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
Impact of Terrorist Organizations in the Middle East
Terrorism is a significant variable in security studies and it is hindering a wide range of safety. Likewise, because of the emotional expansion in psychological militant assaults in the course of the most recent twenty years, have economies have found a way broad ways to work on the political, social, and financial circumstances by diminishing outer struggles and fear monger assaults.
The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) distinguishes psychological oppression as a danger or genuine utilization of illicit or vicious power by a non-administrative individual or gathering to accomplish a political, monetary, strict, or social objective through dread. This is on the grounds that these exercises are intended to make mental impacts and their belongings go past the survivors of fear-monger occurrences.
Definitions of terrorism are dubious because of issues of marking activities as psychological warfare advances the judgment of the entertainers, which might reflect philosophical or political predisposition. Definition of terrorism as characterized by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) is termed as “a non-state entertainer’s compromised or genuine use of unlawful authority and viciousness to attain a political, monetary, strict, or social purpose through dread, coercion, or scaring.” The people in issue, or the victims of fear-based oppression, have little in common with the fear-mongers, but they address a larger human population whose response the fear-mongers need. It is critical to comprehend that fear mongers are sane entertainers. They have a particular reason for their utilization of savagery and guess that it will make a response from the crowd that they are focusing on.
According to the GTD (2018), the Middle East has accumulated the greatest number of losses on the planet, notably since roughly 2001. Due to challenges such as high unemployment rates, money shortages, single-item financial elements, low levels of per capita payments, and slow monetary growth in the Middle East, these countries must rely on foreign speculation to beat these problems. Given the financial needs of these countries, bringing in an unfamiliar endeavour can play an important role. Differentiating the effects of capital flight and fear- based negative events in these countries might help policymakers improve or maintain business as usual.
In 2016, Iraq had 2,965 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan had 1,342, and Syria had 366. Conversely, there were 30 fear-monger assaults in all of Western Europe around the same time. However, the Global Terrorism Database notes that the number of fear-mongering attacks in Europe is increasing, the situation in the Middle East is far more concerning—a region where assaults are a piece of day-to-day existence for some residents.
The costs of psychological warfare, on the other hand, go far beyond literal annihilation. There are also significant social and financial consequences in the Middle East. ISIS has scoured a large number of historical heritage places in Iraq and Syria. Given their social and historical significance, the worth of many of these locations is incalculable. According to some sources, the sale of stolen antiques on the black market may be ISIS’ second-largest source of revenue, after oil. Some of these antique relics have been discovered in London’s antique shops. UNESCO has added a number of important locations to its list of endangered places due to pillage and obliteration, including six new sites in 2013.
The emotional drop-off in the travel business inside Syria and Iraq adds to these disasters. The Syrian Ministry of Tourism has attempted to aid the tourism business by distributing a series of YouTube recordings. The recordings show Syria’s recognisable blue waves and beautiful seashores, in an effort to rehabilitate a country that many associate solely with war atrocities. In 2011, just before the Syrian civil war reached its most destructive stage, 8.5 million tourists visited the country, contributing almost $8.3 billion to the economy (around 13.5 percent of Syria’s GDP). In 2014, however, only 400,000 tourists visited Syria. Several nations, including Tunisia and Egypt, have seen similar drops in the travel industry following psychological oppressor attacks, causing massive economic damage.
Oil is one of the Middle East’s most basic endeavours, and terrorism has a huge impact on it. Oil offices have been identified by psychological militants in a few Middle Eastern countries, causing supply shortages. Because of ISIS attacks, Iraqi oil production dropped by as much as 320,000 barrels per day at one time. Various oil offices are included in ISIS’ jurisdiction. The profits from oil sales go to the psychological militant group, diverting funds that would otherwise go to public foundation programmes. ISIS held 60% of Syria’s oil reserves in 2014, and the group made approximately $3 million per day from the illegal oil trade. Despite the fact that ISIS has recently lost a lot of territory, it still controls large wells in northern Iraq, preventing Baghdad from collecting much-needed cash.
Psychological oppression has a considerably greater impact on the Middle East’s economy than it does on the European economy. Given that the Middle East has seen the sharpest increase in illegal intimidation over the past 15 years, it appears to be a basic mistake that assessments have not attempted to gauge the absolute cost of psychological tyranny.
Organizations in Western nations which store these investigations are, maybe justifiably, more concerned about the impact of psychological persecution on their own countries. It is simple for the Western world to excuse the expense of psychological warfare in the Middle East since it is both far away and a piece of day-to-day existence for the area’s kin. Interestingly, demonstrations of terrorism in the West are considered perilous abnormalities.
While the actual effects of terrorism in the Middle East should be the primary focus of counterterrorism efforts, the financial consequences should not be disregarded. Estimating the cost of psychological warfare as a means of identifying knowledge gaps and obstacles has merit. Counterterrorism authorities should help alleviate the excessive financial repercussions that fanatic gatherings have on the Middle East by recognising and securing vital territorial income streams like the tourism industry and oil.
The Deadliest Enemies: China’s Overseas Military Bases in Central Asia and Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party
Amid the burgeoning sentimental relationship between Beijing and the resurrected Taliban’s Emirate 2.0, the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has aggravated its propaganda war against Communist China, hence cleverly concealing its historically faithful jihadi bonds with the Afghan Taliban. Despite the Taliban’s assurances of non-interference in China’s internal affairs, Beijing is building up its military presence in post-Soviet Central Asia. One example is its establishment of military bases in the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena near the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province.
Although China did not camouflage its contentment with the failed US policy in Afghanistan and sought to leverage the Taliban victory as its foreign policy asset, Beijing has faced the Taliban’s elusive stance in curbing the Uyghur jihadists challenges. Today, the Celestial is well conscious of its harsh realities. With the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, Beijing lost a safe buffer zone in the strategically critical Afghan-Chinese borders area in Badakhshan, which has afforded with free secure area for over 20 years. While the US’s presence in the region disturbed China, it nevertheless provided Beijing with relative stability and protected from the infiltration of global al Qaeda elements into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Therefore, by showcasing its concern over its instability in the neighboring country, Beijing prefers to pressure Taliban on security matters, claiming that Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as the Turkestan Islamic Party. On October 25, during the bilateral meeting in Qatar’s Doha, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pressed Taliban’s Acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi to make a clean break with Uyghur jihadists of TIP and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of global terrorism.
The Taliban’s Interim government is accustomed in responding to such external pressures from its neighbors and the international community. The typicality of its response lies in the denial of the presence of Central Asian and Uyghur terrorist groups on Afghan soil, further wittily dodging the topic of its ties with al Qaeda. Taliban strategists seeking international recognition have apparently developed cunning tactics to carefully conceal their ties to al Qaeda and Central Asian jihadi groups, while maintaining the bayat (oath of allegiance) of veteran strategic partners in holy jihad.
And this time, Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen voiced a stock answer, stating “many Uyghur fighters of TIP have left Afghanistan because the Taliban has categorically told them there is no place for anyone to use Afghan soil against other countries, including its neighboring countries.” But the Chinese authorities are well aware of the Taliban’s insincerity on this matter. In turn, the Taliban realized that the authorities of China and Central Asian states did not believe their statements. As a consequence, Beijing denied the Taliban’s claims, claiming that approximately 200-300 Uyghur militants of TIP currently live in the Takhar province near Baharak town.
Certainly, to calm Chinese concerns and encourage deeper economic cooperation with Beijing, the Taliban has removed TIP Uyghur jihadists from the 76-kilometer Afghan-China border area in Badakhshan to the eastern province of Nangarhar in early October. The Taliban’s double play testifies their walk on a fine line between pragmatism and jihadi ideology, especially when they simultaneously want to look like a state and maintain a historical relationship with al Qaeda.
A short look at Taliban-China relations
Since the mid-1990s, the Af-Pak border arena has remained at the center of China’s security and counter-terrorism strategy. Chinese policymakers were concerned that the TIP’s Uyghur militants found refuge in Afghanistan’s border region of Badakhshan and are waging a decades-old holy jihad to liberate Eastern Turkestan from the iron claw of Beijing. Within this framework, China’s counter-terrorism policy aims to prevent the challenge of the TIP Uyghur jihadists who have been deeply integrated into global al Qaeda’s structure over the past quarter-century. This undertaking surfaced on Beijing’s agenda since the collapse the pro-Moscow regime of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 and became extremely acute after the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power in August 2021.
In order to break the long-standing and trusted jihadi ties between TIP and the Taliban, Beijing has emerged as a pragmatic backer of the Taliban’s new rule, promising economic and development support through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For its part, the Interim Afghan government, seeking international recognition, has called China a most important partner and pushed for deeper cooperation with Beijing.
Following the steps of its historical diplomacy of flexibility and pragmatism from the Qing dynasty, Beijing has forged a pragmatic and operative relationship with the Taliban for nearly thirty years. Since Taliban’s first rise to power in 1996, this pragmatic relationship has been centered in China’s counterterrorism strategy. Guided by the “Art of War” strategy of the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, Beijing decided to “defeat the enemy without fighting”. In 1999, China launched flights between Kabul and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur region, and established economic ties with the Taliban who patronized Uyghur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – now TIP).
In December 2000, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with the Taliban’s founder leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar, in which Lu voiced Beijing’s position on the need to stop harboring Uyghur jihadists operating in Afghanistan. Consecutively, the Taliban anticipated that China would recognize their government and prevent further UN sanctions. During the meeting, Mullah Omar assured Lu that the Taliban “will not allow any group to use its territory for any activities against China.” But this deal was only half materialized. While Omar did restrain Uyghur jihadists to attack China’s interests in Af-Pak zone, he did not expel them from Afghanistan. And Beijing did not oppose new UN sanctions against the Taliban, it only abstained.
Following the collapse of Mullah Omar’s so-called Sharia regime after 9/11, China did not sever its ties with the Taliban leaving room for strategic change in the future. Putting eggs in different baskets, in 2014-2020, China secretly hosted Taliban delegations in Beijing several times and provoked them to active struggle against foreign invaders for the liberation of the country. However, China’s central focus in their contacts with the Taliban has always been to curb the Uyghur jihad against the Celestial and build a first line of defense in the Wakhan Corridor along the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena.
Hence, according to China’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, securing BRI strategic projects overseas from TIP attacks and blocking the Salafi-Jihadi ideology in Xinjiang became even more important for Beijing since the Taliban overtook the power. Counterterrorism and concerns of Islamic radicalization were the justification for China’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where the CCP has imprisoned more than 1.5 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz Muslim minorities in concentration camps, manically depriving them of their religion, language and culture since 2014.
China’s military footprint in Central Asia
Predictably, the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan encouraged Beijing to continue its aggressive and assertive foreign policy toward Central Asia to expand its BRI projects in the region. If before, in exchange for its economic assistance, Beijing demanded from Central Asian nations to adhere the “One-China policy” (recognition Taiwan as part of PRC) and support its war against “three evils” (separatism, religious extremism and international terrorism), then now it is also stepping up the military footprint in the region.
On October 27, the Tajik Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower house of parliament) approved China’s proposal to fund the construction of a $10 million military base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province near the intersection of the Af-China-Tajik borders arena. The agreement which reached between Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry and China’s Public Security Ministry, indicates the new base would be owned by the Rapid Reaction Group of the Interior Ministry.
This is not Beijing’s first overseas military base in Central Asia. China already operates a military base located 10 km from the Tajik-Afghan border and 25 km from the Tajik-Chinese border in the Tajikstan’s Gorny Badakhshan province on the isthmus of the Wakhan corridor. Thus, the Chinese base overlooks a crucial entry point from China into Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In accordance with secret agreements signed in 2015 or 2016 between China and Tajikistan, Beijing has built three commandant’s offices, five border outposts and a training center, and refurbished 30 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan.
In July 2021, the Tajik government offered to transfer complete control of this military base to Beijing and waive any future rent in exchange for military aid from China. The Chinese military base in Tajikistan has no regular troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but has representatives of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). It is worth pointing out that China, concerned about the activities of TIP’s militants in Xinjiang and their potential links with transnational terrorism, adopted the first counter-terrorism legislation on December 27, 2015. The law provides a legal basis for various counter-terrorism organs, including the PAP, empowering it with broad repressive functions. PAP members currently serve at China’s overseas military base in Tajikistan, the main function of which is counter-terrorism monitoring of Tajik-Af-Pak border movements.
It is imperative to note that China is concentrating its military facilities not in the depths of Tajik territory but precisely on the isthmus of the vital Wakhan corridor at the Af-Pak-China-Tajik borders intersection. In the mid-90s, Uyghur militants fled China’s brutal repression via the Wakhan corridor to join the Taliban, al Qaeda and TIP in Afghanistan. In their propaganda messages, TIP ideologists often mention the Wakhan Corridor as a “Nusrat (victory) trail” through which the “long-awaited liberation of East Turkestan from the Chinese infidels will come.”
The mastery of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena is currently critical to Beijing for several reasons. First, the holding the Wakhan Gorge allows China not to depend solely on the will of the Taliban to prevent attacks by Uyghur jihadists of TIP. Secondly, it gives China an additional lever of pressure on the Taliban to sever their ties with Uyghur militants, playing on the contradictions between Tajikistan and the Afghan Interim government. And finally, Beijing is well positioned to protect its future investments in the Afghan economy through the BRI project.
China’s aggressive and assertive move into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence does not make the Kremlin nervous as much as the US military presence in the region. Quite possibly, China’s expansion of its military presence in Tajikistan was coordinated with Russia, which considers Central Asia to be its southern flank. Because Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are part of the Russian-led CSTO military alliance, opening a foreign military base in one of them requires the consent of this military block. Now, the two most considerable regional powers, Russia and China can be expected to pursue common counterterrorism strategies through the coordination and information-sharing on TIP Uyghur jihadists and Russian-speaking fighters based in Taliban-led Afghanistan.
Propaganda war between Communist China and Turkestan Islamic Party
As Beijing tries to fill the power vacuum left by the United States and expand its political and economic influence over the Afghan Taliban’s Interim Government, the veteran Uyghur jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and newly emerged Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestani (KGT) are respectively intensifying their ideological war against the China’s Communist regime.
The media center Islam Avazi (Voice of Islam), the TIP’s propaganda machine, systematically and vociferously criticizes the Chinese Communist government as “atheist occupiers” and “Chinese invaders” for occupying the lands of East Turkestan. Recently the TIP’s main mouthpiece in its weekly radio program on the Uyghur-language website ‘Muhsinlar’ stated that “China’s overseas military bases are evidence of its evil intentions to occupy new Islamic lands through creeping expansion.” Then the Uyghur speaker insists that “temporarily settling in new lands, the Chinese kafirs (disbeliever) will never leave there, a vivid example of which is the tragic experience of East Turkistan, whose religion, culture and history are Sinicized, and its titular Muslims are being brutally repressed.”
Our research indicates that despite their longstanding involvement in the global jihad in Afghanistan and Syria and their strong alliances through oaths of allegiance (bayat) with al Qaeda, Taliban and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the central ideology of Uyghur Jihadists is the fight against the Chinese Communist regime. The strategic goal of the Turkestan Islamic Party is to liberate the historical lands of East Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, from the occupation of the Chinese “communist infidels” and to build its own state with Sharia rule there. In their regular statements, audios and videos, TIP propagandists raised the victimization of Uyghur Muslims during China’s occupation of East Turkistan, which has long been a key theme in TIP’s ideological doctrine.
Amid establishing Chinese overseas military bases in Central Asia, TIP’s media center Islam Avazi has sharply intensified anti-Beijing propaganda. Both the Taliban and TIP have double standards in this regard. Criticizing the Chinese Communist regime, TIP deliberately avoids and never condemns Taliban’s recent close ties with the China. At the same time, when the Taliban recently criticized New Delhi for persecuting Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir and call themselves defenders of the oppressed Muslim Ummah, they tried to sidestep the topic of China’s crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Future of Uyghur Jihad in Post-American Afghanistan
Thus, even though the TIP remains an essential player of global jihad and a vanguard for the Uyghur cause, China’s pressure on the Taliban and its military bases in Central Asia will force Uyghur fighters to curb their jihadi ambitions in post-American Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, as before, the Taliban will continue their attempts to marginalize Central Asian jihadi groups in Afghanistan, making them completely dependent on their will and exploiting them for their political purposes.
It is difficult to predict to what extent the Uyghur jihadists have the strength and patience to withstand Taliban moral pressure and Chinese intelligence persecution in the new Afghanistan. Interestingly, researchers at the Newlines Institute claim the Taliban’s collaboration with Chinese military advisers present in Afghanistan. According to a senior source within the Taliban, “some 40 advisers from China (including some military ones) deployed to Afghanistan on October 3.” Therefore, it will be difficult for TIP to maintain its developed propaganda apparatus, to enhance its organizational capabilities in the new realities of Afghanistan, when Chinese overseas military bases are breathing down its neck.
Beijing’s military footprint on the Af-Pak-China-Tajik border arena will force TIP to demonstrate its diplomatic and strategic ability in seeking support and solidarity from numerous umbrellas jihadi organizations such as al Qaeda, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Haqqani network, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, HTS, and even Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Suppose al Qaeda continues to weaken, and IS-K grows stronger via targeted attacks and successful recruitment. In that case, Central Asian jihadists may change their jihadi flag and join IS-K. The most capable defectors from al Qaeda to ISIS were Uzbek, Tajik and Uyghur foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, as their experience has shown.
Any TIP’s move to take the jihad back to Xinjiang for its liberation, undoubtedly, will face steep odds. Beijing’s repressive security measures, such as high-tech mass surveillance and mass detention of Uyghurs in so-called re-education camps, have long deprived TIP of its network in Xinjiang. Worries that TIP is poised to ravage Xinjiang, therefore, seem overblown. With demographic changes in the Xinjiang region, where the Han population is almost the majority, the TIP has lost its social underpinning and perspective of waging jihad within the country.
In conclusion, wary of antagonizing Beijing and its dependence on Chinese economic largesse, the Taliban Interim government will progressively reduce its support for Uyghur jihadists. The establishment of Chinese military bases on the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor and the strengthening of its anti-terrorism initiatives, combined with the monitoring of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik arena, call into question the extent to which TIP can conduct operations against China’s BRI.
Lastly, a rapprochement between China and the Taliban leaves TIP cornered, limiting room for maneuver and forcing some Uyghur Muhajireen (foreign fighters) to carry out a hijrah (migration) to Syria’s Idlib province to join their fellow tribesmen from Xinjiang. Nevertheless, despite this grim appraisal of TIP’s prospects in post-American Afghanistan, it can capitalize from its commitment to transnational jihad and expand its international network exploiting the Syrian melting pot. Indeed, given the physical remoteness from China’s overseas military bases, the Syrian quagmire will give the TIP a certain latitude, strengthening its ability to assert itself on the global jihad.
Author’s note: This article was first published by a SpecialEurasia Research Institute, which partners with Modern Diplomacy.
Can the Taliban tame ETIM?
The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a Uyghur Islamic extremist organization founded in the Xinjiang province of China. TIP is the new name, although China still calls it by the name ETIM and refuses to acknowledge it as TIP. The ETIM was founded in 1997 by Hasan Mahsum before being killed by a Pakistani army in 2003. Its stated aim is to establish an independent state called ‘East Turkestan’ replacing Xinjiang. The United States removed it from its list of terrorist Organizations in 2020. The group and its ties to Muslim fundamentalism have compounded Chinese concerns about the rising threat of terrorism within the country.
In Tianjin, the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar again pledged to “never allow any force” to engage in acts detrimental to China. Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can’t be used to launch attacks against other countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had also asked the Taliban to crack down on the ETIM, which is based out of the Xinjiang province. In view of the Taliban’s pro-China stance on the ETIM, the article will assess the feasibility of the Taliban’s promises of not providing sanctuaries to the groups which are direct threat to the national security of China.
First, this statement surprises the experts in view of the Taliban’s historic relationship with the ETIM. According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, ETIM has approximately 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly located in Badakhshan province, which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Most of Badakhshan is now under Taliban control, but according to some reports, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen fighters comprise the bulk of the local Taliban rank and file, rather than Pashtun fighters. This scenario appears very challenging for the top leadership of the Taliban to deny sanctuaries to such loyalists.
Second, ETIM is operating in Afghanistan since 1990. It has strong links with the local Taliban commanders. The local Taliban commanders may put pressure on the top leadership or hinder the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.
Third, the Taliban’s capacity to tame the ETIM is limited because its all members and leadership have scattered across Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times, “In recent years, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but “its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years”.
Fourth, the ETIM has developed close ties with international militant organizations, including Al Qaeda. Moreover, Al Qaeda has significant influence over the Taliban. Al Qaeda has ability and resources to sabotage the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Some militant organizations including IS-K have developed the ideological differences with the Afghan Taliban. IS-K recently used a Uyghur fighter for suicide campaign in Afghanistan just to show fissure between the Taliban and ETIM. So, this trend can be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban’s new stance of not providing sanctuaries to the ETIM contradicts with some of its founding principles. The Taliban’s new version on ETIM is not easy to follow. Time will be the true judge of the feasibility of Taliban’s new stance.
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