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Is Internet Recruitment Enough to Seduce a Vulnerable Individual into Terrorism?

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

Is Internet recruitment alone strong enough to recruit an individual into a terrorist group, much less to incite him or her to travel across continents to join, as in the case of the 40,000 or so foreign terrorist fighters and their family members [FTFs] who traveled to ultimately join the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq? Most experts, until now, would likely answer no, stating that some face-to-face element is necessary to seal the deal.[i]

A new study, however, carried out by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] and based on 236 in-depth interviews carried out by the first author, demonstrates that this is no longer true. Based on these interviews, which queried about recruitment history and experiences with and inside the terrorist group, among many other aspects of the interviewees’ paths into and out of terrorism, the data clearly show that Internet recruitment alone is enough to seduce a vulnerable person into the group.

Of the 236 ICSVE interviews that have been translated and coded on 342 variables, 117 reported some element of Internet-based recruitment as part of their process of joining the group. For many, this included watching video footage produced by ISIS, and other rebel groups operating in Syria, and also made by Syrian civilians themselves depicting Assad’s tyranny, as well as in the case of ISIS, juxtaposing this to pictures of a victorious and utopian Islamic Caliphate that they claimed all Muslims were obligated to join and support. Others also made contact over the Internet with an ISIS recruiter, or a facilitator who talked them into coming, or at a minimum facilitated their passage into Syria. Others reached out via the Internet, or were contacted by an existing social network of family and friends who had joined before them.

Of the 236 interviewees, 49 percent of men and 52.6 percent of women reported Internet-related recruitment or online facilitation of travel of any type. Among those who were not living in Iraq and Syria at the time that they joined ISIS, the numbers are even higher, whether or not they ultimately traveled to join the group, as some were caught before entering ISIS territory. Of those participants from outside of Syria and Iraq, 78 percent of men and 67.9 percent of women reported Internet-related recruitment influences of any type.

What is most significant, however, is that a good-sized portion of the sample traveled to Syria and Iraq simply from following online recruitment alone: propaganda, recruiters or existing network influencers who motivated them to come. This occurred without any face-to-face recruitment augmenting as thought necessary by many experts up to this point. This portion of the sample, 17.7 percent of men (n=35) and 21.1 percent of women (n=8), reported that they traveled to Syria on this basis of Internet recruitment alone via terrorist propaganda and/or an actual recruiter/facilitator/or existing network friend or family member messaging them online.

The stories they tell include:

24-year-old Abu Walid, a well-educated Dutch ISIS fighter, who recalls embracing Islam at age 19 and then falling heavily under the passive Internet influence of viewing events unfolding amidst the Syrian uprising. “I watched videos on all the social media: Facebook, Twitter.” Then, over time, he states, “I started talking to people on social media.” He ultimately left the Netherlands to join ISIS in 2016.

24-year-old British born Jack Letts explains, “I came because of what Bashar was doing in 2015. I’d sit for hours on Twitter, [with the] ISIS Twitter guys.” Like many who followed ISIS on the Internet, Jack recalls how they instructed him to narrow his focus on what they alone told him, which also made it easier to believe them enough to travel to Syria. “IS guys said what you hear on the news is not true.”

Lisa Smith, a 37-year-old Irish woman, became discouraged after converting to Islam when the woman who mentored her became too strict and demanding. Her passion for her religion, however, was reignited when “I met an American guy online, Abu Hassan. He told me the basics of the Quran, what is allowed and not allowed.” Lisa traveled twice to Syria, first to help beleaguered Syrians and then again to join ISIS, both times under the tutelage of her online mentor. The second time she recalls questioning Abu Hassan about the ISIS brutality she was also viewing online, “I asked him. He said, ‘No! No! This is just propaganda. They don’t want people to make hijrah [travel to live under shariah law]. We are going to the square getting pistachio ice cream.’” Lisa queried her online mentor until she became convinced to travel into ISIS territory. “I asked him, ‘Is Baghdadi legit or not legit?’ ‘It’s legit. He’s from Khorash, meets all the conditions and anyone who doesn’t give pledge to the caliph, if they die they will die a death of jahiliya [ignorance].’” Lisa recalls, “For me Abu Hassan was so knowledgeable. I believed everything he said. He was very knowledgeable, very warm, never angry, a gentle, good guy.”

Abu Islam, a 40-year-old Pakistani man, was recruited into ISIS in 2014, solely over the Internet.  He recalls, “I was not a practicing Muslim till age of 36. I was seeking Islam and someone contacted me on Internet. I was looking why people are doing jihad. [Then,] I contacted Muhammed from ISIS.” When Muhammed learned that his Pakistani “brother” was in the petroleum industry, “he became excited. He said, ‘You are Muslim, my brother, you should come and help us.’ I told him, ‘There is war going on. How will you support me?’” Abu Islam’s recruiter told him, “We will keep you in a part where there is no war. We need engineers.” He then explained that the Caliphate had been established saying, “It’s your first duty to come,” and, “He gave me Quran and hadiths. We kept talking. It took me 2 months at least. I was afraid, but he framed me into a small circle: ‘You are doing a big sin if you don’t come.’ He was very intelligent. He said he was from Canada and he was there in Syria. He said, ‘If I can come from Canada, you are in the third world. You love this world so much? More than the Caliphate? He caught me, so I agreed to come to Turkey at least.”

29-year-old Swiss Abu Alia, who was born in Algeria but adopted and grew up Swiss, recalls finding Islam on the Internet in 2011 as well as Anwar Awlaki, who convinced him of the claim by ISIS and other groups that hijrah and jihad were his individual duties. After converting to Islam, Abu Alia recalls watching events of the Syrian uprising on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. “I was seeing a lot videos, Syrian regime bombings, I saw them calling, ‘Where are the Muslims? We are killed by Syrian regime!’ I thought I will leave to help these people. I went in 2013.” Such was his emotional response to viewing the Syrian suffering, coupled with meeting ISIS contacts over the Internet, to move him into action that Abu Alia traveled alone from Geneva to Istanbul, using a smuggler to enter Syria all based on connections with “someone on the Internet. I had made friends already there.” Abu Alia states, “I went for hijrah [to live in a land ruled by shariah] and to support Muslims there. I was working as a nurse or physical therapist [in ISIS].”

28-year-old French Umm Aliah recalls the family conflict that occurred after she converted to Islam. “I wanted to escape [my family]. I was 23. I started chatting on the Internet [and found an ISIS man who told me,] ‘This is Paradise here, you have to come.’“ Between believing she was on her way into an Islamic utopia to join her French lover and wanting to get away from family conflict she made her way from France into Syria.

Kimberly Pullman, a 46-year-old Canadian, recalls meeting her ISIS husband on Twitter and marrying him online. Kimberly recalls, “After a year of marriage, after he came to Syria, …He asked me, ‘You are not really the kind of woman who divorces. Why did you?’” Engulfed with feelings of shame and self-hatred over the sexual assaults and the marriage she had escaped when it turned violent, Kimberly recalls being amazed when he promised to restore her honor. “That is something I haven’t had. Giving back a purity that was taken away was something I wanted so badly. That is something that he didn’t hold against me and then that pulled me in.” She also recalls that her online husband “threatened to divorce me because I wouldn’t come.” Kimberly, like many of the others, had push factors as well as the online seduction. One of her rapists was put on trial and it was featured in the news, causing her massive post-traumatic flashbacks and suicidal feelings. Instead of committing suicide she decided to believe her online ISIS husband when he told her, “Come where you are loved. Your children don’t even see you. You have skills. You shouldn’t be alone.” She now states that it wasn’t just ISIS propaganda that pulled individuals into the group, but real online intimacies that made them abandon them homes and travel across continents. “It was not propaganda that worked on us. Many of us didn’t even see the videos.”

Terrorists have long used the Internet to push out their virulent ideologies and to recruit vulnerable individuals into their groups. This use of the Internet has now, however, escalated to the point where it is possible to recruit individuals into terrorism by Internet contact alone.  How is that possible?

There are many reasons; the first among them is that in the case of militant jihadist groups, al Qaeda and others have spent decades spreading a virulent ideology and convincing many that suicide terrorism is a type of Islamic martyrdom, that building a Caliphate is a goal to be strived after, and that making hijrah – that is, traveling to lands ruled by shariah law – and participating in militant jihad are obligations incumbent on all Muslims. In addition to this, the Internet has evolved to a point where the immediate feedback mechanisms of social media make it possible for terrorists to blanket the Internet with their propaganda and recruiting messages and then sit back and wait to see who responds. They can then pour their energy into honing in on those who show interest – “love bombing” – and swarming in on them.

Likewise, the Internet has created an environment in which the world has become smaller and more interconnected, with the possibility of viewing emotionally evocative video and imagery from far-off parts of the world in real time. This plays into already existing Islamic beliefs about the interconnectedness of the Muslim ummah, something militant jihadist terrorists are quick to capitalize upon. The suffering of other Muslims is the suffering of all, according to their claims, and jihad is the duty to come to their rescue.

Likewise, when an individual shows interest and is contacted by a terrorist recruiter, the possibility of a real and intimate relationship is now possible given video and audio capability, texting, chat and email. Terrorist recruiters can now reach into the bedrooms of vulnerable youth, and spend hours that few parents have time to invest, to groom their young recruits into believing that joining the terrorist group is the best way to find purpose, significance, dignity, prosperity, adventure, answers to problems and to ensure their afterlife.

While showing graphic images of suffering in the Muslim ummah to motivate viewers into action has long been the purview of militant jihadist recruiters, the current ability of Internet recruiters to now move the emotions of their potential recruits by graphically showing them events in real-time occurring across the world while convincing them that they have a part to play in ending this suffering is something new in the terrorist recruitment mix. Likewise, the newfound intimacy in Internet connections alongside the possibility of encrypted communication through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram makes Internet-based terrorist recruitment relationships real and vivid while at the same time hidden.

To fight back, public and private organizations alike are going to need to get better at discrediting terrorist ideologies as well as the groups they represent. At ICSVE, we believe that using insider stories from actual terrorist members is one strong way to do this, as demonstrated in the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project.[ii] However, we as a society also need to address the push factors of which terrorists take advantage: the perceived and actual grievances of being discriminated against, marginalized, under and un-employed and frustrated aspirations. Likewise, we also need to address the pull factors; most importantly, to make clear that there are much better options than engaging with a terrorist group to put an end to the suffering of Muslims throughout the world. Terrorists have always been one step ahead of us. Now that we know that they can recruit solely via the Internet, we need to get as creative and relational as they are and put a stop to it.

*Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE.  Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

[i] Mendelsohn, B. (2011). Foreign fighters—recent trends. Orbis55(2), 189-202.; Meleagrou-Hitchens, A., & Kaderbhai, N. (2017). Research perspectives on online radicalisation: A literature review, 2006-2016. International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 19.
[ii] Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A., & Bodo, L. (2018). Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.

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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Terrorism

Taliban Takeover and Resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan

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As a Security and International Relations student and someone who lived in Afghanistan, I believe that the withdrawal of the U.S and NATO troops will help Al-Qaeda reorganise its activities in Afghanistan and in a very short period. The group will be able to relaunch its activities.

After several years, the resurgence of Al-Qaeda is becoming evident in the post-US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Like many other non-state actors, the year 2021 is a year of hope for Al-Qaeda because it provides an opportunity for them to launch their halted global terrorist mission.

The U.S withdrawal will limit its ability to strike the al-Qaida core in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it will be a turning point for the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and from where they can expand their activities. Familiarity with the rugged terrain of Afghanistan and northern Africa will help Al-Qaeda to re-merge and assemble their forces quickly if there is no strong censorship on Al-Qaeda activities.

The relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is inseparable, and the victory of one group will pave the way for the resurgence of another group. Al-Qaeda and its adversary, Daesh داعش (IS) دولت اسلامی عراق وشام, will seek to extend their operations in Afghanistan in post-US and NATO withdrawal.

It is always very likely that terrorist groups are willing to help other terrorist organisations and provide them safe-havens. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are very interested in conquering Afghanistan. They are not having other interests in Afghanistan; however, they believe that the Islamic Army will come from Khurasan, which is current day Afghanistan, and the last battle will take place in Syria, therefore, for that reason, without any doubt the resurgence of the Al-Qaeda is taking place in the world, and the starting point for that resurgence will be Afghanistan.

Looking to the future, it is very likely that the increasing connections between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will lead the groups to work on long-term strategic partnerships. These terrorist groups will play their disrupting roles in terrorising civilians and government officials. The U.S and NATO intervention in Afghanistan had crippled Al-Qaeda. Still, the current withdrawal will give the group momentum to maximise the power vacuum created by the foreign troops in Afghanistan.

To conclude, I believe that the current grim situation in Afghanistan is paving the way for the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which can pose a serious threat to the international community. However, the scale and scope of terrorist activities of Al-Qaeda would be different from the 9/11 attacks due to strategic shifts in the strategic culture of the group. The group will always use its influence and strengthen ties with other terrorist groups stretching from Asia to Europe and Africa to America’s.

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Trends of Online Radicalization in Bangladesh: Security Implications

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Online radicalization poses a formidable threat to the stability of the country. With the imposition of lockdown in the last year, the nefarious fundamentalist   factions have ramped up their activities. As the country’s law and enforcement agencies are playing a vigilant and commendable role in combating heinous fundamental radicalism in Bangladesh, these radicals have instead resorted to the online mediums to recruit, sensitize and radicalize the youths of the country.

Bangladesh has historically been a bastion of pluralism as the country’s constitution provides primacy to the secular character of the republic. However, in keeping with the global trend of militancy Bangladesh had also witnessed spate of militant activities in the preceding decades culminating in the seige of Holi Artisan Bakery.

Since the catastrophic militant activities in 2016,Bangladesh government has taken  a slew of stern measures to combat the budding radicalism in the Bangladesh and to safeguard the country’s pluralist character.Hence, terrorist and radical factions didn’t gain ground in the succeeding years and last few years Bangladesh has enjoyed enviable stability from the untoward disturbances of these militants.

However, with the technological revolution in the country, it turns out that militants have adapted their tactics to the needs of the new epoch. While previously militants had a hard time in radicalizing people owing to the vigilance of the law enforcement agencies, in the realm of the online media militant find their fortress and esconsced themselves in various social media and web platforms.

In contrast to the traditional process of radicalization, militants found online radicalization much advantageous as it provided them with the opportunity to disseminate their diabolical propaganda to more people and help them conceal their identity.

Parallel with the acceleration of the online radicalization efforts, the character of the militants victims has also changed significantly.Previously, militants sprung mainly from the disadvantaged and destitute section of the country who were ridden by poverty and devoid of traditional schooling. Radical outfits found these militants easy prey  in their efforts to mobilize gullible youths to destabilize the country.

However, with the changing mediums of radicalization, the socioeconomic background has also witnessed c. In contrast to the impoverished background of militants, the  militants radicalized through online mediums represented instead deviated youths from very affluent backgrounds and these youths possessing modern university education. 

The radicalization of these urban university-educated students has baffled the policymakers and law-enforcement agencies of the country as the motivation of these youths don’t have any compelling rationale to join these militant organizations peddling medieval agendas.

The online radicalization is attributed as the  reason for the proliferation   of more urban educated militants. These urban credulous youths are allured by the rhetoric and propaganda of the militant leaders.

The online radicalizers remain within the shroud of online platforms and try to radicalize the youths with inflammatory speeches which seek to vilify the western liberal ideals and the democratic government.

They rail against the intention of the democratic government and attribute all the blame of muslim plights to the western machination. They selectively portray  the violence in conflict ridden nations like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan and cherry-pick the graphical images and videos to sensitize the deviant youths that their religion is in peril and only the youth can safeguard the religion from the clutches of western imperialism through radical activities. This evokes a kind of jihadi zeal in the youths which persuade them to engage in millitant mission to safeguard the honor of their religion . 

 These factors prod the youths to join the radical forces  which takes huge toll on the stability of the country.Besides, online radicalization also exacerbated the comunal rifts in the country which is manifested in frequent assault on country’s minority groups based on fictitious allegation of desecration. These attacks on minority is orchestrated by shrewd fundamentist to vitiate the prevailing communa

Regulating online platforms is much more difficult than traditional platforms which make combating these propaganda very arduous. 

One of the scapegoats of their propaganda is the democratic government in the country. These propagandists portray the democratically elected government in bad light through advancing their conspiracy theories and propaganda. These propaganda distort the conception of the general people about the government even when the people don’t engage in radical activities. 

 Waging wars through propaganda have also  become an attractive option for these radicals as these radical outfits launch smear-campaigns against the government and vitiate the government image to the general people through heinous propaganda machinery. Besides, these online radical outfits peddle conspiracy theories and a simplified understanding of the history and economics of the world. Unfortunately, even the majority of the educated young youths believe in these conspiracy theories and possess a skewed vision about  liberalism and modernity. 

 During the Covid-19 era with the imposition of the repeated lockdowns, numerous such online platforms sprung up. Under the facade of providing Islamic knowledge they are pedding nonsensical and harebrained propaganda and conspiracy theories to mobilize the youth in their efforts to destabilize the country and vitiate development.

During the  languorous lockdowns the youths provided prolific idle times which have come as a windfall to these radical outfits as they have accelerated their heinous propaganda amidst Covid-19 lockdown. There are several reasons for the sudden rise in online radicalization in Bangladesh. Firstly, as mentioned above the young people are compelled to spend more time online as the day to day activities including the education of the university has shifted to online platforms. Therefore, this extra time significantly amplifies the vulnerability of the country’s youth to these terrorist activities. 

 Secondly, Covid-19 induced pandemic has unmasked the cleavages of our societies as the middle class youth find their family income shrinking and face difficulties. Besides, the pandemic has worsened the depression and grievances of the youths with the prevailing system which further increase their vulnerability to the radical impulses. 

 Thirdly, unemployment remains one of the persistent blights in youth vitality. While the country has been  significantly developed in the previous decades, the economic prosperity didn’t translate to adequate job creation which has failed the country to channel youthful energies to the further development of the country. Instead, unemployment has reached epidemic proportions. The Covid-19 pandemic has further thrown into uncertainty the future of the country’s youth, exacerbating the employment scenario of the country and disrupting education for a prolonged period. These unemployed youths find the radical ideologies attractive as these ideologies are capitalized on the grievances of these disenchanted youths. Therefore, unemployment greatly heightens the risk of youth falling prey to radical preachers. 

 Against this backdrop, the government needs to take adequate measures to counter the surging trends of  online radicalization. To that end, the government should enact proper legal measures to incorporate the online area into the laws. Besides, the government should avert the heinous propaganda campaigns by meting out proper justice to nefarious propagandists. Moreover, the government should ensure a counter sensitization of the country’s youth with the ethos of liberation war and the pluralism of the country. 

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Russia’s War on Terror(ism)

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The chaotic US exit strategy from Afghanistan, the quick Taliban takeover, the resurgence of Isis-K attacks and the rise of militant factions have emphasized the need for other international actors to fill the void left by the United States and map out a strategy for Central Asian stability. In the words of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the US withdrawal has opened “a Pandora’s box full of problems related to terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and, unfortunately, religious extremism”. What if Afghanistan turns out to be a hotbed for international terrorism?

Terrorism in Russia has always been a pain in the neck since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not by chance that the very word “terrorism” is mentioned at least fifteen times within the new 2021 Russian National Security Strategy. In late August, Putin took a hard line against the West’s proposal of housing refugees in Central Asia before they apply for visas to move to the United States and Europe. The message was pretty clear: “we don’t want to experience again what happened in the 1990s and the beginning of 2000s”. The traumatic years of the two Chechen Wars, the 1999 apartment bombings or the Dubrovka theater hostage crisis are still considered to be haunting phantoms. The question came up again especially in mid-2015, when the Kremlin began to fear North Caucasian returnees who had joined the Islamic State’s insurgents in the Syrian conflict.

If it is true that Russia may not have recovered from the Afghan syndrome yet; still, the risk of a fresh terrorist wave truly seems to be around the corner. In the last weeks, three special operations were conducted by the Federal Security Service (FSB) which ended up in the detention of a group of fifteen terrorists coming from Central Asia in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. Another similar operation was carried out in Ingushetia, where some supporters of the Islamic State planning attacks.

The formation of a new Taliban government ad interim itself poses serious threats to the stability of the entire region. The new Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund and the Minister of Internal Affairs Sirajuddin Haqqani are considered “terrorists” by the United Nations. The latter is the leader of the renowned Haqqani network which is said to have ties with Al-Qaeda. Last but not least, the Taliban themselves as an organization are still officially believed to be a terrorist group in Russia under a 2003 Russian Supreme Court’s ruling. According to the Russian political scientist Andrey Serenko, the Taliban victory may be a factor pushing for radicalization in other countries such as Russia.

In the last days, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov took part in a discussion hosted by the new government in Kabul with the representatives of China and Pakistan. Terrorism was among the covered topics. Immediately after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban sought to reassure the neighboring countries that the Afghan soil would not turn out to be a mushrooming ground for militant groups. However, as both Lavrov and Peskov stated, Russia is so far watching how their security promises will be kept before attempting any risky move. While keeping an eye on Kabul, Moscow is not sitting back.

Peace Mission-2021

Between September 20 and 24 the annual drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization were hosted by the Russian Federation at the Donguz training ground in the Orenburg Oblast. According to the commander of the troops of the Central Military District, Colonel General Aleksander Lapin declared that about 5,000 troops took part in the exercise.

Nine countries were involved, among which Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan. The exercise simulated the scenario of a sudden escalation of tension in Central Asia due to terrorist threats. In Colonel General Lapin’s words, the exercise was as a complete success as it showed joint combat readiness and proved to be the largest drills in the history of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Peace Mission-2021 shows the need for Russia to engage with relevant actors in Eurasia such as China. As the Chinese fear about their Wakhan corridor and the risk of extremism increases in the Xinjiang province, both Moscow and Beijing highlight the strength of the Russo-Chinese entente also in the field of anti-terrorism.

Building a thick security belt

Just as the SCO drills were unfolding, some Russian troops were involved in another exercise at the Doytym An practice range in Mongolia. No need to say that the annual drill Selenga 2021 between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar focused right on fighting international terrorism. At the beginning of September, a major counterterrorism exercise, Rubezh-2021 (Frontier-2021), together with Kyrgyz and Tajik units. Such an extensive commitment from the Mongolian steppe to the Edelweisse training range is indicative of Moscow’s will to build a thick security belt around its borders.

However, the five Stans are now not acting as a unified bloc against the Taliban threat. Kyrgyzstan has decided to send a delegation to Kabul and Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan has shown its readiness to do business with the Taliban. Tajikistan, instead, is now holding the lead of the anti-Taliban front.

As there is no “Central Asian way” to deal with the newly formed government in Kabul, Moscow is trying to tighten its grip on the region especially by betting on Dushanbe. As the risk of extremist spillover appears to be increasingly tangible, Moscow has equipped its 201st military base in Tajikistan with a batch of 12.7-mm large-caliber machine guns Utes to strengthen its combat capabilities. Moreover, after a CSTO high-level meeting in Dushanbe and the assessment of an exacerbating security situation in Central Asia, the member states decided to deploy troops along the 1300-kilometer border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Despite this, looking at the Afghan developments only as a threat is misleading. This is a unique opportunity for Moscow to reaffirm the importance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and to secure its role as top security provider in Central Asia. Despite talks between Rahmon and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to safeguard regional peace and stability, Moscow’s towering military presence and influence in the region is hard to overcome.

Resuming international cooperation?

Russia’s commitment within its backyard, however, seems not to be enough in order to fight international actors such as terrorist groups. On the anniversary of the 9/11 twin towers attacks, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov released a statement in which he called for the revival of anti-terrorist cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Back in 2018 and 2019, the Foreign Ministries of the two countries had in fact contributed to build bilateral dialogue on counterterrorism despite a conceptual gap about the nature of this threat.

In July, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned that Moscow would not approve any US troops deployment in Central Asian countries. Despite this, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and the Chief of Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov met in Helsinki to discuss joint ways to fight terrorism and extremism.

Still, resuming dialogue on anti-terrorism does not reveal a total opening toward the United States. During the UN General Assembly, in fact, Lavrov did not miss the opportunity to criticize the US for its withdrawal. The Finnish meeting must be rather understood as a sign of the Kremlin’s pragmatism in foreign policy. A few weeks after the seventeenth anniversary of the Beslan school siege, Russia is firmly committed to fight any direct or indirect threat by all means. The War on Terror(ism) continues.

From our partner RIAC

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