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Cyberwarfare without Rules

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In June 2019, The New York Times published an article claiming that the U.S. intelligence services had carried out a cyberattack against Russia. Specifically, according to anonymous sources, Russia’s electric power grid had been the target of cyber incursions. The article caused quite a stir among experts and government officials in Russia, the United States and other countries. For example, President of the United States Donald Trump accused the journalists responsible for the article of treason, although the same article alleges that National Security Council representatives “had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’ reporting.” At the 10th International Meeting of High Representatives for Security Issues, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation Sergei Naryshkin said that the Russian security services were aware of planned cyberattacks and informed the relevant authorities in a timely manner. The question of the likelihood of cyberattacks being carried out on critical infrastructure was even put to President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin during a live Q&A on Russian television, to which he responded: “As to the operation of our critical infrastructure, including power and other areas, we must certainly think about how to protect ourselves from any cyberattacks, from any negative impact. We are not only contemplating this, but also addressing it.”

It is still unclear whether or not the New York Times article is even telling the truth. Does it disclose sensitive information? Or is it merely “fake” news? Nevertheless, it would be useful to consider the situation from the point of view of the security of critical infrastructure, the possibility of carrying out cyberattacks and the rules of conduct in ICT.

The Informational Security of Critical Infrastructure

Protecting critical infrastructure from malicious attacks in the ICT environment is a crucial national security task, one that all developed countries are attempting to solve in one way or another. Each country draws up their own list of facility categories and prioritizes them as they see fit. However, these lists typically include energy and water supply systems, high-risk facilities and the information infrastructure. A number of factors determine the national features of critical infrastructure protection, chief among which is the issue of ownership – that is, who owns the facilities? In Western countries, a significant part of the infrastructure belongs to, and is managed by, the private sector (up to 85 per cent in the United States, according to estimates). In some cases, this leads to the appearance of a model of interaction in which the state establishes reasonably soft rules for businesses that have to ensure their own cybersecurity. Such mechanisms do not always meet national security requirements, since, in the absence of strong government regulation, businesses may use more widespread and cost-effective – yet untested and uncertified – information security solutions. And this is simply unacceptable for critical infrastructure. At the same time, special attention should be paid to issues of improving the social responsibility of entrepreneurs while ensuring the information security of new hi-tech products. And it is not just the positions of states that are needed here, as the counter initiatives of private business and the development of public private partnership mechanisms are also important.

Critical infrastructure protection is particularly important now, at a time when the ICT environment continues to develop on a massive scale, human activities are becoming increasingly digitized and the digital economy is starting to gain a foothold. ICT forms the foundation of such technologies and phenomena as big data processing, quantum computing, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain and the Internet of Things. In 2017, the global production of ICT goods and services totaled approximately 6.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), with around 100 million people being employed in the ICT sector. According to some estimates, the Internet of Things will consist of 50 billion devices by 2020.

Russia has adopted a number of normative, regulatory and strategic planning documents that regulate the protection of critical infrastructure facilities, in particular: Main Areas of the State Policy on the Security of Automated Control Systems for Production and Technological Process of Critical Infrastructure Facilities in the Russian Federation (approved by the President of the Russian Federation on February 3, 2012 under No. 803); Presidential Decree No. 620 “On Improving the State System for Detecting, Preventing and Mitigating the Consequences of Computer Attacks on the Information Resources of the Russian Federation,” dated December 22, 2017; and Federal Law No. 187-FZ “On Information Security Protection in the Russian Federation” dated July 26, 2017.

The legislation that has been adopted formed the basis for the establishment of the State System for the Detection, Prevention and Mitigation of the Consequences of Computer Attacks (GosSOPKA). The system is comprehensive in terms of its functionality. In accordance with the Concept of the State System for the Detection, Prevention and Mitigation of the Consequences of Computer Attacks, its mandate is not only to forecast information security issues in the Russian Federation and identify signs of compute attacks, but also to organize and conduct scientific research into the development and application of tools and methods for the detection, prevention and mitigation of the consequences of computer attacks and implement measures to ensure that the personnel required for the establishment and operation of the System receive the proper training and subsequent professional development opportunities. The forces and means of detecting, preventing and mitigating the consequences of computer attacks that make up the System include the authorized units of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents (which, among other things, coordinates the activities of the Russian Federation’s Critical Information Infrastructure [CII]), and subdivisions and officials of CII facilities that are involved in activities to detect, prevent and mitigate the consequences of computer attacks and respond to computer incidents. At the same time, GosSOPKA centers that have been set up at CII facilities (including those that are privately owned) are combined into a single hierarchical structure by department and territory.

We can judge the effectiveness of GosSOPKA’s work by the data presented at regular briefings of the National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents. Thus, in 2017, a total of 2.4 billion attacks on critical information infrastructure were recorded in 2017, with that number rising to 4 billion in 2018. During the latest briefing on June 27, 2019, that is, after The New York Times article had been published, Deputy Director of the National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents Nikolai Murashov noted: “An analysis of the information received by GosSOPKA shows that the majority of attacks aim to steal information. Criminals primarily target information about Russian defense, nuclear, energy and missile engineering technologies, as well as information from public administration systems. At the same time, “attacks on Russian information resources typically go through control centers [botnets] that are located in the European Union or the United States.”

The Capabilities of the United States and the Reality of the Attacks

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that, instead of developing international cooperation on the safe use of the ICT environment, the United States significantly increased its potential for destructive cyber operations in recent years. This was reflected above all in the elevation of the United States Cyber Command and the adoption of the relevant directive in 2018, which simplified the process of greenlighting cyber operations significantly. One extremely important document is the current National Defense Authorization Act, [ ] which confirms the military’s authority to conduct so-called “clandestine” activities.

At the same time, such activities and operations are carried out in order to prepare the environment, conduct information operations, demonstrate the power, and as a deterrent. By “prepare the environment,” we clearly mean the search for vulnerabilities in the computer systems and networks of the alleged enemy and/or introduce resident malware.

It is common knowledge that the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which started to take shape back in 2008 in accordance with National Security Presidential Directive 54 (NSPD-54), has been operating in the United States for quite a while now. The purpose of the Process is to examine new ICT vulnerabilities that are not known to the general public and make appropriate decisions regarding their use. Accordingly, the decision can be made to either inform all interested parties or conceal the information in the event that the vulnerability that has been detected could be used for surveillance, law enforcement or national security purposes. Another seminal document in this Process is the “Joint Plan for the Coordination and Application of Offensive Capabilities to Defend U.S. Information Systems.” We can conclude that, taken together, these documents aim to create mechanisms at the state level for searching, analyzing and selecting vulnerabilities, which are effectively the components of cyberweapons.

At critically important enterprises, ICT systems can be used that in one form or another harness commercially available mass-produced (so-called “off the shelf”) components. The vulnerabilities of such components have been studied in greater deal, which is why cyberattacks are more likely to target them. What is more, we cannot rule out the possibility that undocumented functions (so-called “bookmarks”) may be present in off the shelf components. Moreover, this may even occur without the consent of the manufacturer. The United States Intelligence Community, specifically the National Security Agency’s Office of Tailored Access Operations has developed an entire catalog of hardware and software back doors that the Office can use to access servers, work stations, telephone lines and industrial process control systems.

Taking all this into account, we can argue that right now not only does the United States have the power, means, normative and regulatory support, but also the political will to actively use destructive ICT capabilities. In this regard, we should note that all of the United States’ current strategic planning documents name Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea as its main opponents, and these countries are likely to be the targets of any cyberattacks. National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton confirmed as much at a conference held by The Wall Street Journal this past June (just a few days before The New York Times published its article). Among other things, he noted that “The purpose [of carrying out cyber-offensives]… is to say to Russia, or anybody else that’s engaged in cyber operations against us, ‘you will pay the price.’” This is why President Trump decided not to respond with force when tensions between the United States and Iran escalated after the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Defense Force shot down a U.S. drone. Instead, according to media reports, the United States Cyber Command carried out a cyberattack against Iranian units that were allegedly involved in the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman the previous week, even though the United States provided no evidence to support its claim.

Cyberattacks and International Law

The legitimacy of the attack, like many others, is questionable. Similarly, international legal proceedings have yet to be launched against the United States in connection with the cyberattacks on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, and it is unlikely that any action will ever be taken. Unfortunately, instead of carrying out the proper investigations into such incidents, the United States and its allies resort to the mechanism of publicly naming the culprit instead of any real evidence that a state has committed malicious actions. In accordance with the new U.S. strategies, it can apply all available levers of influence on these countries, from economic sanctions to cyberattacks.

At the same time, the international community already has a certain constructive basis for ensuring peaceful coexistence in the ICT environment, including the protection of critical infrastructure. We are talking primarily about the voluntary and non-binding norms, rules and principles of the responsible behavior of states that were developed in 2015 by the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security (UN GGE) and presented in the corresponding report. Representatives from the United States were involved in the work of this Group and endorsed the adoption of the report. Several standards proposed by the GGE directly address the problem of ensuring the safety of critical infrastructure facilities. Item f) says that “A State should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public.” Item g) calls upon states to take appropriate measures to protect their critical infrastructure from ICT threats. Finally, item h) says that “States should also respond to appropriate requests to mitigate malicious ICT activity aimed at the critical infrastructure of another State emanating from their territory, taking into account due regard for sovereignty.” The latest U.S. strategies repeatedly stress the necessity of promoting and implementing the norms and principles put forward by the GGE in any way possible. The incursion into Russia’s electric power grid, if it did indeed take place, is a gross violation on the part of the United States of the rules that it helped develop in the first place. Moreover, the ICT4Peace Foundation stated in an open message that civilian power grids are not legitimate military targets, which indicates that this is a violation of the provisions of international humanitarian law.

The media frequently talks about cyber countermeasures, which are primarily used to send “signals” to potential adversaries and let them know that the United States is aware of malicious activity being carried out. The goal is to deter opponents and increase stability. It is clear that “signals” sent by way of an attack on civilian facilities can only lead to escalation. One of the ideas that forms the basis of the new cyber strategy of the United States is to achieve peace through power. But this peace, where the norms and rules apply to some countries but not others, will be neither stable nor free.

Critical structure protection is in many ways a national task. At the same time, there are a number of problems that can only be solved at the international level. It seems that right now the only productive way to tackle these problems is to develop mechanisms for introducing and implementing the relevant norms, rules, and principles of the responsible behavior of states – rules that will be common for all.

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How Taliban Victory Inspired Central Asian Jihadists

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Old and young generations of Uighur 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.”

Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad’s amir Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki celebrates Taliban victory

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.

Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad leader Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki (second right) and KTJ military commander Sayfiddin (second left)

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.

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Russia, Turkey and UAE: The intelligence services organize and investigate

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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.

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Intelligence

Power Vacuum in Afghanistan: A By-product of An Incompetent Geopolitical Contract

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taliban afghanistan

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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