Thinking about women’s roles in terrorism

“To underestimate or neglect women jihadists would be a huge mistake for security services…– and one they may pay for in the near future.” – Abu Haniyah

I recently read two article about the roles of women in extremism (specifically, Islamic State), and how we need to change how we view them.

In Article A, the authors list four ways extremists manipulate gender norms. The first way is in the way recruiters customize their message for women. They promise a better life for the women, free from oppression. The second is that Islamic State (IS) uses sexual violence for bonding or intimidation among the fighters. Third, IS and other terror groups exploit the lack of women in security roles (i.e. police) when they execute operations. This is true, to a point. But more often are reports of women being used in places where their presence will not attract attention (such as markets), and knowing they cannot be searched. Finally, IS has developed a narrative about its attacks that highlights the targeting of women and girls. This is a bit skewed. The authors open the article specifically mentioning the targeting of girls at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. The problem with this message is that in the claim of responsibility, IS does not mention girls or children, but Crusaders. There have been instances in the past of messages from IS threatening revenge for the killing of Muslims, including women and children.

Women play MANY roles in & around IS. And women’s roles have evolved under IS. There are brides, recruiters, planners, fighters, and victim/slaves (as with the Yazidi women). The brides of jihadis often get passed around after their husbands are martyred. Fighters, in IS, is a newer development.

The article doesn’t give much as far as changing the way of thinking. The most important point in the article is tucked in at the end, almost as an afterthought, as a passage briefly mention of the role of women in countering extremism. In my opinion, this is important, not just in a professional capacity. Wives and mothers can play a role in dissuading their sons (and daughters) from joining IS. This is something that should be discussed more in countering extremism, along with how the roles of women in terror groups evolve. This leads me into the second article I read.

Article B is more articulate. It tells of women of IS being “trivialized” or “marginalized” by the media & public. (They’re victims or brainwashed). Societies have a hard time coming to terms with women being violent, and ACTUALLY believing in the IS cause. Because of these societal views, women who join IS or other terror groups usually get lighter sentences. The public just has a hard time believing women are joining these terror groups because they actually believe in the cause. This is true of many terror groups. One point I would like to counter is the statement in the article about al Qaeda relegating its female members to raising the next generation of jihadists. Al Qaeda has used women in support and operational roles, something I’ve written about before here.

Unfortunately, the authors mention, is that cultural attitudes in Muslim societies can make it difficult to conduct investigations. In more conservative societies, a man talking alone with women is not allowed. In some extreme cases, this is being exploited, as women can operate without the scrutiny that some Muslim men involved in terror face. The women are just harder to watch.

As the roles of women in these groups evolve, those in the business of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism need to shed the preconceived notions of women-as-victim. Women are increasingly playing active roles in the organizations, and doing so voluntarily. The terror groups will certainly use this to their advantage, whether we accept it or not. But the sooner we do, the sooner we can address these issues.

Who benefits from the label of ‘terrorism’?

Last week, an armed man entered a Manila casino, and began shooting. In the end, at least 36 people were dead, as was the gunman. After the attack, Islamic State claimed the attack (twice!), and even President Trump called the incident an act of terrorism. The police, on the other hand, said it was not terrorism, but an attempted robbery gone horribly wrong. The gunman was said to be a gambling addict.

Why would both a terrorist organization and a politician both label an attack terrorism, when is wasn’t? As I was asked recently, who benefits from labeling something ‘terrorism’?

First, terrorists themselves benefit. Coverage of a successful attack spreads their message, and spreads fear. Coverage of terror attacks is one of the best forms of propaganda. 24 hour news coverage is free, and has a worldwide reach. The news organizations display the terrorists’ messages, pictures of the dead and wounded, and spread fear of more to come. The very act of terrorism is to instill fear through violence or threat of violence for a certain, often political, gain. The more terror attacks there are (real or perceived), the more people will fear the terrorists, and sometimes even giving in to the demands.

Second, the politicians who are looking to curb freedoms benefit. In the Philippines, President Duterte declared martial law after militants stormed Malawi City. Duterte, no stranger to extrajudicial power plays, could have used the Manila incident to justify the need for even more crackdowns in the country. This is something that has been going on in Erdogan’s Turkey for years. In that country, incidents are routinely blamed on the Kurds, and then used as an excuse to limit rights and even jail people. President Trump benefits by drumming up support from his base for his travel ban. In the aftermath of this weekend’s London terror attacks, Prime Minister May suggested regulating the internet to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online.” In short, politicians use the fear of more attacks to push their agendas and gain power.

Third, the news organizations benefit by way of ratings. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a common refrain. Despite the horror of a terror attack, people sit glued to the screen for hours, watching experts and hosts try to make sense of the tragedy. The longer the news channels can keep talking about an incident, the longer people will keep watching.

And finally, a certain class of individuals benefit by being able to push their personal agendas. Over the weekend, a woman asked how the London or Manchester attacks were considered terrorism, but the Sandy Hook shooting was not. She was implying it was due to race/religion, and using that point to attack others. Seemingly lacking the understanding that terrorism is a specific thing, she (and others) have used terror attacks not to have a legitimate conversation about the perpetrators of terrorism, but to attack people for imagined discrimination.

Even if a crime is not actually terrorism, there are people who benefit from labeling it as such. And it often comes down to fear or power, no matter who is doing the labeling.

 

Unanswered Questions About St. Petersburg.

On Monday 3 April, a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg, Russia, metro, killing 14. At first, there was some confusion about the identity of the perpetrator, having originally been blamed on a man from Kazakhstan. After he turned himself in and was cleared, the real attacker was identified as 22 year-old Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, an Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan. Initially, no claims of responsibility came. Then, on 18 April, a claim of responsibility showed up on al Qaeda’s North African channel, Agence Nouakchaott d’Information (ANI). In the statement, it was said that Dzhalilov was a member of a previously-unknown AQ group called Iman Shamil Battalion. The statement also said that Dzhalilov was acting on instructions from Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, to coincide with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to St. Petersburg, and threatened more action:

“To the Russian government, which apparently has not taken a lesson from its defeat in Afghanistan, we say: This operation is only the beginning, and what is to come will make you forget it, Allah permitting.”

Following the attack, 8 people from Central Asia were detained in connection to the investigation. Several weeks later, 12 people were detained in Kaliningrad, suspected as being part of a terror cell there. The Kaliningrad cell was said to be led by an Uzbek wanted on extremism charges, and are supporters of Islamic State.

Terrorism in Central Asia is next to nonexistent. Economic conditions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have many seeking to find work elsewhere. They often end up in Russia, where they are treated as lower-class citizens. The alienation they experience can, in part, lead to their being vulnerable to extremist via recruiters, as I wrote here. In recent years, more of their numbers have shown up in terror attacks outside of the region. In June of last year, the attack on Turkey’s Ataturk Airport included Central Asians. The New Year’s Eve attack at an Istanbul nightclub was perpetrated by an Uzbek. This year’s truck attack in Sweden was also carried out by an Uzbek. These attacks, however, were directed or inspired by Islamic State.

Despite the claim of responsibility by AQ, many questions remain. First, why was the claim of responsibility was released on a side channel and not on AQ’s main channel? New York Times writers Rukmini Callamachi and Ivan Nechepurenko spoke of this in an article on 25 April. They raised the question of why this showed up on ANI, AQ’s North Africa channel, but not on their main channel, where they speak of European operations. The statement was first released in Arabic, then later in Russian.

Second, the suspect did not show any of the signs typical of recent terrorists. Dzhalilov was, by most accounts, not an overly religious person, he did or didn’t pray (depending on the report), and save for a couple of “liked” Islamic groups, his social media showed no clues. He, likewise, did not have a criminal record, and did not do drugs. It had been reported that he had quit his job and “disappeared,” rumored to have gone to Turkey and Syria. How did this young man end up following orders from Zawahiri to blow himself up in St. Petersburg? One of the suspects arrested after the attack said in a court appearance that he was acting on someone else’s orders, and that he didn’t know he was part of a terror attack. Whose orders was he following, and what was he told? Dzhalilov told people he had an uncle in Turkey, but was that the real reason he went there? Was there someone who can confirm that he was in Turkey, and who, if anyone, did he talk to there?

Third, the Imam Shamil Group was an unknown group prior to this attack. Who are they? The group is named after a Caucasus imam who led the fight against the Russians in the nineteenth century. Shamil’s name is used frequently in the Caucasus, and it is not out of the question that this group was formed specifically for this attack. It is not an uncommon practice; the most well-known example may be the Madrid bombings in 2004. Mark Youngman, who follows extremism in Russia, gave a lengthy response as to why this group and the claim should be viewed with some skepticism.

One possibility is that al Qaeda is looking to become relevant again. With the rise of Islamic State, al Qaeda has been pushed out of the spotlight, and has lost members to IS. They could be seeking to expand their network outside the Middle East and the Caucasus, with the Imarat Kavkaz (IK) insurgency in the North Caucasus having been largely contained. There have been attacks, but nothing on a large scale. Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been particularly effective at neutralizing the threat. Recruiting Central Asians already in Russia’s cities is one way of expanding their network inside Russia. Although there are factors in place to recruit Central Asia migrants as terrorists, it has not been a common occurrence. Despite the numbers of migrant workers in Russia, there have been very few instances of terror attacks involving them in the country. Most Central Asians involved in terrorism seem to be mostly aligned with Islamic State in the Middle East.

Another (conspiratorial) possibility is the involvement of the Russian government. They have used terror before as a pretext to launch operations, most notably the apartment bombings leading up to the Second Chechen War. And there was once a known Russian-AQ connection. In the 1990’s, the FSB had Zawahiri detained for six months. Besides the apartment bombings, Russia has also aided terrorists in the past for their own gains. Security services allowed known insurgents through checkpoints near Beslan, knowing an operation was possible in the area[1]. The inclusion of the Russian message on ANI by itself means nothing; the attack was in Russia. Maybe an insider had a contact with ANI and not AQ’s main channel. The question here is why would the Russian government need to set up Central Asians as terrorists? Would it be merely to show they can be tough on migrants (who are already treated poorly in Russia)? One result of the apartment bombings was a great increase in the approval rating of the president which, at the time of Yeltsin/Putin, was abysmal. That is not currently the case; Putin enjoys an 80% approval rating.

It has been months since the metro attack in St. Petersburg, and so many questions remain unanswered. Given that this happened in Russia, getting those answers anytime soon is unlikely. The only clues may come from Russia’s future response toward those from Central Asia.

1. David Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 104

Target No. 1: The President’s Brand

Recently, I read an article in Ricochet that discussed Trump properties as potential targets. I am just expanding on that with my own opinion.

Terrorists have long targeted Western – particularly US – interests. Embassies, consulates, military installations and personnel have all been on the radar. Even tourist locales where Westerners gather (think Bali or even Nice’s Promenade des Anglais) have been attacked by those wishing to promote their message. In 2001, terrorists attacked some of the most recognizable symbols of American power: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The US Capitol Building was allegedly the fourth target. The goal was to hurt America in retaliation for occupying holy lands, and for killing Muslims..

On January 20, a new target emerges: the American Brand. President-elect Donald Trump has built his name into a global brand. His name graces properties around the globe in places like Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Philippines, Dubai, and India, as well as places all across the US. Until now, his high-rises and golf courses were just Trump properties. Come January 20, those properties become synonymous with the president himself.

For terrorists, attacking the Trump properties will be attacking America and attacking the president. With Trump, the man and the brand are indistinguishable. What better way to expose the weakness of America than to attack the president? Or at least his brand. Throughout his campaign, Trump continuously called for a ban on Muslims, angering many. This is a man who likes to talk about how strong he will be on terror, who has said he could find common ground with Russia in fighting terrorism. (It should be noted that Russia’s strategy of fighting terrorism is basically kill everybody. See: Aleppo and Grozny.) These statements surely did not go unnoticed in the jihadi world. Attacking a Trump-branded property would send the message that this new, tough-talking president is no match for the soldiers of Islamic State.

Jon Gabriel recently wrote some uncomfortable thoughts about the threat, citing the financial risk but more so the physical threat. Those properties are home to thousand of people, including businesses, residents, workers, and guests. Because some of these places exist in the areas they do, security concerns will have already been addressed. I can only assume property managers have put together a plan for additional security since the election of Trump. “Traditional” means of security may not be enough. As we’ve seen in the past year, terrorists are using any means available to attack: from axes to trucks.

While Gabriel points out the very real threat to Trump properties overseas, the domestic threat is just as real.  From last December’s attack in San Bernardino, the Orlando nightclub shooting, the pipe bombs in New York, and the attack at Ohio State University, to the countless foiled plots, we’ve seen an increase in homegrown terror. Trump Tower – the gilded White House in Manhattan – will have layers of security, especially when the First Family is in residence, but his other properties won’t likely benefit. Take, for example, the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, a 64-story tower of rooms and residences, housing two restaurants and a spa, that sits near the Las Vegas strip. It is arguably one of the busiest places in America. The tower also is across the street from the Fashion Show Mall, a complex with nearly two million square feet of shopping. Needless to say, it’s a busy area. It relies on tourists. If it were to be attacked, it could result in massive casualties.

Another property to highlight is Trump’s Washington DC hotel. The newly-opened property has already hosted businessmen and diplomats. Whether they are trying to curry favor with the new president is not yet proven, but it makes for interesting speculation. Whatever their reason for staying at the Trump International Hotel, they may be putting themselves at risk. If terrorists were to attack a Trump-named hotel filled with dignitaries, what kind of hit would the president, his family and his properties take, personally and financially? How would other countries feel? If a president can’t keep people safe inside his own properties, how does he keep Americans safe?

The Trump brand will become America’s brand, possible one of the most famous brands in the world. Even an attempted attack would make headlines across the globe. A successful one would boost the IS brand. Terrorists crave the attention, the media coverage.That the president-elect’s name graces these properties has made them a target, like it or not. Whether or not anyone will attempt an attack – let alone succeed – remains to be seen. This is a unique scenario, and is a very real threat. It is one I don’t wish to see played out.

 

The Spanish Threat

In March 2004, ten explosions ripped through the Madrid train system. The blasts killed 192 people, and are widely attributed to an al Qaeda-affiliated organization. The previously unknown group calling itself Abu Nayif al Afghani claimed responsibility for the attacks. Those attacks happened at the time the current government had cooperated with the US on the invasion of Iraq, causing many people to vote in the opposing party, who called for the removal of Spanish troops. The bombings in Madrid achieved what terror is meant to do: cause fear, and change policy.

Since 11-M, as the Spanish refer to the Madrid bombings, there have been no reported incidents of terrorism in Spain. Abu Nayaf al Afghani has all but disappeared. In recent years, eyes have turned to France and Belgium, both countries having been victim to numerous attacks, large and small. But given the number of cells detected and militants captured in Spain, it is only a matter of time before Spain falls victim again, and with it more of Europe.

Since 2011, there have been nearly 200 people arrested on terror-related charges. That is approximately three times as many as were arrested between 1996 and 2012. In late 2015, Spanish terrorism experts released a report revealing the statistics about who made up Spain’s terror threat. Nine out of ten arrested were affiliated in some way with a known terror organization. Of those arrested, over half were born outside of Spain. This year alone, Spain has arrested almost 30 on terror-related charges. A pair of Moroccans were arrested in July were charged with financing a terror organization.

At least 75% of the terror suspects have been residents of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco, but cells have been interrupted all over southern Spain. The would-be terrorists captured by Spanish authorities are sometimes found to be plotting attacks inside Spain itself, or are involved in recruiting and support efforts. In August 2012, three al Qaeda-connected men were caught plotting to attack Gibraltar. Curiously, two of the men were Chechen, claiming to be in Spain seeking asylum. One Chechen, Eldar Magomedov (AKA Ahmad Avar), was said to have been former Spetsnaz before leaving to join terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mohammed Ankari Adamov is also said to have trained in Afghanistan, and is rumored to have been involved in 2011’s Domodedovo Airport bombing.

This is not to say Spanish terrorists are happy to plot inside Spain. Their efforts have reached into neighboring France. One individual was arrested in Malaga in April 2015 on charges of supplying Paris supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, with arms. While the 27 year-old was a French citizen from Sainte Catherine, the fact that he was in Malaga should be no coincidence. Other potential jihadis have been caught in Malaga, some caught coming from or going to Syria. Months later, Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan-born Spanish resident from Algeciras, was tackled on a Paris-bound train, disrupting an attack.

Yet, Spanish jihadis are not exactly streaming out of the country to join the cause. As of December of 2015, there were an estimated 150 Spanish fighters in Syria and Iraq. A more recent report stated than fewer foreign fighters are joining Islamic State. Does this mean there are fewer individuals willing to join the cause? The answer is likely ‘no.’ Given the recent attacks in Europe – specifically France and Belgium – it makes more sense to assume the fighters are staying put to plan attacks at home. Since Islamic State’s rise to power, more terrorists have switched support from al Qaeda, including affiliate al Nusra, to supporting the cause of IS. Years ago, support for a group calling itself Nadim al Magrebi briefly appeared on the radar. This is notable because of the group’s call to liberate Ceuta and Melilla from Spain. (It is interesting to recall that Ayman Zawahiri once called for the reconquering of al Andalus.) There had been concerns about Islamist infiltration into the Spanish military based in the enclaves. In 2013, there was a document issued by the Spanish Ministry of Defense reporting the detection of radicalism among the ranks.

The trend in terrorist attacks is leaning toward those inspired, rather than ordered directly by, Islamic State. A May 2016 message released by the group called on supporters to attack Europe and the U.S., encouraging lone wolf attacks. Other messages have encouraged Paris-style attacks in Germany and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that Spanish IS supporters won’t eventually heed the call.

In the last 18 months, France, Belgium, and now Germany have been hit with several terror attacks, from large coordinated events (such as in Paris) to individual attacks, like the most recent in Germany. Since withdrawing from Iraq after the Madrid attacks, Spain has made little waves in the Muslim world. By contrast, France, Belgium, and Germany have actively fought both at home and in the Middle East against Islamic extremism. One attack in France came after that government began airstrikes in Syria, another after they announced they were moving their aircraft carrier to rejoin the fight. Spain, while not committing to airstrikes, vowed to support other countries in their fight against Islamic State.

For now, Spain has been lucky. Many of those arrested have been suspected of supporting terrorists rather than plotting their own attacks. We can hope that the number of arrests by Spanish authorities mean they are getting more proficient at identifying and apprehending the threat. However, we must not kid ourselves into believing that is the only case. That another major attack has not happened in Spain since 2004 does not mean there will not be another. Somebody may just be waiting to take advantage of Spain’s inaction and unpreparedness to attack.

The Roles Women Play: al Qaeda and Islamic State

“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous. I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”

 It has been over a month since the husband and wife team of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed an act of terrorism is San Bernardino, California. In the aftermath, as a way to determine a motive, investigators initially focused on a garbled message on Facebook left by Malik. The message purported to claim an allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. This led many in the media – and armchair analysts online – to confirm that the attack was at least inspired by IS. But digging deeper into the lives of Farook and Malik revealed a more al Qaeda-style ideology. The fact that Malik was involved in the shootings suggests more al Qaeda than Islamic State. Why? Because of the roles women play in each organization.

In 2008, al Qaeda’s then second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri issued a statement saying women are not to be suicide bombers, but should stay at home raising a family. Just a year later, Zawahiri’s own wife went online encouraging more women to be more active in jihad.

But the role of women as active participants in al Qaeda’s jihad goes back further. Long having been linked to terrorist through a marriage to a Jamaah Islamiyah leader Abdul Rahim Ayub, Australian Rabia (Robin) Hutchinson played an active role in supporting terrorism. While there is no proof, it is rumored that she engaged in some violent activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of her activities involved teaching and training. After marrying her fourth husband in 2000, Osama bin laden confidant Abu al Walid al Masri, Hutchinson ran a hospital for mujahideen.

Women associated with al Qaeda have done more than teach and work in hospitals. Many have been involved in operational support and have even conducted operations themselves. Malika el Aroud, also known as Oum Obeyda online, was a Belgian of Moroccan decent who was thought to be a recruiter. She began her online propaganda in 2001, after her husband was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. A marriage to a second husband led her to Switzerland, where she and her husband were charged in 2007 with running pro-al Qaeda websites. After serving a six month sentence, she returned to Belgium. Again, she was detained, this time for allegedly plotting with other women to free a convicted terrorist, and for conducting surveillance for a forthcoming attack.

Another Belgian, Murielle Degauque, is said to be the first Western woman suicide bomber for al Qaeda. It was after marrying her second husband that she went down the path of jihad. Her husband, Issam Goris, was known to Belgian authorities as an Islamist. After their marriage, he was recruited into Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Iraq network. Degauque followed. Six months later, 6 November 2005, Degauque strapped on a suicide belt and detonated herself near a US Army patrol in Buquba.

That same November, Sajida al Rishawi’s suicide belt failed to detonate when her and her husband attempted to bomb the Amman Radisson Hotel. Her husband was successful, but al Rishawi was able to escape. She was eventually caught, becoming the first woman of al Qaeda arrested. She has since been executed by Jordan.

Fast forward to 2014. Tashfeen Malik marries Syed Farook, entering into a marriage that included copies of Inspire magazine (official magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and sermons by Anwar al Awlaki. After having attended conservative madrassas in Pakistan, as well as having exposure to more radicalization through her husband, Malik would have been easily influenced. She may have pledged an allegiance to al Baghdadi in a Facebook message, but Tashfeen Malik was more al Qaeda than Islamic State.

So what of women’s roles in Islamic State?

In a manifesto released early 2015 by supporters of Islamic State, it was written that the main role of women shall be in the home. It is only in certain circumstances that women would be allowed outside the home. The first is the study of religion. Female doctors and teachers may be allowed out if they follow Sharia. And finally, via fatwa and only if there not enough men, may a woman engage in jihad.

Another role women play in IS is that of propagandists. As in the manifesto, women from IS flood social media with messages of the paradise that awaits new recruits in the caliphate. Their message, mostly directed toward young women and girls, is one of freedom, freedom from the perceived constraints placed on them by the Western world. The women on Facebook and Twitter proudly pose, fully veiled, with shopping or eating fast food, saying their lives are normal. They brag about the free apartments and televisions they are given by IS, all in exchange for supporting and marrying the fighters. Women, they say, are needed to support the men fighting the infidels, and to raise the next generation of fighters. Their job as wives and mothers, they say, is important to the Caliphate. And if they are lucky, their husbands and sons will become martyrs.

It is not just propaganda, either. Some women in Islamic State are part of what has been called ‘morality police.’ Based in Raqqa and Mosul, al Khansaa Brigades are in charge of making sure women are complying with Islamic State’s form of Sharia. They make sure the women are dressed appropriately and are accompanied by men. They arrest non-compliant women and issue lashings – or worse –  as punishment. Members of al Khansaa Brigades are the few women in IS that are allowed to drive and carry weapons.

Despite the propaganda, the reality is that most women in Islamic State are captives. Whether they join as al Khansaa Brigade members or travel to Syria to become brides, they can never leave. Some, once widowed, are married off to others, sometimes becoming slaves. Once the reality of living under IS sets in, some women try to leave. Those women are beaten and sometimes killed, such as the case of Samra Kesinovic.  Samra was a 17 year old Bosniak from Austria who left her family because she thought she could be free to practice her religion and “serve Allah.” She tried to escape Raqqa after saying she was sickened by the IS brutality, only to be beaten to death by supporters.

A few have managed to escape, but continue to live in fear that IS members will find them. The brutality of the Islam State is widely reported yet girls still make their way to Syria.

In the case of what roles women play in terror groups, female members of al Qaeda have the upper hand, so to speak, over Islamic State. Women in al Qaeda have a sort of operational equality that isn’t afforded to those in IS, up to and including conducting attacks. The have a part to play, something women in IS do not. The lucky ones get to be wives and mothers, for the alternatives are much worse.

 

I previously wrote about women and Islamic State here.

 

 

The Migrant Crisis and the Paris Attacks.

The Syrian refugee-as-terrorist narrative remains uncertain, but the question remains: who is checking the migrants?

In the days following the most recent terror attacks in Paris, details began to emerge regarding the identity of the attackers. Recovered from one of the attackers was a Syrian passport that had been processed through border check points in Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Austria then France. Fingerprints from the remains matched those of someone using the passport in Leros, Greece. The true identity of the man remains a mystery. But that passport, along with Islamic States’ claim of responsibility, seemed to confirm what many people had been thinking during the migrant crisis, that terrorists might be sneaking in with the migrants. Reports have since come out saying the passport was a fake. Some have taken this to mean it was a plant to demonize the migrants, highlighting the xenophobic rhetoric of Europe’sand America’s – right.

There is a legitimate argument to make in voicing concern that not all migrants and refugees are what they appear. Syrians escaping civil war aren’t the only ones pouring into Europe. Migrants from all over the Middle East, South East Asia, and Africa are making their way to Europe in search of everything from peace to better job and family opportunities. But as early as March of this year, there have been concerns that there are more than migrants among their ranks.

Before the focus shifted to the Balkan route, thousands were making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy. Since IS have been establishing themselves in Libya, there have been reports that they would begin using it as a jumping-off point to reach Italy. In May of this year, Libyan security adviser Abdul Basit Haroun made the claim that IS would exploit the migrant crisis by posing as refugees. Supposed IS documents have said that the terror organization intends to send people into Europe under the guise of refugees or migrants. Some European officials have also expressed concern about IS militants slipping through the gaping security holes. It should be noted the recent arrest of the two extremists in Hungary is unrelated to the migrant crisis, though still concerning.

The issue isn’t that a passport of dubious legitimacy was found next to a terrorist in Paris. Criminals – terrorists – use forged documents all the time. Nor is it out of the ordinary for a foreigner to be carrying his passport. Terrorist do ordinary things to blend in to their surroundings, to not tip anyone off that they are about to cause mass casualties. Remember, the September 11 hijackers shaved their beards, wore Western clothes, and partied so they would appear normal, and not as radical, devote Muslims.

No, the issue here is that a fake passport was checked through several checkpoints from Greece through Austria. The sheer number of people flooding into Europe via the Balkan route is overwhelming countries. So many people are arriving that they cannot be processed thoroughly. Officials at processing centers and checkpoints know they are dealing with fake documents and people pretending to be Syrian – Syrians get special status – but, lacking resources, seemingly have no choice but to let them pass. The countries on the routes to Germany and other destinations don’t want to deal with the migrants so they pass them through.

Lacking the resources or will to properly process the migrants and refugees, anyone can get through, including IS militants and other would-be terrorists. Letting the migrants flow through Europe unchecked opens the door for exploitation. IS has said many time that they want to strike Western targets. There are already terror cells and IS sympathizers all over Europe. Raids in Spain, Italy, France and Belgium are increasingly regular events. There is much talk that foreign fighters in Syria returning to Europe could mount attacks.

The bigger threat remains home-grown terrorists; five of the eight Paris attackers were French. The majority of recent terror attacks in Europe have come from individuals who were radicalized in their home countries. This does not mean, however, that the threat of militants coming in or returning via the migrant routes should be ignored. Blocking and turning back migrants is not the answer. More needs to be done in processing the migrants at entry points. Destination countries, like Germany, that are willing to offer millions of euros in aid for migrants should be able to offer aid for checkpoints and processing centers.

There is no perfect solution; there is no 100% guarantee all migrants entering Europe will be properly screened, as there is no guarantee all would-be criminals will be caught upon entry. Putting into place serious measures of screening is a start, and anything is better than the current system. To continue to allow the free flow of migrants into Europe is an open invitation for trouble.

Boko Haram’s Girl Bombs

Islamic State’s gruesome acts fill the headlines, but in Nigeria and nearby states, Boko Haram is engaging in acts just as disturbing.

Boko Haram has been active in their quest to bring an Islamic state to Nigeria since 2009, although the group has been around since 2002.

It wasn’t until June 2014 that they began to employ a new tactic: suicide bombers. These suicide bombers are seen as unique in that many of the bombers are girls, some as young as 10. What makes this even more disturbing – if possible – is that it coincides with Boko Haram’s campaign of mass kidnapping, most notably the Chibok schoolgirls. (Note – it has not been confirmed if any of the Chibok girls have been used as bombers.)

Female suicide bombers aren’t new. They’ve most infamously been employed by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers). Perhaps the most well-known female suicide bombers are Russia’s Black Widows. Disturbingly, child bombers aren’t new, either. The Taliban has been known to use children – both boys and girls – as bombers on occasion. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, children were picked individually and groomed for the task. What is worrisome about the Boko Haram bombers is the frequency of use and the ages of the girls involved. More importantly, how they are being made into bombers?

There are several possible scenarios in regards to the women and girls being bombers. The first is that the woman willingly take on the task, as like the Black Widows. They choose to blow themselves up out of duty or shame. Nigeria is still very much a patriarchal society, where women are seen as inferior or property. Many of the women and girls stolen by Boko Haram are raped, bringing shame upon her and her family. A second scenario involves coercion. These women are told to carry out an attack out of threats to them or their families, although the idea that they are being brainwashed with Boko Haram’s ideology is is possible. Brainwashing could also play a role in the final scenario: the youngest girls sent out wearing explosives and blown up remotely. This is the most disturbing of the scenarios as these girls would have little to no idea what is happening to them. A girl that young could be told anything to get her to walk into a crowd.

Despite the announcement in March by then-president Goodluck Jonathan that Boko Haram was getting weaker, they continue to launch attacks. Just this year, Boko Haram has conducted nearly 20 suicide attacks in Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon, with the majority involving women or young girls. The Pentagon is planning to send 300 US troops to Cameroon to help stop Boko Haram. Some are saying Boko Haram’s use of these suicide bombers is a sign of weakness or desperation at a loss of able fighters, or that they are employing this tactic because the Nigerian army is succeeding in their fight. While Boko Haram may not have made much gains in recent months, they have not lost their hold on northeast Nigeria. Using suicide bombers – especially women and girls – is just a change in tactics. In short, Boko Haram has found a new, horrific way to extend their terror campaign. By using young women and girls, soft targets become more easily accessible. Women and girls are not out of place in markets, where many of these attacks have taken place. Typically, fighters – even suicide bombers – are male. Women and girls don’t attract the same sort of attention as a strange male would. Also, using women and girls in traditionally Islamic societies allows for the concealment of explosives under their clothes, and allows them to enter an area without being searched, as is forbidden in Islam.

By using suicide bombers, Boko Haram splits focus between traditional fighting with the Nigerian army and hitting soft target attacks. Additionally, by using the women and girls, they have expanded their fighting force. Despite claims to the contrary, Boko Haram appears to have gained an advantage with their shift in tactic. With claims that Boko Haram has kidnapped well over 40,000, it appears that that advantage will last for the foreseeable future.

Preying on the vulnerable: Islamic State targets migrants in Russia

When it comes to foreigners traveling to Syria to join Islamic State, worldwide media tends to focus on the Europeans, especially the girls. Writing about young women being lured by false promises of love certainly draws in readers. But they are not the only vulnerable ones being targeted by IS. Central Asians from Russia are joining the ranks of those being recruited by IS.

Workers from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan migrate to Russia looking for work. Once these migrants from the former Soviet republics arrive, they usually are only able to low paying jobs due to lack of experience as well as knowing little to no Russian. Much of what little money is made is sent back home to their families. In addition to the poor work situation, these workers also have to deal with Russia’s notorious xenophobic attitudes. Even before the current economic crisis, these workers have led tough lives in Russia. Migrants from Central Asia have long been treated with disdain in Russia. They are viewed as a lower class of people, much like Blacks in early 20th Century America. But like so many all over the world driven by economic despair in their home countries, these migrants traveled looking for work to support their families.

Since Russia’s economic downturn many of these workers have lost their jobs. And many have experienced harassment at the hands of Russian authorities cracking down on migrants. Russian officials cite regulation enforcement as the reason for the crack down. In order to work in Russia, these migrant workers have to deal with a myriad of paperwork and fees. It is not uncommon for workers to be rounded up in searches for illegal immigrants or even those whose paperwork is not in order. 2014’s Operation Migration was one of the most recent of such round ups, during which many workers reported harsh treatment up to and including severe beatings. It is not surprising that those who could have fled Russia, going back to their home countries. The migrants who could not leave face unemployment, loneliness and fear. And this is exactly what Islamic State recruiters are using to their advantage.

Central Asian migrants in Russia turn to the familiar, either in local groups or online communities. Far from home and alone, these workers look for whatever they can find that is familiar. Often, this is either a local mosque or online communities. In these places the workers find people with similar backgrounds, language and religion. The under- or unemployed migrants find a connection, but are also susceptible to the messages of radicalization. IS uses these mediums to tell these poor migrant workers that a better life awaits them in Syria. They will have jobs, but more importantly they will be able to fight against an oppressive regime for the establishment of an Islamic state. The socioeconomic situation faced by the migrants is one of the biggest factors used by IS to recruit Central Asians in Russia. The desperation of some workers may lead them to become “indebted” to the recruiters. Not widely reported in the recruitment tactics is the offer to help the migrants with their work status. In exchange, the migrants are obligated to attend sermons by certain religious leaders. This all but guarantees the migrants hear the “right” message.

Preying on the Central Asian migrants’ vulnerabilities is only part of the story. Why are the IS recruiters working in Russia rather than in the Central Asian countries themselves? In many of those countries, radical Islamic groups have been banned. Unable to operate openly in the Central Asian countries, they establish groups in other place to recruit for their cause.While not directly linked to Islamic State, one such group is  Hizb ut-Tahrir. They are an Islamist group who supports the establishment of a caliphate, although they insist their support is through peaceful means. Whatever their ideology and methods, they have in recent years set up cells in cities, like Moscow, where large populations of Central Asian migrants have settled. The migrants are attracted to groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir because of the connection to their home countries. Religion plays almost a secondary role – a common bond – in the recruitment where much of the emphasis is on financial security and freedom from the anti-immigrant attitude of Russia.

There are no solid estimates of the number of Central Asians fighting for Islamic State. Numbers range anywhere from low hundreds to nearly 4000. It’s unclear how many of these fighters have come from Russia because of the number of migrants in the country illegally. Regardless of legal status, these migrant workers in Russia continue to be a target for IS recruitment. Their vulnerability make them easy prey for recruiters promising better living in Syria under the caliphate. The combination on the economic conditions in both the Central Asian countries and in Russia, as well as the anti-immigrant attitude in Russia, all but ensures the recruitment of migrants will continue.

Russia and Islamic State (updated)

Earlier this year, I recently participated in a class discussion in which we were asked if we thought the Islamic State (IS) would attempt to expand into Russia’s North Caucasus. Many in the class thought that IS would in fact try for the North Caucasus because it was, as one student put it, the obvious next step. The North Caucasus is predominantly Muslim and somewhat adjacent to the Middle East, the students argued. The ones who believed IS could make an attempt were citing the relative ease at which they overran parts of Syria and Iraq. Islamic State’s sheer determination and barbarity, they argued, allowed them to quickly overtake poorly defended towns and Iraq’s less-than-stellar army. In Syria, the chaos of the civil war made for easy inroads for IS. Those who disagreed pointed to the Islamic State’s preoccupation with Syria and Iraq, basically IS is too busy to threaten the North Caucasus. Not a single student mentioned Russia.

When it comes to dealing with terrorists, Russia has a reputation of not messing around. Diplomacy is not an option. One of the most infamous cases of the Russian response to terrorism happened in 1985. In September of that year, a group going by the name Islamic Liberation Organization took four Soviet diplomats hostage. The group demanded that Moscow lean on pro-Syrian militia to stop shelling northern Lebanon or they would kill the diplomats one by one. One was wounded in the initial capture and was subsequently shot as the first warning. Any chance of negotiation disappeared when his body was found in a dump, shot through the head.

In a short time, the KGB discovered that the Islamic Liberation Organization was really Hezbollah. The KGB responded to the killing of the diplomat by kidnapping the relative of a top Hezbollah leader, castrating him and sending the parts to the Hezbollah leader with the message that this would continue unless the diplomats were freed. The remaining diplomats were quickly dropped off, unharmed, at the Soviet embassy in Beirut. Their ordeal lasted less than a month.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians had to deal with another kind of terrorism, that from militants in the Republic of Chechnya. These militants were born from the 1994–1996 Chechen War, during which they fought the Russians for an independent Chechnya. This period also saw the rise of radical Islam in the North Caucasus.

The rise of an insurgency after the war gave the Russians enough of an excuse to once again invade Chechnya in 1999, beginning the Second Chechen War. While the first war ended in a sort of defeat for Russia, the second would not end the same. Russia, now led by newly-elected president Vladimir Putin, launched a full assault on Grozny in order to crush the insurgents. This resulted in the near-total destruction of Grozny and the deaths of an estimated 25,000 [this figure is still disputed] Chechens. Many of those deaths were civilians as a result of indiscriminate shelling by Russian forces. Their goal was to kill all the insurgents, no matter what.

The Second Chechen War effectively ended when the Russians took control of Grozny in February 2000. The Chechen government and the insurgents fled the capital, and the Russians installed a pro-Russian government, led by Akhmad Kadyrov, father of current Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.

The Chechen insurgency didn’t give up their fight, nor did the Russians. After the major fighting stopped, the insurgents began terror attacks. Some of the most notable also highlighted Russia’s response to terrorism. In 2002, a group claiming to be aligned with the Chechen insurgency stormed the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, taking nearly 900 people hostage. Among the hostage-takers were several women strapped with explosives, some of the infamous ‘Black Widows.’ They demanded that Russia withdraw all troops from the Chechen Republic. After two days, Russian security services, including Alfa Group, began pumping gas into the theater in hopes of subduing the terrorists. This was followed by the Russian special forces storming the theater, resulting in a firefight. In all, 130 hostages and 40 terrorists were killed, and nearly 700 were injured during the siege. Afterward, the Russian were heavily criticized for using excess force rather than negotiation to resolve the situation.

In 2004, the Russians once again demonstrated how they deal with terrorists, this time at Beslan. On 1 September 2004, a group of more than 30 heavily armed men stormed the School Number One. It was the first day of school, a day filled with festivities, so there were many parents and relatives gathered as well as students. Some managed to flee but the gunmen managed to herd nearly 1,100 people into the school gymnasium. Their demands were the same as from Dubrovka: All Russian troops must leave Chechnya. The terrorists also rigged the gymnasium with explosives, telling the Russians they would blow up the school if any attempt was made by Russian police or security forces to retake the school. The Russians provided a negotiator, as requested by the terrorists, but those efforts were unsuccessful, though a handful of hostages were released.

On the third day of the siege, two explosions were heard in the school. While unsure the origin of the explosion — reports vary from an accidental bomb detonation to Russian sniper fire triggering a bomb — Russian forces took this as a cue to storm the school. During the ensuing chaos, some hostages managed to escape. But in the end, 334 people had been killed, most during the assault by Russian forces. As with the Dubrovka siege, the Russians were heavily criticized for using extreme deadly force in dealing with the terrorists rather than less lethal means.

In the years following Beslan, Russia doubled-down on anti-terror operations in the North Caucasus. Since 2007, most of their efforts have focused on the Caucasus Emirate (CE). Divergent from the traditional Chechen form of Islam — Sufism — CE is based in the more radical Salafism, a form of Islam that claims to follow the literal meaning of the teachings of the Qur’an. It was formed not only to fight for an independent Chechnya, but also to establish a Chechen caliphate.

In the years since their formation, and under the leadership of Doku Umarov, CE have launched regular attacks against Russians, both in the North Caucasus and in Russia itself. The most notable of these attacks involved suicide bombings by the so-called Black Widows. The Russian response to these attacks have been swift and deadly: security forces arrest any persons thought to be involved in the attacks, including relatives. Regularly, militants are “neutralized” while “resisting arrest”. Still, CE remained a cohesive movement. It wasn’t until the death of Umarov in Spring 2014 that cracks began to show. New emir Ali Abu Mukhammad made an announcement that CE would no longer attack indiscriminately, as was the case under Umarov. He also stated that militants should no longer employ suicide bombers, especially women. Not all CE commanders were happy about these orders, but major attacks largely stopped.

Since November of 2014, a half dozen Dagestani commanders from the Caucasus Emirate (CE) switched allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is unknown whether the reason is the poor leadership of CE emir Ali Abu Mukhammad or if the draw to al Baghdadi’s vision of a caliphate is more enticing. FSB (Russian Security Services) director Alexander Bortnikov recently estimated around 1,700 Russians are fighting with IS. The most prominent is Omar al Shishani, a Georgian from the Pankisi Gorge region. In October, al Shishani’s father said he got a phone call from his son who vowed to bring the jihad back to Russia to retake Chechnya. Chechen president Kadyrov, a loyal supporter of Putin, promised to crush any attempt. In fact, when CE attacked Chechen capital Grozny in December 2014, Kadyrov responded by expelling the militants’ families and destroying their homes.

Pure speculation only, there have been rumors of links between Russia and al Qaeda without any concrete evidence. Ayman al Zawahiri was known to have spent time in FSB custody in 1996 after trying to enter Chechnya with two other Egyptians. He was released after being detained nearly six months, but nothing has been reported as to what happened to al Zawahiri while he was in FSB custody. Former FSB Aleksandr Litvinenko once had said that al Zawahiri was one of many links between al Qaeda and the FSB. As John Schindler wrote in a piece last year, this is not the first instance of Russian intelligence getting involved with Islamist extremists. Schindler writes:

Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.

So if Russian intelligence has been able to get inside the insurgency in the North Caucasus, is to too much of a stretch to ask if they could have gotten into the Islamic State, given the number of Russian-linked fighters?

While IS was able to easily take over parts of Syria and Iraq, it stands little chance of doing so in Russia. They would have to overtake the Russia security services, which have proved over the years that they will whatever means necessary to defeat terrorists. This is not to say there won’t be an attempt. When Russian fighters return to the North Caucasus they will bring the IS ideology with them. It’s possible the terror attacks will increase. Both IS and al Nusra Front have called for jihad against Russia. Counterterror operations (CTOs) have increased in the North Caucasus in recent months. Since the death of Umarov, and subsequently Ali Abu Mukhammad earlier this year, along with the increasing number of IS supporters among the remaining members, the Caucasus Emirate’s future is uncertain.

Within the last month, Russia has, with permission from Syrian president Bashar al Assad, begun airstrikes against what they call terrorists. Despite Russia’s claims that they are helping Assad in the fight against IS, most of Russia’s bombing campaign has been focused on Syrian rebel-held positions. That Russia is supporting Assad’s quest to stay in power is no secret. What is not widely reported, if at all, is the identity of who Russia is bombing. One of the major targets of Russia’s bombs is al Nusra Front, the Syrian al Qaeda branch whose members include a large number of Caucasian fighters. Meanwhile, IS has been successful in making gains against Syrian rebels. In addition to helping Assad, Russia has taken its fight against Caucasian Islamists to Syria.

What is not known is if the remaining CE members and the Russian IS fighters will work together in the attempt to oust Russia from Chechnya. Despite calls to wage jihad against Russia, there has been little activity in that direction. If, in the future, there is, the two groups need to find a common ground and not fight each other because the results could be devastating for Chechnya. This is a country that has spent billions of roubles repairing the infrastructure and economy that had been destroyed by the wars. Should another war break out, even among rival militants, the result would only hurt the people of Chechnya. Russian IS fighters could try to “liberate” Chechnya, but Russia would destroy the country to stop them. By taking the fight to Syria, Russia is making an attempt to prevent the fight from coming back to the Caucasus.