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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: Amira Jadoon, Nakissa Jahanbani, Charmaine Willis
  • Publication Date: 07-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: In 2016, the Islamic State acknowledged a series of pledges from Southeast Asian militant groups by declaring Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group to be the regional emir and encouraging local supporters to travel to the Philippines to wage jihad. Since 2016, a wave of Islamic State-linked attacks, including attempted and successful suicide attacks across the region, as well as the Marawi siege in 2017 by Islamic State-linked groups, has raised significant regional security concerns. Critical questions about the growing influence of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, the interconnectedness of Islamic State affiliates, and the risks associated with returning fighters from Iraq and Syria remain unanswered. In the first of a four-part series on the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, this report sheds light on the overarching characteristics of Islamic State-linked operations across Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines between 2014 and 2019, highlighting how the Islamic State’s arrival has affected regional militancy. Drawing on open-source materials, the report maps the characteristics and regional dispersion of Islamic State-linked activity in the region, providing regional and country-level context for the nature of the threat. Additionally, the report identifies six regional militant groups as the Islamic State’s operational affiliates, defined as groups that have claimed attacks concurrently with the Islamic State. The findings of the report draw attention to a marked increase in the use of Islamic State-linked suicide attacks and lethality in 2019, and significant numbers of failed and foiled attacks by Islamic State-affiliated or -inspired individuals in Indonesia and Malaysia. While the most important dimension of the Islamic State threat may be the existing militant infrastructure offered by its operational alliances in the Philippines and Indonesia, the threat in Malaysia exists in the form of independent plotters and radicalized individuals who present a pool of potential recruits for existing networks of militants in the region.
  • Topic: International Cooperation, Terrorism, Non State Actors, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State
  • Political Geography: Indonesia, Malaysia, Asia, Philippines
  • 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: Blyth Crawford, Florence Keen, Raffaello Pantucci, Colin P. Clarke, Lorenzo Vidino, Jon Lewis, Andrew Mines, Christopher Anzalone
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: Far-right terror is going global, propelled to a significant degree by an online ecosystem of extremists posting in English. Since 2018, attackers have targeted synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the towns of Poway, California, and Halle, Germany; mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; and a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. In this month’s feature article, Blyth Crawford and Florence Keen examine the February 19, 2020, far-right terrorist attack that targeted shisha bar customers in the German town of Hanau and led to the death of nine victims. They write that the influences on the deceased Hanau attacker Tobias Rathjen were “a combination of traditional far-right, race-based, and anti-immigration narratives, alongside several more obscure conspiracy theories.” They argue that a common denominator between the Hanau attack and the aforementioned attacks in the United States, New Zealand, and Germany “is the perpetrators’ shared adherence to the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy narrative … which perceives the cultural and biological integrity of the white race to be endangered by increased levels of (non-white) immigration and the stagnation of white birth rates.” In our ongoing “A View from the CT Foxhole” series, Raffaello Pantucci interviews Jonathan Evans, who served as the Director General of the U.K. Security Service MI5 between 2007 and 2013. Colin Clarke examines the issues raised by the December 6, 2019, terrorist attack by the Saudi Air Force Officer Mohammed Alshamrani, which killed three U.S. Navy sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. He writes, “In early February 2020, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack. It is not clear yet whether the group had a direct role in the attack, but if it did, it would make the shooting the first deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 directed by a foreign terrorist organization.” By analyzing “all related-court cases since 2013,” Lorenzo Vidino, Jon Lewis, and Andrew Mines find that “save for a few exceptions, the vast majority of U.S.-based Islamic State supporters left a remarkably small financial footprint. Most, in fact, simply relied on personal savings to pay the small costs required for their activities.” Christopher Anzalone examines al-Shabaab’s PSYOPS (psychological operations) messaging, which he argues “takes advantage of the lack of transparency in certain instances from its opponents, including some governments, and the demand by the international news media for details from on the ground, with the group framing itself as a reliable source of on-the-ground information.”
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Media, Islamic State, Violence, Far Right, Al Shabaab
  • Political Geography: Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Andrew Zammit, Jason Warner, Thomas Renard , Tim Lister
  • Publication Date: 04-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: It was one of the most ambitious and innovative international terror plots ever seen. In July 2017, Australian police arrested two brothers in Sydney who had attempted to get a bomb on board an Etihad plane flying from Sydney to Abu Dhabi carrying around 400 passengers and were separately planning to carry out a poison gas attack inside Australia with an improvised chemical dispersion device. The two brothers had been guided by Islamic State operatives in Syria, who successfully arranged for a partially constructed bomb to be air-mailed from Turkey to Australia. In our feature article, Andrew Zammit draws on “newly available information resulting from the successful prosecution of the Sydney-based plotters” to provide the most comprehensive account to date on how the plot developed and what it reveals about the evolution of the international terror threat posed by the Islamic State. Donald Yamamoto, the United States Ambassador to Somalia, is featured in our ongoing “A View from the CT Foxhole” series. The interview was conducted by Jason Warner in front of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Attacks in London in November 2019 and February 2020 by two convicted terrorists released from prison has created a surge of concern about terrorist recidivism. But Thomas Renard points out that academic research undertaken thus far suggests terrorists are unlikely to relapse into violent extremism. His review of the judiciary files of 557 jihadi terrorist convicts in Belgium, since 1990, finds that less than five percent reengaged in terrorist activities. Drawing on nearly a dozen reporting trips to Ukraine between 2014 and 2019, Tim Lister examines the nexus between far-right extremists in Ukraine and the United States. He writes: “In recent years, some Americans and Europeans drawn to various brands of far-right nationalism have looked to Ukraine as their field of dreams: a country with a well-established, trained, and equipped far-right militia … that has been actively engaged in the conflict against Russian-backed separatists.” He notes that in some instances, “U.S.-based individuals have spoken or written about how the training available in Ukraine might assist them and others in their paramilitary-style activities at home.”
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Terrorism, Violent Extremism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Far Right
  • Political Geography: Ukraine, Australia, Somalia, United States of America
  • 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: Heni Nsaibia, Caleb Weiss, Seth Loertscher, Nick Kramer, Robin Simcox, Hannah Stuart, Amarnath Amarasingam, Marc-Andre Argentino
  • Publication Date: 07-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: Earlier this month, the United Nations monitoring team that tracks the global jihadi threat warned the Security Council that “ISIL franchises in West Africa and the Sahel continued to enjoy operational success in early 2020, as have those of Al-Qaida, heightening international concern about stability in the region.” Concern over the threat has grown despite the fact that a year ago clashes erupted between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida franchises in the region, turning what had been an often amicable and sometimes cooperative relationship into fighting between them in Mali and Burkina Faso. In our feature article, Héni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss assess that a number of factors ended the “Sahelian anomaly” of amicable relations between the regional Islamic State and al-Qa`ida groupings, “including the hardening of ideological divisions, pressure from Islamic State Central for its regional satellite to take on a more confrontational approach toward its rival, and tensions created by the growing ambition of the Islamic State affiliate in the Sahel.” They note that “while some argue that fighting between jihadi groups is positive for the counterterrorism landscape, it is also possible that the two groups are in effect engaging in a process called ‘outbidding,’ wherein a group aims to show ‘greater resolve to fight the enemy than rival groups.’” Our interview is with Chris Costa, who during the first year of the Trump administration served as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism. Building on a study of terrorist recidivism in Belgium by Thomas Renard published in the April issue of CTC Sentinel, Robin Simcox and Hannah Stuart examine the problem set created by jihadi prisoners in Europe from two different angles. Firstly, they examine the nature of the threat by analyzing a dozen alleged jihadi terror plots and attacks that occurred inside and outside prisons in Western Europe since 2014 in which at least one of the attackers/plotters had been convicted in Europe of a previous terrorism offense. Secondly, they look at the scale of the threat by calculating the rates of various forms of recidivism from a comprehensive database relating to U.K. jihadi terror activity. Amarnath Amarasingam and Marc-André Argentino assess the emerging security threat posed by the QAnon conspiracy. They write: “A survey of cases of individuals who have allegedly or apparently been radicalized to criminal acts with a nexus to violence by QAnon, including one case that saw a guilty plea on a terrorism charge, makes clear that QAnon represents a public security threat with the potential in the future to become a more impactful domestic terror threat. This is true especially given that conspiracy theories have a track record of propelling terrorist violence elsewhere in the West as well as QAnon’s more recent influence on mainstream political discourse.”
  • Topic: Terrorism, Prisons/Penal Systems, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Conflict, QAnon
  • Political Geography: Africa, Europe, Sahel, United States of America