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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: 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: 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