linked to the identity of the operator. Police officers may need to be equipped with frequency jammers to down suspected drones although if they are loaded with explosives that is not always a good solution. Notwithstanding that the suggested measures might cause certain inconveniences for operators using drones for legitimate commercial and personal reasons, these measures are intended to allow law enforcement agencies to intercept and down drones that might target civilian populations.

This report used intelligence information that focused on operational bases, leadership, activities, procurement, and logistics. That knowledge, if confirmed, is expected to allow forces fighting ISIS to strategically disrupt and neutralize ISIS’ drone operations. An earlier report presented evidence indicating that ISIS is highly bureaucratic when it comes to its drones program [[56]]. Based on information obtained by ICSVE, ISIS’ bureaucracy regarding its drones program is task specific, systematic, and complex. The data shows a top to bottom organizational flow that pervades ISIS’s operations and upholds it’s “hear and obey” philosophy.[57] The Emir of ISIS’ drone program, Muhammad Islam, oversees the operation of four entities that are involved in the program. These entities are, namely, the centers for modification and maintenance, IEDs and weaponization, storage and distribution, and training. The centers were reported to cooperate in joint missions and to carry out task-specific operations.

Furthermore, this report provides some details on a number of individuals who are involved in the program. This includes the program’s top leader, his second in command, the directors of three out of the four centers, engineers, technicians, and operatives tasked with managerial functions. This endeavor also presented details on the interaction between operatives involved in the drones program. That glimpse allowed for the deduction of the organizational hierarchy of ISIS’ drone program.

Through the second in command, of the Emir of the program, Yahia al-Abdullah, the leadership of the four entities procures from Beirut drones and the materials required for modifying them. ISIS agents were reported to trade artifacts and antiquities to pay for the purchased products. Those products get smuggled to Homs, Syria by ISIS operatives. ISIS’ agents in Homs handle transporting the shipment of the products to Raqqa, Syria. Once the drones and technology required to modify it get to Raqqa, they get delivered to the modification and maintenance center. At most this center produces surveillance drones. It was reported that this center cooperated with the entity tasked with weaponizing the drones, the IED and weaponization center, to develop and improve ISIS combat drones. Commonly, the IED and weaponization center works on equipping the drones with airborne IEDs. The storage and distribution center receives surveillance drones from the entity in charge of modification and maintenance and combat drones from the one tasked with weaponizing them. ISIS militants submit forms requesting drones at the storage and distribution center. When needed, the storage and distribution center communicates with the drones’ training center to provide militants with operatives trained in using the drones. The training center also teaches militants who are assigned to drone-based tasks. Using that insight, ICSVE was able to infer the procurement and logistics involved in ISIS’ drone program.

Reference for this Report: Almohammad, Asaad & Speckhard, Anne (May 4, 2017) ISIS Drones: Evolution, Leadership, Bases, Operations and Logistics, ICSVE Research Reports http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/isis-drones-evolution-leadership-bases-operations-and-logistics/


 

[1] “Hezbollah says it has capability to bomb Israel from air,” Haaretz, Nov 12, 2004

[2] Eugene Miasnikov, “Terrorists Develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environment Studies at MIPT, Dec 2004, http://www.armscontrol.ru/uav/mirsad1.htm

[3] Hezbollah Mirsad-1 UAV Penetrates Israeli Air Defenses,” Defense Industry Daily, April 20, 2005.

[4] Yoav Zitun, “Watch: Hamas UAV that can reach Tel Aviv,” YNETNEWS, November 16, 2012, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4306887,00.html

[5] Lorenzo Francheschi-Bicchierai“Israel Shoots Down Hamas Drone,” Mashable, July 14, 2014, http://mashable.com/2014/07/14/israel-shoots-down-hamas-drone/#yAEFyiQgFgqs

[6] Yonah Jeremy Bob, “Islamic Jihad Member Convicted in Plea Bargain for Hacking IDF Drones,” Jerusalem Post, January 31, 2017, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Islamic-Jihad-member-convicted-in-plea-bargain-for-hacking-IDF-drones-480092

[7] Adiv Sterman, “Hezbollah drones wreak havoc on Syrian rebel bases,” Times of Israel, September 21, 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com/hezbollah-drones-wreak-havoc-on-syrian-rebel-bases/

[8] Rowan Scarborough, “How ISIS-controlled drones like this are striking new fear within the U.S. military,” The Washington Times, January 24, 2017, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/jan/24/isis-drone-dropping-precision-bombs-alarms-us-mili/

[9] Yasmin Tadjdeh, “Islamic State Militants in Syria Now Have Drone Capabilities,” National Defense Magazine, August 28, 2014

[10] https://vimeo.com/177453167

[11] Geoff Earle & Bruce Golding, “ISIS using surveillance drones to target Syrian military,” New York Post, August 26, 2014, http://nypost.com/2014/08/26/isis-using-surveillance-drones-to-target-syrian-military/

[12] For more on ShamiWitness see Channel 4, “ISIS propagandist ShamiWitness: Man charged in India,” June 1, 2015, https://www.channel4.com/news/isis-shami-witness-medhi-masroor-biswas-charged

[13] Kiran Moodley, “Isis releases drone footage of suicide bombings in Kobani,” Independent, December 11, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-release-drone-footage-of-suicide-bombings-in-kobani-9917198.html

[14] Justpaste.it/jnabi7

[15] Steven Stalinsky & R. Sosnow, “A Decade Of Jihadi Organizations’ Use Of Drones – From Early Experiments By Hizbullah, Hamas, And Al-Qaeda To Emerging National Security Crisis For The West As ISIS Launches First Attack Drones,” MEMRI, February 21, 2017, Inquiry & Analysis Series No.1300, https://www.memri.org/reports/decade-jihadi-organizations-use-drones-%E2%80%93-early-experiments-hizbullah-hamas-and-al-qaeda#_edn135

[16] Ralph Avellino & Gilad Shiloach, “Video: ISIS Uses Drones In Oil Refinery Assault,” vocative, Apr 17, 2015, http://www.vocativ.com/world/isis-2/isis-using-drones-in-iraq/

[17] Steven Stalinsky & R. Sosnow, “A Decade Of Jihadi Organizations’ Use Of Drones – From Early Experiments By Hizbullah, Hamas, And Al-Qaeda To Emerging National Security Crisis For The West As ISIS Launches First Attack Drones,” MEMRI, February 21, 2017, Inquiry & Analysis Series No.1300, https://www.memri.org/reports/decade-jihadi-organizations-use-drones-%E2%80%93-early-experiments-hizbullah-hamas-and-al-qaeda#_edn135

[18] Justpaste.it/pm4r

[19] Justpaste.it/q47o

[20]Shamikh1.biz/vb/showthread.php?t=253023,Ia601506.us.archive.org/35/items/azmulkumah2/azmulkumah2.mp4

[21]Shamikh1.biz/vb/showthread.php?t=253858.Ia801507.us.archive.org/19/items/BangazeeAlThbat2/bangazee%20al-thbat%202.mp4

[22] MEMRI Cyber & Jihad Lab, “ISIS Engineers And Scientists Collaborate On Projects In Telegram Channel,” March 21, 2016, http://cjlab.memri.org/lab-projects/tracking-jihadi-terrorist-use-of-social-media/isis-engineers-and-scientists-collaborate-on-projects-in-telegram-channel/

[23] Justpaste.it/u80v

[24] Steven Stalinsky & R. Sosnow, “A Decade Of Jihadi Organizations’ Use Of Drones – From Early Experiments By Hizbullah, Hamas, And Al-Qaeda To Emerging National Security Crisis For The West As ISIS Launches First Attack Drones,” MEMRI, February 21, 2017, Inquiry & Analysis Series No.1300, https://www.memri.org/reports/decade-jihadi-organizations-use-drones-%E2%80%93-early-experiments-hizbullah-hamas-and-al-qaeda#_edn135

[25] Elizabeth Mclaughlin, “New Video Shows Intense ISIS Battle That Killed a US Navy Seal,” ABC News, May 5, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/International/video-shows-intense-isis-battle-killed-us-navy/story?id=38896834

[26] Justpaste.it/ung5

[27] Bloomberg News, “Islamic State fighters using drones with IEDs and spy cameras, says Pentagon,” Telegraph, July 7, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/07/islamic-state-fighters-using-drones-with-ieds-and-spy-cameras-sa/

[28] MEMRI, “Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM) Weekend Summary,” MEMRI, Special Announcements No.486, https://www.memri.org/reports/jihad-and-terrorism-threat-monitor-jttm-weekend-summary-215

[29] AlALAM, “Iraqi Army Targets ISIS Drone near Mosul,” ALALAM, October 03, 2016, http://en.alalam.ir/news/1868370

[30] MEMRI, “ISIS Video Documents Group’s Military Response To Campaign To Retake Mosul, Promises Resilience And Victory,” Jihad & Terrorism Threat Monitor, November 13, 2016, https://www.memri.org/jttm/isis-video-documents-groups-military-response-campaign-retake-mosul-promises-resilience-and

[31] https://twitter.com/memrijttm/status/805404027198590980?lang=en, December 4, 2016

[32] Twitter.com/memrijttm/status/806811378543493121, December 8, 2016

[33] Justpaste.it/e_makhmor, posted December 8, 2016

[34] Justpaste.it/11iqe, December 19, 2016

[35] Multimedia, “IS Video Shows Several Suicide Bombings in Ninawa Recorded by Drones, Execution of Spy by Drowning,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 03 2017, https://ent.siteintelgroup.com/Multimedia/is-video-shows-several-suicide-bombings-in-ninawa-recorded-by-drones-execution-of-spy-by-drowning.html

[36] https://vimeo.com/200866575/29d47a4f02

[37] BCNet Staff, “ISIS Dropping Bombs with Drones in Iraq,” Boston Commons High Tech Network, March 2, 2017, http://bostoncommons.net/isis-dropping-bombs-with-drones-in-iraq/

[38] Steven Stalinsky & R. Sosnow, “A Decade Of Jihadi Organizations’ Use Of Drones – From Early Experiments By Hizbullah, Hamas, And Al-Qaeda To Emerging National Security Crisis For The West As ISIS Launches First Attack Drones,” MEMRI, February 21, 2017, Inquiry & Analysis Series No.1300, https://www.memri.org/reports/decade-jihadi-organizations-use-drones-%E2%80%93-early-experiments-hizbullah-hamas-and-al-qaeda#_edn135

[39] S02.justpaste.it/files/justpaste/d389/a14419344/9.jpg

[40] S04.justpaste.it/pdf/1396s-justpaste-it-647309.pdf

[41] S04.justpaste.it/pdf/137uq-justpaste-it-638825.pdf

[42] MEMRI, “Private Pro-ISIS Telegram Channel Promotes Use Of Weaponized Drones Against Targets In West,” Jihad & Terrorism Threat Monitor, February 16, 2017, https://www.memri.org/jttm/private-pro-isis-telegram-channel-promotes-use-weaponized-drones-against-targets-west

[43] MEMRI, “ISIS Video Features Drone Footage Of Martyrdom Operations, Including Ones Carried Out By An Iraqi Man Who Returned From Europe And Two Yazidi Children,” Jihad & Terrorism Threat Monitor, February 14, 2017, https://www.memri.org/jttm/isis-video-features-drone-footage-martyrdom-operations-including-ones-carried-out-iraqi-man-who

[44] Steven Stalinsky & R. Sosnow, “A Decade Of Jihadi Organizations’ Use Of Drones – From Early Experiments By Hizbullah, Hamas, And Al-Qaeda To Emerging National Security Crisis For The West As ISIS Launches First Attack Drones,” MEMRI, February 21, 2017, Inquiry & Analysis Series No.1300, https://www.memri.org/reports/decade-jihadi-organizations-use-drones-%E2%80%93-early-experiments-hizbullah-hamas-and-al-qaeda#_edn135

[45] https://player.vimeo.com/video/205103463

[46] Anthony Kimery, “Identity Of ISIS Drone Engineer, Plan To Improve Drones’ Ability To Carry Explosives,” Homeland Security Today, April 04, 2017, http://www.hstoday.us/single-article/identity-of-isis-drone-engineer-plan-to-improve-drones-ability-to-carry-explosives/ba7f425aa5de23cdc850dac0a72de0ec.html

[47] Ahmet S. Yayla & Anne Speckhard (Feb 28, 2017) The Potential Threats Posed by ISIS’s Use of Weaponized Air Drones and How to Fight Back. ICSVE Brief Reports http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/the-potential-threats-posed-by-isiss-use-of-weaponized-air-drones-and-how-to-fight-back/

[48] Tom O’Connor, “ISIS has no Air Force, but it has an Army of Drones that Drop Explosives,” NEWSWEEK, April 17, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/isis-air-force-army-drones-drop-bombs-585331

[49] Brendan Mcgarry, “Drone-Killing Gun Spotted at US Base in Iraq,” Defense Tech, July 26, 2016, https://www.defensetech.org/2016/07/26/drone-killing-gun-spotted-at-us-base-in-iraq/

[50] Ben Watson, “The Drones of ISIS,” Defense One, January 12, 2017, http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2017/01/drones-isis/134542/

[51] 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

[52] Almohammad, Asaad & Speckhard, Anne (April 3, 2017) Is ISIS Moving its Capital from Raqqa to Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor? ICSVE Brief Reports, http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/is-isis-moving-its-capital-from-raqqa-to-mayadin-in-deir-ez-zor/

[53] Conflict Armament Research, “Tracing the Supply of Components used in Islamic State IEDs: Evidence from a 20-month investigation in Iraq and Syria,” Conflict Armament Research Ltd., London, UK, February 2016, file:///C:/Users/Asaad/Downloads/Tracing_The_Supply_of_Components_Used_in_Islamic_State_IEDs.pdf

[54] Rumiyah, “Just Terror Tactics,” Rumiyah, Issue 3, 2017, http://qb5cc3pam3y2ad0tm1zxuhho-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Rumiyah-ISIS-Magazine-3rd-issue.pdf

[55] Ahmet S. Yayla & Anne Speckhard (Feb 28, 2017) The Potential Threats Posed by ISIS’s Use of Weaponized Air Drones and How to Fight Back. ICSVE Brief Reports http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/the-potential-threats-posed-by-isiss-use-of-weaponized-air-drones-and-how-to-fight-back/

[56] Don Rassler, Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, & Vera Mironova, “CTC Perspectives – The Islamic State’s Drone Documents: Management, Acquisitions, and DIY Tradecraft,” Combating Terrorism Center, January 31, 2017, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/ctc-perspectives-the-islamic-states-drone-documents-management-acquisitions-and-diy-tradecraft

[57] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

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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Intelligence

An Underdeveloped Discipline: Open-Source Intelligence and How It Can Better Assist the U.S. Intelligence Community

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Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) is defined by noted intelligence specialists Mark Lowenthal and Robert M. Clark as being, “information that is publicly available to anyone through legal means, including request, observation, or purchase, that is subsequently acquired, vetted, and analyzed in order to fulfill an intelligence requirement”. The U.S. Naval War College further defines OSINT as coming from, “print or electronic form including radio, television, newspapers, journals, the internet, and videos, graphics, and drawings”. Basically, OSINT is the collection of information from a variety of public sources, including social media profiles and accounts, television broadcasts, and internet searches.

Historically, OSINT has been utilized by the U.S. since the 1940s, when the United States created the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) which had the sole goal (until the 1990s) of, “primarily monitoring and translating foreign-press sources,” and contributing significantly during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was also during this time that the FBIS transformed itself from a purely interpretation agency into one that could adequately utilize the advances made by, “personal computing, large-capacity digital storage, capable search engines, and broadband communication networks”. In 2005, the FBIS was placed under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and renamed the Open Source Center, with control being given to the CIA.

OSINT compliments the other intelligence disciplines very well. Due to OSINT’s ability to be more in touch with public data (as opposed to information that is more gleaned from interrogations, interviews with defectors or captured enemies or from clandestine wiretaps and electronic intrusions), it allows policymakers and intelligence analysts the ability to see the wider picture of the information gleaned. In Lowenthal’s own book, he mentions how policymakers (including the Assistant Secretary of Defense and one of the former Directors of National Intelligence (DNI)) enjoyed looking at OSINT first and using it as a “starting point… [to fill] the outer edges of the jigsaw puzzle”.

Given the 21stcentury and the public’s increased reliance upon technology, there are also times when information can only be gleaned from open source intelligence methods. Because “Terrorist movements rely essentially on the use of open sources… to recruit and provide virtual training and conduct their operations using encryption techniques… OSINT can be valuable [in] providing fast coordination among officials at all levels without clearances”. Intelligence agencies could be able to outright avoid or, at a minimum, be able to prepare a defense or place forces and units on high alert for an imminent attack.

In a King’s College-London research paper discussing OSINT’s potential for the 21stcentury, the author notes, “OSINT sharing among intelligence services, non-government organizations and international organizations could shape timely and comprehensive responses [to international crises or regime changes in rogue states like Darfur or Burma],” as well as providing further information on a country’s new government or personnel in power. This has been exemplified best during the rise of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and during the 2011 Arab Spring and 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti. However, this does not mean that OSINT is a superior discipline than other forms such as SIGINT and HUMINT, as they are subject to limitations as well. According to the Federation of American Scientists, “Open source intelligence does have limitations. Often articles in military or scientific journals represent a theoretical or desired capability rather than an actual capability. Censorship may also limit the publication of key data needed to arrive at a full understanding of an adversary’s actions, or the press may be used as part of a conscious deception effort”.

There is also a limit to the effectiveness of OSINT within the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), not because it is technically limited, but limited by the desire of the IC to see OSINT as a full-fledged discipline. Robert Ashley and Neil Wiley, the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and a former Principal Executive within the ODNI respectively, covered this in a July article for DefenseOne, stating “…the production of OSINT is not regarded as a unique intelligence discipline but as research incident to all-source analysis or as a media production service… OSINT, on the other hand, remains a distributed activity that functions more like a collection of cottage industries. While OSINT has pockets of excellence, intelligence community OSINT production is largely initiative based, minimally integrated, and has little in the way of common guidance, standards, and tradecraft… The intelligence community must make OSINT a true intelligence discipline on par with the traditional functional disciplines, replete with leadership and authority that enables the OSINT enterprise to govern itself and establish a brand that instills faith and trust in open source information”. This apprehensiveness by the IC to OSINT capabilities has been well documented by other journalists.

Some contributors, including one writing for The Hill, has commented that “the use of artificial intelligence and rapid data analytics can mitigate these risks by tipping expert analysts on changes in key information, enabling the rapid identification of apparent “outliers” and pattern anomalies. Such human-machine teaming exploits the strengths of both and offers a path to understanding and even protocols for how trusted open-source intelligence can be created by employing traditional tradecraft of verifying and validating sourcing prior to making the intelligence insights available for broad consumption”. Many knowledgeable and experienced persons within the Intelligence Community, either coming from the uniformed intelligence services or civilian foreign intelligence agencies, recognize the need for better OSINT capabilities as a whole and have also suggested ways in which potential security risks or flaws can be avoided in making this discipline an even more effective piece of the intelligence gathering framework.

OSINT is incredibly beneficial for gathering information that cannot always be gathered through more commonly thought of espionage methods (e.g., HUMINT, SIGINT). The discipline allows for information on previously unknown players or new and developing events to become known and allows policymakers to be briefed more competently on a topic as well as providing analysts and operators a preliminary understanding of the region, the culture, the politics, and current nature of a developing or changing state. However, the greatest hurdle in making use of OSINT is in changing the culture and the way in which the discipline is currently seen by the U.S. Intelligence Community. This remains the biggest struggle in effectively coordinating and utilizing the intelligence discipline within various national security organizations.

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Online Radicalization in India

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Radicalization, is a gradual process of developing extremist beliefs, emotions, and behaviours at individual, group or mass public levels. Besides varied groups, it enjoys patronization, covertly and even overtly from some states. To elicit change in behavior, beliefs, ideology, and willingness, from the target-group, even employment of violent means is justified. Despite recording a declination in terror casualties, the 2019 edition of the Global Terrorism Index claims an increase in the number of terrorism-affected countries. With internet assuming a pivotal role in simplifying and revolutionizing the communication network and process, the change in peoples’ lives is evident. Notably, out of EU’s 84 %, daily internet using population, 81%, access it from home (Eurostat, 2012, RAND Paper pg xi). It signifies important changes in society and extremists elements, being its integral part, internet’ role, as a tool of radicalization, cannot be gainsaid. Following disruption of physical and geographical barriers, the radicalized groups are using the advancement in digital technology:  to propagate their ideologies; solicit funding; collecting informations; planning/coordinating terror attacks; establishing inter/intra-group communication-networks; recruitment, training and media propaganda to attain global attention.  

               Indian Context

In recent times, India has witnessed an exponential growth in radicalization-linked Incidents, which apparently belies the official figures of approximate 80-100 cases. The radicalization threat to India is not only from homegrown groups but from cross-border groups of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as global groups like IS. Significantly, Indian radicalized groups are exploiting domestic grievances and their success to an extent, can mainly be attributed to support from Pakistani state, Jihadist groups from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Gulf-employment boom for Indian Muslims has also facilitated radicalization, including online, of Indian Muslims. A close look at the modus operandi of these attacks reveals the involvement of local or ‘homegrown’ terrorists. AQIS formed (2016) ‘Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’ in Kashmir with a media wing ‘al-Hurr’.

IS announced its foray into Kashmir in 2016 as part of its Khorasan branch. In December 2017 IS in its Telegram channel used hashtag ‘Wilayat Kashmir’ wherein Kashmiri militants stated their allegiance with IS. IS’ online English Magazine ‘Dabiq’ (Jan. 2016) claimed training of fighters in Bangladesh and Pakistan for attacks from western and Eastern borders into India.Though there are isolated cases of ISIS influence in India, the trend is on the rise. Presently, ISIS and its offshoots through online process are engaged in spreading bases in 12 Indian states. Apart from southern states like Telangana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu — where the Iran and Syria-based terrorist outfit penetrated years ago — investigating agencies have found their links in states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir as well. The Sunni jihadists’ group is now “most active” in these states across the country.

               Undermining Indian Threat

Significantly, undermining the radicalization issue, a section of intelligentsia citing lesser number of Indian Muslims joining al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Syria and Middle East, argue that Indian Muslim community does not support radicalism-linked violence unlike regional/Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Maldives. They underscore the negligible number of Indian Muslims, outside J&K, who supports separatist movements. Additionally, al- Qaeda and IS who follows the ‘Salafi-Wahabi’ ideological movement, vehemently oppose ‘Hanafi school’ of Sunni Islam, followed by Indian Muslims. Moreover, Indian Muslims follows a moderate version even being followers of the Sunni Ahle-Hadeeth (the broader ideology from which Salafi-Wahhabi movement emanates). This doctrinal difference led to the failure of Wahhabi groups online propaganda.  

               Radicalisation Strategies/methods: Indian vs global players

India is already confronting the online jihadist radicalization of global jihadist organisations, including al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), formed in September 2014 and Islamic State (IS). However, several indigenous and regional groups such as Indian Mujahideen (IM), JeM, LeT, the Taliban and other online vernacular publications, including Pakistan’s Urdu newspaper ‘Al-Qalam’, also play their role in online radicalisation.

Indian jihadist groups use a variety of social media apps, best suited for their goals. Separatists and extremists in Kashmir, for coordination and communication, simply create WhatsApp groups and communicate the date, time and place for carrying out mass protests or stone pelting. Pakistan-based terror groups instead of online learning of Islam consider it mandatory that a Muslim radical follows a revered religious cleric. They select people manually to verify their background instead of online correspondence. Only after their induction, they communicate online with him. However, the IS, in the backdrop of recent defeats, unlike Kashmiri separatist groups and Pak-based jihadist mercenaries, runs its global movement entirely online through magazines and pamphlets. The al-Qaeda’s you tube channels ‘Ansar AQIS’ and ‘Al Firdaws’, once having over 25,000 subscriptions, are now banned. Its online magazines are Nawai Afghan and Statements are in Urdu, English, Arabic, Bangla and Tamil. Its blocked Twitter accounts, ‘Ansarul Islam’ and ‘Abna_ul_Islam_media’, had a following of over 1,300 while its Telegram accounts are believed to have over 500 members.

               Adoption of online platforms and technology

Initially, Kashmir based ‘Jaish-E-Mohammad’ (JeM) distributed audio cassettes of Masood Azhar’s speeches across India but it joined Internet platform during the year 2003–04 and started circulating downloadable materials through anonymous links and emails. Subsequently, it started its weekly e-newspaper, Al-Qalam, followed by a chat group on Yahoo. Importantly, following enhanced international pressure on Pak government after 26/11, to act against terrorist groups, JeM gradually shifted from mainstream online platform to social media sites, blogs and forums.   

 Indian Mujahideen’s splinter group ‘Ansar-ul-Tawhid’ the first officially affiliated terror group to the ISIS tried to maintain its presence on ‘Skype’, ‘WeChat’ and ‘JustPaste’. IS and its affiliates emerged as the most tech-savvy jihadist group. They took several measures to generate new accounts after repeated suspension of their accounts by governments.  An account called as ‘Baqiya Shoutout’ was one such measure. It stressed upon efforts to re-establish their network of followers through ‘reverse shout-out’ instead of opening a new account easily.

Pakistan-backed terrorist groups in India are increasingly becoming  technology savvy. For instance, LeT before carrying out terrorist attacks in 2008 in Mumbai, used Google Earth to understand the targeted locations.

IS members have been following strict security measures like keeping off their Global Positioning System (GPS) locations and use virtual private network (VPN),  to maintain anonymity. Earlier they were downloading Hola VPN or a similar programme from a mobile device or Web browser to select an Internet Protocol (IP) address for a country outside the US, and bypass email or phone verification.

Rise of radicalization in southern India

Southern states of India have witnessed a rise in  radicalization activities during the past 1-2 years. A substantial number of Diaspora in the Gulf countries belongs to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Several Indian Muslims in Gulf countries have fallen prey to radicalization due to the ultra-conservative forms of Islam or their remittances have been misused to spread radical thoughts. One Shafi Armar@ Yusuf-al-Hindi from Karnataka emerged as the main online IS recruiter for India.  It is evident in the number of raids and arrests made in the region particularly after the Easter bomb attacks (April, 21, 2019) in Sri Lanka. The perpetrators were suspected to have been indoctrinated, radicalised and trained in the Tamil Nadu. Further probe revealed that the mastermind of the attacks, Zahran Hashim had travelled to India and maintained virtual links with radicalised youth in South India. Importantly, IS, while claiming responsibility for the attacks, issued statements not only in English and Arabic but also in South Indian languages viz. Malayalam and Tamil. It proved the existence of individuals fluent in South Indian languages in IS linked groups in the region. Similarly, AQIS’ affiliate in South India ‘Base Movement’ issued several threatening letters to media publications for insulting Islam.

IS is trying to recruit people from rural India by circulating the online material in vernacular languages. It is distributing material in numerous languages, including Malayalam and Tamil, which Al Qaeda were previously ignoring in favour of Urdu. IS-linked Keralite followers in their propaganda, cited radical pro-Hindutva, organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) and other right-wing Hindu organisations to motivate youth for joining the IS.  Similarly, Anti-Muslim incidents such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 are still being used to fuel their propaganda. IS sympathisers also support the need to oppose Hindu Deities to gather support.

               Radicalization: Similarities/Distinctions in North and South

Despite few similarities, the radicalisation process in J&K is somewhat different from the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Gujarat. Both the regions have witnessed a planned radicalization process through Internet/social media for propagating extremist ideologies and subverting the vulnerable youth. Both the areas faced the hard-line Salafi/Wahhabi ideology, propagated by the extremist Islamic clerics and madrasas indulged in manipulating the religion of Islam. Hence, in this context it can be aptly claimed that terror activities in India have cooperation of elements from both the regions, despite their distinct means and objectives. Elements from both regions to an extent sympathise to the cause of bringing India under the Sharia Law. Hence, the possibility of cooperation in such elements cannot be ruled out particularly in facilitation of logistics, ammunitions and other requisite equipment.

It is pertinent to note that while radicalisation in Jammu and Kashmir is directly linked to the proxy-war, sponsored by the Pakistan state, the growth of radicalisation in West and South India owes its roots to the spread of IS ideology, promotion of Sharia rule and establishment of Caliphate. Precisely for this reason, while radicalised local Kashmiris unite to join Pakistan-backed terror groups to fight for ‘Azadi’ or other fabricated local issues, the locals in south rather remain isolated cases.

               Impact of Radicalisation

The impact of global jihad on radicalization is quite visible in West and South India. Majority of the radicalised people, arrested in West and South India, were in fact proceeding to to join IS in Syria and Iraq. It included the group of 22 people from a Kerala’s family, who travelled (June 2016) to Afghanistan via Iran. There obvious motivation was to migrate from Dar-ul-Harb (house of war) to Dar-ul-Islam (house of peace/Islam/Deen).

While comparing the ground impact of radicalization in terms of number of cases of local militants in J&K as well as IS sympathisers in West and South India, it becomes clear that radicalisation was spread more in J&K, owing to Pak-sponsored logistical and financial support. Significantly, despite hosting the third largest Muslim population, the number of Indian sympathisers to terror outfits, particularly in West and South India is very small as compared to the western countries. Main reasons attributed to this, include – religious and cultural pluralism; traditionally practice of moderate Islamic belief-systems; progressive educational and economic standards; and equal socio-economic and political safeguards for the Indian Muslims in the Indian Constitution.

               Challenges Ahead

Apart from varied challenges, including Pak-sponsored anti-India activities, regional, local and political challenges, media wings of global jihadi outfits continue to pose further challenges to Indian security agencies. While IS through its media wing, ‘Al Isabah’ has been circulating (through social media sites) Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s speeches and videos after translating them into Urdu, Hindi, and Tamil for Indian youth (Rajkumar 2015), AQIS too have been using its media wing for the very purpose through its offshoots in India.  Some of the challenges, inter alia include –

Islam/Cleric Factor Clerics continue to play a crucial role in influencing the minds of Muslim youth by exploiting the religion of Islam. A majority of 127 arrested IS sympathizers from across India recently revealed that they were following speeches of controversial Indian preacher Zakir Naik of Islamic Research Foundation (IRF). Zakir has taken refuge in Malaysia because of warrants against him by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for alleged money laundering and inciting extremism through hate speeches. A Perpetrator of Dhaka bomb blasts in July 2016 that killed several people confessed that he was influenced by Naik’s messages. Earlier, IRF had organised ‘peace conferences’ in Mumbai between 2007 and 2011 in which Zakir attempted to convert people and incite terrorist acts. Thus, clerics and preachers who sbverts the Muslim minds towards extremism, remain a challenge for India.

Propaganda Machinery – The online uploading of young militant photographs, flaunting Kalashnikov rifles became the popular means of declaration of youth intent against government forces. Their narrative of “us versus them” narrative is clearly communicated, creating groundswell of support for terrorism.In its second edition (March 2020) of its propaganda magazine ‘Sawt al-Hind’ (Voice of Hind/India) IS, citing an old propaganda message from a deceased (2018) Kashmiri IS terrorist, Abu Hamza al-Kashmiri @ Abdul Rehman, called upon Taliban apostates and fighters to defect to IS.  In the first edition (Feb. 2020) the magazine, eulogized Huzaifa al-Bakistani (killed in 2019), asking Indian Muslims to rally to IS in the name of Islam in the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi riots. Meanwhile, a Muslim couple arrested by Delhi Police for inciting anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment) Bill protests, were found very active on social media. They would call Indian Muslims to unite against the Indian government against the CAA legislation. During 2017 Kashmir unrest, National Investigation Agency (NIA) identified 79 WhatsApp groups (with administrators based in Pakistan), having 6,386 phone numbers, to crowd source boys for stone pelting. Of these, around 1,000 numbers were found active in Pakistan and Gulf nations and the remaining 5,386 numbers were found active in Kashmir Valley.

Deep fakes/Fake news – Another challenge for India is spread of misinformation and disinformation through deep fakes by Pakistan. Usage of deepfakes, in manipulating the speeches of local political leaders to spread hate among the youth and society was done to large extent.

India’s Counter Measures

To prevent youth straying towards extremism, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has established a Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Radicalisation Division (CT-CR) to help states, security agencies and communities.

Various states, including Kerala, Maharashtra and Telangana have set up their own de-radicalisation programmes.  While in Maharashtra family and community plays an important role, in Kerala clerics cleanse the poisoned  minds of youth with a new narrative. A holistic programme for community outreach including healthcare, clergies and financial stability is being employed by the Indian armed forces. An operation in Kerala named Kerala state police’ ‘Operation Pigeon’ succeeded in thwarting radicalization of 350 youths to the propaganda of organizations such as Islamic State, Indian Mujahideen (IM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) via social media monitoring. In Telangana, outreach programs have been developed by local officers like Rema Rajeshwari to fight the menace of fake news in around 400 villages of the state.

In Kashmir the government resorts to internet curfews to control the e-jihad. While state-owned BNSL network, used by the administration and security forces, remains operational 3G and 4G networks and social media apps remain suspended during internet curfews.

Prognosis

India certainly needs a strong national counter- Radicalisation policy which would factor in a range of factors than jobs, poverty or education because radicalization in fact has affected even well educated, rich and prosperous families. Instead of focusing on IS returnees from abroad, the policy must take care of those who never travelled abroad but still remain a potential threat due to their vulnerability to radicalization.

Of course, India would be better served if deep fakes/fake news and online propaganda is effectively countered digitally as well as through social awakening measures and on ground action by the government agencies. It is imperative that the major stakeholders i.e. government, educational institutions, civil society organisations, media and intellectuals play a pro-active role in pushing their narrative amongst youth and society. The focus should apparently be on prevention rather than controlling the radicalisation narrative of the vested interests.

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Intelligence

Is Deterrence in Cyberspace Possible?

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Soon after the Internet was founded, half of the world’s population (16 million) in 1996 had been connected to Internet data traffic. Gradually, the Internet began to grow and with more users, it contributed to the 4 trillion global economies in 2016 (Nye, 2016). Today, high-speed Internet, cutting-edge technologies and gadgets, and increasing cross-border Internet data traffic are considered an element of globalization. Deterrence seems traditional and obsolete strategy, but the developed countries rely on cyberspace domains to remain in the global digitization. No matter how advanced they are, there still exist vulnerabilities. There are modern problems in the modern world. Such reliance on the Internet also threatens to blow up the dynamics of international insecurity. To understand and explore the topic it is a must for one to understand what cyberspace and deterrence are? According to Oxford dictionary;

 “Cyberspace is the internet considered as an imaginary space without a physical location in which communication over computer networks takes place (OXFORD University Press)”

For readers to understand the term ‘deterrence’; Collins dictionary has best explained it as;

“Deterrence is the prevention of something, especially war or crime, by having something such as weapons or punishment to use as a threat e.g. Nuclear Weapons (Deterrence Definition and Meaning | Collins English Dictionary).

The purpose of referring to the definition is to make it easy to discern and distinguish between deterrence in International Relations (IR) and International Cyber Security (ICS). Deterrence in cyberspace is different and difficult than that of during the Cold War. The topic of deterrence was important during Cold Wat for both politicians and academia. The context in both dimensions (IR and ICS) is similar and aims to prevent from happening something. Cyberspace deterrence refers to preventing crime and I completely agree with the fact that deterrence is possible in Cyberspace. Fischer (2019) quotes the study of (Quinlan, 2004) that there is no state that can be undeterrable.

To begin with, cyber threats are looming in different sectors inclusive of espionage, disruption of the democratic process and sabotaging the political arena, and war. Whereas international law is still unclear about these sectors as to which category they fall in. I would validate my affirmation (that deterrence is possible in Cyberspace) with the given network attacks listed by Pentagon (Fung, 2013). Millions of cyber-attacks are reported on a daily basis. The Pentagon reported 10 million cyberspace intrusions, most of which are disruptive, costly, and annoying. The level of severity rises to such a critical level that it is considered a threat to national security, so professional strategic assistance is needed to deal with it[1]. The past events show a perpetual threat that has the ability to interrupt societies, economies, and government functioning.

The cyberspace attacks were administered and portrayal of deterrence had been publicized as follows (Fung, 2013);

  1. The internet service was in a continuous disruption for several weeks after a dispute with Russia in 2007.
  2. Georgian defense communications were interrupted in 2008 after the Russian invasion of Georgia.   
  3. More than 1000 centrifuges in Iran were destroyed via the STUXNET virus in 2010. The attacks were attributed to Israel and the United States of America.
  4. In response to STUXNET virus attacks, Iran also launched a retaliatory attack on U.S financial institutions in 2012 and 2013.
  5. Similarly in 2012, some 30,000 computers had been destroyed with a virus called SHAMOON in Saudi Aramco Corporation. Iran was held responsible for these attacks.
  6. North Korea was accused of penetrating South Korean data and machines in 2014, thus interrupting their networks in 2014.
  7. A hybrid war was reported between Russia and Ukraine in 2015 that left Ukraine without electricity for almost six hours.
  8. Most critical scandal, which is still in the limelight call WikiLeaks released distressing and humiliating emails by Russian Intelligence at the time of the U.S presidential campaigns in 2016.

While such incidents may be considered a failure of deterrence, this does not mean that deterrence is impossible. Every system has some flaws that are exposed at some point. At this point, in some cases a relatively low level of deterrence was used to threaten national security, however, the attacks were quite minor in fulfilling the theme affecting national security. Nye (2016:51) in his study talks about the audience whose attribution could facilitate deterrence. (I). intelligence agencies should make sure highest safeguarding against escalation by third parties, and governments can also be certain and count on intelligence agencies’ sources. (II). the deterring party should not be taken easy, as I stated (above) about the lingering loopholes and flaws in the systems, hence, governments shall not perceive the intelligence forsaken.  (III). lastly, it is a political matter whether international and domestic audiences need to be persuaded or not, and what chunk of information should be disclosed.

The mechanisms which are used and helpful against cyberspace adversary actions are as follows (Fischer, 2019);

  1. Deterrence by denial means, the actions by the adversary are denied that they failed to succeed in their goals and objectives. It is more like retaliating a cyberattack.
  2. Threat of punishment offers severe outcomes in form of penalties and inflicting high costs on the attacker that would outweigh the anticipated benefits if the attack takes place.
  3. Deterrence by Entanglement has the features and works on a principle of shared, interconnected, and dependent vulnerabilities. The purpose of entanglement is to embolden and reassure the behavior as a responsible state with mutual interests.
  4. Normative taboos function with strong values and norms, wherein the reputation of an aggressor is at stake besides having a soft image in the eyes of the international community (this phenomenon includes rational factors because hard power is used against the weaker state). The deterrence of the international system works even without having any credible resilience.

Apparently, the mechanisms of deterrence are also effective in cyber realms. These realms are self-explaining the comprehensive understanding and the possibility of deterrence in cyberspace. The four mechanisms (denial, punishment, entanglement, and normative taboos) are also feasible to apply deterrence in the cyber world. Factually, of many security strategies, cyber deterrence by using four domains could be a versatile possibility. Conclusively, as far as the world is advancing in technological innovations, cyberspace intrusions would not stop alike the topic of deterrence in the digital world.


[1] An updated list of cyberspace intrusions from 2003 till 2021 is available at (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2021).

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