Publications and Media
The Coming Islamic Culture War
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “The Coming Islamic Culture War,” Foreign Affairs, March 4 2017
Although little-noticed at the time, Ahwaa’s seemingly innocuous project was in fact revolutionary. Homosexuality in the MENA region is not only stigmatized but generally criminalized and banished from the public sphere. The creation of an online platform where LGBT people could candidly discuss the issues affecting their lives, such as romantic relationships or the tensions between Islam and gay rights, was thus a direct challenge to deeply inscribed cultural and religious norms. Indeed, Ahwaa heralds a wave of challenging ideas that, fueled by rapidly rising Internet penetration, will soon inundate Muslim-majority countries.
Online communications, by their nature, give marginalized social and political groups a space to organize, mobilize, and ultimately challenge the status quo. In the MENA region, online spaces like Awhaa will give sexual minorities the ability to assert their identity, rights, and place in society. So too will the Internet amplify discourses critical of the Islamic faith, or of religion in general, and solidify the identities of secularists, atheists, and even apostates. The rise of these religion-critical discourses will in turn trigger a backlash from conservative forces who fear an uprooting of traditional beliefs and identities. The coming social tsunami should be visible to anyone who knows what signs to look for.
THE INTERNET BOOM
The past two decades in the West have seen an extraordinarily rapid revolution in LGBT rights. In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman. While running for president twelve years later, in 2008, Democratic nominee Barack Obama was still defending this definition, adding, “I’m not somebody who promotes same-sex marriage.” But public opinion on the issue shifted rapidly. By 2011, more people supported gay marriage than opposed it. And by the time Obama left office, not only was same-sex marriage a constitutionally protected right, but it was inconceivable that a viable Democratic candidate would oppose it. Indeed, the transformation has affected both sides of the aisle—current President Donald Trump is doubtless the most pro-LGBT Republican nominee of all time.
The rise in Internet access was central to this revolution. Joe Kapp, an LGBT-identifying entrepreneur, has written about how the revolution in online communications “allowed LGBT people to bridge disparate geographies,” to “safely and discreetly find partners,” and to “learn that they are not alone, regardless of where they live.” The increasing confidence and visibility of LGBT people allowed them to move the needle on gay marriage, first incrementally and then more assertively as public opinion began to shift. As Kapp writes, “One need only look at the sea of red equal signs that appeared on Facebook in support of marriage equality to see the potential impact of sharing ideas across new social media.”
Access to the Internet is now growing rapidly outside the West. In Muslim-majority countries Internet penetration rates, which measure the percentage of a country’s population with Internet access, have long lagged behind those of the developed world—but this state of affairs is changing. In 2010, according to Internet World Stats, Internet penetration rates in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East were just 10.9 percent and 29.8 percent, respectively. In North America, by contrast, the rate stood at 77.4 percent. But by 2016 Internet penetration had risen to 28 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 57 percent in the Middle East. Indeed, some Muslim countries have been at the forefront of the global boom in Internet access—Saudi Arabia’s rate more than doubled from 2007 to 2016, and Tunisia’s rate over the same period went from 13 percent to just under 50 percent.
This boom is occurring in some of the most conservative societies on Earth, where ideas contrary to or critical of a strict interpretation of Islam are often stigmatized or even punished. With regard to sexuality, for instance, most Muslim societies consider discussions of homosexuality and LGBT rights to be off-limits. Indeed, most institutionalize anti-LGBT discrimination through their legal systems. Homosexual acts are illegal in all Muslim-majority MENA countries, with the exception of Jordan and Bahrain. Several states deem homosexuality an offense punishable by death. In addition to state violence, LGBT-identifying individuals can also be threatened by vigilantes. In 2014, for example, a Pakistani man killed three gay men he had met online, explaining that he had done so to send a message about the “evils” of homosexuality.
Throughout the region, conservative religious authorities have played a critical role in shaping public attitudes and establishing social norms around homosexuality. In 2007, for example, a member of the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs described
It is thus little wonder that people critical of religion, such as apostates, atheists, and blasphemers, are similarly stigmatized. A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that 18 of the 20 countries in the MENA region have criminalized blasphemy, while 14 have banned apostasy. So powerful is the stigma against apostasy that when Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, an official religious institution, announced that there were 866 atheists in the country—a remarkably precise and also laughably low figure—the institution’s clerics warned that the figure should “set alarm bells ringing.”
Even in countries with relatively lenient legal regimes, such as Lebanon, discourse critical of religion is limited. Vigilante violence can imperil atheists, and sometimes even those who defend religious freedom. Salman Taseer, the former governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was a courageous and vociferous critic of his country’s blasphemy law, describing it at one point as “a law which gives an excuse to extremists and reactionaries to target weak people and minorities.” For his stance on the issue, Taseer was gunned down in January 2011 by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, a committed Islamist.
Public rage followed Taseer’s assassination, but a significant portion of it was directed at the murdered governor rather than his killer. The Pakistani religious organization Jamaat Ahle Sunnat—which is regarded as mainstream and non-extremist—issued a statement warning that “there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” When Qadri went to trial, lawyers showered him with rose petals as he walked into the courthouse. Qadri was hailed as a hero by tens of thousands of demonstrators after the state executed him, and today a shrine has been erected at his gravesite in Islamabad.
In such a hostile environment, both critics of religion and members of the LGBT community are often forced to remain in the shadows. For reasons of legality and personal safety, being too loud can be a bad idea. The growth in Internet penetration will change this dynamic.For reasons of legality and personal safety, being too loud can be a bad idea. The growth in Internet penetration will change this dynamic.
Publicly disclosing one’s LGBT has long been known as “coming out,” a phrase that deliberately invokes a debutante’s coming-out party, in which an upper-class young woman is formally introduced into adult society. Reviewing the relevant social-science literature, a recent article in the Journal of Child and Family Studies noted that coming out “has been described as an essential component in [LGBT] identity formation and integration,” and carries a variety of mental health benefits related to improved self-esteem and reduced anxiety. Conversely, coming out can result in exposure to discrimination and rejection by friends and family.
In terms of the social stigma it invites, leaving the Islamic faith can also be seen as a kind of coming out, albeit one generally devoid of the celebration that often accompanies outwardly accepting one’s LGBT identity. In his book The Apostates, a study of Muslims who leave their religion, British criminologist Simon Cottee recounts the story of a young Sudanese woman who explained that for the individual apostate, leaving Islam is “such an intense journey.” To “everyone else,” however, “it’s just another story, people don’t really care.” (Cottee noted that by “everyone else,” she was referring to non-religious friends of hers; to her family, “it isn’t just another story. It is a calamity.”)
Yet for both marginalized groups, the Internet boom will accelerate the process of coming out. Whereas offline space is hostile, online space offers a relatively safe environment where people can assemble, interact, and build relationships. Shielded by the relative anonymity of online communications, marginalized individuals of all stripes can discuss intimate and controversial issues. The Internet, furthermore, allows like-minded people from disparate corners of the world to find one another and create virtual communities. An atheist living in rural Egypt, for example, may not know anyone else who shares his views. But when he goes online, he will find millions of people who do.
To appreciate the impact that increased Internet penetration will have on religiously conservative societies, it is crucial to understand how online interaction changes the behavior of members of marginalized communities. One important theory, that of “identity demarginalization,” is particularly instructive. The psychologists Katelyn McKenna and John Bargh, in their 1998 study “Coming Out in the Age of the Internet,” coined the term identity demarginalization to explain how people with marginalized and concealable identities (in other words, stigmatized identities that cannot be discerned just by looking at someone) interact with one another online. They found that people with marginalized sexual and political views highly valued the opinions of peers in their online social networks. The online community, for them, became a critical source of emotional support, where people could “for the first time… reap the benefits of joining a group of similar others.”
Members of marginalized groups come to more fully embrace their marginalized identities as they engage online with other like-minded people. As one 2008 study on online pro-anorexic groups noted, online forums are “an ideal space for maintaining and validating” a marginalized identity. Perhaps most importantly, McKenna and Bargh concluded that once their identities were demarginalized, people began to consider revealing their identity publicly.
Marginalized communities in the MENA region have not yet mastered the online environment, but they recognize the promise of digital engagement. As Ahwaa’s founder explained, the Internet has functioned as a “gateway to freedom of speech, particularly around taboo topics that face widespread censorship.” LGBT activists in North Africa, for instance, have established niche online magazines. Online dating in particular has flourished. Amir Ashour, an Iraqi activist, recalled that when he set out to establish Iraq’s first LGBT organization, he gauged interest by using social media, reaching out to personal contacts, and contacting people through Grindr and Tinder, two dating apps.
MENA-based atheists have similarly begun carving out a foothold on social media. Several atheist groups on Facebook have amassed over 20,000 members. These groups have been targeted by conservatives, who have launched coordinated online harassment campaigns designed to get Facebook to suspend atheist accounts. One tactic has involved posting pornographic images to atheist pages, then immediately reporting the images to Facebook. Some Islamists have also reported atheists for allegedly Islamophobic hate speech. These tactics have yielded temporary results: In February 2016, Facebook suspended at least nine atheist groups with a combined following of over 128,000 members, although the social media company quickly restored the pages.
Despite these efforts to silence the online atheist community, the Internet remains a refuge. An atheist from Saudi Arabia, which has criminalized “calling for atheist thought in any form,” explained in an interview that Saudi atheists use Facebook and Twitter both to engage in discussions about secularism and religion and to set up in-person underground meetings. The man, who went by a pseudonym, noted that he had met atheists in their forties and fifties, who had only recently revealed their views after interacting with younger atheists online.
Some atheist activists have even begun to operate online under their real names, eschewing the pseudonyms that many still use for protection. In 2013, Egyptian atheists created the Black Ducks YouTube channel, which profiles atheists and other non-religious people from the Arab world. Individuals involved with the channel have made a conscious decision not to mask their identities. As one activist explained, “If we atheists stop being ghosts and materialize, we will be taken more seriously… We’ll never get what we want if we don’t have the courage to claim it with our real names and faces.”
Online discourse within the LGBT community has also evolved and grown bolder, as can be seen in the case of the Ahwaa forum. Members use Ahwaa as a sounding board to discuss a range of sensitive subjects that are rarely broached in public. One individual who self-identified as a lesbian, for example, asked forum members whether homosexuality was forbidden (haram) in Islam, and explained that she felt “so bad just thinking that God didn’t even talk about who we are in the Quran.” In another thread, a poster explained that he had lost all his friends when he came out to them. The post prompted a wave of sympathetic responses, as forum members comforted the man and offered to befriend him online. Such interactions build social cohesion within the LGBT community and help to strip away stigmas.
But perhaps the most telling thread on Ahwaa relates to a more visible type of identity demarginalization: coming out. In a long discussion ranging over dozens of posts, forum members debated the merits of revealing their sexual orientation to coworkers, friends, and family. Several posters shared their divergent experiences of coming out. One woman warned that she had experienced hardship when she came out to her religiously conservative family, while another woman explained that when she told her mother she was pansexual, her mother initially expressed doubts but ultimately said, “I just want you to be happy.” In a separate thread, a girl explained that she lived with “constant fear and guilt” because she kept her sexual identity hidden from her family. Several forum members addressed her concerns. One told her, “do not feel guilty at all. This is who you are, and if you[r] parents cannot understand and would not understand, then you will just have to keep it to yourself. There’s no shame in being different.” Few comments better exemplify the role that online communities can play in destigmatizing marginalized identities.
As LGBT and religion-critical communities in Muslim countries become increasingly assertive, they are likely to trigger a backlash from conservative religious forces. Indeed, the backlash has already begun, sometimes violently, at both the state and the sub-state level.
Even as Islamist groups have launched reporting campaigns to shut down atheist Facebook accounts, governments have arrested atheists who are vocal online. In 2015, Egyptian courts sentenced a 21-year-old student to three years in prison after he declared on Facebook that he was an atheist. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi since 2012 on charges of insulting Islam online, occasionally dragging him out of jail for a public lashing. And across the MENA region, governments have similarly targeted members of the LGBT community who are active online. On dating apps, Egyptian police have used catfishing—a tactic in which individuals use false personas to establish online relationships—to identify and arrest gay men.
In the most extreme cases, members of these marginalized groups have been the victims of targeted sub-state violence. Since 2013, Islamist militants in Bangladesh, some of whom are linked to al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, have carried out a series of assassinations targeting atheist bloggers. And in April 2016, a jihadist faction pledging allegiance to the Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing the editor of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine.
It is not entirely clear how the Internet-enabled rise of marginalized communities—such as the LGBT or religion-critical ones—will reshape Muslim-majority societies. In the short term, the rise of these social movements may provide a boon to jihadist groups, who often cast themselves as the only force capable of protecting the faith against Western and secular values. But over the long term, these marginalized groups may fundamentally challenge religious conservatives’ grip on power.
This could produce sweeping social and policy changes—similar, perhaps, to what we have witnessed with respect to the issue of gay marriage in the United States. But it could also generate massive social instability, akin to the tumult of the Arab Uprisings, and the attendant failure to put countries like Libya back together.
Regardless of their ultimate outcome, however, signs of the coming Islamic culture wars can already be discerned. Western observers have long overlooked or misinterpreted social trends that have swept through Muslim-majority countries. This is one trend that they cannot afford to miss.
Violent Non-State Actors in the Age of Social Media: A Twenty-First Century Problem Requires a Twenty-First Century Solution
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Violent Non-State Actors in the Age of Social Media: A Twenty-First Century Problem Requires a Twenty-First Century Solution,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, pg. 43-49, February 2017
I like to assign Huang’s article because each step she makes is logical and correct in and of itself—yet her conclusion is entirely wrong. Figuring out why it’s wrong takes a lot of work; my students are typically persuaded by her points.
So where does Huang’s argument go wrong? If the factors that might distinguish ISIS from other VNSAs are only those that she considers—brutality, theology, profits, or governance—then her answer is correct. But here’s a different frame for distinguishing ISIS from its predecessors: speed, scope, and impact. No previous VNSA has, without state support, expanded as rapidly to become a strategic challenge in as many countries as ISIS. No previous VNSA has been able to spearhead a terrorist campaign akin to ISIS’s Ramadan 2016 offensive, which killed hundreds of civilians in high-profile attacks across ten countries. 
Put simply, the inputs that make ISIS may look like the VNSAs of old (though Huang’s examination of each input individually may be an error, as the group may look distinctive when they’re examined in combination), but the outputs are, to this point, unique. The uniqueness of the results ISIS has achieved is, of course, due in large part to advances in technology. No other major VNSA was able to take advantage of social media right out of the gate as a means of recruiting, and thus spreading its movement globally. No other VNSA has had the communications capabilities and end-to-end encryption needed to provide the advantages of physical terrorist networks to operatives who have never had in-person contact with the group’s members in the way that ISIS has with its “virtual planner” model. 
It may be objected that these differences are a product of ISIS’s operating environment, rather than being inherent to the actor itself. But such objections miss the point. It is impossible to categorize an actor as an “ordinary insurgency” if exogenous factors make it function in fundamentally different ways than insurgencies of the past.
ISIS is distinctive. And the truly worrying news is that its uniqueness may not last, because other VNSAs can use current and future technologies to replicate, and even expand upon, its successes. This is why it matters whether we categorize ISIS as an ordinary insurgency or recognize that we are seeing something new: VNSAs are empowered, relative to the state, in a way they have never been since the Westphalian state achieved its absolute dominance over competing forms of political organization during the twentieth century.
That “Westphalian moment” is now coming to an end. And it is vital that we not deceive ourselves into thinking we are now experiencing something that we have already seen in the not so distant past.
Misunderstanding the Problem: The al-Qa’ida/ISIS Competition
Not only is ISIS’s distinctiveness unlikely to last; it is not even the most formidable VNSA challenger that we face.
One of the major defining storylines in the Middle East and North Africa is the competition between al-Qa’ida and ISIS for dominance over the transnational Salafi jihadist movement. Even a cursory analysis of this intra-jihadist competition highlights how the problem set of VNSAs has often been misunderstood by analysts. A couple of years ago, the vast majority of analysts concluded that ISIS had overtaken al-Qa’ida. In its most extreme form, this argument contended that, “al-Qa’ida is most certainly a distant number two in jihadi circles,” and suggested that the group could even disband before 2016. 
ISIS was expected to fundamentally disrupt the al-Qa’ida network, and analysts believed there was a real chance that al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Qa’ida’s Somali affiliate al Shabaab would defect entirely and join Team ISIS. None of this occurred. While ISIS is now perceptibly weakened since its height in 2014-15, al-Qa’ida is perceptibly stronger. The divergent trajectory of the two groups was foreseeable even when analysts believed that ISIS either had eclipsed, or was in the process of eclipsing, al-Qa’ida.
Al-Qa’ida had long wanted to change the way it was viewed in majority-Muslim countries, as documents recovered from bin Ladin’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound demonstrate. In a May 2010 letter to senior al-Qa’ida official Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, bin Ladin proposed a “new phase” in al-Qa’ida’s campaign that would “correct [the mistakes] we made,” and “reclaim … the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis.”  In a separate letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the emir of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Atiyah expounded on the need to win over the Muslim population, noting that “the people’s support to the mujahedin is as important as the water for fish.”  Al-Qa’ida leaders even considered changing the group’s name to distance it from the toxic legacy of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (as ISIS was once known), which al-Qa’ida leaders saw as the biggest black mark on their reputation. 
In fact, al-Qa’ida did change its name as it expanded into North Africa, using front groups that were labeled Ansar al-Sharia. But no single development gave al-Qa’ida as much opportunity to change the way it was perceived as ISIS’s rise, and al-Qa’ida’s ability to publicly distinguish itself from ISIS. Al-Qa’ida contrasted its more restrained approach with ISIS’s over-the-top brutality; portrayed itself as the more controllable jihadist alternative to GCC states who saw it as a possible asset in their conflict with Iran; and its officials at times exaggerated ISIS’s strategic position and downplayed al-Qa’ida’s own strengths, in order to make al-Qa’ida appear less threatening. Al-Qa’ida has positioned itself, without moderating at all, closer to the mainstream of regional politics. 
We can now see the results. Today, al-Qa’ida is able to operate more openly than it ever has. The kind of charities that the United States worked so hard to shut down just after the 9/11 attacks are back in business, with fundraising for al-Qa’ida occurring openly in some countries.  Al-Qa’ida’s Syrian branch is now part of a massive coalition known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham with a number of other major rebel groups—some of which were once regarded as moderate by outside observers—and it has opened itself up to growing state support.
In short, while the international community focused on ISIS, al-Qa’ida outmaneuvered the world’s most powerful states, and transformed itself from an international pariah into a stronger organization than it has ever been. The United States’ lack of understanding of what alQa’ida was up to—its myopic focus on ISIS even as al-Qa’ida was in the process of dramatically “rebranding” itself—contributed to al-Qa’ida’s success.
Indeed, the number of times that analysts have fundamentally misread important developments related to VNSAs over the past half-dozen years, only to have these VNSAs prosper due to these flawed analytic paradigms, is striking. The most prominent example is analysts’ misreading of the strategic impact of the revolutionary events that rocked the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. A New York Times article by Scott Shane, published on February 27th, 2011, summarizes the consensus view that then existed:
“For nearly two decades, the leaders of Al Qaeda have denounced the Arab world’s dictators as heretics and puppets of the West and called for their downfall. Now, people in country after country have risen to topple their leaders—and Al Qaeda has played absolutely no role. In fact, the motley opposition movements that have appeared so suddenly and proved so powerful have shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers. So for Al Qaeda—and perhaps no less for the American policies that have been built around the threat it poses—the democratic revolutions that have gripped the world’s attention present a crossroads. Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high? For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, though not all, the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda…” 
In Scott Shane’s article, the sole dissent he registered to this extraordinarily optimistic view came from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who warned about the release of imprisoned jihadists and al-Qa’ida’s ability to expand its geographic reach.  Of Scheuer’s dissenting view, Shane recalled in his later book Objective Troy that he thought at the time: “But surely, … Scheuer’s spoilsport take on the surge of young Muslims demanding democracy and the fall of despots must be wrong.”  The giddiness over the Arab Uprisings extended also to the Obama White House, as well as the CIA. 
As with the competition between al-Qa’ida and ISIS, the Arab Uprisings did not turn out as the consensus of analysts believed it would. And as with that intra-jihadist competition, misreading the impact of the revolutions proved costly.
The Wrong Toolkit
We need to understand how the VNSA problem set has often been misdiagnosed because the fundamental question, what do we do about it?, cannot be answered without acknowledging this record of analytic error. Are analysts taking the necessary steps to get vital questions about VNSAs right in the future? Contrary to Huang’s argument, today’s VNSAs are very different than those of the past. Contemporary VNSAs are truly a twenty-first century problem. We are combating them with a twentieth century governmental architecture, and analytic errors are one outcropping of our outmoded system.
One of the analogies I frequently use to contextualize the competition between VNSAs and the state is that of start-up companies against legacy industries in the economic sphere.  In the economic sphere, behemoth companies like Borders Books or Blockbuster have been completely displaced by younger competitors. Why?
Borders Group, Inc. was once a bookselling empire. At its peak in 2005, the company operated over 1,200 stores across the globe, boasted revenues of $4 billion a year, and employed around 15,000 people.  Six years later, it was gone, shuttering the last of its stores. Ironically, the same thing that initially made Borders successful—technological innovation—proved to be its undoing. In 1971, Louis and Tom Borders, two brothers who attended the University of Michigan, devised the “Book Inventory System,” which allowed them to tailor their stores’ inventory to local consumer preferences. The brothers used this innovation to open new stores across the country, and across the world. 
The Borders brothers eventually sold the company, and it ended up behind the technology curve. Borders did not launch a website until 1998, three years after Amazon.com appeared. When the chain tried to adopt new technologies, it seemingly failed to understand their purpose. In 2008, Borders launched a program that would allow customers to download books and music, but only if the customers physically entered the chain’s bookstores and used “download stations”—thus undercutting the purpose of online shopping. Borders collapsed in the face of challenges from e-books, Amazon, and even Barnes and Noble, its more adaptive brick-and-mortar competitor.
The fall of Borders is a powerful sign of how legacy companies—established firms that possess strong brand names, but fail to adapt to the new business environment—can fail outright in an age of rapid technological innovation. Other dominos include Blockbuster (displaced by Netflix) and Eastman Kodak, a name once synonymous with photography, which was sent reeling by digital photography.  One legacy company after another ended up the victim of outmoded business models, too much bureaucracy, too much overhead, too little innovation and adaptation, and, often, blind adherence to tradition. Start-up firms thrived: sleek and agile companies that could respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities of new technologies. Start-ups upended the status quo.
This is obviously analogous to the forces transforming global politics, where VNSAs have been able to quickly evolve, adapt, and cleverly exploit emerging technologies. VNSAs can be seen as the start-up actors of the political organizing space. Governments, in turn, look a lot like legacy industries.
So what do we do about this? The first step, I think, is recognition of the underlying problem. Getting smarter against VNSAs is not a simple matter of crafting laundry lists of one’s preferred policies, or divining the ever-elusive counterterrorism grand strategy. Rather, it involves recognition that the design of our government is ill-suited to this challenge.
Lao-tzu observed in the Tao Te Ching that, “knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.”  When it comes to VNSAs, the fact that we do not know ourselves impedes our understanding of the enemy. To have a twenty-first century toolkit, we must have a government architecture that is equal to the present challenges.
 Reyko Huang, “The Islamic State as an Ordinary Insurgency,” Monkey Cage, May 14, 2015,
 See Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Nathaniel Barr, “Bloody Ramadan: How the Islamic State Coordinated a Global Terrorist Campaign,” War on the Rocks, July 20, 2016,https://warontherocks.com/
 For more on this model, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Madeleine Blackman, “ISIL’s Virtual Planners: A Critical Terrorist Innovation,” War on the Rocks, January 4, 2017,https://warontherocks.com/
 Clint Watts, “One Year Later, ISIS Overtakes al Qaeda: What’s Next?,” Geopoliticus (Foreign Policy Research Institute), April 8, 2015, available at http://www.fpri.org/2015/04/
 Letter from Usama bin Ladin to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, May 2010, SOCOM-2012-00000019, available at http://www.jihadica.com/wp-
 Letter from Atiyah Abd al-Rahman to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, date unknown, SOCOM-2012-0000016, available at http://www.jihadica.com/wp-
 Letter from unknown al-Qa’ida official, date unknown, SOCOM-2012-0000009, available athttp://www.jihadica.com/wp-
 See discussion in Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Nathaniel Barr, “Extreme Makeover, Jihadist Edition: Al-Qa’ida’s Rebranding Campaign,” War on the Rocks, September 3, 2015,https://warontherocks.com/
 See David Andrew Weinberg, “Terror Financiers ‘Operating Openly’ in Qatar and Kuwait,” FDD Policy Brief, February 14, 2017, http://www.defenddemocracy.
 Scott Shane, “As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al Qaeda Sees History Fly By,” New York Times, February 27, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/
 I made similar arguments at the time. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror (New York: Wiley, 2011), pp. 185-88.
 Scott Shane, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015), p. 273.
 For discussion of the White House’s view, see ibid. For discussion of the CIA’s view, see Michael Morell, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism from al Qa’ida to ISIS (New York: Twelve, 2015). Morell recalled that his agency “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage al Qa’ida by undermining the group’s narrative. Our analysts figured that the protests would send a signal throughout the region that political change was possible without al Qa’ida’s leading the way and without the violence that al Qa’ida said was necessary.”
 For my most comprehensive treatment of this analogy, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “The Lean Terrorist Cell: How Startup Companies and Violent Non-State Actors Are Changing the Old World Order,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Summer/Fall 2016.
 Tiffany Kary, “Borders to Seek Approval of Deal with Books-A-Million,” Bloomberg Business, July 1, 2011.
 Ben Austen, “The End of Borders and the Future of Books,” Bloomberg, November 10, 2011.
 Dawn McCarthy and Beth Jinks, “Kodak Files for Bankruptcy as Digital Era Spells End to Film,” Bloomberg, January 19, 2012.
 Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), § 33
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Jacob Zenn, Nathaniel Barr, “Islamic State 2021: Possible Futures in North and West Africa,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) Press, February 2017
Thomas Ruttig, Milo Comerford, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “US Policy in Afghanistan: What to Expect Under Trump,” Centre for Religion and Geopolitics, February 6 2017.
Can Trump scale back involvement in Afghanistan while keeping his inauguration pledge to ‘eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth?’ Three analysts have their say.
In his inauguration speech, President Donald Trump vowed to ‘eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth.’ At the same time, he has expressed a desire to draw back US presence in conflict zones where the US is engaged in fighting Islamist extremists. When it comes to Afghanistan, where the US has long been involved in efforts against the Taliban, the president has said little publicly regarding future policy, though a recent report indicates he told Kabul he would consider a troop increase.
Can Trump scale back involvement in Afghanistan while keeping his inauguration pledge? And how would a decrease in US involvement affect the situation on the ground? Three analysts weigh in.
A US drawdown would worsen Afghanistan’s crisis – Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Though President Donald Trump vowed to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth” in his inaugural address, I would not take that promise as a pledge against which his administration’s efforts can be judged. There are serious questions about whether violent jihadism can ever be fully eradicated “from the face of the earth” (as opposed to being reduced from a serious strategic challenge to a more marginal problem), but even if one thinks this is possible, it’s not going to happen in four or eight years. There are too many hot spots where jihadis control territory or have significant operating space — including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia — and too many challenges are associated with each of these theatres, and others, to make Trump’s statement anything but a rhetorical flourish.
Understanding Afghanistan as part of this problem set, the effect of a decrease in US involvement would, bluntly, be to pull the Band-Aid back from Afghanistan’s problems. It would bleed out more quickly.
Bill Roggio recently detailed the escalating pace at which the government in Kabul is losing ground to the insurgency. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has documented, Roggio writes, that Kabul now “controls or influences just 52 percent of the nation’s districts today compared to 72 percent” in November 2015. This bleak situation will grow markedly worse, and quickly, with a US drawdown.
But simply leaving troops in the country will not do the trick. The growing losses there to the Taliban insurgency are happening despite the current US troop presence, and the US’ Afghanistan policy has been functionally adrift since the end of US General McChrystal’s surge period, when 33,000 US troops were deployed. Keeping the fight away from the headlines is not a viable political or military strategy. American political leadership has seemingly decided that it does not want to lose in Afghanistan, but is not willing to make the commitments necessary to win.
This listlessness is emblematic of the broader US strategy in its fight against major transnational jihadi organisations. Whether you are optimistic about the Trump presidency or believe it will be a disaster, there is promise — as well as peril, of course — in how it represents a break from business as usual. Whether this break will result, in this administration or another, in processes and thinking that can more effectively tackle the growing challenge posed by violent non-state actors remains to be seen. But we are all players in that tale.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Chief Executive Officer of Valens Global.
There are two sides to the Afghan coin – Thomas Ruttig
Afghanistan seems to feature on the new US administration’s political agenda only as a possible theatre for making true on the vow, from Trump’s inauguration speech, to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism.” What that might look like, the already controversial 29 January anti-al-Qaida raid in Yemendemonstrated – including the number of civilian casualties caused and the not too apologetic White House reaction to this fact.
Although it is the arena of America’s longest war, analysts had to rely for months on old tweets and side remarks during his election campaign to read the new US president’s possible intentions on Afghanistan. In a 2015 CNN interview, he “begrudgingly” admitted that he might need to keep troops in the country. He reportedly reiterated that position on the phone with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in December 2016.
Begrudgingly or not, this looks like continuity of a policy that has not worked. Even 140,000 western troops were unable to defeat the Taliban. Instead, their pounding forged them into what US intelligence analysis repeatedly called a “resilient” force that made significant gains in 2015 and 2016. Only fighting and even defeating them would not do the trick if the Trump administration wants to prevent the country from turning back into a terrorists’ haven. It is even doubtful that the Taliban is the right target; the group would likely not host international jihadi terrorists ever again – the last thing it would like, if coming to power again, is the attention of the outside world.
The other side of the coin if Washington pulls the financial plug for the most aid-dependent country in the world is not even state breakdown. The danger is that its fragmented elites would continue haggling over which faction gets which position in the still highly ineffective, corrupt, and disunited ‘unity government’ – instead of addressing the biggest problem of all, that Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries on earth, with the poverty gap deepening, despite the post-2001 one trillion dollar investment by the international community.
This is linked to a lack of functioning institutions, the third dimension in Afghanistan’s systemic crisis. Although the holding of elections had been a (somewhat superficial) yardstick for Afghanistan’s progress over the past 17 years, it has been neglected that by June 2015 parliamentary polls should have been held. A realistic date is not on the horizon even now. Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming a facade democracy even less responsible to its electorate.
The nitty-gritty detail of a policy to fix this cannot be conducted through the remote control of a drone.
Thomas Ruttig is a co-director and senior analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (Kabul/Berlin).
Trump may just might provide fresh thinking on Afghanistan – Milo Comerford
Whilst Donald Trump’s promise to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism” raised some eyebrows in the analyst community, more alarming for the future of Afghanistan is the president’s inaugural pledge to reassess “subsidising the armies of other countries” and “defending other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.”
There exists an incongruity in prioritising the defeat of extremism, while seemingly declaring intent to draw back support for countries battling the very insurgencies that breed this global phenomenon. It remains to be seen what Trump’s yo-yo-ing between hawkish assertiveness and skeptical isolationism means for America’s ‘long war’ in Afghanistan.
But the election of Trump also opens up a new geopolitical paradigm that could provide new opportunities for peace in Afghanistan. His vow to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilised world” was widely seen as being a nod to closer alliances with Russia in countering extremism. Although Syria has commanded the headlines, this possibility is especially relevant for Afghanistan, where Russia has substantially increased its engagement with the Taliban, still the main enemy of the US-backed administration, to curve the power of ISIS in its Central Asian sphere of influence.
While some observers are framing such machinations as a reboot of the ‘Great Game’ for geopolitical capital in the region, it is conceivable that closer counter-extremism ties with Russia, alongside unprecedented weakness in the jihadi movement’s leadership, may in fact hasten appetite for a Taliban peace deal.
Trump’s relationship with Pakistan will prove hugely influential for his Afghanistan strategy. The profound interconnection of militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region means that effective collaboration with Islamabad will be instrumental to tackling the Taliban, and to a lesser extent, ISIS, threat. The new president has called Pakistan and its citizens “beautiful” in a call to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, setting a new course from his Republican predecessors, and both countries are notable in their absence from the recent refugee ban.
However, it is ultimately Trump’s very unpredictability that is encouraging some on the ground in Afghanistan. America’s longest war requires fresh thinking, and for many, a Trump administration might provide just that.
Rukmini Callimachi, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar,” The New York Times, February 4 2017.
Featuring quotes and analysis from Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bridget Moreng, and Nathaniel Barr.
HYDERABAD, India — When the Islamic State identified a promising young recruit willing to carry out an attack in one of India’s major tech hubs, the group made sure to arrange everything down to the bullets he needed to kill victims.
For 17 months, terrorist operatives guided the recruit, a young engineer named Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, through every step of what they planned to be the Islamic State’s first strike on Indian soil.
They vetted each new member of the cell as Mr. Yazdani recruited helpers. They taught him how to pledge allegiance to the terrorist group and securely send the statement.
And from Syria, investigators believe, the group’s virtual plotters organized for the delivery of weapons as well as the precursor chemicals used to make explosives, directing the Indian men to hidden pickup spots.
Until just moments before the arrest of the Indian cell, here last June, the Islamic State’s cyberplanners kept in near-constant touch with the men, according to the interrogation records of three of the eight suspects obtained by The New York Times.
As officials around the world have faced a confusing barrage of attacks dedicated to the Islamic State, cases like Mr. Yazdani’s offer troubling examples of what counterterrorism experts are calling enabled or remote-controlled attacks: violence conceived and guided by operatives in areas controlled by the Islamic State whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet.
In the most basic enabled attacks, Islamic State handlers acted as confidants and coaches, coaxing recruits to embrace violence. In the Hyderabad plot, among the most involved found so far, the terrorist group reached deep into a country with strict gun laws to arrange for pistols and ammunition to be left in a bag swinging from the branches of a tree.
For the most part, the operatives who are conceiving and guiding such attacks are doing so from behind a wall of anonymity. When the Hyderabad plotters were arrested last summer, they could not so much as confirm the nationalities of their interlocutors in the Islamic State, let alone describe what they looked like. Because the recruits are instructed to use encrypted messaging applications, the guiding role played by the terrorist group often remains obscured.
As a result, remotely guided plots in Europe, Asia and the United States in recent years, including the attack on a community center in Garland, Tex., were initially labeled the work of “lone wolves,” with no operational ties to the Islamic State, and only later was direct communication with the group discovered.
While the trail of many of these plots led back to planners living in Syria, the very nature of the group’s method of remote plotting means there is little dependence on its maintaining a safe haven there or in Iraq. And visa restrictions and airport security mean little to attackers who strike where they live and no longer have to travel abroad for training.
Close examination of both successful and unsuccessful plots carried out in the Islamic State’s name over the past three years indicates that such enabled attacks are making up a growing share of the operations of the group, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
“They are virtual coaches who are providing guidance and encouragement throughout the process — from radicalization to recruitment into a specific plot,” said Nathaniel Barr, a terrorism analyst at Valens Global, who along with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington wrote one of the first articles discussing the virtual plotters.
“If you look at the communications between the attackers and the virtual plotters, you will see that there is a direct line of communication to the point where they are egging them on minutes, even seconds, before the individual carries out an attack.”
Detailing this kind of plot direction has become a critical focus of counterterrorism officials in the United States and Europe, as they try to track terror planners who pose a lasting threat and to unravel the criminal networks that the group uses as middlemen to facilitate attacks.
Mr. Yazdani’s case presents one of the most detailed accounts to date of how the Islamic State is exporting terrorism virtually. This style of attack has allowed the terrorist group’s reach to stretch into countries as disparate as France and Malaysia, Germany and Indonesia, Bangladesh and Australia. And plots have been discovered in multiple locations in the United States, including in Columbus, Ohio, the suburbs of Washington and upstate New York.
“I fear this is the future of ISIS,” said Bridget Moreng, an analyst whose research on the virtual plotters was recently published in Foreign Affairs.
A Diverse Portfolio
Until roughly a year ago, Islamic State recruiters aggressively pushed the message that going to Syria was a spiritual obligation. They described the physical journey as a “hijrah,” the Arabic word used to refer to the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to escape persecution in Mecca, imbuing the act with religious meaning.
The recruiters hid within an ocean of 2.3 billion live social media accounts, flooding the internet with romanticized videos of life inside the caliphate, as well as brutal execution videos, using them as clickbait to lure potential recruits.
One of the Islamic State’s most influential recruiters and virtual plotters was known by the nom de guerre Abu Issa al-Amriki, and his Twitter profile instructed newcomers to contact him via the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Among those who sought him out, asking for instructions on how to reach Syria, was Mr. Yazdani, who had convinced himself that it was his religious duty to move his family to the caliphate.
By 2015, Amriki was one of close to a dozen cyberplanners based in Syria or Iraq who were already actively recruiting volunteers abroad, according to a tally based on investigation records from North America, Europe and Asia.
Initially, they made little effort to hide, posting grandiose threats against the West on public social media feeds. They were sometimes discounted as mere cheerleaders for the terrorist group.
But by the late spring of 2015, they were considered enough of a threat that both American and British intelligence began tracking their movements, methodically targeting them with airstrikes and killing several since then.
Among them was Amriki himself, who was killed along with his wife on April 22, 2016, when a bomb flattened their apartment in Al Bab, Syria. The Pentagon press secretary, Peter Cook, identified him as a Sudanese citizen also known as Abu Sa’ad al-Sudani, and described him as one of the Islamic State’s “external attack planners” who “actively sought to harm Western interests.”
The Department of Defense’s account showed, moreover, that the handler had been involved in far more than just the Hyderabad case, planning attacks on three continents.
At the same time that he was recruiting Mr. Yazdani, Amriki was grooming attackers in Canada and Britain, as well as at least three other young men in suburbs across America, according to court records. They included a former member of the Army National Guard living in Virginia; a warehouse worker from Columbus; and Emanuel L. Lutchman, a 25-year-old in Rochester.
Looking for ways to get to Syria, Mr. Lutchman reached out to Amriki on Dec. 25, 2015, asking what it was like to live inside territory controlled by the group. “Dream come true,” Amriki responded, before telling the young man that the Syrian border had been closed, according to the criminal complaint.
Instead, the handler suggested that Mr. Lutchman carry out an attack right at home on New Year’s Eve — less than a week after their first exchange. Plan an “operation” and kill “1000000s of kuffar,” Amriki instructed him, using a derogatory Arabic word meaning infidel. Over the course of several chats via the Telegram service, they planned how Mr. Lutchman would attack a bar serving craft beer to celebrate the holiday, prosecutors say.
The two men discussed recruiting three other “brothers” to take part. They stayed in contact as Mr. Lutchman went to Walmart, where he spent $40 on two ski masks, two knives, a machete, zip-ties, duct tape and latex gloves. He planned to abduct one of the bar’s customers and videotape himself killing the victim, prosecutors say.
And they exchanged a flurry of messages, as the 25-year-old began to voice doubts and the handler assumed the role of therapist, patiently listening and reassuring him.
Mr. Lutchman was arrested at his home the day before his planned attack on Merchants Grill in Rochester, outed by the accomplice he had recruited, who turned out to be an F.B.I. informant.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Lutchman had been communicating with the handler for a total of five days. It appears he never heard his handler’s voice, or saw so much as a photograph of him, according to the court filings.
By late 2015, travel to Syria had become treacherous. Intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic were getting better at identifying aspiring jihadists, arresting dozens as they prepared to board flights for Istanbul in hopes of crossing into Syria. At first, Islamic State operatives instructed recruits to throw off law enforcement by taking more indirect routes. They also began urging followers to head to other Islamic State colonies, including in Libya.
That was what law enforcement officials said a young man from Columbus, Aaron T. Daniels, was trying to do in November, when he was arrested while trying to board a United Airlines flight to Houston, from where he would travel to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, before continuing toward Libya.
No longer describing the journey to Syria as a spiritual necessity, the Islamic State announced last year that those who could not reach the caliphate should attack at home.
“If the tyrants have closed in your faces the door of hijrah, then open in their face the door of jihad,” the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, said in a message released in May.
At the time Amriki was killed last April, he had been exchanging messages with Mr. Yazdani in India for more than a year, patiently offering encouragement as his recruit tried and failed to get a visa first to Greece, and then to Turkey in an effort to reach Syria.
One of eight children, Mr. Yazdani, who is now 30, grew up in a cramped apartment in the slum of Aman Nagar B, in a narrow alley that smells of sewage in Hyderabad’s Old City. He beat the odds, earning an engineering degree and landing a job as a quality inspector in Saudi Arabia for nearly four years, before returning to India.
While abroad, he began watching the Islamic State’s online propaganda, and soon he became consumed by a desire to leave it all for the caliphate.
“Since then, I was inclined to join Islamic State and work for the cause of religion,” Mr. Yazdani told investigators from India’s National Investigation Agency, according to his interrogation record, which was obtained by The Times and was first reported by NDTV, a New Delhi-based television company.
He logged into Twitter and searched the hashtags #ISIS and #Khilafa, the terrorist group’s preferred spelling of caliphate. In a few keystrokes, he made contact with Amriki.
“I created a Telegram ID,” Mr. Yazdani told investigators, “and sought his guidance to reach Syria.”
After months of frustrating and failed attempts to help Mr. Yazdani get a visa, Amriki’s directions changed course: “He asked me to work for I.S. by staying in India itself.”
It was a period in which the Islamic State was refining the way it exports terror, increasingly relying on cyberplanners with local knowledge. Just before his death, Amriki handed off Mr. Yazdani to a different handler, known only by his Telegram screen name, “WindsofVictory.” His identity has not yet been confirmed by Indian officials, though they believe he is Indian because he spoke fluent Hindi.
The new handler guided the eight-member cell as it took shape, exchanging messages with Mr. Yazdani as the engineer recruited his family members and friends. They named themselves “Jund-ul-Khilafa-Fi-Bilad-Hind,” the Army of the Caliphate in India, according to the interrogation records, which misspelled part of the Arabic name.
At the end of May, Mr. Yazdani received a message telling him to go to the Nanded Airport, about 200 miles away. He and an accomplice, Habeeb Mohammed, 31, drove all night. After they reached the airport the next morning, the handler told them to head to the Railway Division Office. Near that office, he said, they would see a plastic bag hanging from a tree, according to the transcripts of the men’s interrogations.
“It was informed by the handler that opposite to DRM office, there are two trees and on one of the trees there would be a white color polythene sheet (used for wrapping fragile articles),” Mr. Mohammed told investigators. “We spotted the place, and I, first on the pretext of urinating, went to check for the consignment.”
When they opened the bag, they found two pistols and 20 bullets, according to their account to law enforcement. It was one of at least four drops that the handler set up for them.
Because the pistols were rusted, they say the handler instructed them to travel to the railway station in the city of Ajmer, about 600 miles to the north. This time they were told to bring 65,000 rupees — around $1,000 — and leave it near the railway track sealed in a plastic bag, which would be picked up and used as payment for weapons.
Because the communication always had to go through the handler, the members of the Hyderabad cell never directly interacted with the arms seller. When they were arrested, they could not provide any clues as to who had left the contraband, Indian investigators said.
The Hindi-speaking handler guiding the men in Hyderabad also insisted on using a kaleidoscope of encrypted messaging applications, with Mr. Yazdani instructed to hop between apps so that even if one message history was discovered and cracked, it would reveal only a portion of their handiwork.
As soon as Mr. Yazdani indicated he was willing to undertake an attack, the handler instructed him to download ChatSecure, a messaging app to be used when they spoke by phone. When he used his laptop, he was told to contact the handler via Pidgin, another encrypted tool. He was told to create an account with Tutanota, a secure email service. And the handler taught Mr. Yazdani how to use the Tails operating system, which is contained on a USB stick and allows a user to boot up a computer from the external device and use it without leaving a trace on the hard drive.
Once that system was in place, the handler told Mr. Yazdani to prepare a handwritten oath of allegiance, known as a “bayah,” to the Islamic State’s leader.
Members of the cell signed it using their noms de guerre, and Mr. Yazdani was told to scan it to his laptop, using Tails to obscure the operation. Next, he was told to upload it to www.gulf-up.com, which allows users to upload files and produces a URL that can be shared with a third party. The link to the URL was to be sent via the secure email.
By methodically working through URLs archived on the website, The Times was able to find the image of the one-page handwritten document containing the Indian men’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. The file was uploaded around the time that Mr. Yazdani told investigators he had done so, and the document matched his description of the wording he had disclosed to the authorities. Until they were alerted to its existence, Indian investigators were not aware that the document was still archived on the website, they said.
The men’s families have denied that they played any role in a terrorist plot, and accuse the authorities of planting evidence against them.
One Indian investigator, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said officials were able to crack the full extent of the case only because Mr. Yazdani and his accomplices confessed during interrogation, divulging the passwords to their accounts after their arrests last summer.
Though the Hyderabad case is among the most detailed in showing how Syria-based handlers directly facilitated terrorist attacks abroad, it is neither the first, nor the only one. Investigation documents from Europe show that a growing share of attacks bear signs of contact with the Islamic State’s stronghold, even though the attacker was initially described as acting alone.
The first time that officials in Europe described an attack as having been “télécommandé,” or remote-controlled, was in the spring of 2015 after a young information technology student named Sid Ahmed Ghlam tried to open fire on a church in the Paris suburb of Villejuif. Instead, he shot himself in the leg.
When the police searched his car, they found his Lenovo laptop containing a series of messages showing how he, too, had been guided by a pair of handlers who provided both the weapons and the getaway car, according to hundreds of pages of police and intelligence records obtained by The Times.
“OK, brother, now pay attention,” one of the messages begins, instructing the then-23-year-old to head to the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where he would find the automatic weapons in a bag left in a locked car parked near a sandwich shop. “Search among the cars that are parked there near the big road and look for a Renault Mégane,” the message said. “Look at the front right tire — you’ll find the keys placed on top.”
The handler then instructed him to store the weapons in another car in a parking garage 10 miles away, a precaution in case his apartment was searched.
Later, French investigators said they had found that Mr. Ghlam’s handlers were French citizens who had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. They, in turn, tapped their criminal network back in France to arrange the logistics of Mr. Ghlam’s plot.
Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said the handlers were essentially “quarterbacking” the attack: “They’re from there, so they can essentially tell someone, ‘O.K., go 10 yards and go this way.”
Wiretaps, interrogation records and transcripts of chats recovered on suspects’ phones and laptops show that this level of guidance has occurred all over the world.
In Germany, a man who set off a bomb outside a concert and a teenager who assaulted train passengers with an ax were both chatting with handlers until minutes before their attacks. The teenager’s handler urged him to use a car instead of an ax — “The damage would be much greater,” the handler advised — but the young man said he did not have a driving permit. “I want to enter paradise tonight,” he said, according to a transcript obtained by a German newspaper.
In northern France, a pair of attackers who had been guided by an Islamic State cybercoach slit the throat of an 85-year-old priest. The pair had not known each other, and according to the investigative file, the handler introduced them, organizing for them to meet days before the attack. Intelligence records obtained by The Times reveal that the same handler in Syria also guided a group of young women who tried to blow up a car in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
And investigations into attacks in Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh reveal that the recruits were directly communicating with Islamic State handlers who molded the plots as they took shape and helped arrange logistics, in some cases wiring money.
In several, a pattern has emerged: The attacker initially tries to reach Syria, but is either blocked by the authorities in the home country or else turned back from the border. Under the instructions of a handler in Syria or Iraq, the person then begins planning an attack at home.
Law enforcement officials describe that sequence of events in one of the most recent foiled attacks in France, where a group of people are accused of plotting to hit the popular Christmas market in the city of Strasbourg, having been given the GPS coordinates of a location to pick up weapons. At least one of the five men arrested so far had been turned back from Turkey, French prosecutors said.
While a reliance on local amateurs has allowed the Islamic State to announce that it can stage terrorism around the world, it has also led to many failed attacks.
Instead of opening fire on a church, Mr. Ghlam shot himself in the leg. Instead of laying waste to a music festival this past summer, the Islamic State recruit in Germany detonated his bomb prematurely, killing only himself.
The same thing happened the day before the end of Ramadan on July 2 inside a police compound in Indonesia, where another remotely guided attacker hit the switch on his crudely assembled suicide vest.
“He didn’t even knock over the flowerpot on the ledge next to where he blew himself up,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
Indonesian officials say that the suicide bomber had been incited to attack by Bahrun Naim, a 33-year-old Indonesian man who is now one of the Islamic State’s most prolific cyberplanners, operating from the group’s capital in Raqqa, Syria.
Initially, Mr. Naim wired money to families in Indonesia to pay for travel to Syria, officials said. Later, the bank transfers he sent were to be used to buy the chemicals needed to build explosives, according to the interrogation records of his recruits.
In just over a year, the young men with whom he was in touch attempted at least six attacks, targeting a police post, a Buddhist temple and a church, as well as foreigners visiting the country. In November, a college dropout who the police said had at least been initially in contact with Mr. Naim was arrested as he prepared to attack the embassy of Myanmar. In his home, the police recovered a quantity of explosives that could have resulte in a blast twice as powerful as the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people, the police spokesman told local news media.
Yet nearly all of the plots attributed to Mr. Naim have failed. And it was human error that finally led to the arrest of Amriki’s followers in Hyderabad.
The plot began to unravel in June after the men were instructed to collect a 10-kilogram bag of ammonium nitrate left beside a canal next to mile marker No. 9 on the Vijayawada Highway.
They returned to Mr. Mohammed’s home to begin preparing a bomb, but could not figure out how to replicate the steps in the instructional YouTube video sent to them by the handler. “We could not succeed in making powder, as it became jellylike paste,” Mr. Yazdani lamented, according to the transcript of his interrogation.
They tried using a tea strainer. They tried heating it longer. They began talking on their cellphones about their efforts to “cook the rice.”
By then, the police were wiretapping their calls and suspected that all the food talk was a crude attempt at misdirection. Early on June 29, the police banged on the door of Mr. Mohammed’s home.
In his bedroom, they found the half-cooked explosive in his refrigerator.
Nathaniel Barr, “The Islamic State’s Splintering North Africa Network,” World Politics Review, January 30 2017.
With the self-proclaimed Islamic State besieged in Mosul and on the defensive in parts of Syria, the future of the group’s network beyond its core territory has been thrown into question. At its peak in 2014 and early 2015, the Islamic State established affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa that it labeled “provinces,” or wilayat, rapidly increasing its operational reach and influence. But with its senior leadership now facing considerable pressure in both Iraq and Syria, it is unclear whether the Islamic State will be able to maintain communications and organizational ties with these affiliates abroad. Moreover, as the Islamic State continues to lose territory, its allies may try to distance themselves from the group’s flagging brand.
The Islamic State’s recent travails in North Africa offer a telling snapshot of the challenges it is likely to face in maintaining its global presence. In the past six months, it has suffered both military defeats and defections in North Africa, leaving its network in the region fragmented. The biggest blow to its regional ambitions was the loss of the central Libyan city of Sirte, the Islamic State’s most promising outpost beyond Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, jihadi factions in Tunisia and Algeria, facing intense pressure from state security forces, are wavering in their commitments. These developments will likely benefit al-Qaida, which is positioning itself to absorb the Islamic State’s defectors.
The defeat in Sirte derailed the Islamic State’s North African expansion strategy. Sirte had been its primary hub in North Africa, with the group investing considerable resources in the city. In 2015 and early 2016, senior leadership sent several high-ranking officials from Syria and Iraq to reinforce operations there, including Abu Omar al-Shishani, at the time the Islamic State’s most influential military commander; Turki al-Binali, a prominent religious official; and Abu Ali al-Anbari, who is believed to have served as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputy until his death in March 2016. The Islamic State reportedly redirected several hundred foreign fighters originally destined for Syria and Iraq to Libya. These measures suggest that the Islamic State viewed Sirte as a beachhead from which to expand its presence into other parts of North Africa—and possibly even as a fallback option should Raqqa and Mosul fall.
Sirte also functioned as a command-and-control hub for the Islamic State’s activities in Africa, with the leadership there providing strategic guidance, and possibly material support, to provinces elsewhere on the continent. Though information on links between Sirte and other “provinces” is limited, multiple sources alleged that the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, a jihadi group based in northern Nigeria, answered to a Libya-based commander and sent dozens of militants to fight in Libya. Sirte-based commanders also likely supervised Islamic State operations in Sebratha, a town in western Libya that became a hub for militants planning operations in Tunisia. Similarly, Egyptian security officials claimed that Wilayat Sinai militants received instructions from Libya.
The Islamic State’s collapse in Sirte could constrain the group’s efforts to preserve ties with its remaining followers in North and West Africa. Without the city, the Islamic State’s central command may find it difficult to communicate with supporters in the region. It may also struggle to provide material support to its allies, as it no longer controls a territorial sanctuary in North Africa from which to deploy militants, weapons and funds. This could, in turn, result in the fragmentation of the group’s network in North and West Africa; if militants in the region are unable to communicate with the Islamic State’s central leadership, they may become disillusioned and break away from the group.
Evidence suggests that militant factions in North Africa are already reconsidering this relationship. Jihadis aligned with the Islamic State in both Tunisia and Algeria have reportedly weighed the possibility of joining—or, in some cases, rejoining—al-Qaida. Challenges in communication after the fall of Sirte may have factored into the militants’ calculations, though there is no open-source information indicating that this is the case. Another possibility, however, is that Islamic State factions in the region are experiencing a case of “buyers’ remorse” as they watch the group’s physical caliphate slowly contract. Indeed, opportunistic jihadis may feel increasingly tempted to jump ship and find another patron.
This may be the case in Algeria, where al-Qaida has sought to capitalize on the Islamic State’s setbacks. El Khabar, an Algerian media outlet, reported last August that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had initiated a program, known as Munasahah, or rehabilitation, in which al-Qaida clerics communicated with Algerian Islamic State members, often via SMS, and tried to persuade them to join al-Qaida. The clerics have convinced at least 10 Algerian militants to defect, according to El Khabar. With the Islamic State on its last legs in Algeria—dozens of its fighters, including the group’s Algerian emir and several other top commanders, were killed by the Algerian military in 2015—al-Qaida may view the rehabilitation initiative as an opportunity to absorb the Islamic State’s remaining network in the country.
Al-Qaida may have found a similarly fertile recruiting ground among pro-Islamic State factions based in the mountains of western Tunisia. The Tunisian news source Akher Khabar reported last May that some Islamic State supporters wanted to join Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi (KUIN), al-Qaida’s Tunisian affiliate, because the Islamic State affiliate in the western mountains was struggling to raise revenue and move weapons and materiel between different cells. Tunisian security officials independently confirmed in private discussions that some militants in the western mountains are now seeking an alliance with KUIN, and that the balance of power in the region has shifted decisively in al-Qaida’s favor. These developments demonstrate that although the Islamic State was able to win over a sizable number of Tunisian foot soldiers, it never succeeded in crippling al-Qaida’s organizational structure in the country.
It would be premature to sound the death knell for the Islamic State in North Africa. Though the group lost its Sirte stronghold, dozens or perhaps even hundreds of fighters escaped the city and will likely seek to rebuild their networks elsewhere. Indeed, the group’s forces in Libya already seem to be reorganizing; on Jan. 18, U.S. aircraft bombed Islamic State training camps located in a “remote desert area” south of Sirte, killing as many as 85 militants.
But with the Islamic State on the ropes in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Libya, the group’s North African network is prone to splintering and internal discord. As the Islamic State struggles to present an image of strength globally, and as it experiences difficulties in resourcing its provinces outside Syria and Iraq, its North African allies will be increasingly likely to seek alternative sources of support. This isn’t necessarily limited to North Africa: Militants in Afghanistan, West Africa and the Sahel—three key areas where the Islamic State has tried to extend its influence—may develop similar doubts about remaining with a group whose global appeal is waning. If that happens, al-Qaida will be waiting in the wings, ready to exploit its rival’s decline.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Jacob Zenn, ‘Terrorists, Insurgents, Something Else? Clarifying and Classifying the “Generational Challenge,” Lawfare Blog, January 15 2017.
The Trump administration’s appointments have signaled that it will continue to prioritize the fight against jihadist violent non-state actors (VNSAs)—a broad term that we find far more useful than an exclusive focus on terrorist groups, but a term in desperate need of clarification. In this article we provide a taxonomy of VNSAs that can be used to produce more rigorous discussion of them.Beyond the challenge of jihadism, various VNSAs are likely to play a greater role in world politics in the coming years. Weakening states, ecological challenges, and rapid technological innovation, among other factors, have allowed non-state actors to challenge the power of nation-states in a way that has not been possible in recent history. As Sean McFate demonstrates in The Modern Mercenary, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 didn’t end states’ reliance on private armies, but rather marked the beginning of a transition from the dominance of private military force to the ascendance of state military primacy that “was gradual, spanning centuries.” By the 20th century, the world had reached a period of absolute nation-state dominance.
But in the early 21st century, the dominance of nation-states is declining dramatically, and analysts are often uncertain what to call, or how to understand, these sub-state entities that are displacing nation-states’ monopoly on geopolitical power. This is typified by discussion of the Islamic State (ISIS), the extraordinarily powerful VNSA that once controlled a geographic area around the size of Britain. (Yes, ISIS is in steep decline today.) On the one hand, Reyko Huang has argued that ISIS is an “ordinary insurgency,” and described its control of territory as “typical among rebel and terrorist organizations.” In contrast, J.M. Berger wrote that ISIS “is not simply a hybrid organization, it is a hybrid of hybrids…. It is a proto-state, but also an insurgency, and also a terrorist network.”
This confusion over ISIS is typical of the debate on VNSAs—different definitions are scattered throughout the literature and often conflict with one another. But our study of VNSAs has revealed significant commonalities among various types of these actors; we believe they can be understood as part of a natural spectrum.
We provide a set of twelve VNSA typologies in a series of five spectrums, which can be used to categorize the VNSAs that are most relevant today:
The five spectrums are color-coded along a partial Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet sequence. They are organized by the VNSAs’ relationship with the state, with the red spectrum (TIIP) being the most eager to uproot and replace the state (or, at least, to force changes in its policies), while the blue spectrum is most amenable to state power.
The red spectrum is called TIIP, referring to the three categories of VNSAs contained therein: terrorism, insurgency, and insurgency-plus. In almost all cases, TIIP VNSAs seek to overthrow, weaken, or extract concessions from state actors. We place ISIS in the insurgency-plus category, which refers to VNSAs that have taken on significant state-like qualities.
Terrorism, insurgency, and insurgency-plus can be seen as part of a spectrum if you look at the actors’ objectives. Most terrorist groups hope to trigger a state overreaction against the community they claim to represent, and thus engender more support for their cause. In this way, they hope to grow into insurgencies.
Insurgencies, in turn, hope to gain control of territory. They want to grow from insurgent movements into a dominant, governing force. In the era of decolonization, pro-independence insurgencies would later become the governments of newly independent nation-states. This was true in Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Indonesia, Mozambique, and Tunisia, among others. But some more contemporary actors, like ISIS, might look like states but have no apparent desire for international recognition as such. The typology they aspire toward is that of insurgency-plus.
The most notable change in dynamics for TIIP VNSAs in recent years is their increasingly innovative use of social media, which allows them to gain a transnational reach more quickly than ever. Although ISIS’s international expansion was often overstated, the fact that it gained 37 wilayats (provinces) across the world within two years of its declaration of a caliphate legitimately represented an unprecedented speed of expansion. ISIS also leveraged its social media proficiency, and the boom in end-to-end encryption that made electronic communications much more secure, to use a “virtual planner” model of launching terrorist attacks across multiple countries, including its unprecedented Ramadan offensive last summer.
The orange spectrum, Criminality, includes smugglers, gangs, and cartels. Actors in the Criminality spectrum operate contrary to state law, but unlike those in the TIIP spectrum, they generally don’t seek war with the state—though there are recent exceptions to this rule, such as Los Zetas. Because entities in the Criminality spectrum are primarily profit-seeking, war with the state can be an inefficiency that detracts from their ability to make money.
Gangs in particular are a growing concern in the Western hemisphere, and are driving irregular migration patterns. In El Salvador, for example, Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has been at the center of a skyrocketing murder rate and forced displacement crisis, and similar patterns can be seen in Guatemala and Honduras. As The Guardian reported:
In El Salvador, people are fleeing—and dying—at the same rate now as they did during the country’s 12-year civil war in which 1 million were forcibly displaced and 75,000 were killed. Last year, 6,657 people were murdered and violence forced at least 23,000 children to abandon school, in a country of 6 million people.
The yellow spectrum is Cyber. While almost every major VNSA will have some cyber capabilities in the future, the Cyber spectrum is distinct in that it is composed of VNSAs that only operate in the online environment. There are no doubt questions about whether actors operating entirely in the online space can in fact be considered violent, but extant definitions in the literature suggest that it is fair to understand them this way. Bruce Hoffman’s classic work Inside Terrorism defines terrorism as an act that is “violent—or, equally important, threatens violence” (emphasis added). The disclosure of personal information without consent can fit this definition.
At the high end of these disclosures is “doxing,” in which a victim’s personal information—often including physical address, social security number, credit card numbers, or even private passwords—is splashed online for all to see. Doxing has become more prominent in the past few years. It has been prominently employed by the cyber-vigilante group Anonymous, as well as by some members of the alt-right against the movement’s perceived enemies. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, an individual claiming to act in the name of Anonymous doxed a person whom he believed to be Brown’s killer. As it turned out, he doxed the wrong guy. ISIS has also publicized the addresses of members of the U.S. military, trying to incite attacks against them.
Even disclosures short of doxing can present the threat of violence. Ethiopian journalist Argaw Ashine was forced to flee his country after being cited in a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. The Committee to Protect Journalists described Ashine’s case as the first time a cable released by WikiLeaks “caused direct repercussions for a journalist.”
The green spectrum, Interest Groups, includes the typologies of self-protection groups, warlords, and local power brokers. Actors in the Interest Groups spectrum often have a neutral or even positive relationship with the state. Insurgent and terrorist groups, particularly those with uncompromising ambitions like ISIS, may pose a greater threat to actors in the Interest Groups spectrum than does the state. (In contrast to ISIS, al-Qaeda has made a point of ingratiating itself to actors in this spectrum as part of its rebranding and localization initiative.)
Illustrating the potential durability of actors on this spectrum, some of the most powerful warlords in Afghanistan have been in positions of influence for decades, such as General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is now Afghanistan’s vice president. Dostum, whom the U.S. State Department has described as “the quintessential warlord,” has been barred from entering the United States.
The blue spectrum is the Status Quo spectrum, as these actors tend to explicitly align with the state against other VNSAs. Actor types in this spectrum include counter-opposition VNSAs, state proxies, and private military companies (PMCs) and mercenaries. Of these typologies, only counter-opposition VNSAs is likely to be unfamiliar to readers as a term, though it is certainly familiar as a concept. A prominent recent example of a counter-opposition VNSA was the Sahwa (Awakening) movement in Iraq, which helped expel ISIS’s predecessor from the country’s Anbar Province. Today, the predominantly Shia popular mobilization units in Iraq serve a similar function, despite their sectarian differences from the largely Sunni Sahwa movement.
PMCs are typically employed by state actors, and thus are included in the Status Quo spectrum. The United States made prominent use of PMCs during the Iraq war, and today Russia is using PMCs to aid its intervention in Syria. An African PMC played a pivotal role in ousting Boko Haram from the territory it controlled in northeastern Nigeria in 2015. Despite their inclusion in the Status Quo spectrum, it is worth raising the alarming possibility that hyper-rich individuals could become more prominent buyers in the market for private force.
As VNSAs continue to grow in prominence, we will increasingly see different typologies playing prominent roles on various sides of armed conflicts. We can see VNSAs at the forefront of the Syria conflict, including ISIS, the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Hezbollah, Kurdish militant groups, rebel groups, pro-Assad militias, and PMCs. Similarly, different kinds of VNSAs have been prominent in the conflict in Nigeria.
Our hope is that our taxonomy of VNSAs can help analysts and scholars to better conceptualize the range of VNSA types and the relationships among them. They are too often lumped together as “terrorist” groups, but as this spectrum makes clear, doing so oversimplifies the function of distinct VNSAs. The approach we offer clarifies how the range of VNSA types differ in function, relate to one another, and relate to the state.
We hope that the foregoing discussion provides a framework for analyzing various types of VNSAs, and in that way can help to advance this still-nascent field.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Madeleine Blackman, ‘ISIL’s Virtual Attack Planners: A Critical Terrorist Innovation,’ War on the Rocks, January 4 2017.
On December 19, Anis Amri plowed a hijacked truck through the Christmas market in one of Berlin’s main public squares, killing 12 people. The following day, the Amaq News Agency of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack. Although some characteristically skeptical commentators suggested that ISIL could just be taking credit for an attack to which it had no real connection, the militant group left no doubt four days later when it released a video showing Amri pledging his loyalty to ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Investigators also determined that Amri had communicated with ISIL operatives at least once, through the encrypted Telegram messaging app.
Although much remains unknown about Amri’s case, it bears many of the hallmarks of ISIL’s “virtual planner” model of managing lone attackers. In this model, operatives who are part of ISIL’s external operations division coordinate attacks online with supporters across the globe. Most of these supporters have never personally met the ISIL operatives they are conspiring with. Most of ISIL’s prominent virtual planners appear to be based in the group’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, in large part due to proximity and access to ISIL’s top leadership. But since the main equipment that virtual planners require is an Internet connection and good encryption, they could theoretically operate from other geographic locations. Being geographically dispersed carries greater risk of detection, but particularly as ISIL continues to decline as a territorial entity, the emergence of prominent virtual planners operating from outside the Syria-Iraq theater is likely.
The virtual planner model has revolutionized jihadist external operations. ISIL has taken advantage of recent advances in online communications and encryption to engineer a process by which the group’s top operatives can directly guide lone attackers, playing an intimate role in the conceptualization, target selection, timing, and execution of attacks. Virtual planners can offer operatives the same services once provided by physical networks. This model has helped transform lone attackers who rely heavily on the Internet from the bungling wannabes of a decade ago into something more dangerous. This model has proven especially dangerous in combination with ISIL’s embrace of calls by thinkers like Abu Musab al-Suri to launch attacks with any means available: It is easier to drive a car into a crowd or launch a stabbing spree than, say, a strike the Pentagon with an explosives-laden model airplane. Further, the virtual planner model allows ISIL to maximize the impact and propaganda value of attacks waged in its name, making sure they are seamlessly incorporated into the group’s overarching strategy. At the same time, this model avoids many of the risks associated with physically training operatives.
Why hasn’t the virtual planner model been seen until fairly recently? Couldn’t al-Qaeda have done this earlier? They tried, but failed. This was for two reasons. First, as alluded to above, al-Qaeda tended to prefer complex attacks that were more easily bungled or disrupted. Second, the virtual planner could not be effective without such recent developments as the total pervasiveness of social media and especially the boom in end-to-end encryption (without which virtual planner-led plots would essentially be disrupted every time). But important questions remain. What does ISIL’s virtual planner paradigm mean for lone attackers? Is the model likely to be adopted by other militant groups? What can authorities do to counter this model and out-adapt the jihadists?
ISIL’s Highly Structured External Operations
The virtual planner model is an integral component of ISIL’s robust, highly structured external operations division. This infrastructure has thus far lacked the high-end ambitions in its terrorist attacks outside the caliphate’s territory that al-Qaeda displayed in the 9/11 attacks or the 2006 transatlantic air plot. However, ISIL has demonstrated an unprecedented ability to coordinate sustained campaigns in various theaters across the globe.
The Amniyat al-Kharji is a highly organized, hierarchical structure within ISIL charged with selecting and training external operatives, and conducting terrorist operations outside ISIL’s core territory. Before his death, it was led by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, one of ISIL’s top officials. It is not possible to determine from open sources how involved Adnani was in planning attacks before he ended up on the receiving end of a U.S. airstrike. Some reporting describes Adnani’s management of the Amniyat as relatively hands-on, while some U.S. government analysts believe he served as more of a rubber stamp.
Regardless of Adnani’s degree of involvement as head of the Amniyat, it is clear that most of the day-to-day work has fallen to Abu Sulayman al-Faransi, a 27-year-old hailing from Morocco who was born Abdelilah Himich. Faransi manages and oversees a group of operatives who can be described as theater commanders, who are responsible for operations extending from Europe to Southeast Asia. These theater commanders are given specific geographic areas of responsibility according to their nationality and linguistic capabilities, and are tasked with planning attacks in those areas.
Virtual planners have been integrated into this geographical command structure, and function much like theater commanders, but in the cyber realm. ISIL’s virtual planners are also assigned areas of responsibility according to their nationality and linguistic skills, and tasked with actively recruiting and handling attackers from these areas.
The decision to assign virtual planners to geographic areas with which they are familiar allows them to reach back to contacts still involved in the domestic militant scene. For example, in April 2015, Australian police disrupted a cell plotting an attack on Anzac Day, a day of remembrance for armed forces from Australia and New Zealand. The leaders of the cell were in regular contact with ISIL’s Australian virtual planner, Neil Prakash, who reportedly helped to formulate the plot. According to police, both Prakash and the plotters had links to Melbourne’s al-Furqan center, a controversial Islamic center because it is seen as a hub for militancy. After departing for ISIL’s caliphate, Prakash allegedly encouraged some young militants to likewise make their hijra there, while directing others to instead stay behind and carry out attacks.
Sometimes ISIL’s theater commanders function interchangeably as virtual planners. This is the case for Bahrun Naim, one of ISIL’s top Indonesian militants. In September 2016, Indonesian police disrupted a cell in Batam coordinating with Naim to launch a rocket attack on Marina Bay. Authorities said that members of the Batam cell “had been measuring elevation points and the distance from the hill to their target in Singapore,” while Naim planned to deploy technicians thereafter to make explosives and prepare for the attack.
Inspiration vs. Organization
Prior to ISIL’s emergence, al-Qaeda often used its propaganda and public statements to try to inspire lone individuals to carry out attacks. Anwar al-Awlaki, an official and propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), became notorious for using the Internet to call for “lone wolf” attacks. Awlaki hoped that lone wolf attackers would complement rather than replace al-Qaeda’s centrally directed plots — some of which, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomb plot, Awlaki himself helped to plan.
Through his public statements, particularly his infamous YouTube sermons, Awlaki mobilized a large number of people: According to the Counter Extremism Project, Awlaki’s videos and writings have influenced around 90 known extremists in the United States and Europe — some even after a U.S. airstrike took Awlaki’s life in 2011. Recent plots influenced (at least in part) by Awlaki include the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and 2015 San Bernardino attack, the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and the September 2016 bombings in New York and New Jersey. Yet despite his skill as an inspirational figure, all Awlaki could do was put out the call and hope someone would take up arms in response.
ISIL’s virtual planner model is an outgrowth of, and improvement upon, Awlaki’s approach. ISIL’s virtual planners have the potential to cast a wider recruitment net than Awlaki. Awlaki was, of course, a product of the age of mass communication and global interconnectivity, but even his superb oratorical skills could not match the feelings of “remote intimacy” with people halfway across the world that can be fostered through social media, or the volume and two-way nature of communications that medium allows. Indian intelligence officials believe that ISIL’s South Asia virtual planner, Yusuf al-Hindi, was in touch with over 800 Indians through Facebook and WhatsApp. It seems that none of ISIL’s propagandists or virtual planners possess the same kind of raw magnetism that Awlaki has for English speakers, but they have the advantage of exploiting a medium that is simply more engrossing due to the constant contact it allows.
This continuous contact may allow a higher recruitment rate than the essentially one-way communication of video postings. By building an “intimate” relationship with the potential attacker, the virtual planner provides encouragement and validation, addressing the individual’s doubts and hesitations. Virtual planners can replicate the same social pressures that exist in in-person cells. As Peter Weinberger of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism put it, “People will get in these chat rooms and they will feel like they have a relationship with someone. That’s where the peer-to-peer contact is drawing them in.” None of this is meant to diminish the importance of in-person recruiting networks, where social pressures are likely more acute than in the online environment. But there isn’t always an in-person network in place that can interact with potential operatives. People can simply wander into searchable online networks, rather than having to be identified and carefully socialized by in-person networks that must act covertly. And unlike physical networks, the virtual planner model does not risk the capture, or even death, of the network’s key operatives.
Individuals inspired by ISIL may directly reach out to virtual planners for guidance and assistance in carrying out attacks. Junaid Hussain, a former British hacker turned terrorist, shows how virtual planners can coach domestic militants. The operative Junead Khan had been on British counterterrorism authorities’ radar since 2014. Originally Khan planned to travel to the caliphate, but in early 2015 he changed his mind and began to focus on carrying out a domestic attack, using his job as a delivery man to scope out U.S. military bases in Britain. In July 2015, Khan exchanged several messages with Junaid Hussain over Surespot, discussing the logistics of various possible plans of attack. At one point, Hussain sent Khan a bomb-making manual, and told him to make and use explosives against police who arrived on the scene of his attack.
Though Khan was arrested before he could strike, this case illustrates how virtual planners can provide all the services that used to be characteristic of only physical cells.
Beyond recruitment and operational guidance, virtual planners can bring disparate individuals and cells together to form larger attack networks. In September 2016, French authorities arrested a group of female terrorists who had carried out the failed plot to set off a car bomb near Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. (One of them stabbed a police officer outside the Boussy-Saint-Antoine rail station as authorities made the arrest.) Before the attempted attack, none of the women had had any type of relationship with one another. They were brought together by ISIL’s European virtual planner, Rachid Kassim.
In connecting the women, Kassim merged two different lines of terrorist effort in two different parts of France based on one operative’s reluctance to carry out a particular kind of operation. Sarah Hervouët, a 23-year-old convert to Islam who was planning an attack in the southeastern French commune of Cogolin, had been communicating with Kassim over Telegram. Acting on Kassim’s orders, Hervouët drafted her will, wrote farewell letters to relatives, and made a video proclaiming her allegiance to ISIL. But she lost her appetite for the operation that Kassim envisioned for her, a “suicide-by-police” attack. So Kassim connected her with two other women preparing to carry out an attack in Paris instead.
Though the women failed to carry out the dramatic attack that Kassim hoped for, this case demonstrates the speed and agility with which virtual planners can operate. Kassim not only convinced four women to carry out violent attacks in ISIL’s name, but also rapidly adapted his plans to the preferences of his operatives and merged two deadly projects to increase the likelihood of success.
ISIL’s virtual planners allow the group to effectively seize ownership over what would previously have been considered lone wolf attacks. By creating a bridge between potential militants and the organization, virtual planners empower lone actors to fulfill ISIL’s objectives while requiring minimal resources from the organization. Virtual planners transform these individuals into ambassadors for ISIL’s brand, and soldiers who can advance its strategic aims. Each attack showcases ISIL’s global reach. In this way, virtual planners help maximize the psychological and reputational effects of violence committed in ISIL’s name.
The success of the virtual planner model underscores jihadist groups’ ongoing process of organizational learning. Just as we saw an evolution from al-Qaeda’s original calls for lone wolf attacks to the methods employed by Anwar al-Awlaki, ISIL’s approach marks another fundamental shift.
The model, of course, is not without its limitations. The lack of in-person training is a disadvantage, as operatives often lack the expertise to perfectly execute their handler’s commands. And cells directed by virtual planners are at a greater risk of being detected by SIGINT, despite advances in end-to-end encryption.
Nonetheless, the virtual planner approach is a low-cost, high-reward strategy with enormous destructive potential, especially as ISIL and other terrorist groups continue to develop and refine the model. Thus far, adaptations in jihadists’ external operations efforts are outpacing states’ efforts to find effective ways to counter them.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Jonathan Schanzer, ‘Trump Wants To Shake Up The World Order? Here’s Where He Should Start,’ Politico Magazine, December 11 2016.
The specifics have often fluctuated, but the core of Donald Trump’s foreign policy vision has remained steady. He believes, as the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright has noted, “that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II.”
For some of the alliances that Trump has questioned, such as NATO, critics fiercely contend that the president-elect underestimates the benefits flowing to the United States. But there is a class of messy, increasingly complicated foreign-policy relationships that the Trump administration would do well to reconsider: Middle East countries that simultaneously act as U.S. allies, adversaries and enemies.
Why should we care about these relationships now? Trump’s election has put many of the U.S.’ relationships into focus in a way they have not been in a long time. He has questioned the value of some of the U.S.’ longstanding alliances, and regardless of one’s politics, it would be a mistake to write off such inquiries.
As the Trump administration prepares to take office, the chance exists to not only reset some relationships, but also to reconsider them. We’re now more than 15 years past the 9/11 attacks and the start of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. In a few weeks, we’ll mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. The world has changed substantially in that time, and it’s acceptable—healthy, even—for the U.S. to reevaluate some of its longtime partnerships.
This is especially true in the Middle East. Not only does this region bear the clearest nexus to the issue the U.S. has most prioritized in its foreign policy this century—the threat of terrorism and insurgent violence from militant Islamist groups—but it is also home to some of America’s thorniest relationships, which are only growing more complicated. Central to changing the course of these relationships is distinguishing between an ally, adversary and enemy.
Donald Trump really wants to shake up the world order? He should start here, with the countries that fit all three categories at once.
The definition of an ally needs little explanation, but the distinction between adversary and enemy is worth briefly unpacking. When a state is an adversary, there is a clash of interests or values, but room for compromise—today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally. In contrast, an enemy is a country that seeks our total defeat, and we seek the same in return.
For decades, these categories among states were fairly cut and dried. But in the post-9/11 order, an increasing number of countries can be characterized as “all of the above.”
Pakistan is a prime example. Just before the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan had become an international pariah due to its test of a nuclear weapon in 1998 and the military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power. But the 9/11 attacks transformed Pakistan into a vital strategic partner due to its proximity to Afghanistan.
In America’s war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistan was arguably both our most critical ally and deadliest state enemy. Pakistan allowed U.S. and NATO planners to route supplies for military operations in Afghanistan through its territory, shared valuable intelligence with the U.S., and received billions of dollars in aid. Yet at the same time, Pakistani intel services supported the Taliban and other insurgents, and bear direct responsibility for the deaths of American servicemen. How Pakistan functioned as an adversary at the same time it was a close U.S. ally is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that, for several years, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hid at a compound in Abbottabad, less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, almost certainly with Pakistani knowledge. Distrust ran so high that the U.S. government famously chose not to notify Pakistan before carrying out the May 2011 raid that killed bin Laden, fearing that the Al Qaeda leader might learn of the imminent strike. Today, the nation continues to serve as a sponsor for dangerous terrorist groups.
Similarly fraught and worthy of the Trump administration’s scrutiny is the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. There have been, of course, mutual advantages to the U.S.-Saudi partnership: During the Cold War, the U.S. provided a “security umbrella” over Saudi Arabia and other regional monarchies to prevent Soviet incursions, while Saudi Arabia kept its oil flowing and served as a regional bulwark against communism.
But there have also been significant costs. For decades, Washington has looked the other way while Saudi petrodollars have funded schools, charities and other institutions that spread the intolerant and often-violent Wahhabi ideology that helps to fuel jihadism. In its global propagation of the Wahhabi creed, Saudi Arabia is second to none in the Muslim world. To be sure, the Saudis have made some progress—terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia has declined, but it has not ceased—but hateful Wahhabi teachings continue worldwide.
There is also the wealthy Gulf emirate of Qatar, which hosts the massive Al-Udeid Air Base, arguably America’s most important strategic asset in the Middle East and home to the United States Central Command’s forward headquarters. But at the same time, U.S. officials have been alarmed by Qatari stances—during the “Arab Spring,” the nation had a strong preference for uprisings that supported Islamist groups—and by its actions, which include allowing the Taliban and other militant groups to set up offices in Qatar, and hosting and financially backing the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Mounting evidence suggests that Qatar is supporting salafi jihadist groups, especially in Syria. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front) is chief among them. This matters because “regional” jihadist groups rarely confine themselves to their own regions. Rather, their objectives and alliances with other jihadists tend to grow over time, thus magnifying the key strategic challenge that the U.S. has struggled so mightily to confront over the past decade and a half.
In the hazy realm of U.S. allies and adversaries in the Middle East, the most recent—and alarming —new addition to the list is Turkey. Once viewed as a stalwart member of NATO and a staunch secular American ally, the country has become increasingly hostile to Washington as its leadership steers in a more Islamist and authoritarian direction. It has supported jihadist-leaning fighting groups in Syria, and Al Qaeda figures have used Turkey as a safe haven. Turkey is home to a large headquarters for Hamas, and it engaged in a massive illicit financial scheme that helped Iran evade sanctions at the height of that country’s nuclear crisis.
Under successive presidencies, American policymakers have somehow convinced themselves that the U.S. needs these Mideast countries more than they need us. Thus, the U.S.’ response to the action of “frenemies” has often been muted—even when American lives were on the line.
As Trump’s administration prepares to take office, America’s reliance on so-called allies that pose direct or indirect threats to Americans must change. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed time and again to renegotiate bad agreements and establish better terms for our country. Here’s a great place to start.
March 1, 2016: Thomas Joscelyn on the slow release of Osama bin Laden’s trove of documents.
Available through the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ website here.