Coleman endured rape, the murder of her first child, and a terrifying rescue. A psychologist who has talked to hundreds of hostages looks at the challenges ahead for her family.
Caitlan Coleman, 31, of Pennsylvania, her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, 34, and their three little children were rescued by the Pakistani army last week after they were abducted five years earlier by a Pakistani-linked terrorist group known as the Haqqani network.
Since then, the statements from Boyle and family members might well make one ponder not only what hostages suffer when taken by terrorist groups, but the psychological aftermath once they’re freed—with the situation of their children especially concerning.
Boyle read from a prepared statement upon his arrival at Toronto’s Pearson airport Saturday telling journalists that their infant daughter had been murdered and his wife raped “as retaliation for my repeated refusal to accept an offer that the criminal miscreants of the Haqqani network had made to me.” According to Boyle, Coleman’s rape was not undertaken “as a lone action, but by one guard… assisted by the captain of the guard and supervised by the commandant.”
Boyle told reporters that he and his wife had decided to have children even in captivity because they always wanted a big family. Caitlan Coleman was pregnant when they were taken hostage and Boyle claims their first child, a little girl, was murdered. Boyle calls her a “martyr.”
Their 4-year-old son, Najaeshi Jonah has traumatic events burned in his memory. Boyle told Michelle Shephard of the Canadian newspaper The Starthat his son did not like to close his eyes because the little boy woke up one night to see masked men with Kalashnikovs picking him up. His parents already had been taken away while he was sleeping, to be transferred to another prison. Ever since, he has tried to avoid closing his eyes, even to play the childhood game of peek-a-boo.
Boyle told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston that his middle child, Dhakwoen Noah, 2, is “nearly as distressed as he was in prison, it seems everything reminds him of the horrors of prison; cameras are equated to hostage videos, pens are equated to syringes used to drug his parents with ketamine by the guards, slamming doors is associated with cell searches or worse, it seems his healing process has barely begun—so we pray that God will hasten it.”
Even the Boyles’ months-old infant is traumatized writes Boyle in an email to Canadian Broadcasting Service stating, “Ma’idah Grace seems scared most of the time, but also to have discovered there are more decent people in the world than she knew; her world until last week consisted of two good brothers and two good parents and about 15 guards of [who were sources of] increasing fear to her.”
The family was transported 23 times during its captivity with the final transport ending in a terrifying shoot-out and their rescue. Boyle emailed the Associated Press a statement saying the children had “reached the first true ‘home’ that the children have ever known—after they spent most of Friday asking if each subsequent airport was our new house hopefully.” While Boyle emailed the AP photos of his son’s delight over “raiding the first refrigerator of his life,” it will clearly take time for all the family members to understand that their newfound freedom is real and won’t be again taken from them.
Najaeshi Jonah, according to Boyle is “terrified to leave the house, even just to go on the porch… it’s as though he thinks if he ever exits this magical wonderland it will all end…”
Speaking for himself, Boyle says he no longer trusts anyone after being held hostage for so long.
Then there’s the adjustment to modern society; Boyle told journalists his sons had not yet played with their new toys but had flushed the toilet at least 200 times. “These are children who three days ago they didn’t know what a toilet looks like. They used a bucket,” Boyle said in the video. “Three days ago they did not know what a light is or what a door is except that it is a metal thing that is locked in their face to make them a prisoner.”
Hostages often say their captivity was punctuated with bursts of overwhelming terror amid otherwise unremitting boredom. These episodes of extreme fear often include rapes, beatings, fake and real executions, torture, and verbal abuse, alongside the deprivations of captivity. The Haqqani network which also held American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl captive for five years, is well known for torturing and abusing its captives.
Half a decade is an unusually long time to endure captivity. Most adult hostages progress in captivity through a range of feelings beginning with shock and disbelief over being taken, feelings that give way to terror, and move over time into feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, regret, grief, and depression. Alan Johnston, the BBC Journalist held in Gaza in 2005 said after his release, “It was like being buried alive and removed from the world, in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable.”
When hostages are held alone and deprived of sensory stimulation they may begin to hallucinate as the mind tries to fill in the blanks. This, alongside the emotional pain of isolation and losing track of time, can create fears of losing one’s mind. Many hostages state that it was very important to figure out how to communicate with other hostages held nearby and to mark time—often by scratching marks on their prison walls. The ambiguity of not knowing when they will be freed creates deeper distress than having a set date in mind as the end of one’s ordeal.
The Coleman-Boyle family was kept together, but it is apparent that this fact was exploited to further terrorize and dishearten them, given the murder of one child, the constant specter of violence against the other children, and the rape of Coleman.
Frequently the end of hostage-takings, occurring through rescue or ransom, add even more traumas to those of being held hostage, especially when they finish in such terrifying ways as occurred in the case of the Coleman family—with no sure knowledge that one will survive the rescue.
At the time they were freed, Coleman, her husband, and their baby daughter, according to Boyle’s interview with Canadian Broadcasting Network, had been crammed into the trunk of a car transporting them from Afghanistan into Pakistan, with the two boys held inside the car, separated by a partition.
Tipped off by the Americans, the Pakistani army surrounded and shot out the tires of the car, after which a deadly skirmish began. Five of the captors were killed, the rest fled, while Joshua Boyle suffered minor shrapnel wounds. Boyle told his family in Canada that the last words he heard from the kidnappers were, “kill the hostages.”
Boyle and Coleman have suffered through multiple harrowing events, including what has been alluded to as a forced abortion. Normal symptoms and responses to the terrifying ordeal of being held hostage include acute and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—having flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, extreme nervousness, angry outbursts, inability to concentrate, depression, negative feelings, feeling alienated and isolated, and the inability to function well.
Without adequate treatment, sufferers of PTSD can worsen over time and may resort to drug and alcohol abuse to try to tone down the nervousness and quiet their flashbacks and nightmares. That said, hostages should also be given time upon their release to come to their own coping mechanisms, while being offered supportive treatment, as many will find inner strengths to guide them on their own way back into healthy adjustments.
At present, Caitlan Coleman is with her husband in Canada, although her father told NBC that he hopes their daughter and her family return to the United States and accept a Department of Defense or other program to help them get re-acclimated to life outside of captivity, including psychological counseling for their children.
Certainly after all they have endured, the family members can do with some good counseling and support to adapt to freedom. Joshua Boyle stated upon his release that he is looking forward to a safe space for him and his family to heal.
Longer captivities involving familial separations involve stressors and adaptations on both sides of the equation with time needed both by the hostages and their families to readjust. The hostage may return home traumatized, suffering guilt and regret, and needing support, while family members have also suffered anxiety, grief, and having to cope without the hostage, and may even harbor feelings of anger over risky decisions made by the hostage that led to his or her captivity.
Coleman’s father, Jim, told journalists he has no immediate plans to go to Canada to see his daughter and son-in-law, explaining, “We want to see how things play out for now… I’m not on the best of terms with my son-in-law, as you can tell.”
“How would you feel if your seven-month pregnant daughter was put in such a situation?” hiking in Afghanistan, Jim Coleman told NBC. “Taking your pregnant wife to a very dangerous place, to me, and the kind of person I am, is unconscionable,” he told ABC in an exclusive interview.
It’s usually the case that hostages have not been fed well and have been subjected to unsanitary conditions. They may return with symptoms of malnutrition and disease, as well as deep psychological trauma. Coleman gave birth four times during her five years of captivity. She was raped and may have been subjected to a forced abortion, all events for which she likely did not receive medical treatment. The entire family was held at times in an underground prison, conditions also likely affecting their physical and emotional health.
Some countries pay for the release of hostages while others do not. In the case of Coleman and her husband, they were subject to American and Canadian laws, which do not allow their countries to pay ransoms.
Terrorists do not always understand or care about the intricacies and legalities of paying ransoms and terrify their hostages in efforts to extort ransoms, making them release statements on video pleading for payment.
In December of 2016 Coleman, veiled in a black abaya and featured in front of a camera with her husband and two toddlers, appeared to be reading from a script, calling their captivity “the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves.” She implored President Barack Obama, “Please don’t become the next Jimmy Carter. Just give the offenders something so they and you can save face and we can leave the region permanently.” Addressing soon-to-be President Donald Trump, she added, “We ask that you are merciful to their people and God willing they will release us.”
Hostages held together may be a comfort to each other, but also distress each other when they disagree about how to respond to captivity. We have yet to learn how Coleman’s marriage and small family fared. Whether or not there were recriminations between them over their child being killed and Coleman’s rape after Boyle refused to meet demands made by their captors is still unknown.
In the case of Canadian hostage, Amanda Lindhout, held for 15 months by Somali militants, she and her boyfriend disagreed on whether or not it was smart to fake conversion to Islam. Amanda “converted” only to find she couldn’t meet her captors’ demands to learn the Koran and prayers and that she was now considered marriageable by the young men holding her hostage. According to a senior Taliban member, the Coleman family also converted, probably to increase their chances of survival.
Joshua Boyle told reporters at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport that they had gone to Afghanistan to help those living under Taliban rule, trying to deliver aid to villagers in a part of the Taliban-controlled region “where no NGO, no aid worker, and no government” had been able to reach, when they were kidnapped.
However, at the time they were taken hostage and still today, some intelligence experts speculate about Boyle and his motives for traveling to Afghanistan, wondering about his previous marriage and divorce from the oldest sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian 15-year-old who was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and became a Guantanamo detainee alleged to have ties to al Qaeda.
The patriarch of the Khadr family was killed in 2003, along with al Qaeda and Taliban members, in a shootout with Pakistani security forces near the Afghanistan border.
Boyle’s associations with the family led some U.S. intelligence officials to speculate that his visit to Afghanistan may have been part of a larger effort to link up with Taliban-affiliated militants. “I can’t say that [he was ever al-Qaeda],” said one former intelligence official, adding, “He was never a fighter on the battlefield. But my belief is that he clearly was interested in getting into it.”
Accompanied by State Department officials on their flight home, Boyle made clear to a journalist onboard that he is interested in battling injustices. He nodded toward one of the State Department officials and said, “Their interests are not my interests.”
Such speculation may be linked to the “offer” from the Haqqani network that Boyle said he refused at great personal cost to himself and his family. What that offer was is still unclear, as is the reason that Boyle is said to have refused a flight to the United States, preferring instead to fly home to Toronto.
Likewise, two senior members of the Haqqani network denied to NBC that Coleman was raped, while Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the infant died after it fell ill in a remote area with lack of medical care and her death was not intentional.
There are many questions that still need answering. Just as there were controversies over the capture and trade of American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, there are controversies concerning the Coleman’s return as well, which may also contribute to a more difficult adjustment to freedom.
Mr. Boyle’s father, Patrick, said in a video posted by The Star, the couple wanted to give their “profound thanks for the courageous Pakistani soldiers who risked their lives and got all five out safely in the rescue.”
Rescues of hostages are often heroic, as this one apparently was. But some are botched, or end in the deaths of those they were trying to rescue. For instance, the gas introduced into the Moscow theater siege in 2002 killed hundreds more hostages than those killed by the terrorists, although in the end everyone might have died if no rescue was mounted. One hostage held in Colombia told me that she continually prayed while in captivity that her release would be negotiated by ransom rather than the police trying to rescue her, an event she feared would end in her death.
Americans, when their country refuses ransom, may be subjected to beheadings by groups like the so-called Islamic State, since the publicity and propaganda value of an execution is of greater value to the group than holding a hostage indefinitely.
Each hostage situation is different in terms of the goals of the hostage taker, the conditions of where and how long the hostages are held. Hostages are taken for many reasons, but in the case of terrorists, their purposes generally are to instill fear in a larger population, extort money, demand political concessions from the government, or simply make a horrifying statement about their ability to take captives and do as they wish with them.
The hostage taker always wants something—money, personal safety, safe passage to another country, or in the case of terrorism, complicated political goals which may include release of prisoners, repeal of policies or law, withdrawal of troops, etc.
Terrorist goals may also include destabilizing the target government of their attack by showing its powerlessness in the face of the hostage taking. Hostage-takers use the publicity surrounding their abductions to garner support within their constituency by showing their action and devotion to the cause.
Terrorists frustrated by the hostage’s inability to produce a ransom and wanting to extort the maximum amount have been known to repeatedly take the hostage to what he or she believes is her imminent execution, intricately staging the events to cause maximum terror. Canadian hostage, Amanda Lindhout, for example was taken to a remote execution site by her Somali captors and made to kneel at gunpoint as she anticipated her last moments of life. American journalist James Foley was thought to be so calm before his beheading by ISIS in 2014 because he had faced his mock execution many times before.
Knowing one’s family will have to sell homes or sacrifice to generate a ransom demand creates guilt and anxiety, both during the hostage taking, and later when the freed hostage sees the sacrifices his family went through to obtain his release. Lindhout’s father sold his home in order to pay her ransom.
In some cases, family members trying to collect funds to ransom their loved ones have been told not to do so by their governments, as was claimed by James Foley’s mother. Accepting a posthumous award for his son, Foley’s father said through tears, “I miss my son,” as he went on to describe the joy and pain of talking to the European hostages held with James who had been ransomed by their governments, stating that he thought U.S. policies should be rethought.
When hostages try to escape only some are successful. A woman escaped out the bathroom window during the Nord Ost theater hostage taking in Moscow running to safety as the hostage takers shot at her. Others were not so lucky. Canadian hostage Lindhout and her boyfriend escaped only to be recaptured. The results were horrific. Both were chained up and Lindhout was mercilessly gang-raped as a result.
Hostages that are kept with their family members, as Caitlan Coleman was, can face harrowing choices. A woman I interviewed from the Beslan school siege in 2004 was offered freedom for her children if she joined the hostage-takers and took up their cause. She refused and, fortunately, did not suffer such horrific punishment as Boyle’s family did.
Some hostages fall into a distorted attachment behavior during captivity in which they understand that their captor holds their life in the balance and they begin to form strong attachments to their captors. This so-called Stockholm syndrome is much more likely to occur when hostage takers isolate and talk to their captives, showing empathy or kindness, frequently interact, and are also terrifying. The combination of terror and kindness creates a “trauma bond.”
In some cases Stockholm syndrome is strong enough that hostages fight alongside their captors or defend them once freed. The most famous case being Patty Hearst in the 1970s, in which she took up arms and joined her captors. Her ordeal however began with her being locked in a closet, drugged, and raped.
The press always wants to talk to freed hostages, and governments want to debrief them. But sometimes this process can re-traumatize them. One young mother released early from the Moscow siege was doing well until she returned to hold vigil outside the theater. As members of the press surrounded her and pounded her with questions, she felt as if she were taken hostage again and immediately lost her ability to speak. She suffered a strong stutter for months afterward and spoke haltingly to us as we interviewed her in Moscow.
One hopes Coleman and Boyle were just naively trying to help remote villages in Afghanistan as they claim, and have no need to clear their names. While loving family members surround them, their children can begin to discover life after captivity. As Joshua Boyle told NBC’s Today, his 4-year-old son Jonah had never played with a toy, read a book, or heard of Disney characters. “He doesn’t actually understand that there is a sun outside.”
Let’s hope they all find much more than sunshine to rebuild their shattered lives.
Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne. (10-18-2017) Will hostages taken by the Taliban ever recover? The Daily Beast https://www.thedailybeast.com/will-family-held-hostage-by-the-taliban-ever-recover
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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