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
Islamic State threat moves online, expands across Africa
Two decades after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, terror networks Al-Qaida and Islamic State – also known as Da’esh – continue to pose a grave threat to peace and security, adapting to new technologies and moving into some of the world’s most fragile regions, the top UN counter-terrorism official told the Security Council on Thursday.
UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov presented the Secretary-General’s latest report on the threats posed by terrorist groups, saying that Da’esh continues to exploit the disruption, grievances and development setbacks caused by the pandemic to regroup, recruit new followers and intensify its activities – both online and on the ground.
“Today, we face transnational terrorist threats like Da’esh and Al-Qaida that are enduring and able to adapt to new technologies, but also expanding to include individuals and groups that commit terrorist attacks connected to xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance”, said Mr. Voronkov.
The UN counter-terrorism architecture, largely set up in the wake of the 9/11 attack, helps Member States implement effective frameworks to prevent, address, investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism.
It is also ramping up efforts to help countries adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the threat, which has become more digital and de-centralized in recent years.
Noting that the world is currently witnessing a rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan “which could have far-reaching implications” around the globe, he cited Da’esh’s expanded presence in that country and pointed out that several members of the Taliban have been designated as terrorists by the Security Council.
“We will need to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as launching pad for global terrorism“, stressed the UN official.
He briefed the Council on the eve of the fourth commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism, observed annually on 21 August.
Islamic State in Africa
While Da’esh remains focused on reconstituting its capabilities in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Vornkov said the most alarming development in recent months is the group’s relentless spread across the African continent.
The so-called “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” has killed several hundred civilians since the start of 2021 in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, while the group’s “West Africa Province” will likely gain from the weakening of Boko Haram, with additional spillover of terrorists and foreign fighters from Libya.
Meanwhile, the expansion of Da’esh in Central Africa – and especially in northern Mozambique – could have far-reaching implications for peace and security in the region.
“A global response is urgently needed to support the efforts of African countries and regional organizations to counter terrorism and address its interplay with conflict, organized crime, governance and development gaps”, said Mr. Voronkov.
Repatriating women and children
Alongside Da’esh’s expansion in Africa and its rapid shift online, Mr. Voronkov also cited the continued detention of thousands of individuals with alleged links to terrorist groups as another factor exacerbating the threat.
Deteriorating conditions in detention facilities and displacement camps in northeast Syria, in particular, are serving as a rallying cry for terrorist activities. They have already fuelled instances of terrorist radicalization, fund-raising, arms smuggling, training and incitement to terror.
Against that backdrop, he echoed calls from officials across the UN for Member States to voluntarily repatriate all concerned individuals, with a particular focus on children.
In September, the Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will jointly launch a global framework to support countries requesting assistance with protection, voluntary repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals with suspected links to designated terrorist groups returning from Iraq and Syria.
The framework has already been deployed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Taliban and Al Qaeda: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?
Abu Omar Khorasani was taken from Kabul’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison and unceremoniously shot.
The first and only person to have been executed since the Taliban gained full control of Afghanistan, Mr. Khorasani was the head of the Islamic State in South Asia until he was arrested by government forces last year.
The precise circumstances of his execution are not known. His killing was, however, at least in part designed to send a message to the international community, and particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China and Iran, as well as Russia, Central Asia’s security overlord.
The message was that the Taliban were cracking down on foreign jihadists and militants in Afghanistan.
Mr. Khorasani was an easy symbol. The Taliban and the Islamic State, whose ranks of foreigners are primarily populated by Pakistanis and a sprinkling of Central Asians, Uighurs, Russians, Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Indians, and Frenchmen, have long been adversarial. The Islamic State recently accused the Taliban of being more nationalist than pious in their negotiations with the United States.
The Taliban message is a partial truth at best. What is true for the Islamic State is not true for Al–Qaeda and others such as the Uighur Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The Taliban appear to believe that they can get away with the differentiation because they perceived the United States as more focused in the withdrawal negotiations on ensuring that the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other militants will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for international operations rather than on getting them expelled from the country.
The perceived US focus may have been rooted in a concern that if Taliban’s hands were forced, they would let militants slip out of the country and not hand them over to authorities. That would make it difficult to control their movements or ensure that they are either entered into deradicalization programs or, if warranted, brought to justice.
“It’s a Catch-22. The Taliban ensuring that Al Qaeda sticks to rule risks putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. How much better that is than having foxes run wild remains to be seen,” said a retired counter-terrorism official.
Officials of the Trump administration that negotiated the agreement suggest that the continued presence of Al-Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan would violate the accord with the Taliban.
Former Vice President Mike Pence as well as Trump era State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales argued that the deal “required the Taliban…to refuse terrorists safe harbour.”
Russia and China, while publicly more measured in their statements, are likely to share western concerns. Russia held military drills earlier this month with Tajik and Uzbek troops in Tajikistan, 20 kilometres from the border with Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda may have been boosted in recent weeks by multiple prison breaks in which the Taliban freed operatives of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups. It remains unclear however to what degree the breaks will help the group strengthen its presence in Afghanistan.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned this week that al Qaeda and the Islamic State could quickly rebuild their networks in Afghanistan.
The United Nations recently reported that Al-Qaeda “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces”, and that its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent, “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.”
“Without information on who exactly escaped, it is difficult to determine whether historically significant figures remain within AQ’s AfPak network, or if it is mainly composed of newer figures these days, whether local or regional foreign fighters,” cautioned political violence scholar Aaron Y. Zelin. Mr. Zelin was referring to Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network.
Also unclear is whether Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran will be allowed to relocate to Afghanistan.
The prison breaks further go to concerns about relying on the Taliban to police jihadists and other militants with aspirations beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Of particular concern is the fact that the balance of power has yet to be determined between Taliban leaders who in recent days have been eager to put a more moderate, accommodating foot forward with security guarantees for their opponents, minorities and women and the group’s far-flung less polished rank and file.
The concern about the Taliban’s ability and willingness to control militant activity on Afghan soil is magnified by worry regarding the continued existence of warlords with the power to organise violence, provide jobs and public services, and forge or strengthen ties with militants.
“Warlords will play an active role in the future of Afghanistan. They will remain businessmen and political leaders, connected to global economic processes and networks. They will develop the military power that they need to control territory and wage war. They will, finally, continue to fight for more autonomy and, in some cases, might even manage to partially form their old regional polities once again,” said Romain Malejacq, author of a book on Afghan warlords.
“Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a warlord-ridden wasteland,” said journalist and author Graeme Wood.
The Taliban’s refusal to expel militants not only complicates the group’s efforts to garner legitimacy in the international community and particularly its neighbours, even if Al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened since 9/11 and is less focussed on attacking the United States and more on the Muslim world.
It also strengthens those who fear that Afghanistan will again emerge as a launching pad for trans-national political violence. “We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state—a breeding ground for terrorism,” warned Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They (the Taliban) will not restrict terrorist groups, just ask them to operate low-key,” added Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia.
The Taliban proved already 20 years ago that they valued loyalty when they rejected US and Saudi pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden no matter the cost. The Taliban have since come to appreciate Al Qaeda’s fighting skills and contributions to the Afghan militants’ cause.
Taliban fighters this week, in a violation of their pledge to inclusiveness, demonstrated their ideological anti-Shiite affinity with Al-Qaeda by blowing up a statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Shiite Hazara militia leader killed by the Taliban when they first took power in 1996.
Drones in the Hands of Terrorists: What Happens Then?
Ardian is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with a field research experience in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, Somalia and Central Asia. Ardian is the co-founder and director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research institute focused on studying translation left-wing, right-wing, and militant jihadi forms of political violence. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.
Interviewed by Tatyana Kanunnikova.
What will be the role of drones in future terrorist attacks?
If we look at some of the most recent examples in Europe—for instance, the Gatwick Airport incident where drone sightings were reported—these led to a lot of confusion among airport officials as well as policymakers and law enforcement. In this specific case, we are talking about dozens of flights canceled, millions in costs for the airport as a result of the shutdown. We are also talking about the anti-drone technology that needs to be implemented by the airport, which translates into substantial financial costs. If we look at other places, such as active conflict areas, we’ll see that Houthi rebels used drones to target and assassinate Yemeni leaders and they were also striking key national infrastructure in places like Saudi Arabia. Even here, in the United States, sightings and illegal actions of drones flying over cities and close to government facilities in some cases speak to the fact that drone operations may be a thing in the future.
Here, in the United States, there are examples of individuals who have attempted or actively pursued ways to utilize remotely piloted aircraft or drone technology in general to cause harm to U.S. interests. For example, in 2012, a group of Virginia-based individuals, with direct or indirect affiliation with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, sought to acquire this sort of technology for the terrorist group. In 2011, we had a U.S. national, who actually was a student at one of the reputable universities here in the United States and who plotted to pilot explosive-laden, remotely controlled planes and attack U.S. government facilities and military installations. If we look at the issue from this particular standpoint, there is potential for malicious use of drones in not only active conflict zones but also here in the West, which should not be overlooked.
In 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that drones constituted an imminent terrorist threat to U.S. cities. Is this threat still considered imminent?
That is a good question and that has been part of the discourse here in the United States as well. The concern is that they come with a very low acquisition cost, which presents an opportunity to pursue that kind of technology to many groups, state and non-state actors, including private individuals. One can easily procure parts to build it. It does not require sophistication in terms of running the aircraft as well.
These are all areas of concern for officials and law enforcement, especially here in the West. While I would caution against labelling drone usage for malicious or harmful purposes as the most pressing threat in the West, one should still not discount the fact that local law enforcement and other entities may not be best positioned to counter the drone threat. They are not necessarily best equipped and staffed to adequately address such a threat. I would say it is one thing to confront or operate against drone threats in active conflict zones, where the military has the resources and the capability to address that kind of threat. Domestically, in the West in general, that could be an issue given that we arguably lack the sort of sophistication needed to detect, monitor, and counter drone threat at the local level, in our cities.
Are modern terror groups capable of modifying consumer drones to conduct improvised attacks?
Terrorist groups, especially those of the modern day, have been very capable of doing that. I have witnessed first-hand such cases during our research in Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen a number of modified consumer drones used by ISIS to target the Peshmerga in the North of Iraq, Iraqi security forces in Mosul and other places. From a structural standpoint, [ISIS] were known for their Phantom DJI models. They often utilized Styrofoam, a light, easily accessible, cheap material to build drones, as well as to modify and turn other drones into actual weapons. In many cases, we saw that they were able to mount certain amounts of IEDs or other explosive devices.
There was, of course, the ability to pursue that kind of technology given a low acquisition cost. One thing that we also see is the mimicry in the use of drone technology. For example, the drone technology that has been used by ISIS is being mimicked by ISIS affiliates in other parts of the world as well because, again, of the low acquisition costs and the ease with which it can be built.
What tactics and techniques do drone-using terrorist groups use?
From my personal research experience as well as experience in places like Syria and Iraq, the drone technology was primarily used to gain intelligence, for surveillance purposes. Drone usage has also proven powerful for propaganda purposes, namely imagery that was captured through drones and exploited for propaganda purposes. Of course, one must not overlook the military-strategic component, such as the ability to mount explosive devices and drop them onto enemies. It also serves to demonstrate “aerial power,” which comes, again, with a huge propaganda value that VE and terrorist groups have been able to put to use as well.
Another thing that we see, which is very interesting, is that the drone usage, especially as far as ISIS is concerned, has given them this opportunity to claim the alleged power and control not only on the ground but also in the airspace. This gives the illusion as though—especially as it [ISIS] started losing its controlled area in 2016-2017 and onwards—the drone operations afforded the group with this sort of aerial superiority, the operational capacity to penetrate into the airspace and attack enemy forces. This did give them [ISIS], from a propaganda perspective, a huge boost as well. And we have seen, for example, that ISIS would launch their drones laden with explosives into enemy lines, accompanied by other drones equipped to record such attacks, which was then shared via Telegram or other social media platforms utilized by ISIS for their propaganda purposes. As for the success of their drone-led attacks, it is really debatable; firstly, because they [ISIS] are only going to advertise their successes. We actually do not know much—at least publicly—about their downfalls or any limitations. Some of the images, if we look at some past attacks, in 2017, for example, when ISIS dropped several IEDs via drones onto the Syrian army base storing significant stashes of weapons in a stadium, showed significant damages to the Syrian military. But we do not know with certainty about their successes, the level of their success, as we often see what they choose to share on their media.
What we do know is that it is important for us to differentiate between terrorist groups or non-state actors that have utilized drones in a limited capacity and those that have active drone programs. If we look at organizations like Hezbollah (Kataib Hezbollah), Hamas, ISIS or even Houthis, they do have a record of successfully running drone programs, weaponized drone programs. In fact, these programs are sponsored by a state. For example, we know that Iran has played a significant role in sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of drones, and so on. Again, when trying to differentiate where the drone threat might come from, it is important to understand the difference between the usage of drones by certain groups or entities in limited capacity versus those who have been running or supporting drone programs.
Are drones more likely to be used as means of transportation or as autonomous weapons?
In many cases, aside from the primary surveillance function, they have been utilized by terrorist groups as a means of transporting explosive and other materials from point A to point B. But as for the use of autonomous weapons, to my knowledge to date, to be able to drive this sort of autonomous drone weapons, they lack such a capability given that such drone technology needs to be accompanied with artificial intelligence. Most of these [drones] are programmed to, say, carry out attacks, drop a bomb, and so on. There has to be artificial intelligence incorporated with these autonomous weapons for them to be effective in other ways. But I have not seen this sort of technology, especially with ISIS. Perhaps, this could be the case with other groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
What targets would terrorists prioritize when conducting drone attacks?
As for the targets, what we have seen in places like Iraq and Syria, much of the drone strikes targeted, of course, the military, those perceived as enemy. As I mentioned earlier, in 2017, there was a highly publicized attack where ISIS dropped a significant number of explosives onto the Syrian army positions and weapons supply points. Attacks were also carried out against the Iraqi security forces during operations in Mosul. Surveillance function is an important component because it affords this sort of “pre-attack” planning ability to ISIS and other terrorist groups to better organize and coordinate their attacks. They would normally send out drones to collect information and then follow up with an attack, as is often the case. What we have seen is not only the use of drones for attack purposes but also the demonstration of power by sending many drones at the same time to create an illusion or perception that ISIS is capable of attacking with multiple drones and penetrating the enemy’s aerial space.
There is a nightmare scenario that small drones can be used to deliver chemical or biological agents in an attack. Or disperse deadly viruses over a public gathering place. Is it real?
In Iraq or Syria, where ISIS or other operating terrorist groups are involved, it is a matter of being able to gain access to chemical or biological weapons. It is not a far-fetched notion. And there are some examples of such incidents taking place. There were some efforts on the part of ISIS to deliver chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction via drones.
Are drone strikes effective against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS? If yes, why?
As regards counterterrorism, if we ask government officials, they would argue that they are effective. The way to measure such effectiveness would be to look at how certain terrorist leaders—or those associated with terrorist actions at some level—have been targeted. Most recently, Qasim al-Raymi from al Qaeda in Yemen was killed via drones, so that was one measure of success. During the Obama administration, in Yemen alone, we had upwards of 1200 drone attacks targeting different militants. During President Trump, we delivered hundreds of attacks, specifically targeting militants in Yemen, Somalia and other places. In Pakistan alone, the drone targeting campaign lasted over 10 years. We also have the recent example where the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was targeted and killed via a drone strike.
But again, if we look at terrorist organizations as unified and cohesive organizations, then we could say that killing their leaders specifically should reduce terrorist attacks as well. But we also know that terrorist organizations are not cohesive or unified in many ways. In that regard, the effects of killing a terrorist leader become perplexing or complex. For example, when a terrorist leader is killed, in theory, it should lead to a situation where a terrorist group’s leadership and control is undermined. On the other hand, depending on who comes next in the line of succession, the successor may be more prone to violence.
It is a really complicated question. In retaliation, groups may also increase terrorist attacks against civilians. And we have also seen this in terrorist groups with centralized leadership. One must also consider drone attacks leading to civilian casualties and significant grievances. I conducted research with my colleagues in Somalia last year. And during the course of interviews, drone attacks were largely criticized and raised as the source of grievance by some, even leading to recruitment and joining Al Shabaab in some cases. Although those attacks were aimed at Al Shabaab leaders or affiliates, or ISIS operatives, grievances were raised that they did lead to civilian casualties as well.
What are the risks associated with drone operations? Are there ways to mitigate those risks? How do we prevent them?
Some drones can fly at a very high altitude, while some fly only at low altitudes, which can be problematic under either scenario. From an anti-drone technology standpoint, that becomes a problematic proposition and requires a better understanding of how drone technology may be applied in the future. But again, as I mentioned earlier in the example of drone sightings at the Gatwick airport, when it led to significant confusion and material damage, the same thing applies here [in the West] in local contexts because of the inability to fully grasp and understand this emerging technology, but we’re also talking about the need to counter that technology if deployed in cities or in other places where it could pose significant difficulties and strains, especially on local governments and law enforcement.
Last year, for the first time in history, drones autonomously attacked humans. According to the UN report, these drones were supplied by Turkey to the Libyan forces. Can machines be allowed to make their own decisions to kill or should autonomous drone attacks be banned?
I have not done much research on the topic, and I do not know if these autonomous attacks led to human casualties. If this is the case, that would change the course of how we understand autonomously driven objects, specifically as it relates to drones. As stated earlier, autonomous weapons, coupled with this sort of artificial intelligence, do make sense in some way, provided that humans exercise some level of control. We have to understand the decision-making process that goes into creating this sort of autonomous technology [drones].
We know from our research that we could feed a certain image to a drone, which would enable that particular drone to carry out an attack based on the image fed. Having said that, a slight change, modification, misreading of that image (or its pixels) by the drone could lead to significant errors in terms of targeting capabilities. The lack of human control may always pose a level of risk. Humans need to play a role in a drone’s “decision-making” process. If we look at other fields that utilize these autonomous technologies, like self-driving, autonomous vehicles (AV), one can find errors there as well. From such a perspective, that could be problematic as well. Also, the question is not only how they [autonomous drones] are used but also where and how many of them are used. If we are talking about an autonomous drone being utilized in certain operations, say in a conflict zone like Syria and against ISIS, it may lead to different outcomes as compared to, say, using them in non-conflict areas, in cities and where large segments of civilian population are present. The room for error is especially there in the case of the latter, when operating in spaces where civilians are present. Again, we do not know much [publicly] about this emerging technology, including their decision-making process, their objectives, how they operate in different geographic areas, etc. These are all questions we need to better understand and address.
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