Publications and Media
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Manchester Attack Shows How Terrorists Learn,” The Atlantic, May 23, 2017
Yesterday’s terrorist attack that struck at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Britain’s Manchester Arena—leaving 22 people dead and 59 injured, by the latest count—feels perhaps even more callous and personal than other such recent atrocities. As The New York Times noted, the target was “a concert spilling over with girls in their teens or younger, with their lives ahead of them, out for a fun night.”
For Europe, the attack, now claimed by ISIS, represents a continuation of a nightmare scenario: The pace and deadliness of terrorist attacks in the continent has reached levels unprecedented in the post-9/11 era, with the heinous and grotesque becoming frighteningly routine.
Even five years ago, specialists could count the major post-9/11 attacks in Western countries on one hand, and knew every date on which they had been perpetrated. They were known by names like 3/11 or 7/7 (references to attacks in Madrid and London, respectively).
Over the past three years, though, there has been an explosion in the frequency of terrorist attacks against Western countries, and in the lethality of these events. From a brutal urban-warfare-style assault on Paris in November 2015 (130 dead) to the March 2016 bombings at the Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek metro station (32 dead), to a cargo truck plowing through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on a promenade in Nice (86 dead), to a truck striking a Christmas market in Berlin (12 dead), and now to an Ariana Grande concert, the message is that no place—no matter how familiar, beloved, or associated with the young and innocent—is truly safe. And there are so many other, recent examples. A priest whose throat was slit in the middle of a service in Normandy. An attacker in Magnanville who killed a couple, then turned on Facebook Live while menacing their three-year-old child. A suicide bomber who struck outside a concert in Ansbach, Germany, wounding 15.
The very events that would end up propelling the current spike in terrorist attacks were widely misread about six years ago as the solution to jihadism. When CNN’s Fareed Zakaria claimed in March 2011 that the revolutions that had swept across the Arab world at the beginning of that year represented “a total repudiation of al-Qaeda’s founding ideology,” he was articulating a near-consensus view. Peaceful revolutions brushing aside authoritarian governments and ushering in newly democratic regimes were supposed to show that the violence of jihadist movements was unnecessary. These views were shared not only by pundits, but by U.S. government analysts. In his memoir The Great War of Our Time, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell regretfully explained that his agency “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage [al-Qaeda] by undermining the group’s narrative.”
In fact, the Arab revolutions and their aftermath provided the jihadist movement an unparalleled boost. The extraordinarily bloody civil war in Syria and the post-Muammar Qaddafi wreckage left behind in Libya have placed jihadists on the front lines of some of the world’s major conflicts. ISIS was able to use social media to popularize its cause—a sickening mirror of the way protesters turned out to oppose Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—while also relying on physical networks like those associated with Khalid Zerkani or Sharia4Belgium to move devotees to its Syria-Iraq sanctuary. Jihadists’ newfound ability to reach broader audiences over social media in more intimate ways coincided with the global boom in end-to-end encryption, allowing ISIS to pioneer the “virtual planner” model of directing operatives from afar.
Those who predicted the decline of jihadism in 2011 missed several things. Most important, perhaps, is the sheer innovativeness and adaptability of major jihadist groups. For jihadist organizations, the ability to innovate is a necessity, not a luxury. Terrorist groups have a “fundamental organizational imperative” to learn, as the preeminent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman noted in his classic book Inside Terrorism. As they face an array of internal and external challenges—the most significant being the existential threat they confront from state actors—these groups must adapt quickly and creatively or suffer the consequences.
Across a range of organizations—not just militant groups—organizational learning occurs when the knowledge that an individual gains can be transferred into broader organizational knowledge. One example of this is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s notorious bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who was able to transfer his extraordinary technical knowledge to the organization as a whole. This is reflected in the concerns expressed by security experts several years ago that al-Asiri’s knowledge had been transferred from Yemen to the Syria theater. When knowledge is disseminated through an organization’s memory in this way, the organization is “no longer dependent upon the original learner,” and can impart knowledge to others within the group, according to Mick Beeby and Charles Booth. This process is particularly essential for jihadist groups that suffer from high levels of attrition, and thus must quickly encode new techniques into their organizational DNA or risk losing them.
New technology provides an additional impetus and accelerant of organizational learning within the jihadist movement. New technologies, including communications platforms and systems that can be fashioned into weapons, such as ever-improving consumer drones, are introduced at a dizzying rate. Reporting from Iraq, Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio recently noted ISIS’s ominous use of drones: “ISIS had also made deadly adaptations to its use of drones, Iraqi officers said. In the first days of the battle for western Mosul, they were being employed with newfound intensity, swarming Iraqi positions, disrupting operations, and inflicting casualties. The drones dropped more than 70 bombs on one sector alone in a span of just two days, commanders said.”
Many of the significant advantages new technologies have presented to militant groups do not represent true leaps of innovation, but, rather, intuitive applications of widely available technologies that have come to market. ISIS established an impressive apparatus for making itself omnipresent on social media before Twitter got serious about shutting down pro-ISIS accounts, but establishing a real social media brand is what twenty-first century organizations do. The virtual planner model fused two major technological trends—social media and improvements in encryption—but was fundamentally consistent with developments in online learning. Even ISIS’s aforementioned use of armed drones to repel Iraqi forces that are advancing on Mosul had been foreseen by experts (who, truth be told, had come up with even more inventive uses than those that ISIS ultimately made of the drones).
In the case of Manchester, there is much we don’t yet know, but many of the answers related to the attack may circle back to methods of organizational learning. How did the attacker sneak his bomb past the tight security that had been employed at Manchester Arena? How did he build the IED in the first place? Was he assisted by accomplices on the ground in Britain—or perhaps by technical experts advising him from their perch in Syria? Had the attacker been in touch with planners in an organization like ISIS to try to integrate the attack into a militant group’s broader war strategy?
European politicians don’t have good answers to the problem of terrorism right now. Often, it is regarded as “the new normal,” something we will just have to live with and die with for years to come. But as technology marches on—with 3D printing, increasingly capable consumer drones, growing vulnerabilities to hacking, and the like—there is the worrying prospect that tomorrow will be worse than today.
We should not, in the future, underestimate militant groups as learning organizations. And at the same time, the innovativeness of terrorists and the organizations in whose names they act should serve as a critical mirror.
They are growing increasingly adept at killing us. Are we as inventive about saving lives? Or do bureaucracy, inertia and failures of our own imagination stand in the way?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “AQIS Fits Into al-Qaeda’s Global Strategy,” The Cipher Brief, April 14, 2017
While al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) may be regionally focused, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says “that doesn’t mean AQIS can be divorced from al Qaeda’s aspirations to attack the West.” In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Gartenstein-Ross also said he believes the group may be looking to expand into Myanmar.
The Cipher Brief: What is your assessment of the threat Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) currently poses in South Asia?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: In the region, AQIS is a highly significant group. This is an assessment that’s shared by top officials within the U.S., such as General John Nicholson, Commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, who talked about this recently in an interview with CTC Sentinel.
AQIS was formally announced in September 2014, but its origins go back before the formal announcement. Al Qaeda has had longstanding relationships in the region for some time, as is well known. The center of gravity for al Qaeda, and for its senior leadership, was in Afghanistan-Pakistan and South Asia for around 15 years, so the group maintained longstanding relationships, not just in the post-9/11 world but also prior to the 9/11 attacks. They were able to cultivate strong ties with sectarian and Kashmir-focused militant factions, and the network spans several countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
In terms of their actual output, looking at AQIS’ operations, there may not be a whole lot visible to the naked eye that suggests that they are a major force. But if one looks under the surface, there is a lot more going on than terrorist attacks alone might indicate. For example, in October 2015, U.S. forces in Afghanistan raided an AQIS camp in Kandahar Province, which spanned 30 square miles. It was an enormous camp.
Further, AQIS has a relationship with the Taliban, and not all of the group’s operations are terrorist attacks. Some of its fighting is insurgent-style warfare designed to advance the Taliban’s objectives. As General Nicholson said, AQIS helps the Taliban in its operations, and it gets a quid pro quo in return, in that the Taliban helps to cement AQIS’ presence inside of Afghanistan.
TCB: What is the level of coordination between AQIS and core al Qaeda?
DGR: As General Nicholson has said, there is a linkage between AQIS and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Major U.S. military raids have turned up a considerable amount of information on AQIS. The best example is the October 2015 raid, which I mentioned before. This operation in Kandahar uncovered a 30 square mile AQIS camp, one where AQIS and the Taliban were said to be coordinating. In that raid, the U.S. discovered a lot of material, which provided information about the inner workings of AQIS and its coordination with core al Qaeda. It has been publicly revealed that there is coordination between the two, but the documents that provide insight are classified and are not publicly available at present. So the answer is that there is coordination, but the details cannot be assessed yet.
TCB: How are governments in the region working to combat this threat?
DGR: Currently, efforts to combat the group appear to be conducted on a country by country basis, although there may be some coordination. To date, there is no announced unified effort outside of occasional agreements between countries in the region that already cooperate on intelligence and the like. The fact that India and Pakistan – two countries where AQIS has a presence – are at odds with each other, to put it mildly, certainly impedes efforts at coordination.
TCB: Do you see AQIS expanding further eastward or to additional countries in the region?
DGR: I believe that AQIS will try to expand to Myanmar. The Rohingya issue has loomed large in al Qaeda’s messaging. There is one quite visible (though not necessarily large) militant organization currently operating in Myanmar, Harakah al-Yaqin, though it’s not clear if that group is linked to outside organizations. But given al Qaeda’s messaging about Myanmar, I suspect AQIS will make a play to move into that space.
TCB: Who are AQIS’ primary targets? Does the group aim to attack the West, or is it more regionally focused?
DGR: Right now it is regionally focused, but that doesn’t mean AQIS can be divorced from al Qaeda’s aspirations to attack the West. The targets AQIS is choosing in Bangladesh appear consistent with al Qaeda’s playbook in Tunisia, which is a good example of how al Qaeda tries to move a theater from disparate dawa efforts on the part of some of the jihadists, all the way to an active battlefield. (Obviously, Tunisia is not an active battlefield today, but it has seen much more jihadist violence, and has become a much more dangerous country in this regard since the revolution.)
Early on, one thing that an al Qaeda affiliated group in Tunisia called Ansar al Sharia (AST) undertook was violence that can be regarded as “hisba” violence. “Hisba” is a difficult term to translate, but it relates to the notion of “commanding right and forbidding wrong.” So in undertaking hisba attacks in Tunisia, AST was trying to appeal to people who were religious conservatives or who had extremist tendencies. They targeted secularist politicians. Other hisba attacks focused on things that were viewed as blasphemous or religiously questionable. (Though it is difficult to assess attribution for many of the hisba attacks that occurred prior to AST’s ban in 2013, they were consistent with AST’s strategy at the time.) There were attacks on restaurant, bars, and Sufi shrines.
Similarly in Bangladesh, the targeting of atheist bloggers and of people with open LGBT identities should be understood as hisba violence. As in the case of Tunisia, hisba violence is not the end in an of itself. It’s not the stopping point. It’s early targeting, which is designed to rally sympathy for their cause because the targets are seen as acceptable by the audience AQIS is appealing to – people who reject God, or who are critical of Islam, or who identify as LGBT. AQIS’s constituency is people who they think that targeting these groups is justified.
In terms of further targeting, how they expand and where the West plays a role may differ from one county to another. In Tunisia, the jihadists pretty quickly moved on to attacks against Western tourists, such as the notorious 2015 Sousse massacre, which killed 38 people along the beach, including 30 British citizens. That attack served a dual purpose: killing Europeans is an end in itself for jihadists, but it also significantly hurt the Tunisian tourist economy.
Right now a number of al Qaeda’s affiliates are regionally focused, because they have a lot of opportunities in the regions where they operate. But the fact that al Qaeda has more regional opportunities now doesn’t mean that it has given up its ambitions to strike at the U.S. and the West. It hasn’t given up those ambitions.
So given the relationship between AQIS and al Qaeda’s senior leadership, the most persuasive reading, bearing in mind the limitations of available evidence, is that AQIS fits into al Qaeda’s global strategy. They have designs for the region, but they also have more global designs that include the West. To that extent, I don’t see regional violence as truly separate from their plans to combat the West. Obviously, al Qaeda killing people in Bangladesh (such as the atheist bloggers or LGBT people) does not pose an immediate threat to the West, but it’s still part of a broader set of designs that the group has. The killings that al Qaeda is perpetrating now in the region are tragedies in themselves, but can also be seen as canaries in a coal mine.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Lone Wolves No More,” Foreign Affairs, March 27 2017
The tactics used by British terrorist Khalid Masood in his horrifying attack on Wednesday outside London’s Parliament were typical of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS: an attacker plowing a vehicle through a crowd of pedestrians before slashing at police officers with a knife. Soon after the strike, ISIS claimed credit, although it did not provide any details that weren’t already public.
The generic nature of ISIS’s comments encouraged some skeptics. London’s Independent, for example, claimed that the phrasing of the group’s statement suggests that it “did not directly orchestrate [the] atrocity.” But skeptics’ voices have been noticeably quieter than in the past. The caution that commentators generally exhibited by refraining from declaring ISIS uninvolved in the London attack stood in stark contrast, for example, to the reaction to last summer’s truck attack in Nice—when observers immediatel
Not So Lonely
When my colleague Nathaniel Barr and I wrote “The Myth of Lone-Wolf Terrorism” in these pages shortly after the Nice attack, our purpose was to challenge a then-dominant reflex among observers: declaring single-attacker terrorist incidents to be the work of so-called lone wolves. (These are individuals who lack substantial connections to ISIS or other groups and carried out their operations without the assistance of others.)
In fact, we argued, previous lone-attacker plots often had some organizational involvement—and ignoring that fact was costly. As intrepid journalist Rukmini Callimachi reported in the New York Times last year, a series of attacks in Europe from 2014–15 carried out by men including Sid Ahmed Ghlam and Ayoub El-Khazzani were written off at the time as the work of lone wolves. They were, in fact, anything but: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who later served as the ground commander of the November 2015 Paris attacks that claimed 130 lives, had directed Ghlam, Khazzani, and several others to carry out strikes in Europe even as he prepared the Paris operation. Because counterterrorism analysts and officials viewed Ghlam, Khazzani, and other attackers as unrelated to one another or to broader networks, they missed their best chance to identify ISIS’s operational infrastructure in Europe prior to the Paris operation.
Commentators did not immediately absorb the lesson from this failure. Barr and I were alarmed that, following the Nice attack and in numerous other instances (for example, a July 24 suicide bombing in the German city of Ansbach and the July 26 slaughter of a priest in the French city of Rouen), analysts, journalists, and scholars were quick to label each perpetrator as a lone wolf.
Over the past nine months, however, the public understanding of the strikes has demonstrably shifted. There is growing awareness that individuals labeled lone wolves are often in communication with other militants, sometimes using encrypted services. In several prominent cases, the lone attackers communicated with “virtual planners”—ISIS operatives, often based in Syria, who offer would-be terrorists all the services once provided by physical networks. Enabled by a combination of social media and the recent boom in end-to-end encryption, virtual planners scout for recruits, work to radicalize and spur them to action, provide operational guidance, and even give operatives critical technical assistance, such as advice on the construction of explosives.
Emblematic of the virtual planner model is the late French national Rachid Kassim, whom analyst Bridget Moreng has profiled in Foreign Affairs. In September 2016, French authorities arrested a group of female terrorists who attempted (and failed) to set off a car bomb near Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. (One of them stabbed a police officer outside a rail station as authorities made the arrest.) Before this plot, none of the women had any relationship to each other. They had been brought together by Kassim.
In connecting the women, Kassim merged two lines of terrorist effort in different parts of France. And it was all because of one operative’s cold feet. Sarah Hervouët, a 23-year-old Muslim convert who was planning an attack in the commune of Cogolin, had been in communication with Kassim using the app Telegram app. Acting on Kassim’s orders, Hervouët drafted her will, wrote farewell letters to relatives, and made a video proclaiming her allegiance to ISIS. But she lost her appetite for the “suicide-by-police” attack that Kassim had envisioned for her. So he connected Hervouët with the other two women, forming a cell that would undertake a more traditional plot involving explosives. Although these operatives ultimately failed to carry out the attack that Kassim had hoped for, the case demonstrates the agility with which virtual planners can operate. Kassim, for his part, has had a notable share of successes, having orchestrated several gruesome plots that claimed innocent lives.
The virtual planner model has helped transform lone attackers who rely heavily on the Internet from the bungling wannabes of a decade ago to something much more dangerous today. Virtual planners allow ISIS to maximize the impact and propaganda value of attacks waged in its name, making sure they are seamlessly incorporated into the group’s strategy.
A New Sense of Caution
In a groundbreaking article for the New York Times last month, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots from Afar,” Callimachi outlined the phenomenon of virtual planners in painstaking detail. Similarly, the most recent issue of CTC Sentinel, published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, features an article comprehensively examining virtual planners’ role in U.S. plots.
Of course, it is unclear at this point whether Masood was connected to ISIS’s virtual planners, a true lone wolf, or something else. At 52 years old, he doesn’t fit the profile of a young operative radicalized over social media, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have figured out how to use encrypted online communications. And contacting major ISIS figures isn’t exactly rocket science.
The bottom line is that we don’t know what Masood’s relationship to ISIS was. That is why commentators are much more cautious about declaring him a lone wolf now than they would have been in the past. The most rigorous work on the topic has warned observers to be wary that there may be connections that are not immediately discernible. Such caution is correct analytically. It is also correct pragmatically. In the past, lack of caution may well have cost lives.
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.
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.