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Did Central Asia’s Jihadists Challenge Al Qaeda?

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Jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party

Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen support HTS

First-time al Qaeda-linked Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia, Caucasus and China’s Xinjiang fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in northern Syria have interfered in ideological disputes and internal confrontations between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Tanzim Hurras al-Din, the Guardians of Religion, which has remained loyal to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Foreign fighters groups in Idlib such as the Uyghurs’ Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Uzbeks’ Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) affirmed their support to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a joint statement released in February 2019.Also, the statement was signed by the Albanian militants group Katibat al-Alban, Iran’s Harakat al-Muhajireen al-Sunna, Saudi Arabia’s Rabitat al-Ma’ali, the Maldivian Mujahideen and other smaller foreign groups fighting under the leadership of HTS.

Thus, foreign speaking Salafi-Jihadi groups violated their traditional balanced ties with al Qaeda’s various branches and first time openly supported one of the sides of the confrontation. As is well known, Uzbek and Uyghur militants have always tried to keep their neutrality, without interfering intra-jihadi rivalries between HTS and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

In the one-page and three paragraphs statement, foreign fighters are clearly stated their strong support and loyalty to HTS.The first paragraph states that “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, represented by its leadership and fighters, is the dignity and the force of Ahl al-Sunnah [Sunni Islam] in Bilad al-Sham”. Further, statement authors poured to HTS generous words of praise that “it is the best to have borne the banner of jihad in this blessed land; the one that defends the frontlines; it has protected Muslims security and established the courts that rule by God’s law in all the areas subjected to them”. Special attention is paid to the centralized role of HTS “around whose leadership the mass of the Ansar [natives] and Muhajireen [foreign fighters] has gathered”.

Then, they turn to other opponent groups that “we are with our brothers in one rank and a structured edifice, and we will stand as a barrier of obstruction before all who take it upon themselves to attack HTS.” Thus, foreign groups gave a clear signal to other branches of al Qaeda that they are ready to take a bullet for themselves for the HTS and they will defend it in arms.

The second paragraph of the statement is devoted to the relations between Ansar and Muhajireen, who are militants from Central Asian and the Caucasus, who made Hijrah (migration of Muslims) to Syria for jihad. The Muhajireen are very worried that their interests are not being taken into consideration. According to the authors, “the interest of the Muhajireen is the same as the interest of the Ansar, the masses of the Muslims in al-Sham, and they cannot be separated from each other. Because Muhajireen came to this blessed land of Sham at the call of Allah and do not claim particular interests and particular rights. Both belong to the Muslims Ummah and what comes upon them comes upon others besides them.”

Then, foreign militants raised the sore question that “some local groups want to use them [Muhajireen] who came from all over the world to Syria for holy jihad as a bargaining chip to be handed over to ‘disbelievers’.” The authors noted, “we will not be content that they [opponents of HTS] should be a door for auction to support a faction over another besides it, for their [HTS] support is truly well-known in its ways and there is not from that auction in their name.” Then the foreign fighters thanked the HTS for its strong support, reception and granting of refuge to Muhajireen and called it the best of Ansar.

In the letter’s third paragraph foreign fighters turned to other al-Qaeda-backed groups and warned that they should not accept the false accusations of the HTS address at face value and advised them to verify and investigate it. They called for the conciliation and unity of all Mujahideen to lead together jihad in the path of Almighty God.

There are several reasons why al Qaeda-backed foreign fighter groups support HTS.

Muhajireen and Ansar: Brothers or Rivals?

At the timethe Syrian government forces with the support of Moscow and Tehran have achieved significant success in regaining control over the main part of the country, the question of the withdrawal of foreign militants from the region is often being raised not only by Damascus’ sponsors but also by the local influential Salafi groups too.

It should be noted that Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations, has become a real-life shelter for the foreign militants from the former Soviet Union and Chinese Xinjiang. Among them the Uzbek groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari,Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party and Chechen’s Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar are affiliated with al Qaeda. All of these groups are fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad under the leadership of HTS. They share al Qaeda’s ideological doctrine and, on its call, performed Hijrah from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Syria.

The presence of al Qaeda-backed foreign militant groups in Idlib greatly irritates Moscow and Tehran. During regular meetings, the leaders of the so-called “guarantor countries of the Syrian peace process” – Russia, Turkey and Iran – constantly reaffirm the determination to eliminate HTS’ predecessor “Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups associated with al Qaeda or ISIS”. The main responsibility for forcing the withdrawal of al Qaeda-backed foreign groups from Idlib obligated Turkey, the initiator of the Sochi Memorandum to accomplish this. But, so far, Ankara has not succeeded in fully complying with its obligations to withdraw the militants and heavy weaponry from the demilitarized zone.

Because Ankara has limited opportunities to influence foreign militant groups associated with al Qaeda in Syria. The main obstacle on this path is HTS which took under its wing of protection the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar not only from Assad’s regime but also from possible attacks by other Salafi-Jihadi rival groups.HTS remains the most powerful Islamist group in Syria. During the last three months, HTS had expanded its territories and imposed control over 90% of Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold, inflicting a crushing defeat on the rival rebel groups Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham, the members of the Turkey-allied National Liberation Front. Therefore, Muhajireen from post-Soviet countries and China feel secure under the umbrella of HTS.

The HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani considers that on the question of mutual relations between Muhajireen and Ansar his group relies on Islamic values when the local inhabitants [Ansar] of Medina warmly welcomed, provided shelter and supported the Prophet Muhammad and his followers [Muhajireen], who had left their homes behind for the sake of Islam in 622.At the beginning of the Syrian civil war Jabhat al-Nusra provided Muhajireen, who migrated from Central Asia and joined al Qaeda, the opportunity to live in separate villages in the northwestern Syria’s countryside where they could lead jihad against the forces of Damascus. Thanks to HTS support the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari have taken deep root in Syria soil where they opened several madrasahs in which militants’ children receive the education in Uzbek and Uyghur languages. In recent times, cases of joint marriages between Muhajireen and Ansar have become more frequent.

Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’ Shariah Council and the group’s highest ideologue, in his article entitled “Six Issues” clearly defined the position of the HTS regarding Muhajireen. He claims that “HTS will not compromise on its principle of refusing to barter with the Muhajireen. We do not do something that does not please our Lord. We consider it forbidden to hand over the Muslims to the disbelievers [the states]. And the Muhajireen are our brothers and we do not see a difference between a Muhajireen and Ansar, and our throats are beneath the throat of the one who has migrated to us, and we will not allow bartering on their portfolio in any circumstances, for besides the fact that it is in contravention of the Shari’a principles, it is far removed from Islamic ethics and chivalry.”

The strong support of HTS for Muhajireen fully meets the military and religious goals of Uzbek and Uyghur fighters who made Hijrah to Syria for jihad.In turn, they respond to the HTS with reciprocity and devotion to the ideals of jihad and with respect for Ansar.Abu Saloh, the leader of Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad, during the Bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda stated that Abu Mohammad al-Julani is the lion of Islam, who never uses Muhajireen as a bargaining chip. He compared the HTS leader with the founder of the Taliban movement, the late Mullah Omar, who provided Muhajireen at the head of Osama bin Laden refuge in Afghanistan to conduct jihad against America. According to him, after 9/11, even under the threat of the US military intervention to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar did not betray bin Laden to crusaders and remained faithful to Islamic values of Muhajireen until the end of his life.

HTS’s Controversial Turkey policy

Russian and Turkic speaking foreign fighter groups are supporting HTS rapprochement with Turkey which has long been a sensitive issue causing problems among global Salafi-Jihadi movements. Turkey’s factor and the forced collaboration of HTS with Ankara caused sharp criticism from al Qaeda, his loyalist Tanzim Hurras al-Din and many ideologues of Salafism.

In a speech entitled “The Way of Salvation” and published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri criticized HTS for clinging to territory under Turkey’s protection, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly. He rebuked HTS for relying too heavily on Turkish support and its desire to hold onto ground at all costs. In his opinion, the jihadists in Syria are engaged in a misguided “competition for an imagined authority” over territory that is under the oversight “of secular Turkish checkpoints.” Zawahiri strictly warned the jihadists that they shouldn’t rely on Turkey to protect them. The main point of the appeal of the al Qaeda emir is that the HTS jihadists instead, of holding onto Idlib province as a proto-Emirate, it would be better for them to go underground and conduct continuous jihad against the Bashar al Assad regime, Zionists and America.

The HTS’ position on Turkey was sharply criticized by one of the most important spiritual fathers of the Salafi-Jihadi ideology Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who considers that any diplomatic or military ties with non-Muslim rulers count as “sinful wala’.” For Maqdisi, allowing Turkey to control any land at all in Syria is equivalent to allowing the criminal, apostate regime to do so, and makes HTS dangerously close to violating Tawḥid.

The decision of the HTS to allow Turkish troops to enter Syria and establish 12 military posts in Idlib agreed upon at Astana on October 2017 was also heavily criticized by Tanzim Hurras al-Din.The Hurras al-Din amir Abu Hammam al-Shami and its Chief Sharia Counsel Sami al-Uraydi published a statement on 30 January 2019, in which they argued that HTS’s jihad is not founded on correct Aqida (Islamic creed) or Manhaj (Methodology of the Salaf us-Saalih). Further, the leaders said some of HTS’s weapons belong to al Qaeda, and since Hurras al-Din now represents al Qaeda in Syria it is the rightful owner of the weapons.

Along with authoritative ideologues, ordinary supporters of al Qaeda accused the HTS of thwarting its own jihad by forming relations with the NATO army [Turkey] and considered it a traitor. But they could not blame HTS for apostasy.

HTS Shura Council member Abu Al-Fatah al-Farghali denied all this accusations and named three conditions under which the Turks were allowed to enter Idlib that were based on the Shari’a. First, the military superiority in the liberated areas should be for the mujahideen and not the secular Turkish army. Secondly, the Turks should not intervene in ruling or administering the liberated areas in any circumstances or forms, so as not to violate the Sharia rule. Thirdly, the decision of peace and war in the liberated areas should be in the hands of the mujahideen and not the Turkish army. He concluded that today all three conditions are strictly enforced according to the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal (al-wala’ wa-l-bara’).

The vitriolic debate and ideological violent controversy between HTS and Hurras al-Dinal most turned into an armed confrontation, during which an HTS fighter was killed in a checkpoint in southern Aleppo on February 7, 2019.The Central Asian’s Muhajireen were worried that a conflict between al-Qaeda’s former allies was causing damage to the common goals of Jihad. As a result, on February 10, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din reached anew agreement, in which both organizations swore to end their war of words and cooperate against their common enemy. HTS and HAD agreed that an Islamic court would handle the controversial issues between the parties.

As we noted at the beginning of our article, the Uzbeks’ KTJ and Uyghurs’ TIP suggested that the Ansars resolve the dispute through an Islamic court, where they promised to protect the HTS with a weapon in the event of an attack on it. They hope for the justice of Islamic scholars at the head of Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who became a member of the Islamic court review the case. It should be noted that Abu Qatada al-Filastini played a key role in joining the Uzbek group KTJ to al Qaeda and HTS.

Uzbek and Uyghur militants support HTS in its pursuit to choose the lesser of two evils and do not see in its forced cooperation with Turkey violating the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal of Salafism in waging Jihad. Muhajireen do not oppose Ankara’s initiatives to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib jointly with Moscow. This is due to several factors.

First, the cultural, linguistic and kinship community with the Turks plays an important role, and they consider Turkey’s initiative helped delay for one year a possible attack by the Assad army, Iran’s Shiite proxy forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces on Idlib. During this time, the Muhajireen and the Ansar were able to prepare for a future battle.

Second, the Uyghurs Muhajireen view Turkey as the only country that provides them with moral and political support in the face of Chinese repression. More than 50 thousand Uyghurs live in Turkey who fled from Beijing’s persecution and Ankara condemned China’s Islam policy .In this regard, the Uyghurs are trying to pay back for this act of kindness. Some Uyghur Muhajireen participated in the military Operation Olive Branch along with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army to liberate Afrin in March 2018.

Thirdly, in the Kurdish question, the ideological position of the Central Asian militants coincides with the position of the HTS, who consider Kurdish YPG and PKK as communist organizations and unbeliever (kafir) groups.

The future of Central Asia’s Muhajireen in Idlib’s Safe-Haven

The ideological contradictions and continuous clashes between the rival rebel groups in Syria clearly characterize not only the current state of relations between former al Qaeda allies, but also the complex transformation that occurs within the global Sunni Salafi-Jihadi movement.

In this regard it should be noted that the statement of foreign fighters in support of HTS will have far-reaching consequences. Now, the prospect of finding Uyghur, Uzbek and Caucasian salafi groups on Syrian soil and their participation in global jihad in Middle East will depend on the position of the HTS. It can be expected that further deepening of the contradictions between HTS and al Qaeda in the near future will raise the question for foreign fighters about the choice of a strategic partner, because TIP and KTJ are members of al Qaeda, but at the same time they support the position of HTS in its dispute with al Qaeda.

After the defeat of the last stronghold of ISIS in al-Baghuz the attention of the regional powers will now be focused on the HTS, which built a prototype of the Caliphate, the so-called “Government of Salvation” in Idlib, which is managed on the basis of Sharia. However, HTS’s pursuit to distance itself more and more from al Qaeda and its desire to transform itself into a participant in the political dialogue of the Syrian conflict will force it to distance itself from the foreign Muhajireen. Therefore, in the near future, Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen will have to flee from Idlib or they await the bitter fate of ISIS.

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Islamic State threat moves online, expands across Africa

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Two decades after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, terror networks Al-Qaida and Islamic State – also known as Da’esh – continue to pose a grave threat to peace and security, adapting to new technologies and moving into some of the world’s most fragile regions, the top UN counter-terrorism official told the Security Council on Thursday. 

UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov presented the Secretary-General’s latest report on the threats posed by terrorist groups, saying that Da’esh continues to exploit the disruption, grievances and development setbacks caused by the pandemic to regroup, recruit new followers and intensify its activities – both online and on the ground.    

Ever-evolving threat 

“Today, we face transnational terrorist threats like Da’esh and Al-Qaida that are enduring and able to adapt to new technologies, but also expanding to include individuals and groups that commit terrorist attacks connected to xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance”, said Mr. Voronkov. 

The UN counter-terrorism architecture, largely set up in the wake of the 9/11 attack, helps Member States implement effective frameworks to prevent, address, investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism.  

It is also ramping up efforts to help countries adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the threat, which has become more digital and de-centralized in recent years.  

Noting that the world is currently witnessing a rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan “which could have far-reaching implications” around the globe, he cited Da’esh’s expanded presence in that country and pointed out that several members of the Taliban have been designated as terrorists by the Security Council.   

We will need to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as launching pad for global terrorism“, stressed the UN official. 

He briefed the Council on the eve of the fourth commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism, observed annually on 21 August. 

Islamic State in Africa 

While Da’esh remains focused on reconstituting its capabilities in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Vornkov said the most alarming development in recent months is the group’s relentless spread across the African continent.

The so-called “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” has killed several hundred civilians since the start of 2021 in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, while the group’s “West Africa Province” will likely gain from the weakening of Boko Haram, with additional spillover of terrorists and foreign fighters from Libya. 

Meanwhile, the expansion of Da’esh in Central Africa – and especially in northern Mozambique – could have far-reaching implications for peace and security in the region. 

A global response is urgently needed to support the efforts of African countries and regional organizations to counter terrorism and address its interplay with conflict, organized crime, governance and development gaps”, said Mr. Voronkov.  

Repatriating women and children 

Alongside Da’esh’s expansion in Africa and its rapid shift online, Mr. Voronkov also cited the continued detention of thousands of individuals with alleged links to terrorist groups as another factor exacerbating the threat. 

Deteriorating conditions in detention facilities and displacement camps in northeast Syria, in particular, are serving as a rallying cry for terrorist activities.  They have already fuelled instances of terrorist radicalization, fund-raising, arms smuggling, training and incitement to terror. 

Against that backdrop, he echoed calls from officials across the UN for Member States to voluntarily repatriate all concerned individuals, with a particular focus on children.  

In September, the Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will jointly launch a global framework to support countries requesting assistance with protection, voluntary repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals with suspected links to designated terrorist groups returning from Iraq and Syria. 

The framework has already been deployed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. 

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Taliban and Al Qaeda: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?

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Abu Omar Khorasani was taken from Kabul’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison and unceremoniously shot.

The first and only person to have been executed since the Taliban gained full control of Afghanistan, Mr. Khorasani was the head of the Islamic State in South Asia until he was arrested by government forces last year.

The precise circumstances of his execution are not known. His killing was, however, at least in part designed to send a message to the international community, and particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China and Iran, as well as Russia, Central Asia’s security overlord.

The message was that the Taliban were cracking down on foreign jihadists and militants in Afghanistan.

Mr. Khorasani was an easy symbol. The Taliban and the Islamic State, whose ranks of foreigners are primarily populated by Pakistanis and a sprinkling of Central Asians, Uighurs, Russians, Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Indians, and Frenchmen, have long been adversarial. The Islamic State recently accused the Taliban of being more nationalist than pious in their negotiations with the United States.

The Taliban message is a partial truth at best. What is true for the Islamic State is not true for Al–Qaeda and others such as the Uighur Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Taliban appear to believe that they can get away with the differentiation because they perceived the United States as more focused in the withdrawal negotiations on ensuring that the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other militants will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for international operations rather than on getting them expelled from the country.

The perceived US focus may have been rooted in a concern that if Taliban’s hands were forced, they would let militants slip out of the country and not hand them over to authorities. That would make it difficult to control their movements or ensure that they are either entered into deradicalization programs or, if warranted, brought to justice.

“It’s a Catch-22. The Taliban ensuring that Al Qaeda sticks to rule risks putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. How much better that is than having foxes run wild remains to be seen,” said a retired counter-terrorism official.

Officials of the Trump administration that negotiated the agreement suggest that the continued presence of Al-Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan would violate the accord with the Taliban.

Former Vice President Mike Pence as well as Trump era State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales argued that the deal “required the Taliban…to refuse terrorists safe harbour.

Russia and China, while publicly more measured in their statements, are likely to share western concerns. Russia held military drills earlier this month with Tajik and Uzbek troops in Tajikistan, 20 kilometres from the border with Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda may have been boosted in recent weeks by multiple prison breaks in which the Taliban freed operatives of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups. It remains unclear however to what degree the breaks will help the group strengthen its presence in Afghanistan.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned this week that al Qaeda and the Islamic State could quickly rebuild their networks in Afghanistan.

The United Nations recently reported that Al-Qaeda “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces”, and that its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent, “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.” 

“Without information on who exactly escaped, it is difficult to determine whether historically significant figures remain within AQ’s AfPak network, or if it is mainly composed of newer figures these days, whether local or regional foreign fighters,” cautioned political violence scholar Aaron Y. Zelin. Mr. Zelin was referring to Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network.

Also unclear is whether Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran will be allowed to relocate to Afghanistan.

The prison breaks further go to concerns about relying on the Taliban to police jihadists and other militants with aspirations beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Of particular concern is the fact that the balance of power has yet to be determined between Taliban leaders who in recent days have been eager to put a more moderate, accommodating foot forward with security guarantees for their opponents, minorities and women and the group’s far-flung less polished rank and file.

The concern about the Taliban’s ability and willingness to control militant activity on Afghan soil is magnified by worry regarding the continued existence of warlords with the power to organise violence, provide jobs and public services, and forge or strengthen ties with militants.

Warlords will play an active role in the future of Afghanistan. They will remain businessmen and political leaders, connected to global economic processes and networks. They will develop the military power that they need to control territory and wage war. They will, finally, continue to fight for more autonomy and, in some cases, might even manage to partially form their old regional polities once again,” said Romain Malejacq, author of a book on Afghan warlords.

“Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a warlord-ridden wasteland,” said journalist and author Graeme Wood.

The Taliban’s refusal to expel militants not only complicates the group’s efforts to garner legitimacy in the international community and particularly its neighbours, even if Al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened since 9/11 and is less focussed on attacking the United States and more on the Muslim world.

It also strengthens those who fear that Afghanistan will again emerge as a launching pad for trans-national political violence. “We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state—a breeding ground for terrorism,” warned Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They (the Taliban) will not restrict terrorist groups, just ask them to operate low-key,” added Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia.

The Taliban proved already 20 years ago that they valued loyalty when they rejected US and Saudi pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden no matter the cost. The Taliban have since come to appreciate Al Qaeda’s fighting skills and contributions to the Afghan militants’ cause.

Taliban fighters this week, in a violation of their pledge to inclusiveness, demonstrated their ideological anti-Shiite affinity with Al-Qaeda by blowing up a statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Shiite Hazara militia leader killed by the Taliban when they first took power in 1996.

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Drones in the Hands of Terrorists: What Happens Then?

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Ardian is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with a field research experience in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, Somalia and Central Asia. Ardian is the co-founder and director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research institute focused on studying translation left-wing, right-wing, and militant jihadi forms of political violence. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.

Interviewed by Tatyana Kanunnikova.

What will be the role of drones in future terrorist attacks?

If we look at some of the most recent examples in Europe—for instance, the Gatwick Airport incident where drone sightings were reported—these led to a lot of confusion among airport officials as well as policymakers and law enforcement. In this specific case, we are talking about dozens of flights canceled, millions in costs for the airport as a result of the shutdown. We are also talking about the anti-drone technology that needs to be implemented by the airport, which translates into substantial financial costs. If we look at other places, such as active conflict areas, we’ll see that Houthi rebels used drones to target and assassinate Yemeni leaders and they were also striking key national infrastructure in places like Saudi Arabia. Even here, in the United States, sightings and illegal actions of drones flying over cities and close to government facilities in some cases speak to the fact that drone operations may be a thing in the future.

Here, in the United States, there are examples of individuals who have attempted or actively pursued ways to utilize remotely piloted aircraft or drone technology in general to cause harm to U.S. interests. For example, in 2012, a group of Virginia-based individuals, with direct or indirect affiliation with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, sought to acquire this sort of technology for the terrorist group. In 2011, we had a U.S. national, who actually was a student at one of the reputable universities here in the United States and who plotted to pilot explosive-laden, remotely controlled planes and attack U.S. government facilities and military installations. If we look at the issue from this particular standpoint, there is potential for malicious use of drones in not only active conflict zones but also here in the West, which should not be overlooked.

In 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that drones constituted an imminent terrorist threat to U.S. cities. Is this threat still considered imminent?

That is a good question and that has been part of the discourse here in the United States as well. The concern is that they come with a very low acquisition cost, which presents an opportunity to pursue that kind of technology to many groups, state and non-state actors, including private individuals. One can easily procure parts to build it. It does not require sophistication in terms of running the aircraft as well.

These are all areas of concern for officials and law enforcement, especially here in the West. While I would caution against labelling drone usage for malicious or harmful purposes as the most pressing threat in the West, one should still not discount the fact that local law enforcement and other entities may not be best positioned to counter the drone threat. They are not necessarily best equipped and staffed to adequately address such a threat. I would say it is one thing to confront or operate against drone threats in active conflict zones, where the military has the resources and the capability to address that kind of threat. Domestically, in the West in general, that could be an issue given that we arguably lack the sort of sophistication needed to detect, monitor, and counter drone threat at the local level, in our cities.

Are modern terror groups capable of modifying consumer drones to conduct improvised attacks?

Terrorist groups, especially those of the modern day, have been very capable of doing that. I have witnessed first-hand such cases during our research in Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen a number of modified consumer drones used by ISIS to target the Peshmerga in the North of Iraq, Iraqi security forces in Mosul and other places. From a structural standpoint, [ISIS] were known for their Phantom DJI models. They often utilized Styrofoam, a light, easily accessible, cheap material to build drones, as well as to modify and turn other drones into actual weapons. In many cases, we saw that they were able to mount certain amounts of IEDs or other explosive devices.

There was, of course, the ability to pursue that kind of technology given a low acquisition cost. One thing that we also see is the mimicry in the use of drone technology. For example, the drone technology that has been used by ISIS is being mimicked by ISIS affiliates in other parts of the world as well because, again, of the low acquisition costs and the ease with which it can be built.

What tactics and techniques do drone-using terrorist groups use?

From my personal research experience as well as experience in places like Syria and Iraq, the drone technology was primarily used to gain intelligence, for surveillance purposes. Drone usage has also proven powerful for propaganda purposes, namely imagery that was captured through drones and exploited for propaganda purposes. Of course, one must not overlook the military-strategic component, such as the ability to mount explosive devices and drop them onto enemies. It also serves to demonstrate “aerial power,” which comes, again, with a huge propaganda value that VE and terrorist groups have been able to put to use as well.

Another thing that we see, which is very interesting, is that the drone usage, especially as far as ISIS is concerned, has given them this opportunity to claim the alleged power and control not only on the ground but also in the airspace. This gives the illusion as though—especially as it [ISIS] started losing its controlled area in 2016-2017 and onwards—the drone operations afforded the group with this sort of aerial superiority, the operational capacity to penetrate into the airspace and attack enemy forces. This did give them [ISIS], from a propaganda perspective, a huge boost as well. And we have seen, for example, that ISIS would launch their drones laden with explosives into enemy lines, accompanied by other drones equipped to record such attacks, which was then shared via Telegram or other social media platforms utilized by ISIS for their propaganda purposes. As for the success of their drone-led attacks, it is really debatable; firstly, because they [ISIS] are only going to advertise their successes. We actually do not know much—at least publicly—about their downfalls or any limitations. Some of the images, if we look at some past attacks, in 2017, for example, when ISIS dropped several IEDs via drones onto the Syrian army base storing significant stashes of weapons in a stadium, showed significant damages to the Syrian military. But we do not know with certainty about their successes, the level of their success, as we often see what they choose to share on their media.

What we do know is that it is important for us to differentiate between terrorist groups or non-state actors that have utilized drones in a limited capacity and those that have active drone programs. If we look at organizations like Hezbollah (Kataib Hezbollah), Hamas, ISIS or even Houthis, they do have a record of successfully running drone programs, weaponized drone programs. In fact, these programs are sponsored by a state. For example, we know that Iran has played a significant role in sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of drones, and so on. Again, when trying to differentiate where the drone threat might come from, it is important to understand the difference between the usage of drones by certain groups or entities in limited capacity versus those who have been running or supporting drone programs.

Are drones more likely to be used as means of transportation or as autonomous weapons?

In many cases, aside from the primary surveillance function, they have been utilized by terrorist groups as a means of transporting explosive and other materials from point A to point B. But as for the use of autonomous weapons, to my knowledge to date, to be able to drive this sort of autonomous drone weapons, they lack such a capability given that such drone technology needs to be accompanied with artificial intelligence. Most of these [drones] are programmed to, say, carry out attacks, drop a bomb, and so on. There has to be artificial intelligence incorporated with these autonomous weapons for them to be effective in other ways. But I have not seen this sort of technology, especially with ISIS. Perhaps, this could be the case with other groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

What targets would terrorists prioritize when conducting drone attacks?

As for the targets, what we have seen in places like Iraq and Syria, much of the drone strikes targeted, of course, the military, those perceived as enemy. As I mentioned earlier, in 2017, there was a highly publicized attack where ISIS dropped a significant number of explosives onto the Syrian army positions and weapons supply points. Attacks were also carried out against the Iraqi security forces during operations in Mosul. Surveillance function is an important component because it affords this sort of “pre-attack” planning ability to ISIS and other terrorist groups to better organize and coordinate their attacks. They would normally send out drones to collect information and then follow up with an attack, as is often the case. What we have seen is not only the use of drones for attack purposes but also the demonstration of power by sending many drones at the same time to create an illusion or perception that ISIS is capable of attacking with multiple drones and penetrating the enemy’s aerial space.

There is a nightmare scenario that small drones can be used to deliver chemical or biological agents in an attack. Or disperse deadly viruses over a public gathering place. Is it real?

In Iraq or Syria, where ISIS or other operating terrorist groups are involved, it is a matter of being able to gain access to chemical or biological weapons. It is not a far-fetched notion. And there are some examples of such incidents taking place. There were some efforts on the part of ISIS to deliver chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction via drones.

Are drone strikes effective against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS? If yes, why?

As regards counterterrorism, if we ask government officials, they would argue that they are effective. The way to measure such effectiveness would be to look at how certain terrorist leaders—or those associated with terrorist actions at some level—have been targeted. Most recently, Qasim al-Raymi from al Qaeda in Yemen was killed via drones, so that was one measure of success. During the Obama administration, in Yemen alone, we had upwards of 1200 drone attacks targeting different militants. During President Trump, we delivered hundreds of attacks, specifically targeting militants in Yemen, Somalia and other places. In Pakistan alone, the drone targeting campaign lasted over 10 years. We also have the recent example where the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was targeted and killed via a drone strike.

But again, if we look at terrorist organizations as unified and cohesive organizations, then we could say that killing their leaders specifically should reduce terrorist attacks as well. But we also know that terrorist organizations are not cohesive or unified in many ways. In that regard, the effects of killing a terrorist leader become perplexing or complex. For example, when a terrorist leader is killed, in theory, it should lead to a situation where a terrorist group’s leadership and control is undermined. On the other hand, depending on who comes next in the line of succession, the successor may be more prone to violence.

It is a really complicated question. In retaliation, groups may also increase terrorist attacks against civilians. And we have also seen this in terrorist groups with centralized leadership. One must also consider drone attacks leading to civilian casualties and significant grievances. I conducted research with my colleagues in Somalia last year. And during the course of interviews, drone attacks were largely criticized and raised as the source of grievance by some, even leading to recruitment and joining Al Shabaab in some cases. Although those attacks were aimed at Al Shabaab leaders or affiliates, or ISIS operatives, grievances were raised that they did lead to civilian casualties as well.

What are the risks associated with drone operations? Are there ways to mitigate those risks? How do we prevent them?

Some drones can fly at a very high altitude, while some fly only at low altitudes, which can be problematic under either scenario. From an anti-drone technology standpoint, that becomes a problematic proposition and requires a better understanding of how drone technology may be applied in the future. But again, as I mentioned earlier in the example of drone sightings at the Gatwick airport, when it led to significant confusion and material damage, the same thing applies here [in the West] in local contexts because of the inability to fully grasp and understand this emerging technology, but we’re also talking about the need to counter that technology if deployed in cities or in other places where it could pose significant difficulties and strains, especially on local governments and law enforcement.

Last year, for the first time in history, drones autonomously attacked humans. According to the UN report, these drones were supplied by Turkey to the Libyan forces. Can machines be allowed to make their own decisions to kill or should autonomous drone attacks be banned?

I have not done much research on the topic, and I do not know if these autonomous attacks led to human casualties. If this is the case, that would change the course of how we understand autonomously driven objects, specifically as it relates to drones. As stated earlier, autonomous weapons, coupled with this sort of artificial intelligence, do make sense in some way, provided that humans exercise some level of control. We have to understand the decision-making process that goes into creating this sort of autonomous technology [drones].

We know from our research that we could feed a certain image to a drone, which would enable that particular drone to carry out an attack based on the image fed. Having said that, a slight change, modification, misreading of that image (or its pixels) by the drone could lead to significant errors in terms of targeting capabilities. The lack of human control may always pose a level of risk. Humans need to play a role in a drone’s “decision-making” process. If we look at other fields that utilize these autonomous technologies, like self-driving, autonomous vehicles (AV), one can find errors there as well. From such a perspective, that could be problematic as well. Also, the question is not only how they [autonomous drones] are used but also where and how many of them are used. If we are talking about an autonomous drone being utilized in certain operations, say in a conflict zone like Syria and against ISIS, it may lead to different outcomes as compared to, say, using them in non-conflict areas, in cities and where large segments of civilian population are present. The room for error is especially there in the case of the latter, when operating in spaces where civilians are present. Again, we do not know much [publicly] about this emerging technology, including their decision-making process, their objectives, how they operate in different geographic areas, etc. These are all questions we need to better understand and address.

From our partner RIAC

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