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  • Author: Seth Loertscher, Daniel Milton, Bryan C. Price, Cynthia Loertscher
  • Publication Date: 09-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: After the attacks of September 2001, the U.S. government grappled with ways to apply all aspects of its national power against the terrorist groups it found itself combating militarily. On the diplomatic and financial fronts, much of this increased effort revolved around the sanctioning and designating of terrorist groups and individual terrorist actors, resulting in a drastic increase of the number of individuals and groups which were branded with the term “terrorist.” Yet despite the application of these tools for almost 20 years, or longer in some cases, little work has been done to understand the impact of these programs. This report examines two sanctioning efforts the U.S. government has employed against terrorist actors: the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list and the designation of individuals as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) under the authority granted by Executive Order 13224. Although the specific purposes of each of these programs differ from one another, ultimately both represent a non-kinetic approach to counterterrorism that relies on the application of diplomatic and/or financial statecraft. The examination of each of these programs in this report has two general goals. The first is to provide an overview of the program and descriptive statistics regarding its implementation. The second is to provide some form of assessment regarding the impact that these programs have on terrorist groups and individuals. In accomplishing these two goals, the authors relied exclusively on open-source information collected by researchers at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). This report attempts to provide a deeper understanding of the impacts of these tools, in addition to highlighting some of the structural limitations and gaps in the application of counterterrorism sanctions.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, Hamas, Abu Sayyaf
  • Political Geography: Africa, Middle East, Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Liesbeth van der Heide, Audrey Alexander
  • Publication Date: 06-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: This report focuses on the topic of foreign minors who are stuck in limbo after the fall of the territorial caliphate, particularly those who live in dangerous conditions within detention facilities as countries determine their roles and responsibilities in addressing the issue in the region. Although nations are right to assess the potential risks associated with returning Islamic State-affiliated minors, the costs of delayed action are high. To support stakeholders tasked with weighing such tradeoffs, the first half of this report uses a range of primary and secondary sources to review the experiences some foreign minors have during and after life in the Islamic State. The report suggests that such circumstances can create barriers to a minor’s rehabilitation and reintegration, but argues that addressing key issue areas may improve programming for returning minors. With that rationale in mind, the second half of this report lays out four focus areas and draws from research about children in other adverse contexts, including those affected by conflict, displacement, deprivation, or abuse, to raise considerations for stakeholders developing rehabilitation and reintegration programs for returning minors.
  • Topic: Crime, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Youth, Rehabilitation
  • Political Geography: Middle East
  • Author: Paul Cruickshank, Michael Knights, Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside, Charlie Winter, Seth Loertscher, Ariane Tabatabai, Gina Vale
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The January 3, 2020, U.S. drone strike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport will likely have consequences that reverberate across the region and beyond for years. In our first feature article, Michael Knights focuses on the potential consequences for Iraq. He writes that the removal of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, “in combination with resistance from protestors, religious leaders, and the international community, could slow or stall the consolidation of [Tehran-backed] militia power in Iraq.” Ariane Tabatabai assesses that although Soleimani “was perhaps unparalleled in his ability to advance Iranian national interests as viewed by the regime,” the Quds Force is “unlikely to change its modus operandi significantly and that the new Quds Force commander, Esmail Qaani, is likely to ensure a smooth transition.” In our second feature article, Haroro Ingram, Craig Whiteside, and Charlie Winter—the authors of the soon-to-be-published book The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement—“present three frames through which to understand the [Islamic State] movement’s ability to navigate through spectacular highs and crippling lows.” Our interview is with Rob Saale, who between 2017 and 2019 was the director of the U.S. Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, an interagency group housed at the FBI. Gina Vale examines a collection of 24 internal Islamic State documents obtained by U.S. military forces operating in Iraq and Syria and declassified through the Combating Terrorism Cen-ter’s Harmony Program. She writes that the documents indicate “the Islamic State sought to translate citizens’ compliance with pious ideals into long-term acceptance of the group’s ideological legitimacy and governing authority.” The full collection of documents, including English translation, is now available on the CTC’s website.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Qassem Soleimani, Militias
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Matthew Levitt, Jason Warner, Amarnath Amarasingam, Annie Fixler, Bennett Clifford, Caleb Weiss
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: Following the January 3, 2020, U.S. drone strike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief General Qassem Soleimani, there is significant concern that Iran may seek to retaliate against U.S. interests in the Middle East, and possibly even in the U.S. homeland. In our feature article, Matthew Levitt forecasts that “Iran and the foreign legion of Shi`a proxies at its disposal are likely to employ new types of operational tradecraft, including deploying cells comprised of operatives from various proxy groups and potentially even doing something authorities worry about but have never seen to date, namely encouraging Shi`a homegrown violent extremist terrorist attacks.” Annie Fixler assesses Iran will likely not order a major intensification of cyber operations against the United States to avenge Soleimani per se, because “claiming credit [to make clear any attack is in retaliation] also removes plausible deniability, which is one of the benefits of cyberattacks in the first place.” Instead, she argues, the state-sponsored cyber threat from Iran will continue along its current elevated trajectory, driven to a significant degree by the Iranian regime’s desire to hit back because of U.S. sanctions. Our feature interview is with Brigadier General Dagvin Anderson, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. In our second interview, conducted by Amarnath Amarasingam, an official at Europol’s EU Internet Referral Unit outlines how in November 2019, the unit coordinated with messaging platforms, including Telegram, to carry out a major takedown of Islamic State channels online. At a time of continued concern over the security risk posed by the thousands of Islamic State fighters detained in northern Syria, Bennett Clifford and Caleb Weiss assess the global threat posed by jihadi attacks on prisons and jihadi riots inside prisons. They document how from West Africa to Southeast Asia, targeting prisons systems in this way has continued to be a priority for the Islamic State and other jihadi groups. “In planning these types of attacks,” they write, “jihadis are interested in restoring their force size, releasing incarcerated jihadi leaders or specialists, and/or creating a propaganda win.”
  • Topic: Counter-terrorism, Jihad, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), Foreign Fighters
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Eran Benedek, Neil Simon, Michael Knights, Alex Almeida, Mette Mayli Albaek, Puk Damasgard, Mahmoud Shiekh Ibrahim, Troels Kingo, Jens Vithner, Nakissa Jahanbani
  • Publication Date: 05-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: One painful lesson from the history of terrorism is just how dangerous one single capable international attack planner can be. Little has been written in English about Basil Hassan, a radicalized Danish engineering graduate of Lebanese descent who became one of the most dangerous international attack operatives within the Islamic State. In this issue’s first feature article, Mette Mayli Albæk, Puk Damsgård, Mahmoud Shiekh Ibrahim, Troels Kingo and Jens Vithner build on a two-year investigative report for the Danish public broadcaster DR to provide a detail-rich profile. The authors write: “As the key figure in a drone procurement network that stretched from Europe through Turkey to Syria, [Hassan] was instrumental in furthering the Islamic State’s drone-warfare capabilities. As ‘the Controller’ behind the 2017 Sydney airline plot, he pulled the strings from Syria in directing one of the most ambitious and innovative terrorist plots ever seen.” There are claims Hassan was killed in the second half of 2017, but the authors note that Danish counterterrorism officials are still not certain that he is dead. In our second feature article, Michael Knights and Alex Almeida find that “the Islamic State has recovered from its territorial defeats since 2017 to mount a strong and sustained resurgence as an insurgent force inside Iraq.” Their analysis of attack metrics from the past 18 months paints “a picture of an Islamic State insurgency that has regained its balance, spread out across many more areas, and reclaimed significant tactical proficiency.” The authors write that “now operating at the same levels it achieved in 2012, a number of factors suggest that the Islamic State could further ramp up its rural insurgency in 2020 and 2021. An input of experienced cadres from Syria, a downturn in Iraqi and coalition effectiveness, and now the disruption of a combined COVID and economic crisis will likely all feed into an escalating campaign of attrition against the Iraqi state, military, and tribes.” May 2020 marks the third anniversary of the suicide bombing attack at the Manchester Arena in the United Kingdom. Two brothers from Manchester of Libyan descent, Salman and Hashem Abedi, were responsible for the attack. Following the conviction of Hashem Abedi in a trial that concluded two months ago in the United Kingdom, Eran Benedek and Neil Simon outline what is now known about the genesis of the attack, the brothers’ web of connections in a British-Libyan jihadi nexus, and their links to Islamic State extremists. Finally, Nakissa Jahanbani provides a high-level analysis of attack trends from 2008 to 2019 of Iranian proxies in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa using several open-source datasets.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Jihad, Proxy War, Aviation
  • Political Geography: Africa, Iraq, United Kingdom, South Asia, Middle East, Libya
  • Author: Paul Cruickshank, Don Rassler, Audrey Alexander, Chelsea Daymon, Meili Criezis, Christopher Hockey, Michael Jones, Mark Dubowitz, Saeed Ghasseminejad, Nikita Malik
  • Publication Date: 06-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: COVID-19 is arguably the biggest crisis the planet has faced since the Second World War and will likely have significant impacts on international security in ways which can and cannot be anticipated. For this special issue on COVID-19 and counterterrorism, we convened five of the best and brightest thinkers in our field for a virtual roundtable on the challenges ahead. In the words of Magnus Ranstorp, “COVID-19 and extremism are the perfect storm.” According to another of the panelists, Lieutenant General (Ret) Michael Nagata, “the time has come to acknowledge the stark fact that despite enormous expenditures of blood/treasure to ‘kill, capture, arrest’ our way to strategic counterterrorism success, there are more terrorists globally today than on 9/11, and COVID-19 will probably lead to the creation of more.” Audrey Kurth Cronin put it this way: “COVID-19 is a boost to non-status quo actors of every type. Reactions to the pandemic—or more specifically, reactions to governments’ inability to respond to it effectively—are setting off many types of political violence, including riots, hate crimes, intercommunal tensions, and the rise of criminal governance. Terrorism is just one element of the growing political instability as people find themselves suffering economically, unable to recreate their pre-COVID lives.” The roundtable identified bioterrorism as a particular concern moving forward, with Juan Zarate noting that “the severity and extreme disruption of a novel coronavirus will likely spur the imagination of the most creative and dangerous groups and individuals to reconsider bioterrorist attacks.” Ali Soufan warned that “although the barriers to entry for terrorists to get their hands on bio weapons remain high, they are gradually being lowered due to technological advances and the democratization of science.” The special issue also features five articles. Audrey Alexander examines the security threat COVID-19 poses to the northern Syria detention camps holding Islamic State members, drawing on a wide range of source materials, including recent interviews she conducted with General Mazloum Abdi, the top commander of the SDF, and former U.S. CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel. Chelsea Daymon and Meili Criezis untangle the pandemic narratives spun by Islamic State supporters online. Christopher Hockey and Michael Jones assess al-Shabaab’s response to the spread of COVID-19 in Somalia. Mark Dubowitz and Saeed Ghasseminejad document how the Iranian regime has spread disinformation relating to the pandemic. Finally, Nikita Malik discusses the overlaps between pandemic preparedness and countering terrorism from a U.K. perspective.
  • Topic: Communications, Governance, Counter-terrorism, Media, Islamic State, Crisis Management, Al Shabaab, Pandemic, COVID-19, Disinformation
  • Political Geography: Africa, United Kingdom, Iran, Middle East, Syria, Global Focus
  • Author: J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O'Donovan, Michael Washington, Stephen Hummel, F. John Burpo, Raffaello Pantucci, Nuno Tiago Pinto, Tomasz Rolbiecki, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, Charlie Winter
  • Publication Date: 08-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed concerns over bioterror threats, with Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently warning that a bioterror attack involving a pathogen with a high death rate “is kind of the nightmare scenario” facing the planet. In this month’s feature article, J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O’Donovan, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Washington, Major Stephen Hummel, and Colonel F. John Burpo assess the potential future threat posed by the malevolent use of synthetic biology. They write that synthetic biology “is a rapidly developing and diffusing technology. The wide availability of the protocols, procedures, and techniques necessary to produce and modify living organisms combined with an exponential increase in the availability of genetic data is leading to a revolution in science affecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb.” The authors, who all serve at, or are affiliated with, the Department of Chemistry and Life Science at the United States Military Academy, note that synthetic biology has “placed the ability to recreate some of the deadliest infectious diseases known well within the grasp of the state-sponsored terrorist and the talented non-state actor” and that “the techniques used to propagate bacteria and viruses and to cut and paste genetic sequences from one organism to another are approaching the level of skill required to use a cookbook or a home computer.” They argue that “an effective response to the threats posed by those using synthetic biology for nefarious purpose will require vigilance on the part of military planners, the development of effective medical countermeasures by the research community, and the development of diagnostic and characterization technologies capable of discriminating between natural and engineered pathogens.” In our interview, Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s longtime Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, speaks to Raffaello Pantucci. Nuno Pinto presents a detailed case study of an alleged Portuguese Islamic State network with strong connections to the United Kingdom that sheds significant light on the foreign fighter recruitment pipeline between Europe and Syria in the last decade. Tomasz Rolbiecki, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, and Charlie Winter examine the threat posed by the Islamic State across Africa based on a study of its attack claims. They write: “As the second half of 2020 unfolds, it is critical that military and counterterrorism policymakers recognize what is at stake in Africa. The Islamic State is not just fighting a low-grade insurgency on the continent; in at least two countries, it has been able to seize and hold territory and subsequently engage in pseudo-state activities.”
  • Topic: Terrorism, European Union, Counter-terrorism, Weapons , Islamic State, Biological Weapons , Foreign Fighters
  • Political Geography: Africa, Europe, Middle East, Syria, Portugal
  • Author: Daniel Milton, Muhammad Al-'Ubaydi, Michael Brian Jenkins, Mohammed Hafez
  • Publication Date: 09-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In the September issue, it is revealed for the first time that the Islamic State’s new leader, publicly identified by the U.S. government as Amir Muhammad Sa’id ‘Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawla, was detained by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2008 and interrogated. The Combating Terrorism Center has made available on its website three of his declassified interrogation reports, and these are analyzed in a feature article by Daniel Milton and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, who caution that claims made by al-Mawla while in custody are very difficult to verify. Based on their assessment of the three documents and their research, they conclude that “key assumptions about al-Mawla, notably his Turkmen ethnicity and early involvement in the insurgency in Iraq, may not be accurate. Moreover, statements made by al-Mawla, while doubtless trying to minimize his own commitment to ISI [the Islamic State of Iraq], suggest that his commitment may have been borne less of zeal than of serendipity. If true, this would suggest that something certainly changed in al-Mawla, as his later reputation suggests someone who ruthlessly pursued his ideology, even to carrying out genocide against its enemies. The TIRs [tactical interrogation reports] also show that al-Mawla, who, according to the timeline that he himself provided, appears to have quickly risen in the organization’s ranks in part because of his religious training, knew much about ISI and was willing to divulge many of these details during his interrogation, potentially implicating and resulting in the death of at least one high-ranking ISI figure.” The Combating Terrorism Center convened a panel of leading scholars and analysts to further discuss the three documents. Cole Bunzel, Haroro Ingram, Gina Ligon, and Craig Whiteside provided their takeaways, including on whether the revelations may hurt al-Mawla’s standing within the group. In the other cover article, Brian Michael Jenkins considers the future role of the U.S. armed forces in counterterrorism, in a sweeping examination of the changing strategic, budgetary and threat environment. He writes: “Dividing the military into near-peer warfare and counterterrorism camps makes little sense. Future wars will require U.S. commanders to orchestrate capabilities to counter an array of conventional and unconventional modes of conflict, including terrorism.” Finally, as the global civil war between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida intensifies, Mohammed Hafez outlines how a recent ‘documentary’ released by the Islamic State’s Yemeni branch has made clearer than ever before the areas of disagreement between the groups.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Armed Forces, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Populism, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Michael Knights, Stephen Hummel, Paul Cruickshank, Don Rassler, Tim Lister, Pete Erickson, Seth Loertscher, David C. Lane, Paul Erickson
  • Publication Date: 10-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In this month’s feature article, Michael Knights assesses the future of Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Iran’s other proxies in Iraq. He notes that in the wake of the death of KH’s founder and leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a U.S. airstrike on January 3, 2020, “KH is still the engine room of anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq but it is less politically agile and operates in a more hostile counterterrorism environment where deniability and secrecy have become more important again.” He assesses that the “the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force is also leaning on a more diversified model in Iraq, drawing on non-KH factions like Saraya al-Jihad and Saraya al-Ashura, and engaging more directly with Iraq’s minorities, including Sunni communities and the Shi`a Kurdish Faylis and Turkmen. History may be repeating itself as Iran develops new smaller and more secure Iraqi cells that are reminiscent of the formation of Kata’ib Hezbollah itself.” Our interview is with Drew Endy, Associate Chair, Bioengineering, Stanford University, who has served on the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. He argues the United States urgently needs a bio strategy to take advantage of rapid advances in biotechnology, protect against the growing danger posed by its potential malevolent use, and prevent the United States from permanently falling behind as a biopower. “First, we need to demonstrate operational mastery of cells by learning to build them. Second and third, we need to build and secure the bio net. And we have to do this now, within the decade, so that we can translate these advances as infrastructure undergirding a uniquely American bio economy that projects power while advancing life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. If we do this, then we have a chance of taking infectious disease off the table. If we don’t develop and implement a coherent bio strategy, it’s game over, not to be dramatic.” In early August 2020, fighters loyal to the Islamic State captured the town and port of Mocimboa da Praia in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado. They have yet to be dislodged from the town. Tim Lister examines a jihadi insurgency in Mozambique that has grown in sophistication and reach. This month marks 20 years since al-Qa`ida’s attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. Lieutenant Colonel Pete Erickson, Seth Loertscher, First Lieutenant David C. Lane, and Captain Paul Erickson assess the search for justice.
  • Topic: Science and Technology, Insurgency, Counter-terrorism, Hezbollah, Justice, Jihad, Proxy War, USS Cole
  • Political Geography: Africa, Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Mozambique
  • Author: Seth G. Jones, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, Jason Warner, Ryan O'Farrell, Heni Nsaibia, Ryan Cummings
  • Publication Date: 12-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In this month’s feature article, Seth Jones examines the evolving threat posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. “The Taliban is in many ways a different organization from the one that governed Afghanistan in the 1990s. Yet most of their leaders are nevertheless committed to an extreme interpretation of Islam that is not shared by many Afghans, an autocratic political system that eschews democracy, and the persistence of relations with terrorist groups like al-Qa`ida. These realities cast serious doubt about the possibility of a lasting peace agreement with the Afghan government in the near future,” he writes, adding that “without a peace deal, the further withdrawal of U.S. forces—as highlighted in the November 17, 2020, announcement to cut U.S. forces from 4,500 to 2,500 troops—will likely shift the balance of power in favor of the Taliban. With continuing support from Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and terrorist groups like al-Qa`ida, it is the view of the author that the Taliban would eventually overthrow the Afghan government in Kabul.” In a feature commentary, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon outlines the urgent action needed on biosecurity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He writes: “For years, the United States and many other countries have neglected biosecurity because policymakers have underestimated both the potential impact and likelihood of biological threats. COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the planet and could be followed by outbreaks of even more dangerous viral diseases. Meanwhile, advances in synthetic biology are transforming the potential threat posed by engineered pathogens, creating growing concern over biological attacks and bioterror. Given the scale of the threat, biosecurity needs to be a top priority moving forward. Not only do efforts need to be stepped up to try to prevent the next pandemic (natural or engineered), but resilience needs to be built by developing early warning systems, the capacity to track outbreaks, and medical countermeasures, including ‘next generation’ vaccines.” He stresses that “winning public acceptance for public health measures will be imperative to tackling biological emergencies in the future.” Jason Warner, Ryan O’Farrell, Héni Nsaibia, and Ryan Cummings assess the evolution of the Islamic State threat across Africa. They write that “the annus horribilis Islamic State Central suffered in 2019, during which the group lost the last stretch of its ‘territorial caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed, does not appear to have had a discernible impact on the overall operational trajectory of the Islamic State threat in Africa” underscoring “that while connections were built up between Islamic State Central and its African affiliates—with the former providing, at times, some degree of strategic direction, coordination, and material assistance—the latter have historically evolved under their own steam and acted with a significant degree of autonomy.”
  • Topic: Terrorism, Biosecurity, Taliban, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, COVID-19
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, Africa, Middle East
  • Author: Tore Hamming, Paul Cruickshank, Graham Macklin, Bryce Loidolt, Jami Forbes
  • Publication Date: 01-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In our cover article, Tore Hamming revisits the ideological origins of the Islamic State. He argues that “despite its history as a local al-Qa`ida affliate in Iraq, the Islamic State developed from an ideological and cultural trend born in late-1980s Afghanistan that was always in tension with the core idea and identity of al-Qa`ida,” setting the stage for the current bitter divide between the two groups and creating a significant obstacle to any reunification of the global jihadi movement. Our interview this month is with Rebecca Weiner, the Assistant Commissioner for Intelligence Analysis at NYPD, and Meghann Teubner, NYPD’s Director of Counterterrorism Intelligence Analysis. Despite the demise of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, they have not seen much of a fall-off in jihadi terrorist plotting against New York City. While they assess Islamist terrorism remains the primary threat to the city, their focus on far-right terrorism is more intense than ever before. With concern about violent right-wing extremism rising on both sides of the Atlantic, Graham Macklin examines the evolving far-right terror threat picture in the United Kingdom, focusing in particular on the terrorist group National Action. In 2007, coalition forces captured Qais al-Khazali, the head of Asa`ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), an Iran-backed Shi`a militia group accused of killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Al-Khazali was released in 2010, continues to lead AAH, and has become a significant political player in Iraq. Bryce Loidolt outlines how the recently declassified interrogation reports from al-Khazali’s time in custody reveal significant rifts between Shi`a militant power centers in Iraq and argues that such “rifts are likely to persist and will complicate Iran’s ability to project its influence in the future.” In 2018, al-Qa`ida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released more messages than in the previous year and ratcheted up his threat rhetoric against the United States. Jami Forbes warns al-Qa`ida’s increased media outreach may signal both a revitalization and that it is readying to pivot back to attacking its far enemies.
  • Topic: Intelligence, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Media, Islamic State, Ideology, Shia, Jihad, Radical Right, NYPD
  • Political Geography: United Kingdom, Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: Hassan Hassan, Paul Cruickshank, Stephen Hummel, F. John Burpo, James Bonner, Ross Dayton
  • Publication Date: 02-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In Syria, the Islamic State has now been reduced to a few vanishing pockets in Deir ez-Zor’s Middle Euphrates River Valley as a result of two separate military offensives on opposite sides of the river by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and forces loyal to the Assad regime. But while Deir ez-Zor has now been essentially liberated from the Islamic State, securing and stabilizing the region will likely prove much harder. In our cover article, Hassan Hassan writes the “long period it took the overstretched SDF to liberate the east side of the Euphrates afforded the Islamic State time to create sleeper cells.” He argues the fact that the west side is again under Assad regime control will likely provide opportunities to both the Islamic State and the al-Qa`ida offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to tap into local Sunni anger to rebuild their operations. Hassan warns there will be even more opportunities for jihadis to rebound if the Assad regime exploits what will likely be a vacuum left by soon-to-depart U.S. forces to take control of the areas liberated by the SDF. All this, he warns, creates a very real risk that the border region between Syria and Iraq could emerge as a long-term threat to global security, just like the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Our interview is with Shaun Greenough, the Case Strategy and Mentor Supervisor at The Unity Initiative (TUI), a specialist intervention consultancy based in the United Kingdom that focuses on rehabilitating individuals convicted of terrorist offenses and tackling absolutist mindsets in the wider community. Greenough previously served in a variety of counterterrorism roles including managing aspects of the U.K. police investigation into the 2006 transatlantic airline plot. Major Stephen Hummel, Colonel F. John Burpo, and Brigadier General James Bonner, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army’s 20th CBRNE Command, warn there is a high risk that profit-minded suppliers within vast, transnational IED networks may in the future expand into WMD proliferation. They write “the convergence of these two seemingly separate networks does not mean that an IED facilitation network will suddenly market WMD, rather that non-state actors could employ these networks to gather the knowledge, people, materials, finances, and infrastructure required for WMD development and employment.” Ross Dayton assesses the threat posed by the ELN terrorist group, which in January 2019 carried out an apparent suicide bombing on the national police academy in Bogotá, Colombia, that killed over 20 police cadets. “The ELN now operates in 12 Venezuelan states with virtual impunity under the Maduro government,” he writes, allowing “ELN fighters to escape the jurisdiction of Colombian security forces and exploit opportunities for illicit financing and recruitment.”
  • Topic: Non State Actors, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Syrian War, Police, Jihad, IED
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Colombia, South America, Syria, Global Focus
  • Author: Matthew Levitt, Kristina Hummel, Petter Nesser, Lachlan Wilson, Jason Pack, Geoff D. Porter
  • Publication Date: 03-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In our cover article, Matthew Levitt examines Hezbollah’s procurement channels, documenting how the group has been leveraging an international network of companies and brokers, including Hezbollah operatives and criminal facilitators, to procure weapons, dual-use items, and other equipment for the group and sometimes Iran. Levitt details how in the context of the war in Syria, “some of Hezbollah’s most significant procurement agents—such as Muhammad Qasir—have teamed up with Iran’s Quds Force to develop integrated and efficient weapons procurement and logistics pipelines through Syria and into Lebanon that can be leveraged to greatly expand Hezbollah’s international weapons procurement capabilities.” Levitt reveals Qasir appeared in footage of meetings last month between Syria’s President Assad and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, underscoring the importance Damascus and Tehran attach to Qasir’s efforts. Our interview is with Vayl S. Oxford, the director of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The Islamic State threat to Europe has grown less acute since the Islamic State lost much of its territory in Syria and Iraq, but a significant threat remains. Petter Nesser identifies three factors that explain why the most recent wave of terrorism in Europe rose so high: the participation of European countries in the anti-Islamic State coalition, the strong reach of jihadi-terror networks into Europe, and the efforts of “terrorist entrepreneurs.” He warns anger among European Islamist extremists caused by the military intervention against the Islamic State, networks created in the jihadi battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq, and veteran European foreign fighters intent on orchestrating terror back home could combine to inflict new waves of terrorism in Europe. Lachlan Wilson and Jason Pack outline how the Islamic State in Libya has rebounded since its loss of Sirte in 2016 by fighting a twin-track war of attrition involving attacks on state institutions along the coast and a guerrilla insurgency in Libya’s interior deserts. Geoff Porter outlines how counterterrorism efforts in Algeria and low support for jihadism among Algerians has significantly weakened the Algerian chapter of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Lastly, we’re very pleased to announce that Don Rassler, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Combating Terrorism Center, has joined the CTC Sentinel editorial board.
  • Topic: Defense Policy, Non State Actors, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Networks, Hezbollah, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, Libya, Algeria, Lebanon
  • Author: Aaron Edwards, Paul Cruickshank, Stephen Hummel, Douglas McNair, F. John Burpo, James Bonner, Audrey Alexander, Bennett Clifford, Caleb Weiss
  • Publication Date: 04-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The murder earlier this month of journalist Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland on the night before Good Friday illustrates the fragility of peace in a region in which terrorist violence has persisted. In our cover article, Aaron Edwards writes that this was “the latest in a series of incidents that have raised the specter of a surge in terrorist violence in Northern Ireland.” In examining the evolution of the threat from militant groupings on both sides of the sectarian divide, he notes there has been a “blurring of the concepts of terrorism and criminality that challenges orthodox perspectives on the security landscape in Northern Ireland.” Our interview is with Edmund Fitton-Brown, the Coordinator of the ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations. This issue features the concluding article of a two-article series focused on IED and WMD network convergence. The first article, published in our February 2019 issue, warned there was a high risk that profit-minded suppliers within vast, transnational IED networks may expand in the future into WMD proliferation. In the second article, Major Stephen Hummel, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas McNair, Colonel F. John Burpo, and Brigadier General James Bonner examine in greater detail the ways this could happen. Audrey Alexander and Bennett Clifford examine the threat posed by Islamic State-affiliated hackers and hacking groups. Through “analysis of several U.S. prosecutions of Islamic State-affiliated hackers and their networks, proficiencies, and activities,” they argue that “very few of these actors demonstrate advanced hacking or cyberterrorism capabilities.” Caleb Weiss examines the evolution of the threat posed by the Islamic State in Somalia, noting the group, “which is believed to only number in the low hundreds of fighters, appears to have significantly expanded its operations across Somalia, albeit from a relatively low base.” He argues the resulting reignition of tensions with the much larger al-Qa`ida affiliate al-Shabaab means “it is far from clear whether the Islamic State in Somalia will be able to sustain its operational expansion.”
  • Topic: Science and Technology, Terrorism, United Nations, Taliban, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Al Shabaab, Doxxing
  • Political Geography: Africa, Europe, Middle East, Ireland, Somalia
  • Author: Amarnath Amarasingam, Brian Michael Jenkins, Paul Cruickshank, Mitchell D. Silber, Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside, Charlie Winter
  • Publication Date: 06-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka took the terrorism studies community by surprise because there had been no known history of jihadi violence inside the country and very little to indicate that local groups had the wherewithal to carry out such a large-scale coordinated operation. There is much that remains unclear about the links between the Sri Lankan cell and the Islamic State, but nearly 18 years after 9/11, the suicide bombings were a reminder that clandestine terrorist groups can, at any moment, strike in unexpected places and ways. In our cover article, Amarnath Amarasingam, whose research has focused on both Sri Lanka and global terrorism, outlines what is known about the network that carried out the Easter attacks and situates the attacks in the broader context of evolving intercommunal tensions in the country. Brian Michael Jenkins examines the options for dealing with the significant numbers of Islamic State foreign fighters currently detained in Syria, warning that “endless delay” risks creating a serious threat to international security. Our interview is with Vidhya Ramalingam, the co-founder of Moonshot CVE, a company using technology to disrupt and counter violent extremism globally. Mitchell Silber examines how the terrorist threat against Jews in the West has evolved by examining attacks between 2012 and the present day. He notes that “what may be the most striking findings from this case study analysis are that first, Europe has become the focal point of the jihadi terror threat to Jews in the West and second, the United States has become a new, emerging focal point of the extreme right-wing terror threat to Jews in the West.” Last month, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared for the first time on camera since the Islamic State heralded its ‘caliphate’ in Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque five years ago. Haroro Ingram, Craig Whiteside, and Charlie Winter explain how the video underlined the group’s strategic transformation with the Islamic State’s leader now portraying himself as “the guerrilla ‘caliph’ of a global insurgency.”
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Judaism, Foreign Fighters
  • Political Geography: Europe, South Asia, Middle East, Sri Lanka, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Matt Bryden, Premdeep Bahra, Paul Cruickshank, Graham Macklin, Joana Cook, Gina Vale, Robin Simcox
  • Publication Date: 07-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In our cover article, Matt Bryden and Premdeep Bahra trace the evolution of the jihadi terrorist threat in East Africa over the last three decades. They argue that al-Shabaab’s January 2019 attack on the Dusit D2 luxury hotel compound in Nairobi, Kenya, “brought together three strands of al-Shabaab’s organizational DNA: its Somali provenance, its ideological affiliation with al-Qa`ida, and its growing cohort of trained, experienced East African fighters. The successful combination of these traits in a single operation suggests that al-Shabaab’s longstanding ambition to transcend its Somali origins and become a truly regional organization is becoming a reality, representing a new and dangerous phase in the group’s evolution and the threat that it poses to the region.” Our interview is with Catherine De Bolle, the Executive Director of Europol, who previously served as Commissioner General of the Belgian Federal Police between 2012 and 2018. Graham Macklin outlines what is now known about the Christchurch terrorist attacks. He writes: “In the space of 36 minutes on March 15, 2019, it is alleged that Brenton Tarrant, an Australian far-right extremist, fatally shot 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch in the deadliest terrorist attack in New Zealand’s history. What was unique about Tarrant’s attack—at least insofar as extreme-right terrorism is concerned—is that he livestreamed his atrocity on Facebook and in doing so, highlighted the Achilles heel of such platforms when faced with the viral dissemination of extremely violent content.” Joana Cook and Gina Vale provide an updated assessment of the numbers of foreign men, women, and minors who traveled to or were born in the Islamic State, examine the proportion that have returned ‘home,’ and outline the continuing challenges foreign women and minors affiliated with the Islamic State pose to the international community. Robin Simcox assesses the terrorist threat from “frustrated travelers” in Europe by examining the 25 plots (eight of which resulted in attacks) by such individuals since January 2014.
  • Topic: Science and Technology, Terrorism, History, Counter-terrorism, Women, Internet, Islamic State, Youth, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Africa, Europe, Middle East, New Zealand, East Africa
  • Author: Michael Knights, Raffaello Pantucci, Adrian Shtuni, Kujtim Bytyqi, Sam Mullins, Ross Dayton
  • Publication Date: 04-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In our feature article, Michael Knights draws on six research visits to Iraq in 2018 and 2019 to document the expanding footprint region-by-region of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq that were previously labeled “Special Groups” by the United States and in some cases designated as terrorist organizations. Knights assesses “that the Special Groups (not including 18,000-22,000 Badr troops) currently have 63,000 registered personnel … 15 times the size of the Special Groups in 2010, when there were probably as few as 4,000 Special Group operatives in Iraq (again not including Badr personnel in 2010).” He notes a key driver for their growth in manpower and popularity in Iraq was their role in fighting the Islamic State and liberating Sunni population centers under Islamic State control. He writes that “a pantheon of smaller, newer pro-Iran militias is arguably closer to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps than larger and older pro-Iranian militias such as Badr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” and identifies Kata’ib Hezbollah led by U.S.-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis as the greatest threat to U.S. interests. With pro-Tehran militias expanding their presence across Iraq and U.S. influence in Iraq reduced since its 2011 troop withdrawal, he argues the United States “needs to be parsimonious and pragmatic if it wishes to push back effectively.” Our interview is with Suzanne Raine, who was the head of the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) between 2015 and 2017. She outlines to Raffaello Pantucci the lessons learned from her work in counterterrorism and the threat landscape as she sees it. Two articles in this issue focus on the Western Balkans. Adrian Shtuni provides a qualitative and quantitative assessment of the security threats posed by foreign fighters and homegrown jihadis from the region. Kujtim Bytyqi, the Acting Director of the Department for Analysis and Security Policies at the Kosovo Security Council Secretariat, and Sam Mullins outline Kosovo’s experience dealing with returning foreign fighters. Finally, Ross Dayton documents how the Maduro regime in Venezuela has increased its reliance on paramilitary groups, including the Colombian left-wing guerrilla group ELN, which was responsible for the suicide car bomb attack on the National Police Academy in Bogotá, Colombia, in January 2019.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Jihad, Army, Militias, Foreign Fighters, Paramilitary
  • Political Geography: Iraq, United Kingdom, Europe, Iran, Middle East, Kosovo, Syria, Venezuela
  • Author: Daniel Byman, Paul Cruickshank, Brian Dodwell, Amira Jadoon, Andrew Mines, Julie Chernov Hwang, Aaron Y. Zelin, Katherine Bauer
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: This September 11th, a new generation is taking up the mantle in the fight against terrorism. “Later this year, a U.S. service member is likely to be deployed to Afghanistan who was not yet born on September 11, 2001,” Daniel Byman notes in our feature article on the jihadi terror threat facing the United States 18 years later. He assesses “although the operational freedom of jihadi groups is constricted by U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts, the jihadi cause as a whole has far more local and regional influence than it did in the years before 9/11, it is better able to inspire individuals in the West to act on its behalf, and groups have proven resilient despite the fierce U.S.-led onslaught.” Our interview is with Joseph Maguire, the United States’ Acting Director of National Intelligence. He says that “since the catastrophic attacks on 9/11, we have significantly diminished the ability of jihadists to strike the U.S. by removing hundreds of leaders and operatives, disrupting dozens of networks and plots, and degrading safe havens. But some jihadist groups still have that intent, not only to target the homeland but also our interests overseas. They are continually adapting to setbacks by modifying their tactics, seeking out alternative safe havens, and using new and emerging technologies to communicate, recruit, and conduct attacks. This makes for an increasingly diverse and unpredictable threat.” As the terror threat evolves, Acting Director Maguire stresses the importance of addressing the still-significant security challenges posed by the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and beyond given the group still poses a “tremendous threat” and has “all the recipes” for a resurgence. Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines examine Islamic State Khorasan’s leadership losses between 2015 and 2018 by leadership tier, year, and geography. Their findings highlight “the group’s tenacious presence in Nangarhar (Afghanistan) and Baluchistan (Pakistan), despite declines in overall number of attacks. An important factor contributing to ISK’s resiliency appears to be rooted in its steady recruitment of experienced Pakistani militants that sustain its leadership ranks.” Two years after the Marawi siege in the Philippines, Julie Chernov Hwang outlines the motivations for joining the Maute Group based on her interviews with 25 former members of the jihadi group and a related faction. Aaron Zelin and Katherine Bauer outline the significant progress Tunisia has made over the past two years in developing domestic counter-terrorism finance capabilities.
  • Topic: Intelligence, Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Khorasan Group
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Tunisia
  • Author: Seth G. Jones, Paul Cruickshank, Brian Dodwell, Daniel Milton, Julia Lodoen, Ryan O'Farrell, Seth Loertscher, Damien Spleeters, Michael Shkolnik, Alexander Corbeil
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In our cover article, Seth Jones examines the Russian military campaign in Syria. He writes: “Russia has done what many thought was impossible in Syria. It has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reconquer most of the country’s major cities and nearly two-thirds of its population. Moscow adopted a military approach that combined well-directed fires and ground maneuver to overwhelm a divided enemy. But it also used extraordinary violence against civilians and provided diplomatic cover when Syrian forces used chemical weapons. Moving forward, Russia faces considerable challenges ahead. Syria is a fractured country with an unpopular regime and massive economic problems; terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida persist; and Israel and Iran remain locked in a proxy war in Syria.” Our interview is with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. He discusses DHS’ recently published new Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence and how DHS is intensifying efforts to counter the threat of far-right terror. Daniel Milton, Julia Lodoen, Ryan O’Farrell, and Seth Loertscher examine a recently declassified collection of 27 personnel records for Islamic State fighters, both local and foreign. The forms were acquired by the Department of Defence in Syria in 2016 and are now available to view on the Combating Terrorism Center’s website. According to Milton and his co-authors, the forms “demonstrate how extensive the breadth of information collected was in some cases … [and] show that the Islamic State acquired information useful for understanding the radicalization process, encouraging accountability among its fighters, managing the talent in the organization, and vetting members for potential security concerns.” Damien Spleeters outlines how his organization Conflict Armament Research helped prosecutors secure a guilty plea in the prosecution of Haisem Zahab, an Australian extremist with contacts into the Islamic State and whose research in Australia into rockets “indicates [according to the prosecution] significant commonality” with the Islamic State’s weapon production program in Iraq and Syria. Michael Shkolnik and Alexander Corbeil examine how Hezbollah “virtual entrepreneurs” have in recent years used social media to recruit Israeli Arabs and West Bank-based Palestinians to attack Israelis.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Homeland Security, Syrian War, Hezbollah
  • Political Geography: Russia, Eurasia, Middle East, Israel, Lebanon, Syria
  • Author: Ali Soufan, Brian Dodwell, Paul Cruickshank, Kristina Hummel, Michael Horton, Christopher Wright
  • Publication Date: 11-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: This past summer, the United Nations Monitoring Team charged with tracking the global terrorist threat assessed that “the immediate global threat posed by Al-Qaida remains unclear, with [Ayman] al-Zawahiri reported to be in poor health and doubts as to how the group will manage the succession.” In our feature article, Ali Soufan profiles the veteran Egyptian jihadi operative Abu Muhammad al-Masri and outlines why he appears to be next in line to lead al-Qa`ida. Soufan writes: “Abu Muhammad has long played a critical role in al-Qa`ida, both as an operational commander and as a member of the governing shura council. Yet despite his importance to the organization, Abu Muhammad remains a shadowy figure. Little is known about his early life or his current activities. Unlike most al-Qa`ida Central figures, he is based not in northern Pakistan but in Iran, where he was previously imprisoned and now resides under a murky arrangement by which he is apparently allowed a great deal of freedom while still being barred from leaving the country.” Our interview is with General (Ret) Joseph Votel who retired as the Commander of U.S. Central Command earlier this year after leading a 79-member coalition that successfully liberated Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State caliphate. He is now the Class of 1987 Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center. Michael Horton examines how Somaliland combats al-Shabaab. He writes that “the government has, with limited means, denied al-Shabaab the operational space it requires through the implementation of a virtuous circle that builds on local buy-in and uses HUMINT as a force multiplier.” He notes, however, that the terrorist group is increasingly active along Somaliland’s border with Puntland “where this virtuous circle is under increasing strain.” There has been significant concern about the potential national security threat posed by the significant numbers of Islamist extremists convicted of terrorism-related crimes in Western countries who are due to complete their sentences in the coming years. Using nearly 30 years of data, Christopher Wright finds that “while not zero, the recidivism rate of those involved in jihadi terror plots targeting the United States is much lower than that of common criminals.”
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Jihad, Al Shabaab
  • Political Geography: Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Charles Lister, Raffaello Pantucci, Michael Horton, Kendall Bianchi, Miles Hidalgo
  • Publication Date: 02-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point is proud to mark its 15th year anniversary this month. In this issue’s feature article, Charles Lister tells the inside story of how al-Qa`ida lost control of its Syrian affiliate, drawing on the public statements of several key protagonists as well as interviews with Islamist sources in Syria. In the summer of 2016, al-Qa`ida’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, announced it was uncoupling from al-Qa`ida and rebranding itself. Al-Qa`ida’s deputy leader at the time, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, released a message endorsing the move, which even included a previously unheard audio clip of Ayman al-Zawahiri stressing that organizational links should be sacrificed if necessary for unity, creating the impression that al-Qa`ida’s paramount leader had also sanctioned the decision. What appeared to be a carefully choreographed set of announcements made many analysts conclude the split was nothing more than a PR exercise, designed to advance the local aims of al-Qa`ida in Syria by improving al-Nusra’s standing among Syrian rebel groups and insulating it from international pressure. But this interpretation was challenged by a bombshell message released by al-Zawahiri on November 28, 2017. Al-Qa`ida’s leader publicly revealed that not only had he not endorsed the split, but he regarded it as a “a violation of the covenant.” “Al-Zawahiri’s interjection was a watershed moment,” Lister writes, “making clear to the wider global jihadi movement that a real split had taken place between al-Qa`ida and its Syrian affiliate.” One function of the split has been the beginnings of a tense modus vivendi between hardcore al-Qa`ida loyalists in Syria and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the latest rebrand of al-Nusra). The result, Lister argues, is “a complex counterterrorism threat, in which a locally focused jihadi outfit with a sizable 12,000 fighters continues to control territory, govern people, and maintain sources of local finance, while accepting—even grudgingly—a deeply dangerous, small, tight-knit clique of al-Qa`ida terrorists committed to attacking the West. That image looks eerily similar to the Taliban-al-Qa`ida relationship in Afghanistan in 2000-2001, the consequences of which are well known to all.” Our interview this month is with Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the United Kingdom. Michael Horton examines the challenges faced by the UAE in its counterinsurgency campaign against al-Qa`ida in Yemen. Kendall Bianchi looks at how Hezbollah has used the mothers of fighters killed in Syria to promote martyrdom. Miles Hidalgo, one of the CTC’s Downing Scholars, provides a first-hand account of the cooperation between Europol and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Children, Counter-terrorism, Women, Al Qaeda, Conflict, Hezbollah
  • Political Geography: United Kingdom, Europe, Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Nicholas Tallant, Jesse Morton, Mitchell D. Silber, Scott Atran, Hoshang Waziri, Angel Gomez, Hammad Sheikh, Lucia Lopez-Rodriguez, Charles Rogan, Richard Davis, Amira Jadoon, Nakissa Jahanbani, Charmaine Willis, Nafees Hamid
  • Publication Date: 04-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: Between 2006 and 2012, two men working on opposite sides of the struggle between global jihadis and the United States faced off in New York City. Jesse Morton was the founder of Revolution Muslim, a group that proselytized—online and on New York City streets—on behalf of al-Qa`ida. Mitchell Silber led efforts to track the terrorist threat facing the city as the director of intelligence analysis for the NYPD. After serving a prison sentence for terrorist activity, Morton now works to counter violent extremism. In our feature article, they tell the inside story of the rise of Revolution Muslim and how the NYPD, by using undercover officers and other methods, put the most dangerous homegrown jihadi support group to emerge on U.S. soil since 9/11 out of business. As the Islamic State morphs into a ‘virtual caliphate,’ their case study provides lessons for current and future counterterrorism investigations. Five years ago this month, terror came to Boston, and Boston stood strong. Nicholas Tallant interviews William Weinreb and Harold Shaw on the lessons learned. Weinreb stepped down as Acting United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts in January 2018. He was the lead prosecutor of the 2015 investigation and trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Shaw has served as the Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Boston Division since 2015. Between July and October 2017, a team of researchers conducted field interviews with young Sunni Arab men coming out from under Islamic State rule in the Mosul area. The resulting study by Scott Atran, Hoshang Waziri, Ángel Gómez, Hammad Sheikh, Lucía López-Rodríguez, Charles Rogan, and Richard Davis found that “the Islamic State may have lost its ‘caliphate,’ but not necessarily the allegiance of supporters of both a Sunni Arab homeland and governance by sharia law.” Amira Jadoon, Nakissa Jahanbani, and Charmaine Willis examine the evolving rivalry between the Islamic State and other jihadi groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Nafees Hamid profiles Junaid Hussain, a hacker from the United Kingdom, who until his death in August 2015 was the Islamic State’s most prolific English-language social media propagandist and terror ‘cybercoach.’
  • Topic: Terrorism, Law Enforcement, Counter-terrorism, Radicalization, Islamic State, Police, NYPD
  • Political Geography: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Florian Flade, Paul Cruickshank, Matt Levitt, Geoff D. Porter, Jason Warner, Charlotte Hulme
  • Publication Date: 08-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: Concern is rising over the threat of chemical and biological terror. Last month, the British newspaper The Sunday Times reported that staff at soccer stadiums in the United Kingdom were being advised on how to respond to attacks using poison gas and hazardous substances following concerns that Islamic State-inspired extremists may seek to carry out such attacks on crowded venues. There are signs the group is seeking to export expertise built up in Syria and Iraq. Last summer, an alleged terrorist cell based in Sydney that was in communication with a senior Islamic State controller allegedly plotted to build a poison gas dispersion device to potentially attack crowded places in Australia. As Florian Flade reports in our feature article, this past June, German authorities allegedly thwarted a ricin attack by a Tunisian extremist being advised on how to make the biological agent by an Islamic State-linked operative overseas. Before he was arrested, he was allegedly able to produce a significant quantity of ricin. A threshold had allegedly been crossed. Never before has a jihadi terrorist in the West successfully made the toxin. Our interview this month is with Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who previously led U.K. and NATO efforts to counter CBRN threats. He warns the huge disruption caused by the “Novichok” attack in Salisbury earlier this year may inspire jihadi terrorists to launch bio-chem attacks. He argues the better informed and prepared the public and emergency responders are, the less likely such attacks will lead to large-scale panic. In late June, European security agencies thwarted a plot allegedly orchestrated by an Iranian diplomat to bomb an Iranian opposition conference near Paris attended by Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and 4,000 others. Matthew Levitt outlines how Iranian agents have used diplomatic cover to plot terrorist attacks in Europe over the past several decades. Geoff Porter looks at the terrorist threats facing Mauritania. Jason Warner and Charlotte Hulme provide best estimates for the numerical strength of the nine Islamic State groupings active in Africa. This month, we mourn the loss of Ambassador Michael Sheehan, who worked tirelessly throughout his professional life to protect the United States from terrorism. As the former Distinguished Chair and current Senior Fellow of the Combating Terrorism Center, he inspired a new generation of military leaders and researchers and was a strong champion of this publication. He will be greatly missed.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Africa, United Kingdom, Iran, Middle East, Mauritania
  • Author: Bryant Neal Viñas, Mitchell D. Silber, Brian Dodwell, Paul Cruickshank, Michael Knights, Audrey Alexander, Rebecca Turkington, Derek Henry Flood
  • Publication Date: 09-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: Seventeen years after 9/11, the threat posed by jihadi terrorist groups is in a state of flux. The demise of the Islamic State’s territorial ‘caliphate’ has demoralized some of its supporters and eroded some of the group’s ability to direct attacks in the West. But the Islamic State still has a large sympathizer base, a significant presence in Syria and Iraq, and dangerous nodes in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, al-Qa`ida and its network of affiliates and allies have grown in strength in some regions and could pivot back to international terror. Worryingly, both groups in the years to come may be able to draw on an ‘officer class’ of surviving foreign fighters who forged personal bonds in Syria and Iraq. In our cover article, Bryant Neal Viñas, the first American to be recruited into al-Qa`ida after 9/11, writes about his experiences for the first time in the hope that his case study sheds light on the foreign fighter issue. Viñas was convicted for his actions and recently completed his prison sentence. His article is co-authored by Mitchell Silber, who supervised analysis and investigation of his case at the NYPD Intelligence Division. During his time in the Afghan-Pakistan border region between 2007 and 2008, Viñas came into contact with a variety of jihadi groups, was trained by al-Qa`ida, and spent time with several of the group’s most senior figures. After his arrest, Viñas immediately started cooperating with U.S. authorities and contributed significantly to the near destruction of al-Qa`ida in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Our interview this month is with Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Drawing on extensive field reporting, Michael Knights documents how Houthi forces in Yemen metamorphosed in just five years from guerrilla war fighters into a powerful military entity capable of deploying medium-range ballistic missiles. His article provides a case study of how an ambitious militant group can capture and use a state’s arsenals and benefit from Iran’s support. Audrey Alexander and Rebecca Turkington find mounting evidence that women engaged in terrorism-related activity receive more lenient treatment by the criminal justice system than their male counterparts. Derek Flood reports on how the Islamic State’s cave and tunnel complexes in the Hamrin Mountains are helping it sustain insurgent attacks in northern Iraq.
  • Topic: Gender Issues, Terrorism, War, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Borders, 9/11, Houthis, Foreign Fighters
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Yemen, Global Focus
  • Author: Hassan Hassan, Paul Cruickshank, Cole Bunzel, Jami Forbes
  • Publication Date: 10-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: With the collapse of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, the global jihadi movement is in a state of flux. But rather than being about to enter a period of mergers or takeovers, the global jihadi movement for the foreseeable future is likely to be led by two distinct and rival groups. While the relative fortunes of the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida have oscillated in recent years, developments in the jihadi environment in Syria have hardened longstanding differences between them in doctrine and approach. Neither group is on the brink of fracturing nor likely to accept the legitimacy of the other in the coming years. And this will sustain the divide.
  • Topic: Terrorism, United Nations, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Syrian War, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria, Sahel
  • Author: Ali Soufan, Paul Cruickshank, Nuno Tiago Pinto, Damon Mehl, Michael Munoz
  • Publication Date: 11-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In our cover article, Ali Soufan profiles Major General Qassem Soleimani, the long-serving head of Iran’s Quds Force who the U.S. government has accused, among other things, of support for terrorism and involvement in a 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Soufan outlines how Soleimani has masterminded Tehran’s efforts to project its power across the Middle East using a unique strategy of blending militant and state power, built in part on the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Soufan argues that with nationalist sentiment on the rise in Iran in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the ongoing regional tussle with Saudi Arabia, Soleimani’s popularity would make him the natural front-runner if Iran chooses to adopt a military presidency. Our interview is with Patrick Skinner who during the decade after 9/11 worked in counterterrorism for the CIA in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, he began working as a police officer in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, in an effort to make a difference closer to home. Skinner reflects on how lessons learned from his time as a CIA case officer and as a local police officer could apply to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategy and tactics overseas. Drawing on thousands of pages of judicial documents and investigative files, Nuno Pinto outlines the alleged key role played by two Portugal-based extremists in a transnational Islamic State network whose alleged attack plans were thwarted by arrests in Strasbourg and Marseille in November 2016. The case raises concerns that European countries in which security services are less geared up to confront terrorist activity are being used as logistical hubs by jihadi terrorists. In the wake of the Islamic State’s deadly attack on Western tourists in Tajikistan in July 2018, Damon Mehl examines the threat the group poses to the country. With the Islamic State having lost almost all of its territory in Syria and Iraq, Michael Munoz looks at how the group’s propaganda efforts may evolve in the future.
  • Topic: Intelligence, Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Propaganda, Qassem Soleimani
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, Iraq, Europe, Iran, Middle East, Tajikistan, France, Portugal
  • Author: Michael Knights, Brian Dodwell, Harun Maruf, Dan Joseph, Amira Jadoon, Sara Mahmood, Bennett Clifford, Seamus Hughes
  • Publication Date: 12-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: After its pivot to insurgency, is the Islamic State losing power or preserving strength in Iraq? This is the research question posed by Michael Knights in this month’s cover article. Attack metrics, he writes, “paint a picture of an insurgent movement that has been ripped down to its roots,” but also one that is vigorously working to reboot by focusing “on a smaller set of geographies and a ‘quality over quantity’ approach to operations.” Knights warns that “the Iraqi government is arguably not adapting fast enough to the demands of counterinsurgency, suggesting the need for intensified and accelerated support from the U.S.-led coalition in order to prevent the Islamic State from mounting another successful recovery.” Our interview is with Mark Mitchell, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, who was among the first U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11. Mitchell previously served as a Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council where he was intimately involved in significant hostage cases and recovery efforts in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia. He was also instrumental in establishing the framework for the landmark Presidential Policy Review of Hostage Policy. Dan Joseph and Harun Maruf, the authors of the recently published book Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally, explain why the group remains a significant threat inside Somalia. Amira Jadoon and Sara Mahmood examine recent plans circulated by the Pakistani Taliban under its new leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud to try to reverse the group’s decline. Bennett Clifford and Seamus Hughes document the case of Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, a returned foreign fighter to the United States who pleaded guilty in October 2018 to material support to a terrorist organization. His case sheds new light on cross-border foreign fighter recruitment networks in the United States and Europe, and the potential threat they pose.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Taliban, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Conflict, Al Shabaab, Foreign Fighters
  • Political Geography: Pakistan, Iraq, Middle East, North Africa, Somalia, United States of America