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Confronting an ISIS Emir: ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Videos

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] M [/yt_dropcap]ost experts agree that the most successful counter-messaging campaigns against ISIS are the ones that utilize the voices of insiders: the voices of ISIS victims and ISIS cadres themselves who have first-hand knowledge of the group’s brutality, corruption, religious manipulation, and deception.

In this regard, we at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) have spent the last two years interviewing ISIS defectors, ISIS prisoners, and returnees from the Syrian and the Iraq conflict in Western Europe, Turkey, Iraq, Central Asia, and the Balkans. Their stories are captured on video and edited down to short clips, interspersed with actual ISIS video footage and pictures, illustrating their stories to turn back against ISIS.

Using formers to talk back to terrorism is a well-established practice. Mubin Shaikh is a good example of someone who nearly joined al-Qaeda and imbibed deeply of the jihadist ideology before turning away and infiltrating a Canadian terrorist cell to help take it down.[1] Usama Hasan, a former radical Salafi extremist and mujahidin in the Afghan jihad against the country’s communist government in the early 90s, is another example of someone who has turned against Salafi-jihadi ideology and is dedicated to fighting violent extremism in the United Kingdom. [2]

Using formers is rife with problems, however. Those returned from ISIS were often psychologically unhealthy before they joined and are deeply traumatized upon their return. Some do not want to speak about their experiences while others fear retribution from ISIS if they speak out against the group. Some of them fear further prosecution and social stigma. Others are unstable, reverse their positions frequently, or are not good role models. Often, they are not easily accessible and reachable.

In April of 2017, we spoke to an ISIS “emir” (high in military command) in a prison in Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and wearing a black mask over his face, Abu Islam is brought into the faux wood-paneled room of the Special Forces Security compound in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. His hands are cuffed and feet shackled together.

There are five of us in the room: me, Ardian, Alice, a Kurdish handler, and our Peshmerga interpreter, Alaz.[3] I am seated at the front corner of the desk with my laptop unfolded. Ardian is seated to my side. Alice and our handler sit behind the desk. Alaz takes the hooded Abu Islam from the prison guards and guides him gently to the center chair in front of the desk next to me, where he gently lifts the mask from his face as he takes his seat as well. Abu Islam’s dark, wavy hair and medium length curly beard and burning brown eyes are revealed as his eyes dart quickly around the room taking everyone in. His dark eyes focus briefly on me, burning momentarily into mine and then dart back again to Alaz, as he waits to begin. They know each other. Alaz has already repeatedly interrogated him.

Only in his mid-twenties, Abu Islam has been heavily hunted for two years by the Peshmerga forces who credit him with running a network of cells of suicide bombers, sending some as young as twelve to explode themselves in suicide missions. He is credited with either directly or indirectly organizing attacks that killed over 250 victims, although some of the high-ranking Peshmerga counterterrorism officials we spoke to believe that number to be at 500. “He’s a guy we chased for more than two years,” stated the head of Kurdistan’s Zanyari intelligence service in a recent interview with journalist Robin Wright. “To pick him up and realize that we finally got him, it was a big catch for us,” he explained. [4]

Born as Mazan Nazhan Ahmed al-Obeidi, Abu Islam is the second oldest in his family. He is the oldest male and has eight siblings. His father served in Saddam’s army. He describes his childhood as both “safe” and “nice.” Growing up in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, Iraq, Abu Islam first finished high school and then pursued university studies in shariah (Islamic law) at the local university. With only one year left to go before graduation, in 2014 Abu Islam abruptly left his studies to join the so-called “Islamic State.”

“I wasn’t Salafi growing up,” Abu Islam explains. The legs of his orange jumpsuit are rolled up to mid-calf—Salafi style—to match the dress worn by the Companions of the Prophet Muhammed. He is also bearded. “I got that mentality in university when I read the book Tawhid by Wahhab. It convinced me,” he adds.

Abu Islam is referring to Kitab at-Tawhid (The Book of the Unity of God) by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century Saudi religious reformer who worked to purify Islam by turning back to following the original practices of the Prophet and his Companions. The violent followers of Wahhab, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, interpret his teachings to justify killing those who do not follow their strict interpretation of Islam. ISIS, and groups like ISIS, practice of Takfir—that is, an extreme extension of Wahhabi-Salafi doctrine that sanctions violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims who are deemed as infidels (non-believers). This is the type of Islam and ideology that Abu Islam had already embraced in his university studies, thus he was ready for ISIS when they came to Iraq and established their so-called Islamic State.

“I got into the brotherhood at the mosque,” Abu Islam explains. “They were against Islamic State, but for me I saw that the Islamic State was living by shariah law. They were throwing homosexual people from high buildings. If you steal, they cut your hand. They are really living it.”

When asked where he saw this, Abu Islam answers, “It was on social media, YouTube. It made sense for me. I watched a lot of their videos.” As we listen to him speak, we become aware of ISIS’ powerful online presence and online propaganda machine that recruits youth via the Internet here in Iraq as well. Even in Iraq, ISIS propaganda videos reached a university student, persuading him of their righteousness, “I was convinced and made up my mind.”

“They were on the streets also. They had a territory twice the size of Great Britain. At the time I joined, I was 22 or 23. A lot of my relatives were in the area they [ISIS] took over, and some of my cousins and family members were already in [ISIS]. It was easy to join. I got a recommendation,” Abu Islam explains, referring to the ISIS practice of trusting their potential recruits based on the recommendation of another ISIS member. “They knew I don’t drink or smoke and that I’m a shariah student. That made my CV look really good,” he explains while smiling enthusiastically.

“I didn’t take shariah training,” Abu Islam answers proudly when asked about ISIS’ known practice of putting new recruits through two weeks of sharia training to learn the basics of Islam as they preach it and to take on their “hear and obey” philosophy.[5] “I became the teacher because of my background,” he continues. He also bypassed military training since they needed shariah teachers to train the others, “They didn’t teach me weapons. In the beginning, they asked me if I knew how to use an AK, and of course, I did.” The knowledge of assault rifles is common among Iraqis, notes our Peshmerga interpreter.

“I gave lessons in shariah.” This is how Abu Islam initially describes his role in the Islamic State.

Compared to Syria, it appears there are not large camps for the Cubs of the Caliphate in Iraq, where hundreds of youth are gathered, trained, and taught to fight—with some being trained and prepared to become suicide bombers—after they graduate.[6] In Iraq, it seems the Cubs are gathered into smaller groups. Individuals like Abu Islam appear to serve as their itinerate preachers, traveling from one group to another.

“Sometimes there were four to five or six to seven [individuals]. It depended. I’d go to the villages and teach them. I moved from place to place to give shariah lessons,” Abu Islam explains. “It was mostly fiqh [Principles and understanding of Islamic practices]. How to pray properly. How to fast. How to help other Muslims, how to pay zakat [obligatory charity], and about the Islamic State.”

In Syria, ISIS defectors interviewed in our ISIS Defectors Interview Project described their shariah trainers as “shining charismatics” and were heartened by learning “true Islam” from them.[7] I ask if the Iraqis already knew their religion or were also gladdened by these teachings. His answer, “They didn’t know the right way. We taught them the right ways. We talked about what it could [Islamic State] be. Hopefully, we’ll expand our territory. According to our beliefs, we can’t say we are definitely doing it. Instead, we say, inshallah [by God’s will] we will expand our territory. Open the walls. Take down Europe.”

Abu Islam tells us that there were “young fighters from foreign places,” in his classes, but “they didn’t understand much Arabic,” which reminds us of an Albanian I interviewed in Kosovo who also recalled taking ISIS shariah training in Arabic—it all went over his head.

We are in Iraq this trip having just spoken at the Prime Minister’s conference titled, “Education in Iraq Post Daesh-ISIL Territory.” The conference brought together both local and international experts to address the issue of the 250,000-500,000 youth that the government of Iraq estimates lived and served under ISIS over the past three years in the Nineveh and the Mosul regions of Iraq. Universities were closed under ISIS. Libraries were burnt to the ground. Textbooks, even for the very young, were replaced by texts that taught them how to behead and indoctrinated them from the earliest of ages into Islamic State’s barbarity and refusal to recognize anyone else’s views as legitimate but their own. At the conference, we viewed the exhibit of some of these captured ISIS textbooks. Picking them up and handling them gave each of us a chill down the spine—touching the same books ISIS cadres had handed out to children under their control.

The schools in the area continued to run even when ISIS took over, Abu Islam explains, adding, “They used to study English. It was good for us—knowing English—but we denied books that we didn’t like. After a while, we denied all the existing books. We changed all the books over to our mentality.”

“How did you talk to the kids who are going on suicide missions?” I ask, going back to his role as a shariah trainer. “What did you teach them to persuade them to go on suicide missions?” I ask, already knowing from our interviews with Syrian ISIS defectors that ISIS leaders fill the children’s minds with bright visions of Paradise and promise them they will feel pain when they push the button to explode themselves—that they go instantly to Paradise. The feint-hearted ones are even offered a sedative, and in many cases, the youngest do not even realize they are about to die. All this I already know from our Syrian defector interviews.[8]

“We used to tell them,” Abu Islam begins but then quickly detours into denial. “It was not my job exactly.” He hesitates and then continues, “Study and learn your future. We want to expand our territories and put shariah over the whole earth. Most of the time they came as volunteers, self- motivated.” Remembering how the kids chose themselves as “martyrs,” he gains confidence again, “They have read the book. We make the way for them. We never told anyone they have to go. It’s voluntary. It’s never forced. I didn’t see anyone forced, ever.”

So, when you prepared young children to take “martyrdom” missions—driving explosive-laden cars or wearing vests into enemy lines or checkpoints—what did you teach them? How did you prepare them?” I ask, having already learned from Peshmerga counterterrorism officials that he sent them as young as 12-years-old on suicide missions.

Abu Islam exudes disagreement with how the question was asked and explains that ISIS never takes children into its ranks: “In Iraq, you have to be 18 to sign up for the Army. We [ISIS] don’t have any age limit. Instead we believe that when a man’s semen develops, then he’s considered a grown-up man. We only take them when they get to that point. They were never children. They were men.”

Cynical about how he answered the question, I further probe: “How old were these men according to your criteria?”

“A fully-grown man has to have his semen,” Abu Islam reiterates. “This is according to sharia.” The translator interjects by explaining that, according to Abu Islam’s definition, a young boy who begins with wet dreams is already a man ready for battle and mature enough to sign his life over for a “martyrdom” mission.

While Abu Islam denies there was any pressure in ISIS for children to become “martyrs,” we know from ISIS defector interviews that in the Syrian training camps youth are heavily pressured into driving explosive-laden cars into enemy lines and lied to about the painfulness of their deaths—sometimes failing to even tell them their mission involves death. “There is an office. If anyone volunteers… ‘I want to my give my bayat [pledge] then he signs up for a martyrdom mission at the same time. It’s like a regular recruiting process, ”Abu Islam explains.

He is further asked about the training camps and how they have a steady stream of explosive-rigged cars being made to put the children in and send them to their deaths at checkpoints and the frontlines.

“There is a training camp they take them to and teach then how to set up and use these cars,” he explains. “It’s a regular camp they tell them…” he hesitates again. “The car manufacturing is in a different place,” he detours.

“But what do they tell these children?” I push.

“They instruct them. They know what will happen. They’re happy. It’s like a kid on Christmas. You know how happy they are? Calmly happy, knowing something good is going to happen,” Abu Islam explains as we realize he truly embraces this sickness.

“Is there any ritual to go with this?” I further ask, wondering exactly how they send a kid off to his horrific death.

“They [the ISIS senders] have a list of serial numbers and names. If I’m set to go next, then I’m next. If something changes the order and they aren’t sent, they start crying. If they are the next one, they actually cry and get angry, and even complain, ‘My name is set to go!’ I’ve seen this with my own eyes,” Abu Islam explains, as his eyes appear to shine in admiration for their zeal.

“What happens right before you go?” I ask again.

“There is nothing special they do.”

“Pray? Wash? Celebrate? Make a video?” I press as in the past I have sat with relatives of bombers who have seen the videos of their children wrapped up in explosive vests or jammed into explosive-laden vehicles, with some crying and others seemingly jubilant about going as “martyrs.”

“There is nothing special. They wash up to be clean. Everyone prays. Everyone says goodbye. There are tears of joy. We make a video,” he admits but again adds a denial, which is possibly self-protective given he is in prison and does not want to incriminate himself. “I didn’t make the videos. I sent them to Kirkuk,” he explains.

“Do they receive a sedative?”

“No sedative, ever.”

“What’s the usual way to go? Car or belt?”

“Both,” he answers. “They wear the belt wear in the car just in case one goes down,” he adds.

“What are their instructions?” I further ask. “Kill as many as possible?”

“Yes.”

“Any special conditions? What if there are women and children at a checkpoint?” I probe.

“In the front line, everyone is an enemy. Everyone is a target,” Abu Islam intones, but quickly adds, “In cities, we tell them to try avoid targeting the markets and civilians, and they have specific targets—military and government targets.”

“And you?” I ask about his recent arrest in which he was wearing, but did not detonate, his suicide vest. “I didn’t sign up to be one. I did fight.” He goes on to say that he has fought in all three ISIS tactical military formations, including in the very front line where the fighters go in wearing vests and “martyr” themselves if overtaken, killing everyone around them to avoid capture. He was never one of those cadres, yet he states, “I always had my suicide belt on. We jump into the [Peshmerga] helicopters and explode ourselves. There is no surrender. No surrender. Just push the button.”

“But you did surrender?” I press. “You wore the belt. Did you have it in your mind, when captured?”

“You didn’t have time to detonate or didn’t want to do it?” inquires Alaz, our Peshmerga translator, while explaining to us how he never had the chance to ask him this question and would like to know the answer as well.

“I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live, so I didn’t do it,” Abu Islam states matter-of-factly, despite the fact that he has sent plenty of others to do just that. “I wanted to finish the project, spreading sharia,” he adds.

“Were you scared?” I ask.

“Yes,” he admits. “I was scared. Every human being is scared.”

I ask Abu Islam about ISIS’ policy toward captured women, a question that instantly grabs his attention. He is in his element spouting out shariah law on the rights of ISIS cadres with regards to captured women. “It becomes a right,” he says, while looking around the room in which three out of five present in the room are women, waving his arm to bring us all into his sweeping gesture. “If I dominate everything in this room, then it becomes mine. I do as I want. It all becomes the property of the Islamic State,” he adds.

While we are usually capable of listening to anything without having much of a reaction during the interview, we felt suddenly sickened imagining how close to Mosul we have been in the past days—barely an hour’s drive—and how this mindset has been a harsh reality for so many captured women, whether they be Yazidis, Christians, Shia, or Sunni women alike.

Abu Islam denies that he had a sabaya [sex slave]. He also explains that very few Iraqis had them. He can think of only one man in their area of ISIS, Dr. Mahavia, who had one. This is likely similar to the Syrian experience where married Iraqis who served from home are not seen by ISIS leadership as needing to be supplied with a woman. Yet, we will hear next from an unmarried Iraqi who took full sexual advantage of the enslaved women held in this region of Iraq.

As we continue interviewing Abu Islam, though calm, I feel increasingly agitated and irritated at how he is able to justify the brutal and inhumane practices of ISIS and offer arguments in support of their activities. Just before my next question, I decide to show him one of our ICSVE-produced videos denouncing ISIS. I open my computer and ask if he would be willing to watch the video of another ISIS cadre (a defector) speaking on this subject. I inform him that it is a short video—only four minutes—and with his agreement, I begin to play it. Abu Islam watches intently as a Syrian former ISIS cadre explains his horror and posttraumatic stress after being the guard for 475 Yezidi, Shia, and Sunni sex slaves, including his role in taking part in organizing mass institutionalized rape.

Abu Islam’s eyes dart along the pictures in the video taken from ISIS, taking in faces and places he may recognize, just as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter Huthaifa Azzam did when we showed him the same video.[9] “He is an Iraqi speaking,” Abu Islam comments. I tell him no, this is a Syrian, but he has got a similar accent as he is from Deir ez-Zor. The video plays as Ibn Ahmed (the ISIS defector in the video) paints a grim picture of rape and horror for young captured women separated from their men and children. As more horrifying images of Yazidi and other women abused by ISIS appear on the video, Abu Islam’s gaze falls to the floor. Suddenly, he is silent and stunned to see his version of his glorified ISIS described in this graphic manner.

“How do you feel watching this video?” I gently ask.

“I was against that idea,” he says. His voice appears flat by what he has just viewed. “It doesn’t matter. When I see this video…this is the outcome of this practice—this video. It’s not the proper way to turn you to Islam. It’s not a good way to spread our beliefs.” Referring back to the rapes, he adds, “Not everyone listens [to objections]. They just go with it. There are more that like it [raping of captured women] than are against it.”

“How about the beheadings?” I ask.

“It was a law,” he answers. We cannot help but see discomfort in his face as he patiently awaits his next question.

“Is it not it the same thing? Does it not also spread a negative view of Islam?” I further push.

“I got convinced,” Abu Islam answers defensively.

“How do you feel now?”

“It’s not right,” he says gazing down at his hands, and adds, “We were wrong.”

“Is there a way to get there without all this violence?” I ask softly, knowing he harbors the dream of spreading shariah and making a utopian world where Islam reigns above all else.

“Yes, of course.” a decade of sectarian killings that ISIS was born and embraced by the Sunni population in Anbar province.

“Why did you sign up to violence?” I ask, although I know that the U.S. and the U.S.-led coalition security blunder in Iraq that led to the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s senior military and intelligence officials, coupled with more than a decade of sectarian killings, gave birth to ISIS.

“I believed back in that time,” Abu Islam explains. “I got convinced,” he adds..He explains about how ISIS appeared as a righteous and Islamic answer to sectarian power struggles and security issues: “I didn’t know it was going to be that way.”

We ask Abu Islam if he is willing to watch another ICSVE-produced video. When he agrees, we show him our four-minute video clip of a fifteen-year-old Syrian boy describing his time in the Cubs of the Caliphate and how the leaders sent children as young as six-years-old in explosive-laden vehicles to their deaths—many having no idea they were about to die. There are pictures of children younger than eight in the film. Abu Islam watches this clip intently as well, again studying everything in it. At the end, the boy denounces ISIS, calling them kafirs [unbelievers] and infidels.

“He [the boy] is calling you the kafir. How do you feel about that?” I ask after we view the clip. “These are little kids. Do these children have their semen? Are they men?” I challenge feeling angry with his denials.

Abu Islam is stunned into silence as he again begins to stare at the floor.

“How do you make this right between you and Allah?” I ask softly, wondering if he will open up more.

“Allah will accept everything—If you admit it,” he answers back, and continues to stare at the floor.

“Did you make a mistake?” I ask.

“Yes.” “We were mistaken,” are his last words.

We end our interview. The guards come into the room, and Abu Islam’s black mask is once again placed back over his face as he lets them guide him blindly out of the room.

Abu Islam is by no means rehabilitated from watching two counter-narrative videos. That being said, capture, interrogation, and imprisonment have all begun to work on him. After being challenged with the harsh realities of ISIS and other ISIS cadres denouncing the group, he admits to not knowing whether ISIS was right. After all, joining ISIS has not worked out that well for him. Arguably, once confronted with other former ISIS cadres telling the truth, he is unable to keep up his false bravado and unquestioned beliefs in ISIS’ interpretation of shariah law. His arguments fall flat. He is backed into submission, as evidenced through his responses after watching the videos.

We have focus tested the Breaking the ISIS Brand videos in the Balkans, Central Asia, Western Europe, and the Middle East, and overwhelmingly they have hit their mark. No one we spoke to questioned their authenticity or viewed the message as being wrong. Many are sobered by them, including the ISIS emir we discussed in this article.

If you want to support ISCVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Counter-Narratives Project, please contact us at info[at]ICSVE.org or donate on our webpage www.icsve.org.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (May 29, 2017) Confronting an ISIS Emir: ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Videos, ICSVE Research Reports, http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/confronting-an-isis-emir-icsves-breaking-the-isis-brand-counter-narrative-videos

(*) Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. Prior to joining ICSVE, Ardian has spent nearly a decade working in both the private and public sectors, including with international organizations and the media in a post-conflict environment. He is fluent in several languages. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He also holds several professional certifications in the field of homeland security as well as a professional designation for his contributions to the field of homeland security and homeland security efforts in general. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism courses.


[1] Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh, Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18-Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West (McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2014) and Morten Storm, Tim Lister, and Paul Cruickshank, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA (New York City, NY: Grove Press, 2015).

[2] See Quilliam, “Usama Hasan,” URL: https://www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/usama-hasan/

[3]The names of participants other than the authors’ and Abu Islam have been changed to protect them.

[4] Robin Wright, “Face to Face with the Ghost of ISIS,” The New Yorker, March 24, 2017; URL: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/face-to-face-with-the-ghost-of-isis

[5] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

[8] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

[9] Huthaifa Azzam Interview, Amman, Jordan, 2016.

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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Terrorism

Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday. 

“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies. 

Assault on human rights 

During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts. 

“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General. 

The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan. 

The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.” 

Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating. 

Reaffirm core values 

Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse. 

“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. 

The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people. 

This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Ensuring long-term efforts 

The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain. 

In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”  

Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces. 

“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens.  That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said. 

“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Global strategy 

The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.   

Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism. 

Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner. 

The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities. 

The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.  

“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said. 

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The UK’s “Separation Centres”: Re-visiting counter-terror measures

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Prisons are breeding grounds for radicalisation within their walls and recruitment for terrorism acts carried out post the inmates’ release. The leaders’ personality and ability to cultivate a cult-like following among the potential recruits mould the fruition or failure of these security threats worldwide. While this is not a novel security challenge, as the following portion about the rise of the Islamic State attests, the Boris Johnson-led administration appears to now bolster its efforts to confront the complex reality.

For example, the emergence of the Islamic State traces its roots to Camp Bucca in Iraq, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its earliest leader, received absolute leeway in conducting his virulent sermons and fomented the surge in radical recruits. His followers eventually assumed leadership positions in one of the deadliest terrorist outfits of the modern era. However, the prison officials had essentially allowed him to run amuck due to his ability to contain in-fighting and resolve tensions between his fellow jihadist prisoners, despite his record of violence displayed during the Sunni insurgency after the United States-led invasion in 2003. Having found themselves in a foreign land and inadept at recognising the socio-cultural and sectarian sensitivities, the American officials presumably refrained from challenging the status quo that had emerged within the camp to minimise tensions and violent episodes engulfing the Iraqi state. However, this meant that the radical Islamist narrative spun by him and disseminated by his followers played a central role in laying the foundations of the carnage and the now dismantled “caliphate” that would follow suit.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategy is now being revamped. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has announced the strengthening of a team, to the tune of £1.2 million, to assist the British government in devising a framework to segregate radically influential and “charismatic” Islamist terrorists from at-risk inmates serving their sentence. This would primarily happen by isolating them in specialised centres to house such high-risk prisoners. Nevertheless, there is a catch. The challenge that this administration will face is in determining who poses a substantial threat and will find a place in the centres. Although three of them are currently operational, until April 2022, only 15 individuals in one prison have made it to the list.

Mr. Raab asserted that the current dispensation is “going to take a more decisive approach in [our] prisons, not allowing cultural and religious sensitivities to deter [us] from nipping in the bud early signs of terrorist risk.” He argued his case by underlining how the right to socialise in prisons traditionally accorded as per the Human Rights Act would remain suspended. In addition, inmates making their arguments against their referrals to such centres would find it a mounting challenge to plead their claims successfully. Furthermore, the empowered Prison Governors will notably have considerable authority to strike down any attempts by radical inmates to undermine national security and instigate chaos spurred by radicalisation.

Driving the policy change

On the surface, this comes on the heels of the recommendations made by Jonathan Hall QC, an independent reviewer of terrorist activities in Welsh and English prisons. Nevertheless, it is improbable to disassociate this policy decision from the debates concerning the viability of Prevent, which is a core tenet of the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy. It was initially introduced in 2003 by former Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair. Understandably, the brutal assassination of former parliamentarian Sir David Amess in October 2021 and the subsequent conviction of Ali Harbi Ali for life, the perpetrator in April 2022, have triggered the incumbent administration to counter the catapulting national security crisis decisively.

On the other hand, violent incidents within jails in the recent past are the root of why Mr. Raab appears driven to confront this dilemma head-on. In May 2020, HMP Belmarsh’s-High Security Unit, one of the most secure prisons countrywide, witnessed a horrifying attack on Paul Edwards, a prison officer. He nearly lost his life due to a near-fatal assault by a trio of inmates. He was punched, thrashed, and struck with a chair after Hashem Abedi (the “emir” and brother to Salman Abedi; the Manchester Arena bomber), Muhammed Saeed, and Ahmed Hassan (Parsons Green Bomber) stormed his office. Led by Abedi, Saeed and Hassan were radicalised to retaliate against perceived unfair treatment by prison authorities.

Reportedly, these individuals were housed along with other violent criminals, sowing seeds for intensifying attacks, where discussions about their upcoming trials and information about jihad and terrorism were frequently exchanged. 

What is worrisome is that this prison has served as the scene for a spill-over to its other corners. Mohiussunath Chowdhury, who was imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh on terrorism charges after his sword attack on police officers stationed outside the Buckingham Palace in 2017, had a close affiliation with fellow jihadis, including Hassan, Abedi, and Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State terrorist infamously known as “Jihadi John.” He was re-convicted in 2020 for planning terrorist attacks after being cleared of prior charges in 2018. Additionally, Sudesh Amman, who stabbed two people and was subsequently shot dead in February 2020, also had a prior conviction.  He was jailed for possession and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, before securing an early release days before his knife attack. He and Chowdhary were imprisoned around the same time.

It is equally problematic to discover that Anjem Choudhary, a militant and radical Islamist preacher who, until recently, was banned from making public speeches, and Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker, are the by-products of a militant Islamist climate cultivated within the same prison as terrorists mentioned above. Khan and Choudhury also spoke alongside each other at a conference in 2009 about Sharia. Individuals like Khan were also mandated to undergo a de-radicalisation initiative termed “Desistance and Disengagement Programme” alongside his fellow detainees.

The Do’s of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation success & the need for overhaul

These are only a few of several examples within one prison to delineate why the British government is attempting to revamp its counter-terrorism strategy. Under a common roof, the amalgamation and collusion of violent extremist beliefs, followed by constant reinforcement undermines the stable ecosystem within and outside prisons. Moreover, despite their resources an well-trained personnel, the security agencies – MI5 and MI6 require adequate preparation and time to re-engage and subdue such terrorists between their release and their subsequent targeted attacks. During that time frame, these radicalised individuals persons have the potential for these radicalised persons to inflict more violence than before.

Therefore, the government’s rationale is evident and well-understood.

Overall, the presumption is that if such “separation centres” are set up and all high-risk terrorists isolated, the violence within and outside jails will become manageable, if not completely eradicated. This would provide the government, law enforcement, and security agencies sufficient room to re-allocate their resources and personnel towards nipping in the bud any potential radicalised recruits in the public domain before they join violent extremist organisations or carry out terrorist acts. It will also prevent the radicalisation of violent criminals and pre-trial prisoners as they remain disassociated from radical elements.

However, to ensure the centres’ success, challenges such as overcrowding, shortage of specially trained armed and civilian personnel (including de-radicalisation experts), and insufficient funds to procure advanced surveillance for monitoring the detainees’ daily activities need to be overcome. The government must also ensure that it sets up a core committee, comprising a therapists, a prison official, and a social welfare worker, and a law-enforcement and security officer (each), for each of these centres. In addition, 4 to 5 members to evaluate the successes and challenges after every months and accordingly underscore the scope of improvement and loopholes the centres face is also required. Only through a state of heightened monitoring, and constant re-evaluation can the administration hope to weed out terrorism and radicalisation from mainstream society and its fringes. Additionally, the political will of subsequent leaders and perseverance of MI5 and MI6 will also have a significant contribution to determining whether this initiative succeeds or whether is doomed to fail.

On the other hand, in conjunction with the government, the prison officials must also ensure prisoners being housed in such centres should not come into contact, particularly through illicit means, lest they develop a jihadist solidarity, strengthen their beliefs, and harm those safeguarding these places. Moreover, parameters, including the number of people these high-risk individuals have radicalised within and outside prisons, and those who have committed terrorist attacks post their release, the rigidity of their ideological indoctrination, record of violence, cyber activities, conduct as inmates, and the severity of crimes for which they have been convicted, should collectively feature into the framework laid down to decide who will be referred to the separation centres.

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Terrorism

U.S. Hunts Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

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KTJ Uzbek jihadists

The US Department of the Treasury and the State Department successfully and effectively conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, putting constant and systematic pressure on them. The war on terrorism is fought on many fronts: diplomatic, intelligence, covert, sanctions, law enforcement, and military. Over the past two decades, the US designated the most vocal and violent Islamist extremist groups from Central Asia as the “Specially Designated Terrorist” (SDT) и “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO). Under the provision of the Act “Farrakhan Amendment,” US law enforcement freezes any assets and finances of global terrorist groups, designated SDT and FTO. The US has recently added the Uzbek jihadi group of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad to global terrorist organizations.

US designated Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

On March 7, 2022, the US Department of State added Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. In addition to this designation, KTJ has been added to the UN Security Council’s ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against Uzbek jihadist of KTJ.

The US designation noted that “al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib Province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from the post-Soviet Central Asia.

The US Department of State’s statement also noted that “in addition to engaging in terrorist activities in Syria, KTJ has also been responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg metro attack in Russia in April 2017 which killed 14 passengers and injured 50 others, as well as a suicide car bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek in August 2016 which wounded three people.”

The State Department further stated that as a result of the designation, all property and interests in property of KTJ are blocked, and foreign financial institutions that conduct any transaction on behalf of KTJ could also be subject to US sanctions.

Uzbek Jihadists in Syria denounce US designation of KTJ

On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization, the Shura Council of KTJ released a statement denouncing the US move. In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction questions the greatness of the US, as their decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society might be, it will not be great in the eyes of people if it does not rule with justice and eliminate oppression.”

Uzbek Jihadi group in Syria denounces its designation by the US and claims that “KTJ consists of people who responded to the cries of the oppressed in Syria, because protecting the oppressed people is the duty of all humanity.”

KTJ leader Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki

The major Central Asian militant group further asserted that “it is not the policy of KTJ to launch attacks outside Syria” and its members have nothing to do with the suicide attacks on Russia’s St. Petersburg metro and the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in 20016-2017. At the end of their statement, KTJ ideologists claim that “our group does not belong to al-Qaeda or ISIS.” However, this claim is absolutely false.

It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda became the ideological mentor and inspirer of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley, opening the door to global jihad. KTJ was created by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (alias Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi Salafist from Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, in northern Syria in 2013. Under his leadership, KTJ pledged allegiance (Bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the Al Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria at the time which described itself as al-Qaeda in the Levant.

During the preparation of this material, a group of experts on political Islam listened to KTJ’s bayat once again, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Nusra, parted ways ‘peacefully’ in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ has never disavowed its bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, during this time, KTJ demonstrated its deft ability to spread the al-Qaeda ideology into the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.

To date, KTJ is the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on a par with the Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party from Chinese Xinjiang. Both are waging jihad under HTS’s auspices against Bashar al-Assad regime. The approximate number of Uzbek militants is about 500 people. It is known that long a hotbed of armed resistance and a center of al-Qaeda-related operations, northwest Syria has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.

The KTJ current leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda’s devoted followers. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek of the Fergana Valley and former deputy emir of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ. According to a UN Security Council’s report dated 3 February, 2022, “KTJ’s capability is undermined by conflict between the current group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh.” But this is a superficial assessment of the situation taking place among the Uzbek jihadists in Syria.

Noteworthy, Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under pressure of HTS for openly supporting its strongest jihadi opponent, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which directly challenged the leader of HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. It is also known that KTJ new leader Abdul Aziz swore bayat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afg-Pak border zone as member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2008. Indeed, at that time, IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-linked groups in Central and South Asia. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, which also hosted an al-Qaeda camp.

So, militant Salafism is the fundamental basis of KTJ’s jihadi ideology. In accordance with its ideological doctrine, the group aims to overthrow the five “tahut” (godless) regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia and build a single Caliphate with Sharia rule in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the new imam of KTJ and its major ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies Jihadi-Salafi scholars from the medieval to the present, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda’s senior figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

Thus, KTJ’s claim of no ties to al-Qaeda is a complete lie. Today, Uzbek jihadists of KTJ continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the HTS, who act as an ideological mentor and militant umbrella for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

US continues pressure on Central Asian jihadi groups

This is not the first time that the US government has designated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions against them. It is known, the US State Department has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000. The IMU was the veteran of the Central Asian jihad, first paving the hijrat to Afghanistan and establishing close relations with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and its military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed as a result of US missile airstrike.

On June 17, 2005, the US State Department designated the Islamic Jihad Union to the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The US missile airstrike has killed several top IJU leaders, including its emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan 2009.

According to the recent UN Security Council report, “IJU actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban in the capture of Kabul and therefore its fighters now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country. IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev, of Tajikistan, is assessed to be the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates primarily in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.” Further, the UN report notes that “Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several leaders of IJU have travelled freely to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov separately visited Kabul.”

On December 29, 2004, the US State Department designated Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). The group leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in US drone strike. However, on November 5, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

On March 22, 2018, the US State Department designated Uzbek jihadi group Katibat Imam al Bukhari to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. Currently KIB wages jihad in Syria under the HTS umbrella against the Bashar al-Asad regime. KIB is now led by ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has a close and trusting relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Minister of the Interior of the Taliban government and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas. KIB, like the IJU and KTJ, is also a splinter of the IMU and pledged loyalty to the Taliban.

In conclusion, the US government’s designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such a move will certainly help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East in cutting off the channels of financial, material and military assistance to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

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