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Terrorism

Escaping IS: What Exiting an Armed Group Actually Takes

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Authors: Dr Siobhan O’Neil and Dr Mara Revkin*

Although Islamic State’s territorial control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria came to an end in 2017, civilians, and particularly children, in these areas are still living with the long-term consequences of the group’s violence and exploitation. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, this includes thousands of children abducted by Islamic State (IS) who remain unaccounted for today and thousands of children who cannot move on from conflict because they are viewed as threats and won’t be allowed to reintegrate back into society.

Last week, International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers was marked around the world to reflect on the policies and programmes that are most likely to protect rights, promote accountability, and enhance security of young people in armed conflict. In doing so, it is clear that many of the current approaches to those once associated with armed groups do not always strike the right balance. Children’s rights and best interests risk being trumped by short-sighted security considerations, which may ultimately put us all at greater risk.

One such child is “Amr”* – a juvenile detainee at a reformatory in Kurdish Iraq – who we met while undertaking research examining the recruitment and use of children by armed groups. After dropping out of elementary school at the age of 12, Amr worked at a steel factory. One year later, he would become employed as a cook by IS. 

Amr was an unlikely recruit. For one, the group had murdered his father. But Amr needed the job in the IS kitchen. It paid better than the steel factory, and he was now responsible for helping support his mother and six siblings, so he felt that he had little choice. A few months after he started to work for IS, Amr was recruited by a family member to spy on the group for a state-sponsored militia. After he was caught taking photographs, Amr was thrown into an IS prison. He eventually managed to escape, only to be caught by security forces and imprisoned again for the crime of having joined a terrorist group.

In many ways, Amr’s story exemplifies the complexity of association with armed groups today. It is often assumed that anyone who becomes involved with such groups must have been brainwashed or be driven by deep-seated ideologically-motivated hate. Yet, involvement with armed groups – even those deemed “violent extremist” like IS or Boko Haram – is never as simple as this conventional narrative, nor is exiting their grasp. 

For many like Amr, ideology played no role in motivating or facilitating his involvement with IS or the anti-IS militia. Indeed, our previous research in conflict areas found that young people associating with armed groups are usually influenced by a multitude of interrelated structural, social, individual, and historical factors, of which ideology was rarely the driving determinant. Rather, physical and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion, and the pursuit of status and identity were more central for explaining the involvement of many young people with armed groups.

In many countries there is little differentiation made in how or why individuals were associated with such groups. As documented in related research, the use of indiscriminate “iron fist” approaches means that tens of thousands of people – not just those associated with military functions, but also tax-payers, cleaners or cooks like Amr – have been detained on terrorism charges, with thousands believed to have been sentenced to death. Thousands of children languishing in Syria have been barred or discouraged from returning to their home countries, despite the fact that many had no choice in living under IS. This sort of collective punishment could further encourage cycles of violence. We must find ways out for the vast majority of individuals who are associated with armed groups but who do not pose a risk to society.

To create a safer future, and to avoid denying one to the children who have lived under or been associated with armed groups, we need to better understand their experiences and needs for transitioning to a life oriented away from conflict. We need to rethink our assumptions about armed group association and neutrality in conflict, engage children and youth as partners in their own recovery, and support them in the long-term exit process from armed groups. Only then will young people like Amr have a real chance to escape the pull of violent conflict and give back as productive members of their communities.

* Name has been changed for safety reasons.

*Dr Mara Revkin was the lead researcher on the Syria and Iraq case study featured in Cradled by Conflict and the Iraq case study for The Limits of Punishment: Transitional Justice and Violent Extremism. She is a National Security Law Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Dr. Siobhan O’Neil is Project Director of the Managing Exits from Armed Conflict (MEAC) initiative at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, which examines interventions that encourage individuals to leave armed groups (or dissuade them from joining in the first place) and support sustainable transitions to civilian lives. She was the lead editor of Cradled by Conflict: Child Involvement with Armed Groups in Contemporary Conflict.

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Terrorism

Pulwama attack: False Flag Operation?

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On 14 February 2019, a terror attack killed 40 Indian soldiers at Pulwama, Indian Occupied Kashmir. The unfortunate incident happened when a convoy of Indian soldiers was hit by an SUV full of explosives. The incident was condemned by leaders from all over the world including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Mr. Khan immediately offered all possible assistance to probe the incident. But the Indian government hastily blamed Pakistan for the attack without proper investigation and took a dangerously belligerent path.

The Pulwama attack created a serious deadlock between the two nuclear-armed countries. While Pakistan characterized the attack as a “false flag operation”, India was all set for “retaliation”. The situation between the countries turned into an “international crisis” when Indian warplanes in wee hours of the morning of 26 February crossed the international border and dropped bombs in Pakistani territory.

On the very next day, Pakistan conducted retaliatory airstrikes in the Indian territory and also shot down an Indian warplane that had crossed over into Pakistani air space and captured its pilot who ejected and landed on Pakistani side of the border. The bellicose rhetoric, war hysteria and reckless actions by India in the wake of Balakot incident posed a grave threat to peace and security in South Asia and the wider region. It was Pakistan’s restraint and responsible attitude in unilateral release of the captured Indian pilot Abhinandan which averted serious aggravation of the crisis.

The Pakistani authorities had called the Pulwama attack which triggered the whole crisis a false flag operation staged by the BJP government to make electoral gains in the upcoming election by whipping up anti-Pakistan sentiment and by projecting itself as being “tough” on Pakistan. Pakistan maintained that the operation was aimed to divert the public’s attention from domestic issues and create a regional crisis until the general elections which were due in April of that year.

Pakistan’s stance seems to have been greatly vindicated on account of the revelations made during the recent police investigations of Arnab Goswami, a firebrand Indian TV journalist and staunch supporter of the BJP government. The police have retrieved Goswami’s WhatsApp messages which raise serious questions about the Indian official narrative around the Pulwama attack and the Balakot Incident. During his conversation with Partho Dasgupta CEO of Broadcast Audience Research Council in India on 23 February 2019, Goswami hinted towards the Balakot airstrike and its importance for Prime Minister Modi in the upcoming elections.

Goswami texted; “something big will happen”.

After a few messages on other matters, Dasgupta asked, “Dawood?”, referring to the notorious gangster Dawood Ibrahim who is wanted in several cases.

The conversation continued:

Arnab Goswami: “No sir Pakistan. Something major will be done this time.”

Partho Dasgupta: “Good.”

Partho Dasgupta: “It’s good for big man in this season.”

Partho Dasgupta: “He will sweep polls then.”

Partho Dasgupta: “Strike? Or bigger”

Arnab Goswami: “Bigger than a normal strike. And also, at the same time something major on Kashmir. In Pakistan, the government is confident of striking in a way that people will be elated.

Exact words used.”

Arnab Goswami’s leaked chats have exposed the Indian propaganda and lent credence to Pakistan’s longstanding stance on Indian proclivity for false flag operations. Prime Minister Imran Khan has asked for the world’s attention towards the Indian propaganda while saying, “in 2019, I spoke at UNGA on how India’s fascist Modi govt used the Balakot crisis for domestic electoral gains. Latest revelations from communication of an Indian journalist, known for his warmongering, reveal the unholy nexus between the Modi govt & amp; Indian media”.

Indian false flag operations like the Pulwama attack and consequent Balakot airstrike are part of India’s Hybrid warfare against Pakistan. As I have discussed in my previous article, India is trying to defame Pakistan through propaganda tactics and present Pakistan as the hub of terrorism. But the recently leaked chats have exposed India and vindicate Pakistan’s desire for peace in the region. After the leaked chats international community must see for itself that how Mr Modi, in his quest for power brought South Asia to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

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Global War on Terror: Pakistan’s Role and Evolving Security Architecture for sustainable peace

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If Afghanistan, according to former president of the United States (US) George W Bush was the center of terror, then Pakistan had been the center of war against it. After the 9/11 attacks, while announcing the Global War On Terror (GWOT), the former Bush administration invited international community including Pakistan for cooperation and adopted the foreign policy approach of “with us or against us” pick. Thus, there was no choice for the Pakistan except joining the US war in Afghanistan aimed terrorism elimination. The US policy of “with us or against us” to fight together against a common enemy could be dubbed as classic realist approach of “enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Pakistan played a “crucial role” to eradicate the threat of terrorism to fulfill its desire for peace and stability at regional as well as global level. Despite playing pivotal role to fight the US-war on terrorism, Pakistan’s sacrifices and contributions has not been acknowledged and notion of ‘do more’ was raised by the US officials. However, terrorism encompasses various tactics to launch violent attacks against military personnel, civilians, and public. The most common tactics include use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), suicide bombing, firing, Hand Grenade, Gun and bombs and Rockets. Thus, it is difficult to respond the tactics of terrorism as an act of war through military operations. Realizing the complicated nature of counter-terrorism operations and lack of success of the US forces in Afghanistan to hit the tactics of terrorist, only way forward for the US is negotiations and political settlements.  Pakistan performed important role to construct roadmap for US-Taliban talks and provided relentless support in ongoing Afghan peace process. Pakistan’s role and efforts to facilitate peace negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban to agree on ‘Doha agreement’ are widely appreciated by International community and acknowledged by the US. But when it comes to the US war on terror, Pakistan is still denied of its due appreciation in its fight against terrorism and relentless support to coalition forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s contribution of providing logistic and military support by giving access to its bases and ports to the US, deployment of its forces along its border with Afghanistan to eliminate infiltration of terrorist, intelligence and information sharing to hit and capture extremist leaders is much more than its commitments to Operation Enduring Freedom (2001–2014) or GWOT.

GWOT and Escalating Instability in Pakistan

In the aftermath of its decision to join GWOT, Pakistan became targeted by radical terrorist groups due multiple factors including foreign financial assistance to internal sectarian hostility, religious extremism, emergence of Islam in politics. Significantly the turmoil in Afghanistan had spill over impact in Pakistan. Escalating terrorist attacks and huge influx of Afghan refugees in Pakistan instigate instability and insecurity in the country. Pakistan paid heavy price for its decision to join coalition in terms of relations with Afghanistan, low growth in economic sector including loss of human lives and psychological effects.  Pakistan is plagued unprecedented levels of violence since Pakistan joined the GWOT as a front-line state. Independent sources reported that in the post 9/11 period, Pakistan lost 64,000 lives, damaged infrastructure and suffered financial losses of 150 billion USD.

Pakistan undertook a series of military operations to counter the menace of terrorism and extremism. According to the Global Terrorism Database, the sudden explosion of the terrorist attacks occurred in 2005 till 2014. Counter terrorism operations by Pakistan’s military contributed in the WOT and played a pivotal role in winning it. Significant decrease in terrorist activities in Pakistan since 2014 highlights achievement of military operations against terrorists and militants.(See figure 01)

Source: Global Terrorism Data Base & Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS)

Pakistan’s Security Situation in 2020 and Geographic Distribution of terrorist activities

The trends in terrorist attacks indicates that number and lethality of terrorist activities in Pakistan is declining and country is heading towards peace and stability. In 2020, a total of 146 terrorism incidents were reported from across the country in which 220 people lost their lives, while another 547 were wounded. However, in 2019, a total of 230 terrorism incidents were reported from across the country in which 318 people lost their lives, while another 720 were wounded. The statistics for 2020 show a decline in number of terrorist attacks by nearly 38% as compared to 2019 when 230 attacks took place. Geographical distribution of terrorist attacks indicates a notable difference among provinces. Like the previous year, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP) and Balochistan had suffered most numbers of incidents; when compared with 2019, all the provinces have witnessed decline in terrorist activities. Meanwhile, Federal Capital Islamabad, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir remained the safest places as not even a signal terrorist attack occurred during the year 2020. Statistics mentioned in Pakistan’s security report 2020, published by Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) shows that country is making gradual progress to eradicate terrorism.

Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), National/Local newspapers & Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS)

Conclusion

Pakistan’s counter terrorism operations have played significant role to fight the violence and establishing peace in the country. Yet, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism is facing challenges due to continuing foreign finances and resources supply to terrorists’ organizations. Pakistan’s Counter-terrorism strategies should formulate mechanism to further strengthen multilateral cooperation among states to prevent, protect and pursue an attack and enhance the capacity to minimize the consequence of terrorist attack. Pakistan has entered in a fruitful phase of combating terrorism and managing its consequences efficaciously. Thus far, the US needed to acknowledge the unconditional contributions and sacrifices made by Pakistan and support the country in fighting this exhaustively expensive war on behalf of world community.

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Hidden History – 1977 Terrorist Attacks in Moscow

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On January 8, 1977,a series of terrorist attacks struck Moscow city, the capital of the Soviet Union. Three explosions occurred in a row in different places, with an interval of less than 40 minutes. All the employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB were raised on alarm. Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, who spent Saturday hunting, urgently left for the capital. At that time, the life of Muscovites was not overshadowed by rampant criminality. The concept of “terrorism” was exclusively referred to as a characteristic of capitalist countries by the Soviet people.

OnSunday rush hour, the first bomb exploded at 17.33 in a Moscow metro train,which was on the stretch between the stations “Izmailovskaya” and “Pervomayskaya”.The second bomb went off in the grocery storeNo.15 in the formerly named Dzerzhinsky Street (now Bolshaya Lubyanka), not far from the headquarters of the KGB at 18.05.Five minutes later, the third explosion occurred near the grocery store No.5.In total,7 people were killed and 37 got injuries of varying severity.The terrorist incident was kept secret from the public.

The KGB was assigned to lead the operation codenamed “Explosives” (“Взрывники”). The best investigators of the Prosecutor General`s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB were engaged in the criminal investigation. The progress of the investigation was regularly reported to the then KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov and personally to Leonid Brezhnev. Although more than 500 witnesses were interviewed, not a single clue was found.In the end, the circle of suspected cities was reduced to three – Rostov-on-Don, Kharkov and Yerevan.

However, the terrorists were identified only after they began to prepare a new terrorist attack. On November 2, 1977, they decided to repeat the attack leaving a bag with a bomb, similar to the ones that went off in January in the waiting room of the Kursk railway station. But it stood in a crowded hall almost for a day and did not explode, because the batteries ran out. The ownerless item attracted one of the passengers’ attention, who reported the finding to the police on duty. A valuable piece of evidence was obtained: a blue sports jacket with an Olympic patch and a hat with earflaps manufactured in Yerevan.

In the Moscow-Yerevan train near the administrative border of Georgian SSR and Armenia SSR, an unknown young man who was traveling with a friend was detained. The passengers were identified quickly enough. They turned out to be 28-year-old Hakob Stepanyan and 23-year-old Zaven Baghdasaryan. Regardless of the fact that it was sharply opposed by Karen Demirchyan, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Armenian SSR Communist Party, their apartments in Yerevan were searched, where additional evidence were found, including elements of explosive devices and a scheme of an explosive device that went off in the Moscow metro. Through Stepanyan, the investigation reached the third member of the criminal group. Stepanyan and Baghdasaryan, realizing that they were fully exposed, testified against the third member of the group, Stepan Zatikyan,who was not in Moscow at the time of the explosion. They confessed that he dragged them into the preparation of the terrorist attack. It was Zatikyan, who was the brain and ideological inspirer of the group. By that time, he was working at the Yerevan Electromechanical Plant. While studying at the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute, he founded the illegal National United Party of Armenia (NUPA) along with other friends in 1966.The group of nationalists developed an active underground activity and advocated for separatism. They published a clandestine periodical named “Paros” (Phare) and distributed leaflets protesting against “Russian chauvinism” and demanding the return of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan to Armenia SSR. The group was uncovered in 1968. The founders and active members of the NUPA were convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Zatikyan’s verdict was not too harsh, he was released in 1972.In 1975, he sent a statement to the Supreme Soviet in which he renounced Soviet citizenship and asked to be given the opportunity to leave for any non-socialist country. The NUPA operated until 1987, when it was renamed the Union for National Self-Determination.

The investigation into the case of Zatikyan and his accomplices lasted about a year. The trial of the terrorists in the Supreme Court of the USSR took place from January 16 to 20, 1979. It was closed and secret. Even the relatives of the defendants were not allowed into the courtroom. The only information about the trial and the verdict in the news media was a short note in Izvestia (January 31, 1979).Stepanyan and Baghdasaryan pleaded guilty, Zatikyan did not. For him, the court became a political platform.A documentary about this trial was made. On the recording, one can hear Zatikyan saying in Armenian: “Tell people that these were Stepan’s last words: Revenge, revenge and revenge again.”On the other hand, Stepanyan said: “If one of us survives, there will be explosions again.”

On January 24, 1979, all the accused were found guilty by the court and sentenced to capital punishment – execution. On January 30, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR rejected the petition for clemency, and on the same day, the sentence was carried out.

The acts of terrorism carried out by Armenian nationalists have gone beyond the Soviet Union borders. In this respect,Turkish diplomats have become the target of terrorism. “Armenian terrorism, as well as its support in the larger Armenian community, was unique in its visceral hatred of its Turkish enemy” writes Michael M. Gunter in his book titled Armenian History and the Question of Genocide. As a result of the Armenian terror, more than 30 Turkish diplomats and their families have lost their lives since 1970.Most of these assassinations were mainly carried out by terrorist organizations, such as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG).Both groups were founded in the mid-1970s and by the early 1980s had become extremely active.Despite both groups having disintegrated in the end of 1980s, an Armenian protester was spotted with an ASALA T-shirtin Los Angeles on  July22, 2020.The ideology that feeds those terrorist organizations, which mainly operated in Western countries, is still alive. The main reason for their “success” in the West is that they have not been properly punished until now.

Furthermore,Armenian terrorist organizations systematically and deliberately perpetrated acts of terrorism on Azerbaijani territory, as well. On March 19, 1994, 14 civilians lost their lives and 49 were injured as a result of the bombed attack perpetrated at the “20 January” metro station in Baku.

To put it briefly, the terrorist tradition of the Armenian ultranationalists needs to be deeply and systematically studied. The root causes of violent extremism in Armenian society are complex, multifaceted and intertwined as it has more than 100 years of history. Armenians present their terrorists to future generations as heroes, leaving their statues and encouraging future generations to grow up as terrorists.A clear example of this is the monument erected in memory of members of the ASALA terrorist organization at the Yerablur State Military Cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia.Asidefrom that, the defeat on the front in the 44-day war with Azerbaijan correspondingly pushed Armenian society into a deep sense of collective frustration and humiliation; in turn, it triggered a rise in nationalist sentiments and made them more radicalized, which galvanize terrorist attacks against Azerbaijani people. Considering that, the intelligence services and law enforcement agencies of the countries, where both Azerbaijani and Armenian diaspora live, should expeditiously increase situational awareness.

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