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“Radical Islamic Terrorists”: How is President Trump doing in his first 100 days in Office?

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

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] D [/yt_dropcap]uring the 2016 campaign and in the early months of his presidency, President Trump made “defeating radical Islamic terrorism” a key part of his counterterrorism strategy. He also pledged to intensify operations against terrorist groups like ISIS/Daesh and al-Qaeda as well as refrain from large-scale military interventions that could put the lives of American soldiers in harm’s way.

In his State of the Union address to Congress, President Trump also promised to “make America first,” demanded that U.S. partners and allies shoulder more of the burden in fighting terrorism, and said the U.S. can no longer be the world’s policeman spending American treasure and spilling American blood overseas. During his campaign having already labelled Brussels, hash-tag hellhole, he began his first 100 days in office by reprimanding key European allies and expressing disdain for international organizations such as the U.N. and NATO. Although consistent with much of what he promised on the campaign trail, his decisions represented a more assertive shift in U.S. foreign policy and to combating terrorism compared to his predecessor, President Obama.

Yet, as the realities of his Presidential duties hit rhetoric, President Trump has been forced to come around to embracing NATO and reaffirm key alliances. He has also acted out his support for upholding international norms against the use of chemical weapons by bombing Syria. Despite complaining about U.S. responsibilities and his calls for more burden-sharing by U.S. allies, he has also sent more U.S. troops to aid in the fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. From a counter-terrorism perspective, it appears he has not yet hit the mark in terms of keeping Americans safer or in defeating “radical Islamic terrorists.” In fact, his policies and his “tough guy” stance as the spokesman for the U.S. may be making Americans less safe and fueling, rather than defeating, terrorist recruitment.

While the Obama administration ended the U.S. combat missions in Iraq in 2010 and Afghanistan in 2014, U.S. troops remained in both places, with estimates around 15,000 deployed when President Trump took office. Currently, under President Trump, their presence is increasing. There are at least 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and about 300 to 500 in Syria, and more than 8,000 in Afghanistan. President Trump is still playing policeman.

The 6,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Iraq compares to the peak of approximately 166,000 troops during the surge in November 2007, 4 yet numbers continue to rise, and increasingly U.S. troops are involved in actual combat. Even though orders to U.S. troops in Mosul are to remain behind the forward front lines, military officials acknowledge that this line is constantly shifting while troops clear 200,000 buildings in the city and face IED’s and booby traps planted around the area.5 Referring to U.S. troops in Iraq at a March 28, 2017 reception for U.S. senators and their spouses, President Trump announced, “Our soldiers are fighting like never before.”6 According to Air Force Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for the military coalition fighting Daesh, U.S. troops in Iraq are not simply advisors or trainers anymore. They have come under fire at different times and have returned fire.7

Interestingly enough, the Pentagon’s record on transparency when it comes to divulging the numbers deployed to Iraq remains poor, a sharp divergence from policies under the Obama administration. Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman cited the following reasons for this failure to inform the American public: “In order to maintain tactical surprise, ensure operational security and force protection, the coalition will not routinely announce or confirm information about the capabilities, force numbers, locations, or movement of forces in or out of Iraq and Syria.”8 This policy, however, leaves the American people in the dark. It also reflects how deeply and committed the new administration is to troop deployment in Iraq, and now Syria as well.

Military attacks in Yemen, taking place shortly after President Trump took office in January 2017, resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer, William “Ryan” Owens. President Trump used this event to his advantage during his State of the Union Address by inviting and paying tribute to the SEAL’s widow, Carryn Owens. However, some argued that the Yemen raid was poorly planned and executed and that it unnecessarily risked civilian lives, including the lives of American soldiers.we should not, as President Trump may, naïvely expect for Daesh to disappear. Americans find military deployments shrouded in secrecy and some of their best dying in raids, it brings up the question of how President Trump is refraining from spilling American blood or putting “America first.”

In March 2017, deployments from Fort Bragg of 240 soldiers to Iraq from a Brigade of 2,000 soldiers at the ready for additional deployments reflects the freedom the Trump administration has granted to its commanders to move forces into the battle zone “without lengthy review in Washington.”10 The U.S also recently sent Army Rangers and a Marine artillery unit to Syria, with the Rangers “operating in the northern town of Manbij to deter Turkish-backed Syrian fighters from moving into the area” and the Marine artillery unit “providing firepower for the offensive to take the Tabaqa Dam and cut off the western approaches to Raqqa, which is being carried out by Syrian fighters backed by the United States.”11 In March of 2017, an Army platoon was deployed to Iraq to clear away roadside bombs12—a danger that will likely increase as Daesh cadres lose territory and increasingly revert to guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks on civilian targets. Approximately 2,500 U.S. Army paratroopers are also expected to receive orders to deploy to Iraq and Syria.13 Deployments continue to rise as the U.S. build-up of troops in the Middle East mirrors what happened during the Vietnam war; despite President Trump’s claims to put America first and not involve American troops in global conflicts.

Many military analysts and figures agree that the territorial defeat of Daesh in Iraq is nearly complete, especially in light of the success achieved in ousting Daesh from many areas of Mosul in Iraq.14 In Syria, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces recently launched an operation to seize the Tabaqa Dam, an area near Raqqa where the Daesh Emni (intelligence and external attack operations) had its headquarters.15 Both operations have been supported by U.S. airstrikes, artillery helicopters and U.S. troops acting as advisors, although also shooting and being shot at even inside Mosul. The numbers of U.S. troops operating in Mosul was doubled in January 2017.

While the defeat of Mosul and Raqqa will make it difficult for Daesh to hold territory and have any semblance of a state, we should not, as President Trump may, naïvely expect for Daesh to disappear. In our research interviewing Daesh defectors globally, we have been told the plan is to shave beards and blend into society mounting urban guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks17—like the one that occurred while we were in Baghdad in April, 2017. A truck bomb exploded at a checkpoint, igniting three additional tankers that were present to make that sort of conflagration. More attacks of this type are expected in Iraq, as Daesh has cleverly stored explosives in secret locations. In Syria, reports are that Daesh is training female cadres in combat operations, placing sticky bombs and training as suicide operatives.18 Total defeat of Daesh will not be simple.

We must also keep in mind that the very security violations that gave rise to Daesh in the first place are still rife in both Syria and Iraq. Sunnis in Fallujah, Mosul, and other areas of Anbar raise concerns about serious human rights violations, killings, and disappearances of Sunnis, even women by Shia death squads. Videos shown by a former Sunni resistance fighter in Amman in November 2017 depicting a teenage boy being dragged by Shia militia members to a tank and run over by it for suspicion of being in Daesh, are circulated in the Sunni parts of Iraq and beyond, creating horror, fear, and sectarian distrust among Iraqis. One press person we interviewed in April 2017, an Iraqi in Erbil, stated she often video recorded the ongoing battle between Shia forces and Daesh, especially in the Mosul areas, but was never allowed to interview the detained Daesh fighters as they were shot immediately without any trials by the Shia troops. Similarly, others have told of witnessing Shia forces dragging dead Daesh cadres through the streets of Mosul or letting their bodies rot in place. Such actions are unlikely to create any sense of trust or security among Sunnis for the government of Iraq.

Daesh, and al-Qaeda before them, have always been adept at using U.S. troop misdeeds and civilian kills as a tool to stir up anger against the West and garner more terrorist recruits. During the first three months of President Trump’s presidency, there also has been a “significant uptick in the number of airstrikes targeting terrorists in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan.” We must hope that civilians are not high among those killed as video footage of civilian victims is exactly what groups like Daesh use to incite hatred against Americans and fuel recruitment into their terrorist cause.

Thus, when a U.S. airstrike killed scores of Iraqi civilians in Mosul on March 17, 2017, it may have been exactly one of those events which the terrorist group can use for recruitment, even while it is losing territory.22 As more and more American troops get embroiled in Syria and Iraq, we must hope the military has ‘upped its game’ regarding a small footprint and for observing human rights. We cannot afford any major scandals like Abu Ghraib or the Marine rape and killings in Haditha that poured fuel on al Qaeda’s recruitment, though one remains concerned when senior White House officials make claims such as “Theater commanders have been unshackled. Everyone’s been unshackled to do their job,” referring to a lifting of many combat restrictions by the Trump administration over the military that were in place during the Obama administration. While that may be good for U.S. military morale, it creates dangers as well.

President Trump now allows counterterrorism airstrikes outside of a conventional war zone, such as Afghanistan, to be ordered without vetting by the White House and other agencies—also creating the possibilities of over doing it. On April 13, 2017, General John Nicholson ordered the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S.’ arsenal to root out a complex of tunnels and caves in Afghanistan used by the Daesh affiliate in Afghanistan, Daesh-Khorasan. Some journalists reporting on the bomb’s nickname of the “Mother of All Bombs,” or MOAB, were quick to say “This is what freedom looks like” while President Trump praised the general’s decision to drop the MOAB on Daesh, which he and his administration believe sent a cautionary message to all of the U.S.’ adversaries.26 Indeed it did, although whether that message is what he and his administration hope it is, remains another matter. One can imagine Daesh and other terrorist groups playing such news footage with the voice-overs of “this is what democracy looks like” in their recruiting videos.

In the fight against terrorism, President Trump has mainly engaged in rhetoric that purports to make America safe and to put “America first.” In reality, however, his policies may be doing exactly the opposite. While nearly no one disagrees that Daesh’ ability to hold territory in Syria and Iraq should be seriously degraded, if not altogether destroyed, naïveté about whether that will be an end to Daesh is dangerous. In addition, heavy involvements of U.S. troops, particularly in combat roles, may fuel Daesh recruitment elsewhere. Given that Daesh is instructing its cadres to stay home and attack in place, this may lead to attacks similar to the ones recently witnessed in London, Stockholm, Brussels and Paris where Americans have also been killed. Keeping us safe means we can safely travel through European airports, shop and dine on tourist destinations without fear.

Equally important, President Trump’s poorly laid out immigration policies that targeted first six predominantly Muslim countries for the visa ban and later cut that to five may have played right into the hands of groups like Daesh. They argue that Islam, Muslim lands, and Muslims are under attack. These are groups who have long sought to create hatred and a divide between Muslims and the West to be able to recruit more Muslims to their cause. When President Trump speaks about banning access to Syrian refugees— many who are not terrorists, but are fleeing from terrorists—and refers to his fight with terrorism as against “radical Islam,” but fails to speak about the many Muslims who are also victims of terrorism, he is playing right into the hands of groups like Daesh. The same happens when he fails to speak against and pursue the right-wing terrorists who have killed innocent Muslims. He is playing the villain in their black and white view of the world and giving them cause to claim that Americans hate Muslims.

President Trump’s core personality-based leadership traits are often characterized as extreme and unusual for any presidential candidate. To succeed against terrorists, he needs to be able to think beyond himself, to get to the heart of the matter, and put himself in their shoes, such as in the case when he included Iraq in the visa ban. He and his administration failed to consider that Iraqis might retaliate and ban Americans working with NGOs and who, in many cases, are actually directly supporting U.S. military and U.S. combat efforts in Iraq. Iraqis are also a major partner in the fight against Daesh. He cannot often see beyond his own rhetoric, but to succeed, he needs to.

We need carefully thought out policies that do not inflame further tensions with our trusted allies. We also need carefully controlled troop deployments if we want to work effectively against the brand that Daesh is selling—that is, a promise of an alternative world governance which will continue to sell regardless of whether Daesh loses its territory in Syria and Iraq. We have seen upwards of 31,000 foreign fighters accept the Daesh dream of their so-called Islamic Caliphate and pour into Syria and Iraq from 86 countries. The Daesh brand continues to flourish despite their territorial setbacks, and their franchises operate in at least 30 countries. Unless we get smart and pull together, we will continue to see terrorist groups like Daesh winning in small victories and countless terrorist tragedies continuing to be enacted in our cities and airports and by extension witness larger tragedies involving hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who will continue to seek refuge in our Western countries. President Trump has now put a reasonable, seasoned General in charge of defense and another in charge of National security. Let us hope they advise him well going forward, and he does manage to defeat the current terrorist menace.

(*) Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.  Director, ICSVE and Non-Resident Fellow of Trends & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. Director of Research/Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)

This article first appeared as a chapter in The Changing International Order published by Trends Research and Advisory http://trendsinstitution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Changing-International-Order-Master-File-Columns.pdf

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

Islamic State threat moves online, expands across Africa

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

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

Ever-evolving threat 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic State in Africa 

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

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

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

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

Repatriating women and children 

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

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

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

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

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

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Taliban and Al Qaeda: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?

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Abu Omar Khorasani was taken from Kabul’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison and unceremoniously shot.

The first and only person to have been executed since the Taliban gained full control of Afghanistan, Mr. Khorasani was the head of the Islamic State in South Asia until he was arrested by government forces last year.

The precise circumstances of his execution are not known. His killing was, however, at least in part designed to send a message to the international community, and particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China and Iran, as well as Russia, Central Asia’s security overlord.

The message was that the Taliban were cracking down on foreign jihadists and militants in Afghanistan.

Mr. Khorasani was an easy symbol. The Taliban and the Islamic State, whose ranks of foreigners are primarily populated by Pakistanis and a sprinkling of Central Asians, Uighurs, Russians, Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Indians, and Frenchmen, have long been adversarial. The Islamic State recently accused the Taliban of being more nationalist than pious in their negotiations with the United States.

The Taliban message is a partial truth at best. What is true for the Islamic State is not true for Al–Qaeda and others such as the Uighur Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Taliban appear to believe that they can get away with the differentiation because they perceived the United States as more focused in the withdrawal negotiations on ensuring that the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other militants will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for international operations rather than on getting them expelled from the country.

The perceived US focus may have been rooted in a concern that if Taliban’s hands were forced, they would let militants slip out of the country and not hand them over to authorities. That would make it difficult to control their movements or ensure that they are either entered into deradicalization programs or, if warranted, brought to justice.

“It’s a Catch-22. The Taliban ensuring that Al Qaeda sticks to rule risks putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. How much better that is than having foxes run wild remains to be seen,” said a retired counter-terrorism official.

Officials of the Trump administration that negotiated the agreement suggest that the continued presence of Al-Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan would violate the accord with the Taliban.

Former Vice President Mike Pence as well as Trump era State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales argued that the deal “required the Taliban…to refuse terrorists safe harbour.

Russia and China, while publicly more measured in their statements, are likely to share western concerns. Russia held military drills earlier this month with Tajik and Uzbek troops in Tajikistan, 20 kilometres from the border with Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda may have been boosted in recent weeks by multiple prison breaks in which the Taliban freed operatives of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups. It remains unclear however to what degree the breaks will help the group strengthen its presence in Afghanistan.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned this week that al Qaeda and the Islamic State could quickly rebuild their networks in Afghanistan.

The United Nations recently reported that Al-Qaeda “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces”, and that its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent, “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.” 

“Without information on who exactly escaped, it is difficult to determine whether historically significant figures remain within AQ’s AfPak network, or if it is mainly composed of newer figures these days, whether local or regional foreign fighters,” cautioned political violence scholar Aaron Y. Zelin. Mr. Zelin was referring to Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network.

Also unclear is whether Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran will be allowed to relocate to Afghanistan.

The prison breaks further go to concerns about relying on the Taliban to police jihadists and other militants with aspirations beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Of particular concern is the fact that the balance of power has yet to be determined between Taliban leaders who in recent days have been eager to put a more moderate, accommodating foot forward with security guarantees for their opponents, minorities and women and the group’s far-flung less polished rank and file.

The concern about the Taliban’s ability and willingness to control militant activity on Afghan soil is magnified by worry regarding the continued existence of warlords with the power to organise violence, provide jobs and public services, and forge or strengthen ties with militants.

Warlords will play an active role in the future of Afghanistan. They will remain businessmen and political leaders, connected to global economic processes and networks. They will develop the military power that they need to control territory and wage war. They will, finally, continue to fight for more autonomy and, in some cases, might even manage to partially form their old regional polities once again,” said Romain Malejacq, author of a book on Afghan warlords.

“Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a warlord-ridden wasteland,” said journalist and author Graeme Wood.

The Taliban’s refusal to expel militants not only complicates the group’s efforts to garner legitimacy in the international community and particularly its neighbours, even if Al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened since 9/11 and is less focussed on attacking the United States and more on the Muslim world.

It also strengthens those who fear that Afghanistan will again emerge as a launching pad for trans-national political violence. “We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state—a breeding ground for terrorism,” warned Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They (the Taliban) will not restrict terrorist groups, just ask them to operate low-key,” added Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia.

The Taliban proved already 20 years ago that they valued loyalty when they rejected US and Saudi pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden no matter the cost. The Taliban have since come to appreciate Al Qaeda’s fighting skills and contributions to the Afghan militants’ cause.

Taliban fighters this week, in a violation of their pledge to inclusiveness, demonstrated their ideological anti-Shiite affinity with Al-Qaeda by blowing up a statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Shiite Hazara militia leader killed by the Taliban when they first took power in 1996.

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Drones in the Hands of Terrorists: What Happens Then?

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Ardian is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with a field research experience in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, Somalia and Central Asia. Ardian is the co-founder and director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research institute focused on studying translation left-wing, right-wing, and militant jihadi forms of political violence. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.

Interviewed by Tatyana Kanunnikova.

What will be the role of drones in future terrorist attacks?

If we look at some of the most recent examples in Europe—for instance, the Gatwick Airport incident where drone sightings were reported—these led to a lot of confusion among airport officials as well as policymakers and law enforcement. In this specific case, we are talking about dozens of flights canceled, millions in costs for the airport as a result of the shutdown. We are also talking about the anti-drone technology that needs to be implemented by the airport, which translates into substantial financial costs. If we look at other places, such as active conflict areas, we’ll see that Houthi rebels used drones to target and assassinate Yemeni leaders and they were also striking key national infrastructure in places like Saudi Arabia. Even here, in the United States, sightings and illegal actions of drones flying over cities and close to government facilities in some cases speak to the fact that drone operations may be a thing in the future.

Here, in the United States, there are examples of individuals who have attempted or actively pursued ways to utilize remotely piloted aircraft or drone technology in general to cause harm to U.S. interests. For example, in 2012, a group of Virginia-based individuals, with direct or indirect affiliation with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, sought to acquire this sort of technology for the terrorist group. In 2011, we had a U.S. national, who actually was a student at one of the reputable universities here in the United States and who plotted to pilot explosive-laden, remotely controlled planes and attack U.S. government facilities and military installations. If we look at the issue from this particular standpoint, there is potential for malicious use of drones in not only active conflict zones but also here in the West, which should not be overlooked.

In 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that drones constituted an imminent terrorist threat to U.S. cities. Is this threat still considered imminent?

That is a good question and that has been part of the discourse here in the United States as well. The concern is that they come with a very low acquisition cost, which presents an opportunity to pursue that kind of technology to many groups, state and non-state actors, including private individuals. One can easily procure parts to build it. It does not require sophistication in terms of running the aircraft as well.

These are all areas of concern for officials and law enforcement, especially here in the West. While I would caution against labelling drone usage for malicious or harmful purposes as the most pressing threat in the West, one should still not discount the fact that local law enforcement and other entities may not be best positioned to counter the drone threat. They are not necessarily best equipped and staffed to adequately address such a threat. I would say it is one thing to confront or operate against drone threats in active conflict zones, where the military has the resources and the capability to address that kind of threat. Domestically, in the West in general, that could be an issue given that we arguably lack the sort of sophistication needed to detect, monitor, and counter drone threat at the local level, in our cities.

Are modern terror groups capable of modifying consumer drones to conduct improvised attacks?

Terrorist groups, especially those of the modern day, have been very capable of doing that. I have witnessed first-hand such cases during our research in Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen a number of modified consumer drones used by ISIS to target the Peshmerga in the North of Iraq, Iraqi security forces in Mosul and other places. From a structural standpoint, [ISIS] were known for their Phantom DJI models. They often utilized Styrofoam, a light, easily accessible, cheap material to build drones, as well as to modify and turn other drones into actual weapons. In many cases, we saw that they were able to mount certain amounts of IEDs or other explosive devices.

There was, of course, the ability to pursue that kind of technology given a low acquisition cost. One thing that we also see is the mimicry in the use of drone technology. For example, the drone technology that has been used by ISIS is being mimicked by ISIS affiliates in other parts of the world as well because, again, of the low acquisition costs and the ease with which it can be built.

What tactics and techniques do drone-using terrorist groups use?

From my personal research experience as well as experience in places like Syria and Iraq, the drone technology was primarily used to gain intelligence, for surveillance purposes. Drone usage has also proven powerful for propaganda purposes, namely imagery that was captured through drones and exploited for propaganda purposes. Of course, one must not overlook the military-strategic component, such as the ability to mount explosive devices and drop them onto enemies. It also serves to demonstrate “aerial power,” which comes, again, with a huge propaganda value that VE and terrorist groups have been able to put to use as well.

Another thing that we see, which is very interesting, is that the drone usage, especially as far as ISIS is concerned, has given them this opportunity to claim the alleged power and control not only on the ground but also in the airspace. This gives the illusion as though—especially as it [ISIS] started losing its controlled area in 2016-2017 and onwards—the drone operations afforded the group with this sort of aerial superiority, the operational capacity to penetrate into the airspace and attack enemy forces. This did give them [ISIS], from a propaganda perspective, a huge boost as well. And we have seen, for example, that ISIS would launch their drones laden with explosives into enemy lines, accompanied by other drones equipped to record such attacks, which was then shared via Telegram or other social media platforms utilized by ISIS for their propaganda purposes. As for the success of their drone-led attacks, it is really debatable; firstly, because they [ISIS] are only going to advertise their successes. We actually do not know much—at least publicly—about their downfalls or any limitations. Some of the images, if we look at some past attacks, in 2017, for example, when ISIS dropped several IEDs via drones onto the Syrian army base storing significant stashes of weapons in a stadium, showed significant damages to the Syrian military. But we do not know with certainty about their successes, the level of their success, as we often see what they choose to share on their media.

What we do know is that it is important for us to differentiate between terrorist groups or non-state actors that have utilized drones in a limited capacity and those that have active drone programs. If we look at organizations like Hezbollah (Kataib Hezbollah), Hamas, ISIS or even Houthis, they do have a record of successfully running drone programs, weaponized drone programs. In fact, these programs are sponsored by a state. For example, we know that Iran has played a significant role in sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of drones, and so on. Again, when trying to differentiate where the drone threat might come from, it is important to understand the difference between the usage of drones by certain groups or entities in limited capacity versus those who have been running or supporting drone programs.

Are drones more likely to be used as means of transportation or as autonomous weapons?

In many cases, aside from the primary surveillance function, they have been utilized by terrorist groups as a means of transporting explosive and other materials from point A to point B. But as for the use of autonomous weapons, to my knowledge to date, to be able to drive this sort of autonomous drone weapons, they lack such a capability given that such drone technology needs to be accompanied with artificial intelligence. Most of these [drones] are programmed to, say, carry out attacks, drop a bomb, and so on. There has to be artificial intelligence incorporated with these autonomous weapons for them to be effective in other ways. But I have not seen this sort of technology, especially with ISIS. Perhaps, this could be the case with other groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

What targets would terrorists prioritize when conducting drone attacks?

As for the targets, what we have seen in places like Iraq and Syria, much of the drone strikes targeted, of course, the military, those perceived as enemy. As I mentioned earlier, in 2017, there was a highly publicized attack where ISIS dropped a significant number of explosives onto the Syrian army positions and weapons supply points. Attacks were also carried out against the Iraqi security forces during operations in Mosul. Surveillance function is an important component because it affords this sort of “pre-attack” planning ability to ISIS and other terrorist groups to better organize and coordinate their attacks. They would normally send out drones to collect information and then follow up with an attack, as is often the case. What we have seen is not only the use of drones for attack purposes but also the demonstration of power by sending many drones at the same time to create an illusion or perception that ISIS is capable of attacking with multiple drones and penetrating the enemy’s aerial space.

There is a nightmare scenario that small drones can be used to deliver chemical or biological agents in an attack. Or disperse deadly viruses over a public gathering place. Is it real?

In Iraq or Syria, where ISIS or other operating terrorist groups are involved, it is a matter of being able to gain access to chemical or biological weapons. It is not a far-fetched notion. And there are some examples of such incidents taking place. There were some efforts on the part of ISIS to deliver chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction via drones.

Are drone strikes effective against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS? If yes, why?

As regards counterterrorism, if we ask government officials, they would argue that they are effective. The way to measure such effectiveness would be to look at how certain terrorist leaders—or those associated with terrorist actions at some level—have been targeted. Most recently, Qasim al-Raymi from al Qaeda in Yemen was killed via drones, so that was one measure of success. During the Obama administration, in Yemen alone, we had upwards of 1200 drone attacks targeting different militants. During President Trump, we delivered hundreds of attacks, specifically targeting militants in Yemen, Somalia and other places. In Pakistan alone, the drone targeting campaign lasted over 10 years. We also have the recent example where the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was targeted and killed via a drone strike.

But again, if we look at terrorist organizations as unified and cohesive organizations, then we could say that killing their leaders specifically should reduce terrorist attacks as well. But we also know that terrorist organizations are not cohesive or unified in many ways. In that regard, the effects of killing a terrorist leader become perplexing or complex. For example, when a terrorist leader is killed, in theory, it should lead to a situation where a terrorist group’s leadership and control is undermined. On the other hand, depending on who comes next in the line of succession, the successor may be more prone to violence.

It is a really complicated question. In retaliation, groups may also increase terrorist attacks against civilians. And we have also seen this in terrorist groups with centralized leadership. One must also consider drone attacks leading to civilian casualties and significant grievances. I conducted research with my colleagues in Somalia last year. And during the course of interviews, drone attacks were largely criticized and raised as the source of grievance by some, even leading to recruitment and joining Al Shabaab in some cases. Although those attacks were aimed at Al Shabaab leaders or affiliates, or ISIS operatives, grievances were raised that they did lead to civilian casualties as well.

What are the risks associated with drone operations? Are there ways to mitigate those risks? How do we prevent them?

Some drones can fly at a very high altitude, while some fly only at low altitudes, which can be problematic under either scenario. From an anti-drone technology standpoint, that becomes a problematic proposition and requires a better understanding of how drone technology may be applied in the future. But again, as I mentioned earlier in the example of drone sightings at the Gatwick airport, when it led to significant confusion and material damage, the same thing applies here [in the West] in local contexts because of the inability to fully grasp and understand this emerging technology, but we’re also talking about the need to counter that technology if deployed in cities or in other places where it could pose significant difficulties and strains, especially on local governments and law enforcement.

Last year, for the first time in history, drones autonomously attacked humans. According to the UN report, these drones were supplied by Turkey to the Libyan forces. Can machines be allowed to make their own decisions to kill or should autonomous drone attacks be banned?

I have not done much research on the topic, and I do not know if these autonomous attacks led to human casualties. If this is the case, that would change the course of how we understand autonomously driven objects, specifically as it relates to drones. As stated earlier, autonomous weapons, coupled with this sort of artificial intelligence, do make sense in some way, provided that humans exercise some level of control. We have to understand the decision-making process that goes into creating this sort of autonomous technology [drones].

We know from our research that we could feed a certain image to a drone, which would enable that particular drone to carry out an attack based on the image fed. Having said that, a slight change, modification, misreading of that image (or its pixels) by the drone could lead to significant errors in terms of targeting capabilities. The lack of human control may always pose a level of risk. Humans need to play a role in a drone’s “decision-making” process. If we look at other fields that utilize these autonomous technologies, like self-driving, autonomous vehicles (AV), one can find errors there as well. From such a perspective, that could be problematic as well. Also, the question is not only how they [autonomous drones] are used but also where and how many of them are used. If we are talking about an autonomous drone being utilized in certain operations, say in a conflict zone like Syria and against ISIS, it may lead to different outcomes as compared to, say, using them in non-conflict areas, in cities and where large segments of civilian population are present. The room for error is especially there in the case of the latter, when operating in spaces where civilians are present. Again, we do not know much [publicly] about this emerging technology, including their decision-making process, their objectives, how they operate in different geographic areas, etc. These are all questions we need to better understand and address.

From our partner RIAC

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