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  • 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: 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: Graham Macklin, Don Rassler, Daniel Koehler, Tore Hamming
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: The final two years of this decade witnessed a wave of far-right terror attacks around the world, including the October 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the March 2019 gun attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; the April 2019 Poway, California, synagogue shooting; the August 2019 attack targeting the Hispanic community at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; and the October 2019 Halle, Germany, shootings, in which a synagogue was targeted. In our feature article, Graham Macklin examines the El Paso attack, which he assesses was “part of a chain reaction fomented within the violent sub-cultural online milieus of right-wing extremism.” He writes: “This digital ecosystem is fueling a cumulative momentum, which serves to lower ‘thresholds’ to violence for those engaged in this space, both in the United States and elsewhere, as one attack encourages and inspires another.” The Halle shootings appear to have also been part of this chain reaction. In a case study, Daniel Koehler writes that the far-right extremist who carried out the shootings in the eastern German town “appears to be mainly a copycat attacker inspired by previous incidents” such as the shootings in Christchurch, Poway, and El Paso. Koehler writes: “The Halle attack reflects and evidences several trends, including the internationalization of right-wing terrorism and lone-actor terrorists fashioning their own weapons. The attack stood out because it was the first time a terrorist appears to have used homemade firearms.” Our interview is with Lieutenant General John “Jack” Shanahan, the director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center at the U.S. Department of Defense. In that role, he is responsible for accelerating the delivery of artificial intelligence-enabled capabilities, scaling the department-wide impact of AI and synchronizing AI activities to expand joint force advantages. Tore Hamming draws on court documents from a recently completed trial to examine the 2016 Copenhagen ‘Matchstick’ terror plot. The failed conspiracy saw an Islamic State ‘virtual planner’ based in Syria connect and direct two Syrian refugees living in Sweden and Germany. The case provides insights on the evolving jihadi terror threat in the West and its transnational dimension. Hamming writes: “The plot presented obvious challenges for Western security institutions. Central to its planning and execution were the virtual planner and the availability of instructions on how to construct explosives.”
  • Topic: Defense Policy, Terrorism, Violent Extremism, Counter-terrorism, Far Right, Artificial Intelligence
  • Political Geography: Europe, Germany, 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: 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: Kirsten E. Schulze, Brian Dodwell, Dakota Foster, Daniel Milton, David Sterman, Robin Simcox
  • Publication Date: 07-2018
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: CTC Sentinel
  • Institution: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
  • Abstract: This summer marks the end of an era for us. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price, the Combating Terrorism Center’s longest-serving director, is retiring after 20 years of service in the Army, the last six at the helm of the CTC. During that time, he was a tireless champion for the CTC and its staff and cemented its status as one of the leading research institutions in the terrorism studies field. In a conversation with Brian Dodwell, who is taking over as director, LTC Price reflects on his service at the CTC and the essential need for rigorous research to understand the evolving threat landscape. There is concern that Islamic State-linked terror is on the rise in Southeast Asia. On Sunday, May 13, 2018, three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, were targeted by suicide bombers comprising one single family of six. The following day, a family of five rode two motorbikes to the entrance of the city’s police headquarters where they blew themselves up. The attacks saw the confluence of several trends in jihadi terrorist plotting—an increased reliance on family networks and an increased embrace of women and children in combat roles. In our cover article, Kirsten Schulze outlines the evolving threat from pro-Islamic State militants in Southeast Asia’s most populous country. Dakota Foster and Daniel Milton build on the the CTC’s previous analysis on the personnel records of just over 4,100 Islamic State foreign fighters to focus on what the records reveal about the smaller subset of 267 children. David Sterman also analyzes the Islamic State’s personnel records to compare and contrast the profile of recruits with previous experience in Libya and Afghanistan. Robin Simcox documents an alleged terrorist conspiracy by an all-female cell guided by an Islamic State cybercoach to plot attacks in the Paris area in 2016.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Children, Counter-terrorism, Women, Islamic State, Jihad, Foreign Fighters, Child Soldiers
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, Europe, South Asia, Indonesia, France, Libya, North Africa, Southeast Asia
  • 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