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Delegitimizing ISIS and Militant Jihadist Ideologies May Also Require Addressing Anti-Western Biases

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

When ISIS was defeated territorially, there was a significant decrease in the online propaganda output for which they became notorious and which helped them to attract an unprecedented 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters to wage jihad and live under the Caliphate in Syria. Nevertheless, they still manage to reuse years of product produced in their heyday as well as continue to produce videos and recruit online from hidden safe havens in Iraq and Syria. Thus, the logical next phase of fighting ISIS is not attacking militarily, but also digitally taking them out. Some of the ways of doing that are already being accomplished by Facebook, Twitter and other mainline platforms using machine-run algorithms to enforce terrorist propaganda takedown policies and by militaries who attack their safe havens and means of continuing to broadcast their messages of hate. However, there is also the need to delegitimize terrorist groups and their virulent ideologies so that they find it much harder to gain traction with their intended audience of potential recruits. In doing so we are finding in our analysis of Facebook comments to anti-ISIS counternarrative campaigns evidence that it may be necessary not only to work to delegitimize terrorist groups but also to work to repair views of, and trust in, Western powers at the same time, as the two appear to be intertwined – something that groups like ISIS are all too eager to exploit.

Counternarratives have been put forth as a potentially useful technique for fighting ISIS online, but many efforts to produce online counternarratives against ISIS, often produced by government entities, have proven ineffective due to their inability to resonate with viewers in the same emotionally evocative and deep-seated way that the terrorist propaganda does. In this vein, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] has created over 175 counternarrative videos, taken from a collection of interviews with 239 ISIS prisoners, returnees and defectors, translated and subtitled in 27 languages, each of which features a speaker who actually lived in ISIS and either returned to their home countries, defected from ISIS, or were imprisoned. These speakers’ stories mirror the poignant nature of ISIS’s propaganda, telling, sometimes with tears in their eyes, of believing the ISIS recruitment lies, but then ending up watching their families die, seeing innocent people being executed, or being tortured themselves for breaking the most minor and arbitrary rule. The speakers focus on the ways that ISIS lied to them and manipulated their deepest desires to serve Islam while twisting and misusing sacred Islamic scriptures, and eventually ruined their lives.

ICSVE’s project, called Breaking the ISIS Brand – the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project, focuses on capturing the voices and emotions of credible defectors and imprisoned cadres. The footage used in the videos, other than the film of the speakers themselves, is taken from actual ISIS propaganda to illustrate the speaker’s story, which makes a direct contradiction to the terrorist narrative, effectively turning ISIS propaganda back on itself. At the end of the videos, which are titled with pro-ISIS names in order to capture the attention of viewers seeking ISIS videos, the speakers give advice to others who may be thinking of joining ISIS, forcefully denouncing the group. ICSVE’s counternarrative videos have been used by law enforcement professionals, religious leaders, and non-governmental organizations in face-to-face interactions in Kyrgyzstan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Jordan, Iraq and elsewhere as part of robust countering violent extremism programs. Likewise, participants in ICSVE-led focus groups as well as one imprisoned ISIS terrorist emir in Iraq have also reported (or in the case of the emir, was observed) being deeply moved by the content of the videos.

ICSVE has also run over 100 Facebook campaigns in multiple languages crossing multiple continents to reach the same audiences from which ISIS tries to recruit. While quantitative metrics provide important insight into the success of the counternarratives, qualitative analysis of the comments on the videos have also allowed ICSVE to determine the emotional resonance of the counternarratives. This article examines comments on ICSVE’s counternarrative videos in Facebook ad campaigns running from Dec. 3 to Dec. 31, 2019, in local languages in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, and Saudi Arabia.

While not every viewer comments, those who do can be assumed to be engaged with the content of the video, which is a positive sign for using counternarratives. Very few comments on the counternarrative videos used in these campaigns expressed a positive view of ISIS; those who did typically called the speaker a liar or simply accusing ICSVE of lying, such as one commenter from Tunisia who wrote, “WTF I just watch and why the fuck is it keep coming in as a suggestion get the fuck outta here ain’t nobody got time for your bullshit” [sic]. On the other side of the spectrum, an Iraqi commenter clearly held a positive view of ISIS, writing in Arabic, “Raise the Lord of ISIS.” A viewer from Montenegro commented in Croatian, “Mockery! This is what the West does,” suggesting either that he did not believe the content of the video and implying that the counternarrative was part of a greater Western effort to discredit ISIS, or that ISIS was created by the West to make a mockery of Islam. Another Bosnian commenter suggested turning ISIS’s cruel punishments back on the speaker, writing, “While he was killing, he was a hero. Now that he’s trapped he becomes a coward, I suggest beheading him.”

Researchers testing these counternarratives in face-to-face interactions and focus groups notice that the speaker is almost always seen by the viewers as credible. However, online viewers often attack the credibility of the speaker as way of expressing anger over some aspect of what is being portrayed or over what they surmise is behind the counternarrative. For instance, some commenters took the counternarrative and speaker having been from their country as an insult to their national pride and thus suggested that they did not find the speaker credible. These commenters then spoke rather in defense of their own country rather than in defense of ISIS. One wrote in Croatian, “Hell, there are no ISIS terrorist in Bosnia! Fuck you, America!,” while a Tunisian viewer wrote, “The is falsification Tunisia is far from being the land of extremism we are by far the most tolerant open minded Arab country we do not discuss “Jihad” in the streets we don’t even discuss religion that much and those who went to Syria to kill their brothers are no longer welcomed they are a threat to our national security these imbeciles have no no rights and are not entitled to anything.” [sic]

Some commenters simply posted straightforwardly negative comments about ISIS, such as a commenter on the video shown in the Balkans, who wrote, “Every ISIS fighter should be executed and burned!” as well as commenters from Tunisia, who wrote, “U deserve nothing but a bullet a dirty one” [sic] and “We,  Tunisian people , don’t want these rats infesting our country ..they are NOT welcomed here . and we will chase them one by one out of our streets. may they rot in ISIS’s hell..” [sic]. Notably, one anti-ISIS commenter wrote not in negative terms toward ISIS members, but rather in constructive terms. The man wrote in Bosnian, “I would love to work in Kurdistan, not for faith but for justice.” All of the aforementioned comments demonstrate the ability of these counternarrative videos to evoke strong emotions and to engage viewers enough to comment and even sometimes engage in discussions with other commenters on Facebook, which is a very good sign regarding their effectiveness.

Many comments were neither straightforwardly positive nor negative, as they referenced the conspiracy theory that America and Israel created ISIS. Such comments can be classified as anti-ISIS but are certainly not endorsing non-violence or moderation and thus deserve further attention. One Jordanian commenter wrote, “Terrorism is an American and Zionist made even with different names. Daesh [ISIS] is lying. American Russian Jewish made. What the Americans did in Iraq is double double of what Daesh did.” The same commenter also suspected that ICSVE was a part of the conspiracy: “This is made by the westerners to destroy Arab countries for the sake of those monkeys and pigs Zionists.” Another Jordanian wrote, “The Zionist occupation is terrorism,” though he also acknowledged, “This is the first time for me to hear about Daesh that way,” indicating that the counternarrative video did introduce a new and interesting viewpoint, even if the commenter did not fully agree with that viewpoint. An Iraqi commenter, who viewed the same counternarrative as that shown in Jordan, doubted that the speaker did not commit more atrocities as part of ISIS while also broaching the topic of the anti-Zionist and anti-Western conspiracy, conflating all his perceived enemies as being part of Daesh: “Who says you didn’t kill or destroyed houses, you all are not honorable neither European, American, Israeli, Iranian you all Daesh.” Another Iraqi posted a cartoon of a pig bearing the Turkish flag, with piglets labeled in Arabic as Liberation Levant, Daesh, Al Nusra Front, Mohamed Al Fatih, Syrian Coalition, and Al Fatih Brigade suckling at its teats, suggesting with a degree of plausibility that the militant groups fighting in Syria who are overtly jihadist and who carry out jihadist crimes while calling out their slogans were birthed by and dependent on Turkey and not truly fighting for the rights of the Syrian people.

Although the conspiracy theory that Israel and the West created ISIS is more prevalent in Arab countries, commenters in the Balkans also indicated their support for the theory, although they mentioned Israel far less often than Tunisians, Iraqis, and Jordanians did, perhaps because Israel is seen as less of a threat for them. One commenter in Kosovo wrote, “ISIS is Russian organization mercenaries…!!! Many of them didn’t know why are what they fuckin doing…!!,” [sic] while another wrote, “ISAL [sic] is American killing army supported by money from NATO protection racket. Mafia!.”

Comments of this anti-Western and anti-Israeli nature have also been written on prior Facebook ad campaigns featuring other ICSVE counter narrative videos run earlier in 2019 and 2018. For instance, one Iraqi commenter wrote: “This is what you have done to my city and our people […] so that they facilitate something you’ve prepared which is a plan made by Israel, America, and Europe and it’s one the Cold War’s threads between the Soviet Union and America… do you think we’re not aware of your deeds […] we will expose all your plans […]”

Another commenter in Iraq wrote, “What Muslims, these are Jews that pretend to be Muslim to distort Islam, conspire and separate between Muslims for the sake of tearing Mohammed’s nation,” while another claimed, “The source of terrorism is Turkey.” A Jordanian commented that ISIS is “an American industry distorting the minds of the Arab-Islamic generation to eliminate Islam gradually, there is no God but Allah, Muhammed is the messenger of Allah,” and another wrote, “America is the godfather of terrorism.”

An important issue for consideration is that few of the comments on the ads were specifically pro-ISIS, but a large portion of the comments related to a perspective that is not oriented toward nonviolence, posing a difficult question: Is the view that ISIS was created by Western forces one that ought also to be challenged or left alone, given that people who hold it are extremely unlikely to join ISIS? Or does it simply create space for new terrorist organizations as well as established anti-Western groups such as al-Qaeda to recruit new members?

In addition to their significantly better social media machine, ISIS’s concrete, tangible ideology was a key deviation from al-Qaeda that likely contributed to the exponentially higher numbers of FTFs joining ISIS than al-Qaeda. However, ISIS’s loss of territory may be used as evidence that the Caliphate is, as al-Qaeda posits, a distant goal. Furthermore, propagation of the conspiracy, either purposefully or inadvertently through comments on counternarratives, that ISIS was created by Israel and Western powers to destroy Islam from within may also provide fodder for groups like al-Qaeda, which focus on targeting the “far enemy” while proselytizing to Muslims who do not adhere to their form of radical fundamentalism.

Previous studies of anti-American comments have put forward several explanations as to why these conspiracy theories have gained traction predominantly, but not exclusively, in the Arab world. The authors of one study suggested that the United States tends to be an archetype for a global power interfering in the Middle East, making Anti-American sentiments less about Americans and American society and more about global meddling in the affairs of Iraqis and Syrians. This hypothesis is supported by the presence of statements also made against Saudi Arabia and Iran in the comments on videos shown in Jordan, Iraq, and Tunisia. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have waged proxy wars in the region, often by funding sectarian militias. It is notable that commenters in the Balkans expressed anti-Russian sentiments, seemingly replacing Saudi Arabia and Iran with Russia as the more proximal global power of which to be wary, this particularly in light of Russian support for Serbian aggression in the last wars fought there. This fear was also legitimized by a recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations concluding that Russia may intend to use the Balkans as a political bargaining chip with the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Arguably, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have used Iraq, Syria, and other smaller Middle Eastern countries for similar purposes.

The anti-Israel comments, though sometimes linked with anti-Western and anti-American comments, however, cannot be placed in the same category and likely reflect societal-wide views and widespread anger in these Middle Eastern countries about Israel. Although there is evidence that Israel engages in covert operations in the region, that the country and its people are viewed in many comments as symbols of meddling global powers equal to the United States, Russia, or even Saudi Arabia and Iran is alarming. This likely reflects longstanding Middle Eastern anger against Israel over the Palestinian issue as well as views of Israel’s inflated power in the region, particularly following military defeat by Israel of some in the region coupled with anger over strong U.S. support for Israel. The anti-Israeli sentiments and the theory that Israel created ISIS to sow division among Muslims found in many of the comments appears to be a reflection of mainstream Middle Eastern society in which this view of equating ISIS with Zionism and eloquently claiming that ISIS was created by Israel is also spread in scores of online blog posts and opinion pieces. One commentator echoed these same statements: “Israel has plotted and conspired against Arab states in the region, playing sectarian and tribal tensions to generate instability.” He continued, “The fact that ISIS has not moved against Israel and instead focused on killing Muslims says a lot about this organization’s real mission.” The same question was also echoed in ICSVE’s interviews of ISIS members, some who asked their leaders why the group was not first attacking Israel before fighting Middle Eastern powers and attacking Western targets. Other online articles widely circulated in the Middle East also express the view that ISIS and Zionism are essentially the same ideology. It is likely the societally wide spread of such beliefs may underly the presence of anti-ISIS views mixed together with anti-Israel views stated in these Facebook comments. Moreover, it is interesting that the same thought process of likening ISIS’s ideology to Zionism has also been used by ISIS members and supporters to justify their actions and characterize people who support Israel and oppose ISIS as Islamophobic.

It’s very important to continue to work to delegitimize groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda through counternarrative campaigns and to debunk their ideology promoting militant jihad, “martyrdom,” hijrah (migration to lands ruled by shariah) and building a Caliphate even by violent means. However, this analysis of comments made to a series of anti-ISIS Facebook campaigns reveals the need to also consider how to address anti-Western sentiments found in those who are willing to oppose ISIS, as these views are all too often twisted to garner support for militant jihadist groups.

*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.

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 and FATF’s Sword of Damocles

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Pakistan is struggling hard to wriggle out of the Financial-Action –Task-Force grey.  Pakistan needs 15 out of 39 votes to get rid of being listed. But, it may remain on grey list if it gets only three votes.

The whole listing procedure looks biased as it does not accommodate Pakistan’s perception. The main allegation is that Pakistan harborus UN-designated terrorists. But, the yardstick with which the US measures its allegation is lopsided. The UN views ongoing freedom movement in the Jammu and Kashmir State, a dispute d territory under UN resolutions, `terrorism’, aided by Pakistan.

In the historical context, the term meant different things to different individuals and communities. The oldest ‘terrorists’ were holy warriors who killed civilians. Recent examples of religious terrorists are Aum Shinrikyo (Japanese), Rabbi Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir (Jews).The Jewish-controlled media describes Hezbollah and Hamas as ‘religious terrorists’. In the first century A.D Palestine, the Jews publicly slit the Romans’ throats, in the seventh century India, the thugs strangulated gullible passersby to please the Hindu Devi Kali, and the 19th century adherents of  Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) mercilessly killed their pro-Tsar rivals.

`Terrorist’ and `freedom fighter’ had been interchangeable labels subject to expediency. Not long ago the US treated the taliban as freedom fighters. Ronald Reagan accorded red carpeted welcome to Jalluddin Haqqani. Cuban terrorists were decorated in US gallery as freedom fighters.

The term ‘terrorism’ received international publicity during the French reign of terror in 1793-94. It is now common to dub one’s adversary a ‘terrorist’. Doing so forecloses possibility of political negotiation, and gives the powerful definer the right to eliminate the ‘terrorist’, an individual or a country. FATF is employed as a Sword of Damoclese  in case of Pakistan.

Doval doctrine: In line with India’s security Czar Ajit Doval’s Doctrine, RAW aims at fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s sensitive provinces. Doval is inspired by India’s nefarious efforts which resulted in the secession of East Pakistan. Naila  Baloch’s `free Balochistan’ office has been working in New Delhi since 23 June 2018. BJP MLAs and RAW officers attended its inauguration.

B Raman in his books admitted that not only India’s then prime minister  Indra Gandhi but also the heads of RAW and IB created and trained  Mukti  Bahini. Doval publicly claims that he acted as a spy under a pseudonym in Pakistan for 11 years.

`Free Balochistan’: It sponsored offensive posters on taxi cabs and buses in Switzerland and Britain. The USA has recently outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army. However, earlier, in 2012, a handful of Republican had moved a pro-separatist bill in US Congress. It demanded `the right to self-determination’.

Aid to Afghan insurgents: India’s ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar, with the consent of then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, `coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces’… `helicopters, uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments,  refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud’, delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach’. When New Delhi queried about the benefit of costly support to Northern Alliance chief Massoud, Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”

Pushtun Tahafuz Movement: Pushtun Tahafuz Movement is apparently being backed byA India. In their over-ebullient speeches, PTM’s leaders openly scold Pakistan’s national security institutions. For instance, Manzoor Pashteen, in an interview, berates Pak army operations and extols drone strikes. He says, ‘The army did not eliminate even a single Taliban leader. All the 87 Taliban commanders killed in the last 18 years were eliminated in drone strikes’. At a PTM meeting in Britain, even Malala Yusafzai’s father (Ziauddin), like His Master’s Voice, echoed anti-Army sentiments. He said, “Pakistan army and intelligence agencies knew that Fazalullah was a terrorist who continued to operate a radio station in Swat.”

RAW officers Raman’s and RK Yadav’s self-incriminating disclosures: In a published letter, Yadav made  startling revelation that India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi, parliament, RAW and armed forces acted in tandem to dismember Pakistan. The confessions in his letter are corroborated by B. Raman’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW. He reminds `Indian parliament passed resolution on March 31, 1971 to support insurgency. Indira Gandhi had then confided with Kao that in case Mujib was prevented , from ruling Pakistan, she would liberate East Pakistan from the clutches of the military junta. Kao, through one RAW agent, got hijacked a Fokker Friendship, the Ganga, of Indian Airlines hijacked from Srinagar to Lahore.

Kulbushan Jadhav unmasked: Jadhav was an Indian Navy officer, attached to RAW. His mission was to covertly carry out espionage and terrorism in Pakistan. Pakistan also alleged there were Indian markings on arms deliveries to Baloch rebels pushed by Jadhav. To India’s chagrin, India’s investigative journalists confirmed from Gazettes of India that he was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1987 with the service ID of 41558Z Kulbhushan Sudhir. A later edition of the Gazette showed his promotion to the rank of commander after 13 years of service in 2000. His passport, E6934766, indicated he traveled to Iran from Pune as Hussein Mubarak Patel in December 2003. Another of his Passports, No. L9630722 (issued from Thane in 2014), inadvertently exposed his correct address: Jasdanwala Complex, old Mumbai-Pune Road, cutting through Navi Mumbai. The municipal records confirmed that the flat he lived in was owned by his mother, Avanti Jadhav. Furthermore, in his testimony before a Karachi magistrate, Karachi underworld figure Uzair Baloch confessed he had links with Jadhav. India’s prestigious Frontline surmised that Jadhav still served with the Indian Navy. Gazette of India files bore no record of Jadhav’s retirement. India told the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Jadhav was a retired naval officer. But, it refrained from stating exactly when he retired. The spy initially worked for Naval Intelligence, but later moved on to the Intelligence Bureau. He came in contact with RAW in 2010.

Unexplained contradiction: It is not understood why freedom movement in disputed Kashmir is terrorism while India-sponsored insurgency, followed by armed intervention, in erstwhile East Pakistan isn’t. B. Raman, in his book The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane makes no bones about India’s involvement up to the level of prime minister in Bangladesh’s insurgency. One is shocked to read accounts of former diplomats and RAW officers about executing insurgencies in some other neighbouring countries also.

Conclusion:  India portrays the freedom movement in Kashmir as `terrorism’. What about India’s terrorism in neighbouring countries? Will the world take notice of confessions by India’s former intelligence officers and diplomats? Pakistani outfits sdympathising with kashmiri freedom fighters are dubbed as terrorists. But, Indians abetting terrorism in Sri Lanka, or supplying  IED components  to ISIS go scot free.

B Raman ‘s   book, and RK Yadav’s  letter of 14 August 2015 published in Indian and Nepalese media confirms India’s involvement in terrorism against Pakistan.  Kalbushan Jhadav wanted to replay the  Mukti  Bahini experience in Balochistan and Khyber  Pakhtunkhwa.

The conduct of Indian diplomats amounts to state-sponsored terrorism. For one thing, India should close the `Free Balochistan’ office on her soil, and stop resuscitating propaganda skeletons of pre-Bangladesh days.

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Why FATF treats India as a protégé and Pakistan as a bête noire?

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Indian media is never tired of describing Pakistan as hub of money laundering and terror financing in the world.  Indian representatives echoed their babble in recent United Nations’ meeting also.

India makes no bones in declaring its intention to link Pulwama blasts with money trail to Pakistan. By doing so India hopes to get Pakistan blacklisted by Financial Action Task Force.

Little focus on money laundering and terror financing by India: Nowadays, Major powers’ geo-political and economic interests have forced them to ignore suspicious financial transactions by India. However, not long ago, the world was more concerned about money laundering in India than in Pakistan.

Even the USA called upon India to do more to prevent financing of terror networks. USA’s Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Anthony Wayne told the Senate Banking Committee, ‘In India, two accounts belonging to terrorist individuals/entities have been identified, but the Government of India has not frozen any assets to date. It is aware of the UN 1267 Committee List, however’, Wayne noted that India’s Prevention of Money Laundering Act `criminalises money laundering and requires banks and other financial institutions and intermediaries to report individual transactions valued over US$ 23,000 to the financial-investigation unit’. Wayne added, ‘India has also indicated it wants to join the Financial Action Task on Money Laundering. However, at a recent FATF plenary meeting in Paris, concerns were raised regarding its ability to provide effective international cooperation in a timely manner and to extend mutual legal assistance’. 

Here is a glimpse of corrupt India. World Bank estimated that capital flight of Rs 50 to 100 crore took place in four fertilizer plants projects via Italian firm Snam Projetti.  Minimum commission of seven percent was charged on imports of the public sector. Indian government paid no regard to the recommendations adopted by the Financial Action Task Force on money laundering, set up in July 1989 by the Paris summit of the seven most-developed countries.  The conventional money-laundering techniques (smurfing, cover companies, etc.) are used to the hilt in India.  The average amount stashed away from India during 2002-06 is US$27.3 billion (about 136,466 crore). It means that during the 2007-2018 period, the amount stashed away is 27.3×15=US$ 4, 095 billion. Just imagine the volume of money stashed abroad since 1947, including Nehruvian era when Birlas and Tatas gave blank cheque to Congress.

Lid on laundered money lifted: To what end, the laundered money is put is anyone’s guess. However, a recent document-based report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has blown the lid off the suspicious financial transactions by Indian banks, public and private sector companies.

The ICIJ report based on Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) files “represent less than 0.02% of the more than 12 million suspicious activity reports that financial institutions filed with FinCEN between 2011 and 2017.”

Earlier a study, conducted by Conflict Armament Research, had confirmed that seven Indian companies were involved in the supply chain of over 700 components including fuses or detonating cords used by the Islamic State to construct improvised explosive devices .Even the Sri Lanka blasts were linked to terrorists hiding in Indian Southern States. As an eye wash, India arrested Islamic State moles. To bypass banking channels, even gold and diamond are `legal tender’ for money laundering.

How the FATF favoured India: In both India and Pakistan, money laundering is popularly known as hawala, or hand –to-hand-transaction. The Financial Action Task Force was scheduled to review India’s money laundering and terrorist financing regime, a ten year cycle, in September-October 2020. But, it has been tentatively postponed to January February 2021 ostensibly `in view of COVID19 pandemic in India. The year-long review evaluates `Indian legal system against financial crimes at its plenary meeting in February 2022 and subsequently issue a statement and recommendation about the country.

The FATF happily agreed with India that `it is impossible for assessed jurisdictions and asssessories alike to conduct on-site visits and in-person meetings’ (no relaxation for Pakistan).

How India hoodwinked the 2013 FATF team: In the 2013 review, India  managed to hoodwink the FATF by pleading  that `it has set up  a joint working group  comprising 22 central investigation, intelligence-gathering and regulatory  agencies  to check illegal  financial transactions. The agencies include the Central Bureau of Investigation. Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax Department, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Financial Intelligence Unit, Customs, Market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India,  banking regulator and insurance regulator TRDAL.

The 2013 review team was much impressed by Rahul Navin, a 1993-batch Indian Revenue Service Officer of the Income Tax Department deputed with the Enforcement Directorate. Navin who had earlier worked with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had authored a book Information Exchange and Tax Transparency: Tackling Global Tax Evasion and Avoidance.

How the ICIJ blew lid off India’s US$ 2 trillion money laundering and terror financing: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists based its report on two million Suspicious Activity Reports filed by prestigious banks with Financial and Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The ICIJ report is just tip of the iceberg. Its revelations are based on `only  0.02% of the more than 12 million suspicious activity reports that financial institutions filed with FinCEN between 2011 and 2017’. The US banks who filed reports include Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas, BNY Mellello, Citibank, Standard-Chartered and JP Morgan. The reasons mentioned in the reports include `high-risk jurisdiction for money laundering or other financial crimes, adverse media or public information on the client’, unidentified parties, and the fact that source of funds and purpose of transaction could not be ascertained’. Not only the banks but also the public and private sector companies were the culprits. They include Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bhushan Steel Limited, Bharti Airtel and Essar. Heretofore is a bird’s-eye view of the findings.

Indian banks figure in over 2000 transactions, linked to Indian entities, valued at over US$ 1 billion (Rs. 7, 369 crore) between 2011 to 2017. These banks include State  Bank of India,  Punjab National Bank, Canara Bank, HDFC Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, Axis Bank, and Indus Ind Bank.

Open Question: While the ICIJ has shared the information with Buzzword and 108 other media outfits, India’s `Special Investigation Team on Black Money’ stays mum. The SIT was formed on the directions of India’s Supreme Court.

Inference: The FATF should undertake an even handed investigation to India’s multi-facetred money laundering and terror financing.

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Stateless and Leftover ISIS Brides

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While the World is busy fighting the pandemic and the economic devastation caused by it, one of the important problem that has been pushed to dormancy, is the status of the ISIS(Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) brides. The Pandemic has crippled the capacity of the law enforcement and exploiting this the ISIS executed attacks in Maldives, Iraq, and the Philippines. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that terrorists are exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic. Albeit the ISIS has been defeated, approximately ten thousand of them are in ISIS detention centres in Northern Syria under Kurds. Most of these detention centres are filled by women and children, who are relatives or widows of the ISIS fighters. With their native states denouncing them, the status of the stateless women and children is unclear.

As it stands today states’ counter-terrorism approach has been primarily targeting male militants but women also have played a role in strengthening these terrorist organizations. Women involvement in militant organizations has increased as they perform several activities like birthing next-generation militants/jihadists, managing the logistics and recruiting the new members to the organizations. The world did not recognize women as key players in terrorist organizations until the 1980s when females held major roles in guerilla wars of southern America. Women have either willingly or unwillingly held a variety of roles in these extremist organizations and Islamist terrorist organizations like Hamas and al-Qaeda women do simply provide moral support.

According to the media reports since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2006 female suicide attacks have been increased and they have been extensively part of ISIS. The ISIS had a female brigade which they called as Al-Khansaa which was established to perform search activities in the state. Both foreign and domestic recruits in the Islamic state have participated in brutal torture. A recently acquired logbook from a guesthouse in Syria provides important information about 1100 females who joined the organization, the western women who are called as ‘the muhajirat’.

When the people from rest of the world joined organizations such as ISIS, they burnt their passports and rejected their national identity. Especially women from western countries who were radicalized online based on their phenomenon ‘ISIS brides/Jihadi brides’ to marry terrorists. Since Islamic State isnot recognized by the world these marriages are not legally valid, apart from this a number of these brides have experienced sexual torture and extreme violence.

While the erstwhile members of the extremist organizations like ISIS and others are left adrift the one challenging question remaining is should states and their societies keep them and reengage or rehabilitate or prosecute them. How firmly the idea of their erstwhile organization is stuck in their minds and especially the followers who crossed the world to join remains a concern to many. The U.S backed Kurdish forces across turkey border hold thousands of these left-behind women and children in their centre. Hundreds of foreign women and children who were once part of an aspirant state, The caliphate are now floating around the concentration camps in Syria, Turkey and Kurdish detention centres and prisons. Many are waiting to return to their origin countries. They pose a unique challenge to their native states like whether to include them or not and even if they include how to integrate adults who at least for a time part of these terrorist organizations and what to do with children who are too young to understand the politics and obstacles keeping them in camps and detention centres where resources are scarce. Women present a problem because its hard to know what kind of crimes they have committed beyond the membership of the terrorist organization.

It is no secret that women also have been part of insurgency across the world, like in ISIS,LTTE,PIRA and PFLP. The responsibility of women in ISIS includes wife to ISIS soldiers, birthing the next generation of jihad and advancing ISIS’ global reach through online recruiting. The International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICAR) estimates that out of 40000 people joined ISIS from 80 different countries nearly 8000 are women and children. After the defeat of ISIS and such extreme organization those who are left behind possess the ideological commitment and practical skills which again a threat upon return to home countries.

The states across the world are either revoking the citizenship or ignore their responsibility. The most famous case of Shamima  Begum a UK citizen married to an ISIS fighter whose citizenship was revoked by the UK government. In other cases like HodaMuthana of the USA and Iman Osman of Tunisia have been the same case. As recently as Tooba Gondal an ISIS bride who now in a detention camp in northern Syria begged to go home in the UK in a public apology.

The American president Donald Trump issued a statement saying women who joined ISIS cannot return. The NATO deputy head said “…returning ISIS fighters and brides must face full rigours of the law”. Revoking the citizenship and making someone stateless is illegal under international law and it is also important to know how gendered these cases are because the UK have successfully prosecuted Mohammad Uddin and the USA has also done it so. Stripping off their citizenship itself a punishment before proper trail and the only good out of it would state can take their hands off in dealing with cases. Samantha Elhassani the only American who repatriated from Iraq so far and pleaded guilty for supporting ISIS. Meanwhile, France is trying to route its citizens who joined the ISIS and extradited few who are under trial in Bagdad.

As experts and political analysts say “countries should take responsibility for their own citizens” because failure to do so will also make the long term situation more dangerous as jihadists will try to a hideout and turn into militant groups for their protection. The children, the second-generation ISIS need cultural centres and rehabilitation centres and this is an international problem. These women known as jihadists brides suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder and many are pregnant or multiple children born in ISIS territory.

In some countries travelling abroad to join the insurgencies in North Africa and Syria was not always a criminal act, Sweden criminalized such act recently but to prosecute them proof of offences committed in the conflict zone is difficult to collect and most countries in the world do not allow the pre-trial detention for more than 14 days. With problems of different national Lawson extradition and capital punishment and to prosecute them in conflict countries is also a challenge for states. Since Kurdish forces have signalled that they cannot bring all the prisoners into justice the home countries will have to act or else it might create a long term dangerous situation. With the civil war in Syria is about to end it is time to address these issues because since there are more ISIS fighters in Kurdish prisons and detention centres they could be influenced to join rebels who are fighting the regime of Assad in last standing province of Idlib.

If the governments reject the repatriation applications then they will be signalling that their action is essential for national security and thus asserting that failed or poorly resourced states are better equipped to handle potential extremists. The criminal system in Iraq is corrupt and human rights violations have been reported and which creates the risk of further radicalization. One should not forget that even citizenship of Osama bin laden was also stripped but which did not stop him from forming al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. If the citizens commit crimes and forget their responsibility then the states must bring them to justice instead of stripping citizenship. The states must come with a solution for this problem before its too late, setting up an international tribunal to deal with these cases would be a great start but these tribunals are time-consuming and expensive.

States must act as a responsible actor in the international system. Jihadist terrorism is a global problem and states must act together to deal with it because with nearly 40000 fighters joining caliphate from across the world it only shows how global and deeply rooted the phenomenon is. Instead of stripping their citizens’ citizenship, states must find a way to act together for the peace and security of the international community.

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