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  • 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: 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: 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: 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: 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