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Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar al-Awlaki Into ISIS

Anwar al-Awlaki (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula video)

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“I was born in Somalia, in Mogadishu,” Ibn Adam tells me as we start his interview in a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prison reception area. Ibn Adam is a big black 29-year-old Somali man. He’s got a scar on his forehead and looks like he could reach out and strangle me quite easily, but his smile and his voice are warm as he begins to speak in English with me, answering my questions of how he decided to leave his home in Europe to go and join ISIS.

Ibn Adam came from Somalia to Europe as a war refugee at six years old. He’s one of the refugees that didn’t integrate well and eventually ended up falling into militant jihadist online seduction and traveling for jihad to Syria. Like many Somalis whose families fled war-torn Somalia, Ibn Adam doesn’t remember his father who went missing in the war and after his mother also died of illness, he was raised by a mix of relatives.

“We were pretty much a happy family,” Ibn Adam recalls of his aunt and grandmother who brought him with them to Europe, although they grew up in a poor immigrant neighborhood where Ibn Adam fell into a bad crowd. “She had benefits from the state,” he explains.

“Auntie loves me,” Ibn Adam says with a sweet smile crossing his face as he remembers her. “Last time I talked to her [while still in ISIS], she was telling me to come back, that she can’t sleep.”

“I was a bit of a trouble-maker,” Ibn Adam admits, telling how his aunt followed a common immigrant cure of trying to get him straightened out when he was showing signs of going down the criminal path as a preteen, by taking him back to the home country. In his case, she took Ibn Adam to live with his cousins in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, an area populated by so many Somalis that it is sometimes referred to as “Little Mogadishu.”

“She took me because I was in trouble. I was stealing from the teachers’ cigarettes and smoking [and stealing] candies.” The last straw was when Ibn Adam got caught stealing cookies from a kindergarten and was taken home by the police who decided not to press charges. “Gramma was home. She was angry.”

Ibn Adam spent two years in Kenya with extended family there, learning to follow the rules. “I became better and calm. I went to school [in Kenya,] but I always wanted to go back to Europe. [After two years,] they agreed for me to go back.”

At that point Ibn Adam was in the 9th grade and turning 16. “Teachers were saying I was smart,” Ibn Adam recalls. “It was easy, but I was lazy. I was studying media and liked to be on the computer.” Like many teen boys he recalls that he was more absorbed by computer games and sports than classwork. “I played games and did Free Running—stunts jumping from buildings.” Ibn Adam recalls one particular good influence in his life, “I liked English. I had the best teacher I had in all my life. Until today I still think about her. She was so kind. She cares about you. Everyone feels this, that she cares about you.”

Despite having a good mentor in high school and being smart, Ibn Adam didn’t attend university due to tragic events that occurred in his family. “My cousin got killed. He was on his way to the mosque, to do morning prayer, but there was a party in the parking lot, [a party] of Somalis. He told them it’s not good. He had a fight with one of them and he stabbed him. I got depressed, so I graduated from high school, but I didn’t go to uni. I started working instead.”

In regard to religion Ibn Adam recalls, “I was not practicing. My aunties and grandmother prayed, but I was never told to pray. I wanted to fast in winter [during Ramadan], but they didn’t let me. They said, ‘You fast at nighttime.’

“When I came back from Kenya, I was more religious,” Ibn Adam explains. “I had stages, on and off, up and down.” Ibn Adam was also not particularly interested in events in Syria either. “I was not a guy who watched the news.” Ibn Adam had other interests. “My life was all about Parkour [Free Running], training, watching animation and Play Station. I loved to watch Japanese animations. I want to hear about [Parkour], what they are doing, cartwheels and flips with buildings.” While he had many vulnerabilities to being interested in groups like ISIS, from his profile at the time, Ibn Adam should have never ended up going to join ISIS, given he had no exposure to ISIS propaganda or recruiters. No one was seducing Ibn Adam by telling him that ISIS could meet many of his unmet needs and frustrated aspirations.

However, things have a way of taking their own turns in people’s lives and Ibn Adam’s was no different in that regard. “The first time I heard about Syria was late 2013 and 2014,” Ibn Adam recalls. “I had a friend who was here [in Syria]. I heard he was here. We were not very close friends, but I knew him. We grew up in the same neighborhood.” In 2014, Ibn Adam’s friend returned from Syria, ostensibly to recruit others to join ISIS. “I saw him in mosque, at Eid. He bought me an I-Pad with lectures of Anwar al Awlaki.”

Awlaki, an infamous Yemeni imam lecturing in English is credited with convincing thousands of Muslims all over the Western world that militant jihad was their individual obligation, as was hijra—that is, moving to lands ruled by shariah law—and that building an Islamic Caliphate should be their goal as they fought jihad tirelessly till the end times. When Ibn Adam was introduced to Awlaki’s virulent influence, Awlaki was already dead, drone killed in Yemen by the American forces. Yet Awlaki was still alive and well on the Internet, as he lectured from beyond the grave and continued to draw young and impressionable Muslims into groups like ISIS.

“He knows how to speak,” Ibn Adam recalls of Awlaki, who was indeed a gifted orator. “Every lecture is one hour to two hours. I was a bus driver. I was bored. Before I used to listen to Quran [while driving the bus], so I started to listen to his lectures.” Awlaki, although already dead, lost no time in drawing Ibn Adam into ISIS. “I was listening to the life of Abu Bakr and about the Caliphate after Abu Bakr, and then onward. After I listened to these two lectures I said, ‘I want to go [to Syria].’”

Ibn Adam told his ISIS friend, who replied, “Good.”

“At that time, I didn’t know there were Muslims against going to Syria. I thought all the Muslims were for it and all non-Muslims against,” Ibn Adam explains.

Life events intervened again, however, preventing Ibn Adam from throwing his life away in Syria. “My grandmother was getting old and she wanted to die in Somalia. I took my grandmother and left her there, [but] before I went back, I told my friend in Somalia, ‘I want to go to Syria.’ He said, ‘It’s not allowed to go to Syria and fight there. You have to ask your parents’ permission and these people, what they are doing is wrong.’ I was shocked, but he said he had asked his Islamic teacher. I went back to Europe and said [to my other friend] ‘I’m not going. I prefer to go to Egypt and study my religion.’”

The recruiter friend answered shrewdly, “You have to ask someone who has been there. You can’t ask someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t been there.” Ibn Adam, however, wasn’t convinced by this until he went back to listening to Anwar al Awlaki, this time about the constants of Jihad, which he admitted had a hypnotic effect upon him and renewed his desire to join the ISIS jihad in Syria.

Ibn Adam reached out again to his friend who had already returned to Syria and got the contacts for a smuggler to help him cross into Syria from Turkey. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he recalls. “I thought they will stop me.” Yet his family sensed something amiss. “I remember I was speaking to my cousin at my auntie’s house. She was telling me in a joking way, ‘If you would go to Syria, would you tell us?’ I was shocked. I said, ‘What? Why would I tell you? Why would I tell someone that would try to prevent me?’”

“I don’t know how they found out,” Ibn Adam explains, “but they found out when I was in Turkey and she wrote to me on Facebook [Messenger]. ‘Why did you do this? Why you leave us?’ [I answered,] ‘What are you talking about?’ I was trying to act normal because she might call the cops and they catch me. I was in Urfa [southern Turkey].” Indeed, some of the ISIS cadres I have interviewed had friends, or were themselves stopped in Turkey, when their home country police learned in enough time to prevent them, with the help of Turkish security officials, from crossing into Syria. Ibn Adam didn’t want that to happen to him.

“We met in Urfa,” Ibn Adam explains about the ISIS smuggler. “He took me to a safehouse. I stayed for about a day, [then I entered Syria. I] jumped over a fence.” Making use of his Parkour training, Ibn Adam recalls, “I made like a flip, otherwise I’d be stuck. We were 14 guys, men from Libya, Yemen, Palestine. First we threw our bags [over the fence] and then jumped over it. A lot of guys got stuck. It was daytime. I didn’t see Turkish soldiers, but I heard bullets. I don’t think they were shooting at us, but shooting to scare us. One guy said he saw the bullets in front of him hitting the ground.”

Upon his arrival into ISIS, Ibn Adam was first drafted into driving a minibus for newcomers coming through the Turkish/Syrian border. Next he was taken for military training in Iraq. Ibn Adam was not aware that being sent to the Iraqi battleground was essentially a death sentence but he soon understood when he was about to be deployed to Fallujah. Wising up, Ibn Adam refused to go, and was sent to Haditha instead from where he made his way back into Syria, to Raqqa. “In Raqqa the emir tells me I have to go back to Iraq,” Ibn Adam recalls, but he managed to evade it by finding Somali friends who came and took him into their ranks.

Reflecting back on the vision he held that had fueled his travel from Europe to Syria to join ISIS, Ibn Adam recalls, “When I thought about this place I thought everyone is angels, everyone is perfect. They will they will give me a car and a house, everything I need. I thought it would be like the days of the Companions. I thought everything was perfect. It was not.”

Ibn Adam admits, “I didn’t watch their videos, but as an Islamic State, I thought everyone will be acting according to Islam one hundred percent.” He recalls, “I was not disappointed in the beginning, but it was not exactly what I thought. He recalls the way his trainers in Iraq lied about the training schedule always claiming things would begin the next day, “In Islam it’s not allowed to lie, but when I see these guys say tomorrow, tomorrow…” Ironically, many of the European ISIS members were exasperated by this trait among the Arab ISIS leaders of failing to state things directly. And German ISIS joiners were even more infuriated by their Arab leaders’ total lack of punctuality.

Back in Syria, Ibn Adam realized he needed to join some fighting group. “I saw some guy asking people to go and fight, so I went with him. They didn’t give me weapon or grenade and battle vest. They were saying, ‘You’ll get it later. Jump on the truck. When you reach that place…’ I was scared, thinking why did I come? I was not in the front. I was in ribat [at the borders]. It was the first time I hear airstrikes and bullets and stuff like that. We went in. One guy was showing us the way. They try to hide from the drones, walking and hiding. Then, he was sitting and when he got up he got shot by a sniper.”

“No one else knew the way. We don’t know how to go back. We don’t know where to go. Then some other guys from Dawlah [ISIS] came. They took us to their place. We stayed for a day or two, then the room I was sleeping in they made a flash bang. I felt like I was in a tunnel. Everything is white after a flash bang. We retreated a bit. After a day or two, I wanted to go back. I couldn’t understand the structure. I can’t speak Arabic. They said you have to speak to the emir, he’s a French guy.”

Ibn Adam went to the emir saying “‘I want to go back.’ That’s the last thing I remember. Airstrike. I woke up in hospital. I was not one hundred percent. The guys took out cartilage in my knee, [put a] metal plate in my forehead. One guy said, ‘When you get shot, the bullet will go back.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ It was the metal plate he was talking about. My finger was broken also.”

Ibn Adam recalls staying in hospital for two months and getting his regular pay alongside a payment for being injured, although his money was all stolen while he drifted in and out of consciousness. Upon his release from hospital, Ibn Adam was signed up to one of the brigades of foreign fighters. Its name was the Anwar al Awlaki katiba after the man who had incited him to join ISIS in the first place.

Ibn Adam was too injured to join the fighting again. But he was well enough to have ISIS help him to arrange to marry a Somali also coming from Europe. They had three children together although only one survived childbirth.

When he recovered, Ibn Adam changed to another katiba and drove a truck mounted with a heavy weapon. “I stayed through the siege in Raqqa,” Ibn Adam recalls. “[I got] mortared, small injury, shrapnel in my body. [There were] bombs close by. One time my house got bombed.” Ibn Adam recalls being so numb at that point that he wasn’t very scared. “There were a lot of people afraid. [There were] phantom drones. You know something is coming. If I see those in the area I go to another area. It comes to see everything, and I know mortar is coming. The other drones I didn’t think they will hit me. I was not in a high position.”

Like so many of the ISIS cadres I’ve interviewed who lived in Raqqa, Ibn Adam liked it at first, finding Raqqa a hospitable place that he and his family could enjoy. “Before the siege I liked it. It was pretty nice.” When asked about the punishments going on and the ISIS brutality Ibn Adam shrugs it off saying, “You hear sometimes people doing wrong, but you can live with it. I heard about if people leave they punish them. If someone wants to leave, why keep him here? He’s extra luggage. He will start to hate you even more, become a spy. If they want to leave, let him leave.”

When asked about the oppressive ISIS hisbah, or morality police, or their intelligence arm, the emni, Ibn Adam recalls having no dealings with them. “Nobody would come and speak to my wife.” Although he does admit, “Some people were very harsh. For example I saw one guy tell a woman to cover her eyes. She didn’t. I saw him stomp on the ground and scare her. ‘Cover your eyes!’ I got scared. If she doesn’t want to, leave her.”

Ibn Adam recalls happening upon the corpses of an ISIS execution carried out in Naim Square in Raqqa. “I felt sorry for them, depending on what these guys did. There was a lot of harshness in the State,” he adds, explaining that in the beginning he believed it was the fault of individuals, but not systematic brutality within ISIS governance itself. Ibn Adam was still naïve in the beginning recalling, “I came for a true Islamic State like in the days of the Companions. I thought everyone will be perfect.”

Ibn Adam and his small family escaped from the siege of Raqqa during a truce with the SDF. “There were busses and trailers,” he recalls. “They took us to Deir ez Zor area, to an area near Hajin.”

Recalling leaving Raqqa, Ibn Adam explains, “I didn’t quit at that time. When we came out from Raqqa, there was no paperwork. It was chaos, especially for those coming from Raqqa. The traffic police were stopping people, telling them they have to go sign up. After a month or two I joined [a katiba] again. You had to join to get pay, help, even to go to the hospital. If you don’t have their ID card, if you do things on your own, it’s difficult, apartment on your own, treatment in hospital.”

Ibn Adam and his wife settled in a small village with very welcoming Syrian neighbors, but it “didn’t last for long. Bashar coming across the river. I went to Bookimal for two, three weeks, then retreat after retreat.”

At this point Ibn Adam realized, “It is not what I thought. I thought I’d like to be in a real Islamic State. I wasn’t thinking I have to get out, but things were bothering me, especially the emni intelligence of the State, stories about them. It makes rage—the injustice. You hear about people going in prison, how they treat people, the very bad treatment, but you cannot speak about injustice openly. I was in Friday prayers and one guy lectured on injustice. I saw him later and he said, ‘I’m not allowed to preach anymore.’ He was in prison. Then the prison was bombed.”

“In Kishma it was like war, everyone was retreating. I borrowed some money and I bought 25 kg of rice. [When] it got finished, food got very expensive. I remember buying food for $1000—a half kilo of rice, 10 kilos of flour, ten packs of tuna, powdered milk and five 6-packs of lentils. That was cheap compared to Baghouz.”

“[I got injured] in Shafaa. [I was at that time] sleeping in the mosque. My wife was in a small school. I went to her and she asked me to buy food. Something exploded in the school. I got shrapnel in my leg. I went to hospital. They put a bandage and told me to go. They gave me a stick go to Sousa.” In Sousa, Ibn Adam found an abandoned pair of crutches in the mosque. He is, however, bitter to this day that ISIS didn’t help him when he was crippled by his injury, “Afterward I heard there were lot of crutches, but they didn’t give them out.”

At that point in the retreat, many foreign fighters were feeling that ISIS didn’t care about them and many feared being accused of being spies and executed. Others were angry that the Iraqis appeared to have everything needed—food, Kia trucks, money to rent nice housing, etc. while many foreign fighters dug trenches in the ground and lived under plastic sheeting overhead. “I heard that Iraqis had it very good. I see them selling stuff, so I know they had food. But where did it come from? They were selling it very expensive, which leads to another thing. If they are selling it, it means they have more, or what would they eat?” Ibn Adam asks.

At that point in retreating from ISIS’s crumbling statehood many were also deeply disappointed in the failure of the ISIS leaders to take charge to inspire the ranks. “There were a lot of people disappointed that Baghdadi did not make a speech,” Ibn Adam recalls.

Rumors were also flying about, many of them purposely started by ISIS to discourage fighters from abandoning the State. Ibn Adam recalls rumors about, “People will go out and stay [detained] for two months and then go to camps. They will send the women out, but it doesn’t make sense to me. How are you going to send your wife and kids to people you are fighting? We have been fighting them for years. They are going to suddenly take you and only take you for two months?”

Like many foreign fighters who couldn’t find housing in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls, “I lived in a trench. I found one that was ready. I tried to dig one, one time but I didn’t have energy. I was very tired. For two or three days we were in the trench.” Unlike most who recalled the trenches as pure hell, Ibn Adam recalls the trench being much better than the overcrowded home he had just abandoned. “It had a carpet. They made it very nice. It had a small wall in it. In the house we lived in first there were maybe 70 people, women and children in one side and men on the other side. There was no privacy. There was arguing with his wife to go get water. In the tent [trench] we had privacy.”

All the same, Ibn Adam had to crawl out of his trench to go get water and food. “I saw death.” Although he recalls witnessing the worst in that regard in Raqqa, “The most [death I saw was] in the siege of Raqqa, bodies.” In Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls seeing a man shot dead in front of him, “He was walking with his wife. He got shot in the heart. He fell down from a sniper from the Syrian army.”

In Baghouz there was no longer food and many of the foreign fighters started eating the grain husks used for animal feed. Others boiled grass to feed their families. “[We used the husks of] grains for the animals. We made bread from it, dark bread, from the parts you usually throw away. It was harsh on the stomach.” While ISIS had previously fed its members, in Baghouz they fought only the fighters, ignoring even the injured ones. “If you were not fighting they gave one sardine for two guys, or one teacup of lentils.”

Remembering that Ibn Adam’s former friend and recruiter had told him he should only trust an ISIS insider, someone who had been there, to know whether to join or not, I ask him now from his experiences with ISIS if he has advice for others about joining the group. “With all this experience I would tell them live your life,” Ibn Adam answers without hesitation. “Think before you act. Problem is, I learn after I act. Smart ones learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s good. Good you learn. But to learn from others’ mistakes is better.”

Before Baghdadi was killed, his last video rallied ISIS supporters to revenge against Western powers for destroying the ISIS territorial Caliphate and for Baghouz. I ask Ibn Adam what he thinks about Baghdadi’s plea for revenge attacks at home in Europe. “That is not something I personally would do. Jack, or John, or Ahmed did this act and got caught and went to prison. What is the benefit? What did he get out of it? If you are injured laying on floor, or killed, he didn’t get benefit from it and it doesn’t bring back the dead to life. Why do it? What is the benefit?”

Since I was waiting for my taxi to the airport on the day in March 2016 that ISIS blew up the Brussels airport, I often ask ISIS members how they feel about that attack, curious to know what they’ll say. Some endorse it, making me angry inside, others strongly decry it. Ibn Adam is neutral on the subject. “I didn’t feel good, nor did I feel bad. I didn’t really feel anything. Something happened somewhere else, it didn’t affect you too much.” Similar to how he was earlier in his life, he recalls, “I didn’t follow the news too much.”

“I should care for others, but it’s not happening in front me of me, so I don’t feel too much,” he explains. But then he goes on to qualify his statement, “I don’t know anything in Islam that tells you can attack civilians. If I am a Muslim, I should talk to them in a good way, try to make people convert. Our Prophet said you have a package. It’s the way you deliver. You can knock on the door or throw it at him, or make it beautiful and say, ‘This is for you.’ Either way you delivered the message. I don’t know anything in Islam that says you are allowed to attack civilians, and that you should. Our Prophet said, ‘Don’t kill an old man who is not fighting, nor a woman who is not fighting. Don’t break the branches of trees, or burn them. Don’t fight those who are not doing anything.” Indeed, Ibn Adam paraphrases the scriptures of Islam, but he forgets how Awlaki and ISIS twisted other scriptures to convince people like him to come support their heinous acts against innocents.

While still debating his future in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls his father-in-law advising him to surrender after sending his wife out to the camps. Ibn Adam replied, “If I go out, only bad news will happen. You won’t hear about me. We heard the women reached the camps, but men no.” Yet when Ibn Adam finally surrendered himself to the SDF he recalls how good they were to him. “They gave me chicken and potatoes. I ate like a mad man. It was up on the mountain. They did a body search, then brought bread, eggs, chicken and potatoes. I loved the food. I didn’t have bread for a long time.” Most of the ISIS prisoners I’ve interviewed in SDF territory tell a similar story of relatively good treatment given the constraints of the overcrowded prisons and limited funds for staffing and food.

Ibn Adam will likely remain imprisoned in SDF territory for a long time given his country does not have any plans for repatriating citizens and weak laws for prosecuting returnees. Yet he seems like a good candidate for repatriation, to be brought to justice at home. He appears battle fatigued and claims he wouldn’t be interested to rejoin ISIS if it made a comeback. “After all I went through, go again? No! After all of this oppression and injustice?”

Interestingly, Ibn Adam states that of the men housed in his prison at least “90 percent are disappointed” in ISIS and feel the same way—that they would never go back. Whether or not he is telling the truth is impossible to say, but given his experiences of being repeatedly disappointed by ISIS, it seems likely.

“I want to go home,” Ibn Adam says. “I miss Europe. I miss even Somalia. I used to think it was harsh there, but after here I think I can go through anything.”

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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Islamic State threat moves online, expands across Africa

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Two decades after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, terror networks Al-Qaida and Islamic State – also known as Da’esh – continue to pose a grave threat to peace and security, adapting to new technologies and moving into some of the world’s most fragile regions, the top UN counter-terrorism official told the Security Council on Thursday. 

UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov presented the Secretary-General’s latest report on the threats posed by terrorist groups, saying that Da’esh continues to exploit the disruption, grievances and development setbacks caused by the pandemic to regroup, recruit new followers and intensify its activities – both online and on the ground.    

Ever-evolving threat 

“Today, we face transnational terrorist threats like Da’esh and Al-Qaida that are enduring and able to adapt to new technologies, but also expanding to include individuals and groups that commit terrorist attacks connected to xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance”, said Mr. Voronkov. 

The UN counter-terrorism architecture, largely set up in the wake of the 9/11 attack, helps Member States implement effective frameworks to prevent, address, investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism.  

It is also ramping up efforts to help countries adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the threat, which has become more digital and de-centralized in recent years.  

Noting that the world is currently witnessing a rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan “which could have far-reaching implications” around the globe, he cited Da’esh’s expanded presence in that country and pointed out that several members of the Taliban have been designated as terrorists by the Security Council.   

We will need to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as launching pad for global terrorism“, stressed the UN official. 

He briefed the Council on the eve of the fourth commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism, observed annually on 21 August. 

Islamic State in Africa 

While Da’esh remains focused on reconstituting its capabilities in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Vornkov said the most alarming development in recent months is the group’s relentless spread across the African continent.

The so-called “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” has killed several hundred civilians since the start of 2021 in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, while the group’s “West Africa Province” will likely gain from the weakening of Boko Haram, with additional spillover of terrorists and foreign fighters from Libya. 

Meanwhile, the expansion of Da’esh in Central Africa – and especially in northern Mozambique – could have far-reaching implications for peace and security in the region. 

A global response is urgently needed to support the efforts of African countries and regional organizations to counter terrorism and address its interplay with conflict, organized crime, governance and development gaps”, said Mr. Voronkov.  

Repatriating women and children 

Alongside Da’esh’s expansion in Africa and its rapid shift online, Mr. Voronkov also cited the continued detention of thousands of individuals with alleged links to terrorist groups as another factor exacerbating the threat. 

Deteriorating conditions in detention facilities and displacement camps in northeast Syria, in particular, are serving as a rallying cry for terrorist activities.  They have already fuelled instances of terrorist radicalization, fund-raising, arms smuggling, training and incitement to terror. 

Against that backdrop, he echoed calls from officials across the UN for Member States to voluntarily repatriate all concerned individuals, with a particular focus on children.  

In September, the Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will jointly launch a global framework to support countries requesting assistance with protection, voluntary repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals with suspected links to designated terrorist groups returning from Iraq and Syria. 

The framework has already been deployed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. 

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Taliban and Al Qaeda: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?

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Abu Omar Khorasani was taken from Kabul’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison and unceremoniously shot.

The first and only person to have been executed since the Taliban gained full control of Afghanistan, Mr. Khorasani was the head of the Islamic State in South Asia until he was arrested by government forces last year.

The precise circumstances of his execution are not known. His killing was, however, at least in part designed to send a message to the international community, and particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China and Iran, as well as Russia, Central Asia’s security overlord.

The message was that the Taliban were cracking down on foreign jihadists and militants in Afghanistan.

Mr. Khorasani was an easy symbol. The Taliban and the Islamic State, whose ranks of foreigners are primarily populated by Pakistanis and a sprinkling of Central Asians, Uighurs, Russians, Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Indians, and Frenchmen, have long been adversarial. The Islamic State recently accused the Taliban of being more nationalist than pious in their negotiations with the United States.

The Taliban message is a partial truth at best. What is true for the Islamic State is not true for Al–Qaeda and others such as the Uighur Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Taliban appear to believe that they can get away with the differentiation because they perceived the United States as more focused in the withdrawal negotiations on ensuring that the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other militants will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for international operations rather than on getting them expelled from the country.

The perceived US focus may have been rooted in a concern that if Taliban’s hands were forced, they would let militants slip out of the country and not hand them over to authorities. That would make it difficult to control their movements or ensure that they are either entered into deradicalization programs or, if warranted, brought to justice.

“It’s a Catch-22. The Taliban ensuring that Al Qaeda sticks to rule risks putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. How much better that is than having foxes run wild remains to be seen,” said a retired counter-terrorism official.

Officials of the Trump administration that negotiated the agreement suggest that the continued presence of Al-Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan would violate the accord with the Taliban.

Former Vice President Mike Pence as well as Trump era State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales argued that the deal “required the Taliban…to refuse terrorists safe harbour.

Russia and China, while publicly more measured in their statements, are likely to share western concerns. Russia held military drills earlier this month with Tajik and Uzbek troops in Tajikistan, 20 kilometres from the border with Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda may have been boosted in recent weeks by multiple prison breaks in which the Taliban freed operatives of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups. It remains unclear however to what degree the breaks will help the group strengthen its presence in Afghanistan.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned this week that al Qaeda and the Islamic State could quickly rebuild their networks in Afghanistan.

The United Nations recently reported that Al-Qaeda “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces”, and that its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent, “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.” 

“Without information on who exactly escaped, it is difficult to determine whether historically significant figures remain within AQ’s AfPak network, or if it is mainly composed of newer figures these days, whether local or regional foreign fighters,” cautioned political violence scholar Aaron Y. Zelin. Mr. Zelin was referring to Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network.

Also unclear is whether Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran will be allowed to relocate to Afghanistan.

The prison breaks further go to concerns about relying on the Taliban to police jihadists and other militants with aspirations beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Of particular concern is the fact that the balance of power has yet to be determined between Taliban leaders who in recent days have been eager to put a more moderate, accommodating foot forward with security guarantees for their opponents, minorities and women and the group’s far-flung less polished rank and file.

The concern about the Taliban’s ability and willingness to control militant activity on Afghan soil is magnified by worry regarding the continued existence of warlords with the power to organise violence, provide jobs and public services, and forge or strengthen ties with militants.

Warlords will play an active role in the future of Afghanistan. They will remain businessmen and political leaders, connected to global economic processes and networks. They will develop the military power that they need to control territory and wage war. They will, finally, continue to fight for more autonomy and, in some cases, might even manage to partially form their old regional polities once again,” said Romain Malejacq, author of a book on Afghan warlords.

“Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a warlord-ridden wasteland,” said journalist and author Graeme Wood.

The Taliban’s refusal to expel militants not only complicates the group’s efforts to garner legitimacy in the international community and particularly its neighbours, even if Al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened since 9/11 and is less focussed on attacking the United States and more on the Muslim world.

It also strengthens those who fear that Afghanistan will again emerge as a launching pad for trans-national political violence. “We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state—a breeding ground for terrorism,” warned Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They (the Taliban) will not restrict terrorist groups, just ask them to operate low-key,” added Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia.

The Taliban proved already 20 years ago that they valued loyalty when they rejected US and Saudi pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden no matter the cost. The Taliban have since come to appreciate Al Qaeda’s fighting skills and contributions to the Afghan militants’ cause.

Taliban fighters this week, in a violation of their pledge to inclusiveness, demonstrated their ideological anti-Shiite affinity with Al-Qaeda by blowing up a statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Shiite Hazara militia leader killed by the Taliban when they first took power in 1996.

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Terrorism

Drones in the Hands of Terrorists: What Happens Then?

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Ardian is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with a field research experience in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, Somalia and Central Asia. Ardian is the co-founder and director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research institute focused on studying translation left-wing, right-wing, and militant jihadi forms of political violence. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.

Interviewed by Tatyana Kanunnikova.

What will be the role of drones in future terrorist attacks?

If we look at some of the most recent examples in Europe—for instance, the Gatwick Airport incident where drone sightings were reported—these led to a lot of confusion among airport officials as well as policymakers and law enforcement. In this specific case, we are talking about dozens of flights canceled, millions in costs for the airport as a result of the shutdown. We are also talking about the anti-drone technology that needs to be implemented by the airport, which translates into substantial financial costs. If we look at other places, such as active conflict areas, we’ll see that Houthi rebels used drones to target and assassinate Yemeni leaders and they were also striking key national infrastructure in places like Saudi Arabia. Even here, in the United States, sightings and illegal actions of drones flying over cities and close to government facilities in some cases speak to the fact that drone operations may be a thing in the future.

Here, in the United States, there are examples of individuals who have attempted or actively pursued ways to utilize remotely piloted aircraft or drone technology in general to cause harm to U.S. interests. For example, in 2012, a group of Virginia-based individuals, with direct or indirect affiliation with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, sought to acquire this sort of technology for the terrorist group. In 2011, we had a U.S. national, who actually was a student at one of the reputable universities here in the United States and who plotted to pilot explosive-laden, remotely controlled planes and attack U.S. government facilities and military installations. If we look at the issue from this particular standpoint, there is potential for malicious use of drones in not only active conflict zones but also here in the West, which should not be overlooked.

In 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that drones constituted an imminent terrorist threat to U.S. cities. Is this threat still considered imminent?

That is a good question and that has been part of the discourse here in the United States as well. The concern is that they come with a very low acquisition cost, which presents an opportunity to pursue that kind of technology to many groups, state and non-state actors, including private individuals. One can easily procure parts to build it. It does not require sophistication in terms of running the aircraft as well.

These are all areas of concern for officials and law enforcement, especially here in the West. While I would caution against labelling drone usage for malicious or harmful purposes as the most pressing threat in the West, one should still not discount the fact that local law enforcement and other entities may not be best positioned to counter the drone threat. They are not necessarily best equipped and staffed to adequately address such a threat. I would say it is one thing to confront or operate against drone threats in active conflict zones, where the military has the resources and the capability to address that kind of threat. Domestically, in the West in general, that could be an issue given that we arguably lack the sort of sophistication needed to detect, monitor, and counter drone threat at the local level, in our cities.

Are modern terror groups capable of modifying consumer drones to conduct improvised attacks?

Terrorist groups, especially those of the modern day, have been very capable of doing that. I have witnessed first-hand such cases during our research in Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen a number of modified consumer drones used by ISIS to target the Peshmerga in the North of Iraq, Iraqi security forces in Mosul and other places. From a structural standpoint, [ISIS] were known for their Phantom DJI models. They often utilized Styrofoam, a light, easily accessible, cheap material to build drones, as well as to modify and turn other drones into actual weapons. In many cases, we saw that they were able to mount certain amounts of IEDs or other explosive devices.

There was, of course, the ability to pursue that kind of technology given a low acquisition cost. One thing that we also see is the mimicry in the use of drone technology. For example, the drone technology that has been used by ISIS is being mimicked by ISIS affiliates in other parts of the world as well because, again, of the low acquisition costs and the ease with which it can be built.

What tactics and techniques do drone-using terrorist groups use?

From my personal research experience as well as experience in places like Syria and Iraq, the drone technology was primarily used to gain intelligence, for surveillance purposes. Drone usage has also proven powerful for propaganda purposes, namely imagery that was captured through drones and exploited for propaganda purposes. Of course, one must not overlook the military-strategic component, such as the ability to mount explosive devices and drop them onto enemies. It also serves to demonstrate “aerial power,” which comes, again, with a huge propaganda value that VE and terrorist groups have been able to put to use as well.

Another thing that we see, which is very interesting, is that the drone usage, especially as far as ISIS is concerned, has given them this opportunity to claim the alleged power and control not only on the ground but also in the airspace. This gives the illusion as though—especially as it [ISIS] started losing its controlled area in 2016-2017 and onwards—the drone operations afforded the group with this sort of aerial superiority, the operational capacity to penetrate into the airspace and attack enemy forces. This did give them [ISIS], from a propaganda perspective, a huge boost as well. And we have seen, for example, that ISIS would launch their drones laden with explosives into enemy lines, accompanied by other drones equipped to record such attacks, which was then shared via Telegram or other social media platforms utilized by ISIS for their propaganda purposes. As for the success of their drone-led attacks, it is really debatable; firstly, because they [ISIS] are only going to advertise their successes. We actually do not know much—at least publicly—about their downfalls or any limitations. Some of the images, if we look at some past attacks, in 2017, for example, when ISIS dropped several IEDs via drones onto the Syrian army base storing significant stashes of weapons in a stadium, showed significant damages to the Syrian military. But we do not know with certainty about their successes, the level of their success, as we often see what they choose to share on their media.

What we do know is that it is important for us to differentiate between terrorist groups or non-state actors that have utilized drones in a limited capacity and those that have active drone programs. If we look at organizations like Hezbollah (Kataib Hezbollah), Hamas, ISIS or even Houthis, they do have a record of successfully running drone programs, weaponized drone programs. In fact, these programs are sponsored by a state. For example, we know that Iran has played a significant role in sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of drones, and so on. Again, when trying to differentiate where the drone threat might come from, it is important to understand the difference between the usage of drones by certain groups or entities in limited capacity versus those who have been running or supporting drone programs.

Are drones more likely to be used as means of transportation or as autonomous weapons?

In many cases, aside from the primary surveillance function, they have been utilized by terrorist groups as a means of transporting explosive and other materials from point A to point B. But as for the use of autonomous weapons, to my knowledge to date, to be able to drive this sort of autonomous drone weapons, they lack such a capability given that such drone technology needs to be accompanied with artificial intelligence. Most of these [drones] are programmed to, say, carry out attacks, drop a bomb, and so on. There has to be artificial intelligence incorporated with these autonomous weapons for them to be effective in other ways. But I have not seen this sort of technology, especially with ISIS. Perhaps, this could be the case with other groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

What targets would terrorists prioritize when conducting drone attacks?

As for the targets, what we have seen in places like Iraq and Syria, much of the drone strikes targeted, of course, the military, those perceived as enemy. As I mentioned earlier, in 2017, there was a highly publicized attack where ISIS dropped a significant number of explosives onto the Syrian army positions and weapons supply points. Attacks were also carried out against the Iraqi security forces during operations in Mosul. Surveillance function is an important component because it affords this sort of “pre-attack” planning ability to ISIS and other terrorist groups to better organize and coordinate their attacks. They would normally send out drones to collect information and then follow up with an attack, as is often the case. What we have seen is not only the use of drones for attack purposes but also the demonstration of power by sending many drones at the same time to create an illusion or perception that ISIS is capable of attacking with multiple drones and penetrating the enemy’s aerial space.

There is a nightmare scenario that small drones can be used to deliver chemical or biological agents in an attack. Or disperse deadly viruses over a public gathering place. Is it real?

In Iraq or Syria, where ISIS or other operating terrorist groups are involved, it is a matter of being able to gain access to chemical or biological weapons. It is not a far-fetched notion. And there are some examples of such incidents taking place. There were some efforts on the part of ISIS to deliver chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction via drones.

Are drone strikes effective against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS? If yes, why?

As regards counterterrorism, if we ask government officials, they would argue that they are effective. The way to measure such effectiveness would be to look at how certain terrorist leaders—or those associated with terrorist actions at some level—have been targeted. Most recently, Qasim al-Raymi from al Qaeda in Yemen was killed via drones, so that was one measure of success. During the Obama administration, in Yemen alone, we had upwards of 1200 drone attacks targeting different militants. During President Trump, we delivered hundreds of attacks, specifically targeting militants in Yemen, Somalia and other places. In Pakistan alone, the drone targeting campaign lasted over 10 years. We also have the recent example where the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was targeted and killed via a drone strike.

But again, if we look at terrorist organizations as unified and cohesive organizations, then we could say that killing their leaders specifically should reduce terrorist attacks as well. But we also know that terrorist organizations are not cohesive or unified in many ways. In that regard, the effects of killing a terrorist leader become perplexing or complex. For example, when a terrorist leader is killed, in theory, it should lead to a situation where a terrorist group’s leadership and control is undermined. On the other hand, depending on who comes next in the line of succession, the successor may be more prone to violence.

It is a really complicated question. In retaliation, groups may also increase terrorist attacks against civilians. And we have also seen this in terrorist groups with centralized leadership. One must also consider drone attacks leading to civilian casualties and significant grievances. I conducted research with my colleagues in Somalia last year. And during the course of interviews, drone attacks were largely criticized and raised as the source of grievance by some, even leading to recruitment and joining Al Shabaab in some cases. Although those attacks were aimed at Al Shabaab leaders or affiliates, or ISIS operatives, grievances were raised that they did lead to civilian casualties as well.

What are the risks associated with drone operations? Are there ways to mitigate those risks? How do we prevent them?

Some drones can fly at a very high altitude, while some fly only at low altitudes, which can be problematic under either scenario. From an anti-drone technology standpoint, that becomes a problematic proposition and requires a better understanding of how drone technology may be applied in the future. But again, as I mentioned earlier in the example of drone sightings at the Gatwick airport, when it led to significant confusion and material damage, the same thing applies here [in the West] in local contexts because of the inability to fully grasp and understand this emerging technology, but we’re also talking about the need to counter that technology if deployed in cities or in other places where it could pose significant difficulties and strains, especially on local governments and law enforcement.

Last year, for the first time in history, drones autonomously attacked humans. According to the UN report, these drones were supplied by Turkey to the Libyan forces. Can machines be allowed to make their own decisions to kill or should autonomous drone attacks be banned?

I have not done much research on the topic, and I do not know if these autonomous attacks led to human casualties. If this is the case, that would change the course of how we understand autonomously driven objects, specifically as it relates to drones. As stated earlier, autonomous weapons, coupled with this sort of artificial intelligence, do make sense in some way, provided that humans exercise some level of control. We have to understand the decision-making process that goes into creating this sort of autonomous technology [drones].

We know from our research that we could feed a certain image to a drone, which would enable that particular drone to carry out an attack based on the image fed. Having said that, a slight change, modification, misreading of that image (or its pixels) by the drone could lead to significant errors in terms of targeting capabilities. The lack of human control may always pose a level of risk. Humans need to play a role in a drone’s “decision-making” process. If we look at other fields that utilize these autonomous technologies, like self-driving, autonomous vehicles (AV), one can find errors there as well. From such a perspective, that could be problematic as well. Also, the question is not only how they [autonomous drones] are used but also where and how many of them are used. If we are talking about an autonomous drone being utilized in certain operations, say in a conflict zone like Syria and against ISIS, it may lead to different outcomes as compared to, say, using them in non-conflict areas, in cities and where large segments of civilian population are present. The room for error is especially there in the case of the latter, when operating in spaces where civilians are present. Again, we do not know much [publicly] about this emerging technology, including their decision-making process, their objectives, how they operate in different geographic areas, etc. These are all questions we need to better understand and address.

From our partner RIAC

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