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Lessons from Chernobyl, Terrorism on Dealing with Mental Health Challenges of COVID-19

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With COVID-19 we are dealing with an invisible stressor and the potentially traumatic threat of death to ourselves and our loved ones. Both of these are creating widespread feelings of anxiety and depression, and may in the long run, if we get the hundreds of thousands of deaths as potentially predicted, cause a new kind of post-traumatic stress in some, and complicated grieving in others. I’ve been involved in two similar-type traumatic stressors: one, the Chernobyl power plant explosion, a technological disaster spewing radioactive particles over a vast area of land, and the other involving nonstate terrorist actors killing some, while threatening to kill all, that may have lessons to teach us about how to psychologically cope better on an individual and national level with COVID-19. What can we learn from other similar stressors to brace and get through this one?

Terrorists – We Can Kill You Anywhere, at Any Time. The global COVID-19 threat is completely different, yet not totally unlike, than terrorists who, after successfully carrying out one spectacular attack or a campaign of attacks that are widely nationally or internationally broadcast, spread fear and anxiety throughout entire societies. It’s not rational, really; terrorists who in reality only killed dozens somehow manage to convince entire populations that they can be killed at anytime, anywhere, and thus make us all fear.

What we learned with the terrorist threat is that the news media, particularly during and right after an attack, is deeply important – that it’s crucial to have broadcasters who don’t sensationalize and whip up the fear any more than is necessary to take wise precautions and leaders and spokespersons who instill trust and calm throughout the nation. We need to be able to turn to credible leaders to pass true and trustworthy information so that the population follows their instructions and doesn’t begin to doubt and look for their own, often misguided, sources of information. We already have seen this with the couple who recently ingested a substance that President Trump touted as a potential cure for COVID-19, yet the form they took killed one of them.

Likewise, it’s important for parents to realize that children are also viewing the news as well and are too young to make sense of it and are frightened by it. For instance, after 9/11, even children in Italy were reporting nightmares of planes crashing into their apartment buildings after viewing the planes of 9/11 hitting the twin towers in New York too many times, with too many heightened emotions. Similarly, I recently heard about one 3-year-old child who, after hearing too much scary COVID-19 news, began to ask his mother, “Are there viruses here in our home too?” Sometimes it’s good to shut off the news when small children are around. These days, with Twitter also giving adults endless and frightening news, adults too may need to exercise self-discipline and not overload their emotional capacities.

Chernobyl: The Invisible Stressor of Radiation Poisoning

The Chernobyl disaster also gives us lessons about facing an invisible stressor, much like the COVID-19 virus that can’t be seen by the naked eye, but can be lethal nonetheless. While many are frustrated by the lack of COVID-19 testing, all of us are inundated with the news of its highly contagious nature leading many to speculate about what may be in their futures if they too become infected. For instance, a mother in Europe told me her son had bronchitis and due to the restrictions had to have the doctor come to them. She relayed how the healthcare workers arrived fully suited to test her young toddler. While he tested negative, she could only imagine what might have happened if he tested positive. Would they have separated him from his mother and taken him to the hospital alone?

How many deaths will occur with family members unable to be at their loved ones’ bedsides, unable to say goodbye? It haunts all of us when a loved one begins to cough or complain of any symptoms resembling those of COVID-19.

This is not unlike our experiences in 1997, when my husband was posted as U.S. Ambassador in Belarus, the former Soviet Union country hit hardest by the Chernobyl disaster, with most of the radioactive fallout landing on Belarusian territory. We had three young children with us and were naturally concerned about their being exposed. I wasn’t the only one worried. It was 11 years after the disaster but the “Chernobyl necklaces” – scars crossing the throats of children who had developed thyroid cancer – were sobering reminders of the dangers that may still lurk in the food, soil and air. Mothers were terrified when their children sneezed or fell ill, fearing the worst – that they had been radiated and now had cancer. It’s not unlike COVID-19 today with everyone wondering what they might touch, walk upon, or breathe that could bring the toxic death virus inside their bodies and homes. It’s not irrational to have fears as we watch the fatality numbers growing and the predictions that hundreds of thousands may die.

In Belarus, the Chernobyl liquidators, brave men and women who had gone to shut down the nuclear reactor, some even working on the rooftop to build a giant sarcophagus to contain it, asked me to study their post-traumatic responses years after having been exposed to radiation, as some of their comrades had died of radiation poisoning afterwards. They all feared early deaths, cancers and some even had partners who didn’t want to risk having children for fear of potential birth defects due to radiation mutations.

Studying their responses, I and others learned that the Chernobyl liquidators had all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. They had faced an event that threatened all of their lives, had learned of others dying horrific deaths in wards shuttered from public visits, and they as a result suffered extreme fear, anxiety and depression, and a sense of heightened arousal in their bodies. They suffered nightmares and found it difficult to sleep. They tried hard to avoid thinking or talking about the disaster, but often felt they could not and then resorted to drinking and other maladaptive methods of trying to calm themselves.

But the one thing they didn’t suffer were flashbacks of the event. That was because they had faced an invisible stressor, something unlike other traumas, where the threat to life involves a painfully and overwhelmingly visible traumatic stressor, which is remembered over and over again after the event. Many PTSD survivors refer to these post-traumatic flashbacks, which repeatedly intrude into their everyday thoughts, as being like full-sensory films, in which they painfully relive the traumatic event with the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and sensations of the traumatic event still all intact – to be relived again in every gory detail.

There were no such traumatic flashbacks for the Chernobyl liquidators because their trauma was informational, and the stressor was invisible. Most had only learned later of the grave dangers they had undergone while being exposed to this invisible stressor of radiation. It is the same now for COVID-19 exposure. While as a collective society we are all exposed to the COVID-19 crisis, none of us know as individuals, until we fall ill, if we have been exposed and may die of it. But that doesn’t stop our minds from conjuring up ill-fated futures with which to torture us. In the case of the Chernobyl liquidators, they experienced what I began to refer to as flash-forwards – traumatic images that played in their minds of falling ill with cancer, of dying early, or of being rejected by others, and these robbed them of their joy and caused them the same deep distress often seen in PTSD. In fact, I believe they had PTSD from the Chernobyl event, but with this one feature specifically different – the horror playing in their minds was not of a past event, but of a poisoned future.

So how can we as a collective society, and individually, deal with the stress and anxiety and potential trauma of COVID-19? First is to realize the stress and traumas may raise cortisol levels in our bodies and that we can do things to antagonize that. One is engaging in attachment behaviors that release oxytocin in our brains and bodies, a hormone that naturally antagonizes cortisol and lowers it. That’s why you see toddlers who are exploring their worlds, when frightened, turning back to their parents for a reassuring gaze or vocalization, or even running back for a hug, to let them know the fear is not overwhelming and that they can carry on. It’s a natural stress inhibitor to engage in attachment behaviors. Okay, so we can’t hug and touch anymore, except in our immediate families, but a phone call, reaching out to others and knowing you are not facing this alone, and some laughter can be very strong medicine to keep stress levels in check, as can diverting your attention from the stressor by absorbing yourself in things that bring joy or take your thoughts elsewhere. Likewise, exercise is good.

While we don’t want to dwell on the negative, we also need to face that some of us will lose loved ones, which is why we all must take social distancing seriously and try to minimize the number of losses. For those who do suffer losses, we can expect to see complicated grieving. We may not be able to be at the bedside or even enter the hospitals where our loved ones are treated, or be able to hold funerals and burials for some. This will inhibit grieving and we will have to find other ways to hold delayed memorials and to grieve with rituals that differ from those relied upon in the past.

But we also need to put our fears into perspective. When 9/11 happened, I was in Brussels and held stress debriefings for expats who feared for family members back home, about flights and about the next attack, which al-Qaeda had announced would be at NATO headquarters in Brussels in October. Government officials suddenly went to militarized workplaces, passing armed guards and tanks on their way into their offices and heard about real and fake anthrax arriving into many of the U.S. embassies around the world. They became terrified and started ruminating about their fears.

I told them to put it into perspective and asked how many had driven to the meeting we were holding? How many had partaken of the snacks served? Who dared to sit under the chandelier that might fall down and kill them if it dislodged from its hook in the ceiling? There are many ways to die and we generally block them all out. COVID-19 is making us acutely aware in these uncertain times of our own, and our loved ones’, mortality. Aside from giving us a terrifying glimpse of our potential grim futures, it might also be a good thing.

Realizing that those around you, those you work with, those you interact with on a daily basis, your family members and even the strangers you pass never to see again are all mortal has the potential to instill deep terror inside. It also has the potential to make you a better human being, one filled with compassion and love for your fellow human traveler. We are all here only for a short time and this can be a time when we take the extra steps to be kind to one another and show love for all. COVID-19 is a pandemic of epic proportions but if we all refuse to give into fear and choose to respond with love and care it can also be a blessing in disguise.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Weapons from Ukraine’s war now coming to Africa

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said that weapons from the raging war between Russia and Ukraine are now slipping into the Lake Chad Basin region.

Lake Chad region, an economically and socially integrated area in West and Central Africa straddling Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.

In his opening address at the 16th Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) Buhari, who is also the Chairman of the Summit, said the situation which had heightened the proliferation of small arms and light weapons called for reawakening of the border security of the countries of the region.

President Buhari said the Russia/Ukraine conflict and other violent situations in the Sahel region of West Africa had compounded the Boko Haram terrorism in the Lake Chad Basin region.

He said though a lot had been done to decimate the strength of the Boko Haram terror group and other violent extremist groups in the region, terrorists threats still persist.

“Regrettably, the situation in the Sahel and the raging war in Ukraine serve as major sources of weapons and fighters that bolster the ranks of the terrorists in Lake Chad Region. A substantial proportion of the arms and ammunitions procured to execute the war in Libya, continues to find its way to the Lake Chad Region and other parts of the Sahel. Weapons being used for the war in Ukraine and Russia are equally beginning to filter to the region.

…The question why there are weapons from Ukraine in Africa is critical. Even western countries supplying  weapons to Ukraine are seriously concerned about such cases. Reselling weapons abroad – to Europe (Sweden) and Africa is becoming a common practice in Ukraine.

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Istanbul Terrorist Attack: What Awaits Turkey and its Neighbors?

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A terrorist attack on November 13 in central Istanbul killed six people and injured more than 80. The tragedy took place on the busy pedestrian İstiklal Avenue, about 200 meters from the diplomatic quarter, where the Russian Consulate General and Trade Mission, as well as the Russian school, are located.

Turkish police detained a Syrian woman with suspected ties to left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militias operating in Syria, who confessed to planting an explosive device. Turkish Interior Minister S. Soylu stated that the attack was carried out at the behest of the headquarters of the terrorist People’s Defense Units (YPG) in the Kobanî district of Syria. According to the Minister, the hands-on perpetrator of the Beyoğlu attack confessed during interrogation that she had been sent by PKK/YPG leaders illegally to Turkey via Syrian Afrin.

In retaliation for the attack, Turkey initiated airstrikes on Kurdish left-wing radical bases in Syria. According to the Turkish Defense Ministry, Operation Claw-Sword is targeted at “neutralizing the PKK/YPG and other terrorist elements [and] eliminating terrorist attacks against our people and security forces in northern Syria.”

Operation Claw-Sword is a military campaign in Syria and Iraq unprecedented in its massive use of combat aircrafts and UAVs against the bases of various Kurdish left-wing radical groups affiliated with the PKK. Nevertheless, no decision has been made to transform this operation into a ground phase so far, but it is very likely that the Istanbul blast will have serious implications not only for the domestic political situation, but also for Turkey’s neighboring states. In particular, such sentiment was expressed by Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Syria for Syria A. Lavrentyev. “We used the Astana Format on Syria to have very detailed conversations with our Turkish counterparts and try to convince them to refrain from conducting full-scale ground operations. We still believe that there could be a serious escalation of violence not only in northeastern Syria, on the territory of Syria itself, but in the Middle East as a whole,” he said during a press conference following the 19th round of the Astana talks on Syria.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its affiliates: Between terrorism and the fight against terrorism

However, the PKK leadership denies its involvement in the attack: “We have nothing to do with this incident and it is well-known by the public that we would not target civilians directly or approve of actions directed at civilians,” said a statement of the so-called Headquarters Command of the People’s Defense Center, which is the command of the military wing of the group.

The Syrian wing of the PKK, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose combat wing are the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria, did not admit guilt for the attack either. “Attempts by Turkish intelligence services to blame our militias for the explosion are intended to legitimize Ankara’s preparations for a new military operation in northern Syria to expand the border security zone,” the PYD said in a statement.

From Ankara’s point of view, however, there is no difference between the PKK and the PYD, since both are part of the Kurdistan Communities Union (Koma Civaken Kurdistan, KCK), headed by Abdullah Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence in Turkey. The KCK is an umbrella organization whose leadership replaced that of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party back in the early 2000s. The latter, in turn, became a regional Turkish affiliate of the Kurdistan Communities Union. While other groups created by the PKK, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Iran, have become branches of the KCK in these countries on an equal footing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The same applies to the PYD in Syria.

Turkey did not accept as an argument the denial of responsibility for the Istanbul attack by the above-mentioned organizations. Ankara continues to accuse the Syrian branches of the PKK of numerous terrorist attacks, which they have denied or shifted the blame to cover organizations such as the Afrin Liberation Forces, whose connection to the YPG is considered by many experts to be apparent.

Among the most notorious and bloodiest terrorist attacks was the April 2020 bombing of a market in the city of Afrin, which was blamed on YPG cells. It killed 53 civilians and injured at least 50. And in January 2021, a car bombing in the same Afrin region claimed the lives of six civilians and wounded about 25 others. No one has taken responsibility for the attack, but Ankara blamed the YPG for the explosion.

Neither Turkey’s NATO allies nor most EU countries, which included the PKK in their terrorist lists, had any doubts about its terrorist component. But Ankara’s partners have been less consistent with the PKK affiliates of the KCK. Washington has chosen the Syrian branch of the PKK, the PYD, and its combat wing, the YPG, as its priority ally in the fight against the IS terrorists (an organization recognized as terrorist and banned in Russia). This, however, did not happen immediately as the Pentagon and the CIA were divided on this matter. The CIA insisted on continued cooperation with Syrian opposition structures from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) and affiliated groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA, SNA) and moderate Islamists. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense urged the U.S. leadership to give up support for the Islamists and switch to assistance to the far more understandable and ideologically close, given their declared principles, Kurdish left-wing YPG groups in Syria.

The Pentagon’s position eventually prevailed in the American leadership, and the PYD and YPG became the basis of the proto-state and paramilitary structures in northeastern Syria — the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — created under Washington’s auspices. Such a move has stalled U.S.-Turkish ties and is still probably the main knot of tension in their bilateral relations.

The YPG between Washington and Moscow

The recent terrorist attack in Istanbul will seriously complicate the U.S. ability to support the YPG if Ankara decides to conduct a new full-scale military operation in Syria, rather than limiting it to air strikes. According to Ankara, Washington is also responsible for this explosion because it prevents the suppression of YPG activities in Syria by the Turkish Armed Forces, trains and equips these formations, designated terrorist by Turkey. This, in particular, was made clear by Turkish Interior Minister Soylu, responding to the condolences expressed by the U.S. on the terrorist attack: “I think that we should assess the condolences made by the U.S. today as if the killer would have been one of the first to arrive on the scene, and the reaction to this message will be very precisely. It will be seen in the near future, God willing,” said the Minister.

Ankara now has greater leverage to press Washington to remove the security umbrella from the YPG, at least in the 32 km strip where a new operation is most likely to take place. Turkish President Erdogan also has the option of freezing the accession process of Finland and Sweden to NATO by taking advantage of the terrorist attack if his wishes for a new military operation in U.S. politics are not carried out.

On the other hand, the position of Russia has not gone unnoticed by the Turkish leadership. Moscow has repeatedly deterred Ankara from launching a new offensive against the Kurdish left-wing radical groups in Syria. “Despite our repeated warnings to Russia, which is responsible for destroying terrorists in northern Iraq [1] and Syria under our 2019 Sochi agreement, Moscow refuses to do its duty,” Turkish President Erdogan said.

One thing to keep in mind is that Russia, too, referred to Turkey’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the Idlib Memorandum by supporting the Syrian government forces during operations in Idlib. By the way, they have not been implemented so far. By preventing new Turkish operations in Syria against the Kurdish left-wing groups, Russia tried primarily to protect the interests of its ally in Damascus and to prevent new violations of Syria’s sovereignty by offering the Assad regime various forms of relations with the Syrian Kurds and their integration into the Syrian state structures. However, this process has never advanced.

After the Istanbul attack, it will probably be much more difficult for Moscow, as well as Washington, to keep Ankara from another invasion of northeastern Syria. Now Erdogan has a serious trump card that is not easy to beat, and any attempt to press Turkey on this issue can only lead to a worsening of relations. This would be extremely undesirable for Russia, since Turkey remains its leading economic partner and logistics hub after cutting ties with the West.

In addition, one should not discount the very desire to foot on both camps and the provocative actions of Kurdish formations in the SAR, which did not stop sabotage and terrorist activities in the areas of the Turkish operations “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield”. At the same time, in the course of the Turkish operation “The Source of Peace” in the fall of 2019, during negotiations between the Russian side and the Syrian Kurds, the latter agreed to Russian proposals to withdraw YPG units from the border strip in northeastern Syria, where Russian-Turkish patrols were supposed to operate. This provision was enshrined in the Sochi Memorandum, to which Erdogan referred in his claims against Moscow. However, once it became clear that the Trump administration had changed its decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the YPG decided not to burden themselves with their previous commitments and maintained their military presence along the Syrian-Turkish border. This, in fact, predetermined a new military operation between Turkey and the SNA and exposed Moscow to criticism from Ankara.

For his part, Mazloum Kobane, the military commander of the left-radical Kurdish formations in Syria, expressed disappointment at what he called “the weak response of Russia and the United States” to dozens of Turkish airstrikes. In his opinion, Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine increased Turkey’s value in the eyes of both Russia and the West. Many believe that the sluggish response of both states to Turkey’s escalating war against the Syrian Kurds is explained by their desire to pull Ankara over to one side. According to Kobane, unless Moscow and Washington show firmness, Turkey is likely to carry out repeated threats to launch an offensive in Syria, as it did in two separate incursions in 2018 and 2019.

Moscow has previously made it clear that stopping the Turkish military operation is only possible through diplomacy, since the Syrian armed forces cannot stand up to the more powerful Turkish Armed Forces if they want to participate in repelling the Turkish offensive against the YPG, especially since they are exhausted from a decade of civil war. Therefore, the most acceptable option would be to make Ankara and Damascus jointly address the issue of the Kurdish left-wing groups in Syria, helping them to find common ground on other positions as well.

Domestic political factor

The recent attack came at a very opportune time for Turkey’s leadership, when there is an uncompromising battle for votes ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May. The Istanbul bombing has already triggered painful memories in Turkish society of the barrage of terrorist attacks in June-November 2015. At that time, the Republic of Turkey was forced to hold parliamentary elections twice, as R.T. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was unable to form a governing coalition.

It should not be forgotten that in 2015, because of the terrorist activity that rallied the nation, the president’s party rating rose 9% in five months, and the resulting need to tackle security problems dissipated the political uncertainty. Then the supporters of the Turkish leader did not just win back positions in the second vote, but secured a solid parliamentary majority.

However, both in 2015 and now the terrorist attack gave rise to a variety of conspiracy theories. However, even the opposition HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), which is often accused of being sympathetic to the PKK, is inclined to consider the attack a provocation by “third forces,” rather than blaming the government. The Istanbul explosion occurred against the backdrop of a gradual normalization of the authorities’ relations with political movements (such as the HDP), which are usually affiliated to some extent with Kurdish left-wing radical groups, including the PKK. The AKP could in some way count on the support of these forces in the upcoming elections. Now that the country’s leadership has engaged in an escalation scenario towards Syrian Kurdish groups, such an option is hardly possible.

Naturally, the opposition will also try to use the implications of the terrorist attack to their advantage. Thus, the head of Turkey’s main opposition party (Republican People’s Party, CHP) K. Kılıçdaroğlu lashed out at the government for failing to ensure border security. “They say that borders are an honor. And then they don’t hesitate to tell us that the terrorist got into Turkey illegally. How was she able to get past our borders?” he stated.

In turn, the leader of the far-right “Victory Party” (Zafer Partisi) U. Özdağ, who is gaining popularity on the issue of migration, also stressed that the authorities promised to secure the north of Syria in order to return refugees there, but “they cannot even secure the center of the largest city.” He recalled that the city of Afrin, from which the terrorist had arrived, was under Turkish control. “We barely made it to the site of the explosion to pay tribute to the victims. Several barricades were lined up in front of us and let five people through. It would be better to put these barricades on the borders with Syria, so that this terrorist could not get into our country so easily,” he said.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that criticism of the opposition forces may rather push the R.T. Erdogan administration to conduct a new military operation in Syria against the Kurdish left-wing radical groups than force it to abandon the idea. In fact, opposition leaders are criticizing the government for weakness and inconsistency, but not for the inherently flawed plan to create a security zone in Syria. Now the president has the opportunity to move to more active military action, which should not be limited to air strikes, to demonstrate to his opponents the willingness to put a stop to the issue of protecting the national borders from the Kurdish left-wing radical groups.

Troubled proxies

However, despite all the possible domestic and foreign policy dividends of a military campaign in Syria, today Turkey is minimally ready to launch it, and it is all about its Syrian allies. After all, it was the Syrian National Army (SNA), created by Turkey from various opposition groups, that used to be a key component of ground operations against the Kurdish left-wing radical groups. Turkish Armed Forces supported the SNA with tanks, armor, special forces, artillery and aviation.

Since the conflict between the SNA factions at the beginning of October, it has been in a state of “half-decay”. One side was represented by the Third Corps of the SNA, led by the Levant Front (Jabhat al-Shamiyah), the other by the al-Hamza Division, the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division and Ahrar al-Sham, supported by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorists (an organization recognized as terrorist and banned on Russian territory), who came to Afrin from Idlib.

Although it was possible to suspend hostilities after Turkey’s interference and the entry of Turkish units in Syrian Afrin on October 17, it is premature to talk about the complete withdrawal of radical forces. All this also indicates a further strengthening of the Tahrir al-Sham and a weakening of the SNA. That leaves Turkey with two options. The first is to bet on the radicals from Tahrir al-Sham, which will lead to serious image losses, even if these formations are used under a false flag, given their terrorist nature. The second option is to conduct the operation relying on Turkey’s own armed forces, which is fraught with large losses of Turkish soldiers. This could blur the entire positive domestic political effect of such an operation.

Nevertheless, the Turkish military command still expects to bring the Syrian National Army to a state of combat readiness and use them for an offensive operation. In particular, on November 2 there was a meeting of the Turkish command with the leadership of the SNA groups in the Turkish Gaziantep. The SNA commanders were ordered to dissolve all alliances within the Army and return to the previously approved regular structure of corps, divisions and brigades; to transfer control of all checkpoints to the joint security apparatus, and border checkpoints to the finance committee (customs); and to close their own detention departments. In addition, if certain factions are involved in conflicts among themselves, they can be disbanded. However, it is not yet known whether these measures have had the desired effect.

[1] In this case, the Turkish president made a mistake. The 2019 Sochi agreement, which provided for the withdrawal of the YPG from the 32 km border area under Russian military police control, referred only to Syria, not to Iraq.

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Terrorist Upsurge in Taliban’s Afghanistan: Regimes, Attacks and the Concerns of Neighbors

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(file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

The U.S. undersecretary of defence for policy, Dr. Colin Kahl had wisely predicted in October 2021, that a possible resurgence of international terrorism might emanate from Afghanistan. His assessment regarding Al-Qaeda and ISIS’ intent of conducting and augmenting the terrorist activities and networks inside and outside the country is gradually being palpable over time. One year has passed but the Taliban government is still lacking an adequate approach to thwart terrorism. However, under the regime, along with Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K, many more terrorist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM, known as the Turkestan Islamic Party), Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Khatiba Imam al-Bukha, Islamic Jihad Group, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, using the country as a citadel, are now operating in Afghanistan and conducting terrorist attacks in domestic and external arena.

Terrorist Groups in Taliban’s Afghanistan: Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, TTP, ETIM and Others

Despite renouncing overt inclination and connection with the terrorist groups, the Taliban regime is sympathetic to them. Mainstream terrorist groups have been gradually expanding their roots in the country due to the Taliban’s rickety policy. There are many terrorist groups and regimes such as Al-Qaeda and IS-K, in the country that are saliently and robustly active in their activities.

To talk about Al-Qaeda firstly, since the Taliban regime’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the core leadership of the group congratulated the regime. With the opportunity of the Taliban’s zero concern, by that time, the terrorist group has energized its affiliation with the outer world and reinvigorated its roots in the country by recruiting more members in and outside the country. With the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda had got a new impetus in Taliban’s Afghanistan to enlarge its branches. Although Al-Zawahiri has been killed by a drone strike, the activities of Al-Qaeda are not halted yet. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, however, is mostly run with an affiliation with al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Respecting this, however, being the regime and the country as a haven, it still ‘remains a central strategic node’ for Al-Qaeda.

Likewise, the Islamic State Khorasan branch, widely known as ISIS-K or IS-K, is another notorious terrorist group which is a powerful branch of the worldwide Islamic State. In Afghanistan, while IS highly seems to be an enemy group of Al-Qaeda and Taliban, its objective is analogous to the goal of Al-Qaeda to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. With other leaders such as Maulawi Rajab Salahudin, Sultan Aziz Azam, Aslam Farooqi and other erstwhile military personnel and intelligence agency members, the group is led by an Afghan national, Sanaullah Ghafari. By the way, after the takeover, in less than a year, the members of the group have doubled in the country and activities have been extremely dilated. Of them, more than half of its operatives are from foreign countries. However, per an estimation, the group has conducted more than seventy-six attacks within 2021 after the retreat of the US forces.

Moreover, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Khatiba Imam al-Bukha, Islamic Jihad Group, Lashkar-e-Taiba and many other regional and international terrorist networks and groups are staying in the country who are gravely accused of conducting terrorist attacks. Posing a vile threat to other neighbors countries like India, Pakistan and others, these groups are misusing Afghanistan as a conducive hub and the Taliban’s sympathetic stance in this regard is highly disquiet. After all the rise of the Taliban as a state actor in the contemporary time, and its victory over mainstream politics have unveiled conducive rooms for terrorist groups. It has been observed that diverse terrorist groups all over the world gleefully celebrated the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Without any doubt, under the Taliban regime, the revitalization of the network of global jihad is gradually becoming stronger in the country.

New Interim Government and Haqqani Network

A new interim government had been named in Afghanistan and controversially, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network had been appointed as the interior minister, in charge of security and police. This interim government is mostly led by the hardliners having no inclusion of minorities, women and opposition members. However, Sirajuddin Haqqani is one of the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ persons and his Haqqani Network is designated as a terrorist network due to having links to Al-Qaeda. Being established in the 1970s, The Sunni Islamist Haqqani network had fought Soviet-backed Afghanistan and later had been infamous for conducting suicide bombings and killing thousands of Afghans, Americans and Soviets.

This network’s high-profile attacks include the suicide bombing at Kabul’s Serena Hotel in 2008 and the killing of 16 Afghans in a 20-hour siege of the US Embassy in 2011. However, although the Taliban is bullish about the group and says that “the group will be more conciliatory now than in the past and will abide by certain international norms”, it is very unlikely to discern any transformation. While the Taliban is antagonistic towards ISIS-K, according to Sajjan Gohel, the Haqqani network preserves a sound connection with ISIS-K. According to Michael Kugelman,… “several members [and leaders] of the Haqqani network — which has been implicated in some of the most mass casualty horrific terrorist attacks in Afghanistan over the years.. And are going to be occupying the top spots [of interim government].”

Recent Terrorist Attacks in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

Without misgivings, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has given an impetus to the upsurge of Terrorism. According to the Statista, the index of terrorism in Afghanistan has heightened to 9.11 in 2021 which was 9.05 in 2020. Statista data also shows that in 2021-22, Afghanistan secures the top position in the list of deaths from terrorism. Accounting for 20% of all deaths, Afghanistan is in the highest position in sharing global terrorism deaths.

However, in recent times, many terrorist attacks and incidents have taken place in the country. In August 2022, a series of bombings occurred in which more than 250 people have been killed & injured. Police reported that during evening prayers, a huge explosion was conducted by bombings killing another 21 and injuring 33 people. Before the incident, Rahimullah Haqqani was assassinated in a suicide bombing led by the Da’esh terrorist network. However, recently, on September 22, 2022, in a catastrophic bomb blast, at least 07 people were killed and 41 were injured near a mosque in Kabul. This bombing was allegedly led by ISIS.

Moreover, on September 30, a serious suicidal terrorist attack was held in the coaching centre of Kabul. In the attack, more than 25 people were killed and according to reports, it was against the local Shia Hazara girls and people led by ISIS-K. Very recently, demanding protection against the militants, thousands of protestors have come out of their homes and rallied against the heinous attack of the TTP on a school van in Swat Valley of Pakistan. In the terrorist attack, the driver of the van was killed and 02 children were injured. According to some reports, they are gradually coming back to their respective areas in Pakistan from Kabul which infers that they are now bolstered to a grave extent. As a result of the activities of the notorious terrorist groups, it has become more palpable that in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan terrorism has expanded to an egregious degree.

Neighbors’ Concerns

Since the Taliban government is less likely to pursue any hard policy and follows a ‘sympathetic attitude’ towards Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K and others, the tension among the neighbors is swelling deliberately. For instance, conducting their activities from Kabul, Afghanistan, the TTP is being stronger day by day in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. The local people are highly concerned with the heinous attacks and mischief activities of the group. However, with the major theme of “security and economic development,” a three-day conference was held between July 25 to 26 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan where more than 20 states and organizations partook including China, Pakistan, Iran and other Central Asian countries. In the conference, the neighbor states showed grave concerns regarding the dilly-dallying policy of the Taliban government regarding the terrorist groups. Particularly, they focused on the abrupt and violent upsurge of Al-Qaeda with the sympathy of Taliban. The return of Al-Qaeda is gravely giving rise to a vulnerable region, in which regard, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and other countries are extremely concerned about the resilience in and outside the country.

Apart from all the grim developments, the major and big question is, whether the Taliban government has been competent to uphold its pledge about thwarting terrorism or the regime is pursuing a contrast path giving the groups more sympathy. Data and evidence exhibit that the regime is countenancing the terrorist groups which course is threatening and ominous not only for the region but rather for the whole world. As a result, the neighbors and other countries are highly concerned about the future trajectory of the groups. Therefore, in no time, the Taliban government should break up all the relationships with terrorist groups in order to keep its legitimacy in the international community.

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