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Beware the Women of ISIS: There Are Many, and They May Be More Dangerous Than the Men

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci

Editor’s Note: As police tracked down the members of the cell that brought terror to Spain on Thursday, the names that surfaced were once again, predictably, all men, and mostly young ones. That’s the classic pattern with jihadis. But many counterterrorism experts see a new threat rising—what French criminologist Alain Bauer calls “the feminization” of the so-called Islamic State, which is under siege in the Middle East and looking to intensify its campaign of gruesome retaliation in the West.

Although in relative terms the percentage probably remains small, says Bauer, “You never had so many women.” Just a year ago in France, for instance, a cell was broken up composed entirely of women who had plotted to set off a car bomb near the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, a prime tourist destination fraught with religious significance as well.

In the battlefields of the Middle East, meanwhile, according to French security sources the women of ISIS are targeted right along with the men by European commandos on hunt-and-kill missions. Indeed, there is an old tradition among the European services—“shoot the women first”—documented in detail by British journalist Eileen MacDonald in 1991 after extensive research on the female terrorists among the radical left and the Palestinians. As one senior security expert told MacDonald more than 25 years ago, “Women terrorists have much stronger characters, more power, and more energy than men. There are several examples where men who have been cornered have waited a moment before they fired, but the women shot at once.”

Mia Bloom has studied closely the motivations and impact of women who have carried out suicide attacks from Russia to Sri Lanka as well as in the Middle East. “Women bombers… tend to be more successful than men,” she wrote in her 2011 study, Bombshell: Women and Terrorism. The message their attacks bring is distinct from the men: “Terrorism is no longer a fringe phenomenon and the insurgents are all around you.”

But why on earth would women want to join the ranks of the dogmatically, cruelly, and often violently misogynist ISIS “Caliphate”?

The following study by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), based on exhaustive interviews with dozens of women and men who have been involved with ISIS, and then turned away from it or against it, answers critical questions at a critical time about the feminization of ISIS.

— Christopher Dickey, World News Editor

BRUSSELS—When she was just 19, and a convert to Islam, Laura Passoni was abandoned by the father of her young son. Determined to deepen her expression of faith and in hopes of attracting a man who would keep his commitments to marital and family life, Laura responded by putting up a more devout Facebook profile, and very quickly she was contacted by an ISIS recruiter.

He promised her a man who would never leave her, a home in Syria, training as a nurse, and a good school for her toddler. Broken-hearted and wanting to believe, Passoni agreed to embark on a journey to the Islamic State. To evade detection, she and her toddler and the man she had chosen with the advice of the recruiter traveled by land to Venice and then took a cruise ship to Izmir, Turkey. From there they continued in a taxi to Gaziantep and crossed from into to Syria to join ISIS. Passoni thought of the cruise as a romantic time in which she consummated her marriage to a near stranger.

Her induction into the Islamic State was far from what she had envisioned, however. She ended up staying in a “sisters’ house” while her husband went off to receive sharia training and become a fighter. She was invited as well to serve ISIS as an internet seductress or a member of the morality police (hisbah). She declined both offers.

Passoni became deeply disappointed as she found herself confined at home while her husband was away battling for the group. None of the ISIS recruitment promises materialized—no nurse training and no riches. She found herself having to let her son play alone unsupervised outside or go with “the brothers,” other Islamic State fighters to the mosque. Witnessing how young the boys were that ISIS recruited into the Cubs of the Caliphate, many to go as suicide bombers, she feared her son would suffer a similar fate. She also became pregnant.

Desperate to escape, Passoni took her son in a taxi and headed for the border of ISIS territory, but the fearful driver turned her over to the ISIS police instead. Passoni’s husband agreed to vouch for her, and she was confined under house arrest with ISIS cadres guarding her when he was absent, preventing her from making another attempted escape.

Eventually, Passoni managed to convince her husband to join her in an effort to flee, and with the help of smugglers the little family of three found its way back to Belgium.

If they had been caught, here husband most likely would have been beheaded, and would have been returned to Raqqa, then forced into marriage with another fighter. Other women who have tried to escape have been raped and in some cases murdered by smuggles, according to the accounts of eye witnesses in our ISIS Defectors Interview Project.

Passoni’s husband is now serving prison time in Belgium while she has been released conditionally. Her children, who were temporarily removed from her custody when she returned to Belgium, are now back in her care.

She spends her free time lecturing to young Belgians about the dangers of joining ISIS. A video clip of interview with the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) can be found here.

Passoni’s story follows patterns similar to those of many women who join ISIS. The path to violence almost always involves the classic interaction of four important factors: a group, its ideology, social support, and personal motivations and vulnerabilities. But there are also, commonly, more specific reasons.

One is political outrage. Many Muslim women as well as men around the globe witnessed the whole of Syria collapse into anarchy and violence under Bashar al Assad. They grew furious watching Assad’s scorched earth policy towards not only opposing combatants but also against Syrian civilians. That these atrocities continue to this day and often are just as brutal as what ISIS does to local populations that defy its rule is not lost on potential recruits. The motivation for some women who joined early in the conflict, as with their male counterparts, was rooted in grave concern about Assad’s sheer brutality in Syria, and in response to the political impasse in the country.

Others were already incited by ISIS’, and before that al-Qaeda’s, narrative that Islam, Muslim people, and Muslim lands are under attack by Western powers and that a defensive jihad is necessary.

These women were lured by graphic YouTube videos of real suffering and injustices perpetrated against Muslims worldwide under dictators propped up by Western powers. The psychological impact of images of wars prosecuted by Westerners combined with civilian casualties may have played an important role in their decision to try to help defend the weak.

In fact, in studies of moral judgment, women and girls often make their assessments more relationally than men, and may judge what might normally be defined as an immoral act to be moral if it saves a life, particularly the life of someone to whom a woman is related to.

ISIS and al Qaeda have been successful at garnering loyalties in support of a transnational ummah (Muslim community) and building up the idea of a greater family (fictive kin, in the jargon of social science) through the formation of the so-called Islamic Caliphate. They have been successful tapping into various dimensions of populism and promote a doctrine that not only attempts to play on Muslim sentiments worldwide but also unifies Muslim demands against a common enemy—the West.

Add to the mix the complex discourse on marginalization and discrimination of Muslim women in the West. Women in Europe who want to wear headscarves or niqab (full-face covering), or a burkini for that matter, may find themselves on the wrong side of the law in some countries. They also may be sidelined in the workplace or passed over for jobs. Some may be harassed on the streets.

Recruiters who are promising female empowerment and emancipation, both political and economic, can be very persuasive to women who are feeling disillusioned and distressed by living in the West. They are told of a utopian state where all Muslims are included and where being a Muslim is an advantage versus a disadvantage; where personal dignity, honor, purpose, significance, and the material benefits of free housing, job training, free health care, matchmaking and salaries are promised to all who join.

For many women who join ISIS, the geographical relocation to Syria and Iraq serves as an attractive escape from personal and emotional problems—for example an overbearing, violent, and drunk father or husband—or the inability to attract a man considered a proper mate.

Until very recently, when it started losing significant swaths of territories in Iraq and Syria, ISIS claimed to embody the actualization of Islamic ideals. Women were invited to join in hopes they could win forgiveness for their sins and and thus attain paradise when they pass into the next life.

According to the caliphate’s preaching, any man or woman who has seriously “sinned” could redeem him or herself by joining the Islamic State and, best of all, by volunteering for a suicide mission. There is nothing like “martyrdom” to guarantee to the person who comes to believe in it an immediate place in paradise.

Women are often believed to be coerced, or even forced, into following their men into Islamic State. In some cases, fears of abandonment, loyalty, and coercion do play a role.

Such is the case of a European we’ll call Laila. When her fiancé first flew to Istanbul to join the Islamic State, she turned him in to police. Laila thought she had saved him from going to ISIS, only to find out after her marriage that he had not given up his dream.

Laila’s husband presented her with the difficult choice of divorce if she refused to let him join ISIS, or, as he told her, “being a good Muslim wife who supports and follows the lead of her husband.” Hoping that it would be all he believed it could be, she followed him.

Laila’s husband was killed, leaving her pregnant and fearing she would be forced, like other ISIS widows, to marry another fighter. Laila’s father courageously struggled to hire a series of smugglers to get her out before her baby was born inside the Islamic State, and she agreed. But as she began her perilous road to freedom, ISIS, realizing she was on the run, messaged her parents demanding that she return to the group to first bear her child and nurse it, for, as they texted, “The baby is ours.” She eventually made it out with the child.

Laila, fortunately, did not face the fate of many women who are smuggled alone back to safety—rape and coercion by criminals.

According to the statistics ICSVE researchers have been able to compile, foreign women who join ISIS return at a much lower rate than men. It is unlikely that’s because they want to remain with the group. It probably reflects the fact that it is difficult for a woman to escape ISIS with no money of her own, living constantly under the control of men, going outside the house only with difficulty, then facing the depredations of smugglers once they are on their way.

Women who have borne children inside ISIS territory have encountered difficulties escaping with their children, who lack officially recognized identity documents. A Belgian ISIS mother, for instance, contacted her consulate in Turkey before attempting to escape ISIS territory, only to be told that her husband, the father of her babies, would also need to be present to apply for and receive papers for her children. She decided to stay put rather than attempt escape with no certainty of ensuring her children’s eventual documentation according to interviews we conducted in Belgium last year.

ISIS has managed to attract both adults and teen girls. Schoolgirls from London to Scotland to the Netherlands to Kyrgyzstan have run away to ISIS. Some were enamored of adventure and excited by men who lured them with promises of romance.

Turning to the blog posts of ISIS internet recruiters such as Umm Laith and Bird of Janna [Paradis], they likely believed they were embarking on a romantic and heroic venture to better the world and find unconditional love, trust, and loyalty. Promises of an Islamic life, riches, and torrid love affairs are common fare among male and female Internet recruiters.

French journalist Anna Erelle, posing as a younger vulnerable teen, was contacted by a French fighter the same day she posted his video on her fake Facebook profile. Internet relationships can easily provide frequent contact and convey caring and real intimacy. Her recruiter dogged her constantly, Skyping, texting and talking with her multiple times a day. To a lonely and confused young woman, this can be an intoxicating amount of attention. Internet recruiters often talk to them more than their own family members, honing in on vulnerabilities and needs.

Many who joined ISIS, women included, believed that the ISIS “Caliphate” would deliver a “pure” Islamic lifestyle and that it would operate by “pure” Islamic ideals, despite the bloodshed and brutality that have become a defining characteristic of the group.

In fact, ISIS uses cruelty to communicate fearlessness, and coupled with battlefield successes, in 2014 and 2015 it managed to attract thousands of fighters from all over the world, including hundreds of women, to what it portrayed as a triumphant cause.

Part of its strength lies in its ability to demonize the opponents and avoid the moral conflict that comes with killing and engaging in acts of brutality. When women question this gruesome spectacle, the ISIS responses is that, “All revolutions require bloodshed, but ultimately those who fight for the cause will live by pure Islam.”

In fact, ISIS recruiters operate much like cult recruiters, meeting needs in the first interactions and then gradually drawing their victims deeper into the group—to a point where the group no longer caters to them but instead takes over their lives.

As the New York Times reported in 2015, a young woman in Washington State, whose alcoholic mother had left her in the care of her grandparents, tweeted out the question of why ISIS would behead a journalist. She received an answer—from ISIS recruiters—who told her that all revolutions are characterized by bloodshed and that this [ISIS struggle] was no different. They then began to seduce her into the movement by lavishing attention and gifts upon her.

Similarly, a teen girl in London followed ISIS profiles on Twitter, only to find that they followed her back, suddenly making her “popular” with many followers, and they messaged her about joining the Islamic State. They told her that, as a Muslim, she should make hijrah—that is, travel to live in Islamic lands rather than live sinfully in the kafr (unbelieving) U.K. When she protested that she was too young to marry one of the “brothers,” she was told she could come and marry after a year or so. When her case came to the attention of authorities, she admitted that from the pictures she was being sent of ISIS housing in Syria, she thought she would be traveling to “Islamic Disneyland.”

Converts to Islam are especially vulnerable to ISIS recruitment, as they often have limited knowledge of religion. They often want to prove themselves, sometimes by expressing loyalty through violence. At the same time, they may be alienated from family members, which leaves them vulnerable to others who begin to fill that gap.

American teen Shannon Conley fell into this category. She converted from Catholicism to Islam at age 17 and then tried to join ISIS at age 19. She found her interpretations of Islam on the internet and was convinced by violent extremists that Islam is under attack and that the West is the enemy of Islam. Interviewed by the FBI when she came to their attention, Shannon admitted to downloading instructions on how to carry out a VIP attack inside the United States and that she had come to believe that military bases, and even civilians who frequent them, could be legitimate targets of attacks.

She also Skyped and fell in love with a Tunisian ISIS fighter who convinced her to become a hero by leaving her job cleaning bedpans, marrying him, and working as a medic for ISIS. Shannon attempted to travel to Syria and was sadly disappointed when she was arrested on the tarmac trying to board a plane out of Denver, Colorado. She is now held in a maximum-security prison.

Girls who go to join Islamic State often leave confused schoolmates and BFFs behind. Two young Bosnians who had grown up in Vienna continued to contact at least one of their friends via social media, likely inviting her to follow. A young girl in a London school appears to have influenced three of her schoolmates to follow her into the Islamic State.

Contagion effects are normal among young people, particularly teen girls, and have been observed in relation to suicide to psychosomatic health epidemics. This is to be expected and should be guarded against in relation to terrorist recruitment as well.

Women who join ISIS are joining a misogynist organization, but it is important to note that they also are empowered in multiple ways by the group. Foreign women who join are invited to serve in the ISIS hisbah (morality police). They are tasked with enforcing dress codes and the strict ISIS interpretations of sharia law.

These women are armed, operate above the status of ordinary civilians, and answer to practically no one—enjoying an elevated status they may not have found back home.

Women who earn poorly back home might also enjoy a beautiful home taken from the enemies of ISIS or a captive forced into slavery who does cooking and housework, in some cases looking after the husband’s sexual desires. Even among women, the ISIS true believer is taught to dehumanize these captive women and legitimize their enslavement.

If they are not in the hisbah, young foreign women are invited to join a group of women operating out of Raqqa that draw other women, as well as men, into the group. Females seducing men into the group are powerful indeed. American ISIS recruit Mohamad Jamal Khweis appears to have joined precisely for this female promise of marriage, having left the U.S. on a purported vacation but flown in a circuitous route to Istanbul. He later claimed to have met a woman whom he immediately married and with whom he traveled to Iraq to join the group.

Contrary to some assumptions, females who get to the Islamic State are not gang-raped by ISIS men. But they are expected to have husbands and, indeed, ISIS runs a marriage bureau specifically for that purpose. Women who marry into ISIS are indoctrinated into believing in the spiritual benefits of their husband’s “martyrdom,” with some even welcoming their enhanced status as a “martyr’s” widow as a positive benefit. Moreover, widowhood benefits are promised to ISIS wives in the event their husbands are killed.

According to ISIS defectors we interviewed, in reality, these are rarely paid with any consistency. On the contrary, ISIS widows found themselves handed off to their husband’s friends or put into dire living situations until they agreed to marry again—some marrying as many as thirteen times in succession. One female ISIS defector with a baby in arms told us she escaped the group because she did not want to be forced to marry a fourth time after her third husband was killed.

Most countries accept their female returnees from Iraq and Syriaand many countries do not prosecute these women—or if they do, they receive lighter sentences. This is due to the notion that they only followed their men as a result of being tricked or coerced, which often is not the case.

In the Balkans and Central Asia, we were told by intelligence and law enforcement that women are “zombies” (following their men and controlled by their men). But our research shows that ISIS women often followed their men willingly into Syria and Iraq, and in some cases willingly joined them in homegrown terrorist attacks.

Some may have agreed to go out of fears of abandonment and financial ruin, yet others were instigators. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, two older women talked their extended families into traveling to Syria to join ISIS, believing that they would better their financial lot and be able to live by what they believed to be “true” Islamic ideals. When disillusionment set in, one of these grandmothers was able to smuggle her grandson back home who, according to her close associates interviewed in Kyrgyzstan, brought a message from the rest of the family: “He’s the only one we could get out, we are hopelessly lost.”

Contrary to some societal assumptions that downplay the role of women as perpetrators of violence, women in ISIS frequently are agents of violence within the group. Former members of hisbah told us themselves about flogging and biting other women with metal teeth as punishments. Similarly, reports from those on the ground in Syria state that women inside ISIS have been trained to throw grenades, use weapons, and have been indoctrinated for “martyrdom” missions.

Indeed, the marriage certificate for ISIS wives was changed in recent years to state that a woman does not have to seek her husband’s permission to become a “martyr.” She only needs the permission of the ISIS “caliph,” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

Following in the paths of many conservative terrorist groups that do not encourage female fighter roles, ISIS is no different in pushing them into suicide missions when cornered, facts born out in the recent battle for Mosul.

Given that not all ISIS females were forced to join the group, nor lacking in agency with regards to the roles they played in it, we need to be cautious with both female and male returnees from the Islamic State.

While women who join ISIS are often portrayed as “brainwashed” by men, cultural biases that overlook the role of women as willing participants, including narratives that deny the role of political grievances that drive women to join ISIS, may be dangerous.

ISIS has relied on women for logistical, propaganda, recruitment, and policing work. During the final battles for the recapture of Mosul, ISIS sent numerous females to blow themselves up in attacks on encroaching soldiers.

Independent of gender, anyone who joined the Islamic State group likely had some psychological and social issues before leaving that made them vulnerable to recruitment, and once in, they often also have been weaponized and indoctrinated into a vicious ideology.

Men who went through sharia training told us of having to behead a prisoner before giving their bayat [pledge of allegiance] to the terrorist group while women in the hisbah told us of being turned into sadistic torturers. While women are less often weaponized, there is increasing evidence of weapons training for female cadres in the last year.

As ISIS increasingly calls for homegrown attacks in the West, it is unclear if they will reach back to females who have returned home. For instance, one wife of an ISIS fighter in Kosovo was not prosecuted for joining and traveling to a terrorist group, while her husband was. He serves a four-and-a-half-year sentence and still avows loyalty to ISIS while his wife lives freely in society, although under police surveillance. She is known to continue internet contacts with the group as well as communicate with her husband who expressed willingness to return to the group if released.

There are ample other examples of returned foreign fighters from ISIS and other terrorist groups where the returnee continued on at home as a “sleeper” and reactivated over time. The possibility that ISIS women would do the same is a factor we cannot afford to ignore.

In our experience, ISIS has contacted members who defected, insisting that they continue to serve the group even when they wish to sever ties. Similarly, returnees who may have had difficulties that led to their wish to travel to Syria and Iraq to join, are likely to face these same difficulties, if not worse stressors, upon their return. They have also witnessed extreme brutality that may leave them in a traumatized state.

Interviews in the past with traumatized Palestinians often revealed how easy it was to volunteer for a suicide mission if one already was psychologically numb as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As one interviewee said, “It’s a small step to take if we are already dead.”

Indeed, “martyrdom” ideology serves as a kind of psychological first aid when applied to people suffering PTSD. The individuals gain immediate relief from painful flashbacks and post-traumatic arousal states by escaping into a death they believe is simply a doorway to paradise and glory, and may even experience states of euphoria in contemplating taking their own life in this manner.

These same post traumatic vulnerabilities may be operating for ISIS female returnees who, in many cases are not prosecuted nor mandated into any kind of treatment, despite likely suffering stigma, personal and psycho-social problems, and difficulties reintegrating.

Public sympathies for ISIS female returnees, who are often handed down shorter sentences or pardoned, may only complicate the prospect of effectively dealing with female returnees who need special care and attention. It is our view that anyone who joins a terrorist group like ISIS, by virtue of the likelihood that they are traumatized by what they experienced and may also be ideologically indoctrinated or weapons trained, should first be prosecuted and, if judged amenable to it, be allowed to receive a lightened prison sentence, or sidestep prison time altogether by voluntarily committing to engage in a psychological program.

A well carried out rehabilitation program can help them to understand and address the personal reasons that resonated with ISIS calls to recruitment and their violent actions, as well as be moved to find other solutions to either their psycho-social problems and/or concerns about their grievances.

Some ISIS returnees may not voluntarily take part in rehabilitation. Others may only pretend to cooperate. That said, if carried out well and with careful assessments along the way, many can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society in a psychological state that makes it less likely that they would again be manipulated or once again answer the call to terrorism.

While we are preparing for the return of female foreign fighters, we also need to educate youth, including female youth, regarding the truth about ISIS and their virulent online and face-to-face recruitment. Despite rapidly losing its territory, ISIS has already produced innumerable propaganda materials that are likely to continue to circulate on the internet. The digital “Caliphate” will likely continue to recruit.

Initiatives like our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project using insiders to denounce the group will continue to be useful to interfere with and disrupt ISIS recruitment. Through a combination of education, prevention, and direct intervention measures, we can ensure the safety of our citizens while ISIS tries to reconstitute itself in the face of territorial loss and the eventual return home of most of its foreign fighters.

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.

Reference for this article is Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (8-21-2017) Beware the Women of ISIS: There are many and they may be more dangerous than the men.  Daily Beast http://www.thedailybeast.com/beware-the-women-of-isis-there-are-many-and-they-may-be-more-dangerous-than-the-men

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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U.S.: From mass airstrikes to targeted terrorist attack

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The U.S.-led military operation “Inherent Resolve” has begun in August 2014. Its ostensible purpose was a struggle with the gaining ground ISIS at that moment. As the operation develops, Australia, France, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Belgium and other countries joined the American airstrikes.

United forces, with purposes to show power and strengthen its influence in the region carried out more than three thousand airstrikes in the first year, resulting in thousands of victims among civilians. It is worth to note that member states of the coalition didn’t try to hide the fact that their actions caused the death of thousands of people. In 2018, British authorities justified civilian deaths by the fact that militants used them as human shields and it was impossible task to minimize losses.

According to “Airwars”, the British non-government organization, from 2014 till 2019 up to 13,190 civilians were killed in Iraq and Syria as a result of the international coalition actions.

However, despite all the “efforts” and the Pentagon’s loud statements about the fight against international terrorism, the fact of the continuously growing territory controlled by the militants testifies the opposite. In addition, since 2015, facts of provided by Washington direct support to terrorists have begun to be revealed. U.S. and its allies produced weapons were repeatedly found in the territories liberated from jihadists. So, for example in 2017 during armed clashes with government troops militants used anti-tank TOW-2 and SAMS air defense systems of the U.S. production. Also, American medicines, communication tools and even component kits for UAVs were found in positions abandoned by terrorists.

The negative reaction of the international community began to rise in this context and Washington had no choice but to change the strategy of its activity in Syria. The practice of mass airstrikes was replaced by targeted terrorist attacks against government forces by their backed militants.

For implementing of such kind of actions, U.S. retained its military presence in Homs province where their military base Al-Tanf is deployed. A huge amount of evidence U.S. servicemen training armed groups fighters is widely accessible. Moreover it’s known that 55 km zone around Al-Tanf has been inaccessible to government troops for years and Syrian army attempts to enter the area were suppressed by the U.S. airstrikes.

At the same time, IS militants have been spotted moving in this region without encumbrance and used the base as a safe zone for regrouping. Terrorists slipped in Deir ez-Zor, Palmyra, as well as Daraa and As-Suwayda from this area. In addition, the U.S. has created the Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra group to fight government forces in the eastern section of the border between Syria and Iraq. Initially, the armed group was created to fight against government troops, but after a number of defeats they started to protect the area around the Al-Tanf.

Up to the date Washington continues to insist on Bashar al-Assad government “illegitimacy” and actively supports so-called moderate opposition. Pursuing its selfish economic and political goals, the United States counters to the international law, completely ignoring the tens of thousands victims among civilians and millions of refugees flooded Europe. Although the role of the White House and its allies in supporting terrorist groups is difficult to overestimate, the United States obviously will not consider it enough.

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FATF: A Sword of Damocles or a tool of financial discipline?

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Pakistan has been groaning under the Financial Action Task Force restrictions. There is marked contrast between Pakistan’s and India’s view of Pakistan’s current status, compliant or tardy with regard to most of the conditions. Pakistan oozes optimism that it has complied with most of the conditions.  India however is pessimistic about Pakistan’s ability to get over the bar anytime soon.

Anti-money-laundering legislation

One hurdle to meet the FATF conditionalities was to have a permanent mechanism to nab and prosecute the offenders. Pakistan’s federal cabinet has already approved a new set of rules to amend Anti-Money-Laundering (Forfeited Properties Management) Rules 2021 and the AML (Referral) Rules 2021. Thus, Pak government is now all set to set to introduce new rules on forfeiture, management and auction of properties and assets relating to Anti-Money Laundering (AML) cases and transfer of investigations and prosecution of AML cases from police, provincial anti-corruption establishments (ACEs) and other similar agencies to specialised agencies to achieve remaining benchmarks of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

These rules and related notifications for certain changes in existing schedule of Anti-Money Laundering Act 2010 (AMLA) would come into force immediately to be followed by appointment of administrators and special public prosecutors for implementation.

These legislative steps would help the FATF determine whether Pakistan has complied with three outstanding benchmarks, out of 27, that blocked its exit from the so-called grey list in February this year. The FATF has planned several meetings in the second week of June, ending in the FATF plenary on June 21-25.

The three outstanding action points (out of total 27) include (i) demonstrating that terrorist financing (TF) investigations and prosecutions target persons and entities acting on behalf or at the directive of the designated persons or entities; (ii) demonstrating that TF prosecutions result in effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions; and (iii) demonstrating effective implementation of targeted financial sanctions against all designated terrorists, particularly those acting for them or on their behalf.

Within framework of the amended rules, the Pak government would appoint dozens of administrators with the powers to confiscate, receive, manage, rent out, auction, transfer or dispose of or take all other measures to preserve the value of the properties and perishable or non-perishable assets (including those at go downs, maalkhanas or any other place) to be confiscated under the AML 2010 rules or court orders pursuant to proceedings under AMLA 2010.

The regional directors of the Anti-Narcotics Force would be designated as administrators for the ANF, customs collectors for the Federal Board of Revenue, directors of directorates of intelligence and investigation of the Inland Revenue Service for the IRS, zonal directors for FIA and additional directors of recovery, disposal and assets management cells for National Accountability Bureau.

Valuation of inventories

The AML (Forfeited Properties Management) Rules 2021 specify how the inventories would be measured, described or defined, protected and evaluated for auction and how to complete all processes thereto, including constitution of auction committees and how properties would be quantified or classified like if a property is of residential, commercial or industrial nature and what should be its market value or sale price etc.

For example, the movable case property worth more than Rs100,000 would be kept in the locker or vault in the State Bank of Pakistan, district or tehsil treasury or any nationalised bank. For withdrawal of such movable properties, the agency concerned would designate two officers of grade-17 or above and prior written permission of next supervisory officer of the agency would be required.

Each agency would establish a central asset recovery office to ensure assets recovery and management of the forfeited property and keep a designated central account with the SBP maintained by the ministry of finance where proceeds of property would be remitted by all agencies after attainment of the finality of forfeiture order by a court. All investigating and prosecuting agencies would exchange financial intelligence and information about the properties with other stakeholders for expeditious confiscation and forfeiture under the AMLA 2010.

Transfer of cases to competent authorities

The Anti-Money Laundering (Referral) Rules, 2021 are being introduced to enable transfer of the cases from one set of investigation agencies to another. If police, the ACEs or any other governmental organisations, other than investigating and prosecution agency under the AMLA, finds that an offence under the AMLA 2010 has been committed and such agency lacks jurisdiction to take cognizance of it, the head of such would refer the matter to the head of the agency concerned having jurisdiction to investigate.

Police, the ACEs or other governmental organisations would continue an inquiry or an investigation of the offence and would take necessary measures to preserve and retrieve the relevant information and evidence and case properties till formal acceptance by the investigating and prosecuting agency concerned as set out in the relevant clause of the AMLA and formal handing over and taking over of complete record.

After acceptance of the case by the competent investigating and prosecuting agency, police or ACEs etc would hand over complete record, including case files, record of proceedings and seizure memos along with relevant evidence, property and other material seized and the accused in custody, if any. Such investigating and prosecuting agencies would resume all the proceedings under the said act including to examine, re-examine persons concerned and other oral and documentary evidence and would expeditiously take steps as necessary for just finalisation of the proceedings.

Adequate number of special public prosecutors would be appointed for the Anti-Narcotics Force and Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) besides a separate panel of lawyers for customs and the Internal Revenue Service of the Federal board of Revenue. Also, law officers not below the rank of assistant director legal would be appointed for the Federal Investigating Agency and special public prosecutors for the National Accountability Bureau.

Pakistan also has to issue “National Policy Statement on Follow the Money (NPSFM)”. Through this statement and rules listed above, Pakistan’s compliance with FATF recommendations in Post Observation Period Report (POPR) would further improve with corresponding enhancement in the ratings or effectiveness of the FATF’s relevant Immediate Outcomes. Pakistan’s POPR would be reviewed by the FATF’s Asia-Pacific Joint Group (A-PJG), and based on the report of this group, the FATF would decide further course of action on Pakistan’s progress on the POPR in its plenary scheduled in June 21-25, 2021.

The NPSFM commits Pakistan to tackling money laundering and terrorist financing as a matter of priority during investigations, prosecutions, and subsequent confiscation in all money laundering, terrorism financing and high risk predicate crimes by adopting universal approach to combating money-laundering and terror-financing through generating sound and effective financial intelligence reports for the consumption of law enforcement agencies and maintaining risk-sensitive anti-money-laundering  regime to enhance cooperation and coordination amongst the such  stakeholders both domestically and internationally.

The government is also committed to protecting the financial system and the broader economy in Pakistan from criminality through a robust financial system to ensure that dirty money does not find its ways into the financial system. The government would ensure a robust beneficiary identification system, deterring financial crime as it deprives criminals of the proceeds of their crimes and removes financial support for terrorism and further ensures that targeted financial sanctions are implemented in letter and spirit.

Further, it would ensure a transparent, robust and efficient approach to investigating money laundering and terrorist financing and to the seizure, confiscation and management of criminal assets by supporting relevant agencies in cooperatively achieving this goal.

Compliance

 The Asia Pacific Group (APG) on Money Laundering has improved Pakistan’s rating on 21 of the 40 technical recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against money laundering and terror financing, but retained it on ‘Enhanced Follow-up’ for sufficient outstanding requirements.

The second Follow-Up Report (FUR) on Mutual Evaluation of Pakistan released by the APG — a regional affiliate of the Paris-based FATF — also downgraded the country on one criterion. The report said Pakistan was re-rated to ‘compliant’ status on five counts and on 15 others to ‘largely compliant’ and on yet another count to ‘partially compliant’.

Overall, Pakistan is now fully ‘compliant’ with seven recommendations and ‘largely compliant’ with 24 others. The country is ‘partially compliant’ with seven recommendations and ‘non-compliant’ with two out of total 40 recommendations. All in all, Pakistan is now compliant or largely compliant with 31 out of 40 FATF recommendations.

The Asia Pacific Group announced,

“Overall, Pakistan has made notable progress in addressing the technical compliance deficiencies identified in its Mutual Evaluation Report (MER) and has been re-rated on 22 recommendations,”.

It said recommendations 14, 19, 20, 21 and 27 had been re-rated to comply. These pertain to money or value transfer services, higher risk countries, reporting of suspicious transactions, tipping-off and confidentiality and powers of supervisors.

The APG said Pakistan was re-rated to largely compliant with 15 recommendations — 1, 6, 7, 8, 12, 17, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, 32, 35 and 40. These include assessing risk and adopting a risk-based approach, targeted financial sanctions relating to terror and terror financing, targeted financial sanctions related to proliferation, non-profit organisation, politically exposed persons and reliance on third parties.

Also, re-rating was done on designated non-financial business & professions (DNFBP) in terms of due diligence and other measures, transparency in beneficial ownership of legal persons and related legal arrangements, responsibilities of law enforcement and investigation authorities, cash couriers, sanctions and other forms of international cooperation.

Another re-rating to partially compliant status was done on recommendation 28 that pertained to regulation and supervision of DNFBPs. The two recommendations on which Pakistan was downgraded to ‘non-complaint’ were 37 and 38 due to insufficient progress and pertained to mutual legal assistance (MLA) with other countries and freezing and confiscation of assets and accounts.

Negative impact of rigorous compliance

The managers of financial institutions in Pakistan are implementing the FATF conditions  without understanding their purpose. They are harassing honest investors. For instance, the manager of the national Saving Centre Poonch house Rawalpindi refuses to issue an investment certificate  unless the applicant submits a host of documents. These documents include a current bank statement, source-of-income certificate besides biodata along with a passport-size photograph. They call for the documents even if the applicant submits a cheque on his 40-year-old bank account.

Deviation from objectives

The financial Action Task Force has ostensibly noble objectives. It provides a `legal’, regulatory, framework for muzzling the hydra-headed monster of money-laundering. It aims at identifying loopholes in the prevailing financial system and plugging them. But, it has deviated from its declared objectives. It has became a tool to coerce countries, accused of financing terrorism or facilitating money-laundering. The FATF is more interested in disciplining a state like Pakistan, not toeing US policies, than in checking money-laundering. The tacit message is that if Pakistan does not toe USA’s  Afghan policy, and lease out air bases for drone attacks, then it will remain on FATF grey list.  

The consequences of being in the grey list may entail economic sanctions and difficulties in obtaining loans from international donors like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The trade-and-aid difficulties may retard economic progress of a country.

Favoritism towards India: India has a much larger Gross Domestic Product (US$2875 billion , 2019),  than Pakistan’s paltry US$ 264 billion (2020).Similarly India has a much larger and wealthier Diaspora than Pakistan particularly in the Middle East and the USA.

The hawala (hand to hand transactions) and other money transfer practices among Indians and Pakistanis are similar. Yet the FATF keeps Pakistan always in focus and looks the other way when it comes to India.

Pakistan is a bête noire and India a protégé at the FATF only because of stark geo-political interests. Otherwise the money laundering situation in India is no less gruesome in India than in Pakistan. India has even been a conduit of ammunition to the Islamic State study conducted by Conflict Armament Research had confirmed that seven Indian companies were involved in the supply chain of over 700 components, including fuses or detonating cords used by the so-called Islamic State to construct improvised explosive devices.

Concluding remark

Political considerations, not primary objectives, override voting behavior at the FATF.

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Terrorism

The Autopsy of Jihadism in the United States

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The American counter-terrorism establishment is shocked to know that its current terrorist threat, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not foreign but “a large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents”.

A terror threat assessment by NewAmerica, a think tank comprehensive, up-to-date source of online information about terrorist activity in the United States and by Americans overseas since 9/11, 20 years after 9/11 reported: “…while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident except one who was in the United States as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership”.

The ultimate irony is NewAmerica quoting a terrorist to underline the seriousness of the threat: “Yet today, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born cleric who became a leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, put it in a 2010 post, ‘Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie’.”

Since 9/11 and today, the United States faced just “one case of a jihadist foreign terrorist organization directing a deadly attack inside the United States since 9/11, or of a deadly jihadist attacker receiving training or support from groups abroad”. The report recalls: “That case is the attack at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on December 6, 2019, when Mohammed Al-Shamrani shot and killed three people. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed the attack and according to the FBI, evidence from Al-Shamrani’s phone  he was in contact with an AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula) militant and AQAP prior to his entry to the United States…”

In the last two decades, “jihadists” have killed 107 people inside the United States. Compare this with deaths occurring due to major crimes: 114 people were killed by far-right terrorism (consisting of anti-government, militia, white supremacist, and anti-abortion violence), 12 and nine people, respectively, killed in attacks “inspired by black separatist/nationalist ideology and ideological misogyny”. Attacks by people with Far-Left views have killed one person. It just goes to show that terrorism inside the United States is no longer the handiwork of foreign or “jihadi” ideologies, but is “homegrown”, the report points out.

The report points out a poor understanding of the terror threat and its roots by the Trump administration. A week into his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry of citizens of seven Muslim countries into the United States. The countries were: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Th order cited “national security” as the reason, but gave no real justification.

Trump’s aides tried to find some justification for the order claiming that in the administration’s assessment the United States was and will be the prime target of terrorist organisations from these countries. The same report clarifies how wrong this assessment was: “None of the deadly attackers since 9/11 emigrated or came from a family that emigrated from one of these countries nor were any of the 9/11 attackers from the listed countries. Nine of the lethal attackers were born American citizens. One of the attackers was in the United States on a non-immigrant visa as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership.”

President Trump had to swallow his pride and gradually revoke his order. In early March of 2017, he revised the order excluding Iraq from the ban list. That September, he dropped Sudan too, but added North Korea, Venezuela and Chad.

In the last two decades since 9/11, there have been 16 “lethal jihadist terrorists in the United States”. Of them, “three are African-Americans, three are from families that hailed originally from Pakistan, one was born in Virginia to Palestinian immigrant parents, one was born in Kuwait to Palestinian-Jordanian parents, one was born in New York to a family from Afghanistan, two are white converts – one born in Texas, another in Florida, two came from Russia as youth, one emigrated from Egypt and conducted his attack a decade after coming to the United States, one emigrated from Uzbekistan and one was a Saudi Air Force officer in the United States for military training”. Nobody from the banned countries, nobody foreign citizens; all were American citizens.

What is more embarrassing for the Trump administration is the report saying: “When the data is extended to include individuals who conducted attacks inside the United States that were foiled or otherwise failed to kill anyone, there are only four cases that the travel ban could have applied to. However, in at least two of those cases, the individual entered the United States as a child. In a third case the individual had a history of mental illness and assault not related to jihadist terrorism. In a fifth, non-lethal attack Adam al-Sahli, who conducted a shooting at a military base in Corpus Christi on May 21, 2020, was born in Syria but was a citizen because his father was an American citizen and thus would not have been subject to the travel ban.”

The NewAmerica assessment, in contrast to the executive order, finds concrete evidence to suggest that the terror threat is “homegrown”. It gives the example of Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, “a naturalised citizen from Iran”, who on March 3, 2006 drove a car into a group of students at the University of North Carolina, injuring nine people. “Taheri-Azar, though born in Iran, came to the United States at the age of two” and “his radicalization was homegrown inside the United States”. On September 17, 2016 Dahir Adan, a naturalized citizen from Somalia, injured 10 people while wielding a knife at a mall in Minnesota. He too had come to the United States as a young child.

There are more such instances: “On November 28, 2016 Abdul Razak Ali Artan, an 18-year-old legal permanent resident who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia in 2014 — having left Somalia for Pakistan in 2007 — injured eleven people when he rammed a car into his fellow students on the campus of Ohio State University…However, it is not clear that the attack provides support for Trump’s travel ban.

In Artan’s case, he left Somalia as a pre-teen, and “if he was radicalized abroad, it most likely occurred while in Pakistan”, which is not included on the travel ban. The report says the chances of him being radicalised inside the United States are more. This is based on the fact that “in a Facebook posting prior to his attack, he cited Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric born in the United States, whose work — which draws largely upon American culture and history — has helped radicalize a wide range of extremists in the United States including those born in the United States”.

There are several other pointers to the “homegrown” theory. For one, a “large proportion of jihadists in the United States since 9/11 have been converts”. There are “jihadists” who are non-Muslims. These facts “challenge visions of counterterrorism policy that rely on immigration restrictions or focus almost entirely on second generation immigrant populations”, the report says, debunking the Trump executive order.

The NewAmerica report debunks the assumption that only “hot headed” people are attracted to jihadist extremism. It finds that “participation in jihadist terrorism has appealed to individuals ranging from young teenagers to those in their advanced years (and) many of those involved have been married and even had kids – far from the stereotype of the lone, angry youngster”.

Women have broken the glass ceiling of jihadist terrorism as “more women have been accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in recent years” inside the United States.

The expansion of the social media world has played a singular role in radicalising American youth. “Many extremists today either maintain public social media profiles displaying jihadist rhetoric or imagery or have communicated online using encrypted messaging apps. The percentage of cases involving such online activity has increased over time.” Al Qaeda terrorists became key figures in this proliferation. They “fine-tuned the message and the distribution apparatus” and “put out extremist propaganda via websites and YouTube videos”.

America’s jihadists were never an immigration problem, the biggest jihadist terror threat U.S faces today is “homegrown”.

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