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Why does al Qaeda oppose the repatriation of ISIS prisoners to Central Asia?

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Abdul Aziz, new amir of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

Al Qaeda’s subsidiary from Central Asia, Uzbek Salafi-Jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), accused the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and American troops in Syria of violently repatriating ISIS prisoners against their will to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The former amir of KTJ, one of the well-known propagators of al Qaeda’s ideology in the Fergana Valley, Abu Salah Uzbeki, has issued audio and text statements on the KTJ website on the Telegram channel, where he elaborated on the problem of repatriating Islamic State’s jihadists to Central Asia. He accused SDF’s Kurdish militants of executing the order of their American “owners” and forcibly repatriating the 156 captured Uzbek women and children of ISIS jihadists to the non-believer “Satan” regime of Uzbekistan.

According to him, “some Uzbek prisoners wanted to continue to remain on the ground of Blessed Sham, to move to Idlib and join us, Uzbek and Uyghur Mujahideen.”By “the Uzbek and Uyghur Mujahideen” he means Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia, such as KTJ, Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which are closely related to al Qaeda. Uzbek and Uyghur Salafists are leading a jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime alongside the most powerful radical militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northeastern Syria. These territories, now primarily controlled by HTS, often referred to as Greater Idlib, also encompass parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces. As Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant US Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, said, “Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world.”

It should be noted that after the fall of the last stronghold of ISIS in Baghouz in March 2019, several hundred foreign fighters of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and their family members from Central Asia have been detained by the SDF. Many Central Asian militants were placed in the al-Hol displacement camp in north-eastern Syria, where at least 13,000 foreign ISIS followers were being held, including 12,000 women and children.SDF Kurdish leaders have sounded the alarm that they do not have the capacity to detain so many people and appealed to foreign governments to take back its citizens. However, the ice was broken in February 2019 when President Trump urged the EU and other countries to repatriate and put on trial hundreds of their former ISIS jihadists captured by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

Abu Salah Uzbeki, a fiery ideologue of al Qaeda in Central Asia

It may be recalled that more than 7,000 Salafi-Jihadist fighters from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and Russia have traveled to Syria and Iraq in the last six years to join ISIS. Since the beginning of this year, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia have begun to retrieve their citizens, mostly children and women from the Middle East on a large scale. In particular, in April 2019, Tajikistan’s authorities have repatriated 84 minors from Iraq, where their parents joined the Islamic State. Uzbekistan during the special operation “Goodness” repatriated 156 of its citizens from Syria and Iraq on May 30, 2019. Also, within the framework of the humanitarian operation “Jusan” (Wormwood), Kazakhstan has repatriated 231 of its citizens from Syria in May 2019. In January 2019, the Kurdish-led SDF has handed over to authorities of Kazakhstan five fighters, 11 women and 30 children. In total, Kazakhstan repatriated more than 500 of its citizens from Iraq and Syria in three stages. Astana’s success was commended by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who “praised Kazakhstan’s global leadership in the repatriation and reintegration of its citizens from Syria, and encouraged Kazakhstan to share its experience with other nations.”So far, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have not been able to repatriate its jihadists, many of whom are detained in prison camps controlled by the Kurdish SDF and Iraqi armed forces.

In response to the repatriation of ISIS militants to Central Asia, Abu Salah Uzbeki, a former amir of the al Qaeda-backed KTJ and a fiery ideologue of the Sunni Militant Jihadism, has sharply criticized U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters for forcibly repatriating of wives and children of ISIS militants to their homeland. He claims that returnees will face prosecution, torture in prisons and inevitable death in Central Asia. He viciously calls Kurdish troops a “puppet” of Americans, performing their will.

Further, Abu Salah Uzbeki explained that, despite the fact that ISIS was and remains an enemy for al Qaeda and Al Nusra, they consider Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s subordinates and their families to be Muslims.“We should not rejoice when the Western Kafirs (infidels) bomb and destroying Islamic State’s jihadists, on the contrary, we must help them return to the true path of Allah,” he said in his audio statement. He emphasized that the leaders of the Central Asian and Caucasian Islamic Jamaats (groups) in Great Idlib took active steps to free the wives and children of ISIS militants from captivity held by Kurdish troops.

He said HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani contacted the leaders of the Kurdish-led SDF offered them money and tried to make a deal with them to transfer the captive foreign and Syrian wives and children of ISIS militants to Idlib. However, the Kurds rejected the proposal al-Julani, said Abu Salah. At the same time, he mentioned that in 2017, when ISIS jihadists were surrounded by the Syrian government forces in the town of Ukayribatwilayah (province) Hama, al-Julani made a $ 100,000 deal with the Bashar Assad regime and freed more than 700 wives and children of ISIS militants. Among them were about 100 Uzbek women and children who were handed over to KTJ, Abu Salah said.

As is known, the ideological confrontation between al Qaeda and ISIS, which grew into an armed conflict, had a profound impact on the Central Asian militants. The struggle for leadership between the two main Sunni terrorist organizations has divided the Islamists of the post-Soviet countries, who made Hijrah (the migration of Muslims for Jihad) to Iraq and Syria, into two camps.

Often armed clashes took place between the Central Asian supporters of ISIS and al Qaeda’s Uzbek Muhajirs in Syria. Taliban-backed and al Qaeda-affiliated KIB leader Sheikh Salahuddin was killed in an Uzbek ISIS militant hit in April 2017, during the evening prayer in the mosque of a Syrian city of Idlib. The wife and four-year-old son of Abu Salah Uzbeki were killed by a member of the Islamic State in July 2018, also in Idlib; he himself escaped an ISIS attempt on his life. The so-called Caliphate’s Central Asian fighters constantly attacked their Uzbek compatriots of al Qaeda in accordance with the Takfir of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.It is known that the Islamic State has accused al Qaeda of twisting the nature of Jihad and according to its interpretations of Islam’s Takfir doctrine, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared entire sects, including al Qaeda, as apostates.

Uzbek supporters of Ayman al-Zawahiri have referred to Islamic State fighters as liars and Kharijites (the early Islamic sect that was involved in the disruption of the unity of the Muslims and rebelled against the Khalifah) who have mischaracterized al Qaeda’s guiding doctrine.KIB, KTJ and TIP refuted al-Baghdadi’s assumed title of caliph, the leader of all Muslims, and jointly HTS often performed operations against ISIS enemy elements in Idlib, and carried out public executions of captured Kharijites.

And now, when the Caliphate was defeated and its many jihadists, who survived the bombings of the Western coalitions, were captured by the Kurds, Abu Salah Uzbeki opposed the deportation of the wives and children of ISIS jihadists to their homeland in Central Asia.He openly stated that HTS and KTJ were trying to bargain with the Kurds so that they would “liberate” the captured jihadists of the Islamic State, including their wives and children, for money.

It is doubtful that such a defiant “concern” of the al Qaeda’s Uzbek stump orator about the captive Caliphate fighters, the main rivals in the Salafi-Jihadi world, was sincere. Abu Salah Uzbeki’s audio and text statements on Telegram show that the ideological battle between the two main Sunni Takfiri terrorist organizations continues. Today, ISIS and al Qaeda are continuing the virtual struggle for the hearts and minds of Central Asian radical Islamists, who are potentially ready to join its ranks and expand its social base.

Despite the loss of territory, the Islamic State has demonstrated its ideological vitality in the post-Soviet space. Recently, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s enterprise has claimed responsibility for three terrorist attacks in Tajikistan. According to the militant group’s online Al-Nabaa, “caliphate soldiers” killed 32 people in Vakhdat Prison in May 2019. Tajik authorities accused ISIS of another prison riot in Khujand in November 2018, when 25 inmates and two security officers were killed. The Caliphate’s Amaq News Agency has claimed responsibility for the killing of four foreign cyclists in Danghara district in July 2018.Over the past year, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for more than ten terrorist attacks in various regions of Russia, including Chechnya and Dagestan.

After the fall of the ISIS’ last stronghold in Syria’s Baghouz, al Qaeda, al-Baghdadi’s main rival in the world of jihadism, increased its propaganda via the Internet in the Muslim regions of Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.In this process, the key role is played by Abu Salah Uzbeki who has become an influential al Qaeda’s ideologue in the Fergana Valley. His latest statement fits into the al Qaeda’s ideological struggle for the soul of ISIS prisoners, betrayed by their Caliph and languishing in the hot sunny al-Hol camp in the desert of northeast Syria.

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Biological warfare: A global security threat

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Biological warfare is not a new concept in arena of international politics as it has been used as a tool to sabotage enemy in previous centuries. Biological weapons are a sub-category of Weapons of Mass destruction (WMDs) in which there is a deliberate use of micro-organisms like pathogens and toxins to cause disease or death in humans, livestock and yields.Form its usage in 14th century by Mongols to its usage by imperial Japan during 1930s-40s against Chinese, it has always been a threat to global security. The evolution of bio-weapons can be broadly categorized into four phases; first phase includes the post WWII developments with the evident use of chlorine and phosgene in Ypres.The second phase was marked by the use of nerve agents like tabun, cholinesterase inhibitor and anthrax and plague bombs. The initiation of third phase was marked by the use of biological weapons in Vietnam war during 1970s where deadly agents like Agent orange were used. 4th and last phase include the time of biological and technological revolution where genetic engineering techniques were at their peak. Traditionally they have been used in wartime in order to defeat enemy but with the emergence of violent non-state actors, bioterrorism is another potential threat to the security of states. There are certain goals that are associated with the use of biological weapons. Firstly, it is purposed to hit to economy of the targeted country, breaking down government authority and have a psychological effect on masses of the targeted population. It is also a kind of psychological warfare as it may hit a smaller number of people but leaves impact on wider audience through intimidation and spreading fear. It also creates natural circumstances under which a population is induced with disease without revealing the actual perpetrator.

With the advancement in genetic engineering techniques more lethal biological weapons are being produced everyday around the world. Countries which are economically deprived are more likely to pursue such goals as it is difficult for them to go for heavy military sophistication keeping into consideration their poor economic conditions. Biological weapons serve as inexpensive tool for developing countries to address their issues in prevailing international security environment. During the initial decades of cold war, united states of America (USA) and Soviet Union went for acquiring tons of biological weapons alongside nuclear proliferation.

 The quest for these weapons reduced during 1970s with the formation of Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). This convention was presented in 1972 before countries and finally came into force in 1975 with 150 countries who signed this convention and 140 countries who fully joined this treaty. This convention prohibits any biological weaponization in order to promote peace and stability around the world. But this convention has obvious defects as it is unable to address many issues like it doesn’t prevents itself the use of biological weapons but just reinforces 1925 Geneva Protocol which forbids the use of bio-weapons. Convention allows ‘defensive research’ to which there are many objections that what is incorporated into this defensive research. It is non-binding to the signatory states and in case if countries are proliferating it lacks the effective oversight techniques to look after them either they are pursuing these biological weapons capabilities or not. Since the inception of this convention till now it has clearly failed in stopping the countries from acquisition as well as usage of these weapons. This is evident as there were many cases after 1975 where these weapons were used as in 1980s when Iraq used mustard gas, sarin and tabun against Iran and many other ethnic groups inside Iran. Another incident which was highlighted was Sarine nerve gas attack in Tokyo subway system leaving thousands injured and many got killed. In post-cold war era, however, the number of these attacks reduced as much attention was shifted to terrorism after 9/11 attacks with the change in global security architecture.

“Anthrax letters” in post 9/11 attacks revealed yet another dimension of bio-weapons which was the threat of bioterrorism from non-state actors. US became a victim of bio-terrorism when in 2001 a powder was transported through letters containing bacterium called anthrax infecting many people. One purpose which terrorists have is to make general masses feel as if they are unsafe in the hands of their government which can be best achieved through the use of these weapons. The fact that biological weapons are cheaper and more devastating than conventional weapons make it more likely for biological weapons to be used by terrorists. Also, the fact that they are easy to hide and transport and a smaller quantity can leave long-lasting impacts on larger population makes these weapons more appealing.  Now that we are facing a global pandemic in the form of COVID-19 which according to some conspiracy theories is a biological weapon pose even more serious challenge to the international security in coming decades. There is no such scientific research which proves Corona Virus as a biological weapon but the realization here is that whether or not it is a biological weapon but world was least prepared for it. Not only the developing countries but also developed states suffered more despite having enormous medical infrastructure. The fact that there has been decline in the incidents related to bioterrorism should never let us think that there is no possibility of such attacks. The fact that world failed to handle Covid-19 puts a question mark on the credibility of measures if we are faced with bio-terrorism. The medical community as well as general population needs to develop an understanding of how to respond if there is such attack. At the international level there is a dire need to develop some strong norms which discourage the development and use of such weapons in any capacity.    

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The ‘Post-Covid-19 World’ Will Never Come

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On May 3rd, the New York Times bannered “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe” and reported that “there is widespread consensus among scientists and public health experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever.”

In other words: the ‘news’-sources that were opposing the governments’ taking action against Covid-19 — libertarian ’news’-sites that oppose governmental laws and regulations, regardless of the predominant view by the vast majority of the scientists who specialize in studying the given subject — are looking wronger all the time, as this “novel coronavirus” (which is what it was originally called) becomes less and less “novel,” and more and more understood scientifically.

The “herd immunity” advocates for anti-Covid-19 policies have been saying that governments should just let the virus spread until nature takes its course and such a large proportion of the population have survived the infection as to then greatly reduce the likelihood that an uninfected person will become infected. An uninfected person will increasingly be surrounded by people who have developed a natural immunity to the disease, and by people who don’t and never did become infected by it. The vulnerable people will have become eliminated (died) or else cured, and so they won’t be spreading the disease to others. That’s the libertarian ’solution’, the final solution to the Covid-19 problem, according to libertarians.

For example, on 9 April 2020, Forbes magazine headlined “After Rejecting A Coronavirus Lockdown, Sweden Sees Rise In Deaths” and reported that, “Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has continuously advocated for laid back measures, saying on Swedish TV Sunday that the pandemic could be defeated by herd immunity, or the indirect protection from a large portion of a population being immune to an infection, or a combination of immunity and vaccination. However, critics have argued that with a coronavirus vaccine could be more than a year away, and insufficient evidence that coronavirus patients that recover are immune from becoming infected again, the strategy of relying on herd immunity and vaccinations [is] ineffective.”

The libertarian proposal of relying upon “herd immunity” for producing policies against this disease has continued, nonetheless.

CNN headlined on 28 April 2020, “Sweden says its coronavirus approach has worked. The numbers suggest a different story”, and reported that 

On March 28, a petition signed by 2,000 Swedish researchers, including Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the Nobel Foundation, called for the nation’s government to “immediately take steps to comply with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations.”

The scientists added: “The measures should aim to severely limit contact between people in society and to greatly increase the capacity to test people for Covid-19 infection.”

“These measures must be in place as soon as possible, as is currently the case in our European neighboring countries,” they wrote. “Our country should not be an exception to the work to curb the pandemic.”

The petition said that trying to “create a herd immunity, in the same way that occurs during an influenza epidemic, has low scientific support.”

Swedish authorities have denied having a strategy to create herd immunity, one the UK government was rumored to be working towards earlier on in the pandemic — leading to widespread criticism — before it enforced a strict lockdown.

FORTUNE magazine headlined on 30 July 2020, “How parts of India inadvertently achieved herd immunity”, and reported that, “Around 57% of people across parts of India’s financial hub of Mumbai have coronavirus antibodies, a July study found, indicating that the population may have inadvertently achieved the controversial ‘herd immunity’ protection from the coronavirus.” Furthermore:

Herd immunity is an approach to the coronavirus pandemic where, instead of instituting lockdowns and other restrictions to slow infections, authorities allow daily life to go on as normal, letting the disease spread. In theory, enough people will become infected, recover, and gain immunity that the spread will slow on its own and people who are not immune will be protected by the immunity of those who are. University of Chicago researchers estimated in a paper published in May that achieving herd immunity from COVID-19 would require 67% of people to be immune to the disease. Mayo Clinic estimates 70% of the U.S. population will need to be immune for the U.S. to achieve herd immunity, which can also be achieved by vaccinating that proportion of a population.

On 27 September 2020, Reuters bannered “In Brazil’s Amazon a COVID-19 resurgence dashes herd immunity hopes”, and reported that, “The largest city in Brazil’s Amazon has closed bars and river beaches to contain a fresh surge of coronavirus cases, a trend that may dash theories that Manaus was one of the world’s first places to reach collective, or herd, immunity.”

Right now, the global average of Covid-19 intensity (total cases of the disease thus far) is 19,693 persons per million population. For examples: Botswana is barely below that intensity, at 19,629, and Norway is barely above that intensity, at 20,795. Sweden is at 95,905, which is nearly five times the global average. Brazil is 69,006, which is around 3.5 times worse than average. India is 14,321, which is slightly better than average. USA is 99,754.  

However, the day prior, on May 2nd, America had 30,701 new cases. Brazil had 28,935. Norway had 210. India had 370,059. Sweden’s latest daily count (as-of May 3rd) was 5,937 on April 29th, 15 times Norway’s 385 on that date. Sweden’s population is 1.9 times that of Norway. India’s daily count is soaring. Their population is four times America’s, but the number of new daily cases in India is twelve times America’s. Whereas India has had only one-seventh as much Covid-19 intensity till now, India is soaring upwards to become ultimately, perhaps, even worse than America is on Covid-19 performance. And Brazil is already almost as bad as America, on Covid-19 performance, and will soon surpass America in Covid-19 failure.

There is no “herd immunity” against Covid-19, yet, anywhere. It’s just another libertarian myth. But libertarians still continue to believe it — they refuse to accept the data.

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Application of Cyber Security: A Comparative Analysis of Pakistan and India

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In today’s world, communication is controlled by the internet. The Internet is what links the communication protocol of a state to its cyber domain. Cyber security encompasses techniques, technologies, methods and blueprints made to secure networking systems from potential cyber-attacks. Efficient systems of cyber security therefore mitigate and reduce the danger of network systems being attacked or accessed by unauthorized systems.

Despite the existence of such robust networks and security protocols, the exploit of such systems is always a click away, due to the integration of the internet as a worldwide network, and in times of global outbreaks and crisis, internet activity also inevitably increases. This was particularly observable with the spread of the Covid-19 as a global pandemic, which also saw an increase in over-the-web activity, and gave a new breathing space for cyber-criminals. According to estimates, Covid-19, as a pandemic, can already be classified as the largest ever existing threat to cyber-security across the globe, since the induction of the world wide web as a global chain of networks. Thus, it would be fair to say that the effects of the covid-19 were not selectively felt by developing states only, but also encapsulated great powers of the contemporary era.

While contextualizing Pakistan and India in the cyber-security debate following the events of the covid-19 scenario, the trend in increased virtual cyber-attacks and espionage was no different to the rest of the world. The real question mark lies in the ability of both countries to effectively deal with the overwhelming cyber-activity in the post-pandemic era. The government of Pakistan established the National Center for Cyber Security (NCCS) in June 2018, and continues to strengthen its cyber-security domain, with a dynamic change in policy making, centric to cybersecurity and threats to cybersecurity from its immediate adversary, India. The current Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Imran Khan, also launched ‘Digital Pakistan Vision’, with the primary   objectives of  increasing connectivity, rectifying digital infrastructure, and investing in the awareness of digital skills and promotion of entrepreneurship. Pakistan also approved the first ‘Digital Pakistan Policy’, aiming to focus on investment opportunities by IT companies and building the framework necessary for a digital ecosystem. Although a sustained effort has been made to strengthen the cyber-domain of Pakistan, there are many technicalities and loopholes that must be addressed with high priority. One, the lack of an effective communication method, that is free from external intrusion, and allows for the restriction of unwanted network traffic on its master server. In more recent times, an intrusion occurred during the webinar of Institute of   Strategic Studies (ISSI) due to non-encrypted internet connection, which allowed unspecified individuals access to the digital webinar. Two, the lack of stable internet connectivity, which prevents effective implementation of security protocols and acts as a hindrance to critical data packets, that must be sent between cyber-security officials in an event of a cyber-attack or espionage of any degree. Three, the existence of exploitable source code in key governmental websites and pages that are always prone to cyber-attacks, and must be revisited in the near future.

On the other hand, India saw a 37% in cyber-activity in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic; an eye-opener for state officials, who have prioritized cybersecurity as the next immediate threat to Indian National Security. In recent developments, India has also launched several directives to its cyber-security strategy in the post-pandemic era, including the initiative launched by The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), namely ‘Cyber Surakshit Bharat’ with the coordination and support of the  National E-Governance Division. According to MIETY, 44 training and mock drills are being given to 265 organizations from different states of the world, a landmark achievement in Indian cyber-security history. However, just like its South Asian neighbor Pakistan, India is also equally overwhelmed by the threat and emergence of hostile cyber-activity. With a 45% ratio of internal cyber attacks, and a 38% ratio of external intrusions from proposed adversaries, China and North Korea, India has strengthened its ties with Israel to revamp its cyber-security strategy,  in order to mitigate the immediate threat to its cyber-domain, both internally and externally.

Conclusion and Recommendations

There is an immediate need to extend and further research the cyber capabilities of both Pakistan and India, which would primarily define the different types of technologies and how they are being actively made a part of the National security policy of both Pakistan and India. These efforts must be the immediate need of the hour, with the uncertainty of the Covid-19 and its irregular patterns becoming an inevitable fate of regional and global politics, in the times to come. While India seems to have its primary bases covered, there is no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic did not have a sparing effect on its cyber-domain, either, leaving the door open for Pakistan to make significant improvements to its cyber domain and cyber-security strategy, in order to effectively deter the threat faced from its adversary. Moreover, Pakistan can also seek inspiration from a potential integrated tri-service defense cyber strategy, that is being highly considered by Indian cyber-security and state officials, which would aid in keeping any form of cyber-hostility at bay in upcoming times.

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