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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: 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: 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: Brian Glyn Williams, Robert Troy Souza, Bryan Price, Mikki Franklin, Daniel Milton, Brian Dodwell, Bennett Clifford, Christian Jokinen
  • Publication Date: 05-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: On June 14, 2018, the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Moscow with host Russia facing Saudi Arabia in the opening match. Brian Williams and Robert Souza warn in our cover article that the massive global media spotlight on Russia during the month-long tournament may incentivize jihadi terrorists to carry out attacks on Russian soil to retaliate for the country’s ongoing military intervention against Sunni rebel and jihadi fighters in Syria. Recent years have seen a string of jihadi terrorist attacks and plots in Russia, including the St. Petersburg metro bombing last year, as well as Islamic State plots and attacks targeting soccer venues in Europe. In recent months, propaganda outlets supportive of the Islamic State have released a torrent of threat messages against the tournament. According to Williams and Souza, potential threats include ‘self-starters’ inspired by Islamic State propaganda, foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, and jihadis operating in the northern Caucasus and Tatarstan. Our interview is with New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, whose ongoing podcast series Caliphate documents the evolution and crimes of the Islamic State. Daniel Milton and Brian Dodwell examine a female guesthouse registry obtained from Islamic State territory. The records on about 1,100 women who transited through the facility shed new light on the women who traveled from overseas to join the group, as well as challenge the dominant narrative in many media reports on the subject. Bennett Clifford explores pro-Islamic State instructional material on the messaging and file-sharing platform Telegram, arguing that the dissemination of know-how on operational and cyber security may be equally as dangerous as instructional material related to carrying out attacks. Christian Jokinen draws on court records to outline the experiences of German foreign fighters who traveled to join al-Shabaab in Somalia earlier this decade. For most of them, the terrorist group turned out to be an unwelcoming host organization.
  • Topic: Sports, Islamic State, Journalism, Jihad, Foreign Fighters
  • Political Geography: Africa, Europe, Middle East, Germany, Somalia
  • 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: Don Rassler, Emily Corner, Paul Gill, Michael Horton, Jason Warner, Paul Cruickshank
  • Publication Date: 01-2017
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The deadly attack at Fort Lauderdale airport earlier this month by an individual claiming to have been influenced by voices he heard and to have acted on behalf of the Islamic State has renewed attention on the nexus between terrorism and mental health. In our cover article, Emily Corner and Paul Gill explore what they argue are complex and often misunderstood links. Their preliminary findings show that the proportion of attackers in the West possibly influenced by the Islamic State with a history of psychological instability is about the same as the rate of such instability in the general population, though the rate is higher than in the general population if Islamic State-directed attacks are excluded. This is in line with their previous findings that group-based terrorists are much less likely to have mental disorders than lone-actor terrorists. They also question the degree to which lone-actor terrorists with mental disorders are symptomatic at the time of attacks. Lone-actor terrorists with mental disorders, they have found, are just as likely to engage in rational planning prior to attacks as those without. Their research has also found a significantly higher rate of schizophrenia among lone-actor terrorists than in the general population. There is a long-running debate about whether this condition could make individuals of all ideological persuasions less inhibited in moving from radical thought to radical action. In a joint interview, Peter Edge, Acting Deputy Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Wil van Gemert, Deputy Director of Europol, focus on the challenges of identifying, tracking, and interdicting foreign terrorist fighters and steps being taken to deepen transatlantic cooperation. Michael Horton argues that AQAP’s deepening ties to anti-Houthi forces in Yemen’s civil war is making the terrorist group even more resilient and difficult to combat. Don Rassler examines the contest between the United States and jihadis on drones and drone countermeasures. Jason Warner looks at the three newly self-declared affiliates of the Islamic State in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Topic: Terrorism, War, Al Qaeda, Drones, Islamic State, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Africa, Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, United States of America
  • Author: Jason Warner, Caleb Weiss, Andrew McGregor, Daisy Muibu, Benjamin P. Nickels, Paul Cruickshank, Mohammed Hafez, Colin P. Clarke, Phillip Smyth
  • Publication Date: 11-2017
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The Islamic State’s caliphate project has ended in abject failure, with the group now holding a small vanishing portion of the territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq. In our cover article, Mohammed Hafez argues the Islamic State is just the latest example of a “fratricidal” jihadi group predestining its own defeat by its absolutism, over-ambition, domineering behavior, and brutality. He argues that the Islamic State’s puritanical ideology blinded it to learning lessons from the GIA’s defeat in Algeria in the 1990s and al-Qa`ida in Iraq’s near defeat in the 2000s. In all three cases, these jihadi groups “managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” because of their innate inability to show restraint and pragmatism. Our interview is with Angela Misra, the co-founder of The Unity Initiative (TUI), a British Muslim community group widely viewed as one of the most effective in countering violent extremism. Misra describes her increasingly high-stakes efforts to transform the mindset of women convicted of terrorist offenses and recent female returnees from the Islamic State. With the Islamic State recently moving toward embracing combat roles for women, she warns there could be a surge in female terrorism in Western countries. Colin Clarke and Phillip Smyth document how the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is working to transform Shi`a foreign fighter networks into transnational proxy forces capable of fighting both asymmetric and conventional wars. Andrew McGregor outlines the security challenges in Libya’s southern Fezzan region, warning it could emerge as a major new base for jihadi operations with serious implications for European security. Jason Warner and Caleb Weiss look at why the Islamic State has, so far, failed to pose a significant challenge to al-Shabaab. In the wake of a double-truck bombing last month in Mogadishu that killed over 350, Daisy Muibu and Benjamin Nickels examine the local expertise factor in al-Shabaab’s increasingly deadly IED campaign.
  • Topic: Science and Technology, Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Jihad, Al Shabaab, Foreign Fighters, IED
  • Political Geography: Africa, Europe, Iran, Middle East, Libya, Somalia