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Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts and the Role of Military Courts

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Authors: Tajjalla Munir and Fatima Ahmed*

Abstract: Pakistan has remained a victim of terrorism for the last two decades. As a frontline state in this United States-led war against terrorism, it has suffered a lot. In the last two decades, thousands of people were killed including civilians and personnel of security forces in this bloody war against terrorism. In 2015, after the Peshawar School massacre, Pakistan adopted a comprehensive strategy to eliminate terrorism from its soil that was named the National Action Plan (NAP). Some ambitious measures were added in this National Action Plan including the establishment of military courts. These military courts were special courts to prosecute people who are involved in major terror incidents in Pakistan. It is an undebated fact that Pakistan was targeted by massive terrorist attacks and it required special measures to deal with this menace of terrorism. Still, these military courts were criticized by different domestic and international institutions because they considered the procedures adopted by military courts against basic human rights. Given the amount of success Pakistan got in the last five years in reducing terrorism, the role of military courts could never be undermined.

This paper will analyze the legal procedure adopted by the military courts. It will also analyze the role of military courts in the counter-terrorism efforts of Pakistan.

Terrorism and the Need for a Comprehensive Counter terrorism strategy in Pakistan

Terrorism in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon. It is facing continuous terrorist attacks for the last two years. It all started when on September 11, 2011, the United States was targeted by terrorists and in response, the US started a global war on terror by attacking Afghanistan Pakistan due to its proximity to Afghanistan played the role of the front-line state in this war against terrorism. Pakistan was awarded the title of “Major non- NATO ally’ but it resulted in a long bloody insurgency in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This tribal belt has porous and a long border with Afghanistan. Militancy in the tribal area invited military operation from security forces and the result was the horrifying suicide attacks in different cities. In those years Pakistan did not have a comprehensive strategy to counter those terrorists on all fronts. While military operations were successful to some extent but because of the flaws in the judicial system in Pakistan terrorists were set free by the courts. It created a dilemma for civilian institutions that were not well prepared enough to deal with this menace of terrorism.

In 2014 Pakistan army launched a massive scale operation “Zarb e Azb” to eradicate this menace of terrorism once and for all. While the Army got some success in the operation, terrorists responded by targeting relatively softer targets. On December 16, 2014, a group of terrorists massacred more than 100 school children in the northern city of Peshawar. This attack traumatized not only the Pakistani nation but the international community was also vigilant in condemning this vicious attack After the Peshawar school attack, the Government of Pakistan adopted a comprehensive strategy to eliminate terrorism from its roots. It was named as National Action Plan (NAP).NAP is a 20 point formula, which clearly outlines how the war against terrorism will be conducted. Its second point is about establishing military courts because many terrorists were not punished by civilian courts due to several reasons.

National Action Plan and The establishment of military courts

When the National action plan was adopted and the idea of military courts was floated in 2014, the overall ratio of the terrorist attack in Pakistan was in an upward trajectory. Pakistan was at number 3 among the countries which faced the majority of terrorist attacks in the world. From 2012 to 2014 Pakistan saw a 37% increase in terms of casualties with terrorist-related incidents (2014) Around fifty thousand civilians and five thousand persons belonging to security forces were also killed from 2001 to 2014. Besides this loss of life, Pakistan also lost US $106.98 directly or indirectly in the first 14 years in this war against terrorism. But these terrorists were not getting due punishment from the courts. Many times terrorist leaders were acquitted by the courts. In the wake of military operations after which Hundreds of high profile terrorists were arrested, the judicial system was not equipped enough to prosecute these terrorists. These cases remained persistent for a longer period without any logical reason and even some time terrorists were acquitted by the courts.

 The Constituent Assembly of Pakistan adopted the 21st constitutional amendment and amendment in the Pakistan Army Act for the establishment of military courts. Under these amendments now civilians will also be tried in military courts if they are found guilty of perpetrating terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Initially, these military courts were established for two years term but later their tenure was extended. These military courts were established to try “Jet Black terrorist”. This term refers to hardcore terrorists who were part of terrorist activities in Pakistan. While talking on this occasion Prime Minister of Pakistan Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif said that “This bill is about military courts trying hardcore terrorists who kill Pakistanis. This is an important day for Pakistan when the nation decided that terrorists will be taken out from the roots,”. He further elaborated that these courts were established under the National Action Plan and that these courts are created for extraordinary cases of terrorism. In another place, he said that “I don’t think people who slaughter others deserve any sympathy,”. In August 2015, in its landmark, the decision of the supreme court of Pakistan also validated the establishment of military courts by the Government. But it maintained that the right to appeal against the decision of special courts is still present and it can be used by any person sentenced by special military courts. Jurisdiction of the apex court is applicable not only to the verdict of the case by military courts but it is also applicable to the decision of the civilian government to refer a case to a military court. It was the beginning of a new era when hardcore terrorists will be tried in military courts with full constitutional and moral support from the civilian government.

The first two years remain important in deciding the fate of terrorists by military courts. A total of 274 terrorists were convicted by the military courts. Out of these 274,161 were given death sentences while 113 were sent to imprisonment for different tenures. In 2017, the duration of the military courts expired. The parliament passed the 28th Amendment to prolong the tenure of the military courts for two more years. The parliament approved the28th amendment on 30th March 2017, so accordingly the tenure of the military courts will terminate on 30th March 2019. The prelude of the amendment recapitulated that the extension to the military courts was in the national interest of the country.

Role of Civilian Legal System in Fight against Terrorism

Since 9/11 Security force has conducted many operations against terrorist groups not only in tribal areas but also in other parts of the country. Dozens of terrorists were arrested during these operations and a large swathe of the territory was recaptured from terrorists. But the future of those terrorists, apprehended by the security forces, was uncertain because the criminal justice system in Pakistan had many problems. Many of those apprehended by security forces were not convicted by the courts. Anti-terrorism Act (ATA) of 1997, is a basic tool which is used in Pakistan to convict terrorist due to their inhuman activities. Under this ATA, especial Anti-terrorism courts are established. But these courts are not effective in giving terrorists due punishment. In 2014, there were 17000 cases present in different anti-terrorism courts. From 2007 to 2014(after which NAP was formed) Anti-Terrorism courts acquitted 2000 people who were accused of carrying out terrorist activities. Among these 2000, some high profile terrorists were also present. It is believed that many of them again became part of banned groups According to a report, 60% of the terrorist who is acquitted by the courts are again involved in criminal activities and more than 700 have joined terrorist networks.In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which faced the majority of terrorist attacks, the conviction rate was only four percent.

Many high profile terrorists were also released by the courts. Among them was Malik Ishaq, chief of the notorious Lashkar e Jhangvi group (Lej). Lej is a banned terrorist organization not only in Pakistan but it is also designated as a terrorist organization by the United Stat. Ishaq himself is accused of killing more than 100 people and he is on the list of “most wanted terrorists “by the United States. Recently Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was acquitted by the High court of Sindh province. Ahmed Omar Saeed, who was involved in the murder of Daniel Pearl, a journalist of the wall street journal, was sentenced to death in 2002. The decision to acquit Ahmed Omar Saeed invited international condemnation including from the United States, though Pakistan authorities have detained him with 03 others, that they might again get involved in terrorist activities. Authorities have also promised to appeal in the higher court against the acquittal

Terrorism exposed problems in the judicial system of Pakistan. Before the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan never faced massive-scale terrorism. Therefore there was no mechanism to deal with this new kind of threat. But with the sudden terrorist onslaught, it was exposed to a challenge that was maybe bigger than its foundation. But this problem in the judicial system of Pakistan is not due to one reason. The courts and the prosecution system overall is facing many challenges. The fundamental problem is with the Anti-terrorism Law of 1997 and its vague interpretation even the term terrorism is not defined clearly. The police department has to decide whether an offense falls under the category of ATA. Moreover, when the police department makes a case an accused it is not well equipped to better follow the legal procedure which sometimes benefits the terrorist.ATA was enacted in 1997 as a tool to curb sectarian militancy which was somehow an indigenous phenomenon. People who are involved in this type of militancy do not fight against state institutions but they are more focused and limited in their scope. But 9/11 and the subsequent war against terrorism have significantly changed the overall picture. Now terrorists are well equipped and they have links with transnational groups and last not least they have denounced the basic structure of states. States’ structure is facing threats from these terrorist groups. Therefore the scope of these events is much bigger than what was envisioned in the anti-terrorism law of 1997 which was formed to deal with small-scale terrorist groups.

 Police are also not well equipped to use scientific means to investigate a case. Mostly they rely on old traditional methods, and terrorists with knowledge of modern technologies overcome these methods easily. Courts are also traditionalists in the sense that they do not consider modern technological tools as evidence in any case. So the ATCs are relying heavily on eyewitnesses for judgment of the cases. But in terrorism-related cases, the majority of the time eyewitnesses are personnel of security forces only and even if there is eyewitness it will never come to court because of the threat posed by terrorist groups. Lack of witness protection measures is adding to the problems. In ATCs courts, cases continue for many years without any result. Among some common problems in the judicial system of Pakistan, one is corruption and political interference. Judges in the lower courts are bribed or sometimes they face pressure from individuals and political parties.

Last but not the least, the most fearsome part of this is that Lawyers and judges are themselves victims of these powerful terrorist groups. Many times they are threatened by terrorist groups for serious consequences if they convict any member of their groups. Terrorists have also targeted many times the Courts and Lawyers. A judicial complex was targeted in the capital city of Islamabad in March 2014. At least eleven people were killed, including lawyers and a judge. In another unfortunate event, a suicide bomber exploded himself in a court in the Mardan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and many people were killed also including Lawyers. The most tragic incident in this regard occurred in August 2016 in the western city of Quetta where a suicide attack on a gathering of lawyers left at least 70 lawyers dead. After this horrifying incident, even the local people of Quetta were unable to find a person who can represent them in court. It created a shortage of Lawyers in Baluchistan province.

The success of Pakistan in War against Terrorism and the Importance of Military courts

Many countries in the world have also put into place military courts to tackle extraordinary situations. Pakistan, once labeled as the home of terrorism, made unprecedented success in fighting against terrorism. The setting up of the military courts with its judicial framework has reinforced the efforts done in curbing terrorism under the umbrella of the National Action plan. Their establishment is not something that is not done by other states. Special circumstances require special measures to deal with them.

The most prominent example in this regard is the United States (US). The global war against terror started in 2001 under the supervision of the US. The United that had a very effective civilian justice system established a military commission to try terrorists who are arrested during its global war on terror. These commissions were established during President Bush’s regime when the United States launched its war on terror in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Security could even use torture to integrate the suspected terrorist. It was done even when law enforcement agencies had a special power in the United States in their counter-terrorism efforts. They can detain and arrest anyone who they assume could be involved in terrorist activity. These were kind of proactive measures taken by the government in which anyone could be detained without charges. Even with these special measures, ordinary criminal courts were not allowed to hear special cases of terrorism. Because this could undermine the national security of the United States. Moreover, it endangers the lives of the witness, prosecutor, and other people who are involved in this judicial system. When President Obama took office as president of the United States, even he did not abolish the military commission, though the techniques to interrogate terrorists were changed.

Military courts in Pakistan were established in 2015 for two years but their tenure was extended by the government in 2017, giving them two extra years to conclude all the cases to a logical end. In January 2019, while talking to the media spokesperson of the Pakistan Army Major General Asif Ghafoor said that the Interior Ministry had referred a total of 717 cases to military courts. Of these 717, cases 645 are solved by the military courts (M. Desk 2019). International Commission of Jurist (ICJ) also provided almost similar data. According to ICJ, a total of 646 cases are resolved and the told number of cases before military courts was 717.345 terrorists were awarded capital punishment while the other 296 were given imprisonment and five accused were acquitted by the military courts. These statistics were provided just one month before the end of the second term of the military courts. The ex-Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif reiterated that the military courts have sped up the war on terror to success. According to him, these courts were “need of the hour”. Chaudhry Nisar, who was the federal interior minister, also echoed the same thoughts about the courts. He also expressed that these courts were needed to deliver justice at that time. The second extension period of military courts ended on 30th March 2019.  The PTI government could not gather the support of the Opposition parties for the third extension of the military courts. The military courts ceased to function in March 2019.

Despite the reservations of the Human Rights activists and organizations, it is apparent that the military courts have played a crucial role in curbing terrorism in Pakistan. Military courts have been successful due to their capacity to deliver speedy justice to the hardcore terrorists. Moreover, they were also following a proper mechanism that was given to them by the federal government through constitutional amendments. They were not blind courts in which anyone could be punished without proper evidence. Under this proper legal mechanism, military courts were playing an effective role in this fight against terrorism. Many evidence could be given in support of this argument.

 Firstly and the most important in this regard is that the decisions enacted by the military courts can be challenged in high courts. This shows that these courts are under the supervision of the civil judiciary. Recently, the Peshawar High Court has freed 200 militants who were convicted by the Military courts. In 2018, Peshawar High Court had acquitted 70 people convicted by the military courts. Secondly, the trial process and the people involved in the trial are provided with military security. Unlike the civilian courts where the lives of the Judges, lawyers, and witnesses are not safe and they are threatened by the aides of the terrorists, the military courts hold their hearing behind closed doors under secrecy ensuring the safety of everyone. Thirdly, these courts do not take random cases for trial, they only try the terrorists handed to them by the provinces. In 2015, 1350 cases were sent to the military courts by the provinces. Fourthly, these all aspects enhance the capacity of these courts to carry out swift justice to the elements which have terrorized the masses. In this way, it has set precedent for perpetrators and thus terrorism has reduced considerably since 2015. The decisions of these courts against the hardcore terrorists have helped to fracture the patronage they were giving to terrorist organizations.

These arguments are supported by the fact that there is a massive decline in terrorism-related incidents in Pakistan. In the last decade, Terrorism decreased by 85%.2012 was a peak year in which 2732 people were killed by a terrorist attack. Even in 2014, the total number of casualties was 1476 but in 2019 these numbers reduced to 142. There was a 30.71% reduction in the victims of terrorism in 2019. The provinces also observed a decline in the deaths caused by terrorism. Baluchistan witnessed a reduction of 44.2%, former FATA region observed a 33% decline. Sindh saw a decrease of 19% in the casualties and Punjab observed 11% respectively. This is the result of the efforts of the security forces and especially the success of the National Action plan that was implemented in 2015. This is a huge success considering the ratio that Pakistan faced in the last two decades.

* Tajjalla Munir &Fatima Ahmed are Research Scholar of MS International Relations at COMSATS University Islamabad.

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Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday. 

“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies. 

Assault on human rights 

During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts. 

“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General. 

The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan. 

The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.” 

Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating. 

Reaffirm core values 

Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse. 

“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. 

The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people. 

This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Ensuring long-term efforts 

The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain. 

In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”  

Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces. 

“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens.  That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said. 

“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Global strategy 

The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.   

Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism. 

Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner. 

The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities. 

The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.  

“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said. 

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The UK’s “Separation Centres”: Re-visiting counter-terror measures

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Prisons are breeding grounds for radicalisation within their walls and recruitment for terrorism acts carried out post the inmates’ release. The leaders’ personality and ability to cultivate a cult-like following among the potential recruits mould the fruition or failure of these security threats worldwide. While this is not a novel security challenge, as the following portion about the rise of the Islamic State attests, the Boris Johnson-led administration appears to now bolster its efforts to confront the complex reality.

For example, the emergence of the Islamic State traces its roots to Camp Bucca in Iraq, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its earliest leader, received absolute leeway in conducting his virulent sermons and fomented the surge in radical recruits. His followers eventually assumed leadership positions in one of the deadliest terrorist outfits of the modern era. However, the prison officials had essentially allowed him to run amuck due to his ability to contain in-fighting and resolve tensions between his fellow jihadist prisoners, despite his record of violence displayed during the Sunni insurgency after the United States-led invasion in 2003. Having found themselves in a foreign land and inadept at recognising the socio-cultural and sectarian sensitivities, the American officials presumably refrained from challenging the status quo that had emerged within the camp to minimise tensions and violent episodes engulfing the Iraqi state. However, this meant that the radical Islamist narrative spun by him and disseminated by his followers played a central role in laying the foundations of the carnage and the now dismantled “caliphate” that would follow suit.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategy is now being revamped. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has announced the strengthening of a team, to the tune of £1.2 million, to assist the British government in devising a framework to segregate radically influential and “charismatic” Islamist terrorists from at-risk inmates serving their sentence. This would primarily happen by isolating them in specialised centres to house such high-risk prisoners. Nevertheless, there is a catch. The challenge that this administration will face is in determining who poses a substantial threat and will find a place in the centres. Although three of them are currently operational, until April 2022, only 15 individuals in one prison have made it to the list.

Mr. Raab asserted that the current dispensation is “going to take a more decisive approach in [our] prisons, not allowing cultural and religious sensitivities to deter [us] from nipping in the bud early signs of terrorist risk.” He argued his case by underlining how the right to socialise in prisons traditionally accorded as per the Human Rights Act would remain suspended. In addition, inmates making their arguments against their referrals to such centres would find it a mounting challenge to plead their claims successfully. Furthermore, the empowered Prison Governors will notably have considerable authority to strike down any attempts by radical inmates to undermine national security and instigate chaos spurred by radicalisation.

Driving the policy change

On the surface, this comes on the heels of the recommendations made by Jonathan Hall QC, an independent reviewer of terrorist activities in Welsh and English prisons. Nevertheless, it is improbable to disassociate this policy decision from the debates concerning the viability of Prevent, which is a core tenet of the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy. It was initially introduced in 2003 by former Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair. Understandably, the brutal assassination of former parliamentarian Sir David Amess in October 2021 and the subsequent conviction of Ali Harbi Ali for life, the perpetrator in April 2022, have triggered the incumbent administration to counter the catapulting national security crisis decisively.

On the other hand, violent incidents within jails in the recent past are the root of why Mr. Raab appears driven to confront this dilemma head-on. In May 2020, HMP Belmarsh’s-High Security Unit, one of the most secure prisons countrywide, witnessed a horrifying attack on Paul Edwards, a prison officer. He nearly lost his life due to a near-fatal assault by a trio of inmates. He was punched, thrashed, and struck with a chair after Hashem Abedi (the “emir” and brother to Salman Abedi; the Manchester Arena bomber), Muhammed Saeed, and Ahmed Hassan (Parsons Green Bomber) stormed his office. Led by Abedi, Saeed and Hassan were radicalised to retaliate against perceived unfair treatment by prison authorities.

Reportedly, these individuals were housed along with other violent criminals, sowing seeds for intensifying attacks, where discussions about their upcoming trials and information about jihad and terrorism were frequently exchanged. 

What is worrisome is that this prison has served as the scene for a spill-over to its other corners. Mohiussunath Chowdhury, who was imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh on terrorism charges after his sword attack on police officers stationed outside the Buckingham Palace in 2017, had a close affiliation with fellow jihadis, including Hassan, Abedi, and Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State terrorist infamously known as “Jihadi John.” He was re-convicted in 2020 for planning terrorist attacks after being cleared of prior charges in 2018. Additionally, Sudesh Amman, who stabbed two people and was subsequently shot dead in February 2020, also had a prior conviction.  He was jailed for possession and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, before securing an early release days before his knife attack. He and Chowdhary were imprisoned around the same time.

It is equally problematic to discover that Anjem Choudhary, a militant and radical Islamist preacher who, until recently, was banned from making public speeches, and Usman Khan, the London Bridge attacker, are the by-products of a militant Islamist climate cultivated within the same prison as terrorists mentioned above. Khan and Choudhury also spoke alongside each other at a conference in 2009 about Sharia. Individuals like Khan were also mandated to undergo a de-radicalisation initiative termed “Desistance and Disengagement Programme” alongside his fellow detainees.

The Do’s of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation success & the need for overhaul

These are only a few of several examples within one prison to delineate why the British government is attempting to revamp its counter-terrorism strategy. Under a common roof, the amalgamation and collusion of violent extremist beliefs, followed by constant reinforcement undermines the stable ecosystem within and outside prisons. Moreover, despite their resources an well-trained personnel, the security agencies – MI5 and MI6 require adequate preparation and time to re-engage and subdue such terrorists between their release and their subsequent targeted attacks. During that time frame, these radicalised individuals persons have the potential for these radicalised persons to inflict more violence than before.

Therefore, the government’s rationale is evident and well-understood.

Overall, the presumption is that if such “separation centres” are set up and all high-risk terrorists isolated, the violence within and outside jails will become manageable, if not completely eradicated. This would provide the government, law enforcement, and security agencies sufficient room to re-allocate their resources and personnel towards nipping in the bud any potential radicalised recruits in the public domain before they join violent extremist organisations or carry out terrorist acts. It will also prevent the radicalisation of violent criminals and pre-trial prisoners as they remain disassociated from radical elements.

However, to ensure the centres’ success, challenges such as overcrowding, shortage of specially trained armed and civilian personnel (including de-radicalisation experts), and insufficient funds to procure advanced surveillance for monitoring the detainees’ daily activities need to be overcome. The government must also ensure that it sets up a core committee, comprising a therapists, a prison official, and a social welfare worker, and a law-enforcement and security officer (each), for each of these centres. In addition, 4 to 5 members to evaluate the successes and challenges after every months and accordingly underscore the scope of improvement and loopholes the centres face is also required. Only through a state of heightened monitoring, and constant re-evaluation can the administration hope to weed out terrorism and radicalisation from mainstream society and its fringes. Additionally, the political will of subsequent leaders and perseverance of MI5 and MI6 will also have a significant contribution to determining whether this initiative succeeds or whether is doomed to fail.

On the other hand, in conjunction with the government, the prison officials must also ensure prisoners being housed in such centres should not come into contact, particularly through illicit means, lest they develop a jihadist solidarity, strengthen their beliefs, and harm those safeguarding these places. Moreover, parameters, including the number of people these high-risk individuals have radicalised within and outside prisons, and those who have committed terrorist attacks post their release, the rigidity of their ideological indoctrination, record of violence, cyber activities, conduct as inmates, and the severity of crimes for which they have been convicted, should collectively feature into the framework laid down to decide who will be referred to the separation centres.

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U.S. Hunts Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

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KTJ Uzbek jihadists

The US Department of the Treasury and the State Department successfully and effectively conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, putting constant and systematic pressure on them. The war on terrorism is fought on many fronts: diplomatic, intelligence, covert, sanctions, law enforcement, and military. Over the past two decades, the US designated the most vocal and violent Islamist extremist groups from Central Asia as the “Specially Designated Terrorist” (SDT) и “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO). Under the provision of the Act “Farrakhan Amendment,” US law enforcement freezes any assets and finances of global terrorist groups, designated SDT and FTO. The US has recently added the Uzbek jihadi group of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad to global terrorist organizations.

US designated Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

On March 7, 2022, the US Department of State added Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. In addition to this designation, KTJ has been added to the UN Security Council’s ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against Uzbek jihadist of KTJ.

The US designation noted that “al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib Province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from the post-Soviet Central Asia.

The US Department of State’s statement also noted that “in addition to engaging in terrorist activities in Syria, KTJ has also been responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg metro attack in Russia in April 2017 which killed 14 passengers and injured 50 others, as well as a suicide car bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek in August 2016 which wounded three people.”

The State Department further stated that as a result of the designation, all property and interests in property of KTJ are blocked, and foreign financial institutions that conduct any transaction on behalf of KTJ could also be subject to US sanctions.

Uzbek Jihadists in Syria denounce US designation of KTJ

On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization, the Shura Council of KTJ released a statement denouncing the US move. In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction questions the greatness of the US, as their decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society might be, it will not be great in the eyes of people if it does not rule with justice and eliminate oppression.”

Uzbek Jihadi group in Syria denounces its designation by the US and claims that “KTJ consists of people who responded to the cries of the oppressed in Syria, because protecting the oppressed people is the duty of all humanity.”

KTJ leader Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki

The major Central Asian militant group further asserted that “it is not the policy of KTJ to launch attacks outside Syria” and its members have nothing to do with the suicide attacks on Russia’s St. Petersburg metro and the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in 20016-2017. At the end of their statement, KTJ ideologists claim that “our group does not belong to al-Qaeda or ISIS.” However, this claim is absolutely false.

It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda became the ideological mentor and inspirer of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley, opening the door to global jihad. KTJ was created by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (alias Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi Salafist from Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, in northern Syria in 2013. Under his leadership, KTJ pledged allegiance (Bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the Al Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria at the time which described itself as al-Qaeda in the Levant.

During the preparation of this material, a group of experts on political Islam listened to KTJ’s bayat once again, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Nusra, parted ways ‘peacefully’ in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ has never disavowed its bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, during this time, KTJ demonstrated its deft ability to spread the al-Qaeda ideology into the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.

To date, KTJ is the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on a par with the Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party from Chinese Xinjiang. Both are waging jihad under HTS’s auspices against Bashar al-Assad regime. The approximate number of Uzbek militants is about 500 people. It is known that long a hotbed of armed resistance and a center of al-Qaeda-related operations, northwest Syria has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.

The KTJ current leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda’s devoted followers. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek of the Fergana Valley and former deputy emir of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ. According to a UN Security Council’s report dated 3 February, 2022, “KTJ’s capability is undermined by conflict between the current group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh.” But this is a superficial assessment of the situation taking place among the Uzbek jihadists in Syria.

Noteworthy, Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under pressure of HTS for openly supporting its strongest jihadi opponent, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which directly challenged the leader of HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. It is also known that KTJ new leader Abdul Aziz swore bayat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afg-Pak border zone as member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2008. Indeed, at that time, IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-linked groups in Central and South Asia. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, which also hosted an al-Qaeda camp.

So, militant Salafism is the fundamental basis of KTJ’s jihadi ideology. In accordance with its ideological doctrine, the group aims to overthrow the five “tahut” (godless) regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia and build a single Caliphate with Sharia rule in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the new imam of KTJ and its major ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies Jihadi-Salafi scholars from the medieval to the present, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda’s senior figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

Thus, KTJ’s claim of no ties to al-Qaeda is a complete lie. Today, Uzbek jihadists of KTJ continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the HTS, who act as an ideological mentor and militant umbrella for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

US continues pressure on Central Asian jihadi groups

This is not the first time that the US government has designated Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions against them. It is known, the US State Department has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000. The IMU was the veteran of the Central Asian jihad, first paving the hijrat to Afghanistan and establishing close relations with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and its military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed as a result of US missile airstrike.

On June 17, 2005, the US State Department designated the Islamic Jihad Union to the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The US missile airstrike has killed several top IJU leaders, including its emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan 2009.

According to the recent UN Security Council report, “IJU actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban in the capture of Kabul and therefore its fighters now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country. IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev, of Tajikistan, is assessed to be the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates primarily in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.” Further, the UN report notes that “Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several leaders of IJU have travelled freely to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov separately visited Kabul.”

On December 29, 2004, the US State Department designated Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). The group leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in US drone strike. However, on November 5, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

On March 22, 2018, the US State Department designated Uzbek jihadi group Katibat Imam al Bukhari to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. Currently KIB wages jihad in Syria under the HTS umbrella against the Bashar al-Asad regime. KIB is now led by ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has a close and trusting relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Minister of the Interior of the Taliban government and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas. KIB, like the IJU and KTJ, is also a splinter of the IMU and pledged loyalty to the Taliban.

In conclusion, the US government’s designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups as a global terrorist organization provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such a move will certainly help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East in cutting off the channels of financial, material and military assistance to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

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