For exactly one month now, Islamic State, ISIS, has struggled without its charismatic leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed during a U.S. military operation in a northwest Syrian village of Barisha on October 26, 2019. The main question now is whether it will meaningfully undermine the popularity of the ISIS Takfiri ideology or was this simply the death of a symbolic leader who played only a role in the evolution of Sunni Jihadism?
The month after al-Baghdadi’s death
As subsequent events have shown, the violent ideology of Salafi-Jihadi groups has not undergone significant changes. Moreover, ISIS has used al-Baghdadi’s death to strengthen its position and has appealed to its supporters to continue the apocalyptic battle with polytheists and other enemies. On October 31, 2019, the al-Furqan Media issued a statement of the Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who confirmed the death of the group’s previous leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and prior official spokesman, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir. He also went on to announce the appointment of a certain Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as the new “commander of the believers and caliph of the Muslims.”
An analysis of this statement by ISIS showed that the main engine of contemporary jihadism is not a specific person, even if he was Caliph himself, but the idea about building the new Caliphate, the fight against idolaters and the idea of achieving the rule of Islam throughout the world. The attractive force, which caused thousands upon thousands of Islamists from all over the world to rush to Syria and Iraq, was not the figure of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rather it was the idea of the Islamic Caliphate. It must be recognized that the professional propaganda machine of the Islamic State has skillfully used Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death and eulogized him as a martyr who gave his life for Allah.
Abu Hamza quoted the Qur’an, Surah al-Nisa’, “God the Blessed and Exalted has said: ‘So let those who sell this worldly life for the Hereafter fight in the path of God and whoso fights in the path of God and is killed or overcomes, We will grant him a great reward’ (al-Nisa’ 74).”It is likely that the ISIS spokesman quoted the Surah al-Nisa’ with the aim of qualifying the death of “the mujahid Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (may God Almighty accept him)” as ‘Shaheed’ (Martyr).
To die a Shaheed in the path of Allah in the Islamic faith is one of the greatest honors. The concept of Shaheed constitutes the basis of the militant ideology of the Salafi-Jihadi movement. ISIS statement leads to the logical conclusion that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi fellShaheed on the path of Allah. He was eulogized as a great mujahid, who with the authority of Allah “revived the jihad,”established the Caliphate and the laws of the religion that had been impeded by the “Tawagheet,”(impurity),of the “Arabs and the non-Arabs” and “protected the honor of the Muslims”. He was described as a warrior of Allah who “…was steadfast on his religion, going forth and not turning back in flight, a mujahid against His enemies.”
Then, the new ISIS representative characterized the new Caliph Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as “the knowledgeable, worshipping, working and God-fearing Sheikh,” an indication that he is a connoisseur of the Islamic Fiqh. The statement conveys that he fulfills “…the symbols of the jihad and amir (leader)of war,” who fought against the protector of the Cross-America – and inflicted on it woes upon woes.”
Apart from this short characteristic from the Quraysh’s tribe, to the general public nothing is known about the new Caliph. Analytics and scholars of Islam cannot yet appreciate his ideological views and theological knowledge without his audio or video performances during the Salaat-ul-Jumu’ah. In the midst of this situation, President Trump has tweeted intriguing information, “ISIS has a new leader. We know exactly who he is!”
Abu Hamza claims the decision of the Caliphate’s Shoura Council about the appointment of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as the caliph was taken “after consultation of their brothers and implementing the counsel of the Caliph of the Muslims (may God accept him).” That is, when appointing the new caliph, the testament (wasiyya) of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi himself was also taken into account. The Islamic State’s chief mouthpiece wrote, “O Muslims everywhere, rush to pledge bay‘a to the Amir al-Mu’mineen and gather around him.”
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “Spiritual Gift”isstill strong
As subsequent events showed, the Islamic state skillfully used the “transition period” to expand its harsh ideology of Jihadi-Salafism (al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya). The call for Bay‘a toa new caliph was heard by supporters of the Islamic state around the world. In early November, almost all the wilayah (provinces) of the Islamic state, which are located in different regions of the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caucasus, swore allegiance to Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.Islamic State supporters around the world are publishing their pictures of the bay‘a campaign on the Pro-ISIS Telegram Channels almost daily.Also, the Caliphate’s official weekly Al-Naba widely published the process of Bay‘a in different countries, which means that the group attaches great importance to the process of “legalizing” the new caliph.The bay‘a campaign intended to illustrate the legitimacy and unanimous acceptance of the new leader.
Over the past two years, due to the shrink and loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has chosen the tactics of building and expanding its regional branches, the so-called wilayah. As is well known, for the time being, besides Iraq, ISIS now claims to have wilayah in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Chechnya, Mali, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and Turkey. Also, local Islamists in Bangladesh and Tunisia conduct their terrorist activities under the flag of ISIS and the announcement of the wilayat there is a matter of time. The Bay‘a campaign had given the Islamic State’s wilayahs and underground cells an opportunity to once again assert itself, to update its rigid and hard-line ideology and to launch terrorist attacks in some places.As a sign of revenge for the murder of Baghdadi, ISIS supporters conducted terrorist attacks in Tajikistan, Mozambique, Iraq, Algeria, Syria, Mali, DR Congo, and Nigeria during the month after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death.
The hopes of some ideologists of al Qaeda and its offshoot, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), that the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the anonymity of the new caliph, could undermine the morale of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s supporters in the world and inflict a serious blow on the Islamic State’s prospects did not materialize. It seems one of the al-Qaeda ideologists, prominent Salafi cleric Abdullah al Muhaysini, who called al-Baghdadi’s death “a glorious night in Muslim history” and urged ISIS supporters to join al Qaeda, was deeply disappointed by the rise of a new wave of al-Dawla al-Islamiyya’s(Islamic State) ideology in the world.The Bay‘a campaign has now demonstrated the truth, that the death of Al Baghdadi raised to a new level the long-standing competition between ISIS and al Qaeda, the two main Sunni militant groups, for the soul of Islamists in the world.
The new Caliph was challenged not only by al-Qaeda and HTS but also by internal opponents who left the Islamic State and have now become vocal critics.On November 22019, the al-Wafa’ Media Agency published two essays under the titles “The Pincers Tearing Apart the Illusions of the Caliphate’s Claimants” and “The Collapse of the Fiction” in response to the appointment of al-Hashimi. The authors are Nasih Amin and Ibn Jubayr, who, according to the fellow of the Yale Law School, Cole Bunzel, were former Islamic State scholars.The authors questioned the legitimacy of the appointment of the new Caliph due to his anonymity and they denounced the Islamic State as wayward and illegitimate.They ridiculed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi, calling him, “secluded paper caliph” (al-khalifa al-kartuni al-mutasardab).
Indeed, according to the Hadiths, a future caliph is traditionally expected to meet seven qualifications, including being Muslim, male, free (not a slave), a descendant of Quraysh, just, sound of mind and learned, or capable to rule the Caliphate.Both writers decried the Islamic State’s new leader for the appointment as caliph a one who is “an unknown nobody” (majhul ‘adam).It should be noted that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was also criticized when in 2014 he declared himself a caliph. Then the prominent ideologists of the modern Salafi-Jihadi movement Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini issued written statements against giving bay‘a to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and strongly called on the Mujahideen in Syria to abandon him. Their calls did not, however, stop the wave of Islamists in different parts of the world who swore allegiance to him, accepted the ISIS Takfiri ideology and made Hijrah (migration) to Iraq and Syria. This time, as the post-Baghdadi period showed, cruel criticism and disqualification of al-Hashimi from the point of view of Islamic law, did not stop the flow of the Bay‘a campaign.
What’s the Future of ISIS without Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
The post-Baghdadi time once again demonstrated that the Islamic State has become a franchise organization with allegiance to a set of aims and ideas, rather than to a hierarchical organization centered upon a single charismatic individual.Therefore, optimistic forecasts should not be built that the bloody path of jihad will stop after the death of the Caliph. Judging by the new wave of the Bay‘a campaign, heated disagreement among prominent ideologists of Jihadi-Salafism about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi did not particularly concern the ISIS supporters in the world. Islamic State’s ebbs and flows introduced important new ideas to jihadi ideology, most importantly that the ideas of holy jihad are not founded on men, but on creed. Baghdadi’s death has further strengthened this idea, and future ideologists of Salafi-Jihadism will likely invoke the Islamic State’s background to unite militants around the Jihadi’s creed.
Since losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during the last few months, ISIS is likely to change its tactics and strategy of global jihad. Now, it had already started focusing on building and developing its regional wilayahs and underground cells. Its decentralization tactic might divert efforts from the attacks on the West. This does not mean that the menace of ISIS sleeper cells and lone-wolf terrorist attacks in Europe and America has ended.
Additionally, further strengthening of the ideological struggle between ISIS and al-Qaeda could be expected. Today both groups are approximately in the same starting conditions, which existed in 2012-13.The ideology and objectives of the group are similar. The audience, faith environment and potential supporters of both groups are almost the same. Disputes over the timeline of the Caliphate’s creation, which al-Qaeda considered premature, turned both Salafi-Jihadi groups into sworn enemies. The fierce competition for leadership among the Sunni-Jihadi movements could only lead to further waves of deadly violence in the world. In reality, al Qaeda and its affiliates remain a threat to the U.S. and its allies in Europe, while the Islamic State attacks are aimed at the Middle East and U.S. interests in Caliphate’s wilayahs area.
The ideological legacy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has already become a spiritual tool for Sunni terrorist groups.It will undoubtedly be used to spread the worldview of militant Takfirismand inspire a new generation of jihadists to new attacks. His heritage carries the banner of terror, caliphate, and jihad.His ideology propagates inter-Muslim war, interfaith hatred, and killing of murtads (apostate) and munafiqs(infidel). Al-Baghdadi’s legacy teaches us that ISIS Salafi-Jihadi ideology cannot be defeated with bombs alone.
UN launches new project to address link between terrorism, arms and crime
Cheap and easily accessible small arms are increasingly becoming the “weapon of choice” for many terrorist groups, the UN counter-terrorism chief told an event on Friday aimed to raise awareness of the nexus between terrorism, organized crime and illicit small arms trafficking.
“Insufficient international response in countering the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons, the challenges that Member States face to detect and seize them, as well as porous borders, allow terrorists and criminals to move illicit weapons from one country or region to another,” said Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism.
It is widely acknowledged that the connection between terrorism and organized crime, including illicit small arms and light weapons trafficking, is a serious threat to international peace and security. It is also an obstacle to sustainable development and a menace to the rule of law.
To illustrate the challenges, Mr. Voronkov, who is also Executive Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT),
of the UNOffice of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), revealed estimates indicating that the African continent alone has one hundred million uncontrolled small arms and light weapons concentrated in crises zones and security-challenged environments.
“With an estimated population of 1.2 billion in Africa, this is an unfortunate and significant ratio of one to 12”, he lamented.
Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy
Without a strong international response, terrorists and criminals would easily be able to move illicit weapons from one country or region to another.
The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy underlines the connection between terrorism and the illicit small arms trafficking, conventional ammunitions and explosives, and calls on Member States to strengthen coordination and cooperation to address this challenge.
The UNOCT chief illustrated this through the example that “illicit weapons originating from Libya were finding their way into the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel”.
Since ast year, UNOCT and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) worked closely with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) and UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (ODA) to develop a project enhancing national legislative, strategic and operational capacities to prevent, detect and counter the firearms trafficking and other illegal activities related to terrorism and organized crime in Central Asia.
“The project is also another example of our ‘All-of-UN’ approach to support counter-terrorism efforts of Member States”, concluded Mr. Voronkov.
No country alone
In her video statement, UNODC Executive Director Ghada Fathi Waly affirmed her Office’s “unique approach” to addressing the complex interlinked challenges of terrorism, crime and corruption.
Using a “holistic approach”, Ms. Waly maintained that the project tackles “the full range of obstacles”.
She singled out adequate legal frameworks, strengthening law enforcement and criminal justice capacity, improving data and addressing cooperation gaps, saying that it is “essential to deal effectively with threats that no country can face alone”.
UNODC supports nations in implementing global counter-terrorism instruments, as well as the Firearms Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, through the UNODC Global Firearms Programme.
“I will be eagerly following the project’s advancement and I hope that its outcomes and learnings can inform the international community’s efforts, feeding into the next reviews of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, this year and in 2022”, concluded the UNODC chief.
Preventing terrorists’ access
Meanwhile, CTED Deputy Executive Director Weixiong Chen pointed out that the new initiative is “one of the important requirements of several relevant Security Council resolutions”.
Citing five resolutions, he noted that “the Council has repeatedly stressed the importance to prevent terrorist access to weapons”.
Mr. Chen noted that the most recent resolution, 2317, brought a comprehensive new set of topics and domains, saying that they have strengthened CTED’s mandate, particularly through its “assessments, analyses and identification of gaps”.
The CTED chief underscored the importance of Member States’ will to implement Security Council resolutions on preventing illicit small arms and light weapons trafficking and concluded by sharing his hope “that OCT and UNODC will be able to fully utilize CTED’s expertise and recommendations in this field”.
The launch also introduced the new project’s activities, including missions to assess regional situations, relevant legislation and response capacities to the threat posed by firearms trafficking, terrorism and related crimes.
Escaping IS: What Exiting an Armed Group Actually Takes
Authors: Dr Siobhan O’Neil and Dr Mara Revkin*
Although Islamic State’s territorial control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria came to an end in 2017, civilians, and particularly children, in these areas are still living with the long-term consequences of the group’s violence and exploitation. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, this includes thousands of children abducted by Islamic State (IS) who remain unaccounted for today and thousands of children who cannot move on from conflict because they are viewed as threats and won’t be allowed to reintegrate back into society.
Last week, International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers was marked around the world to reflect on the policies and programmes that are most likely to protect rights, promote accountability, and enhance security of young people in armed conflict. In doing so, it is clear that many of the current approaches to those once associated with armed groups do not always strike the right balance. Children’s rights and best interests risk being trumped by short-sighted security considerations, which may ultimately put us all at greater risk.
One such child is “Amr”* – a juvenile detainee at a reformatory in Kurdish Iraq – who we met while undertaking research examining the recruitment and use of children by armed groups. After dropping out of elementary school at the age of 12, Amr worked at a steel factory. One year later, he would become employed as a cook by IS.
Amr was an unlikely recruit. For one, the group had murdered his father. But Amr needed the job in the IS kitchen. It paid better than the steel factory, and he was now responsible for helping support his mother and six siblings, so he felt that he had little choice. A few months after he started to work for IS, Amr was recruited by a family member to spy on the group for a state-sponsored militia. After he was caught taking photographs, Amr was thrown into an IS prison. He eventually managed to escape, only to be caught by security forces and imprisoned again for the crime of having joined a terrorist group.
In many ways, Amr’s story exemplifies the complexity of association with armed groups today. It is often assumed that anyone who becomes involved with such groups must have been brainwashed or be driven by deep-seated ideologically-motivated hate. Yet, involvement with armed groups – even those deemed “violent extremist” like IS or Boko Haram – is never as simple as this conventional narrative, nor is exiting their grasp.
For many like Amr, ideology played no role in motivating or facilitating his involvement with IS or the anti-IS militia. Indeed, our previous research in conflict areas found that young people associating with armed groups are usually influenced by a multitude of interrelated structural, social, individual, and historical factors, of which ideology was rarely the driving determinant. Rather, physical and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion, and the pursuit of status and identity were more central for explaining the involvement of many young people with armed groups.
In many countries there is little differentiation made in how or why individuals were associated with such groups. As documented in related research, the use of indiscriminate “iron fist” approaches means that tens of thousands of people – not just those associated with military functions, but also tax-payers, cleaners or cooks like Amr – have been detained on terrorism charges, with thousands believed to have been sentenced to death. Thousands of children languishing in Syria have been barred or discouraged from returning to their home countries, despite the fact that many had no choice in living under IS. This sort of collective punishment could further encourage cycles of violence. We must find ways out for the vast majority of individuals who are associated with armed groups but who do not pose a risk to society.
To create a safer future, and to avoid denying one to the children who have lived under or been associated with armed groups, we need to better understand their experiences and needs for transitioning to a life oriented away from conflict. We need to rethink our assumptions about armed group association and neutrality in conflict, engage children and youth as partners in their own recovery, and support them in the long-term exit process from armed groups. Only then will young people like Amr have a real chance to escape the pull of violent conflict and give back as productive members of their communities.
* Name has been changed for safety reasons.
*Dr Mara Revkin was the lead researcher on the Syria and Iraq case study featured in Cradled by Conflict and the Iraq case study for The Limits of Punishment: Transitional Justice and Violent Extremism. She is a National Security Law Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Foreign fighters: ‘One of the most serious dimensions’ in global counter-terrorism struggle
Over the past few years, ISIL and Al-Qaida terrorist fighters have posed an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, the UN counter-terrorism chief said on Wednesday in Vienna, at the close of a joint UN- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regional conference on addressing challenges posed by terrorists who have gone to fight overseas.
Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, recalled that last week he presented to the Security Council the Secretary-General’s report on the continuing threat posed by ISIL.
“ISIL is resurgent as a covert network in Iraq and Syria”, he said. “Thousands of foreign terrorist fighters remain at large, posing a threat to Iraq, Syria, and the countries they might return or relocate to”.
Mr. Voronkov stressed that all sessions of the conference underlined the need to further strengthen international, regional and bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation – with many participants highlighting the centrality of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
He highlighted that the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) for implementing the Strategy in Central Asia “could serve as a model for collaboration in other regions”.
“We are also working closely with the Arab Interior Ministers Council to strengthen Arab countries’ measures to effectively counter terrorism”, using JPOA as a model, he said.
According to the Counter-Terrorism chief, participants stressed the urgent need for gender and age-sensitive programmes to assist children linked with terrorist groups.
As thousands of children remain trapped in Syria and Iraq, facing a multitude of challenges, including rejection and life-long stigmatization, Mr. Voronkov stressed that Member States have “the primary responsibility to address the plight of their nationals, including children trapped in conflict zones”.
“Children should always be seen as victims and efforts to address their plight should be based on the best interest of the child”, he spelled out.
Disrupt terrorist travels
The need to prevent, detect and disrupt the travel of foreign terrorist fighters, in accordance with international law, was front and centre during discussions as well, drawing attention to the importance of enhancing Member States’ capacities to do so.
“Both the OSCE and the UN are helping countries adopt and use Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data systems”, he informed those gathered, calling the UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme “a flagship demonstration” of how the UN system, together with international policing organization INTERPOL and others, are “working as one” to provide tailored, impactful assistance to Member States.
Noting that “the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is one of the most serious dimensions of the terrorist threat”, Mr. Voronkov concluded by urging Member States to continue working together, through the UN and other platforms, “not only to protect people on their own territory, but extend solidarity and assistance beyond their borders”.
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