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
Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism
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.”
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.
The UK’s “Separation Centres”: Re-visiting counter-terror measures
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.
U.S. Hunts Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups
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.”
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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