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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Mounting Cyber Espionage and Hacking Threat from China
Earlier this month a ransomware attack on America’s Prospect Medical Holdings, which operates dozens of hospitals and hundreds of clinics and outpatient centres across the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Southern California was forced to shut off its centres in several locations as the healthcare system experienced software disruptions. In June India’s premier hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) faced a malware attack on its systems which was thwarted by its cyber-security systems. This is not the first time that the premier hospital’s data was breached. In November 2022, AIIMS had experienced a cyberattack within weeks of announcing that from January 2023, it would operate on a completely paperless mechanism. The cyber attack which involved ransomware, designed to deny a user or organisation access to files, lasted for nearly a month affecting the profile of almost 4 crore patients – affecting registration, appointments, billing, laboratory report generation, among other operations of the hospital. Regarding the quantum of data that was compromised, the government revealed that “five servers of AIIMS were affected and approximately 1.3 terabytes of data was encrypted.”
Till June this year, Indian Government organisations faced over one lakh cyber security incidents and financial institutions saw over four lakh incidents. Data presented by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), which has the mandate of tracking and monitoring cybersecurity incidents in India, indicates rising Cyberattacks to government organisations. or systems year on year. From 70798 in 2018, to 112474 in 2023 (up to June) incidents of cyber attacks have been on the rise, on a year on year basis. Presenting this data at the Parliament, Minister for electronics and IT Ashwini Vaishnaw said, “With innovation in technology and rise in usage of the cyberspace and digital infrastructure for businesses and services, cyber-attacks pose a threat to confidentiality, integrity and availability of data and services, which may have direct or indirect impact on the organisation.”
A lot of the hacking activity points towards China. Western intelligence agencies are becoming increasingly wary of digital intrusion by hacking teams that they believe are being backed by China’s government. Almost a decade ago, American computer security firm Mandiant had made the startling claim that these hacking groups are operated by units of China’s army. The firm was able to trace an overwhelming percentage of the attacks on American corporations, organisations and government agencies to a building on the outskirts of Shanghai. Mandiant made the case that the building was one of the bases of the People’s Liberation Army’s corps of cyberwarriors. US intelligence analysts have detected that a central element of Chinese computer espionage is Unit 61398 which targets American and Canadian government sites. Mandiant, which was hired by The New York Times, found that hacker groups like “Comment Crew” or “Shanghai Group” were behind hundreds of attacks on U.S. companies, focusing “on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States — its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks” thereafter bringing that information to the military unit 61398.
In their defence the China’s authorities simply denied any form of state-sponsored hacking, and have in turn dubbed the US National Security Agency (NSA) as “the world’s largest hacker organisation.”
Nonetheless, since the 2013 revelations, Chinese hacking teams have generated a lot of interest and Western cybersecurity companies and intelligence agencies have accused them of global digital incursion. They allege that Chinese government-backed hackers attempt to target everything from government and military organisations to corporations and media organisations.
Most recently in the footsteps of the incident involving the Chinese spy balloon Microsoft claimed that in an ongoing effort Chinese state-sponsored hackers group ‘Storm-0558’ was forging digital authentication tokens to gain unauthorised access to Microsoft’s Outlook accounts and urged users “close or change credentials for all compromised accounts”. On May 24, Microsoft and US intelligence state-sponsored hackers of ‘Volt Typhoon’ were engaged in ongoing spying of critical US infrastructure organisations ranging from telecommunications to transportation hubs, using an unnamed vulnerability in a popular cybersecurity suite called FortiGuard, and had been active since mid-2021.
According to US cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks cyber espionage threat group ‘BackdoorDiplomacy’ has links to the Chinese hacking group called ‘APT15’and they are all involved in cyber intrusions and financially motivated data breaches for the Chinese government. During the visit by then-US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, APT27 initiated a range of cyber attacks targeting Taiwan’s presidential office, foreign and defence ministries as well as infrastructure such as screens at railway stations. Television screens at 7-11 convenience stores in Taiwan Began to display the words: “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!”
Mara Hvistendahl’s article in Foreign Policy, 2017 ‘China’s Hacker Army’ estimated China’s “hacker army” anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 individuals, but rejected the belief that it was a monolithic cyber army. Mara contends that Chinese hackers are for the most part dangerous ‘freelancers’ whose ‘causes neatly overlap with the interests of the Chinese government’ and these hackers are left alone as long as they target foreign sites and companies.
Although cyber attacks have gone up globally, data by Check Point, an American-Israeli software company, reveals that weekly cyber attacks in India have gone up by 18 per cent this year, which is 2.5 times more than the global increase. Furthermore the cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated as hackers try to weaponize legitimate tools for malicious gains. For instance the use of ChatGPT for code generation, enables hackers to effortlessly launch cyberattacks.
Last year in a massive case of cyber espionage, Chinese-linked hackers broke into mail servers operated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in February 2022 and stole sensitive data. At the recent ‘Conference on Crime & Security on the theme of ‘NFTs, AI and the Metaverse’, current G20 President India, has highlighted the need for cooperation to build cyber-resilience in an increasingly connected world. Both cyber attacks and cyber crimes have national security implications.
In India, investigations into the cyberattack, which had crippled the functioning of India premier health institution AIIMS, revealed that “the IP addresses of two emails, which were identified from the headers of files that were encrypted by the hackers, originated from Hong Kong and China’s Henan province”.
Earlier this year, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray had an alarming metric, – that Chinese hackers outnumber FBI cyber staff 50 to one. Addressing a Congressional panel he said, China has “a bigger hacking programme than every other major nation combined and has stolen more of our personal and corporate data than all other nations — big or small — combined.”
China is today home to some of the most sophisticated hackers, whose capabilities have only improved with time. Their motivations and actions might be independent but are conveniently entwined. However, much more needs to be understood about the hacker culture from China in recent years, if the menace of cybercrime and ransomware is to be mitigated successfully .
Whistleblowers: the Unsung Heroes
Whistleblowing is a bribery and corruption prevention strategy that does not receive the credit it deserves. In fact, rather than relying exclusively on laws, regulations, and resolutions, whistleblowing can be considered a highly effective method to combat bribery and corruption in any field, including government or corporate settings. Whistleblowing often leads to sustainable solutions, as it involves voices from various levels, ranging from grassroots to top-tier management. However, there are plethora of challenges whistleblowers face when they blow the whistle. Nonetheless, whistleblowers play a crucial role in preventing bribery and corruption, and this pivotal role enables preserving the security of any nation.
As stated by the National Center for Whistleblowing (2021), at its core, a whistleblower is an individual who discloses instances of wastefulness, fraudulent activities, misconduct, corruption, or hazards to public well-being, with the intention of prompting corrective actions. While whistleblowers are often affiliated with the organization where the wrongdoing occurs, it is not a prerequisite; anyone can assume the role of a whistleblower as long as they reveal information about the wrongdoing that would otherwise remain concealed. In simple terms, a whistleblower is a person who acts responsibly on behalf of themselves as well as others. Whistleblowers play an extremely imperative role in any society, as they stand for justice, promote accountability, and advocate transparency.
When looking at its link to national security, whistleblowers play a crucial role. One prominent action is whistleblowers exposing imminent and occurred security threats. They are capable of disclosing breaches of security, illegal surveillance, and in situations where individuals or entities are attempting to divulge material information. Whistleblowers uncover injustices, misconduct, and beyond-the-scope activities of decision-makers within government or private entities. If individuals engage in unethical practices, illegal actions, or actions jeopardizing integrity, whistleblowers blow the whistle. One such example, as reported by St. Francis School of Law in 2022, is whistleblower Frank Serpico’s case. He was the first police officer who openly testified about corruption within the New York Police Department, reporting instances of police corruption, including bribes and payoffs, despite facing numerous obstacles. His revelations contributed to a 1970 New York Times story on systemic corruption in the NYPD, leading to the formation of the Knapp Commission. In 1971, he survived a suspicious shooting during an arrest, raising concerns about potential attempts to harm him. Serpico’s bravery emphasized the importance of accountability and transparency in law enforcement.
Whistleblowers also contribute by facilitating accountability by bringing into light corrupt practices such as mismanagement of money. An example is, in 1968 when A. Ernest Fitzgerald, known as the “godfather of the defense movement,” exposed a staggering $2.3 billion cost overrun related to the Lockheed C-5 transport aircraft. His courageous testimony before Congress shed light on issues in defense contracting and resulted in substantial government savings. Fitzgerald’s contributions went beyond the immediate case, playing a crucial role in the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. This results in a culture of accountability where representatives of the public are answerable to their actions. Whistleblowers uphold the rule of law and promote justice by defending the rights of the citizens. It fosters democracy.
However, whistleblowers are often subjected to criticism for standing up against injustice. They fear retaliation, as guilty parties may try to silence them out of revenge. Additionally, companies or institutions may not take whistleblowers seriously, leading them to avoid addressing the reported issues. In many cases, this happens because governments or authorities in power might be involved in bribery and corruption. Public recognition and appreciation of whistleblowers’ contributions to society are vital and should not be perceived as excessive. In addition, there are situations where groups of individuals create sub cultures within organisation and act against rules and protocols jeopardising inclusive culture. In such situations, reporting to a superior will be seen as favoritism or being overly devoted to the institution. This toxic environment demotivates valuable employees or those willing to stand against injustice. The lack of adequate legal protection further compounds the challenges faced by whistleblowers. Moreover, the courage to stand against bribery and corruption is in dire need, as many individuals may lack the moral fortitude to do so.
Whistleblowers are internationally and domestically protected, primarily through the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Other international agreements, such as the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption and the Organization of American States Inter-American Convention against Corruption, also demonstrate a commitment to whistleblower protection. Various influential international organizations, including the G20, OECD, and APEC, have played a role in promoting whistleblower laws and best practices worldwide. On the domestic front, countries like Sri Lanka have specific laws dealing with corruption, while OECD findings highlight countries with comprehensive whistleblower laws such as the United States, Canada, Japan, and others.
Despite these efforts, there are still some ambiguities and gaps in provisions that hinder effective whistleblowing. For instance, the proposed anti-corruption bill in Sri Lanka allows public officers to accept gratifications authorized by written law or employment terms, which undermines the core objectives of the bill and enables influential individuals to evade accountability for corrupt gains. In Russia, whistleblower protection is limited, with unsuccessful attempts to establish protective measures in 2017. This puts Russia behind the EU, which has implemented robust whistleblower protection through the Whistleblowing Directive.
It is evident that whistleblowers play an indispensable role in combatting bribery and corruption, acting as a highly effective strategy to preserve the security of any nation. Despite facing numerous challenges, these individuals contribute significantly by uncovering wrongdoing, promoting accountability, and upholding transparency. By exposing imminent security threats and holding corrupt practices accountable, whistleblowers safeguard the rule of law and foster democracy. However, to harness the full potential of whistleblowing, it is crucial to address barriers to reporting and remedy afore mentioned legal hurdles. Encouraging a whistleblowing culture and recognizing their contributions will enable society to effectively mitigate and combat bribery and corruption, by creating a more just and transparent environment. To accomplish this, organizations can embrace a culture of whistleblowing, by conducting awareness campaigns, implementing training programs, and fostering a safe and supportive environment for whistleblowers to come forward. In addition, implementing technical measures and policies to ensure whistleblower protection, authorities can demonstrate their commitment to supporting those who expose wrongdoing. These collective actions will strengthen the pivotal role of whistleblowers in preserving security by combating bribery and corruption, fostering a safer and more ethical society for the future.
Breaking the Grip: Comprehensive Policy Recommendations to Defeat Drug Cartels
In 2022, drug overdoses claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans. The primary sources of illegal drugs flooding into the United States are the Mexican drug cartels, who exploit a network of corrupt politicians, police officers, and military personnel in Mexico. Within Mexico itself, these cartels are responsible for a staggering level of violence, including tens of thousands of homicides each year. Within the United States, the cartels establish distribution cells, collaborating with either Mexican gangs or affiliated criminal organizations.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considers the Mexican drug cartels to be the number-one threat to the United States. Among them, the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) are the richest and most powerful. Their exceptional earnings allow them to invest in soldiers and weapons, as well as payoffs and bribes, enabling them to expand their territorial control.
To effectively address the challenge posed by the cartels, the United States should adopt a comprehensive set of policy measures. These include securing the southern border, fostering enhanced cooperation with the Mexican government, implementing immigration reforms, bolstering drug enforcement efforts domestically, designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, imposing targeted financial and economic sanctions, and considering if limited military intervention is necessary.
While these measures hold significant potential, there exist political barriers that hinder their implementation.
Secure the Southern Border
Since January 2020, over five million people have illegally crossed the southern border. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) identifies protecting the border from illegal movements of people and drugs as being essential to homeland security. Transnational criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, are responsible for most of the drugs entering the country. On an average day, CBP seizes 1,797 pounds of illegal narcotics. In 2022, CBP seized a total of “more than 1.8 million pounds of narcotics and 14,700 pounds of fentanyl.” Preventing the cartels from being able to transport drugs into the United States would take away their income, causing their soldiers and friendly politicians to stop cooperating with them.
In order to better secure the border, CBP has created a preparedness plan which consists of a number of crucial elements, such as increasing the number of personnel, while improving technology and infrastructure. In addition to new hires, the number of personnel can be augmented through increased cooperation with other branches of law enforcement and the military. In May, President Biden, in response to a request from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees CBP, ordered an additional 1,500 troops to the border for a 90-day deployment. This was on top of the 2,500 already in place. Texas Governor Ron Abbot deployed his national guard and the new Texas Tactical Border Force to the border. North Dakota and Tennessee, as well as other states, also sent members of their national guard to Texas. In addition to national guard troops, the state of Florida sent a mix of state law-enforcement officers from varying branches. To effectively control the border, however, and have a major impact on illegal immigration, the number of troops will have to be drastically increased and the deployment would have to be permanent.
The technological improvements called for by the DHS include increased use of high-tech assets for aerial surveillance such as drones and manned aircraft. They also want sensors on border barriers, land sensors, cameras, radar, and autonomous surveillance towers. This technology will allow the DHS to better detect, monitor, and track unauthorized border crossings. Additionally, improved data analytics and artificial intelligence would help with screening and processing of legal entrants as well as illegals who have been apprehended.
The DHS has called for improved infrastructure towers, as well as facility expansion and upgrades. Some U.S. lawmakers would also like to see the border wall completed, particularly along vulnerable areas. A wall would impede illegal entry to the country, while making it easier for officials to spot illegal crossings.
Plans to secure the border have been rejected on a number of grounds. First, it would be expensive to station the necessary number of personnel at the border. Increased infrastructure, particularly the wall, would also be very costly and would not provide a 100-percent solution. Even more, it would be seen as racist, with Bloomberg calling the border wall a monument to White Supremacy.
Increased Cooperation with Mexican Government
One part of the cooperation with Mexico has to include Mexico’s willingness to help staunch the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Mexican President López Obrador formed a national guard tasked with this purpose, but the group has been condemned by human rights activists. Furthermore, the national guard, like other elements of Mexico’s law enforcement and military, suffers from corruption.
If migrants were turned away by the U.S. in large numbers, Mexico would have to stand ready to accept them. Mexico would also have to form agreements with other countries in the chain of drug transit, from Colombia, through Central America, to the U.S. border. These countries will have to similarly agree to help prevent migrants from entering Mexico and they will have to stand ready to receive those migrants returned by Mexico.
Inside of Mexico, the Mexican government must actively fight the cartels, disarming them, disbanding them, and loosening their hold over both territory and people. This includes targeting high-profile cartel leaders. This will create command and control vacuums which historically have caused in-fighting among cartel members. Large cartels would then splinter into independent and warring groups with considerably less power. Changes within Mexico, however, would be dependent on reducing corruption, and these policies would be very unpopular among politicians, police, and military officers who benefit from the status quo.
Because of the massive corruption and the influence the cartels have over the Mexican authorities, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has abandoned any hope of cooperating with the Mexican government, calling the country “a failed narco-state.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has similarly given up on the Mexican government, saying that the U.S. should notify Mexico that the cartels will soon be designated as terrorist organizations.
The screening process for legal immigrants must be strengthened, while backdoor avenues, such as illegal entry and asylum-seeking, must be curtailed. Under the Biden administration, anyone arriving at the southern border can claim to be seeking asylum. This allows them to remain in the United States awaiting their asylum hearing. Republicans see this as an enticement for people wishing to enter the country, bypassing normal immigration procedures. Rights groups, on the other hand, complain that Washington should not curtail its acceptance of asylum seekers. In this case, asylum seekers should be returned to Mexico to await their court date. Knowing that they cannot get a free pass into the U.S. would reduce the number of people seeking to exploit the system. This change in immigration procedure would have to be coordinated with Mexico, however, as the undocumented would be entering Mexican territory.
Increased Drug Enforcement in the U.S.
Drug laws in the U.S. must be rigorously enforced in order to reduce the demand for drugs. Law enforcement must be strengthened, including additional training, and increased investigation and prosecution of drug-related crimes. Intelligence gathering must be enhanced through the creation of specialized units and task forces. The DEA reported that drug cartels are exploiting social media to sell fentanyl and methamphetamine. The authorities should closely monitor these social media in order to identify and arrest buyers and sellers. Furthermore, the DEA must coordinate with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to increase arrests of people selling or buying illegal drugs.
Beyond law enforcement and prosecution, there must be comprehensive drug prevention and treatment programs, education campaigns, addiction treatment, and rehabilitation programs. Opponents of strict enforcement claim that enforcement does not work because drug use has increased during the 50 years that the U.S. war on drugs has been going on. The war on drugs has cost $1 trillion, and roughly one in five incarcerated people were arrested on drug charges. Opponents also complain that prisoners are disproportionately Black and Latino. Although only 13.4 percent of the population is African American, about 25 percent of all persons arrested for drugs are African American adults.
Identify Cartels as International Terrorist Organization
The cartels are known to cooperate with international terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, Taliban, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and al-Qaeda, in order to sell their drugs in other parts of the world. They also aid terrorism by smuggling terrorists into the United States. To launder their illicit income, they employ the services of Chinese criminal organizations which pose their own threat to the United States. U.S. lawmakers have proposed designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, because they use violence and threats of violence to influence and control judges, politicians, and lawmakers. Designating the cartels as terrorist organizations would facilitate U.S. government seizure of cartel assets. It would make it easier for the U.S. to arrest cartel members inside of the United States, and possibly inside of Mexico. The U.S. could deport or bar from entry persons associated with the cartels. A terrorism designation would also enable the U.S. to deploy the military, even inside of Mexico.
However, there would be a number of disadvantages. First, violence would most likely increase, particularly if the U.S. military became involved. Next, it would effectively destroy U.S.-Mexico relations. The U.S. would be able to sanction or arrest high-ranking members of the Mexican government and security forces, which might be perceived as an act of war. These types of purges might destabilize the Mexican government and would, at the very least, cause a breakdown in cooperation between the two nations. Furthermore, bilateral trade, valued at $800 billion and accounting for millions of jobs on both sides of the border, would dry up. Increased violence, a destabilized government, and a loss of jobs would increase the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw and other U.S. lawmakers have called for an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to target Mexican drug cartels, saying “We must start treating them like ISIS – because that is who they are.” Those who back an AUMF point to the fact that the cartels are responsible for more American deaths each year than the entire Vietnam War. An AUMF would provide the president with the sophisticated hardware and expert personnel of the U.S. military, more powerful assets than those possessed by law enforcement or the DHS. Supporters of an AUMF also make the point that the soldiers would be engaging foreign hostiles in a foreign nation and, therefore, would not be infringing on the civil rights of U.S. citizens.
In addition to arresting or killing key cartel members, military intervention could disrupt drug supply chains by destroying growing fields and drug labs. The government of Mexico has protested discussions of U.S. military operations in his country, calling it an offense to the Mexican people. Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador said that he would not “permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene”.
Another disadvantage of U.S. military operations in Mexico would be an increase in violence. Inevitably, civilians would suffer, and the U.S. would be portrayed as the villain in the international and liberal press. The threat of cartel violence against Americans would also increase. Historically, the cartels have tried to avoid killing Americans, for fear of provoking Washington’s wrath. If the U.S. military began engaging in cross-border operations, the cartels would most likely declare all-out-war on Americans. Cartel violence within the U.S. would also accelerate as the cartels would be risking nothing by upping the ante.
Increased Financial and Economic Sanctions
Financial and economic sanctions can be powerful tools to break the cartels and to punish those who assist them. This includes enforcement of anti-money laundering laws, as well as targeting financial institutions that handle cartel money. Cartel assets held in banks around the world could be seized if U.S. allies also participated in the sanctions. If Mexico is legitimately interested in curbing corruption in their own government, this intense scrutiny would also help them to discover which public officials were accepting bribes.
Sanctions have already been used against the cartels: In 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department, in cooperation with their Mexican counterparts, brought sanctions against a cartel member who was trafficking weapons from the United States. Under the sanctions, Obed Christian Sepulveda Portillo had his property in the U.S. seized. U.S. Entities and persons from the U.S. are also prohibited from doing business with him or completing transactions on his behalf. Those who violate these sanctions may face criminal charges or civil lawsuits. In July 2023, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against ten individuals, including several Sinaloa Cartel members, as well as one Mexico-based company, for their role in the production of illicit fentanyl and the precursor chemicals necessary for fentanyl production. Under the sanctions, all of their properties and interests in the U.S. were seized. Americans were banned from doing business with them. Companies in which they had a direct or indirect stake of 50 percent or more were also prohibited from doing business in the U.S. or with Americans. These are good examples, but to break the cartels, these types of sanctions would have to increase in scope, hitting large numbers of people participating in criminal networks.
From an efficacy standpoint, the above policy recommendations, if taken together, would result in a decrease in the supply side, a decrease in the demand side, and a long-term reduction in drug deaths and violent deaths in both the U.S. and Mexico, eventually leading to the stabilization of Mexico. Breaking the hold the cartels have on the country would allow Mexico to develop economically. This would benefit the entire population and the United States. But this success, which could take painful years to achieve, would come with a political and human cost which politicians may not be willing to pay.
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