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Global Tech Companies Counter Online Terrorist Content

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One of the most recent trends to appear in internet governance is the tightening of control over online content. And it was China and Russia that set the wheels for this in motion. The trend has extended across the globe – just look at the impressive list of states that supported the Christchurch Call to Action to eradicate terrorist and violent extremist online content. France, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Indonesia and many other states endorsed the call, questioning the right to spread information online without any restrictions.

It is no secret that terrorists today strive to use the benefits of the nascent digital age for nefarious purposes, namely, to spread dangerous content, recruit new foot soldiers, finance terrorist groups and broadcast terrorist attacks using various internet resources. This is why many governments, fearing the radicalization of their population, demand that global internet platforms step up measures to counter extremist and terrorist content. For example, in May 2017, the Parliament of the United Kingdom criticized Twitter and Facebook for their inability to remove extremist content. At the 2018 G7 Summit in Toronto, security ministers demanded that tech companies step up the fight against dangerous content.

The Christchurch Call to Action

The Christchurch Call to Action to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online came in May 2019 from the Government of New Zealand as the peak of governmental demands for radical measures to be taken in this area.

Speaking to CNN, Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern said, “This call to action is not just about regulation, but instead about bringing IT companies to the table saying you have a role, too.”

The Call came after the tragic events of March 15, 2019, when a terrorist used Facebook Live to run a 17-minute broadcast of a mass shooting in Christchurch mosques. The video was accessible for 29 minutes on Facebook itself, and for several hours on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. The delayed reaction of global digital platforms meant that millions of users throughout the world watched the broadcast.

For New Zealand and for many other states, this tragedy signalled the need to take drastic measures. New Zealand and France spearheaded a summit held in Paris on May 15, 2019, that was attended by the leaders of 17 states, representatives of the European Commission and eight tech companies (Amazon, Daily Motion, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.) [1]. The Christchurch Call is essentially an action plan calling upon its signatories to prevent using the internet as a tool for terrorists.

As of today, 48 states, UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the European Commission and eight tech companies have joined the call to action.

Curiously, three important actors remained uninvolved with the Call to Action: Russia, China and the United States. Beijing and Moscow did not officially comment on their refusal to join. Washington cited its respect for freedom of speech while generally supporting the overall goals of the document. The United States counters dangerous content at the state level, but it employs different methods. Instead of blocking information, the United States, according to the White House, promotes credible, alternative narratives to “defeat” terrorist messaging.

A Pure PPP

The Christchurch Call is a pure PPP. The document envisions a clear delimitation of duties between government bodies and businesses.

For instance, governments must:

-counter the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism;

-increase media literacy;

-ensure the effective enforcement of applicable laws;

-encourage media outlets to apply ethical standards when depicting terrorist events online.

Technical solutions, including content control (content filtering and blocking), are left to tech companies that, among other things, are mandated to:

-develop technical solutions to prevent the upload of violent terrorist and extremist content;

-provide greater transparency in detecting and removing content;

-implement regular reporting;

-ensure that algorithms developed and used by the companies do not lead users to extremist content.

The Call also lists several joint commitments for government and online service providers, including:

-accelerating research into and developing technical solutions;

-ensuring appropriate cooperation with and among law enforcement agencies for the purposes of investigating and prosecuting illegal online activity;

-developing processes allowing governments and online service providers to respond rapidly, effectively and in a coordinated manner to the dissemination of terrorist or violent extremist content.

GIFCT to the Rescue

Global tech companies began to respond to the governmental calls to flag dangerous online content long before the tragedy in Christchurch. For instance, in June 2017, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube formed the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) under the auspices of the United Nations. The Forum’s participants pledged:

  1. to develop and share technology to responsibly address terrorist content across the industry;
  2. to fund research and share good practices in order to develop viable methods of countering dangerous content.

The European Commission supported the Forum, allocating €10m in funding to it. Additionally, a $5m joint innovation fund was launched jointly with Google.org for countering hate and extremism. This fund financed non-profits combating hate both online and offline.

GIFCT is based on a multi-stakeholder governance model and actively cooperates with small internet companies, civil society, scientists, and governmental and non-governmental organizations. Through the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism and the Tech Against Terrorism programme spearheaded by the United Nations, the Forum has worked with over a hundred tech companies throughout the world. Conferences for stakeholders have been held in Europe, the Asia Pacific and Silicon Valley. Additionally, GIFCT members attend G7 ministerial meetings and actively interact with Europol.

At the same time, the Forum is not open to everyone. In November 2019, China’s rapidly developing internet platform TikTok was denied membership because it did not meet the established criteria, including compliance with certain human rights requirements and the publication of transparency reports. The Forum’s members are concerned that TikTok may be collecting data and engaging in censorship.

Methods of Countering Dangerous Content

The principal method of countering dangerous content is the constant updating of the general industry “hash” database. “Hashes” are unique digital “fingerprints” of terrorist and extremist content (photos and videos). This database allows any Forum member to automatically detect and remove illegal content from their digital platforms prior to it going public. In the two years since its launch, GIFCT has accumulated over 200,000 unique hashes. In addition to this database, Forum members have been able to share URLs linked to terrorist and extremist content securely with their sectoral partners since January 2019.

As of today, 13 companies and services have access to the database: Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Ask.fm, Cloudinary, Instagram, JustPaste.it, LinkedIn, Verizon Media, Reddit, Snap and Yellow. As we can see, access has mostly been granted to companies based in the United States.

To support the Christchurch Call, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft released joint statement on expanding the GIFCT’s activities and listing nine steps on countering terrorist and extremism content online. Nearly half of these steps need to involve government agencies and other stakeholders. These actions include, among other things:

  • updating terms of use for various digital platforms and services
  • creating better feedback methods for reporting illegal content
  • enhancing technology through additional investment
  • cooperating with the sectoral, governmental and non-governmental bodies with a view to developing a protocol for rapid response to illegal actions
  • publishing regular reports on transparency concerning flagging and removing terrorist content

More New Initiatives

The Christchurch Call also generated new institutions, instruments and forms of business cooperation with governmental agencies and civil society bodies.

In September 2019, GIFCT was transformed into an independent organization. The Forum’s participants announced that they would be expanding cooperation between companies, governmental agencies and experts.

To support the “call to action,” the companies agreed to take additional steps:

-set up formal channels of communication so they can share intelligence and content with non-GIFCT companies and other stakeholders;

-introduce joint content incident protocols to enable and empower companies to more quickly and effectively respond to illegal online activities (such a protocol describes steps companies could take for a rapid response to an attack).

The Christchurch Call Advisory Network will be set up to ensure that the measures adopted to counter dangerous content do not violate human rights. The network will comprise civil society organizations that aim to “integrate a broad range of perspectives and live up to the commitments in the Call around supporting human rights and online freedoms, as well as the rights of victims of terror.”

It is also worth noting here that, in September 2019, Microsoft, Hewlett Foundation, MasterCard and several other large IT corporations, together with a number of charity foundations, launched the CyberPeace Institute intended to aid victims of cybercrime.

“Occupational Aptitude” Test

A tragedy in Germany served as the first major occupational aptitude test for the overhauled GIFCT. On October 9, 2019, several shooters opened fire in the vicinity of a synagogue in Halle and uploaded a video of the attack. The video remained on Twitch for 65 minutes and was seen by 2200 people. Copies were distributed via Telegram, 4chan and other services (none of which are GIFCT members).

The video of the shooting was not spread via larger online platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, which GIFCT saw as a positive shift in countering extremist content. This was largely due to the abovementioned Content Incident Protocol (CIP). Actions taken under the protocol include: a) promptly uploading hashes of the attacker’s video, its derivatives, and other related content into the shared GIFCT hash database; and b) promptly notifying Europol and the government of Germany about the incident.

The official website of the Forum notes that the incident uncovered vulnerabilities where additional work on mechanisms for countering dangerous content is needed. Moreover, the Forum’s members intend to simplify the decision-making process, step up the exchange of information with various stakeholders and ensure that the blocking system is continually improved.

One Goal, Different Approaches

Russia was not involved with the Christchurch call and the new institutions and mechanisms it generated. The media reported that Russian companies had not been invited to sign the document.

At the same time, representatives of Russian online platforms said that their own rules generally comply with the contents of the Call. The Odnoklassniki social network welcomes the introduction of rules for handling extremist content. Additionally, the network continuously improves its tools for the rapid detection and blocking of prohibited content. For this purpose, it primarily uses so-called neural networks that have learned to identify depictions of violence in accordance with set patterns and hide dangerous content from public access. Another social network, VKontakte, also uses neural networks to automatically detect and block extremist content. Pursuant to requests from users or governmental agencies, dangerous posts are blocked within minutes.

The Russian government was also not involved with the Christchurch Call, since it had not been invited to join the discussion of the document and endorse it.

We can assume that the Call in its current form, despite its good intentions, would hardly suit the Russian side. We have already mentioned that the Christchurch Call is a pure public-private partnership that assigns significant responsibilities to private companies. Russia, on the other hand, invariably emphasizes the importance of public-private partnerships while maintaining the leading role of the state in handling security issues. Other stakeholders (non-governmental organizations, private companies, etc.) are assigned supporting roles. Western companies, on the contrary, stress the leading role of businesses in this issue. For instance, Tom Burt, Corporate Vice President for Customer Security and Trust at Microsoft, noted in his blog, “The internet is the creation of the private sector, which is primarily responsible for its operation, evolution and security.” He believes that governments should play an important role in observing and enforcing standards of conduct in cyberspace and in preventing harmful attacks by other nations.

Despite these different approaches, there are certain common points where Russian and Western interests overlap:

  1. Tightening control over online information flows.
  2. Involving various stakeholders in the process of resolving the problem.

The danger of illegal content spreading over the internet is a global cross-border threat. Russia does not censor the internet like China does with its Great Firewall. Millions of Russian citizens use Western internet platforms, browsers and messengers, and the dangerous content spread there is our problem too. What matters in this regard is the dialogue between parties, even if Russia (through the government or private companies) was not a signatory to the Christchurch Call to Action and is not a member of the organizations affiliated with it. It is important that we make use of those areas where Russian and Western interests overlap, since we travel different roads to the same goal – cleansing the information space of dangerous content.

Communication channels between Russian and Western stakeholders need to be set up, and agreements need to be reached on the means of interacting and cooperating. Criteria need to be defined for flagging extremist and terrorist content to prevent misidentification. And technical solutions need to be shared.

An open-ended intergovernmental expert committee could serve as a platform for sharing opinions on the problem with a view to drafting an international convention on countering the criminal use of information and communication technologies.

 [1] A total of 17 states supported the Christchurch Call At the Paris Summit on May 15, 2019 (the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Senegal, Spain and Sweden), as did the European Commission and eight tech companies (Amazon, Daily Motion, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Qwant, Twitter and YouTube).

From our partner RIAC

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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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