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Lone-Actor vs Remote-Controlled Jihadi Terrorism: Rethinking the Threat to the West

Courtesy of James/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 20 April 2017.

At approximately 2:40 in the afternoon of March 22nd, British-born Khalid Masood — a violent criminal who had previously been investigated by MI5 for links to extremists — deliberately drove into pedestrians making their way across Westminster Bridge. He killed a mother on her way to collect her children from school, a pensioner, and two tourists. After crashing the rented vehicle into the gates of Parliament, Masood ran into New Palace Yard and stabbed an unarmed policeman to death before being shot and killed by plainclothes officers. In contrast to other recent attacks in Western nations, which have frequently (sometimes incorrectly) been labeled acts of “lone-actor” terrorism, Masood’s assault was followed by a volley of articles with titles such as “Remote-Control Terror,” “Don’t Bet on London Attacker Being a Lone Wolf,” and “The Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist.” Analysts were keen to point out that “lone-actors” are very rarely truly alone and that instead they tend to emerge from within broader, extremist milieus. Moreover, what sometimes seems like lone-actor terrorism at first glance turns out to be connected to, if not directed by, foreign terrorist organizations. Yet the official word on Masood is that, regardless of his associations, he acted “wholly alone.” To accurately understand the nature of terrorism today, patient, measured analysis and consistent use of terminology are necessary. It is therefore important to re-examine the concept of lone-actor terrorism and to try and appreciate where it fits within the overall spectrum of jihadist terrorist activity in the West.

Many, if not most “lone-actor” jihadists (including Masood), are indeed connected to other extremists and terrorists in some shape or form. Such connections have been greatly facilitated by the growth of social media and encrypted communication applications, which have also enabled the rise of virtual “planners” or “entrepreneurs” and so-called “remote-controlled” or “enabled” attacks, such as those in Würzburg and Ansbach, Germany, in July last year. Moreover, the number of jihadists with bona fide connections to foreign terrorist organizations, including training and combat experience abroad, has risen sharply since the outbreak of conflict in Syria and Iraq. Western security services are currently bracing for a potential surge in the number of returning foreign fighters. » More

The Coming of the Russian Jihad: Part 1

Gun

Courtesy id-iom/Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 23 September 2016.

On June 28, three suicide bombers entered the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, where they killed 45 people and injured 229. Although only one of the terrorist was from Russia (the other two were Uzbek and Kyrgyz), it is almost certain that that their last words to one another were in Russian. It is estimated that between 5,000 to 7,000 Russian-speaking jihadists have made Russian the second most popular language of ISIL, after Arabic.

The Changing Demographics

That Russian should be the lingua franca of jihadists from the former Soviet territory is surprising. Many, perhaps most, younger Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks (judging by the gastarbeiters from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan) do not know Russian well or even at all. That Russia is becoming widely-spoken is indicative of the explosive internationalization and the vastly expanded recruitment patterns of what might be called the Russian Jihad based in Russia and former Soviet Central Asia.

With an estimated 2,400 of its citizens fighting with ISIL, Russia is surpassed only by Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the number of its nationals in the extremist group’s ranks. It is far ahead of the top four European suppliers of ISIL soldiers: France with 1,800 fighters, Britain and Germany with 760 each, and Belgium with 470. Russian language graffiti has been spotted in Darayya, Syria (“We will pray in your palace, Putin! Tatars and Chechens, rise up!”), and there is an Univermag grocery store in the “Russian” district of ISIL’s de-facto capital of Raqqa, alongside Russian-language schools and kindergartens.

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The Polarizing Effect of Islamic State Aggression on the Global Jihadist Movement

Torn billboard

Courtesy wwwuppertal/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center on 27 July 2016.

The Islamic State will struggle to hold onto the governments it builds and the territory it captures outside of Syria and Iraq because it antagonizes local jihadist competitors and powerful non-Muslim states. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism toward these entities for the sake of expediency, but then it would no longer be able to recruit followers as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

Since it announced its caliphate in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State has taken on 17 affiliates or “governorates” that operate in 12 countries outside of Syria and Iraq. Many of the governorates were preexisting jihadist groups or factions that joined the Islamic State because they identified with its antagonism toward local jihadist competitors and its unyielding animosity toward non-Muslim nations. Yet this hostility subsequently limits the group’s ability to build governments or take territory beyond the confines of Syria and Iraq. In most countries where the Islamic State has planted its flag, its aggression prompted powerful local jihadist rivals[a] or international foes to check its advances. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism to one or the other for the sake of convenience, but this would compromise its recruiting ability and tarnish its reputation as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

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The Role of Iraq’s Former Regime Elements in Islamic State

Portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, courtesy thierry ehrmann/flickr

This article was originally published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) on 5 May 2016.

Former Baathists—members of the Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein—including army and security officers, are today the most influential figures in the Islamic State (IS). The opportunism and ideological ambiguity of the former regime elements (FRE) make them ruthless tacticians who use torture and intimidation, but they should also be seen as a potential Achilles heel of the IS. The EU, together with the United States, needs to cooperate on political intelligence in order to examine the possibilities and conditions for weakening IS by bargaining with some of its key members.

Origins of Cooperation between Baathists and Jihadists

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority embarked on the “de-baathification” of Iraq, a process that aimed to remove senior Baath Party members from the country’s institutions and political system. More than 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) were dismissed and barred from further employment in the government sector, while being allowed to keep their weapons. In the faltering economy, dominated by the public sector, de-baathification meant social exclusion or at least a sudden deprivation of privileges that the elite had become used to over decades. Some of them formed local insurgent forces, and later joined the rising jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in 2006 established the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (today’s IS). To a large extent this cooperation resulted from discriminatory policies of the Shiah prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006–2014), who persecuted former officials and marginalised the entire Sunni population.

What united the FRE and the jihadists was the common enemy, the United States and Maliki’s government, rather than ideology. Even during the Faith Campaign (Hussein’s shift towards Islam in the 90s) Baath Party members lived relatively secular lives. Despite different ideological backgrounds, the common enemies and shared desire for power led to a strong synthesis of the jihadists and the ex-Baathists. The degree to which this occurred can be illustrated by the fact that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of IS, was elected to the position in 2010 owing to the support of a former intelligence colonel, Samir al-Khlifawi, who subsequently cleansed the IS management and replenished it with further FRE.

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African Parliaments Lead the Continent’s Fight Against Weapons of Mass Destruction

Chemical Weapons

Pallets of 155 mm artillery shells containing “HD” mustard gas, courtesy US Government/wikimedia

This article was originally published by the Institute for Security Studies on 4 April 2016.

On 18 February, Moroccan police reportedly found chemical or biological agents while raiding a ‘safe house’ linked to Daesh in the province of El Jadida, on the Atlantic coast. It is presumed that the agents, possibly toxins, were intended for terrorist purposes.

Investigations are currently underway, spearheaded by the Moroccan Ministry of Interior’s Direction Générale de la Surveillance du Territoire. Official information remains scarce, but if confirmed, the discovery of a terrorist plot using chemical or biological weapons would mark a new milestone as extremists resort to more lethal and more devastating weapons, to spread violence with maximum casualties and the highest impact.

This development is not a surprise. Jihadist literature has, for a while, called for the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction – encouraging the production of ricin, botulinum and sarin. (An example of this can be found in the third edition of the magazine disseminated by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)

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