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?
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.
The old and new techniques of Dezinformatsjia
Disinformation – i.e. what the Soviet intelligence services called Dezinformatsjia – is at the origin of the phenomenon that we currently define – with oversimplification -fake news, spread to support or not voters’ or consumers’ specific choices, obviously both nationally and internationally. Nowadays the “political market” is globalized exactly like the market of goods and services and hence all the tools available to a country and to its political elite need to be used.
Certainly the intelligence agencies’ room for manoeuvre is currently much wider than it was at the time of the Cold War. Hence many mass manipulation techniques, which in the past were specifically political, are now also commercial, behavioral, cultural, scientific or pseudo-scientific. They are closely interwoven and currently the electoral or political manipulation operations often stem from commercial marketing techniques.
Dezinformatsjia, however, is always a “weak to strong” operation, i.e. a series of strategic and information actions that try to prevent the use of force by those who are tactically superior.
Those who have not enough missiles targeted against the enemy, or have not the maximum military efficiency, faces the opponent with psychological and propaganda techniques, which cost less and – by their very nature -do not trigger a conventional military countermove by the enemy against whom they are targeted. However they can trigger an equal and opposite disinformation by the target country.
These are all “ironic” operations, in the etymological sense of the word. Irony comes from the Greek word eironèia, i.e. “fiction, dissimulation, or to say the opposite of what you think”.
Just think of the great demonstrations against “Euromissiles” in the early 1980s -not foreseen by the Soviets, which put a strain on the huge intelligence network of the Warsaw Pact in Europe – or of the myth of the opening to dissent in the era of Khrushchev’s “thaw”. Or just think – as maintained by Anatoly Golytsin, the former KGB officer who defected to the USA – of the schisms between the USSR and Mao’s China, or of the transformation of the Komintern into Kominform, in which also Yugoslavia secretly participated, even after the famous schism between Tito and Stalin.
According to Golytsin, a senior KGB officer, all the divisions within the Communist world were a huge and very long sequence of fake news. Westerners never believed him, but the predictive power of his book, New Lies for Old, published in the USA in 1984, is still extraordinary.
He foresaw the “liberalization” of the Soviet system and even its collapse, so as to be later reborn in a new guise. All true, until today.
But what is really Dezinformatsjia, i.e. the technique that is at the origin of fake news and of all current psychopolitical operations?
For the KGB experts, disinformation is linked to the criterion of “active operations” (aktivinyyemeropriatia), i.e. the manipulation and control of mass media; the actual disinformation, both at written and oral levels; the use of Communist parties or covert organizations. In this case, just think of all the organizations “for peace” or for friendship “among peoples”, as well as of radio and TV broadcasts.
“Active measures” even include kompromat, i.e. the “compromising material”, as well as damaging and disparaging information about Western agents or politicians’ involvement in sex, illegal and drugs affairs. This information is collected and used strategically across all domains, with a view to creating negative publicity.
An active kind of measure that we have recently seen at work against President Trump. Nevertheless it has been implemented by his fellow countrymen, who, however, do not seem to be very skillful in the art of desinformatsjia.
It should be recalled, however, that currently a fundamental technique is to manipulate the opponents’ economies or to support guerrilla groups or terrorist organizations.
Manipulation of economies through statistical data or governments’ “covert” operations on stock markets, while support for terrorist groups, even those far from the State ideology, is provided through an intermediary that may be another State or a large company, or through bilateral financial transactions outside markets.
The Red Brigades, for example, initially trained in Czechoslovakia by passing through the Austrian woods at the border, owned by the Feltrinelli family.
When the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was found dead near an Enel trellis in Segrate, but long before the Italian police knew who had died on that trellis, the Head of the KGB center in Milan hastily went to report to the Soviet embassy in Rome.
Many friendly and enemy States, however, used right-wing and left-wing terrorism against the Italian Republic.
The goal was clear: to destroy or annihilate a dangerous economic competitor, especially in Africa and in the East.
Dezinformatsjia, however, was institutionally targeted against what the Soviets called “the primary enemy”, namely the United States.
Under Stalin’s power – who was dialectically “superseded” by Khrushchev, always in contrast with true innovators – “active measures” also included assassination.
I do not rule out at all that, in particular cases, this tradition has been recovered even after the death of the so-called “little father”.
As we can see, “active measures” -namely Dezinformatsjia – still has much to do with contemporary world.
If we only talk about fake news, we cannot understand why it is spread, while if it is interpreted in the framework of the old – but still topical – disinformation strategy, everything gets clearer.
In the Soviet regulations of the 1960s, every KGB foreign branch had to devote at least 25% of its forces to “active measures”, while each residence had an officer specifically trained at Dezinformatsjia.
It should be noted that, in 1980, CIA estimated the total cost of “active measures” at 3 billion US dollars, at least.
It was the real struggle for hegemony that the USSR was fighting, considering that the missile, nuclear and conventional balance of the two forces on the field did not permit a real military clash.
However, the result of the final clash would have been very uncertain.
Nowadays every State produces fake news, as well as ad hoc opinion movements, and spreads agents of influence in the media, in universities, businesses and governments.
Hence the globalization of disinformation, not simply fake news, is the phenomenon with which we really have to deal.
During the Cold War, the Soviet apparata spread the fake news of the CIA and FBI involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while the East German apparata often spread news about Western politicians being members of Nazi hierarchies or about the pro-Nazi sympathies of Pope Pius XI.
It should also be noted that Andropov, who was elected General Secretary of the CPSU in 1982, had been the Head of the KGB First Chief Directorate, precisely the one that coordinated and invented all “active measures”.
At the time, Western newspapers were filled with news about Andropov as a “modernizer”, a reader of the American literature classics and a jazz lover.
Was it Dezinformatsjia? Obviously so, but no one answered that question, thus raising expectations – among the NATO European Member States’ peoples – about a sure “democratization” of the Soviet Union in the future.
Andropov, however, secretly believed that the United States would unleash a nuclear war in the short term against the USSR. Hence this was the beginning of a long series of Dezinformatsjia hard operations right inside the United States.
Nevertheless, following the rules of “active measures”, they were not specifically targeted against the US military and political system, but against other targets apparently unrelated to the primary aim: the US responsibility for the (impossible) creation of the AIDS virus or – as the Soviet Dezinformatsjia always claimed – the “unclear” role played by CIA and FBI in the assassinations of J.F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King or even the death of Elvis Presley.
A specific product for each public.
Hence a fake storytelling is created – not a series of objective data – around a theme that is instead real, so as to reach the goal of a generic defamation of the primary enemy, where there is always a “bad guy” (obviously the US government and its Agencies) and a “good guy”, that is the American people that must be freed from the bad guy holding them prisoner.
According to the theories of the great Russian scholar of myths, tribal rituals, folktales and fairy storytelling, V.I. Propp, whose text “Morphology of the Folktale” was published in Leningrad in 1928, this is exactly one of the primary narrative elements of the folktale.
As in the case of KGB “active operations”, Propp’s scheme envisages some phases of construction of the myth or of the folktale: 1) the initial balance, i.e. the phase in which everything is devoid of dangers; 2) the breaking of the initial balance and hence the creation of the motive for the subsequent action; 3) the vicissitudes of the hero, who is the one who “restores order” after the natural twists and turns; 4) the restoration of balance, namely the conclusion.
Hence the mythical and fairy mechanism concerns the archetypes of the human psyche, as described by Carl Gustav Jung.
This is the reason why, despite their evident counter factuality, propaganda constructions work well and last well beyond the time for which they were thought and designed.
Active operations are modeled on the natural parameters with which the human mind works. When well done, said operations do not use abstract theories, cultural or sectoral models. They speak to everyone, because they act on the unconscious.
It is no coincidence that currently the archetypal branding – i.e. the marketing system based on the 12 Jungian archetypes – is increasingly widespread.
It was created in 2001, several years after the fall of the USSR and in the phase in which the New World Order was strengthening.
Propp’s four elements work just as an “active measure”, based on four categories: 1) mastery and stability; 2) belonging; 3) change; 4) independence.
It is easy to verify how these four categories of modern marketing (and of the archetypal tale) fully apply both to disinformation operations, which can often favor one of the four elements compared to the others, and to the actual political marketing.
Hence politics, intelligence services’ propaganda and marketing currently work on the basis of the same deep psychic mechanisms.
In the Soviet tradition, there is also a certain tendency to use Ivan Pavlov’s psychology in the field of intelligence.
Pavlov developed the theory of “conditioned reflexes”, i.e. the psychic mechanism that is produced by a conditioning stimulus.
The experiment of the dog and the bell is, in fact, well-known and needs no elaboration.
It should be noted, however, that the conditioned reflex is triggered precisely when the food announced by the sound of the bell is no longer there, while the dog shows all the typical reactions of the animal in the presence of food.
Here, the “active measures” of disinformation create a conditioned reflex by connecting a country, a leader or a political choice to something universally negative which, however, has nothing to do with the primary object.
This connection becomes instinctive, automatic, obvious and almost unconscious.
Just think of the automatism – once again artfully created – between the Italian intelligence services and the so-called “strategy of tension”.
The goal of perfect Dezinformatsjiais to create a Pavlovian conditioned reflex that works immediately and naturally as a Freudian “complex”.
Nevertheless, with a view to being successful, every fake news or message that is part of an “active measure” must have at least a grain of truth – otherwise it immediately appears as an opinion or ideology, which is soon rejected by the subject.
This means they can be discussed and maybe accepted rationally, but the “active measure” must mimic an immediate, natural and pre-rational reaction. Otherwise it becomes traditional propaganda or part of an open debate, exactly the opposite of what it has to do.
Hence the message must be processed with extreme care to reach the goal of any disinformation operation: to convey in the public “enemy” and / or in its ruling classes a message that – when well done – fits perfectly and unknowingly into the communication mechanisms of the “enemy”.
Western experts call this procedure “weaponization of information” or “fabrication of information”.
Nowadays, however, all information is distorted by the manipulation about the aims it must achieve – just think of the Italian and European debate on immigration from Africa.
Hence also the West uses the weaponization of information- but, probably, it still uses it badly.
Hence we will never witness the end of fake news – which have always existed – but simply its refinement as real natural “states of mind” or, more often, as immediate reactions, such as those connected to a conditioned reflex artfully created.
In this case, there is no longer difference between reality and imagination.
Fake news as fiction – we could say.
If this is the new battlefield of psywar, it will be good for Italy – even autonomously from the NATO center that deals with “strategic information” – to equip itself with a structure, within the intelligence agencies, developing and carrying out specific disinformation operations.
For example, with reference to the Italian companies operating abroad, to Italy’s general image in the rest of Europe and to its action in Africa or in the rest of the world.
The third way between war and diplomacy
The American presidents all asked the CIA when they arrived at the White House, “What should they do with it?” Often they underestimated the CIA’s analysis. These analyzes described a complex world and they said the process of events was ambiguous.
Evaluation, hypothesis, probability. The White House never praised such literature. The White House often preferred analyzes that were within the framework of its political intentions and intentions. On the other hand, the White House has been increasingly inclined to publicly disclose some of the information collected by the services, due to the persistent desire to attract people from their big decisions.
Instead, the presidents were heavily pushed by the secret power that the CIA possessed. The covert activities, as a “third way” between war and diplomacy, heavily attracted them. All of them have implemented programs in secret to stealthily influence the process. All of them were trying to keep their apps in use. Despite the scandals, the political and diplomatic problems caused by secret activities, none of them questioned the necessity and effectiveness of this instrument in foreign policy.
These covert measures began to expand slightly in the 1950s, at a time when the CIA’s invincible myth was formed. CIA officers, who found such actions as a source of prominence and privilege, did everything to cultivate them. This myth derives from a special cultural sign: Americans as a nation have a very positive image. America considers itself to be a nation that succeeds; it is a winner who challenges ahead of them through his will and technology. The CIA is responsible for this sweeping spirit in Washington.
The slogan of the CIA has long been: “The agency can do it.” Therefore, the opponents of power would not be taken into consideration because the United States needed shadow warriors to protect the country from the Soviet threat, without anyone having much to know about it. This era of trust ended in the process of deconstruction and after disclosure of the “internal” spy activities of the CIA. So the great age of complexity began, which brought fantasies and other conspiracy theories. The CIA takes ugly signs into a dangerous, rogue and out-of-control organization. But Robert Gates states: “The CIA is nothing more than a presidential organization. Every time this organization has faced trouble, it was due to the mission that the president ordered. »
In any case, this is the image of America in a world that has suffered the most pain and suffering from this country. The fact that the United States has an agency like the CIA is necessarily a two-tail razor.
The press and the Congress, in spite of the fundamental belief in the effectiveness of the CIA, served as two powerful guardian dogs to oversee the agency in the service of the president. The dynamics of American democracy, as well as the strong attachment to the constitution and individual freedoms, have made the CIA the “most transparent” intelligence service in the world. The contradiction is that the Americans know more about the secret activities (activities that are definitely the most secret and sensitive activities) to the total CIA performance. Perhaps even more are than the overall performance of other institutions, including the State Department or the Ministry of Health.
Sept. 11 attacks occur and shake the sense of security and invincibility that the United States has plunged into. Since then, US soil is no longer a haven, and the attack has the same effect as Pearl Harbor’s attack. The outcomes of the Iraq war are being added to the most fundamental reorganization in the US intelligence community since about sixty years ago. Information services acquire new authority, many other services are formed, and some of the old networks are weakened or even destroyed, the need to focus more on the powers of information services is felt.
These changes are so far as the United States is creating a CIA over the previous organization. The new goal is to give Americans a unique look at the services. The new organization will focus it’s analyze on the analysis. That’s why we can bet that in the future less than the CIA’s inability to anticipate important events. On the other hand, because of the new reformation of the new head of the American intelligence apparatus, and the CIA has become the agency responsible for all the secret activities, it can be assumed that the CIA will (slightly) head over the next few years will be kept.
The tension between interventionism and the previous doctrine of isolationism has led Americans to redefine the intelligence system as the “last line of defense”. In some respects, this device is the beginning and end of its power; and since the CIA has seen its strength in its mission of being as close as possible to the American enemies, that’s why today it still maintains this precious position.
The CIA actually has an almost inescapable position in the imagination as well as the American political system. The organization gives all its actors the confidence that someone, something, America is intertwined with international affairs, and its influence on the four corners of the world shines.
What is the Future of Malhama Tactical?
Perhaps no single Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia deserved such close attention of Western media like an Islamist private military contractor (PMC) Malhama Tactical (MT), that founded by a jihadist from southern Kyrgyzstan and training militants in Syria.This was possible thanks to the creativity and active self-promotion of the head of this small consulting firm on the Internet, which has managed to attract the attention of many Western journalists and researchers on Islamic radicalism.
The authoritative Foreign Policy called MTthe world’s first jihadi consortium of elite, well-paid fighters from across the former Soviet Union and compared its activities with the infamous Blackwater USA (now named Academi).BBC Monitoring published a series of analytical articles entitled How Malhama Tactical became the ‘Blackwater of the Syrian jihad’ in December 2018.The Independent, CSAF,the American Partisan, The Daily Caller, MEMRI and others also described MTas a successful jihadist training organization that supposedly changed the course of the Syrian war.My colleagues in the study of Salafi Jihadism Pieter Van Ostaeyen and Neil Hauer even interviewed the MT’s commander in November 2018.
The main disadvantage of all these articles is the lack of critical thinking regarding MT.Western analysts relied on videos, interviews and statements of MT’s leaders published on the Internet as advertising.As a result, the MT’s tactical role in the Syrian war is undeservedly overestimated since the boast of its leaders is taken at face value.
About MT more detailed facts cited the Russian Telegram channel Directorate 4, which is associated with the Russian special services.But the main problem of Russian researchers is that it is difficult to determine the edges of analysis and propaganda, which in some places is accompanied by rude insults to the MT’s leader.
The mysterious name of Al-Malhamah Al-Kubra
One should recognize the creative thinking of the Uzbek young man Abu Rofiq, who gave his organization the mysterious name “Malhama Tactical”, which was immediately noticed by the sponsors of the Salafi movement in the Islamic world. According to the Hadith, the al-Malhamah Al-Kubra means the great battle, bloody fights, massacres and the conquest of Constantinople by Muslims from the Romans.
Abu Rofiq likes to create a halo of mystery around his person and his organization. Western media have created his image like the fearless Rambo and a former officer of the elite of the Russian Airborne Forces, who from the inside knows the secrets of the Russian military-training science. On Facebook Abu Rofiq at one time positioned himself as a former sniper of the Russian elite Special Forces GRU whose staff was involved in the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Skripal in British Salisbury and in the interference of the 2016 US elections.
But our analysis showed that some of the statements of Abu Rofiq were not true.All his biographical data, family ties and information about the military career are known to the authorities of Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The real name of Abu Rofiq is Sukhrob Baltabaev who was born in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan on August 10, 1993.By the way, the leader of al Qaeda-linked Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad Abu Saloh is also from this region.
After completing school in 2010, he left as a labor migrant to Russia. The Russian authorities have documented that Sukhrob Baltabaev was called up for military service on May 14, 2012, by the Military Commissariat of Russia’s Tatarstan.He began serving in the 45th Guards Separate Special Purpose Intelligence Regiment of the Airborne Forces in the Moscow Region.However, due to the disease of an intervertebral hernia, he was discharged from the Russian army.
Hijrah to Sham not for the purpose of Jihad but for making money
According to Russian sources, after an unsuccessful military career, Sukhrob Baltabaev returned from Moscow to Kazan and worked as a computer programmer at the firm Potok.In those years that ISIS and al Qaeda began actively recruiting Central Asian migrants working in Russia to Syria and Iraq.Having fallen under the influence of the ideologists of Wahhabism, in February 2014, he left for Syria and joined the Jamaat of Chechen militants Shishani.A young wife from Osh and a son Muhammadrofiq remained at home.
At the end of 2015, he created MT with several friends from Central Asia, who began to train on a commercial basis both local and foreign militants in Syria fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.The exact number of the group’s members is unknown but it is thought to consist of 10-15 fighters, all originating from former USSR states.Knowledge of computer technology, creative advertising campaign and ability to find a common language with the leaders of jihadist jamaats helped him in developing this business.MT has become popular due to the wide use of social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, VK, Twitter and Telegram, where he began to publish examples of military training under the pseudonym Abu Rofiq and offer his services for money.
In Central Asia, there is a saying that “Uzbeks know how to make money out of thin air.” There is even a joke about when the American astronaut Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon, he met there Uzbek who trading in the Lunar Bazaar. In the genes of the peoples of Central Asia, where the Great Silk Road lay, historically there is the ability to trade. The natural flair did not fail Abu Rofiq: he found a unique opportunity to make money from the Syrian war.
The company has been working with the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz, Jaysh Muhajirin wal-Ansar,and other groups, even Ahrar as-Sham .I am not a military specialist and cannot assess the quality of MT’s tactical trainees on the use of various types of weapons and fighting in urban combat. But MT’s instructors use popular Russian-made 7.62 mm machine gun, US-made modern sniper rifles, helmets with night vision goggles and the expensive military equipment that the armies of Central Asia cannot afford. The other equipment shown in the videos, like the first-aid kit, is also of high quality, used often in US army and its allies.
Malhama produces equipment for other jihadi groups, manufactures accessories for the PKM, vests and grips, widely used in Syria. This means that MT’s business is doing well and its leader has enough connections somewhere to guarantee himself a supply line of such type. The MT leader actively used the online crowdfunding urging sympathizers to donate money to continue Jihad and training the Mujahedeen. At the same time, currencies of all countries were accepted, even bitcoin, QIWI and Yandex. Money electronic transfers.
Russian hunt for the leader Malhama
With the acquisition of fame and the growth in the number of clients, the real hunt started for the MT leader from the Russian special services, the Assad regime and ISIS.The MT leader considers Moscow and Damascus enemies of Islam who destroy peaceful Muslims in Syria. Moscow has special claims to the MT leader. As shown the attempt to kill former KGB agent Skripal in the UK, Putin will pursue his military, who have betrayed the oath. Despite Moscow’s refusal, Sukhrob Baltabaev is a former military of the Russian Army.
In addition, he inflicts sensitive blows to Russia. In a recent interview, the MT’s head stated that the Mujahideen Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, who had been trained by Malhama, had made an attack in Tarabiya, Northern Hama, and killed four high-ranking Syrian officers and seven Russians on November 10, 2018.ANNA-News Agency confirmed this information.
MT has also been vocal about its opposition to ISIS. On 20 June, Abu Salman posted on his Twitter account an anti-IS message saying: “We must kill them all, ISIS is evil and we have to do something to wipe them out”.
For security reasons, the MT leader appears in the media in masks, or with a scarf tied on his face. According to BBC, the first MT leader Abu Rofiq was killed in February 2017 in a Russian air strike in Idlib. After that Abu Salman Al-Belarusi on Twitter called himself a new MT commander who is Uzbek from Belarus and served as senior sergeant of the 103 Airborne Brigade of the Belarusian Army in Vitebsk. But the Belarusian side did not confirm this information.
But according to the Russian media Abu Rofiq did not die.In order to mislead the Russian special services he spread false information about his death, and now he took the pseudonym Abu Salman Al-Belarusi. That is, Abu Rofiq and Abu Salman Al-Belarusiare one and the same person, that is, Sukhrob Baltabaev from Kyrgyzstan. After comparing the audio and video performances of Abu Rofiq and Abu Salman Al-Belarusi, we concluded that the voice belongs to the same person. The authorities of Russia and Central Asia have identified Sukhrob Baltabaev and continue to closely monitor his relatives.
Ideological views of Malhama Tactical
The ideological views of the MT leader contain the outfit’s mixture of Salafi ideology with the privatization of war because money plays an important role for him in his project. But he cannot be counted among the radical Wahhabis, who are ready to die as Shahid in the name of Allah. His various speeches showed that his level of knowledge of the Quran, Hadith, and Surah, the basics of Tawhid and Fiqh, is not very deep. Perhaps because of this, he avoids the Central Asian Salaf-Jihadi groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat Imam al-Bukhari and Turkestan Islamic Party, who fight in Idlib. In ideological terms, he does not represent a big threat to Central Asia’s countries, because he is not able to conduct propaganda and recruiting campaigns. But he can be described as a jihadist who has close views with al Qaeda and performs his tactical tasks on technical training for jihadists.
Thus, MT was a new phenomenon in the Islamic world which has laid the foundation for the professionalization of Jihad. But without ideological doctrine, it is difficult to predict the continued “successful functioning” of the world’s first jihadi contractor. Therefore, it can be expected that the turbulent development of Jihadism and the fierce competition of terrorist groups will force MT to adopt the radical Salafi ideology and join a certain terrorist group. The history of radical Islamism has shown that the Wahhabi world will not accept those who do not have a deep ideological doctrine of Jihad.In the future, we can expect that the radical principles of Jihadism will force MT to go beyond earning money. MT is already gradually abandoning the concept of money…
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