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International Law and the underlying Extra-legal Factors that influence Terrorism

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The world shivers at the mention of terrorism. As a matter of fact, modern terrorism has proven to pose the most serious threat to global peace and human rights. Despite the possibilities of other elements influencing the actions made by the terrorists, media reports continued to label the attackers as fanatic Islamic terrorists and Muslim guerrillas.

As if being Muslim equates to being a terrorist, the former became synonymous with the latter. Due to the bias created by the media, there is a disregard of the extra-legal elements other than religion that affect terrorism. The understanding of terrorism is therefore amorphous and vague, creating a lacuna within the international law and instruments that are created to fight it.

In this essay, I discuss the relationship of international law with the understanding of terrorism as an international crime. The focus is not only Islam but also all religions. I aim to probe that religion is only one of the elements that influence terrorism. However, the affiliation of religion with terror is not surprising. There have been various attacks that were planned and carried out in the name of religion, but what is usually overlooked is that religion itself is not always behind the attacks, and other extra-legal factors influence the attackers and their reasons. This bias is reflected by the media, which plays a huge role in establishing what terrorism is and who is seen as a terrorist.

International community has taken several initiatives to enact multilateral instruments to eliminate terrorism with the aim of protecting basic human rights and eliminating any threat to such priority. International law targeted terrorism in two ways: the first was through enacting multilateral treaties which are open to all States to sign; and the second is the result of onerous efforts by the General Assembly to execute a series of legal recommendations to help States fight terrorism. Today, there are approximately 12 Conventions and Protocols that legislate on terrorism. For the purposes of this essay, three Conventions will be examined: the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997),which is said to fill the  lacunae  regarding  the  investigation,  prosecution  and  extradition  of  terrorists;the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism   (1999), which was claimed to be created in the hope of crippling the whole structure of terrorism;and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005), which arguably targets nuclear weapons and their production to prevent abuse by terrorists.

International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997)

As a result of the improvement in technology and transport, bomb attacks are easier to plan, while explosives are conveniently accessible. This, and the increasing number of suicide bombers, has negatively affected the arduous war against terrorism, as the world struggles to control and monitor terrorists. In 2001, one of the men responsible for the Al-Khobar Towers attack on an American base in Saudi Arabia was indicted. The attack reportedly injured five hundred people, while nineteen perished. The alleged terrorist and his partners used a farm as the main area for building the bomb truck that was used in the attack. Extradition was sought by the USA, but Saudi Arabia rejected the extradition claim on the basis that the attack occurred on Saudi soil and that the terrorists were nationals.

This specific case gives rise to several extra-legal factors, such as the religious element, because the terrorists were reportedly linked to Hezbollah Al Hijaz– a Saudi Shiite opposition group that allegedly carried out several terrorist attacks and the political element, because the targeted group was foreign American military personnel and not non-army civilians, according to the findings of United States of America vs. Ahmed Mughassil(2001) case in US.

The UN, with the aim of enacting legislation that governs bomb attacks, adopted the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997).The Convention incorporates several essential elements targeting terrorism, for example, prohibiting any individual from acquiring and detonating explosives (Articles 1 and 2);providing that any individual charged with this crime must be prosecuted [Article 7(2)];and administering the extradition of the alleged terrorists (Article 9). However, the most swelling Article in the Convention must be Article 5, which recognizes the existence of extra-legal factors, stating that acts of terrorism are not “justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature (Article 5).” Therefore, it is clear that the Convention does recognize extra-legal factors, but has yet to accept their influence on terrorism; thus, failing to address it. In other words, the Convention pushes States to ignore those extra-legal elements; it takes a ‘punish but not prevent’ approach. This means that the Convention punishes acts of terrorism but fails to identify the root causes, and therefore is inadequate in preventing any future attacks.

In the case of the bombing of the Al-Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, for example, it could be argued that the motivations for the attack were merely political for two reasons: the attack was carried out by individuals associated to Hezbollah–the radical opposition group, and the chosen targets were military personnel. It is true that motivations do not act as justification, but addressing the root motives helps further develop understanding of terrorism as a whole in order to prevent future atrocities. Theoretically, if the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997) required States to investigate and control the cause, the reasons behind various types of terrorism could be uprooted. In other words, if the Convention provided for an investigation of the reasons behind the attack, both the terrorist individual and the group he or she is affiliated with would undergo scrutiny and repercussions to prevent future violations of human rights.

Furthermore, linking the extra-legal factors could help in identifying future possible targets. For example, religiously-motivated terrorists usually attack other religions, terrorists motivated by politics attack parliaments and military power, while personal vendettas and psychological issues might contribute to school shootings. Terrorist bomb attacks are planned on objectives that must be achieved: to kill as many people as possible to send a political message or to destroy symbolic objects and property. These comprehensive understanding of terrorism activities may lead States to prevent terrorist attacks far before they are taken place. Therefore, measures by the international community must be taken to incorporate binding Conventions and Articles that target the root cause of terrorist bombings.

 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999)

The Abu Sayyaf group – a terrorist group based in the Philippines, suffered from a major loss in numbers of armed militants affiliated to it as a result of financial difficulties. In fact, there were reportedly only two hundred armed militants connected to Abu Sayyaf. In the hope of fiscal growth, the group carried out several kidnapping operations, according to Australian National Security.

Abu Sayyaf is not the only terrorist group that sought financial aid through crime: Al Qaeda receives funds from drug trafficking and kidnapping as reported in CNN on May 04, 2011, while other groups use extortion to build their empires. However, at times, financial aid is willingly given to these terrorist groups. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the USA received confidential information relating to a sheikh in Yemen, who planned financing Al Qaeda. The informant claimed that up to USD20 million had been raised, which was to be transferred in cargo under the name of a honey trading business in order to avoid raising suspicion, according to Michael Freeman and MoyaraRuehsen in their article entitled “Terrorism Financing Methods: An Overview” at Perspectives on Terrorism in 2013 (Vol. 7, No. 4). Therefore, the fight against terrorism should not be merely directed towards violent acts but must also target the financing and sponsoring of terrorism, which can be made through: bank transfers, fundraising through fake charitiesor donations by wealthy individuals.

Measures have been taken by the UN to combat the financial support of terrorism. For example, the Security Council adopted sanctions that froze all funds of the Taliban– a radical terrorist organization through Security Council Resolution No. 1333 of 2000.However, an important institutive action was the enactment of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999). The Convention shares similar Articles to those found in theInternational Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings Convention (1997).Therefore, development on the targets of international law was limited. However, one distinct characteristic of the Convention is that it aims to destroy the core of terrorism –if finances are suspended, then executing terrorist operations will prove difficult due to the lack of sufficient funds.

Nevertheless, the Convention fails to target the reasons behind why individuals fund terrorism. There may be some psychological factors relating to the reasons why an individual might finance terrorism, for example, frustration with certain lifestyles or just the support of extremist ideologies might trigger an individual to support terrorist acts. Moreover, support of those ideologies and philosophies might be inherited or learned through biological factors, culture and socialization.

Economically, financing terrorism is not only beneficial to the terrorist group sponsored but also to the provider of the funds. For example, if Iraq is the leading State in the production of oil, then using terrorism cripples its production rate. Consequently, it helps advance the oil business other competitor States. This is because foreign investors and international firms consider the quality of peace as being more attractive.

On the other hand, the political reasons are very similar to factors that aim to ruin a State’s economy. However, politics are also influenced by various factors, such as culture, the spread of different ideologies and interest groups, and religion. Financing terrorism could be a way with which autocratic political leaders express disdain towards another State. Despite all of these extra-legal factors that influence the financing of terrorism, the Convention fails to address these issues.

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005)

The past two decades have witnessed a significant increase in terrorist destructiveness. The profound fear of nuclear weapons is understandable because the consequences are not only deadly but cause catastrophe on a global scale. If the Hiroshima and Nagasaki tragedies in 1945 are any indication, then another nuclear explosion will result in massive international damage. These grave violations of rights and disrespect for human life were enough to instill fear within most States; in other words, the lesson was learned.

Nuclear weapons became attractive to all types of organizations: both States and terrorist groups. For example, the Pelindaba attack in South Africa in 2007 caused public and legal uproar over the protection needed relating to nuclear materials. The attack reportedly involved two groups of men, who gained access to a control room in a corporation that stored hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium. Despite the fact that the motives for the breach on the corporation’s estate are unknown yet, it was obvious that nuclear weapons have gained the attention of criminals and terrorists, and, hence, better laws and protective measures are needed.

The main international convention regulating nuclear weapons is the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005). Similar to the International Convention  for  the  Suppression  of  Terrorist  Bombings  (1997)  and  the  International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999), this Convention rejects any justification for terrorism (Article 6). However, its main failure is its lack of jurisdiction over States [Article 4(4)]. In other words, it only applies to terrorist groups, individuals and organizations. This lack of application to States is illogical for two reasons: the first nuclear wars were started by States during the Second World War and not terrorist groups,and States that sponsor terrorism do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Convention (2005), and, thus, cannot be held accountable. Moreover, any terrorist group seeking a nuclear weapon requires a state source to enable it to obtain certain materials needed to build the weapon. Thus, since a connection with a state is crucial for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons, the Convention should have jurisdiction over states and be able to hold them accountable.

In addition, nuclear-weapon States are States that have rights to develop nuclear weapons under the Treaty of Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1968). These are: China, Russia, the USA, the United Kingdom (UK) and France. The Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (1968) governs the production of nuclear energy and its peaceful use and includes three pillars: criminalizing the transferring of nuclear weapons (Articles 1 and 2); binding States to peacefully use and develop nuclear energy (Article 5); and supporting nuclear disarmament (Article 6). Nevertheless, the five nuclear-weapon States have adopted different policies towards using their nuclear weapons, but have maintained that nuclear weapons will be used if deemed necessary. Nevertheless, all five States use the idea of ‘self-defence’ or ‘deterrence’ to justify owning nuclear weapons with the aim of persuading potential enemies that the risk of using nuclear weapons against those five States is higher than the gains.But what about the right of those potential adversaries to self-defence and deterring measures?

This is where the extra-legal factors are triggered – mainly political factors. The fact that only certain States are legally able to possess nuclear weapons alienates other States; specifically, if there is an already-existing conflict. These political implications give rise to intra-State rivalry, further motivating States to use terrorism as a method. Instead of granting attention to the political factors that could result in a nuclear war, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005) states that offences found in this Convention are not to be “regarded…[a]s an offence inspired by political motives (Article 15)”. In other words, the Convention fails to address the political factors that increase the chances of a nuclear war because it disregards the possibility of a State helping a terrorist group, and ignores political inequality relating to owning nuclear weapons.

Conclusion

It is true that religion does have an influence on terrorism, but it is not greater than the influence of other extra-legal factors. Notwithstanding the fact that the media is the key factor behind labeling religion with terrorism, scholars have also extensively related religion to terrorism. This failure to accurately address terrorism resulted in an international lacuna – a gap that led to an increase in the number of terrorist groups.

The war on terrorism requires the adoption of both social and legal measures. Failure to act will only lead to an increase in powerful terrorist groups. The current fight against terrorism is unrealistic. In fact, measures taken rely on compliance with international law. However, compliance with law is the last concern of terrorist groups.

With regard to the legal situation, the first and foremost important change needed is an international consensus on the meaning of terrorism; the UN has yet to agree on a functional definition.

Furthermore, in order to socially combat terrorism, stereotypes of Muslims must be eradicated. This is because the alienation of Muslims in Western societies might act as a sociological factor that may motivate an individual to seek revenge through executing terrorist acts. Moreover, bias and discrimination would result in Muslims employing a defence mechanism to protect themselves. This defence mechanism might develop into hostility towards civilians, the government and political authorities. Therefore, the religious focus must shift to include several extra-legal elements in order to consider all possible motivations relating to terrorism.

Economic issues must also be targeted and resolved to lessen the attractiveness of incentives promised by terrorist groups to potential recruits. Furthermore, more research is required relating to the effects of psychological factors associated with terrorism. Social issues are very important in combating terrorism because they have a major influence over human behavior.

No matter how successful legal Conventions and Resolutions against terrorism are, they will not eradicate terrorist acts. International Conventions are useful in establishing that no crime will go unpunished, but terrorists disdain the nature of law. Therefore, respect for it is non- existent. As a result, the international community must collaborate on both legal measures and methods to analyze extra-legal factors in order to stop the formation or expansion of terrorist groups.

Mahmudul Hasan is a recent LL.M. graduate of energy and environmental law and Thomas Buergenthal Fellow at The George Washington University Law School, Washington, D.C.

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Terrorism

Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday. 

“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies. 

Assault on human rights 

During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts. 

“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General. 

The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan. 

The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.” 

Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating. 

Reaffirm core values 

Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse. 

“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. 

The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people. 

This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Ensuring long-term efforts 

The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain. 

In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”  

Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces. 

“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens.  That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said. 

“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Global strategy 

The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.   

Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism. 

Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner. 

The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities. 

The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.  

“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said. 

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The UK’s “Separation Centres”: Re-visiting counter-terror measures

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Prisons are breeding grounds for radicalisation within their walls and recruitment for terrorism acts carried out post the inmates’ release. The leaders’ personality and ability to cultivate a cult-like following among the potential recruits mould the fruition or failure of these security threats worldwide. While this is not a novel security challenge, as the following portion about the rise of the Islamic State attests, the Boris Johnson-led administration appears to now bolster its efforts to confront the complex reality.

For example, the emergence of the Islamic State traces its roots to Camp Bucca in Iraq, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its earliest leader, received absolute leeway in conducting his virulent sermons and fomented the surge in radical recruits. His followers eventually assumed leadership positions in one of the deadliest terrorist outfits of the modern era. However, the prison officials had essentially allowed him to run amuck due to his ability to contain in-fighting and resolve tensions between his fellow jihadist prisoners, despite his record of violence displayed during the Sunni insurgency after the United States-led invasion in 2003. Having found themselves in a foreign land and inadept at recognising the socio-cultural and sectarian sensitivities, the American officials presumably refrained from challenging the status quo that had emerged within the camp to minimise tensions and violent episodes engulfing the Iraqi state. However, this meant that the radical Islamist narrative spun by him and disseminated by his followers played a central role in laying the foundations of the carnage and the now dismantled “caliphate” that would follow suit.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategy is now being revamped. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has announced the strengthening of a team, to the tune of £1.2 million, to assist the British government in devising a framework to segregate radically influential and “charismatic” Islamist terrorists from at-risk inmates serving their sentence. This would primarily happen by isolating them in specialised centres to house such high-risk prisoners. Nevertheless, there is a catch. The challenge that this administration will face is in determining who poses a substantial threat and will find a place in the centres. Although three of them are currently operational, until April 2022, only 15 individuals in one prison have made it to the list.

Mr. Raab asserted that the current dispensation is “going to take a more decisive approach in [our] prisons, not allowing cultural and religious sensitivities to deter [us] from nipping in the bud early signs of terrorist risk.” He argued his case by underlining how the right to socialise in prisons traditionally accorded as per the Human Rights Act would remain suspended. In addition, inmates making their arguments against their referrals to such centres would find it a mounting challenge to plead their claims successfully. Furthermore, the empowered Prison Governors will notably have considerable authority to strike down any attempts by radical inmates to undermine national security and instigate chaos spurred by radicalisation.

Driving the policy change

On the surface, this comes on the heels of the recommendations made by Jonathan Hall QC, an independent reviewer of terrorist activities in Welsh and English prisons. Nevertheless, it is improbable to disassociate this policy decision from the debates concerning the viability of Prevent, which is a core tenet of the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy. It was initially introduced in 2003 by former Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair. Understandably, the brutal assassination of former parliamentarian Sir David Amess in October 2021 and the subsequent conviction of Ali Harbi Ali for life, the perpetrator in April 2022, have triggered the incumbent administration to counter the catapulting national security crisis decisively.

On the other hand, violent incidents within jails in the recent past are the root of why Mr. Raab appears driven to confront this dilemma head-on. In May 2020, HMP Belmarsh’s-High Security Unit, one of the most secure prisons countrywide, witnessed a horrifying attack on Paul Edwards, a prison officer. He nearly lost his life due to a near-fatal assault by a trio of inmates. He was punched, thrashed, and struck with a chair after Hashem Abedi (the “emir” and brother to Salman Abedi; the Manchester Arena bomber), Muhammed Saeed, and Ahmed Hassan (Parsons Green Bomber) stormed his office. Led by Abedi, Saeed and Hassan were radicalised to retaliate against perceived unfair treatment by prison authorities.

Reportedly, these individuals were housed along with other violent criminals, sowing seeds for intensifying attacks, where discussions about their upcoming trials and information about jihad and terrorism were frequently exchanged. 

What is worrisome is that this prison has served as the scene for a spill-over to its other corners. Mohiussunath Chowdhury, who was imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh on terrorism charges after his sword attack on police officers stationed outside the Buckingham Palace in 2017, had a close affiliation with fellow jihadis, including Hassan, Abedi, and Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State terrorist infamously known as “Jihadi John.” He was re-convicted in 2020 for planning terrorist attacks after being cleared of prior charges in 2018. Additionally, Sudesh Amman, who stabbed two people and was subsequently shot dead in February 2020, also had a prior conviction.  He was jailed for possession and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, before securing an early release days before his knife attack. He and Chowdhary were imprisoned around the same time.

It is equally problematic to discover that Anjem Choudhary, a militant and radical Islamist preacher who, until recently, was banned from making public speeches, and Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker, are the by-products of a militant Islamist climate cultivated within the same prison as terrorists mentioned above. Khan and Choudhury also spoke alongside each other at a conference in 2009 about Sharia. Individuals like Khan were also mandated to undergo a de-radicalisation initiative termed “Desistance and Disengagement Programme” alongside his fellow detainees.

The Do’s of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation success & the need for overhaul

These are only a few of several examples within one prison to delineate why the British government is attempting to revamp its counter-terrorism strategy. Under a common roof, the amalgamation and collusion of violent extremist beliefs, followed by constant reinforcement undermines the stable ecosystem within and outside prisons. Moreover, despite their resources an well-trained personnel, the security agencies – MI5 and MI6 require adequate preparation and time to re-engage and subdue such terrorists between their release and their subsequent targeted attacks. During that time frame, these radicalised individuals persons have the potential for these radicalised persons to inflict more violence than before.

Therefore, the government’s rationale is evident and well-understood.

Overall, the presumption is that if such “separation centres” are set up and all high-risk terrorists isolated, the violence within and outside jails will become manageable, if not completely eradicated. This would provide the government, law enforcement, and security agencies sufficient room to re-allocate their resources and personnel towards nipping in the bud any potential radicalised recruits in the public domain before they join violent extremist organisations or carry out terrorist acts. It will also prevent the radicalisation of violent criminals and pre-trial prisoners as they remain disassociated from radical elements.

However, to ensure the centres’ success, challenges such as overcrowding, shortage of specially trained armed and civilian personnel (including de-radicalisation experts), and insufficient funds to procure advanced surveillance for monitoring the detainees’ daily activities need to be overcome. The government must also ensure that it sets up a core committee, comprising a therapists, a prison official, and a social welfare worker, and a law-enforcement and security officer (each), for each of these centres. In addition, 4 to 5 members to evaluate the successes and challenges after every months and accordingly underscore the scope of improvement and loopholes the centres face is also required. Only through a state of heightened monitoring, and constant re-evaluation can the administration hope to weed out terrorism and radicalisation from mainstream society and its fringes. Additionally, the political will of subsequent leaders and perseverance of MI5 and MI6 will also have a significant contribution to determining whether this initiative succeeds or whether is doomed to fail.

On the other hand, in conjunction with the government, the prison officials must also ensure prisoners being housed in such centres should not come into contact, particularly through illicit means, lest they develop a jihadist solidarity, strengthen their beliefs, and harm those safeguarding these places. Moreover, parameters, including the number of people these high-risk individuals have radicalised within and outside prisons, and those who have committed terrorist attacks post their release, the rigidity of their ideological indoctrination, record of violence, cyber activities, conduct as inmates, and the severity of crimes for which they have been convicted, should collectively feature into the framework laid down to decide who will be referred to the separation centres.

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U.S. Hunts Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

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KTJ Uzbek jihadists

The US Department of the Treasury and the State Department successfully and effectively conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, putting constant and systematic pressure on them. The war on terrorism is fought on many fronts: diplomatic, intelligence, covert, sanctions, law enforcement, and military. Over the past two decades, the US designated the most vocal and violent Islamist extremist groups from Central Asia as the “Specially Designated Terrorist” (SDT) и “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO). Under the provision of the Act “Farrakhan Amendment,” US law enforcement freezes any assets and finances of global terrorist groups, designated SDT and FTO. The US has recently added the Uzbek jihadi group of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad to global terrorist organizations.

US designated Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

On March 7, 2022, the US Department of State added Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. In addition to this designation, KTJ has been added to the UN Security Council’s ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against Uzbek jihadist of KTJ.

The US designation noted that “al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib Province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from the post-Soviet Central Asia.

The US Department of State’s statement also noted that “in addition to engaging in terrorist activities in Syria, KTJ has also been responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg metro attack in Russia in April 2017 which killed 14 passengers and injured 50 others, as well as a suicide car bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek in August 2016 which wounded three people.”

The State Department further stated that as a result of the designation, all property and interests in property of KTJ are blocked, and foreign financial institutions that conduct any transaction on behalf of KTJ could also be subject to US sanctions.

Uzbek Jihadists in Syria denounce US designation of KTJ

On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization, the Shura Council of KTJ released a statement denouncing the US move. In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction questions the greatness of the US, as their decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society might be, it will not be great in the eyes of people if it does not rule with justice and eliminate oppression.”

Uzbek Jihadi group in Syria denounces its designation by the US and claims that “KTJ consists of people who responded to the cries of the oppressed in Syria, because protecting the oppressed people is the duty of all humanity.”

KTJ leader Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki

The major Central Asian militant group further asserted that “it is not the policy of KTJ to launch attacks outside Syria” and its members have nothing to do with the suicide attacks on Russia’s St. Petersburg metro and the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in 20016-2017. At the end of their statement, KTJ ideologists claim that “our group does not belong to al-Qaeda or ISIS.” However, this claim is absolutely false.

It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda became the ideological mentor and inspirer of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley, opening the door to global jihad. KTJ was created by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (alias Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi Salafist from Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, in northern Syria in 2013. Under his leadership, KTJ pledged allegiance (Bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the Al Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria at the time which described itself as al-Qaeda in the Levant.

During the preparation of this material, a group of experts on political Islam listened to KTJ’s bayat once again, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Nusra, parted ways ‘peacefully’ in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ has never disavowed its bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, during this time, KTJ demonstrated its deft ability to spread the al-Qaeda ideology into the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.

To date, KTJ is the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on a par with the Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party from Chinese Xinjiang. Both are waging jihad under HTS’s auspices against Bashar al-Assad regime. The approximate number of Uzbek militants is about 500 people. It is known that long a hotbed of armed resistance and a center of al-Qaeda-related operations, northwest Syria has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.

The KTJ current leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda’s devoted followers. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek of the Fergana Valley and former deputy emir of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ. According to a UN Security Council’s report dated 3 February, 2022, “KTJ’s capability is undermined by conflict between the current group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh.” But this is a superficial assessment of the situation taking place among the Uzbek jihadists in Syria.

Noteworthy, Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under pressure of HTS for openly supporting its strongest jihadi opponent, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which directly challenged the leader of HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. It is also known that KTJ new leader Abdul Aziz swore bayat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afg-Pak border zone as member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2008. Indeed, at that time, IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-linked groups in Central and South Asia. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, which also hosted an al-Qaeda camp.

So, militant Salafism is the fundamental basis of KTJ’s jihadi ideology. In accordance with its ideological doctrine, the group aims to overthrow the five “tahut” (godless) regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia and build a single Caliphate with Sharia rule in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the new imam of KTJ and its major ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies Jihadi-Salafi scholars from the medieval to the present, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda’s senior figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

Thus, KTJ’s claim of no ties to al-Qaeda is a complete lie. Today, Uzbek jihadists of KTJ continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the HTS, who act as an ideological mentor and militant umbrella for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

US continues pressure on Central Asian jihadi groups

This is not the first time that the US government has designated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions against them. It is known, the US State Department has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000. The IMU was the veteran of the Central Asian jihad, first paving the hijrat to Afghanistan and establishing close relations with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and its military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed as a result of US missile airstrike.

On June 17, 2005, the US State Department designated the Islamic Jihad Union to the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The US missile airstrike has killed several top IJU leaders, including its emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan 2009.

According to the recent UN Security Council report, “IJU actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban in the capture of Kabul and therefore its fighters now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country. IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev, of Tajikistan, is assessed to be the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates primarily in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.” Further, the UN report notes that “Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several leaders of IJU have travelled freely to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov separately visited Kabul.”

On December 29, 2004, the US State Department designated Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). The group leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in US drone strike. However, on November 5, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

On March 22, 2018, the US State Department designated Uzbek jihadi group Katibat Imam al Bukhari to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. Currently KIB wages jihad in Syria under the HTS umbrella against the Bashar al-Asad regime. KIB is now led by ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has a close and trusting relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Minister of the Interior of the Taliban government and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas. KIB, like the IJU and KTJ, is also a splinter of the IMU and pledged loyalty to the Taliban.

In conclusion, the US government’s designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such a move will certainly help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East in cutting off the channels of financial, material and military assistance to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

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