Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.
A teenage girl from rural Syria dreamed of becoming a doctor, but the war and the so-called Islamic State made her something very different, and very frightening.
“I’m from Raqqa,” says Umm Rashid as her months-old baby cries in her arms. She bumps him up and down trying to get him to settle. “I was born in 1995. I’m 21 years old, from a family of four. I have a younger sister,” she says. “My father was crippled, so my mother worked to feed the family. We are farmers. Also, my mother cleaned the schools.”
At the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) we have interviewed dozens of ISIS defectors, most of whom tell stories of disillusionment and desperation, escape, and rejection of everything they saw in the so-called Islamic State. And that was what we expected as this interview began. Two of our colleagues, Abu Said and Murat, were in the room with Umm Rashid in a Turkish town near the Syrian border while we were in the United States watching and asking questions over a video link.
“My father fell down from a construction site and was crippled,” says the young woman, who is covered in a black abaya. “I never saw him walking. When I was little, I would stay with my father at home. My mother would be out working all the time. I never saw her a lot. But my mother loved us really a lot.”
Then in late 2011 and early 2012, the Syrian civil war began, and soon spread to Raqqa in the east of the country. “My mother was scared and told me, ‘Oh my daughter, I need to get you married!’”
When the Assad regime’s security forces pulled out of Raqqa, Ahrār ash-Shām took over “and things went crazy,” Umm Rashid remembers, referring to one of the jihadi militias that rose up to fight Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. “We heard that the rebel militias were taking girls and forcing them to get married to their soldiers.”
But as a teenager, Umm Rashid had a dream. She wanted to be a doctor. Before the eruption of war her parents had been behind it, despite their conservative Syrian background. But with the uprising she wasn’t safe as a single girl anymore.
She is composed, articulate, thinking about what she says as she explains her situation.
“When the regime left because of the rebellion, the ninth-grade exams were canceled. I had to go to Hama for the exams.” A distance of hundreds of miles. “I passed the ninth-grade exam,” Umm Rashid tells us proudly. “But my mother looked at the situation and it was so bad… She told me anyone who wants to get married to you: I have to consider that.”
The family was very poor. Umm Rashid’s mother was making about $100 a month as a cleaning woman in schools, and some of that money was going toward medication for her father. As little girls on their way to classes their friends could buy snacks like doner kebabs, while Umm Rashid and her sister had to make do with bread and tomato paste from home. Now as young women they were facing hunger.
“I got married to our neighbor’s son,” Umm Rashid continues, her voice flat and devoid of emotion. “My husband’s mother talked to my mother and they arranged it.” But despite liking Yusuf, the neighbor’s son, he was not the eldest and things did not go well for young Umm Rashid. “My husband had four siblings, three sisters and one brother. I was so young. I didn’t know anything. My husband was the middle child so he didn’t have a say about what was going on at home. Their father was deceased. My husband’s sisters started to behave very badly toward me. My mother-in-law beat me.
“I was thinking about my options,” Umm Rashid explains. “‘You have to be patient,’ my mother told me. ‘If you come to us, you are going to suffer from hunger. At least over there you have something to eat.’ So, I stayed there with my husband for six months. [Then] one day my husband fled. I don’t know why he fled. I know that his family was not behaving well toward him. Even his older brothers were beating him up as well. Soon we found out that Yusuf was in Tell Abyat and he was working in Tell Abyat. I continued with my husband’s family. Soon I learned that Yusuf had joined Jabhat al Nusra.”
At the time, al Nusra was becoming the umbrella organization for ragtag groups of villagers who had taken up arms against the regime. Jihadi ideologues from Jordan and elsewhere had flooded into Syria, preaching the concepts of “martyrdom” and militant jihad as they organized and affiliated al Nusra to al Qaeda.
“First I was thinking, alhamdulillah [thank God], Yusuf found a job and was working. I didn’t know what Jabhat al Nusra was and I was happy that he had a job… When he came back he had money. He bought gold for me. He had a car. He was distributing money to all his family. He stayed one week with me and then he left.”
But the militias in Raqqa “got mixed again, and the groups started to fight each other.”
By late 2013, a schism among the leaders of al Qaeda in Syria had led to ferocious fights between al Nusra and the rising power in the region, the so-called Islamic State, as it moved to take control of Raqqa and the surrounding region.
“I heard that the ‘brothers’ came. The ‘brothers’ were the Islamic State. Meanwhile the groups were fighting each other and I had not heard from my husband. One day I learned that he was wounded and soon after that he died. He became a ‘martyr.’
“After he died, my mother-in-law took everything from me, even my clothes, and told me to go to my mother’s home. She told me, ‘Because of you, my son died. You brought bad luck to us.’ My mother-in-law loved money.”
“You didn’t have a child with him?” we asked Umm Rashid.
“No, I was not with him that much because there were so many people inside the house,” Umm Rashid answered. “I went back to my mother’s house. I waited my iddah,” she explains, referring to the mandatory three months waiting period for widows to determine if they are pregnant or not and, if not, available for a new husband.
Reflecting back on her marriage to Yusuf, she explains, “We weren’t happily married. There was always conflict in the house. My mother-in-law didn’t allow me to sleep with my husband, so I didn’t experience a real marriage. There were three rooms in the house, but four other siblings, so we were not given a room.”
For Umm Rashid after the death of her husband, the tragedies were just beginning.
“During the fight in Raqqa, a mortar came down on our home. My mother and father died, my sister was wounded.” This was 2014. Umm Rashid was just 18, all her dreams destroyed by war.
“My sister was wounded in her hand, so her arm was amputated. We were alone at home. Our neighbor, a woman, was trying to help us. For example when there was aid from different groups they would drop a box in front of our door. If that woman had something to feed us she would give us meals. We were suffering and had nothing. That woman was from al Khansaa, from ISIS.”
Al Khansaa was formed in 2014 in Raqqa as the female arm of the ISIS morality police, or hisbah, to placate the locals who were getting riled up about men arresting or punishing their women for dress code and other morality infringements. To calm them, women were enrolled as morality police as well.
“One day,” Umm Rashid continues, speaking of her neighbor in the hisbah, “she came and said, ‘Why don’t you get married to an emir from ISIS? I can arrange that.’ Her name was Umm al-Khattab.
“Of course, I was out of my iddah for two months. Our entire house was demolished except for one room. We were living in that room. Umm al-Khattab got me married to a Saudi emir. His name was Abdullah al-Jazwari.
“He was a really nice man, he was like a gentleman and he behaved so nicely to me. He also accepted my sister to live with us. So my sister came also. We lived together like this. I was happy with him. He was behaving toward me really well. He was an emir.
“After two months, he asked me why don’t you join al Khansaa? He was 40 years old. I didn’t know much about him. We never talked about ourselves much. I knew he was my husband, but that was it. He used to come home for his meals. I cleaned his clothes and I treated him really well because he was behaving toward me really nicely, but I didn’t know much about him.”
As her husband and the woman who had helped her encouraged her to join al Khansaa, another thought weighed on her. She believed that the mortar round that killed her parents and cost her sister her arm was the work of the U.S.-led coalition. Although many civilians have been killed by its airstrikes and subsequent offensives, it seems unlikely given the timing of her parent’s death in early 2014 that the coalition was responsible. It had not taken shape until that summer. But hatred for the coalition became a deep conviction for Umm Rashid. She would serve with the enemy of those she believed had killed her family. “I accepted to become a member of al Khansaa,” she says.
“Because my husband was an emir, I was not sent to the training camp,” Umm Rashid explains.
While the group regularly publishes pictures of women holding weapons in supposed training exercises but not as combatants. Of the 63 ISIS cadres—prisoners, returnees, and defectors—ICSVE have thus far interviewed, many tell us that men go for Sharia training, but the women are instructed individually at home, by their husbands. Western soldiers mock the awkward way the ISIS women are photographed or filmed holding their rifles in ISIS propaganda.
“There were a lot of 14- and 15-year-old girls in al Khansaa,” Umm Rashid tells us. “When I first registered, Umm al Khattab helped me a lot. They gave me a weapon. I joined her brigade. Umm al Khattab was the emir of that brigade,” Umm Rashid explains.
As we’ve heard in our many other interviews, the women who join the hisbah are armed with a Kalashnikov and have broad powers over the civilian population—able to fine, punish, and arrest them for any type of morality offenses. They have an exalted status over civilians and answer to practically no one.
“Umm al Khattab was not the emir of all of al Khansaa, but of this brigade. I knew her for a long time because she was our neighbor. From the start, I knew how to work in the brigade because Umm al-Khattab was talking to me all the time.
“Umm al Khattab would come and pick me up in a van, our brigade worked in that van with six or seven other women. We were in charge of the market place. Because I was so poor in the past, I was trying to be generous to other poor people. Abu Abdullah [her husband] was so generous with me. He would give me a lot of money. I was not used to having money. I would save it and give some to my sister and also gave money to the poor people. I was happy he was giving it so generously.
“Our job was to check the market on our regulations. For example we would check abayas if they are too tight or too transparent.”
Fascinated to be hearing not just about, but from an actual member of the ISIS hisbah, we ask Umm Rashid to explain to us how women are punished. We know the men have their shirts removed and are flogged in public, “But what about the women?” we ask, wondering how ISIS handles this delicate matter. “Are they undressed as well, and if so where?”
Umm Rashid is perfectly matter of fact: “For example if there is a woman with a colored abaya, we would arrest the husband and wife and take them to the hisbah jail. They would take the woman to the female’s hisbah and the man to the male’s hisbah.
“We would take off the clothes of the woman until she is in her underwear. Then we would beat her with a lash. Then there are special women in the hisbah for biting,” says Umm Rashid. We have heard about this practice of biting women but have never had a firsthand account.
“We would torture that woman so badly, that when the husband came from the other side she wouldn’t be able to walk. Then from out of this prison, she would feel I would never do this again, because of the things she suffered from the imprisonment. Her husband needed to pay a fine and he needed to purchase the proper abaya and sign the paperwork that he would comply to the rules completely in the future. If the woman repeats her offense, we would take the husband and put him in a football field where coalition forces used to bomb a lot. We had a prison and we would put him in that prison. Most of the time he would die of fear because of the explosions in that field.”
We ask her if she felt badly doing such things, assuming that she must.
“No! It made me strong! I would do the same thing again if given the opportunity. I escaped because I have a small child. I want to go back after the baby is grown.”
Suddenly the interview is going in a direction we hadn’t anticipated, and a potentially dangerous one for our colleagues Abu Said and Murat in the room with this woman, who now speaks proudly and defiantly of what she has done.
But there is more to come.
Tomorrow, “Slaves, Smugglers, and the Tools of Torture”
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (August 31, 2017) Making a Monster: How I became an ISIS Bride. The Daily Beast http://www.thedailybeast.com/bride-of-isis-the-making-of-a-monsterpart-i
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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