Posts Tagged ‘daesh’

Slightly belated piece for the New Statesman to kick the year off looking at ISIS, tries to sketch out what is likely to happen with the group this year. Separately spoke to the Neue Zircher Zeitung about the threat that Germany faced in the context of the broader European threat.

What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

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Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’

And a final short piece in a latest burst of commentary posting mostly around Mosul, this time for the New Statesman looking a bit more at the history of ISIS.

Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group’s grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

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The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group’s history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad’s fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group’s disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS’s grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com

Another piece for the Telegraph, this time after the fall of Mosul, looking in particular at the worrying consequences subsequently if attention is not paid to the fall out.

What happens after Mosul? Chaos – unless the West keeps its eye on the ball

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It has been a dramatic weekend for Isil. The symbolically significant town of Dabiq in Syria fell over the weekend, and then, this morning, the assault on Mosul, their capital in Iraq, has begun.

This likely heralds the beginning of a period of retrenchment for the group, as they find themselves in retreat and unable to project the same vision of power and victory and before. The consequences for the West are important.

Undoubtedly the threat from the group will evolve, and work needs to be done now to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We must lay the groundwork to properly eradicate the group, rather than let Iraq sink into sectarianism as it did in the past.

A major concern is what will happen now to the mass of foreign fighters who will be suddenly left without a home. Rudderless but with a sense of revolutionary purpose, this group will present a menace to security officials around the world for years to come. In terms of the numbers of fighters who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, it is hard to find an exact precedent. The closest is the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the mujahedeen rallied to fight the Soviet Union. This produced the beginnings of the network that later developed into al Qaeda, but also created a cadre of warriors who sensed an opportunity to use the battlefield experience they had honed in Afghanistan on overthrowing regimes in their home countries.

In some cases, the revolutionary fighters kept on going, seeking another struggle to join, be it in Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir or Bosnia. The war’s aftermath created clusters of militants with links to each other across the Eurasian continent, North America and Asia – cells that later turned into the base for al Qaeda plots for years to come.

How this will replicate now is difficult to predict. The speed and nature of the flow of fighters that went to Syria and Iraq to fight with Isil is different. But there’s a high probability of a threat and it will be a combination of things. There is an obvious risk of directed cells. Isil has shown a capacity to send individual fighters back hidden among the flow of refugees coming to Europe. This will likely continue, with a confusing mix of individuals returning home feeling that their fighting days are over, alongside individuals tasked with establishing networks or even launching attacks. Keeping track and understanding this flow, then preventing any plots emerging now or in the future will be a major concern to European authorities for some time.

Communities of Arab, South-east Asian, Central Asian, Russian and North African fighters may also decide to start heading home. In some of their home countries, the injection on a large scale of well-trained and battle-hardened fighters may become too much for authorities to cope with. This may lead to instability and violence which in some cases may be targeted against western nationals.

The fall of Mosul is likely to exacerbate this flow. As various reports appear to indicate, the numbers of disenfranchised fighters who are seeking to leave the Caliphate is increasing. The loss of Mosul will shatter the vision of the group as an all-powerful entity which controls a nation with major cities, something that will inevitably reduce its appeal as a destination for people to go to.

In many ways, however, it is exactly now that the longer-term danger rears its head. As the group is pushed back from Mosul, not only will its threat evolve, but there is also the possibility that western attention will drop off once again. Last time the West seemed to score a victory in Iraq, western powers rapidly lost attention and withdrew. The result was a sectarian mess in Iraq that provided the groundwork for Isil, creating  the environment from which it was able to grow. In addition, while the group is losing ground in Syria – as evidenced most recently by the loss of Dabiq – it is still a force on the ground and the brutal civil war there rages on.

The danger is now that with thi precipitous loss of territory, the rich world’s attention will wane. And in taking our eye off the ball, the stage may be set for Isil to re-group and re-establish itself. The pressure must be kept up on the battlefield, but also in terms of finding ways of rebuilding communities and cities that have been torn apart by conflict. All of this is a long-term struggle that the West has failed to follow through on in the past. It is essential to make sure that this same mistake is not made twice.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

 

Another short piece off the longer interview with Andrew for the new site The Question, this time looking at ISIS in its Gulf regional context.

How can we fight Islamic State when our allies Saudi Arabia are also extreme Islamic fundamentalists?

There was a moment, which was very embarrassing, when people noticed that some Islamic State schools in Syria were using official Saudi school textbooks – which certainly suggests some proximity of outlook, at the very least, between the two places.

But they key difference is that Saudi Arabia is not at war with us. Saudi Arabia is actually helping to disrupt these terror networks, to counter these problems, and is ultimately a strategic ally – with many flaws and many problems, but an ally which fights with us.

Saudi Arabia realises that an organisation like Islamic State is going to come after them, at some point. For an Islamist organisation like Islamic State or al-Qa’ida, the Saudi regime is one of the most evil things on the planet. They see these guys not as austere practising Muslims who are living according to the prophet’s Sharia, but as a group of very rich people who are stealing money, and leading these incorrect, impure lives.

If you think back to al-Qa’ida, they had two levels of enemy that they were focused on: the near enemy and the far enemy. The far enemy was the West, and the near enemy was the various regimes in the Gulf, who they saw as impure, and incorrect, and puppets of the West. So Saudi realises that Islamic State are a problem, and that they’ve got a huge problem with their people going to fight in Syria and Iraq – and with what might happen when those people come home.

I’ve not seen categoric evidence that Saudi Arabia is supporting terrorist plots against the West. I have seen evidence that they have disrupted terrorist plots against the West. But are there potentially people in senior positions who may actually be more interested in supporting the other side because that’s who they’re more ideologically aligned with? I don’t discount that. But do I think that the state of Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on fighting against us? No.

Saudi Arabia is one of many important elements involved in the fight against Islamic State. They’re a very important power in the region, so which way they go on any issue is influential. They’re very significant when we look at Syria, especially. Islamic State will only be able to survive as an organisation as long as there’s chaos and trouble in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia can certainly play a role in stabilising that.

And because of the unfortunate reality that Saudi Arabia has so many young men who’ve gone to fight alongside groups like Islamic State, they’ve got very good intelligence capacities about these organisation,. That’s very important when it comes to preventing them striking against the West, or elsewhere.

 

A short piece (that was done in the form of an interview with Andrew Mueller who then published it) for a new site called The Question that is focused on answering key questions about specific topics of the day.

Is Islamic State losing its war?

In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.

Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.

What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.

With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.

You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.

But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.

The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.

Raffaello Pantucci is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

A late posting of a recent piece for my institutional home RUSI exploring the question of al Qaeda versus ISIS/Daesh/ISIL and the degree to which they are able to advance the lone actor strategy. Lots of longer form writing going on at the moment which is keeping me busy and will eventually land.

Why is Daesh Able to Inspire More Attacks Than Al-Qa’ida?

The fact that there are more and more Daesh-inspired lone-actor terrorist attacks may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.
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Daesh appears to have intensified its efforts to encourage individuals to carry out lone-actor terrorist attacks, as events over the weekend in the US indicate. But this trend has been observed for quite some time, and it may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.

The US was rocked this weekend by a series of terrorist attacks. While Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) claimed responsibility for the stabbing spree in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the New York and New Jersey explosions have not yet been claimed by any terrorist group. Given the uncertainties at this stage in the investigation, it is unclear if there is any deeper meaning to this distinction, but the speed with which Daesh claimed responsibility for one terrorist attack and not the other suggests a rationale. The Minneapolis attack was an example of the lone-actor methodology that Daesh has managed to appropriate from Al-Qa’ida with a high degree of success. A key unanswered question is this: why has Daesh has proven so much more effective at delivering this sort of attack than Al-Qa’ida?

The first thing to note is that the approach which Daesh appears to be so good at promoting is not novel. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine used to advocate a similar methodological approach. It aped various prominent mainstream advertising campaigns – including Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign – and offered easily accessible attack methodologies for aspirant warriors. And there was some evidence that it worked, with the bomb recipe offered in the magazine repeatedly showing up in terrorist plots. From the limited available evidence at the moment, the latest New York bombs seem to emulate a recipe in Inspire.

Yet it was never clear that the group was able to instigate and steer such attacks. Numerous Al-Qa’ida leaders spoke of the lone-actor methodology as one that adherents in the West should copy, but very few terrorist attacks seem to have actually taken place as a result. Occasional plots seemed to hint in this direction, but it was almost impossible to draw a direct causal link between Al-Qa’ida and these attacks. And, according to one letter found in his lair in Abbottabad, Osama Bin Laden did not entirely approve of all of the various random mass murder methodologies Inspire used to offer its readers.

Fast-forward to today, and we see repeated attacks using small bombs, knives, guns and other weapons to attack innocent citizens in the West, with Daesh regularly claiming responsibility for them. And while some appear to be over-eager claims by the group – like the case of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June – in a growing number of cases there appears to be clear evidence of some sort of connection with Daesh.

Three factors appear to have changed since the heyday of Inspire magazine that may help explain Daesh’s effectiveness in inspiring lone-actor terrorist attacks.

First, the ideology that Daesh espouses comes in the wake of Al-Qa’ida and it is louder, brasher and more attractive, projecting an image of power and control of territory; markedly different to Al-Qa’ida’s image of a secretive menacing organisation.

Second, the definition of ‘terrorist attack’ has been diluted, with the range of actions that are considered terrorist attacks now broader. Whereas in the past only large-scale bomb or plane attacks would be considered terrorist attacks, now using a vehicle or knives against other citizens can constitute a terrorist attack. Furthermore, the targets have now become diffuse – cafés, churches, people’s houses,  among others, are all in the crosshairs. This means that a terror attack is no longer the complicated large-scale endeavour that it used to be. And if it is easier to carry out a terrorist attack, then there are a wider range of attacks for Daesh to be able to claim. This lower threshold is something that Daesh has eagerly embraced, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which has allegedly had reservations about this approach.

Third, it turns out that a number of these attacks are not actually as lone or detached as they seem prima facie. After an investigation, the German authorities uncovered clear evidence of contact with Daesh in an axe attack on a train in Wuerzburg and an attempted bombing in Ansbach in July this year. The June murder of a police officer and his girlfriend at their home in Magnaville, 55 km west of Paris, and the subsequent July murder of a priest in Rouen, as well as the attempted car bombing in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, were all linked back to the same French Daesh leader: Rachid Kassim. Previously, a network of British plotters in the Syrian city of Raqqa – Junaid Hussain, Reeyad Khan and Sally Jones – were talking and instigating various attempted attackers in the West.

In many of these cases, it was subsequently discovered that the plotters on the ground were involved in quite intense conversations with Daesh handlers or directors. Apparently using apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or Telegram, the attackers were communicating with their Daesh handlers. The Ansbach bomber, for example, was quite literally directed in his attack by his handler outside Germany. So, although the perpetrators may seem to have been alone in their actions, they both had some backing and plenty of connections.

In some ways, this is likely a product of the way we communicate these days. Daesh, therefore, appears to be in part a product of its time; the communication apps that are now available were not accessible to Al-Qa’ida when it was promoting a similar message, and Daesh’s more contemporary audience is simply using the tools in everyday life. The phenomenon also builds on what came before it: Al-Qa’ida had already started to sketch out the path of lone-actor attacks that Daesh has so eagerly embraced. And in part it is a product of a leadership in Daesh that sees value and strategy in low-grade random attacks, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which appears fixated on more large-scale, dramatic attacks.

Daesh has not invented a new strategy of launching attacks; what we are witnessing instead seems to be an attempt on the part of Daesh to increase the incidence of a particular form of terrorism, lone-actor terrorism, an upward trajectory that was most likely to happen anyway. Daesh’s attacks seem a product of their times, rather than a completely novel strategic approach.

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI and Sky News, which is part of a collaboration we are doing with them institutionally looking at the Daesh documents which were leaked recently. The piece was both published on the RUSI site and Sky News. My excellent colleague Clare Ellis was the lead on this work, so thanks to her for pulling it all together. More on this topic to come!

Friends, Sponsors and Bureaucracy: An Initial Look at the Daesh Database
Clare Ellis and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 3 May 2016
Terrorism, Al-Qa’ida, Terrorism

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A preliminary analysis of leaked Daesh recruitment files by RUSI experts suggests that the social processes underlying the radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters still mirrors those of Al-Qa’ida.

In March 2016 it was revealed that a defector from Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) had obtained a memory drive containing the personal details of thousands of foreign fighter recruits. Sky News has shared the information with RUSI, and while its researchers are still conducting detailed analysis of the records, a preliminary examination has revealed a number of insights.

The majority of the documents appear to be arrival forms, completed by or for Daesh recruits as they sought entry into Daesh-controlled territory between early 2013 and late 2014. They are bureaucratic in nature, with 23 fields recording details from basic biodata to level of Sharia-related knowledge; there is even a space on the form where the date of the individual’s death can be entered, should the recruit die while fighting with Daesh.

While of evident value, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this database. They offer only a partial snapshot of those who travelled to Syria and Iraq – it is impossible to know how many others travelled during this period, or how this specific dataset compares against the broader picture. Nevertheless, they provide important details not only about individuals but also about how Daesh administers its territory; about the recruitment, radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters; and about how the group has learned from the experiences of its precursor organisation, Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).

A Militant Bureaucracy

Examining the format of the documents, it is clear that they represent an attempt to impose control and implement state administration. There are some similarities with AQI’s practices: these forms record similar information to that found in the AQI archive known as the ‘Sinjar records’, including the recruit’s route of entry, his or her facilitator and the personal belongings being deposited.There are also indications that AQI’s initial model has been further developed to record the knowledge and experience of incoming fighters. There are additional fields, not found in the Sinjar documents, to record the recruit’s level of Sharia knowledge and his or her previous experience of jihad. There is also evidence that further notes were made to record any potentially relevant skills or knowledge beyond those relevant to combat.

The bureaucracy of ‘state’ administration points to the dual nature of Daesh. As the group has come under increasing military pressure in Syria and Iraq, it has amplified its efforts to inspire, instigate and direct attacks against the West. Former Director General of MI5 and RUSI Senior Associate Fellow Jonathan Evans has categorised this strategy as ‘chaotic terrorism’, with some attacks directed by the group, but many undertaken by ‘disparate individuals who may have no actual contact with the group but are encouraged through its propaganda’. There are therefore stark contrasts between these dual roles: Daesh is simultaneously a tightly controlled and bureaucratic ‘state’, and a loosely controlled ‘chaotic’ global terrorist movement.

With a Little Help from My Friends

Examining Al-Qa’ida’s recruitment practices, Marc Sageman encapsulated the importance of social bonds in what became known as his ‘bunch of guys’ theory. He showed that bonds of kinship, or friendship, often predate recruitment and radicalisation. Similarly, anthropologist Scott Atran’s research finds that kinship and friendship are crucial to understanding why people radicalise and embrace violence: ‘people don’t simply kill and die for a cause. They kill and die for each other.’Daesh has skilfully exploited social media to spread their message to a global audience; however, as Peter Neumann at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) has argued, social media is a powerful propaganda tool but it has not displaced the importance of these real-world connections in mobilising people to action. Initial analysis of the leaked documents reinforces this insight, revealing evident geographic clustering within foreign fighter recruitment.

Just as analysis by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) of the Sinjar records revealed a high proportion of AQI recruits arriving on the same day as others from their hometown, these documents show many British fighters arriving in groups. The fact that some of these groups hail from the same place, with notable concentrations from Coventry, Cardiff and Portsmouth, underlines the importance of offline interactions in radicalisation; were social media the crucial element, then (as Neumann has explained) recruits would be dispersed across the country rather than clustered in specific locations.

A Word from the Sponsors

Moreover, the documents confirm that in gaining admittance to Daesh-controlled territory, it is necessary to declare a sponsor. Like Al-Qa’ida before it, Daesh seeks to verify the identity of its new recruits to limit possible infiltration. One individual who appears in this role is particularly noteworthy: Omar Bakri Mohammed, the Syrian preacher who founded the group Al-Muhajiroun in the UK in the late 1990s (an extremist group that was later proscribed in 2010). In the wake of the July 2005 bombings, he fled the UK, and was subsequently barred from returning by the Home Secretary.From his base in Lebanon, Omar Bakri appears to have continued his radicalising activity. While this is not a new revelation, it is striking that he is cited as a sponsor numerous times in the Daesh database. Previously dismissed as a ‘loud-mouth’ – most amusingly characterised as the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ in Jon Ronson’s 1996 television documentary – Bakri now appears able to facilitate access to Daesh. This highlights the continuing threat from charismatic extremists, as well as the persistence of jihadist networks – in this case both still posing a threat more than two decades after their emergence.

Conclusion

Daesh has clearly learned lessons from Al–Qa’ida, and AQI in particular, so that it can hold territory more successfully and more effectively utilise the skills of its recruits. However, the evidence from the Daesh database suggests that the fundamental mechanisms of terrorist recruitment and radicalisation are still the same.Social media has given the group greater access to a global audience, but the social processes underlying the radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters still mirrors that seen among the recruits of Al-Qa’ida. Behind the bureaucracy, foreign fighters are still just a bunch of guys.