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Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

Debates across the world are raging, discussing the issues pertaining to the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs] who left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] or live under their so-called Caliphate. Some died in Syria and some have made their way back home, but nearly 10,000 male FTFs, approximately 2,000 of them from Europe, are currently being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] in prisons and camps in Northeast Syria. Likewise, thousands of women who brought or bore children into ISIS are now locked with their children in detention camps as well. It is unlikely that the SDF will be able to hold the FTFs forever, especially with frequent attacks by Turkey that pull guards away from their posts to assist in the fighting or with bombs that even hit the prisons and camps themselves, allowing the detainees to escape. Likewise given international challenges to holding trials in SDF territory these prisoners currently are being held without charges, except for those who were charged or tried in absentia at home. Ergo, it is crucial to determine if the FTFs will make it home, whether by entering stealthily, being extradited after crossing the border into Turkey, or being properly repatriated by their home countries, and then to decide what will happen with them. If they are successfully prosecuted – which is a challenge given that evidence from the battlefields so far away is hard to procure, as are legally acceptable statements from witnesses – they will likely be imprisoned and may take part in some sort of treatment program, begging the question: Can an ISIS terrorist be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society?

After a well-attended ICSVE Zoom panel featuring journalist Anthony Loyd and lawyer Tasnime Akunjee discussing the thorny issues concerning rights concerning citizenship and repatriation, particularly that of British-born Shamima Begum, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] hosted another panel moderated by director Dr. Anne Speckhard to discuss and debate the merits of terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration, specifically in Europe.[1] Throughout the discussion, two schools of thought emerged, each linked to the concept of disengagement versus deradicalization, which arose numerous times throughout the comments posted by audience members as well as issues of treatment and evaluation. This paper is an attempt to capture the main points of the discussion hosted by ICSVE of four experts, all of which have been intimately involved with terrorist rehabilitation programs in the UK, Belgium, Austria and Iraq.

In regard to the theme of disengagement versus deradicalization as an end goal of a rehabilitation program it’s important to define the concepts. Terrorist disengagement refers to simply changing one’s behavior, refraining from violence, and removing the terrorist from the community or social network in which they were radicalized, while deradicalization refers to a change in attitude and ideology and a disavowal of one’s previously held beliefs endorsing violent extremism and terrorism and rejecting democratic societal values. All of the panelists held that listening to their clients and taking a holistic approach to treatment is necessary and that disengagement can happen far more quickly than deradicalization, and generally does, simply by virtue of being imprisoned. Some of the panelists argued that successful rehabilitation programs require a theological repudiation of ISIS’s ideology to ensure the individual does not return to terrorist actions upon release, and that deradicalization should be evaluated based on the person’s beliefs about militant jihad and Islamism in general, regardless of whether that person is still willing to act violently based on those beliefs. While they caution that holding extremist beliefs is not a crime in and of itself, those who have disengaged but not been deradicalized are more likely to return to violence given that their extremist beliefs support such behavior. Thus, the panelists aim for their clients to change their extremist beliefs and express acceptance and appreciation of democratic values and tolerance of other religions and behaviors decried as heretical by extremist groups.

Others see ideology as a secondary aspect of radicalization, with many terrorists not having been attracted into the group by its ideology nor being particularly ideologically committed at the point of imprisonment. These panelists therefore viewed addressing ideology as a secondary aspect of rehabilitation. Those in this camp see addressing grievances related to identity, belonging, and significance as paramount and place emphasis on a systems approach which treats the individual, but also takes into account the need to address the individual’s response to a rejecting society. Likewise, this systems approach also locates the problem both within the individual and society and thus calls for broader societal change to also occur to address the racism and discrimination that made these individuals feel marginalized and alienated and thus more vulnerable to radicalization and terrorist recruitment in the first place.

While criminologists like Andrew Silke have argued that ideological deradicalization is not a necessary component of rehabilitation and that many terrorists have been released and successfully reintegrated into society, his research refers to terrorist groups that are not following a militant jihadist ideology.[2]  Likewise, those experts that argue that ideology is not the driving force for joining a terrorist group and that view significance, purpose, belonging, friendship, and material rewards as the far more important reasons for joining also do not place significant value on addressing ideology in rehabilitation. While these are important points, it behooves one to consider how ISIS themselves viewed ideological indoctrination.  After declaring their Caliphate, ISIS required every new male member to attend a two-week shariah training program in which the underpinnings of the ISIS ideology were taught, with no dissent allowed.  ISIS men were then expected to teach their wives and children these lessons at home. All ISIS men were taught that only ISIS were the true believers, that even other Muslims could be takfired – that is, condemned to death for failing to pledge their allegiance to ISIS; that jihad is a mandatory obligation of all Muslims; that suicide terrorism is a honorable type of Islamic martyrdom with rewards for the “martyr” including instant access to Paradise; that punishments of beheading and other brutally gruesome practices carried out by ISIS are legitimate; and that all Muslims are obligated to move to and serve the Caliphate. They were taught that absolute obedience is necessary, and failure to follow ISIS rules would end in worldly punishments in addition to damnation to eternal hellfire. ISIS cadres that have been interviewed by ICSVE often describe the ISIS shariah trainers as extremely charismatic and that the indoctrination was strong and, in many cases long-lasting, taking over a year to shake after an ISIS member defected or left the group. Given this intense and effective indoctrination process, it is likely that ideological evaluation and treatment should at least be considered in the case of ISIS members who lived in Syria and Iraq.

Redouan Safdi, an imam who works in the main terrorism prison in Belgium with Belgians convicted of terrorism offenses, including FTFs who have traveled to Somalia, Libya, and Syria and have chosen to return to Belgium states that when he is designing an individualized rehabilitation program for an individual terrorist returnee, “The first question I always asked was, ‘Why did this person go?’” In this first statement at the outset of his presentation, Safdi invokes an important aspect of working with people who have been radicalized: Recognizing the push and pull factors, wherein the latter refers to the benefits, material, spiritual, psychosocial, or otherwise, that person was promised by the terrorist group while he or she was being recruited, and the former refers to the aspects of the person’s home society, in this case Belgium, that were painful or unacceptable to that person and contributed to his decision to leave. When Safdi asks the people with whom he works why they would leave the safety and security of Belgium to go to a country marked by chaos and death, he says they usually begin by talking about their love for Islam. But when the conversations become deeper and more meaningful, he explains, “I would hardly hear them talk about an Islamic State or the implementation of shariah. All I would hear is the injustices they have experienced in the past: Racism, discrimination, poverty, lack of opportunity.” Many of the people in the prison who left from Belgium to Syria, he says, are very young people who felt “frustrated and alienated by society […] and were searching for an identity […] young people who did not feel at home in the countries where they were born.” ISIS, reflects Safdi, was able to almost perfectly respond to these grievances through their propaganda, especially on social media, and cater to the needs of these “lonely, alienated, frustrated young people.” Spiritually, politically, and socially, ISIS gave them “hope, a new identity […] a sense of belonging. They showed them appreciation.”

Indeed, in an ICSVE study of 220 ISIS recruits in-depth interviewed in prison or after having defected or returned home,[3] we found that nearly a third of the interviewees from Europe were convinced to travel to ISIS by Internet-based propaganda and recruitment alone, without any face-to-face interactions.[4] ISIS’s online recruitment and propaganda alone gave them a sense of purpose, meaning, significance, dignity, identity and hope for their future in Syria. The other two-thirds of the sample were recruited by family members, friends and actual face-to-face recruiters, all promising a better and more Islamic future in Syria. By beginning with these issues, Safdi gets to the heart of the matter, that no one joins a terrorist group except that the group purports to meet some of their needs, materially, spiritually or psychosocially, and that when leaving the terrorist group these needs don’t simply evaporate. They likely still exist, and may be exacerbated upon return, and need to be addressed by redirecting the individual to healthier and more prosocial answers than joining or staying attached to a terrorist group and its virulent ideology. Other researchers have agreed that because many people join terrorist groups in an effort to find an identity, disengagement may cause one to feel a profound loss of identity, meaning, and purpose, all of which were previously provided by and centered around the terrorist group. Thus, replacing the social support once given by the terrorist group is a critical aspect of both deradicalization and disengagement.[5]

Despite the strong draw of groups like ISIS, however, Safdi nevertheless believes rehabilitation and reintegration is possible for most people, under one condition: “We have to be able and we have to be ready to listen to these people.” This is not an easy task, as listening to their grievances requires addressing racism and discrimination that contributed to them feeling alienated enough from Belgian society to go join ISIS in Syria, and which are issues that are ongoing today, despite a great deal of mainstream societal denial. All of the social alienation these convicted terrorists felt before joining ISIS is likely to exist once again when they are released. Issues of racism and discrimination are not easily addressed social problems, so Safdi states that it is important to work with the individual to find ways to live within society while giving them a “feeling that they are wanted […] that they are needed. We have to make sure that these people feel at home.” Unfortunately, Safdi admits that strong societal issues in regard to rejecting many Muslim minorities and converts as well as widespread denial about the reality of this issue still exists in Belgium, stating, “This is the one thing that no one is ready to do: To listen and deal with the needs of their own citizens.” This aspect of Safdi’s assessment is a clear rebuke of those who claim that violent behavior, extremist or otherwise, is a simple choice made by people who are claimed to be not held accountable for their actions. The truth is that the choice to join a terrorist group and believe in an Islamic utopia in Syria came about while living inside a social system that was actively rejecting the individual so the choice occurs within a societal context which also bears some responsibility. As one audience member comments, “Choice also needs to be contextualized. Choices aren’t always clear and opportunities to make choices aren’t always equal across the board.” Indeed, this is why we argue that one cannot see radicalization as a problem solely residing within an individual. It also involves systemic racism, discrimination, marginalization which are frustrating to the individual and which create many cognitive openings to respond to the claims of groups like ISIS.

Beyond listening to grievances, Safdi explains that Belgium’s approach to rehabilitation is holistic, covering not only the ideological symptoms of the person’s radicalization, but the multiple reasons behind radicalization. Indeed, radicalization into terrorism is never univariate. The first author, after studying hundreds of terrorists over many years, identified at least 50 motivations and vulnerabilities operating on the level of the individual that resonate to the terrorist group, its ideology and the level of social support present in society for joining the group.[6] There are always multiple reasons why an individual joins a terrorist group, requiring a holistic approach and often using multiple professionals, most often psychologists as well as religious scholars.

Safdi participates in a program that involves both imams and psychologists and notes that most Belgian FTFs are not knowledgeable enough about Islam to need only a purely theological deradicalization program. That said, even with those who lack strong ideological indoctrination and the ability to defend that indoctrination, he does offer Islamic guidance to address the poorly supported hadiths and cherry-picked Quranic verses that terrorists use to justify and promote terroristic violence. The holistic approach works, Safdi says, because everyone on the team “is there to help. They are not there to judge or punish him.” As for evaluating the success of the deradicalization program, Safdi does not use concrete evaluation tools, but continually watches to see if and how the individual undergoes a process of changing his core identity from rejecting Belgian society and endorsing terrorism to becoming one who embraces living in Belgian society. Safdi looks for how the prisoner slowly begins to disavow his former harsh, judgmental and violence-endorsing self and no longer “wants to be associated with the person he was in the past.” Also, Safdi looks for behaviors demonstrating an openness to new ideas, such as enrolling in courses at a university, which are also good indicators of a change in attitude and embracing finding his place in Belgian society according to Safdi. Moreover, he says, when his clients are released from prison, they are kept under surveillance. Only one person with whom he has worked has recidivated.

Moussa Al-Hassan Diaw, who runs DERAD, a prison deradicalization organization in Austria, also spoke in the panel about rehabilitating and reintegrating militant jihadist terrorists who have been convicted on terrorism charges. His organization also works with far-right and far-left terrorists. Diaw’s program, like Safdi’s, is holistic, focusing on “culture, religion, democracy, pluralism, civic education, and history.” His stated goal, however, is for the person being treated to come to an “acceptance of a pluralistic, democratic society and to avoid polarization.” In contrast with Safdi’s methods of addressing the reasons behind one’s radicalization and helping in the formation of a new identity, Diaw addresses the ideological beliefs that support endorsing violence and as a religious scholar he is well equipped to guide a person out of the ISIS ideology. In keeping with this goal, while Safdi measures success through behavioral change demonstrating a newfound positive identity, Diaw requires a rejection of the extremist ideology and acceptance of democratic values as evidence of deradicalization. Diaw points out that much of his work takes place outside of the prison system. As such he is free to address radicalized belief systems, which are legal to hold as long as the individual does not engage in criminal behavior. He believes that those underlying beliefs that support violent behaviors need to be addressed in order to have confidence that the individual will not return to violence. Of course, the determination of at what point one can be considered “moderate” as opposed to “extreme,” is subject to debate. For example, Moskalenko and McCauley (2009) hold that non-violent, legal political activism should not be a target of deradicalization, even if one’s beliefs are extreme or fundamentalist.[7] Diaw obviously disagrees when it comes to ISIS and we would also point to ICSVE reports on cases of ISIS defectors returning to a commitment to the group when there has been no treatment and also the ideology has not been successfully addressed. Therefore it appears that this is a thorny judgment issue but that addressing ideology within a holistic approach likely makes recidivism less likely.

At the outset of his program, Diaw aims to establish himself to his clients in a positive way and to prove that rather than being “part of a power structure,” he is a sympathetic, understanding community member. After addressing the aspects of rehabilitation, many of which are similar to those discussed by Safdi, though he emphasizes a heavier focus on disputing the ideology of ISIS and other similar groups, Diaw moves on to the challenges of reintegration. First, he says, the people need to find a job, but their reputations are often beyond repair, so they have to change their names or somehow overcome the social barriers to finding employment. It should be noted that in Europe it is normal for employers to require potential hires to show a police certificate demonstrating that one has not been in trouble with the law, an impossibility for former terrorist convicts. Others worry they will not be accepted back into their communities from which they left or that they will not be able to rebuild relationships with their families and regain custody of children who may have been put into the welfare system. Some audience members commented that mainstream Muslim communities may be wary to welcome these people back for fear of being surveilled themselves once the former terrorist lives among them, or even be harassed by law enforcement due to their association with someone convicted on terrorism charges. All of these roadblocks to reintegration can drive the person back to their old radical community, even if they no longer hold radical beliefs, and once finding comfort and belonging with their former community they are at risk for re-radicalizing. Relocation may address many of these concerns in removing the stigma people may feel in the job market after release from prison and also physically distancing them from their old negative influences. However, having to show a clean police record is a significant barrier for many to gain employment. An example of failed reintegration is seen in the case of Younes Delefortrie, an ISIS returnee in Belgium. Younes returned to Antwerp after being convicted on terrorism charges but freed on a stay of sentence to open a bakery and try to reinvent himself. Far-right politician Geert Wilders publicly denounced him, telling the public that his baked goods had blood on them due to his terrorist past. The bakery failed as a result and Younes, who did not receive good treatment and support, never found his way and was later returned to prison.[8]

Omar Shariff, a therapist and former extremist now working in the United Kingdom comments on how powerful ISIS’s brand is; that its marketing strategy seduced so many young people all over the world. For this reason, Shariff states that he regularly uses videos produced through ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project in his work, using insiders from ISIS to denounce the group on video with those with whom he is working. In his view, people countering ISIS are fighting “a giant,” and therefore young people need far more than just “youth work.” He echoes the previous two speakers in emphasizing a holistic approach that addresses all aspects of radicalization, including but not limited to the theological aspects. For Shariff, evaluation of a deradicalization process should be individualistic and tailor-made and should focus on the individual’s acceptance of Islam as a religion that values life above all else, as well as moderation, as evidenced in the Islamic concept of “the balanced nation.” He actively confronts those who do not hold such views from a scholarly Islamic perspective and also examines the person’s mental health.

All of the speakers emphasized the voluntary aspects of prison-based terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration treatment programs, stating that no one is forced to take part. Each one noted that active listening, visiting, repeatedly inviting and caring for those who refuse to take part often wins them over.  In describing his evaluation process, Omar Shariff emphasizes evaluating his own efficacy to create a strong enough rapport with the client to succeed in beginning and continuing to move them along a deradicalization process. Safdi concurs, explaining that people in Belgium convicted on terrorism charges are not required to undergo treatment, but he nevertheless continues to visit them in prison, allowing them time to think and decide on their own to talk with him. We would also note that prison is a very lonely and can be a harsh place where kindnesses can go a long way in reaching a person who might otherwise be unreachable and that by extending simple acts of care, a prisoner may make a change of heart. The first author recalls a high-value terrorist ideologue in Camp Cropper in Iraq who he refused to confess or talk with any prison interrogator, always pointing out that he had been injured during his capture and needed a doctor. The first series of interrogators ignored his request for a doctor, but a particularly caring one dropped his demands for answers and took the prisoner for medical treatment, an act which completely turned the prisoner to not only cooperating with his interrogator but ultimately becoming an ideologue fighting militant jihadi terrorism in the prisons in Iraq.[9]

While the time to go deep into how treatment of prisoners convicted on terrorism charges actually takes place was limited and not all audience questions could be fielded, the written comments from audience members, many of whom are also experienced in this type of work, made throughout the event were numerous and insightful, many related to the different paths toward rehabilitation and reintegration, focusing on either psychosocial problems or on religious arguments. Many asked for common Islamic arguments against ISIS’s ideology and were pointed to the Quilliam guide entitled, “Tackling Terror: A Response to Takfiri Terrorist Theology.” Others asked whether there were empirically based assessments for deradicalization. Many programs utilize the Violent Extremist Risk Assessment [VERA], which is informed by the operator, although there are many other assessment and evaluation checklists other than the VERA and some prison programs make their own. No matter what assessment measures are used, it is important to assess repeatedly throughout a rehabilitation program, observing both positive changes and falling back into old behaviors and ideological points of view. Likewise, it is important to have a global assessment, from both psychological and religious points of view, and when possible to have feedback from other prisoners and guards as well. All of the panelists stressed the importance of tailoring their assessments to the individual, based on his or her specific risk factors and reasons for having joined a terrorist group initially. They also emphasized the difficulty in ensuring that individuals have truly deradicalized, not simply learned how to say the right things in order to be released.

The diversity of viewpoints among the panelists as well as the comments demonstrate the beginning of an answer to whether an ISIS terrorist can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. Yes, rehabilitation is possible, the panelists agree, but programs must be holistic, individually tailored, culturally sensitive, trauma informed and continuously evaluated for positive growth as well as setbacks over time. The consensus appears to be that reintegration is as difficult as rehabilitation with its own challenges and that the difficulties of remaining deradicalized and disengaged after release from prison are many. Reintegration is likely supported by the individual’s acceptance of the benefits of a democratic and pluralistic society in which he or she lives and determination to live as a productive, law-abiding citizen within that society and a reciprocal expectation of societal acceptance of the individual once he or she has served their time. Acceptance of societal benefits is difficult to achieve if the person did not formerly and does not expect to experience these benefits upon release. Thus, broader societal reform surrounding racism and discrimination is also critical in order to work toward truly ensuring that militant jihadi prisoners released after serving under terrorism charges do not revert to their old ways upon finding that the same grievances that drove them to violent extremism initially are still present, alongside the terrorist groups that promised them an alternative form of governance, albeit one that is achieved via terrorist actions.

[1] The ICSVE Zoom Panels are sponsored by grants from the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C., and from the European Commission’s Civil Society Empowerment Programme.

[2] Silke, A. (2011). Disengagement or deradicalization: A look at prison programs for jailed terrorists. CTC Sentinel, 4(1), 18-21.

[3] Speckhard, A., & Ellenberg, M. D. (2020). ISIS in Their Own Words: Recruitment History, Motivations for Joining, Travel, Experiences in ISIS, and Disillusionment over Time–Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors and Prisoners. Journal of Strategic Security, 13(1), 5.

[4] Speckhard, A., & Ellenberg, M. (April 15, 2020). Is Internet Recruitment Enough to Seduce a Vulnerable Individual Into Terrorism?. Homeland Security Today.

[5] Feddes, A. R. (2015). Socio-psychological factors involved in measures of disengagement and deradicalization and evaluation challenges in Western Europe. Электронный ресурс]. Режим доступа: URL: http://www. mei. edu/content/article/understanding-deradicalization-pathways-enhance-transatlantic-common-perceptions-and-practices (дата обращения: 05.09. 2018).

[6] Speckhard, A. (2016). The lethal cocktail of terrorism: the four necessary ingredients that go into making a terrorist & fifty individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism: Brief Report.

[7] Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2009). Measuring political mobilization: The distinction between activism and radicalism. Terrorism and political violence, 21(2), 239-260.

[8] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC.

[9] Speckhard, A., & Paz, R. (2012). Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers &” martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

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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