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Transnational Strategies of ISIS Post Baghdadi

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From being proclaimed dead on multiple occasions to the actual confirmation of his death by the Islamic State, the life of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been shrouded in mystery in both life and death. Rising from extremely ordinary ranks, the self proclaimed caliph had made immense progress in causing a wave of violence and threatening the security of superpowers like the US for a while now. However this all changed as Donald Trump announced the success of a US raid conducted in northwest Syria on the 26th of October, 2019. This announcement soon raised questions on the future of the Islamic State and the announcement of the new Caliph.

Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, parted ways from Al-Qaeda in 2013 and declared a Caliphate and himself as the Caliph. His main aim being, to consolidate the Muslims around the world in the name of Islam and form an Islamic State. Baghdadi, who had been particularly careful about making public appearances was seen in the pulpit of a mosque in Mosul on July 5, 2014. In a 21 minute long video which was made public, Baghdadi is seen speaking in Arabic and states that “the establishment of a Caliphate is an obligation.” However, he also claims his righteousness by saying that “I am not better than you or more virtuous than you,”. He further adds, “If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God.”

These appealing sermons of Baghdadi, showcase only a part of his personality. ISIS under his rule has been infamous for subscribing to violence  and is considered one of the most brutal in the world. The confirmation of his death along with the death of the potential future heir, was made public by ISIS via an audio tape on 31st of October. The audio release was made by the organization’s central media arm , al-Furqan Foundation. Moreover the announcement was made by a new spokesperson who identified himself as Abu Hamza al-Qureshi, and warned the US government against rejoicing over this victory. The proclamation of the new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi was also made along with the news of the death of a previous spokesman of the organization Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. These corroborations on part of the organization has raised questions about the dwindling future of the so called Islamic State.

Implications of the loss of a leader

Financial struggles

So far ISIS, has enjoyed an estimate of 800 million dollars of annual income from multiple sources. Majority of its income was a result of extortion and exploitation of people living under their rule. The rest came from illegal oil trade, kidnappings, and lootings. A great portion of the funds was also facilitated by foreign donors and illicit activities on the dark web. However, after the considerable loss of territory  due to a series of US raids carried out in Syria and Iraq, a sizeable amount of damage has been done to the institution’s economy. In spite of losing 98% of its territory ISIS still seems pretty confident with its financial reserves. Till the time the organization gets hold of its previous territories it would be largely dependent on its foreign donors and illegal trafficking networks. Foreign donors, usually use the hawala system to transfer money into the ISIS bank account. In light of ISIS’s present circumstances, and bearing in mind the rising number of sympathizers, these kind of  commiserate funding are probably to rise.

 A New leader

Until Baghdadi’s reign, he was the sole authoritative figurehead of the organization. Even though he was aided by a Shura (consultative) council, the appointment process of the council was usually his doing. This made him an unchecked figurehead who was in charge of sanctioning any kind of decision. Close associates of the organization were directed by him, however his command on overseas affiliates remains unclear. The death of Baghdadi has clearly created a major power vacuum in the administration of the system. The Shura council, even though the second most powerful entity, still was largely dependent on its leader for any decision- making process. It would be especially rare if the organization is able to find a leader as influential as Baghdadi. In the absence of which, internal skirmishes for assimilating power is absolutely possible. Barely any information is available about, the new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi, except that he traces his lineage to one of the primary tribes of prophet Muhammad. This however is not enough to determine one’s headship qualities, and taking into account, ISIS’s dire straits, it is desperately in need of a capable commander.

Increased social media influence

As a relatively new terrorist organization, that took roots in 2006, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has not been unaware of the influence of social media and cyberspace. Social media has been exploited to a great extent and has been a great aid in propagating the Jihadist ideology. However, after the death of its leader probabilities of ISIS making an extensive appearance on social media sites have increased. The organization makes use of a psycho-cyber approach that has two advantages- reaching a larger audience and manipulating minds in a lucrative way.

Ever since the news of Baghdadi’s death was made public, the internet has experienced a mixed reaction to the situation. As many were busy applauding the US government for taking such a bold step against terrorism, there were many others who swore their allegiance to Jihad. Pro-ISIS ideology has also surged, especially on social media sites such as Telegram (one of the primary sites used by ISIS). With the loss of a Caliph, posts swelling with sentiments have come forward, that vow to keep fighting in the name of Jihad, irrespective of a Caliph.

Apart from the crafty use of cyberspace, ISIS has also made use of language as a medium of publicity. Dabiq the English magazine that is published by the organization aims at making the Jihadi ideology open to all. The use of Arabic in the posts, tweets and other such documents creates the effect of being closer to the agenda and the teachings of Quran. Videos released by the organization too feature in multiple languages thereby radicalizing a larger group.

Ever since Baghdadi’s death, there have been more than a thousand tweets and retweets on pro-ISIS ideas on Twitter. Even though Twitter has worked tirelessly to take down these accounts, there are always a few that spring back up. The best way to garner more support and appear in most pages is by using hashtags. ISIS has exploited this possibility too and posts pictures with multiple hashtags so as to increase their visibility in the cyber domain.

ISIS’s social media strategy includes- recruiting sympathizers, subverting its opponents, reaching a larger audience, influencing the public with their propaganda. After the loss of its leader, ISIS is making use of the internet to the best of its abilities to keep its supporters united as well as enlist more individuals to the cause, in order to make an impactful comeback.

Retaliatory attacks

The terror of Islamic State does not simply end with the death of Baghdadi. Nations worldwide have feared being attacked by the institution and have also openly shared their concerns regarding the matter. The United States and the EU (European Union), both have increased vigilance in their security forces, fearing retaliation from the organization.

However, in order to form a structured revenge plan, the ISIS needs to have sufficient means to do so. After the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, the followers of the group have been  scattered along the region. Not to mention having a considerable amount of supporters from Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan. Yet, the lack of a consolidated leadership limits the chances of a large scale attack. Speculations about lone wolf attacks have been made, however none of such cases have been reported so far.

The simple aim of organizing such an attack can however lead to a greater solidarity among its supporters. Collusions among lone wolves or individual entities and local terrorist organizations  are most likely to occur, yet the extent of a major retaliation would require a lot of time. Resources and funding are also areas to look into, and given the current weak stance of the Islamic State, seeking vengeance is still a long way to go.

However, ISIS is a determined group and most likely will rise again. The loss of territory along with the loss of its most influential leaders has tarnished its reputation. Meaning that in the long run, the organization would definitely want to rebuild its empire, the question is how?

Regaining lost glory- in search of the new Caliphate

Ever since its inception, Iraq and Syria have been the main strongholds for ISIS. This was primarily due to the fact that ISIS rose as a segment of Al-Qaeda which was established in the region. After Baghdadi’s revolt against the functioning’s of Al-Qaeda he founded his Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi who was an Iraqi national himself was well informed about the region and had good knowledge of the local affiliates who would be willing to join him.  The political turmoil in the region, also served in providing the organization with a conducive environment to grow. Hence, Iraq and Syria became one of the most prized locations for the organization. However, this all changed as the Caliphate kept losing its territory at the hands of multiple entities. Even today, the US Homeland Security Forces are keeping the sleeper cells of the organization on a run. This however doesn’t answer the question to the recent power vacuum that has been created in the region as well as in the organization and in all likelihood, the organization will venture out to seek better avenues.

Southeast Asia

After the announcement of Baghdadi’s death, European nations were not the only ones to express their concerns about the possibility of retaliatory attacks. Officials from Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have also been perturbed by the returning of attackers, given the dominant presence of ISIS in the region. Over the past few years Southeast Asian authorities have seen a rise in the number of individuals who choose to migrate to Iraq and Syria in order to fight for the organization. The region is constantly threatened by the increasing influence of the group and the escalating numbers of sympathizers it has managed to gain over a short period of time. Thus making it highly incorrect to limit the identity of the Islamic State to Iraq and Syria alone.

ISIS as an organization, currently faces a power vacuum in its system. This can only result in the formation of new affiliates in the region or an increasing probability of a brand new terrorist organization taking form from the  remaining shambles of ISIS. The death of Baghdadi would hence be used as a tactical measure to gain more supporters in the region as well as to create a wave of radicalization in Southeast Asia. However, there are multiple challenges that the organization itself needs to address before starting to rebuild its empire.

The nations in the pacific that are highly affected by ISIS are namely- Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia. The paper shall take a brief look at the recent terrorist activities in each of the countries and speculate on the possibilities of an emerging Islamic State.

Malaysia

In 2016, the nation experienced one of its first terrorist attacks caused by the ISIS. According to reports it was the first successful attack that the organization had managed to conduct in the country. A grenade attack was carried out in a nightclub, located in Puchong in Selangor state. Eight Malaysians and one  Chinese were injured. Irrespective of the magnitude of the attack, the authorities nabbed two Malaysians who were affiliated with the Islamic State.

This is not the only case of radicalization that has been experienced in the nation. In July of 2019, the Counter Terrorism division of Malaysia allegedly caught hold of – 12 Indonesians, 3 Malaysians and one Indian on charges of plotting attacks against unnamed politicians and non- Muslims. On interrogation , the accused were found guilty of spreading the Salfi Jihadist teachings and recruiting members for the ISIS, through social media. As per interrogation reports, the suspects were aged between 22 and 36 and were heavily involved in enlisting new members for the Islamic State from Indonesia and Malaysia, and also planned on launching attacks after the recruitment procedure was completed. They have also been associated in channeling funds for the Maute terrorist group based in the Philippines.

If one were to simply take a look at the Movida club attacks, one would realize how the roots of terror have slowly penetrated into the fabric of Malaysian society.  Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi, was a Malaysian national moved to Syria in order to join the ISIS. Since then he has been listed as one of the top recruiters and handles nearly all social media sites in the region. He was in charge of setting up nearly 100 WhatsApp groups which were all managed by Syrian social media hackers. The participants of these WhatsApp groups were usually college and university students from across the nation. Muhammad Wanndy who was responsible for setting up numerous sleeper cells in Malaysia, passed away in 2017 in a drone attack in Syria. One of the cells being the ‘Black Crow’ or Gagak Hitam. This was a well networked group that consisted of citizens from all walks of life, who secretly took orders from Wanndy. The Black Crow was simply an example of one of the many sleeper cells in the area, that continuously conspired against the government.

Apart from the presence of underground cells, terrorist organizations such as the Katibah Nusantara (Islamic State’s Malay Archipelago Combat Unit) have been pretty active in the region. In spite of being active even before the formation of the Islamic State, the group pledged its allegiance to ISIS in 2013. Since then it has utilized the Malay speaking population as an asset to promulgate their agenda. By using language as a medium, the group has successfully managed to create a better solidarity among members as well as found ways to enlist new comrades on similar grounds. One of the other benefits of encouraging Malay as a language of communication, is to reach a larger sects of Malaysian and Indonesian Sunni Muslims. Releasing videos and articles in the native language only makes its impact on the cyberspace stronger.

Katibah Nusantara is not the only organization that sympathizes with the cause of the Islamic State. The seeds of the notions encouraging the Islamic State had been long implanted in Malaysia by one of the most notorious terrorist organizations in the region KMM (Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia). If one were to take a look at the ideological formulations of both KMM and the ISIS, one could easily recognize the similarities. Both the institutions vouch for transnational terrorism and aim at forming a global Islamic State. With the promotion of such  identical objectives KMM could be called as the precursor of ISIS in the region. With the recent demise of Baghdadi, these sentiments are only being fueled as more and more recruits willingly sympathize with the cause.

Malaysia which enjoys a prime location in the Pacific, has to be extensively careful regarding its maritime security, in light of the rising terror groups. In the recent past, Malaysia has been accused of smuggling in illegal weapons. However, officials have denied any such claims.

Malaysia, along with its neighboring nations Indonesia and Philippines appears to be the perfect breeding ground for terrorist activities. With 61.3% of the population being predominantly Muslim, it is easy to influence the public with radical ideas in the name of jihad. A majority of the pro-ISIS sympathizers, willingly went to Iraq and Syria to become a part of the larger jihadi movement. However after the destruction of the caliphate, the returnees from the Middle East pose a greater threat to the national security, as they serve as a catalyst to instigate more extremist propaganda in the region.

Indonesia

In 2013, when ISIS split from Al-Qaeda, terrorist organizations worldwide were forced to pick sides. Especially the ones based in Southeast Asia. One of such groups that pledged its loyalty to ISIS was Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) An organization that has been wrecking havoc in the region by inspiring families to participate in suicide bombings, across the nation. One of such cases occurred a year ago in Surabaya when a family of six carried out a deadly suicide bomb attack in a church. What appeared to be a simple countryside family, was actually being radicalized by joint group for Islamic studies on a weekly basis. According to investigators, there were multiple families that met every Sunday to preach about Islam and in turn presented extremist views on the subject. The family which included a daughter of nine, were held responsible for carrying out the attack in a church, which injured many. A total of three such families were held accountable, and in all probability one of the families had recently returned from Syria. A similar attack took place at a police headquarters, in the same region. The attack was carried out by a family of five.

All these families bear their allegiance or have been impacted by the teachings of  Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), the organization too confirms its strategy of radicalizing families in the name of jihad. However, JAD is as recent as ISIS. Both the organizations were formed around the same time and ever since then JAD has looked up to ISIS for training and financial aid. JAD is composed of nearly two dozen extremist groups that pledge its allegiance to ISIS. However, there have been disputes among two Indonesian ISIL militants based in Syria namely – Bahrumsyah, aka Abu Ibrahim [Abu Jandal] and Bahrun Naim regarding the control over the pacific rim. As per intelligence sources Bahrumsyah has been made in charge of Katibah Nusantara, which is operational from Malaysia. Whereas Bahrun Naim had taken charge of JAD. Bahrun Naim, himself had an extremely impressive background. From being a student of informatics engineering to being in charge of one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations. He is the mastermind who introduced bitcoin technology and the basics of artificial intelligence to ISIS. However, after his death in 2018 in a US air strike, the leadership of JAD has been under Aman Abdurrahman, who is currently in Indonesian custody, yet remains influential.

Apart from JAD, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) is also equally powerful in radicalizing entities and promoting lone wolf attacks in the region. Both these organizations work hand in hand and also enjoy the support of well networked group of terrorist organizations from the neighboring countries of Malaysia and the Philippines.

Indonesia has a 99% Sunni Muslim population. The remaining minorities are under constant threat from these extremist entities that usually attack government properties and  Christian or western places of importance within the nation. Over the past 5 years, Indonesia has experienced a surge in terrorist activities as more of its youth is being radicalized by the use of social media. The arsonist masterminds, very intelligently hack into the social media networks that eventually do the damage. The local madrasas, or Islamic study centers are considered to be breeding grounds for  such extremism. In the Surabaya case which was mentioned above, families as a unit are being used as agents of terror. This includes using women and children alike. In 2017, a women was sentenced to seven and a half years of prison, after having plotted to carry out a suicide bombing outside the presidential palace. It was the first time that a woman had been arrested for such a crime.

One of the most damaging ways in which the organization has chosen to break the structure of Indonesia is by attacking the governments. In May 2019, right before the declaration of the presidential election, the police forces nabbed eight ISIS inspired militants who planned to stage a suicide bomb attack, during the announcement of the results. Most of these members have been migrants from Syria and Iraq, who were inspired by the idea of fighting for their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. However, with the downfall of the Caliphate and the loss of their most prominent leader, in all likelihood, they will be equally inspired to create a new Islamic state in their very homeland.

Philippines

It would be foolish to consider that the mission of Islamic State to conquer land is only limited to Iraq and Syria. In 2017, the city of Marawi experienced something similar to what the people in Mosul would have experienced under the ISIS. The siege of Marawi is one of the best examples of the increasing power of terrorist organizations in the Philippines. In a duration of a 5 month long siege, which resulted in the loss of lives as well as property the city was completely left in ruins. The massive destruction was the work on two highly active terrorist organizations of the region – Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, both of which have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. The ruined walls of the remaining buildings were covered with paintings and marks that read- “I love ISIS”.

As the city and the people still recover, the terrorist groups do not seem to rest. Two years after the incident, a case of suicide bomb attack rises up in January of 2019. A Roman Catholic Cathedral in Jolo, Mindanao island suffered two explosions after a couple of  suicide bombers unleashed the attack. This time the militants were affiliated with Abu Sayyaf group. Soon after the attack, an illustration was made public. In which the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte was seen kneeling down on a pile of skulls while a militant held a knife at his neck, this picture was captioned- “The fighting has just begun”. As if the horrors of bombings and large scale destruction weren’t enough, the group is also psychologically affecting the public’s notions of safety. The illustration made the general citizens question their security at the hands of the state, a tactic used to sow seeds of suspicion in order to breakdown the government.

Considering all the recent attacks, the name of one terrorist group repeatedly resurfaces- Abu Sayyaf group (ASG). However, this organization is not the only culprit. Other terrorist groups such as the Maute group are also equally to blame. But these groups used to be a part of a larger organization called the MNLF ( Moro National Liberation Front ), that used to be closely associated with Al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). After being exceptionally active in the 1990’s and the 2000’s, the group eventually fizzled out due to internal disputes. Its last known attack was reported to be in 2017, ever since which it has remained relatively dormant. The group used a form of collective leadership and vouches for the formation of a separate Muslim nation or state called as the Bangsamoro, as the group is presided over by the Moro community. Moros are followers of Islam, yet some of their practices differ from the other religious sects, hence making them a separate ethnic group. It wasn’t clear wheatear MNLF agreed with the ideologies of ISIS. The group had also changed its name to MILF (MoroIslamic liberation front) and had ties with other terror groups in the region. Both MNLF and MILF were primarily located in the island of Mindanao in southern Philippines.

The other terror groups include Abu Sayyaf group (ASG), which is notorious for carrying out kidnappings in the area. Yet in the recent past. The group has advanced enough to carry out suicide bombings and attacks in the island of Mindanao. ASG lost one of its most prominent leaders Isnilon Hapilon, during the siege of Marawi. Isnilon Hapilon began his occupation as a jihadi terrorist under MNLF. Later on he aided in forming the ASG which predominantly consisted of tausug filipo Muslims, unlike the moros. He was one of the first in 2014 to pledge his alligence to al-Baghdadi, and eventually rose in the ranks to manage the jihadist movements in the pacific rim. After the death of Hapilon, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan has taken over the command. However, due to some differences within the group, ASG has two separate factions- one of which is based in Jolo and the other in Basilan. The faction in Basilan has pledged its allegiance to ISIS, but the one in Jolo has yet to make any definitive statement. This makes the linking of the attacks to either of the ASG groups a tough task.

Along with ASG, the other crucial terrorist group that works in the same area is the Maute group. The group has rather disillusioned beginnings, and it is unclear as to what triggered the radicalization among its key founders, yet the Mautes played an essential role in the Marawi siege. The group’s key founders – Omar and Abdullah Maute belonged to influential and well- off families in the town of Buting. During its initial stages they closely worked with the MILF, but soon disbanded and started to associate themselves with other groups in the region, one of them being the ASG. In May of 2017, Mautes took over Marawi and started their bloody regime, executing and looting people. The masterminds of the Marawi siege were Omar and Abdullah Maute, who were allegedly killed during the five month long blockade. However, there have been speculations that the prime person behind the scenes is Farhana Maute, which makes sense as the Mautes belong to a matriarchal tribe. Ever since the Marawi siege, the Mautes have been working closely with the ASG. Both the groups are notorious for kidnapping foreign nationals, mostly Indonesians and holding them for ransom.

The terrorist groups in Philippines were divided on the lines of ethnicity at the start of the decade. However, with the split of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, most organizations in the region have come together in the name of Islam, with a common goal of setting up their own caliphate. As the nation is chiefly Roman Catholic, the 5.6% of the Muslim in the region consider the government to be biased towards Christians. This instigates the terrorist groups furthermore as they repeatedly attempt to take down the “Christian” governance. The main concentration of the Muslim population lies in southern Philippines, which is geographically closer to the archipelagos of Indonesia. This close proximity of the nations and the heavy transnational involvement of terrorist groups in the region pose a major security threat.

Southeast Asia the next Caliphate?

As the command of the Caliphate dwindles in the Middle East, there can be seen a Suring sympathy in Southeast Asia. Currently ISIS exists in the form of sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria, that to face a hard time due to the counter terrorism measures taken by the government of the region. However, a Caliphate is not legitimized without a territory, the one that the organization has recently lost. Keeping in mind the siege of Marawi in Philippines , the possibility of a new Caliphate arising in southeast Asia cannot be denied. The primary nations that have been associated with the functioning of the Islamic State are Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Recent cases have also highlighted the rising numbers of Singaporean civilians who are being inspired by the same cause. Its is vital to keep in mind that these nations are an accumulation of archipelagoes that can be easily captured. If the current terrorist factions in the region were to unite and capture even one of these islands, a new Caliphate could be easily established. Given its prime location in the Pacific, the area receives the maximum traffic in terms of trade. Disrupting healthy trade between nations, in order to serve as a means of income for the organization through piracy and abduction is possible. If in all probability one of the islands in the region were to be the next Caliphate, then weapons supply would become a cheaper alternative for the Islamic State, as well as receiving FTFs (foreign terrorist fighters) via the sea route.

However, capturing an island and declaring it as the Islamic State is not enough. Precautionary measures are to be kept in mind. An island is a small piece of land. In such a case, a mere annihilation of an island would mean the end of the Islamic State. This move would then only work in favor of global peace.

However, the chances of such a scenario manifesting would require to many factors to be taken into consideration. One of them being the assimilation of all the terror groups and lone wolves  in the region and creating a strong leadership which is capable of doing so. Within a week of al-Baghdadi’s death, the organization announced its next leader- Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi. As is custom, the caliph should belong to one of the families that were close to Prophet Mohamed. Little is known about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qureshi, and little is known about his leadership qualities. So far, it hasn’t been established whether he is a namesake or an actual figurehead with powers of governance. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that there could be internal power struggles within the ISIS. In such a case, the probability of a competent leadership that consolidates the southeast Asian groups seems bleak.

But in such dire straits, would ISIS be joined by its old friend al-Qaeda? In all probability no. Both al-queada and ISIS currently face a power vacuum in their structure. However, in no way would al-Qaeda be willing to join ISIS. Post the announcement of Baghdadi’s death, it was reported that al-Qaeda celebrated the event. According to sources, the loss of such a wanted terrorists was no loss to them at all. Not to mention that the statement made by Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 16 minute long video that was posted post the split of both the organizations, clearly emphasized that Baghdadi was no longer welcome. The dislike towards Baghdadi has still been maintained and is often reflected in the hostility that the splinter groups maintain towards each other. In contrast, this does not lessen the probability of a brand new terrorist organization emerging in southeast Asia. The terrorist groups that used to work on the lines of differences and for separate causes, have now been acting under a single banner of the Islamic State. If such a thing were to occur, the effects would be equally disastrous.

Conclusion

Witnessing the sway that the IS has over its Southeast Asian counterparts, it would be incorrect to limit the location of the Islamic state simply to Iraq and Syria. Speculating on the possibility of a new Caliphate in Philippines, Malaysian and Indonesia does not seem far from reality. In light of the recent events, there has been a sizeable growth in the number of sympathizers of the IS. The Islamic State too, will not leave no stone unturned to regain its lost glory. This includes exploiting social media posts and financing and inspiring lone wolf attacks throughout the region. When even civilians are being radicalized and used as mediums of terror, it becomes tricky for the counter- terrorism forces to deal with them. Transnational terrorism has become a real thing and the threat is real. The question is how and who puts an end to it?

Research Analyst at Centre for Security Studies at O.P Jindal Global University, India.

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Hybrid Warfare Against Pakistan: Challenges and Response

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The term ‘hybrid warfare’ entered the strategic lexicon in the early 21st century despite having been practiced in various forms for a long time. It is defined as a blend of both kinetic and non-kinetic options to offset conventional power dynamics.  Hybrid warfare includes extensive use of tools like spreading disinformation, propaganda, economic coercion, backing proxy militia and cyber-attacks to achieve strategic objectives. In modern times, owing to the exponentially high cost of men and material used in traditional warfare, not only the great powers but various middle powers engage in hybrid warfare in order to destabilize, demoralize and disintegrate their core adversaries.

The advancement in technology over the 21st century encourages the blending of the different modes of warfare making hybrid warfare a practical option for meeting political objectives. The aspects of ambiguity and deniability that accompany hybrid warfare, make it an attractive option for states to exercise subtle power – they do not have to fear attribution and retribution. Hybrid warfare has become more popular because of the issue pertaining to major wars. The arrival of nuclear weapons in the 20th century even to India and Pakistan, and the different major wars have made conventional warfare much riskier. The consequences of the major wars have led to a transformation in how these wars are viewed. States that want to exert their influence have found other means to do so. There is an on-going debate in the UN about the serious consequences of the internet that can be constituted as acts of war. Its warfare without any direct violence.

Pakistan’s arch enemy, India, has constantly been waging hybrid warfare against Pakistan since partition but it has been recently expedited with increased funding, training of a separatist militia, through economic subversion by politicizing international bodies such as FATF and carrying out diplomatic sabotage in the form of disinformation campaigns disclosure by EU Disinfo Lab. Though the decision was motivated by the political objective of placing Pakistan on the grey list, India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan jeopardizes South Asia’s stability.

India’s main objective when it comes to hybrid warfare against Pakistan is it to keep Pakistan politically and economically unstable. This helps achieve certain other goals like preventing the rise of Pakistan’s power in Kashmir and pressuring Pakistan to settle on India’s terms in issues like Siachen and Sir Creek. India has tried to employ numerous tools to wage this warfare against Pakistan at the different levels.

India is trying to build a narrative, especially among Indian Muslims and Kashmiris that Pakistan is a failed or failing state and the partition of the Indian sub-continent was huge mistake. They are also generating the idea that the Indian Muslims are far superior to the Pakistanis and even the Bangladeshis. The hybrid warfare against Pakistan also has its internal dynamics, as it is very much part and parcel of India’s domestic politics particularly around elections. Even the Hindutva intoxicated BJP came to power by employing this strategy. India has also given rise to the narrative that she always tried to build good relations but the Pakistani military does not let the relations normalize. Also, it is the Pakistan Army, which is not allowing a solution to the Kashmir dispute because when Pakistan and India were engaged in backchannel diplomacy to work out a solution on the basis of President Musharraf’s four-point formula, it was the Pakistan Army which conducted, supported and funded the Mumbai attack of 2008. Thus, the Pakistan Army is portrayed as a major problem when it comes to Pakistan. It is also being projected that Pakistan’s defense expenditure is illogical as it needs to invest more in its development rather than the armed forces to defend itself against India. India is also exploiting the fault lines of Pakistan – Baluchistan and CPEC. Pakistan is also blamed for not allowing regional peace and integration. India links Pakistan to the Taliban at international level. Certainly, India’s main aim is to weaken the social contract of Pakistan by creating restlessness, divisions and instability within the country.

Pakistan needs a well calibrated strategy in how to counter India’s move at every platform. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to understand the nature of hybrid warfare while concentrating on Pakistan’s social and political harmony. More importantly, we need to realize the potential of CPEC. There must be good governance based on deliverance to overcome the vulnerabilities. There is no denying the fact that this is an era of multilateralism, but multilateral approach works well when there are healthy bilateral relations. While it is good to host conferences and seminars, there is a need for more practical action. We live in world were information spreads quickly. Hence, we need a counternarrative to India’s narrative of ‘talks and terrorism cannot go side by side’ but unfortunately Pakistan always acts in an apologetic manner. The media can potentially be the face of any state but in the case of Pakistan, the media does not care and there is no policy-based discussion between the media and the government. Also, Pakistan does not have enough English news channels to portray the positive image of Pakistan. Furthermore, every part of Pakistani society including the media, the civil society and academia should collectively respond to India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan. For all of this to be successful, Pakistan’s immune system must be protected through socio-political harmony and improved governance. Last but not the least, India may not be able to sustain its economic lure for long, therefore, India must stop this hybrid warfare against Pakistan, and resume diplomatic activities for stability and prosperity of the region.

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How Putin’s Russia is Exploiting Jihadists Against pro-Navalny Protesters?

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Who is Putin’s terrorist: Navalny or Jihadist?

Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin is considering using old tactics to stem the growing wave of nationwide protests in support of his fiercest critic, popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This tactic was developed in the late 90s by the KGB ideologists and successfully applied in order to bring to power Vladimir Putin, who is ruling the country with an iron hand longer than all his Soviet predecessors except Joseph Stalin. The tactical skills of the Putin’s policy architects were aiming to frighten Russian citizens by Islamist terrorism and Chechen separatism and unite patriotic and nationalist forces around a new leader capable of challenging the West.

Thus, when the nationwide protests in support of Navalny from Yakutia to Kaliningrad became the most serious challenge, the Kremlin began to trumpet the threat of Islamist extremists and international terrorists. This time, the Putin regime is intimidating protesters with impending terrorist attacks of Central Asian and Caucasian jihadists and their Syrian parent organization, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

On the eve of the next nationwide protests on February 14, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russia warned of the inadmissibility of calls to participate in an unsanctioned rally. Russian state news agencies RIA Novosti and TASS have disseminated information that the most powerful Sunni militant faction of HTS in northern Syria is preparing a series of lone-wolf attacks during the upcoming mass street protests of Navalny’s supporters in various Russian cities. In doing so, however, the pro-Kremlin media cited its undisclosed law enforcement sources and ultimately spread merely conspiracy theories.

According to anonymous sources of Russian security services, HTS-backed Uzbek Jihadi battalion Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad(KTJ), Chechen militant groups Ajnad al-Kavkaz (AK) and Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA) are planning to carry out explosions and attack protesters. To achieve these purposes, terrorist groups allegedly recruited Russian citizens and Central Asian migrants, who expect their leaders’ commands.

pro-Navalny protesters

The Putin regime faced the most serious challenge when anti-government protests took place across the Russia in support Navalny in recent weeks. As is known, in mid-January, Navalny returned to the country after recovering from a chemical Novichok poisoning that nearly took his life and was immediately detained and later jailed for alleged parole violations. The robust Putin regime first demonstrated its grave alarm when tens of thousands pro-Navalny protesters demanded his resignation in more than 100 cities and towns, chanting Putin as a ‘thief’. Police detained more than 11,000 people at what they say were unsanctioned protests that the Moscow condemned as illegal and dangerous.

Alexei Navalny’s political creativity and tactical skill inspired Russian liberal youth weary with the corruption-plagued political order presided over by Putin. Fierce clashes between protesters and riot police during the mass rallies indicate that a new generation is not afraid of arrests and the repressive state machine. And to stop the pace of marathon confrontation with the opposition, Putin resorted to his long-standing KGB tactics, intimidating society with possible terrorist attacks and explosions by Islamists.

Will Uzbek and Chechen Jihadists hit pro-Navalny Protesters?

But the fact is, it’s not the first time Putin’s Russia has intimidated society with possible terror attacks by Islamist terrorists and Chechen separatists to achieve political goals. During the transition of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin at the end of the second millennium, Kremlin ideologists successfully tested anti-Islamist tactics to overcome the challenges of the political opposition. The ideologists of Putin’s election campaign created his image as a decisive and strong leader, the one who can defeat Islamist terrorism, Chechen separatism and preserve the integrity of Great Russia. His image as the only savior of the Russian Empire was accompanied by radio and television spots and news about the atrocities of Chechen militants and their beheading of Russian soldiers.

Meanwhile, there is a conspiracy theory in Russian political circles that the powerful FSB orchestrated apartment bombings in the Russian cities of Buinaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999 to boost Putin’s approval rating aiming to ensure his victory in the presidential elections. As a result of these “terrorist attacks”, 307 people were killed, more than 1,700 people were injured. Russian officials concluded that there was a “Chechen trail” in the bombings, but no proof of their involvement was adduced. Many still doubt the results of the investigation and consider Putin to be the culprit of this tragedy.

That’s when Putin uttered his famous phrase: “We will pursue the [Islamist] terrorists everywhere. If they are in an airport, we’ll kill them there. If we catch them in the toilet, we’ll exterminate them in the toilet.” Many still believe that the apartment bombings and the FSB’s tactic against Islamist extremists catapulted Putin into the presidency. Putin soon launched a second war in Chechnya and emerged victorious in the intra-Kremlin struggle. His ratings soared. He met with huge approval in a society weary from the economic collapse, corruption and crime of the Yeltsin era.

Usually people prefer to keep quiet about this tragedy. Russian political figures Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Berezovsky worked to unravel the mystery of apartment bombings. But all of them were brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances. Ultimately, the Kremlin’s tactics to combat Islamist terrorists not only helped to rocket Putin to the political Olympus, but also increased Islamophobia, nationalism and chauvinism in Russian society.

Today, even 22 years after Putin came to power, the Kremlin’s ideologists have begun to intimidate Russia’s liberal society with likely Islamist terrorist attacks again as the nationwide protests seriously threaten his regime. This illustrates the regime exhaustion and the lack of confidence in face of the strategic sophistication of Navalny’s team.

So far, neither HTS, nor Central Asian and North Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups have officially responded to the FSB on the plotting of terrorist attacks in Russian cities during opposition rallies. However, in encrypted Telegram chats, Uzbek and Chechen jihadists actively discussed the “leak information”.

Thus, one of the KTJ’s followers on Telegram under the name Al Hijrat said in Uzbek: “Kafir Putin frightens his people with the just sword of Allah.But the people of the blessed land of Sham know that he himself is the main terrorist. Russian infidels and Putin’s Nusayri puppy (Alawites regime of Bashar al-Assad) bomb Greater Idlib to destroy Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah. Executioners will have to hold a harsh response before the Almighty for their crimes.”

A pro-Jihadi chat “Inspire” in Telegram wrote in Russian: “the information about the impending attacks by Ajnad al-Kavkaz is fake. The authorities are trying to hold Russia’s awakening people from mass protests against Putin’s criminal group. To intimidate civilians, the Russian siloviki (FSB) can and are ready to commit terrorist acts, blaming HTS for this, which are not interested in what is happening there in Russia. The Putinists have a lot of experience in killing their own citizens and blowing up their houses.” In this message, Chechen militants indirectly protect HTS from accusations by pro-Kremlin media on impending terrorist attacks in Russian cities during opposition protests. This is no coincidence, since Ajnad al Kavkaz is known for its close ties with HTS.

On Telegram channel, some Russian-speaking jihadists from the post-Soviet space mocked at the ‘leaked information’, some expressed their anger against the “Russian occupants” in Sham, some advised protesters to be vigilant before the FSB provocation. A pro-Jihadi chat Icharkhoin Telegram recommended Muslims of Caucasus be ready for new repressions of Russian infidels and local Murtad (apostate), because after the bombings of houses in Volgodonsk, Putin started the 2-Chechen war and took away the independence of Ichkeria. The Telegram chat “Muhajireen” says that the Kremlin is preparing for a harsh suppression of the mass protests.

It is not the first time the Russian authorities have accused Central Asian and North Caucasian Jihadi networks of organizing terrorist act. On April 3, 2017, the Russian FSB blamed KTJ for the bombing on a subway train in St. Petersburg that killed 16 people and injured 67 others. On October 15, 2020, the FSB once again accused the Uzbek KTJ militants of preparing subversive and terrorist acts in Russian cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Maikop and Volgograd. In a statement, the intelligence services claimed that during the counter-terrorist operation, they prevented explosions and eliminated two members of KTJ. Then FSB distributed photos and videos of firearms, ammunition, IED’s chemical components, and religious literature seized during the operation.

On October 16, 2020, KTJ in its statement denied the Russian authorities’ accusation in these attacks. The Uzbek militant group stated that “according the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s policy, our activities are limited to the territory of Sham, and we do not conduct jihadi acts outside of it.” Further, KTJ assured via its Telegram channel that it “does not have its cells in Russia and is not involved in organizing terrorist acts there.”

Jihadi factor of Russian democracy

The Russian authorities often make thunderous statements about plotting terrorist attacks by “international terrorist groups” and how siloviki (FSB) successfully prevented its. This time, trumpeting about terrorist plots by HTS and its foreign subsidiaries during mass protests in various Russian cities, Moscow hoped to hit two birds with one stone. First, the Kremlin hopes that alarm on terrorist attacks could become a cold shower for Navalny’s supporters, as a result of which the activity of protesters will subside and the scale of the rallies will decrease. Second, by accusing HTS of plotting terrorist attacks, Russia is trying to justify its bloody bombing in northern Syria before the international community.

However, experts on jihadism and political Islam were skeptical about accusations of HTS for plotting terrorist attacks in Russia.HTS, Syria’s most powerful rebel group, is trying to implement a new strategy to transform itself from a global jihadist outlook into a local “moderate national liberation movement”. Today its new agenda is entirely dedicated to Syria and the Syrian local Sunni community. Within this new strategy, HTS severely restricted external attacks by its subsidiaries – Central Asian and North Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups –KTJ, AK and JMA. Consequently, HTS, which holds the last major rebel bastion in Idlib province and backs the local Salvation Government, is focused only on the internal Syrian jihad than organizing external terrorist attacks.

HTS emir Abu Mohammed al-Julani is well aware that any terrorist attacks in Russia could place his group among the global terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and al Qaeda, from which he decisively disavowed. HTS pursues a pragmatic approach to the political context, and its external attacks outside of Syria could undermine its fragile legacy, which Julani has achieved with great difficulty.

According to the new strategy, HTS has excluded Central Asian and local hardliners from its ranks. Those jihadists who did not want to submit to its new policy, such as former KTJ emir Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki and HTS Shura Council member Abu Malek al-Talli, were arrested or taken out of the Syrian jihad zone. Given the ability of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to pressure Russian-speaking militant groups to abandon its global jihadist ambitions, it can be concluded that the Russian FSB’s accusation against HTS raises many questions.

In conclusion, the Russian authorities alert about Islamists terrorist attacks during pro-Navalny protests is aimed at an internal audience and pursues exclusively domestic political goals. And these goals are clear as plain as the nose on the face. Using these methods, the Kremlin wants to stop the turbulent development of mass protests and divert the attention of people from the Navalny factor. If they succeed, the authorities will take time out to gather strength for the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2021.But if the wave of protests grows ever stronger and threatens Putin’s regime, then a repetition of the 1999 scenario is quite possible. As then, radical Islamism and terrorism can become a starting point for strengthening authoritarianism in Russia.

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Corona pandemic: Realism limitation in solving 21st century security threats

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Today, most serious threats of the 21st century are not ones we can protect ourselves by using armies or advanced weapons. Indeed, the popularity of extreme-right politics, unilateralism based on nationalism and COVID-19 are threatening the world’s post-war security architecture. 

The state-based unilateralism and the trends of national response to the 21st century’s biggest security threat trigger lack of coordination, diplomatic divisions, and incoherent global answer to COVID-19. Hence, as we face the biggest challenge of the contemporary century today, we need to rethink the very nature of our comprehension of national security threats. By doing so, we need a different approach to facing security threats.

With the Corona pandemic as a security threat, one of the foundational international relations theories, the realism, has been revealed to be far limited in terms of its explanatory power than it declares. The argument is that realism has a valid logic and reasons for confidence since answers to the pandemic have confirmed the supremacy of sovereign states, the grounds for the state’s power competition. Nevertheless, the pandemic also presents realism’s weaknesses as a source for successful policy answer to this security challenge. In other words, realism is better at defining risks and threats than suggesting solutions. Put simply, realism’s explanatory power lies in diagnosis rather than treatment or prevention. To make this clear, one insight the theory emphasizes is the representation of states as the fundamental actors in world politics. 

As the coronavirus hit, states shifted quickly to close or tighten international borders, controlled movement within their borders. However, while much independent national action is understandable from a realism’s point of view, it’s insufficient. Unilateralism and state-based measures, such as border controls did not spare states from the pandemic, and unilateral measures risk ending up in national economic and social crisis. 

To fight the Corona pandemic most efficiently, policymakers will have to shift to other theoretical traditions to overcome this security threat. They will depend more and more on greater international openness, trust and cooperation. Hence, while from the realism’s view, unilateral and state-based actions may serve national interest to fight the pandemic “within the national borders”, the pandemic is a global security threat and thus remains unsolved so long as other states and non-state actors have not done the same and states move on unilaterally. 

Solving global crises and security threats such as a pandemic, similar to world economic or other security crises cannot be solved based on the realist considerations of zero-sum competitive logic. Instead, transnational security threats, such as Coronavirus, is unmasking the limitations of individual states actions in the global system. Thus, while realism does an excellent job of “diagnosing the problem”, it does not offer solutions to that problem.   

Considering the necessity of worldwide medical items and actions, coordinated and offered by international organizations and non-state actors, the uncoordinated state-based actions result in an ineffective solution to this security crisis. The perspective this article aims to offer is that given the limitations of realism, we need more faith in international transboundary cooperation based on mutual trust, especially trust vis-a-vis international institutions. However, neither the United Nations nor the World Health Organization (WHO) nor any other non-state actor can overcome the Coronavirus on its own; nor non-state actors such as international institutions are alternatives to national states in international relations. 

Instead, they are an instrument of foreign policy and statecraft and states need to rely on them, incorporating them in finding solutions to global security threats. According to constitutionalists, Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin, “States are indeed self-interested, but cooperation is often in their interest and institutions help to facilitate that cooperation.”

From our partner Tehran Times

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