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Islamic State after ISIS: Colonies without Metropole or Cyber Activism?

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With the world constantly following the events in the Middle East, much now depends on the shape, form and ‘policy’ Islamic State is going to take. What form will the IS take? What role will cryptocurrencies play in funding terrorists? How can Russia and the US cooperate in fighting mutual security threats? RIAC expert Tatyana Kanunnikova discusses these issues with Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis, Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University.

Islamic State is perceived as an international threat. In which regions is it losing ground and in which ones is it on the rise? Could you please describe IS geography today?

Groups like the Islamic State are mobile. They tend to move and redeploy across international borders with relative ease, and are truly global in both outlook and reach. It is worth noting that, from a very early stage in its existence, the Islamic State incorporated into its administrative structure the so-called vilayets, namely semi-autonomous overseas provinces or possessions. These included parts of Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and of course Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. By the first week of 2018, the Islamic State had all but eclipsed from its traditional base of the Levant. How has the loss of its administrative centers affected the organization’s strategy?

Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis

There are two competing answers to this question. The first possible answer is that ISIS’ plan is similar to that of the Great Britain in 1940, when the government of Winston Churchill was facing the prospect of invasion by the forces of the German Reich. London’s plan at the time was to use its overseas colonies as bases from which to continue to fight following a possible German takeover of the Britain. It is possible that ISIS’ strategy revolves around a similar plan —in which case we may see concerted flare-ups of insurgent activity in Egypt, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kenya, and elsewhere. The second possible answer to the question of ISIS’ strategy is that the group may be entering a period of relative dormancy, during which it will concentrate on cyber activism and online outreach aimed at young and disaffected youth in Western Europe, the Caucasus, and North America. According to this scenario, ISIS will use its formidable online dexterity to establish new communities of Millennial and Generation Z members, and renegotiate its strategy in light of the loss of physical lands in the Levant. This scenario envisages an online geography for the Islamic State, which may eventually lead to the emergence of a new model of activity. The latter will probably resemble al-Qaeda’s decentralized, cell-based model that focuses on sharp, decisive strikes at foreign targets.

Commenting for an article in Asia Times, you said that ISIS returnees are extremely valuables sources of intelligence. How can they be effectively identified in the flow of migrants? How exactly can security services exploit the experience of these militants?

In its essence, the Sunni insurgency is a demassified movement. By this I mean that its leaders have never intended for it to become a mass undertaking. The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda before it, does not depend on large numbers of followers. Rather it depends on individual mobilization. Senior Islamic State leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mohamed Mahmoud, Tarad Muhammad al-Jarba, and others, have no interest in deploying 10,000 fighters who may be reluctant and weak-willed. They are content with 100 fighters who are unswerving in their commitment and prepared to devote everything to the struggle, including their lives. Consider some of the most formidable strikes of the Sunni insurgency against its enemies: the attacks of 9/11 in the United States, the 7/7 bombings in the United Kingdom, the November 2015 strikes in Paris, and the fall of Mosul in 2014. There have been more large-scale strikes on Russian, Lebanese, Afghan, Egyptian, and other targets. What connects all of those is the relatively small number of totally dedicated fighters that carried them out. The fall of Mosul, for example, which brought the Islamic State to the height of its power, was carried out by no more than 1,500 fighters, who took on two divisions of the Iraqi Army, numbering more than 30,000 troops.

The reliance on a small number of dedicated fighters mirrors the recruitment tactics of the Islamic State (and al-Qaeda before it). The latter rested on individual attention paid to selected young men, who are seen as reliable and steadfast. This is precisely the type of emphasis that should be placed by European, American and Russian security agencies on suspected members of terrorist groups that are captured, or are detected within largest groups of migrants. What is required here is individual attention given by security operatives who have an eye for detail and are knowledgeable of the culture, customs and ways of thinking of predominantly Muslim societies. However, most governments have neither the patience nor expertise to implement a truly demassified exploitation campaign that targets individuals with an eye to de-radicalization and — ultimately — exploitation. The experience of the Syrian migrants in countries like Italy and Greece is illustrative of this phenomenon. The two countries — already overwhelmed by domestic political problems and financial uncertainty — were left primarily to their own means by a disinterested and fragmented European Union. Several members of the EU, including Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom have for all practical purposes positioned themselves outside of the EU mainstream. At the same time, the United States, which is the main instigator of the current instability in the Middle East, shows no serious interest in de-radicalization and exploitation programs. This has been a consistent trend in Washington under the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In your opinion, will cryptocurrencies become a significant source of terrorism funding? Some experts believe that pressure on traditional methods of financing may facilitate this process.

In the old days of the 1970s and 1980s, most terrorist groups raised funds primarily through extortion, kidnappings, bank robberies and — to a lesser extent — drugs. Things have changed considerably in our century. Today, cryptocurrencies are not in themselves sources of funding — though it can be argued that the frequent rise in the value of many cryptocurrencies generates income for terrorist organizations — but more a method of circulating currency and providing services that generate funds. With the use of cryptocurrencies and the so-called Darknet, terrorist organizations are now able to engage in creative means of generating cash. They include the sale of pirated music, movies and, most of all, videogames. They also engage in the sale of counterfeit products, including clothing, electronics and other hi-tech accessories. Additionally, they sell counterfeit pharmaceutical products and even counterfeit tickets to high-profile sports events and music concerts. Those who buy those products often pay for them using cryptocurrencies, primarily through the Darknet. Looking at the broad picture, it is clear that the use of cryptocurrencies constitutes a form of asymmetric finance that circumvents established financial structures and operates using irregular means that for now remain largely undetected. Few terrorist groups will resist the temptation to employ this new method of unregulated financial transaction.

How can Russian and US intelligence and security services cooperate in combating terrorism? In December 2017, media reported that CIA had helped its Russian counterpart foil a terror attack in St. Petersburg. What should be done to deepen and broaden such kind of cooperation?

Despite friction on the political level, cooperation between Russian and American intelligence agencies in the field of counter-terrorism is far more routine than is generally presumed. Last December’s report of the CIA sharing intelligence with its Russian counterpart was notable in that it was publicly disclosed. Most instances of intelligence cooperation between Washington and Moscow are not publicized. In February 2016, the then CIA director John Brennan stated publicly that the CIA works closely with the Russian intelligence community in counter-terrorism operations directed against Islamist militants. He described the CIA’s relationship with Russian intelligence officials as a “very factual, informative exchange.” He added that “if the CIA gets information about threats to Russian citizens or diplomats, we will share it with the Russians”. And he added: “they do the same with us”. Brennan gave the example of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He said: “We worked very closely with [Russian intelligence agencies]” during the Sochi games to “try to prevent terrorist attacks. And we did so very successfully”. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Brennan’s statement.

Professionals are always more likely to find common areas of interest. So, in what areas, apart from combating terrorism, can Russian and US intelligence services cooperate?

There is a virtually endless list of common concerns that ought to and often do bring together American and Russian intelligence agencies. To begin with, there are two major existential threats to the security of both countries and the whole world that demand close cooperation between Washington and Moscow and their respective intelligence agencies. The first threat is the black market in weapons of mass destruction, notably chemical weapons, biological agents, and even radioactive material. In the past 20 years, there have been several cases of individuals or groups trying to sell or trade radioactive substances. The fear of such weapons possibly falling into the hands of non-state insurgents should be sufficient to entice close cooperation between American and Russian intelligence agencies. The second existential threat is that of global warming and its effects on international security. It is no secret that the rise in global temperatures is already having a measurable negative impact on food production, desertification, sea-level rise, and other factors that contribute to the destabilization of the economies of entire regions. Such trends fuel militancy, political extremism, wars, and mass migrations of populations, all of which are serious threats to the stability of the international system. Solving this global problem will require increased and prolonged cooperation on the political, economic, and security/intelligence level between the United States and Russia. The two countries must also work closely on a series of other topics, including standardizing the global regulation of cryptocurrencies, diffusing tensions between the two rival nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, tackling the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, preventing the destabilization of Egypt (the world’s largest Arab country), combating the growth of Sunni militancy in West Africa, and numerous other issues.

Among other things, you are an expert in the Cold War. At present, Russia and the USA are experiencing a period of tensions in their relationship. In your opinion, what should be done in order to overcome these challenges and mend fences?

For those of us who remember the Cold War, and have studied the development of Russia–US relations in the postwar era, the current state of affairs between Washington and Moscow seems comparatively manageable. Despite tensions between Washington and Moscow, we are, thankfully, very far from an emergency of the type of the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or even the 1984 collision between the US plane carrier Kitty Hawk and the K-314 Soviet submarine in the Sea of Japan. How do we avoid such dangerous escalations? The answer is simple: regularize communications between the two countries on various levels, including executive, political, economic and security-related. Such communications should continue even or, arguably, especially at times of rising tensions between the two nations. The overall context of this approach rests on the indisputable truth that Russia and the United States are the two central pillars on which the idea of world peace can be built for future generations.

First published in our partner RIAC

*Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Prior to joining Coastal, he built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. An award-winning professor, Dr. Fitsanakis has lectured, taught and written extensively on subjects such as international security, intelligence, cyberespionage, and transnational crime. He is a syndicated columnist and frequent contributor to news media such as BBC television and radio, ABC Radio, Newsweek, and Sputnik, and his work has been referenced in outlets including The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Politico, and The Huffington Post. Fitsanakis is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org, a scholarly blog that is cataloged through the United States Library of Congress, and a syndicated columnist.

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Intelligence

OSINT in Current and Future Military Operations

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In recent years, the international security environment has evolved in a way that lays greater emphasis on information gathering and analysis. This is largely due to the proliferation of digital technologies and the internet, which have made it easier for individuals, organisations, and governments to access, share, and disseminate information. As a result, the traditional concept of ‘national security’ has expanded to include cyber security, information security, and online propaganda.

In this context, ‘Open-Source Intelligence’ (OSINT) has emerged as an important tool and resource for governments, militaries, intelligence organisations, and individuals. It refers to information that is publicly available and can be collected from a wide range of sources, including the internet, social media, newspapers, and government websites.

The rise of information warfare and the need for intelligence on digital fronts has made OSINT an even more crucial resource for organisations dealing with the national security of a state. Various examples and case studies show it can provide valuable information that can be used to make informed decisions about foreign policy, intelligence operations, and military strategy; understand and respond to global security threats; support military operations; and gain a deeper understanding of conflicts. By analysing data from various sources such as social media, online forums, and satellite imagery, OSINT analysts can gain a better understanding of movements and activities in conflict areas. For instance, the US military used OSINT to track and monitor the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), through information on the location, movements, and activities of ISIS leaders and fighters, as well as its financial and logistical networks. Thereby, becoming a true force multiplier.

Not only this, OSINT can be used to monitor and counter disinformation, propaganda, and misinformation, which are widely used by state and non-state actors to influence public opinion and political decisions. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, characterised by a high degree of disinformation and propaganda on both sides, is also a case study of OSINT. One of the key aspects of OSINT in this war has been the use of social media. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been used to disseminate information by the warring parties. OSINT analysts have been able to use these platforms to track the movement of troops, equipment, and weapons. They have also been able to identify and track individuals and organisations that have been involved in the conflict. Besides social media, another important aspect of OSINT in the Russia-Ukraine War is the use of satellite imagery. Analysts on both sides have been able to use satellite imagery to accurately track the movement of troops and equipment, as well as to identify and track changes in the terrain. OSINT specialists have also been able to track the flow of money to different groups and individuals involved in the conflict, which has helped to identify potential sources of funding for the war.

Since OSINT allows for the collection of information from a wide variety of sources, it enables a more comprehensive understanding of the situation on the ground, while also allowing for cross-referencing and verification of the information. Another advantage of OSINT is that it is relatively low cost and accessible to a wide range of individuals and organisations. This has enabled a diverse group of actors, including journalists, researchers, and analysts, to play an active role in monitoring and analysing conflicts worldwide.

Despite these advantages, it is important to note that OSINT is not without its limitations. The information collected from open sources may be incomplete, biased, or even deliberately misleading. It is also important to be aware of ‘information pollution’ where a large amount of false or misleading information is spread deliberately to confuse or mislead.

In short, OSINT has become increasingly relevant in today’s strategic environment due to the abundance of open-source information. As conflicts become more complex and globalised, it is essential for governments, military organisations, and other stakeholders to have access to accurate and timely information in order to make informed decisions in a variety of fields, including cyber security, intelligence, surveillance, and national security. As the world becomes more interconnected and the amount of publicly available information continues to grow, the use of OSINT is likely to assume a critical role alongside traditional means of intelligence gathering.

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Chinese spy balloon over Latin America

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Intelligence gathering has been conducted using balloons since the 19th century, and their usefulness has significantly declined. During the 1950s, the U-2 spy plane was used to spy on the Soviet Union, and the country’s satellites were eventually replaced by the Corona reconnaissance units. A Chinese balloon that drifted across the US has raised concerns about people’s knowledge.

Sending out balloons is not an ideal strategy for gathering intelligence. They are not designed to be easily hidden, and they tend to go where the winds lead. During World War II, Japan launched incendiary devices known as firebombs into Washington state in an attempt to destroy Seattle. Unfortunately, they were unable to get them to fly over the city. Since a balloon will never return to its base, it has to find a way to retrieve the data it collects. During the 1960s, the US developed a system that allows a plane to snatch the payload from a reconnaissance satellite. Unfortunately, using this method would be very risky for China.

If China wants to collect intelligence, it should consider using a parachute to land the payload on the ground. This would prevent the people from recovering it unless the country has people in places such as Labrador or Montana. The balloon could also transmit data to a Chinese satellite. Not being able to retrieve the data collected by a balloon is a waste of money and time. China has numerous spy satellites that fly over the US every day. These satellites collect various data points, such as radio signals and photos. The country launched four more satellites last year. Since China has never used balloons for espionage, it is believed that the incident was caused by an error. The country’s meteorological agency might have lost the balloon, which is the basis of numerous UFO sightings.

Despite China’s claims that it does not spy on the US, it is still conducting a massive espionage campaign against the country’s allies and the US. This is more extensive than the operations carried out by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Until 2015, America was still accepting Chinese espionage as a cost of doing business with the country. The U.S. was wrong when it believed that China was using a balloon for espionage. The country reacted after the Office of Personnel was hacked in 2015, which revealed the private information of millions of employees. If the U.S. is truly interested in learning what the balloon is capable of, it should shoot it down. The incident has highlighted the need for China to reduce its espionage activities as the U.S. is on edge. Americans must learn from this and act more aggressively to prevent this kind of behavior from happening in the future. Some of the measures the U.S. can take include increasing the number of FBI agents, establishing more effective cyber security measures, and negotiating with the Chinese government directly. The use of Chinese balloons is a distraction, and this will not stop the country from carrying out its espionage activities. As aggressive as China is, focusing on them is like looking into the bedroom every night for its spies.

Current Scenerio:

Montana has long been a location for the US’ nuclear weapons. One of the country’s major missile silos is situated in the state. The Pentagon revealed that a Chinese spy balloon was detected flying over various sensitive sites in the US. It’s believed that the route the object took could be linked to Montana’s nuclear facilities. During a briefing in Washington DC, the Pentagon confirmed that the object was spotted in Montana. It was revealed that the balloon had flown over the Alaskan islands and Canada before it entered the US.

The Air Force’s Malmstrom facility is situated in central Montana and houses 150 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) silos. The Pentagon stated that the balloon did not pose a threat to civilians and was currently flying at an altitude well above the commercial air traffic. This type of activity has been observed in the past. After learning about the incident, the US government launched an immediate response to protect the sensitive data inside the balloon. The country’s fighter jets were dispatched to intercept the object. Despite the government’s initial response, the Pentagon decided not to launch a missile against the object. The agency noted that the balloon’s size could create a dangerous debris field. On which, China responded about the incident and it stated that it was looking into the matter and urged the US to remain calm. According to the country, it has no intention of violating other nations’ airspace and territory. China is a responsible nation that follows international laws. It does not intend to violate the airspace or territory of any country. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao said that the country was taking the matter seriously. The public should refrain from speculation and hype until the details of the incident are clear. This official also stated that the public should wait for more information before making judgements.

According to a statement released by the Chinese government, the balloon was a civilian airship that was used for meteorological research and it was malfunctioned due to wind. It deviated from its intended flight path due to the Westerlies. China expressed its regret over the incident and noted that it would continue to communicate with the US. The country’s foreign ministry also said that it would handle the situation properly.

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India’s Strategic Use of TTP to Undermine Pakistan’s Stability

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Image source: hindustantimes.com

Again, bloodshed in the city of flowers, with more than 90 martyrs and at least 250 injured in a suicide attack by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Peshawar. India’s backing for the TTP and its participation in the group’s avowed jihad against Pakistan have emerged as the most important security challenges in South Asia, with significant ramifications for regional stability and peace.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), commonly known as the Taliban in Pakistan, is a Pakistan-based Islamist extremist group. The group, which was founded in 2007, has claimed responsibility for a number of fatal assaults against Pakistani civilians and military personnel. TTP has proclaimed war against Pakistan’s government and military forces, arguing that they are not Islamic enough.

TTP has become a major security danger to Pakistan over the years, spreading widespread fear and instability. The group’s constant strikes on civilians and military targets have resulted in hundreds of deaths and massive devastation. The rising frequency and savagery of TTP assaults has caused considerable alarm among Pakistanis and the international world. Despite significant international criticism, the TTP continues to carry out atrocities with impunity.

Evidence of India’s Support for TTP:

Over the last decade, Pakistani security services have often reported on the Indian intelligence agency (RAW) providing support to the TTP. This assistance has been reported to include financing, training, and weaponry, all of which have aided the TTP’s capacity to carry out strikes against Pakistan. Pakistani officials, security professionals, and independent investigators have claimed India’s participation with TTP, citing proof of Indian involvement in TTP activities and divulging the false flag operations.

TTP commanders obtaining safe shelter in India is another piece of evidence pointing to India’s connection with TTP. TTP commanders have been said to have crossed the border into India for medical treatment and then stayed for lengthy periods of time. The granting of safe haven to TTP commanders implies that India is not only supporting the organization, but also shielding its leaders from prosecution and reprisal.

In addition to the Indian intelligence agency’s direct backing for TTP, there have been claims of Indian media outlets distributing misinformation in favor of TTP. This has included interviews with TTP officials and positive coverage of TTP’s efforts by Indian news sources. The media coverage has been interpreted as a means for India to legitimize the TTP’s conduct and seek sympathy from the world community.

India is contributing to Pakistan’s instability by supplying TTP with the money, safety, and legitimacy it requires to carry out its assaults.

India’s Motives Behind Supporting TTP:

One of India’s key motivations for supporting the TTP is to undermine Pakistan’s government and military. By assisting the organization, India is able to undermine Pakistan’s ability to maintain security and stability, creating an atmosphere in which the TTP may operate with impunity. The ultimate purpose of this assistance is to weaken Pakistan’s military and political institutions, making it easier for India to achieve a regional advantage.

Another reason India backs the TTP is to create a political and security vacuum in Pakistan. By assisting the organization, India may foment turmoil and instability in the country, creating possibilities for India to exploit the situation. The political and security vacuum left by the TTP’s operations can then be utilized by India to further its own goals and acquire more influence in the area.

India’s backing for the TTP might also be interpreted as an attempt to shift attention away from its own human rights violations in Kashmir. By assisting the TTP and producing turmoil and instability in Pakistan, India is able to divert attention away from its own activities in Kashmir, which have been severely condemned for abusing the human rights of Kashmiris. By helping TTP, India can divert attention away from its own acts and position itself as a responsible regional actor.

The Consequences of India’s Actions:

One of the most serious consequences of India’s backing for the TTP is the worsening of terrorism in Pakistan. India is feeding the fire of terrorism in the area by supplying finance, training, and equipment to the group, making it easier for TTP to carry out its heinous actions. This has had a significant influence on Pakistan’s security and stability, as well as the safety of its population. Terrorism has exacerbated violence and loss of life, creating an environment of dread and insecurity throughout the country.

India’s backing for TTP worsens regional tensions and instability. The rise of terrorism in Pakistan has heightened tensions between Pakistan and India, as well as between Pakistan and its neighbors. This has produced a climate of insecurity and uncertainty in the region, threatening regional peace and security. As each side gets more entrenched in its stance, the international community’s ability to find a solution to the crisis has become more difficult.

India’s backing for TTP has had a significant influence on regional peace and security. The rise in terrorism and tensions has made it increasingly difficult to establish regional peace and stability. This has had a detrimental influence on the region’s economic development, social advancement, and people’s well-being. The continuation of violence and insecurity has also made it more difficult for the international community to address the underlying causes of conflict and work toward a long-term solution.

Conclusion:

The international community must take steps to confront India’s backing for TTP. India’s activities are clearly against international law and standards, and they endanger regional peace and security. The international community must strongly denounce India’s conduct and endeavor to hold those involved accountable for their acts.

Holding those involved accountable for their conduct is critical to preventing such incidents in the future. The international community must act to bring individuals who promote terrorism and destabilize the area to account. This involves investigating and punishing individuals responsible for supplying TTP with support, as well as those involved in planning and carrying out terrorist actions. Only by taking firm action can we expect to restore stability and security to the area and prevent such actions in the future.

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