Authors: Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci
With estimates of 3000 foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq, Jordan had the highest per capita number of foreign fighters. In addition to Abu Musab Zarqawi having been the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanians also rose to leadership positions in ISIS. Given the continued online recruitment of Jordanians by ISIS, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) ran two Facebook Awareness Campaigns in Jordan using ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos. Between the campaign and organic activities, one of the counter narrative videos received over 1.7 million views.
Introduction –ISIS and Militant Jihadi Terrorist Recruitment in Jordan
Since the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, it is estimated that upwards of 40,000 foreign fighters joined Sunni militant groups such as ISIS and al Nusra in Iraq and Syria. Approximately 11,000 of the estimated 40, 000 are believed to be from the Middle East, with countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia supplying the vast majority of foreign fighters. While estimates differ, Jordan has seen nearly 3,000 men and women join ISIS and other Sunni militant groups in Iraq and Syria over the past years, together with Tunisians and Saudis, rounding out the list of top sources of foreign fighters.According to some estimates, Jordan is ranked as either the first or the second country in the world with the highest number of foreign fighters, on a per capita basis, in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict.Jordanians who joined Jabhat al Nusra the local Syrian arm of al-Qaeda, and later ISIS, often held leadership positions in these groups, advocating for militant jihadi terrorism in the region.In fact, in the first iteration of ISIS, Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born jihadist militant who led al-Qaeda in Iraq, hailed from Zarqa, Jordan.
The drivers of radicalization to violent extremism in Jordan are many. Beginning with a decades-long history of violent extremist and terrorist movements operating in Jordan, and involving Jordanians, alongside the destabilizing and radicalizing factors occurring in the region and globally, once relatively peaceful Jordan has absorbed both its share of terrorist attacks and a growing hub of terrorist groups and their ideologies, with al-Nusra and ISIS operating in Syria and Iraq at its current center. Moreover, the repeated influx of refugees from neighboring conflicts, economic and governance challenges, and Salafi influences migrating into Jordan have all combined to create vulnerabilities and motivations on a psychosocial level that have ideological resonance to terrorist recruitment inside Jordan.Despite the volatile conditions, Jordanian leadership has managed to maintain political stability in the country, and is one of the trusted U.S. and coalition partners against ISIS and the so-called Islamic State. Jordan, however, remains a country of ‘easy recruits’ for terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda,especially when considering the proximity of the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq.
Recent Changes in ISIS since its Territorial Defeat
While ISIS has lost most of the territory it once held in Iraq, and much of Syria, some 11,000 ISIS cadres are still believed to be active and operating in Iraq and Syria, though recent research indicates that numbers may actually be upwards of 30, 000.Likewise, ISIS remains a formidable terrorist organization with a brand and dream of creating an Islamic State Caliphate and has also proven itself capable of spreading itself beyond its original territory, namely with ISIS affiliates continuing to recruit for, and control, territories in countries such as Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Algeria.
In addition to kidnappings and insurgent and clandestine type activities in Iraq and Syria,the group also remains focused on orchestrating, inspiring, and carrying out external attacks, which, in part, are carried out to demonstrate the group’s resilience as well as debunk claims and predictions of the group’s ultimate demise. ISIS has inspired or carried out attacks in more than 31 countries that have killed more than 2,000 people outside of Syria and Iraq.For instance, in 2015, ISIS supporters and admirers, inspired by ISIS social media propaganda, were able to carry out one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the history of modern Tunisia.
Recent militant jihadi activities in Jordan have also given cause for serious concern. In 2016, ISIS terrorists attacked Karak Castle, a popular tourist destination in Jordan, killing 10 and injuring 34. In January 2018, Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) reported to have prevented a major terrorist plot by ISIS involving 17 suspects. Potential targets included civilian, military, and religious facilities.More recently, on August 10th, 2018, a police sergeant was killed in al-Fuheis when a police patrol car was blown up during a music festival in the town. The law enforcement managed to trace the attackers to a house in the city of Salt where they engaged in a shootout with police and ultimately exploded their bomb-rigged hideout rather than be arrested. The attackers were Jordanians. Their affiliation to any known terrorist group remains undisclosed,though some experts in Jordan suggest they were either inspired or directed by ISIS. These represent only a short list of the many terrorist attacks involving Jordan.
Internet Recruiting & Terrorist Activity in Jordan
Compared to other militant jihadist groups, ISIS’ strengths lie in its ability to maximize its reach by betting on innovation and exploiting social media platforms. Its mastery of modern digital tools has enabled it to support its war and state-building efforts during the time it held and controlled significant swaths of territories in Iraq and Syria. Today, given its significant territorial loses, it continues to rely on social media to enable, direct, and inspire terrorist attacks worldwide. The same is now also being used to encourage and facilitate travel to other territories it controls—even still successfully attracting upwards of 100 foreign fighters per month to come to Syria and Iraq while in territorial retreat.ISIS’ propaganda production arm is no longer as prolific, yet the group continues to successfully use the Internet to recruit and orchestrate terrorist attacks. In this regard, the military defeat of ISIS and the so-called Islamic State should not reduce the need and the urgency to counter the online appeal of ISIS and similar violent extremist groups.
In focus testing the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism’s (ICSVE) Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos in Zarqa and Irbid in 2016 and 2017, respectively, with high school and college-age youth (n=54), we found that ISIS still manages to reach out to youth and attempt to attract them into the group. In fact, in the absence of adequate support and resources, many among the youth we spoke to shared how they often turn to the Internet to find answers regarding the claims made by groups like ISIS.For instance, some noted, “If I say I’m bored on Facebook, they [ISIS recruiters] contact me.” Others pointed out how the ISIS recruiters know Islamic scriptures and hadithsbetter than those they are recruiting. Some commented how their parents, teachers, and imams were not open to discussing such topics, specifically, “No one wants to talk to us about these things. They are all worried about the GID.” As a result, the youth we spoke to were both vulnerable to ISIS recruitment due to their Internet activities and for searching answers on the Internet to refute their claims.
Fighting ISIS on Facebook in Jordan
In December of 2017 and July of 2018, respectively, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) responded to such concerns in Jordan by promoting two ICSVE-produced counter narrative videos from its Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Projectto learn if it was possible to raise public awareness in the vulnerable age group to ISIS recruitment in Jordan and also disrupt ISIS’ online and face-to-face recruitment occurring in social media platforms like Facebook by using video clips produced from interviews of ISIS insiders denouncing the group. (While a full discussion of the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrativevideos is not possible in this limited space, more information about the project can be found here.)
The two ICSVE counter narrative videos that were used in the campaign were Promises of ad-Dawlah to Womenand Rewards of Joining the Islamic State. The former features Laura Passoni, a Belgium woman who left Belgium with her son to join ISIS in Syria after being jilted by her partner. The latter features thirty-three-year old Abu Ghazwan, an Iraqi who, by joining ISIS, hoped to restore rights and dominance to Iraqi Sunnis. In the video, he discusses his involvement with ISIS, namely his role in placing bombs and attacking the enemies of the group. Both ISIS speakers denounce ISIS as un-Islamic, corrupt, and overly brutal, and express their deep regret over ever joining.
The two public safety awareness campaigns in Jordan were run by using Facebook ads. The month-long campaigns served to raise awareness about the dangers of joining violent extremist groups like ISIS as well as to drive online engagement among the citizens of Jordan over Facebook. Facebook was the digital platform of choice as it remains a popular social media communication platform in Jordan. ICSVE research in Jordan also suggested the need to focus on Facebook, as many vulnerable youth have and continue to be contacted by ISIS via Facebook.
|Middle East Internet Users, Population and Facebook Statistics|
|Country||Pop. (2018 Est.)||Users in Dec/2000||Internet Usage Dec-31-2017||% Pop. (Penetration)||Internet % users||Facebook
|Bahrain||1, 566, 993||40,000||1,535,653||98.0%||1.0 %||1,100,000|
|Iran||82, 011, 735||250,000||56,700,000||69.1 %||34.6 %||40,000,000|
|Iraq||39,339,753||12,500||19,000,000||48.3 %||11.6 %||17,000,000|
|Israel||8, 452, 841||1,270, 000||6, 740, 287||79.7 %||4.1 %||5, 800, 000|
|Jordan||9,903,802||127, 300||8,700, 000||87.8 %||5.3 %||5,300, 000|
|Kuwait||4, 197, 128||150,000||4, 104, 347||97.8 %||2.5 %||3, 100, 000|
|Lebanon||6, 093, 509||300, 000||5, 546, 494||91.0 %||3.4 %||3, 600, 000|
|Oman||4, 829, 946||90,000||3, 310, 260||68.5 %||2.0 %||2, 630, 000|
|Palestine||5, 052, 776||35,000||3, 055, 088||60.5 %||1.9 %||1, 700, 000|
|Qatar||2, 694, 849||30, 000||2, 644, 580||98.1 %||1.6 %||2, 300, 000|
|Saudi Arabia||33, 554, 343||200, 000||30, 257, 715||90.2 %||18.4%||18,000,000|
|Syria||18, 284, 407||30,000||6, 625, 631||33.0 %||3.7 %||4, 900,000|
|UAE||9, 541, 615||735,000||9, 385, 420||98.4 %||5.7 %||8, 700, 000|
|Yemen||28, 915, 284||15,000||7, 031, 784||24. 3 %||4.3 %||2, 352,942|
|Total||254,438,981||3, 284,800||164,037,259||64.5 %||100 %||116, 482,942|
Results of the Jordanian Facebook Public Awareness Campaigns
Video: Promises of ad-Dawlah to Women Campaign (Run Dec 7 to Dec 31, 2017)
Geographic and Demographic Reach:
In terms of geographic breakdown, our first campaign targeted the following areas in Jordan: Balqa Governorate, Ma’an Governorate, Mafraq Governorate, Zarqa Governorate, Irbid Governorate, Amman Governorate, Ajloun Governorate, Jerash Governorate, and Madaba Governorate. Our sample targeted some of the areas considered as hotbeds of radicalization in Jordan, namely Ma’an, Zarqa, and Irbid Governorates. Amman (538, 826), Irbid (117, 364), and Zarqa (46, 203) governorates achieved the highest reach. Seventy percent of the reached population is male and 30 percent female (See figure 1 for demographic and reach breakdown across two genders).
Table A contains a breakdown of video views by age group and the area targeted and serves to demonstrate reach in the relevant age categories in areas considered as the hotbeds of extremism, namely in Salt, Irbid and Zarqa.
Table B presents data on how much our video content was watched. The campaign generated a total reach of 797, 866, while also leading to 1, 456, 872 impressions and close to 869, 472 video views (See Table B).
Table B presents data on how much our video content was watched. There is a total of 869, 472 video views at 3%, 10 %, 25% (89, 733), 50 % (74, 742), 75% (54,220), 95% (38, 545) and 100 % (8, 924) video watches. As the data indicate, there are a total of 266,164 clicked-to-play shared among 25%, 50%, 75 %, 95%, and 100 % recorded watches. Note, however, that the percentages include those who watched the full length of the video and those who skipped to the end of the video.
The video average watch time is 0:19, calculated as the video total watch time/total number of video plays (this includes replays). This number highlights the potential usefulness of making shortened versions of the videos for complementary ads, as some viewers will only watch very short videos. They may click through ashort version and, once hooked by it, watch the longer version.However, the fact that thousands did watch the entire video may indicate that some will be hooked by the content, while others less so.
The impression score in Table B indicates the total number of times our content was displayed, regardless of whether clicked or not. In other words, the score indicates the number of times our reached target base has been exposed to our video content. The higher the impression score, the more indicative that people are seeing our content, that they are becoming more exposed to our content, and that they are sharing our content.
The impression frequency of 1.83 (Impression/Reach) indicates the average number of times each individual has seen our ad over the period of thirty days. That said, because Facebook ad frequency indicates an average score, in practice, this means that some among our target audience might have been reached a number of times while others only once. Campaigns with high reach naturally have lower frequency rate. Moreover, the relatively low frequency rate of 1.83 suggests that we are not oversaturating out target audience with our content.
The campaign generated a relevance score of 7, calculated on a 1-10 scale. The higher the relevance score, the better in terms of how our audience is responding to our ad. Facebook calculates the relevance score “based on the positive and negative feedback we expect an ad to receive from its target audience.”It is calculated based on a number of factors, such as the positive vs. negative feedback it is expected to receive. For instance, video views, shares, and likes represent positive indicators. Conversely, the number of times our ad is hidden, or when someone clicks “ I don’t want to see this” our ad, represent negative indicators. Five hundred impressions need to be received before a relevance score is generated. This Facebook ad metric is useful to better identify our target audiences and use it for our campaign optimization. That said, the relevance score is used to measure relevance of a campaign and not the quality of the campaign. Put differently, it is generated based on interaction and interest in our campaign. The relatively high relevance score suggests that the ads are generating audience engagement.
The Facebook ad also led to a total of 4, 398 post reactions (e.g. Like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry), comments and shares. For instance, there are 3, 487 post likes, 261 love, and 147 sad reactions. In addition, there are a total of 168 comments and 169 post shares.
Video: Rewards of Islamic State Campaign (run from July 15 to August 15, 2018)
Geographic and Demographic Reach:
The July 2018 campaign targeted the following areas in Jordan: Balqa Governorate, Ma’an Governorate, Karak Governorate, Mafraq Governorate, Tafilah Governorate, Zarqa Governorate, Irbid Governorate, Amman Governorate, Ajloun Governorate, Jerash Governorate, Aqaba Governorate, and Madaba Governorate. Our sample targeted some of the areas considered as hotbeds of radicalization in Jordan, namely Ma’an, Zarqa, and Irbid Governorates. Amman (35, 136), Irbid (5, 792), and Zarqa (2,496) governorates achieved the highest reach. Ninety-six percent of the reached population is male and four percent female (See figure 2 for demographic and reach breakdown across two genders).
This campaign generated a total reach of 48, 432, while also leading to 74, 875 impressions and close to 38, 584 video views. The video views are calculated at 3%, 10 %, 25%, 50 %, 75%, 95%, and 100 % video views (see Table C)
The Facebook ad led to a total of 214 post reactions, (e.g. Like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry), 45 post comments, and 7 post shares (See Table C). The video average watch time is 0:57, calculated as the video total watch time/total number of video plays (this includes replays). The campaign generated a relevance score of 10, calculated on a 1-10 scale.
Comments for both Campaigns
As discussed above, the videos generated hundreds of comments related to ISIS, the message, and the messaging strategy applied to our counter-narratives. While there were many supportive comments, there were also those attempting to discredit ICSVE’s videos, claiming they were fake, that the defectors were lying, and that they are used to distort Islam. Arguably, some such comments may have been made by innocent individuals who felt the need to defend their religion, which they may have perceived to be under attack in the video clips. Moreover, the comments might also have been from ISIS supporters and recruiters trying to discredit the anti-ISIS messaging contained in the videos. See sample comments below.
“Supportive Category”—comments in support of the video, its message against ISIS, the characters in the video, or the campaign in general.
“It’s called Daesh, not an Islamic State. It is a sect that does not provide the religion of Islam. Its purpose is to distort Islam, even if you look at Islam from the Holy Quran”—Promises of ad-Dawlah
“A really painful reality”—Promises of ad-Dawlah “She was deceived by these scoundrels because of her bad mental state at the time. But the main reason behind what happened with her was to follow one person and believe what he says without comprehensive knowledge. She was also naive and believed that she will find paradise in the world…The terrorist organization called Daesh is only an extremist group that claims Islam and is in reality expanding geographically and militarily by using naïve ones like this woman…It is very painful to find such criminals who distort the image of Islam in the eyes of people”—Promises of ad-Dawlah). “The truest word Laura has said is that they are not Muslims” –Promises of ad-Dawlah.
“ This isn’t Islam”
“Excellent work for awareness”—Rewards of Joining IS
“ It is necessary to slay, kill, explode and destroy until you win. What religion do you belong?”
“ We really believe you, you are not ignorant[defector]. But you are the enemy of Islam”
Comments in defense of Islam and “Negative Category”—comments expressing dislike towards the video, characters featured in the video, or the campaign in general
“ Those who distort images of Islam are wrong…but there is a big conspiracy against Islam that will be revealed by God”
“…she is really a lie”—Promises of ad-Dawlah “This is all a lie…fabrication and distortion”—Promises of ad-Dawlah “ (…an American industry distorting the minds of the Arab-Islamic generation to eliminate Islam gradually, there is no God but Allah, Muhammed is the messenger of Allah”—Promises of ad-Dawlah
“America is the godfather of terrorism”
“ The video lies …to eliminate the Sunnis and Sunni cities…fabrication and distortion in a cancerous way”
Law enforcement, intelligence and CVE professionals around the world continue to assess the extent to which the collapse of so-called ISIS Caliphate will affect ISIS’ propaganda machinery and online recruitment efforts. As evidence from the field suggests, violent extremist groups like ISIS continue to thrive online, and may even have stepped up their online recruitment efforts with vulnerable youth to try to demonstrate the group’s continued virulence. In doing so, groups like ISIS attempt to persuade their online recruits to carry out homegrown terrorist attacks in their name. They also continue to “harass, recruit and incite violence” online,and this may actually increase in the future.
In addition, some Jordanian security experts have noted that “ the roots of Jordan’s security problem lie in prevalence of extremist ideology in the country, which is in turn empowered by the frustrations of everyday life by many Jordanians.”As also evidenced during our research in Jordan, online ISIS recruiters are very adept at exploiting such issues. ISIS recruiters “sell” one type of narrative, while ISIS insiders disillusioned with the group’s ability to actually deliver what it is selling may be the most potent force to destroy their terrorist narrative.
Despite takedown policies instituted by social media companies, violent extremist groups continue to operate freely online. While important, once an account has been suspended, there is little that can be done to prevent a user from opening a new, or multiple new accounts. Moreover, the shutdown of extremist content online is heavily reliant on user reporting of extremist content online, which is equally problematic. Likewise, in the case of YouTube, many experts following extremist content online remark that while takedown policies are rapid for English content, Arabic extremist content often remains present for much longer periods of time.
The purpose of this safety ad awareness campaign was to test if vulnerable audiences can be reached through a Facebook awareness campaign and to attempt to raise awareness about the realities of joining extremist groups like ISIS in order to protect potential vulnerable Jordanian recruits from considering joining. Our campaign was successful in driving engagement with our counter narrative materials. In combination, our ads generated a total reach of 808, 035 and close to 908, 056 video views. They also led to thousands of page engagements and hundreds of comments related to our video, ISIS in general, and other contentious socio-political issues that drive and affect violent extremism in Jordan.
While we were able to observe engagement with our counter-narratives, it is far more difficult to observe or report direct cognitive or behavioral changes among those who support violent extremist groups or ideologies. We hope that may in fact be occurring. As some researchers have observed,” It is possible that some of the counter-narrative narrative videos have managed to dissuade individuals from joining or supporting extremist groups, but those users are simply not leaving comments like, ‘Great, [this] video really changed my mind.’”We have only engagement statistics to go by, and in that regard, we were able to observe that the videos can reach and engage the demographics in Jordan who are also vulnerable to being reached online by ISIS propaganda and recruitment efforts.
We will continue to expand our targeting campaigns, including in Jordan, and to drive further engagement on our newly created TheRealJihad.org website and seek support from those who may be willing to act as influencers and interact one- on- one with those who comment thereby magnifying the impact of our counter-narratives.
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.– is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College .
-  Note that the actual metric of the organic and paid campaigns was recorded at 1.7 million views.
- Speckhard, A. (2017). “ The jihad in Jordan: Drivers of radicalization into violent extremism in Jordan,” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism,available at http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/the-jihad-in-jordan-drivers-of-radicalization-into-violent-extremism-in-jordan/
- Lang, H., & Al Wari, M. (2016). “The flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State: Assessing the challenge and the response,” Center for American Progress, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2016/03/17/133566/the-flow-of-foreign-fighters-to-the-islamic-state/; Speckhard, A. “ The jihad in Jordan: Drivers of radicalization into violent extremism in Jordan.”
- Huthaifa Azzam, former Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter and Islamic ideologue, interviewed by Anne Speckhard, Amman, Jordan (November 3, 2016); Lister, C. (2016). “ Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra,” The Brookings, available at https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/iwr_20160728_profiling_nusra.pdf
- Weaver, A. M. (2016). “ The short, violent life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” The Atlantic,available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/07/the-short-violent-life-of-abu-musab-al-zarqawi/304983/
- Speckhard, A. “ The jihad in Jordan: Drivers of radicalization into violent extremism in Jordan.”
- Nakhleh, E. (2018). “ Jordan: A kingdom of ‘easy recruits” for ISIS and Al Qaeda,” The Cipher Brief,available at https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column_article/jordan-kingdom-easy-recruits-isis-al-qaeda
- IRIS. (2016). “ Jordan two-year scenario analysis (2016-2018): Deteriorating resilience & increasing vulnerabilities,” available at http://www.iris-france.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/ENG-Observatoire-Prospective-Huma-JORDAN-01-2016.pdf
- McKernan, B. (2018). “ Up to 30, 000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, says UN,” Independent,available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-fighters-iraq-syria-un-report-jihadis-raqqa-iraq-a8492736.html
- See also Thurston, A. (2018). “ North Africa’s jihadis,” Wilson Center,available at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/north-africas-jihadis
- SANA. (2018). “Syria: ISIS holding children hostage,” Human Rights Watch,available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/25/syria-isis-holding-children-hostage; Speckhard, A., & Shajkovci, A. (2018). “ After a new massacre, charges that ISIS is operating with Assad and the Russians,” Daily Beast,available at https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-assad-isis-and-the-russians-cooperated-to-carry-out-a-massacre?ref=author; Sly, L., & Salim, M. (2018). “ ISIS is making a comeback in Iraq just months after Baghdad declared victory,” Washington Post,available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/isis-is-making-a-comeback-in-iraq-less-than-a-year-after-baghdad-declared-victory/2018/07/17/9aac54a6-892c-11e8-9d59-dccc2c0cabcf_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f3e4b3d468be; Calamur, K. (2018). “ ISIS never went away in Iraq,” The Atlantic,available at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/iraq-isis/569047/
- See Amal Clooney speech before UN member states on ISIS: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/amal-clooney-speech-in-full-transcript-human-rights-lawyer-isis-iraq-speech-un-united-nations-a7622176.html
- Stephen, C. (2015). “ Tourist desert Tunisia after June terror attack,” The Guardian,available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/25/tourists-tunisia-june-terror-attack-economy-beach-hotel-sousse
- Sweis, R. R. (2016). “ ISIS is said to claim responsibility for deadly attack in Jordan,” New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/20/world/middleeast/jordan-attack-isis-karak.html
- The Jordan Times (2018). “ Jordan foils major terror plot,” available at http://jordantimes.com/news/local/jordan-foils-major-terror-plot
- Albawaba News. (2018).” After Al-Salt: Jordan Cannot fight terrorism with police and soldiers alone,” available at https://www.albawaba.com/news/after-salt-jordan-cannot-fight-terrorism-police-and-soldiers-alone-1172954
- The Defense Post. (2018). “ Foreign fighters continue to join ISIS in Syria, US joint Chiefs chair says,” available at https://thedefensepost.com/2018/10/16/isis-foreign-fighters-travel-syria-dunford/
- Speckhard, A., & Shajkovci, Ardian (2018), “Focus group testing in Zarqa and Irbid.” [Write up pending]. See also Fares, B., Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A., & Sabaileh, A. (2017).
“Determining youth radicalization in Jordan,” available at http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/determining-youth-radicalization-in-jordan/
- See for example, “Facebook most popular social media site in Jordan-report,” available at http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/facebook-most-popular-social-media-site-jordan-%E2%80%94-report
- Ghazal, M. (2016). “ Facebook, WhatsApp overshadow Twitter in Jordan’s social media sphere.”
- Ghazal, M. (2016). “ Facebook, WhatsApp overshadow Twitter in Jordan’s social media sphere,” available at http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/facebook-whatsapp-overshadow-twitter-jordan%E2%80%99s-social-media-sphere
- See Internet World Stats, available at https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats5.htm
- In our research experience and consultations with DOD and other CVE entities engaged in counter-narrative production, we found that shorter videos tend to lead to more consumption and a higher retention rate among our target audience.
- Facebook Business. (2015). “Showing relevance scores for ads on Facebook,” available at https://www.facebook.com/business/news/relevance-score
- Kilgore, A. (2018). “ Fighting the terrorist threat online: New research can identify extremists online, even before they post dangerous content,” INFORMS,available at https://www.informs.org/About-INFORMS/News-Room/Press-Releases/Fighting-the-terrorist-threat-online-New-research-can-identify-extremists-online-even-before-they-post-dangerous-content
- Albawaba News. (2018).” After Al-Salt: Jordan Cannot fight terrorism with police and soldiers alone.”
- Woron, F. (2018). “ Dubious claims of counter-narrative videos,” Tech and Terrorism,available at https://www.counterextremism.com/blog/dubious-claims-counter-narrative-videos
- Note that we may also shift our focus to other social media platforms. See the report on media consumption habits and patterns in the Middle East: https://www.fastcompany.com/40470960/facebook-internet-media-middle-east-survey-video-chart
first published in our partner ICSVE
How Taliban Victory Inspired Central Asian Jihadists
Following the fall of the US-backed Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani on August 15, al-Qaeda-linked Uighur, Uzbek and Tajik jihadi groups widely celebrated the Taliban’s “historic victory” over the “enemies of the Muslim Ummah”. In honor of the Taliban’s rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate, leading Jihadi groups from Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region issued special congratulatory statements, echoed jihadi nasheeds (chants of jihadi glory), arranged a festive feast for their Muhajeers (who immigrated to spread Islam and wage jihad) and gloatingly booed the US military forces leaving Afghanistan on jihadi media.
Turkestan Islamic Party called on all Muslims to unite around the Taliban as one body
Uighur jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from Western China, were one of the first to congratulate the Taliban victory. On August 16, in a statement of the TIP’s Syrian branch, released by its propaganda arm, ‘Muhsinlar’, Uighur militants congratulated the Taliban’s emir Haibatullah Akhunzada and all Afghan fellow believers on the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Notably, in its statement, TIP ‘discovered’ the root causes of the Taliban’s victory in the Muslim holy book of the Quran, which refers to Surah al-Fatiha “Indeed, we have given you, o Prophet, a clear conquest” (48:1). The TIP further emphasized that “one generation of Muslims have sacrificed themselves for the religion of Allah, for today’s boundless joy and rejoicing.” The Taliban’s victory is “a fruit of long and arduous struggle and God’s big gift to Muslims worldwide”, the statement reads.
The TIP’s Syrian branch has called on all Muslims to make dua’s (invocation of God) for the Afghan Mujahedeen, to cooperate and support their fellows of Taliban. Uighur jihadists emphasized the need for the integrity of the Islamic Ummah, which should be governed only by the rule of the Almighty as one nation and one country. At the end of the statement, TIP noted that “East Turkestan Mujahedeens, as an integral part of the Great Ummah, celebrated the historic victory of the Taliban with boundless joy, and will stand alongside them shoulder to shoulder.”
It is recalled that ETIM was designated as a terrorist organization by the UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1390 on September 11, 2002, for its alleged association with al-Qaeda, its leader Osama bin Laden, and the Afghan Taliban. As part of the “global war on terror,” the US Federal Government designated ETIM as a terrorist organization on August 19, 2002. At that time, China skillfully took advantage of the situation emerging after the 9/11 attacks, achieving the recognition of ETIM as a terrorist group by many members of the U.S.-led “war on terror” coalition.
However, on November 5, 2020, the US Department of State removed ETIM from the blacklist, which provoked a fuming reaction from official Beijing. China on the other hand is pursuing a harsh repressive policy against the Muslim minority in its Xinjiang region detaining more than one million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in so-called “re-education camps.” Despite the US decision, the post-Soviet Central Asian countries, Russia and China did not exclude TIP from their banned list of terrorist organizations.
According to the latest 2021 UN Security Council’s report, “several hundred Uighur jihadists of TIP located primarily in Afghan Badakhshan and neighboring provinces, whose strategic goal is to establish an Islamic Uighur state in Xinjiang, China.” The report stated that TIP affiliated with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and their ties remain “strong and deep as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.” Moreover, the notorious leader of TIP, Abdul Haq al-Turkestani, has remained a member of al-Qaeda’s elite Shura Council since 2005. For more two decades, the most wanted key Uighur jihadist has been openly loyal to the Taliban’s top leader Haibatullah Akhunzada and the al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Today, all three top emirs are successfully continuing their faithful jihadi fellowship, skillfully hiding their close relations, and throwing dust in the eyes of the US and its Western partners, tired of the “longest war”.
Thus, it can be assumed that despite the Taliban’s warm relations with the Chinese government after their return to power in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that they will break ties with the Uighur jihadists of TIP. On the contrary, both are expected to remain loyal to the oath of allegiance (bayat). The long relationship between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and TIP has shown that the bayat has a sacred religious value for them.
Taliban is a source of inspiration for Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad
The Uzbek jihadist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) on its Telegram channel posted a video congratulating the Taliban on the victory over the most powerful evil empire in the world, which it considers the US. The congratulations were unusual, as the three KTJ leaders via video addressed the Taliban comrades in joint jihad in three official languages of Afghanistan – Pashto, Dari and Uzbek. In particular, the KTJ’s top emir Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki, whom the UN identified as ‘Khikmatov,’ spoke in Pashto, the military commander Sayfiddin in Dari, and the main ideologist of Central Asian Salafi Jihadism, the group’s imam Ahluddin Navqotiy in Uzbek.
Abdul Aziz glorified the Taliban’s victory over the foreign invaders and occupiers as a gift from Allah Almighty to the Ummah. He eulogized the vision of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s first emir, who once said, “Allah has promised us victory and America has promised us defeat, so we shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.” Top Uzbek jihadist further noted that “today, after a long-suffering patience, tireless struggle and great jihadi perseverance, finally came Nusrat (victory) in Khorasan, promised by Allah.” “Because the Mujahedeen are stronger in spirit and faith in God than the invaders, who, despite their military might and immeasurable wealth, fled the country in shame”, concluded Abdul Aziz.
Then, in an emotional speech, the group’s hard Salafi ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, congratulated the Taliban Mujahedeen on behalf of KTJ Muhajeers waging a jihad in Syria’s Idlib province against Bashar al-Assad regime and pro-Iranian radical militias. He expressed confidence that today’s Nusrat of Allah in Afghanistan will become the driving force behind the establishment of Sharia rule in Central Asia.
Noteworthy, the KTJ leader, Abdul Aziz, had close ties with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, in particular with the Haqqani network. As a native of the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, Abdul Aziz made a hijrah (migration) to Afghanistan fleeing the repressive policies of Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the early 2000s. He waged a jihad in Afghanistan as part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Then, in 2015, along with dozens of comrade-in-jihad, he split the group and joined the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a splinter faction of the IMU. At the time, Central Asian jihadists split over the internal conflict between al-Qaeda and ISIS struggling for the leadership of global jihad.
On August 20, 2015, when the IMU officially swore allegiance to the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the IJU followed in al Qaeda’s footsteps and renewed bayat to the Taliban’s emir Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. In May 2005, a decade before these events, the US government listed the IJU as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization in May 2005.
He belongs to the first generation of foreign fighters from Central Asia, who went through Taliban’s jihadi school in Afghanistan. He gained prestige among the fellow militants as a military strategist, and not as a deep scholar of the Quran or a public orator-ideologist of Salafi jihadism. In 2008-15, Abdul Aziz, along with the IJU’s leadership, was based in the al-Qaeda’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. In one of his Jummah Khutbah preaching he admitted that allowing the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) to take refuge in North Waziristan saved the lives of many Uzbek jihadists from the US drone strikes. In 2019, Abdul Aziz made a hijrah to Syrian Idlib province and became the leader of the KTJ group.
Motivations and Strategies of the Central Asian Jihadism
The congratulations from the Central Asian Sunni militant groups to the Taliban were a vivid manifestation of their long-term and tested joint jihadi cooperation, which began in the late 1990s. Thus, Uighur’s TIP and Uzbek’s KTJ complemented a long list of global jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda’s Central Command and its franchises in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Hurras al-Deen (HD), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Hamas, congratulating the Taliban on their ‘victory’ over the US and NATO forces.
To celebrate the Taliban’s ‘victory’, Uighur, Uzbek and Russia’s Caucasian Jihadists in Syria also hosted grand feasts for foreign and local Sunni Arab militants and heroized the Afghan Mujahedeen during Jummah Khutbah Sermons. The Central Asian jihadi media widely published photos and videos from these parties and against this background tried to recruit new supporters to make hijrah to Afghanistan and Syria to protect the values of Islam and wage the sacred jihad against the infidels. The dramatic picture of Afghan government soldiers fleeing to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has made the Taliban and al-Qaeda more attractive for recruiting a new generation of Islamists from Central Asia. Calls to make hijrah, or migrate, to the Taliban’s so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are also surfacing on jihadist forums. If the Syrian province of Idlib falls, al-Qaeda-aligned and HTS-backed Uzbek and Tajik jihadists’ migration to Afghanistan will be inevitable. The Taliban can easily melt them into Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz societies in northern Afghanistan and use them as leverage over rebellious ethnic minorities.
So, analysis of the jihadist media indicated that al-Qaeda-linked and Taliban-backed Central Asian extremist groups, operating in both Afghanistan and Syria, were deeply inspired by the Taliban’s victory over the pro-Western government of Ashraf Ghani. As a result, small and fragmented Salafi-Jihadi groups from post-Soviet countries have received the biggest boost to unite around the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Consequently, conducive conditions after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan are expected to lead to a resurgence of al Qaeda in the Central Asian region. Latent al-Qaeda sympathizers and other radical Islamists in the “Five Stans” view the restoration of the Islamic Emirate on the other side of the border as the beginning of the great jihad’s revival and the approach of Nusrat. With the decline of ISIS and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, internal divisions, and inter-group feuds between the jihadist jamaats (group) of Central Asia, sometimes accompanied by bloodshed, are expected to diminish, and the volume of clandestine donations to jihad in the region are also expected to increase markedly.
But the main fear for local authoritarian and corrupt pro-Russian governments is that a Taliban victory could provide a historic boost for Uzbek, Tajik and Uighur violent extremist groups encouraging them in their campaigns to overthrow and replace local regimes. And although the Taliban is viewed by the world community as a Pashtun nationalist jihadi movement, and the Afghan jihad has always been more inward and parochial, nevertheless its ideological influence has always been strong among the Central Asian jihadists.
Despite the fact that the Taliban leadership publicly denies the presence of transnational terrorist groups in the country, a recent UN report revealed that there are about 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan, who are members of al-Qaeda, Uighur’s TIP, Uzbek militant groups Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), KTJ, IJU and Tajik’s Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). Moreover, some of them took an active part in the recent military attacks against the Afghan army on the side of the Taliban, which led to the rapid fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the strategically important capital of the Northern Alliance. As we predicted earlier, the Taliban exploited the Central Asian jihadists during the fighting in the north of the country as their “hard power” and political leverage on the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. When the Taliban captured a strategically important security checkpoint near Afghan border with Tajikistan in July, they assigned a Tajik jihadi group Jamaat Ansarullah (JA) to raise the Taliban flag on the site. They also put JA in charge of security in five districts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province – Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay – near the Tajik border.
Although the Taliban has repeatedly promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for any attacks, they will not sever their ties with Central Asian jihadi groups and will not violate the bayat. Uzbek, Uighur and Tajik jihadist groups are expected to maintain a safe haven in Afghanistan under the tacit and tight control of the Taliban. In the jihadist world, bayat or pledging allegiance is a heavy Islamic commitment reaching under the holy gaze of Allah Almighty, and reneging it is considered a serious offence. Therefore, the Taliban has never disavowed the group’s pledge.
In conclusion, the high fighting spirit and ideological strength of al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian jihadist groups in Afghanistan is associated not only with the Taliban’s lightning victory, but also with the humiliating and chaotic US withdrawal from the country. One of the Kyrgyz jihadists in Syria wrote on the KTJ Telegram channel that “the honor and dignity of America today is under the Taliban’s feet in front of the great Ummah.” This indicates that a new generation of Central Asian extremists has emerged on the scene of global jihadism, absorbing in itself the al-Qaeda’s Salafi-Takfiri military ideology, and synthesizing it with the Islamist nationalism of the Taliban, based on the common kindred Hanafi’s al-Maturidi Aqeedah (Sunni Islamic theology school). As the US counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan weakened in the foreseeable future, the terrorism threat from Central Asian region will grow symmetrically for the US and the West as a whole.
Russia, Turkey and UAE: The intelligence services organize and investigate
The FSB (Federal’naja Služba Bezopasnosti Rossijskoj Federácii, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) – created in 1995 from the ashes of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoj Bezopasnosti (KGB), the State Security Committee – is ready for additional responsibilities under the new national security strategy. President Putin’s recent redefinition of the FSB’s role provides some indications on the national security strategy that will soon be announced – a strategy that will affect seas, borders and the security of strategically important intelligence.
On June 1, 2021 President Putin issued a decree outlining the new priorities that will be given to the FSB in Russia’s revised national security strategy, which replaces the one that officially ended last year.
The changes to the Intelligence Service’s regulatory framework, including the peripheral one, provides some indications on the Russian security priorities. Some of the main changes include additional responsibilities for intelligence security, counterterrorism, border control and stronger protection of maritime interests.
Border control and the various references to counterterrorism in its broadest sense – as recently defined by Russia – means entrusting the security service with a number of new areas and tasks, including the redefinition of procedures to detect political radicalisation.
Border control is also strengthened in the revised rules, with FSB border guards acquiring records, filing and storing biometric data and obtaining and processing DNA information obtained during border checks.
The details on access to Russian soil shed light on the Kremlin’s problems with its own fellow countrymen. In the article on the FSB’s involvement in controlling entry into Russia, the decree mentions the “territories requiring special authorisation” such as Transnistria, some parts of Georgia and Eastern Ukraine, and states that the FSB will be involved in a national programme to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Russians living abroad.
Intelligence is a valuable asset and its security has always been one of the Kremlin’s main concerns. Therefore, the new strategy makes the FSB the leading agency, not just the end user regarding computers, security and telecommunication encryption.
It will oversee and supervise the implementation of the new technological security throughout the community. All this was outlined in December in a law that redefined the role of the FSB’s Centre for State Licensing, Certification and Protection. It will grant licences for the use of “special technical means and equipment intended to receive information secretly”.
The FSB will also examine patents for classified inventions. In addition to its official role in intelligence warfare, the FSB has been tasked with producing more security measures to protect the identity of Russian intelligence agents, and keep the confidentiality of its own officials, officers and soldiers.
The Internal Security Service will also set up a new procedure to inspect agents and individuals entering the army, the intelligence services and the Federal Administration. Using the protection of marine life as an additional task, the FSB will also have increased responsibilities for the seas, including competence and powers over the protection of fishing grounds outside Russia’s exclusive economic zone, the establishment of checkpoints for fishing vessels entering or leaving the zone, and the power to suspend the right of passage for foreign vessels in certain Russian maritime zones.
The Service will also define the structure of operational offices in maritime zones. These measures follow a law adopted last October outlining the FSB’s role in “establishing control and checks in fisheries and the conservation of sea biological resources”.
An important concept in Russian history and life is the silovik. He is a representative of law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, armed forces and other structures to which the State delegates the right to use force. This concept is often extended to representatives of political groups, but also to businessmen, associated with power structures in Russia or formerly in the Soviet Union.
As a jargon term, this word is used in other languages as a broad political term in everyday conversation and in journalism to describe political processes typical of Russia or the former Soviet Union. The etymology of the word is the Russian word sila, meaning strength, force and power.
Trying to renew the aforementioned concept, President Putin provides momentum and injects new impetus into the meaning of this word. After putting the issue on the agenda of the National Security Council of May 28 last, the President is now pushing for the publication of the national security strategy. It has been delayed despite the fact that the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation (Sovet bezopasnosti Rossijskoj Federacii), Sergej Vachrukov, had announced it was to be published in February.
As we might commonly believe, the steps to strengthen the Russian secret services are not so much focused on the aforementioned and movie-style “derby” between secret agents, but are mainly targeted to Russia’s traditional “Ottoman” adversary, namely neighbouring Turkey.
President Erdogan’s official meeting with the UAE’s National Security Advisor, Tahnun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the renewed ties with Abu Dhabi are the result of behind-the-scenes regional intelligence operations in which the Kremlin wants to see straight and clearly.
While there is still a deep political divide both between Russia and Turkey, and between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, the Turkish President hopes to encourage future Emirates’ investment. Turkish President Erdogan’s unprecedented meeting with the UAE’s national security representative, the aforementioned al-Nahyan, in Ankara on August 18 can be largely attributed to the work of the two countries’ intelligence services over the last few months.
There is a desire to turn a new page after eight years of icy relations, crystallised by the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood’s member close to Turkey and firmly opposed by the United Arab Emirates.
Steps towards reconciliation began on January 5, 2021 at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in al-Ula. The Summit marked the end of Qatar’s isolation, thus paving the way for a resumption of relations between the UAE and Turkey. After the Summit, al-Nahyan flew to Cairo where he met President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who strongly encouraged him to begin a new chapter with Turkey.
At the same time, Egypt’s intelligence service, Mukhabarat al-Amma, engaged in secret talks with its Turkish counterpart, the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatıı. However, it was al-Nahya’s meeting with the Turkish intelligence Chief, Hakan Fidan, in Cairo a few weeks later that achieved the first results.
That meeting was organized by the Chief of the Mukhabarat al-Amma and by Abbas Kamel, al-Sisi’s regional Director, along with Ahmed Hosni, the strongman of Jordanian Dayirat al-Mukhabarat al-Amma, that King Abdallah II had sent from Amman. Since then, there were eight additional meetings between Turkey and Abu Dhabi, which then led to the aforementioned meeting of President Erdogan with al-Nahyan, with the possibility of holding a future Summit between them.
This rapprochement still has difficulty hiding the deep divide between the two countries on key regional issues such as their respective positions on Syria and Libya, in particular. While they have managed to find some common ground for understanding – ending smear campaigns and trade blockades; resuming visa issuance; direct air links and the return of Ambassadors – President Erdogan and al-Nahyan are simply keeping quiet about their current irreconcilable differences.
Political considerations are put aside to facilitate future UAE’s investment in Turkey.
On August 25, the Emirates’ Group International Holding CO announced it would invest massively in Turkey’s health and agrifood industries, while it seems that the sovereign fund Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is willing to lend Turkey 875 million US dollars.
Is it just business? Russia is investigating.
Power Vacuum in Afghanistan: A By-product of An Incompetent Geopolitical Contract
I still recall the evening of December 18, 2011, when I read the news of the last U.S. troops being pulled out of Iraq, that ended an eight-year-long military involvement in the region. Somehow the news instantly gave me an uneasy feeling knowing that a catastrophic storm was awaiting and will mark the beginning of a cataclysmic civil war. Within hours of U.S. military troops leaving the land, Iraqi’s rival Sunni and Shi’ite factions resumed a kind of political infighting that threatened a lurch back into turmoil. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an immediate dissolution of his Sunni deputy and issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni Vice President. Not only Sunnis gradually lost the authority of power in the government and security discourse, but the Sunni elites, who challenged Maliki were subsequently either tortured or killed. Out on the streets, after the ISF raided the home of Iraq’s minister of finance, who was also a member of Iraqiya coalition, Sunni protest broke out in Fallujah; and the fire spread across the country. Iraqi Security forces killed between 50-65 civilians on Maliki’s order. This led to the most notorious consortium in the history of global terrorism – an alliance between the Sunnis and ISIS. On July 21, 2013, ISIS initiated a 12-month campaign called the ‘Soldier’s Harvest’ on Iraqi security forces, teamed up with Sunni tribal leaders and former Baathists, and ultimately forcing ISF to evacuate Fallujah and remnants of its government. Soon after, ISIS attacked Abu Ghraib prison freeing up to 1000 minacious inmates, including senior al-Qaida leaders and militants. Empowered and endued with Sunni support, ISIS officially seized Fallujah, parts of Ramadi and Mosul, by June 2014. By gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash and armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S. military troops. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. Not just the Middle East, ISIS spread its terror tyranny globally as well with strategic attacks on Paris and Brussels.
So, what led to the birth of ISIS? Two words – Power vacuum; and the U.S. policy in Iraq between 2010 and 2011 actively created this geopolitical conditions in which ISIS thrived.
Stages of Power Vacuum – From The Birth of ISIS in Iraq to Rise of The Taliban in Afghanistan
If one thing that we have learned from the U.S led invasion in Iraq is that an incompetent geopolitical contract abhors a political vacuum. In political science, the term power vacuum is an analogy that deconstructs and artificially manufactures power relations and political conditions in a country that has no identifiable central power or authority. In a critical situation like this, the inflow of armed militia, insurgents, warlords, dictators, and military coups to fill this vacuum becomes an organic response, and it comes with a cost – the cost being a noxious civil war and national unrest. On the other hand, a power vacuum can also thrive in conditions following a constitutional crisis where the majority of the ruling government entities resign or are removed, giving birth to an unclear anecdote regarding succession to the position of power.
What happened in Iraq starting December 2011, and what is happening in Afghanistan today in 2021, is a result of a power vacuum – a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Twenty years after being forced into power annihilation by the U.S led military bases in Afghanistan, the Taliban is now actively resuming its power as the U.S continues to execute its full exit. Within hours of Joe Biden announcing the official termination of U.S military involvement in the country, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani worded a farewell post on social media, vocalizing that he must leave the country to prevent bloodshed. Today, the only remnant left of his political presence is his departing statement, “Long Live Afghanistan.” With the President fleeing the country, and creating a constitutional crisis of succession to the position of power, what we are witnessing is the manifestation of the initial stage of power vacuum. Soon after the President abandoned the country, the Taliban released a statement declaring that the group has taken over Kabul, a capital city of 6 million civilians, and is working to restore law and order. Considering the reputation of the Taliban – infamous for brutality, repression of women, and execution of religious minorities in the past, the idea of restoration of law and order appears antagonistic.
However, I am not interested in deconstructing the inimical and deleterious ideologies of the Taliban, but unfolding the mechanisms of the power vacuum in Afghanistan. With the Taliban now actively trying to fill this power vacuum created after Ghani’s disappearance, the second stage is at play. The primary question here is not about who will form the national government, but what type of alliance will be established among entities to procure this power. The typology of this alliance – its fundamental values, utility, durability, and workability, will regulate Afghanistan’s democracy and sovereignty in the coming years. If one turns back to 2011 in Iraq, you will recall how the alliance between Sunni tribal leaders and ISIS gave birth to a global terror reign. This was a direct result of abysmal policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops from Iraq. So, the question is – now that the U.S military troop has ended its twenty-year-long involvement in Afghanistan, what type of alliance will be formed to fill this power vacuum? Will it be as catastrophic as Iraq? As the Taliban continues to coercively occupy the cities, Matthew Levitt, Director of Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy adds, “The possibility is very strong that Afghanistan will have both – a weak government and a government that has a close alliance with the elements of al-Qaeda. To add, there is an element of ISIS, ISIS Khorasan, as well. Although the Taliban doesn’t like them, but as we are witnessing the effort to evacuate people through Kabul airport and the threats of ISIS suicide bombers coming into Kabul, the fact is that the Taliban probably won’t for a very long time have control over all of the city, let alone all of the country. So, there will be an element of a safe haven even for groups that the Taliban doesn’t like – groups and alliances that will use Afghanistan as a base from which to operate and carry out terrorist attacks nationally and globally.”
It is worth noting that the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda started with its leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who pledged their allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in kid 1990s, and accepted Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful) of all Sunni Muslims. Al-Zawahiri later re-affirmed this pledge to Omar’s successors. Soon after, al-Qaeda gained substantial freedom to operate in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In return, al-Qaeda doled out money to the Taliban. Since then, to up till now, the alliance between Taliban and al-Qaeda has flourished mutually. Soon after the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda congratulated the group and spoke about their alliance for Kashmir liberation in India. A letter was addressed to the Taliban by al-Qaeda and was shared on Twitter by a journalist. It read, “Allah! liberate the Levant, Somalia, Yemen, Kashmir, and the rest of the Islamic lands from the clutches of the enemies of Islam.”
If this alliance continues to grow stronger to seize power, the probable birthing of one of the deadliest terror organizations is certain – a terror entity that would not only have passive support of the Taliban but would surpass the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq. This is a direct result of Biden’s ham-fisted deliberation to exit Afghanistan abruptly, leaving a space to harbor national unrest, the collapse of a democratically elected government, procurement of this political vacuum by insurgents, and brutal violence by the Taliban against its civilians. In short – the fall down of Afghanistan democracy.
The third stage of the power vacuum is yet to mature in Afghanistan. This stage expediates the process of procurement of power, if any of the entities trying to seize power acquires economic funding and gets equipped with advanced military weapons. Jan Pieterzoon Coen, a leading officer of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, said, “There’s no trade without war; there’s no war without trade”. He was right. The establishing of power requires a trade that allows an alliance of immaterial ideology between groups and hoarding of material resources (weapons and money) to execute the ideology. In 2011, the Islamic State armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S military troops. They used these weapons to terrorize the civilians, execute opposition, and expand their captured territory. Another material resource may include stolen or funded cash apart from military machinery. For example, by gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. So, what we observe here is that the acquisition of economic funding or military weapons gives birth to an effectively exercised political control through coercive means, and internalization of this coercive mechanisms by the civilians. In both cases, the mission is accomplished – an attempt to seize power vacuum by occupying the land and psyche of its civilians. Today, a similar narrative is at play in Afghanistan. The speed with which the Taliban swept across Afghanistan is reminiscent of Islamic State militants taking weapons from the U.S.- supplied Iraqi forces, who like the Afghan Air Force offered little resistance. Grey Myer and Scott Neuman writes, “The Taliban wasted no time in gloating over their new war booty. Photos and video posted to social media show the Taliban posing with captured aircraft, trucks, Humvees, artillery guns and night-vision goggles captured. Such equipment could be used to suppress internal dissent or fight off their rivals. Before the Taliban captured it, the Afghan air force had more than 40 operational U.S.-made MD-530 helicopters. The Taliban has already shown itself ready and willing to use U.S.-made small arms and other technology. Non-weaponry technology like the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, U.S. devices containing biometric data, could be used to find potential threats in hiding. I have fallen into the hands of Taliban.” This stage is climacteric
in materializing the procurement of power into a reality. Even if they would be protest in Afghanistan against the rise of the Taliban as the central power, Taliban will use the overwhelming amount of potential weaponry to stifle the dissent and expand their captured territory to places like Panjshir valley.
Who will procure the power in Afghanistan?
The Taliban will eventually seize power, but it would form a weak government, with under-the-table alliance with al-Qaeda; and would potentially foster the inflow and breeding of other groups like ISIS and ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. With opium and rich copper deposits, the international intervention is likely to be seen – motivated by self-interest as opposed to the interest of advocating for civil rest and peace in Afghanistan. Beijing has already held a talk with Taliban officials over the implementation for strategic engagement. It is highly possible that the $25 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project is extended to Afghanistan now that the U.S has vacated the country. Financial support would most likely be delivered hand-in-hand with Beijing’s strongest ally in the region – Pakistan, allowing the Chinese government to persuade the Taliban to sever links with East Turkestan Islamic Movement group, who have executed terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province. On the other side of the border, India – a Hindu extremist governed country, is also in injudicious talks with the Taliban. Taliban’s close association with al-Qaeda can potentially create a political defilement and unrest in Kashmir, India. This may manifest into border security threat and infiltration of terrorists – manufactured by al-Qaeda, but with the Taliban’s blessings as the central power. To conclude, to think of Afghanistan as a ‘graveyard of empires’ is a zombie narrative. It is being revived to deflect, distract and distort the failure of Biden and the U.S military policies in Afghanistan. The truth is far simpler than we complicate – The creation of a power vacuum in Afghanistan is a direct result of abysmal foreign policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops. It is indeed a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Biden’s administration must be held accountable for harbouring a space for demolition of a democratically elected government and rise of the Taliban terror in Afghanistan.
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