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Terrorism

Who are the Real Terrorists in North East Syria?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Earlier this week President Trump abruptly changed course and green-lighted a Turkish incursion into north east Syria with disastrous results. The subsequent invasion has unleashed a hellish nightmare of carnage and chaos in what was a dangerous, but relatively peaceful, area governed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who had just defeated ISIS territorially.

In recent days, over 30 civilians—including Kurds, Christians and minorities, and very young children—have been killed in indiscriminate Turkish bombings and mortar fire. Likewise, the UN reports that over 130,000 Syrians have suddenly become displaced, fleeing Turkish violence. In addition to these massive displacements, Turkey insists that it will forcibly repatriate 1 to 2 million of the 3 million Syrian refugees it is currently housing back into the SDF-held areas it is now overtaking. That 83% of these Arabs never lived in the areas they are to be forcibly resettled in, begs the question of whose homes and lands will they be overtaking? 

Turkey claims to be fighting a terrorist group and wanting to clean their border area of terrorists, but the pictures coming out of northeast Syria instead make Turkey look like the terrorist aggressor. Countless photos and videos, many of them validated, circulate of Syrian civilians lying bloodied and dead on the ground while their family members wail unconsolably. Hevrin Khalaf, a female, and the Secretary-General of the pro-Kurdish Future Syria Party, is reported to have been dragged from her car and assassinated by Turkish-hired thugs who said while filming her corpse, “this is the corpse of pigs.” Likewise, video footage of bearded mercenary soldiers backed by the Turks, shooting their Kurdish captives while calling them “kufar scum” (unbelievers) are said by U.S. forces to appear authentic. If so, these actions are war crimes.

These bearded assassins, backed by Turkey are likely the same unemployed ISIS, al Nusra, and other former jihadists still happy to kill in the name of Allah, who Turkey used to clear Afrin in 2018. Indeed, they have shown a brutality akin to their mother groups, some even shouting ISIS slogans as they kill, such as “Baqiya wa tatamadad!” meaning we (ISIS) will remain forever, and expand. 

That Turkey would use former ISIS cadres to fight the Kurds is no surprise, given they worked closely with ISIS to try to quell the Kurds early on in the Syrian conflicts and continue to see their interests in destroying Kurdish power to lie with militant jihadist and Islamist groups. An ISIS emir that ICSVE interviewed in 2019 went into great detail about his work on behalf of ISIS, about how he negotiated with the Turkish MIT and military regarding border entry for the 40,000+ foreign fighters that streamed across Turkey into ISIS-controlled areas of Syria, agreements for sending wounded ISIS fighters back into Turkey for medical treatment, supplying water for the Tabqa dam to provide electrical power for ISIS, and so on. According to this emir, even then, Turkey was insisting on a buffer security zone. Now it appears they will go to any lengths to get it.

Meanwhile, General Mazloum Kobani Abdi told U.S. Ambassador William Roebuck, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS “You have given up on us. You are leaving us to be slaughtered.” He also asked in confused despair how the U.S. could also insist that the Kurds not turn to others, like the Russians for support, effectively boxing them in for slaughter.

When ISIS foolishly attacked Kobani in 2014, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) rose up and fought valiantly and since 2015, they fought with U.S. military backing, to defeat ISIS.  They have been our “boots on the ground”, sustaining most of the casualties and doing all the heavy lifting in defeating a global foe. While U.S. forces lost less than 20 troops after they aligned with the Kurds to fight ISIS in Syria, our hardy allies lost 11,000 male and female brave fighters who faced down this global foe.

Indeed, while ISIS was an active force on the ground in Syria, it external emni (intelligence arm), threatened the globe, mounting and inciting attacks in many major cities from New York, to Brussels (where two Americans were killed), to Paris, Nice, Stockholm, London and Istanbul to name but a few.

In serving as our “boots on the ground” forces for the territorial defeat of ISIS, and continuing to battle the remnants of ISIS, the Kurds saved, and continue to save, countless Americans and Westerners from being slaughtered by a heinous force willing to attack, anywhere, at any time.  

Yet their current aggressor, Turkey, calls these Kurds terrorists. That picking up arms against ISIS gave them the sudden opportunity to rule a considerable swathe of Syrian land that they had liberated from ISIS is no one’s fault, except those who supported ISIS in the first place—Turkish government officials among them. No doubt, the Kurds once in power, made some mistakes, but it is notable how quickly they moved to incorporating minorities into their ranks and transitioning to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have had a good record of building a grassroots democracy amidst the ashes of war. That their majority Kurdish leadership may have long-term aspirations to one day become a fully independent Kurdish state should be no surprise, but that they were acquiescing to all U.S. demands upon them to remain within Syria and negotiate some kind of governance agreement with Assad also needs to be noted. The trouble in that regard, is Assad wants to appoint top-down leaders in the area and thereby destroy the grass-roots nature of the Kurdish democracy building. From a position of strength and good governance, with U.S. backing behind them, the SDF had a chance of becoming a real island of democracy, perhaps even one day spreading such, within the Syrian state.

In the meantime, with ISIS defeated territorially, ISIS is still far from total defeat. In recent months ISIS has been attacking on a weekly basis in both Syria and Iraq, and the SDF were busy rounding up ISIS sleeper cells while also holding more than 70,000 ISIS prisoners and their family members, thousands of which are from European and Western countries who have refused to repatriate and bring them home to justice.

Now, amidst the chaos unleashed by Turkey, up to 800 ISIS cadres have escaped when their prison was shelled, with hundreds more ISIS women and children escaping from their bombed and burning camps. Where they will run to amidst the chaos is uncertain, but Turkey and beyond, is certainly a possibility given that when cornered in Hajin, and later Baghouz, SDF leaders told ICSVE that ISIS leaders were asking to be bussed out of Syria into Turkey—presumably believing they would be welcomed into a country that had helped them in the past. 

500 of the worse ISIS cadres are said to have been transferred by U.S. forces from Syria, into Iraq, and possibly more will befall the same fate. For those of us who still believe in human rights and rule of law, even when applied to ISIS cadres, it’s unfortunate that in Iraq these prisoners—many of them Westerners—can expect forced confessions, hurried court proceedings and almost certainly sentence of life imprisonment, or death, based on very little, if any, evidence presented against them. Whereas, in our ISIS interviews conducted in SDF territory, with 100 of the ISIS foreign terrorist fighters, the prisoners stated that they were not being subjected to torture and were fairly treated by the SDF. Likewise, the SDF was working patiently, including in efforts with ICSVE, to gather testimonies and data to prod Western countries into action that have been reluctant to take their ISIS citizens home for prosecution.

While the SDF could only do its important work with U.S. support, this support was not costing us much. Few troops were deployed on the ground and our air support was operating out of Iraq, where it is likely the U.S. forces will stay for some time. That we should not involve ourselves in endless wars or that the troops need to come home is something most agree with, but how and when is also of great importance.

Any U.S. withdrawal of support for the SDF should only occur because they are no longer serving our interests and must take place in a planful and secure manner without allowing for an all-out slaughter of civilians or of the allied forces who, by fighting ISIS, saved Americans countless lives.

Given that the Kurds sacrificed greatly to defeat ISIS territorially on the ground, and when in power, began at once to build one of the only democracies in the middle east that is respecting minority rights and following Western rule of law, while being surrounded by dictatorial and corrupt regimes, it seems we should have continued to give them our full support. Instead Trump has unleashed Turkish forces on a group that Turkey universally treats as terrorists and is willing to violently displace and kill. This sudden betrayal of our loyal allies is a matter that needs to be quickly resolved in Washington, D.C. 

Our American ideals, and our reputation as stalwart and reliable allies, are at stake right now, and this disastrous decision needs to be reversed immediately.  

From our partner ICSVE Brief Reports.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Terrorism

‘Unprecedented terrorist violence’ in West Africa, Sahel region

MD Staff

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The top UN official in West Africa and the Sahel updated the Security Council on Wednesday, describing an “unprecedented” rise in terrorist violence across the region.

“The region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets,” Mohamed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), told the Council in its first formal meeting of the year.

“The humanitarian consequences are alarming”, he spelled out.

In presenting his latest report, Mr. Chambas painted a picture of relentless attacks on civilian and military targets that he said, have “shaken public confidence”. 

A surge in casualties

The UNOWAS chief elaborated on terrorist-attack casualties in Burkina Faso Mali and Niger, which have leapt five-fold since 2016 – with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone as compared to some 770 three years earlier.

“Most significantly,” he said, “the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening West African coastal States”.

He also flagged that the number of deaths in Burkina Faso jumped from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 last year.

And displacement has grown ten-fold to about half a million, on top of some 25,000 who have sought refuge in other countries. 

Mr. Chambas explained that “terrorist attacks are often deliberate efforts by violent extremists” to engage in illicit activities that include capturing weapons and illegal artisanal mining.

Intertwined challenges

Terrorism, organized crime and intercommunal violence are often intertwined, especially in peripheral areas where the State’s presence is weak.

“In those places, extremists provide safety and protection to populations, as well as social services in exchanged for loyalty”, he informed the Council, echoing the Secretary-General in saying that for these reasons, “counter-terrorism responses must focus on gaining the trust and support of local populations”. 

The Special Representative outlined that governments, local actors, regional organizations and the international community are mobilizing across the region to respond to these challenges.

On 21 December, the ECOWAS Heads of State summit “adopted a 2020-2024 action plan to eradicate terrorism in the sub-region”, he said.

Calling “now” the time for action, Mr. Chambas drew attention to the importance of supporting regional Governments by prioritizing “a cross-pillar approach at all levels and across all sectors”.

Turning to farmer-herder clashes, which he maintained are “some of the most violent local conflicts in the region”, the UNOWAS chief highlighted that 70 per cent of West Africa’s population depend on agriculture and livestock-rearing for a living, underscoring the importance of peaceful coexistence.

The Special Representative also pointed to climate change, among other factors, as increasingly exacerbating farmer-herder conflicts.

“The impact of climate change on security also spawns a negative relationship between climate change, social cohesion, irregular migration and criminality in some places”, he upheld.

Stemming negative security trends

The UNOWAS chief noted that in the months ahead, Togo, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Niger would be democratically electing their leaders and maintained that “all-too-worrying” security trends must not distract from political developments.

“Unresolved grievance, incomplete national reconciliation processes and sentiments of manipulation of institutions and processes carry risks of tensions and manifestations of political violence”, he warned.

In the months ahead, Mr. Chambas stressed that UNOWAS would continue to work with partners on the national and regional levels to promote consensus and inclusiveness in the elections. 

“As UNOWAS’ mandate is renewed, we count on the Council’s continued full support”, concluded the Special Representative.

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Terrorism

New Report Proposes Global DNA Synthesis Screening System to Counter Biotech Terror

MD Staff

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Rapid advancements in commercially available DNA synthesis technologies – used for example to artificially create gene sequences for clinical diagnosis and treatment – pose growing risks, with the potential to cause a catastrophic biological security threat if accidentally or deliberately misused.

A new World Economic Forum and Nuclear Threat Initiative report, “Biosecurity Innovation and Risk Reduction: A global Framework for Accessible, Safe and Secure DNA Synthesis,” gathers opinion from a group of global public- and private-sector experts who propose standardized screening practices to counter the threat.

Since scientists demonstrated the means to create a full viral genome in 2002, DNA synthesis technologies have become increasingly available and frequently used by scientists and engineers around the world. These technologies support myriad advancements in synthetic biology, enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of industries including energy, food, agriculture, health and manufacturing. Further advances in technology hold great promise for sustainable development and a safer and more secure society.

At the same time, new approaches to DNA editing and synthesis have made it easier to manipulate biological agents and systems, increasing the risk of a catastrophic accidental or deliberate biological event. These technologies make it possible to create pathogen or toxin DNA that could be misused. For example, in 2018 researchers published work detailing the synthesis of horsepox virus, an extinct virus related to smallpox, using synthetic DNA fragments purchased from a commercial provider. This demonstrated the potential for creating other viruses via commercially available technologies.

Although many DNA providers practice screening procedures, this approach is voluntary and is becoming increasingly expensive. As access expands and the cost of DNA synthesis declines, more DNA is likely to reach the market via additional providers, significantly expanding the user base. In the next two to three years, a new generation of benchtop DNA synthesis machines, enabled by enzymatic DNA synthesis methods, could become available without guidance or norms to prevent misuse.

This report, endorsed by an international expert Working Group, recommends a global system for synthetic DNA screening practices by developing an international, cost-effective, and sustainable mechanism to prevent illicit practices and misuse. The new framework improves the existing voluntary guidelines because it standardizes screening processes, is accessible to new players in the market, and provides valuable feedback data to evaluate the screening – all at lower cost.

“Biotechnology is at the centre of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To deliver on the promise of the biotechnology revolution, we must seize opportunities to develop and deliver life-advancing innovations while simultaneously and urgently addressing potential risks associated with a growing and democratized bio-economy,” said Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Shaping the Future of Health and Health Care at the World Economic Forum.

The report also proposes that companies, international organizations and governments should explore options for the sustainable oversight and the maintenance of this proposed DNA sequence screening mechanism. DNA synthesis capabilities, in addition to other emerging technologies, can benefit from a larger system of common global life-science norms overseen by a globally recognized entity.

“Global DNA synthesis screening can be a critical tool to reduce the risk that life-science technologies could be deliberately misused to carry out biological attacks or accidentally result in a high-consequence or catastrophic biological event. The time is now,” said Ernest J. Moniz, Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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Terrorism

Pensacola Rampage, Counter-Terrorism and Power Over Death

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“’I believe’ is the great word against metaphysical fear, and at the same time it is a promising avowal of love.”-Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

On December 6, 2019, Mohammed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force deployed at a US Naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, opened fire with a 9-millimeter handgun, killing three service members, and injuring eight others. Although the shooter’s precise motive and ideology have not yet been fully established, there is tangible evidence that only hours before his murderous rampage, Alshamrani had railed against the United States for its support of Israel and also for stationing troops in Saudi Arabia. Also plausible is that he fully expected to be killed during the shooting melee, a welcome expectation that suggests a sought-after status of “martyrdom.”

More than likely, recalling certain earlier insights of Oswald Spengler, “I believe” was integral to the shooter’s core Jihadist ideology, a presumed avowal of God’s anticipated grant of immortality or power over death.  Hence, Alshamrani’s slaughter of certain “others” was actually an “avowal of love.”

Going forward, what matters most in this violent episode is what can be learned from the standpoint of improved US counter-terrorism practice. Above all, the lesson is as follows: There can be no greater form of power in world politics than a divinely promised power of immortality. Until now, this always preeminent form of power has remained essentially unrecognized by both scholars and policy-makers. In effectively all Jihadist terrorism-vulnerable countries, counter-terrorist strategies remain tangibly detached from what is most important.

There will be various pertinent concepts and theories to be systematically pondered. For Jihadist terrorists, the ultimate rationale of every operation must concern a presumed power over death.  Without such a core presumption, prima facie, there could be no rational purpose in ever launching “martyrdom” operations. This means, inter alia, that any government interested in more effective counter-terrorism must first learn how to suitably obstruct such a far-reaching terrorist presumption.

Whatever particular answers may be reached in these complex matters, the task involved must always be approached as an intellectual one. Or, as the ancient Greeks and Macedonians wrote about the art of war, it is always, necessarily, a multilayered task of “mind over mind” rather than just “mind over matter.”

Here, too, there will be certain corollary and convergent considerations of legality. Without exception, those Jihadist insurgents who would seek to justify willful injury and execution of noncombatants (e.g., American, European, Israeli, etc.) in the name of “martyrdom” are defiling authoritative international law. Even if the murderous terrorist calls were somehow grounded in jurisprudence –  that is, they would have recognizable elements of “just cause” – these criminals would still be guilty of wrongdoings.

Absolutely egregious and unjustifiable wrongdoings.

To wit, under binding law, insurgents, even those with a more-or-less defensible “just cause,” must nonetheless satisfy assorted jurisprudential limits on permissible targets and permissible levels of violence.

In all such law-based matters, the ends can never justify the means.

Never.

There is more. Under international law, even the most presumptively “sacred” rights of insurgency exclude the intentional targeting of civilians and/or a use of force designed to inflict gratuitous suffering. Whatever else might be said of any particular insurgent resort to force, it is always an impermissible insurgency (i.e., terrorism) when fighters choose to murder individuals in their homes or automobiles by stabbing and shooting. It is also always terrorism when such “martyrs” more systematically deposit nail-filled bombs in hotels, airports, buses or school playgrounds, or when they choose to heighten their odds of achieving immortality by opening fire at allied soldiers “on base.”

Sometimes, more or less explicitly, Jihadist insurgents have advanced a long discredited legal argument known as tu quoque. This formal argument maintains that because the other side (e.g., “infidels,” “apostates,” “blasphemers”) is allegedly guilty of an equivalent or greater criminality, the Jihadist side is free ipso facto of any consequent legal wrongdoing. Such a disingenuous argument is always more-or-less inventive, but it is also always invalid.

Apropos of this unchanging invalidity, one need only be reminded of the postwar judgments rendered by the Nuremberg and Far East (Japan) international tribunals. Both landmark tribunals refused to accept any defense of tu quoque.

There is more. Regarding conventional armies and insurgent forces, the residual right to use armed force can never supplant the peremptory rules of humanitarian international law. Such utterly primary or jus cogens rules are correctly referenced as the law of armed conflict orthe law of war.

Today, especially in parts of Asia and the Middle East, supporters of terror-violence against selected noncombatants insist wrongly that the ends somehow justify the means. Leaving aside the ordinary ethical standards by which any such specious argument must be regarded as indecent, the ends can neverjustify the means under binding international law. Appropriately, for more than two thousand years, conspicuous legal principles have specified that intentional violence against the innocent is prohibited.

Always.

In law, such violence is malum in se, or “evil in itself.”

Always.

In law, one man’s (or woman’s) terrorist, can never be another man’s (or woman’s) “freedom-fighter.” Although it is true that certain insurgencies can sometimes be judged lawful or law-enforcing, even such presumptively allowable resorts to force must still conform to the longstanding laws of war.

Always.

Jurisprudentially, it comes down to this: Whenever an insurgent or insurgent group resorts to unjust means, these actions constitute terrorism. For example, even if now ritualistic Palestinian claims of a hostile “occupation” were to be accepted as reasonable and lawful, any corollary claims of entitlement to “any means necessary” would nonetheless remain false.

International law always displays variously specific and determinable forms. Accordingly, it cannot be casually invented and reinvented by individual terrorists, terror groups or their state patrons in order to justify selective interests. This is especially true where terror violence intentionally targets a designated victim state’s most fragile and vulnerable civilian populations.

National liberation movements that fail to meet the test of just means are never correctly described as lawful or legitimate. Even if authoritative law were to accept the questionable argument that PA, Hamas and assorted sister groups had fulfilled the accepted criteria of “national liberation,” they could still not satisfy the equally relevant legal standards of discrimination, proportionality, and military necessity. More precisely, these critical standards were applied to insurgent or sub-state organizations by the common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and (additionally) by the two 1977 Protocols to these Conventions.

Standards of “humanity” are also binding upon all combatants by virtue of certain broader customary and conventional international law, including Article 1 of the Preamble to the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907. This rule, commonly called the “Martens Clause,” makes all persons responsible for the “laws of humanity,” and for the associated “dictates of public conscience.”

There is more. Under international law, going back to the “classical” writings of Hugo Grotius and Emmerich de Vattel (legal scholars embraced by the American Founding Fathers in writing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), terrorist crimes always mandate universal cooperation in apprehension and punishment. As punishers of “grave breaches” under international law, all states are expected to search out and prosecute or extradite individual terrorists. In no conceivable circumstances are governments ever permitted to treat terrorist “martyrs” as legitimate “freedom fighters.”

This is emphatically true for the United States, which incorporates international law as the “supreme law of the land” at Article 6 of the Constitution, and which was formed by its Founding Fathers according to timeless principles of Natural Law. Although generally unrecognized, even by US lawyers, core legal authority for the American republic was derived from Blackstone’s Commentaries.

There is more. In law, rights can never stem from wrongs. Even if American or Israeli Jihadist adversaries continue to insist on identifying themselves as “martyrs,” such treatment can have no exculpatory or mitigating effect on subsequent terrorist crimes.

 Ultimately, Jihadist insurgents are in search of the most plainly supreme form of power on earth – power over death. Derivatively, counter-terrorism policy-makers in the United States, Israel, or Europe ought never lose sight of immortality as a prime driver of terrorist crimes. Though not usually apparent or self-evident, it is the incomparable promise of power over death that could soon drive Jihadist operatives to certain “higher-order” or WMD forms of destruction.

At that point, which could become nuclear and/or biological, the key counter-terrorism struggle of “mind over mind” will already have been conclusively and irretrievably lost.

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