Assessment of Current Efforts to Fight the Islamic State

Ido Levy has a BA in government specializing in global affairs and counter-terrorism from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Herzliya, Israel.  He is currently pursuing a Master in Public Policy at Georgetown University.  He has researched Middle Eastern Affairs at the Institute for National Security Studies and radicalization at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, where he has publications on the subject. He is an editor at Georgetown Public Policy Review and has written op-eds for Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and Times of Israel. He can be found on Twitter @IdoLevy5.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of Current Efforts to Fight the Islamic State

Date Originally Written:  September 15, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  October 22, 2018.

Summary:  International and regional forces have all but deprived the Islamic State (IS) of its territory, yet its apocalyptic ideology allows it to continue fighting despite these losses. IS’s goal to prepare the world for the end times does not require territory and will serve as a justification for its surviving members to maintain insurgencies in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Text:  As of mid-2018, IS has lost most of the territory it had conquered four years ago. At its height, IS controlled a territory about the size of the United Kingdom made up of areas of Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul[1]. As of April 2018, IS maintains small enclaves in southern and eastern Syria[2]. IS continues to carry out sporadic attacks, using borderlands, mountains, and deserts as havens. Syrian, Iraqi, and Russian military forces, Kurdish militias, Shi’a militias, and forces of a U.S.-led international coalition are now continuing the fight to defeat IS permanently. 

In many of its former territories, IS has transitioned to an insurgent campaign. Over the past year, IS has conducted many attacks in northern Iraq, as well as Baghdad and Mosul[3]. The Iraqi military, together with predominantly Shi’a militias collectively called the Popular Mobilization Units, has responded by launching several operations in northern Iraq and training elite forces to guard the border with Syria[4]. Iraqi forces have made incursions into Syria to strike IS targets[5].

A mostly Kurdish militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is leading the fight against IS’s enclaves in eastern Syria. U.S. and French special operations are supporting SDF efforts while Russian forces carry out their own attacks against IS. Another terrorist organization, an al-Qaeda offshoot called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is also fighting IS in Syria. At the same time, IS’s former capital, Raqqa, has seen an upsurge in attacks by IS[6].

In sum, although IS has begun employing insurgent tactics in its former territories, anti-IS forces have almost defeated the “territorial caliphate[7].” One authority on IS, Graeme Wood, has claimed that IS “requires territory to remain legitimate[8].” Indeed, as William McCants has noted, many did join IS to fulfill the reestablishment of the caliphate, the Islamic empire governed by sharia, or Islamic law[9]. Through this lens, it is only a matter of time until IS loses all of its territory and disintegrates. 

Despite the collapse of the territorial caliphate, the aspirational caliphate is still alive and well. In their expert accounts of IS, both McCants and Wood note IS has differentiated and perpetuated itself within the jihadist movement through its intense awareness of an imminent apocalypse. Al-Qaeda, another organization seeking the restoration of the caliphate, scoffed at apocalyptic notions, maintaining that the gradual buildup of an Islamic army and embedding of jihadist agents around the globe toward slowly reestablishing the caliphate was the paramount endeavor. The founders of IS, convinced of the nearness of Judgement Day, contended that there was no time for gradualism, that rectitude demanded swift and bold action in the present (this also serves as justification for IS’s particularly brutal tactics). For IS, the caliphate became the bridge between the present and the end times, a place where “true” Muslims could live righteous lives free of corrupt un-Islamic influences in the present. At the same time, these soldiers of Islam could work to expand the empire, inspiring greater numbers of true Muslims and petrifying nonbelievers. This forceful division of the world between the righteous and the evil could prepare the world for Allah’s judgement.

IS’s vision suggests it does not need territory to remain viable. Ori Goldberg, a scholar who researches Islamist ideologies, notes that the pursuit of an Islamic empire “in its own right” is “particularly difficult” with regard to IS. He claims that IS rather seeks the “hollowing out” of the world, or to cause people to be so terrified that they abandon their “convictions” and live in fear[10]. In essence, while sowing fear among the nonbelievers is one half of IS’s creed, the other is to cement the believers’ righteousness. This two-pronged endeavor does not necessitate holding territory, though territory can help advance it. 

In practice, this view entails that IS can continue to function ideologically and materially in the absence of territory. Those IS members who believe in the group’s apocalyptic creed will fight to the last. Those who emphasize the group’s territoriality may second-guess their participation, though might also believe they can retake their lost territories. Of course, there are many other reasons people joined IS – attraction to violence, grievances against a home country, excitement, money. However, the apocalyptic core survives with or without territory and will serve as motivation to carry on insurgencies in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. 

Overall, the ground war against IS is advancing steadily toward completion while IS insurgencies are gaining momentum in former IS territories. These insurgencies will hinder efforts to rebuild Iraq and Syria while straining their security forces and budgets. IS’s apocalyptic vision will serve as the basis for insurgent morale. 


Endnotes:

[1] Johnston, I. (2014, September 3). The rise of Isis: Terror group now controls an area the size of Britain, expert claims. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-rise-of-isis-terror-group-now-controls-an-area-the-size-of-britain-expert-claims-9710198.html

[2] McGurk, B. (2018, May 10). Remarks at Herzliya Conference. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.state.gov/s/seci/2018/282016.htm#Map

[3] Sly, L., &, Salim, M. (2018, July 17). ISIS is making a comeback in Iraq just months after Baghdad declared victory. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/isis-is-making-a-comeback-in-iraq-less-than-a-year-after-baghdad-declared-victory/2018/07/17/9aac54a6-892c-11e8-9d59-dccc2c0cabcf_story.html

[4] Schmitt, E. (2018, May 30). Battle to stamp out ISIS in Syria gains new momentum, but threats remain. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/world/middleeast/isis-syria-battle-kurds-united-states.html

[5] Reuters (2018, June 23). Iraq says it bombed a meeting of Islamic State leaders in Syria. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/23/world/middleeast/iraq-syria-isis.html

[6] Sengupta, K. (2018, July 3). Amid a fractured political and military landscape, Isis are quietly regrouping in Syria. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-syria-regrouping-islamic-state-assad-a8429446.html

[7] See McGurk.

[8] Wood, G. (2015, March). What ISIS Really Wants. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[9] McCants, W. (2015). The ISIS apocalypse: The history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

[10] Goldberg, O. (2017). Faith and politics in Iran, Israel, and the Islamic State: Theologies of the real. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Assessment Papers Ido Levy Islamic State Variants Violent Extremism

An Assessment of U.S. Women in Islamic State-related Cases

Brandee Leon is a freelance analyst of counter-terrorism and international relations, focusing on terror in Europe.  She frequently covers women in terrorism.  She has been published in Business Insider, The Strategy Bridge, and The Eastern Project. She can be found on Twitter at @misscherryjones.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  An Assessment of U.S. Women in Islamic State-related Cases

Date Originally Written:  June 20, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  August 13, 2018.

Summary:  Since the inception of Islamic State, ten percent of the related cases in the United States have involved women. The roles of the women involved have varied, from material support to bomb-making. The numbers are small compared to their European counterparts, but there is a definite presence in the United States. But like those in Europe, they are not a group that should be ignored.

Text:  George Washington University’s Program on Extremism (PoE) has been compiling cases of U.S persons involved in Islamic State(IS)-related offenses since 2014[1]. As of April 2018, they have found that 160 individuals have been charged. This article’s analysis to date reveals that 16 of those cases have involved women. The following is an overview of those cases, as well as why they are worth paying attention.

According to the latest infographic put out by GWU PoE, 90 percent of those charged with IS-related offenses in the U.S. have been male. This is up from 86 percent as of December 2015. The average age for the women in the cases is 33, five years older than the overall average age of 28. The oldest woman was 55, and the youngest was 19.

Thirteen of the women are U.S. citizens, six of whom are U.S.-born. Other nationalities represented among the women include Bosnia-Hercegovina[2], Pakistan, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia. Nearly half of the women have children. In one case, the woman’s sons had traveled to Syria in support of Islamic State[3].

The women involved tend to received drastically shorter prison sentences than the overall average: just 5.4 years compared to 13.4 years. One woman (so far) has been acquitted by trial, while another is still at large.

Most of the charges leveled against the women fell under 18 USC §2339, providing material support to terrorists or designated terror organizations. The next, most-frequent charge was 18 USC §1001(a)(2), providing false statements. Money laundering, transmission of a threat, and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government were among the other charges. Two women were charged with 18 USC §2332a (a)(2), use of weapons of mass destruction, which represents the only straightforward “operational” charges against IS-connected women in America to date[4].

Several of the women conspired with a romantic partner, whether via online contact with a purported member of IS[5], or with a husband or boyfriend[6]. One woman actually traveled to Syria and married a well-known IS fighter[7].

Women in America who have been charged with crimes relating to the Islamic State tend to be slightly older than the male average. The women who have been sentenced to date have received significantly lesser sentences. Nearly all the women were charged with crimes relating to support rather than traveling to join the terror group. The women rarely act on their own, usually partnering with a significant other, either in person or virtually. While comprising just ten percent of the known cases of Americans in Islamic State related offenses, women are actively supporting the cause.

The numbers of American women getting involved with Islamic State are still small compared to the numbers of European women supporting the terror group. One estimate puts the number of European women traveling to join IS at over 500[8], with nearly 100 from Britain, and over 300 from France. The proximity to the Middle East and the larger Muslim population in Europe are likely factors in the numbers. U.S. women, however, could have greater ease of movement and agency, as some European countries are cracking down on Muslim women by way of headscarf and burka bans.

As the author has written before, the roles of women in these groups continue to evolve, and those in the business of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism will need to shed any preconceived notions of women-as-victim. Women are increasingly playing active roles in these organizations, and doing so voluntarily[9]. Most of the focus of women and terrorism remains on European women, but as shown in this article, there is a presence in the U.S.

However small the number of U.S. women actively supporting IS, it does not mean they should not be taken as serious a threat as the men. As the group’s territory disappears, they will find other areas in which to operate. They group has repeatedly called on its supporters to attack locally if they cannot physically travel to Syria or Iraq. And most recently, the group has seemingly loosened its restrictions on women taking up arms for the cause[10]. The Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies toward Muslims could also be a driving force. Whether the above mentioned factors mean there will be an increase in activity in the United States remains to be seen, but this is an issue deserving additional study, particularly regarding the motivations of Western women who choose to affiliate themselves with IS.

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


Endnotes:

[1] ISIS in America, https://extremism.gwu.edu/isis-america

[2] Seamus Hughes & Bennett Clifford, “First He Became an American—Then He Joined ISIS,” The Atlantic, 25 May 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/first-he-became-an-americanthen-he-joined-isis/527622/

[3] US Department of Justice, Collin County Couple Sentenced for Lying to Federal Agents, 13 February 2018, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edtx/pr/collin-county-couple-sentenced-lying-federal-agents

[4] “2 Women Arrested In New York City For Alleged ISIS-Inspired Terror Plot,” CBS New York, 2 April 2015, http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/04/02/sources-tell-cbs2-2-women-arrested-in-new-york-city-for-alleged-isis-inspired-terror-plot/

[5] “Shannon Conley, Arvada teen who tried to join ISIS to wage jihad, sentenced to 4 years in prison,” TheDenverChannel, 23 January 2015, https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/sentencing-for-shannon-conley-arvada-teen-who-tried-to-join-isis-to-wage-jihad

[6] Joshua Berlinger and Catherine E. Shoichet, “Mississippi woman pleads guilty on charge that she tried to join ISIS,” CNN, 30 March 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/30/us/mississippi-isis-guilty-plea-jaelyn-young/index.html

[7] Tresa Baldas, “FBI translator secretly married Islamic State leader,” USA Today, 2 May 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/05/02/fbi-translator-secretly-married-islamic-state-leader/309137001/

[8] Shiraz Maher, “What should happen to the foreign women and children who joined Isis?,” New Statesman, 28 August 2017, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2017/08/what-should-happen-foreign-women-and-children-who-joined-isis

[9] Brandee Leon, “Thinking about women’s roles in terrorism,” The View From Here, 12 June 2017, https://misscherryjones.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/thinking-about-womens-roles-in-terrorism/

[10] Brandee Leon, “Changing Roles? Women as Terror Threat,” The View From Here, 28 February 2018, https://misscherryjones.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/changing-roles-women-as-terror-threat/

Assessment Papers Brandee Leon Islamic State Variants United States Women

Options to Address Terrorism Financing in Australia

Ryan McWhirter has a master’s degree of Terrorism and Security Studies at Charles Sturt University.  He can be found on twitter at ryanmc__89.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The enforcement of terrorism financing for terror organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) within Australia.

Date Originally Written:  January 30, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  May 7, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of challenging the symbolism of investigating all terrorism financing with the effect of better employment of limited investigatory resources based upon an impact assessment of action or inaction.

Background:  Most terrorist organisations require vast amounts of external support to fund their operations.  At the height of its power, the Islamic State were vastly different in the way they funded their group, with an estimated valuation at $2 billion US dollars.  The group was almost entirely self-sufficient, relying on natural resources within their controlled territory, taxes and extortion[1].

Whilst the group is most certainly winding down due to being militarily defeated in the terrain they controlled, it is not unsound to assess that other groups will try to emulate them.  During their peak, only 5% of the group’s finances were obtained through foreign donation[2].

Significance:  The enforcement of all things terrorism has become a political hot point within Australia.  Governments profess to the public that they are doing all in their power to suppress the threat groups such as IS pose.  The financing of the group is no exception to this rule and many investigations have been squarely aimed at individuals funding terrorism.

However, when 95% of a groups finances come from internal resources, is the enforcement of external donations a cost-effective measure, particularly in a small nation such as Australia?  Whilst it is unknown the exact amount Australians contributed to IS at its peak, it can safely be measured to be a small amount of the 5% the group reaps from donations.

This situation is purely economic.  Counter terrorism operations are not cheap.  It would not be out of the realm of possibilities to estimate an operation may cost between $100,000 to $150,000 a day, given the amount of staff, resources and other intangibles required to thoroughly investigate.  If an operation runs for three months, the cost is $ 9 million.

Can these resources be put to better use?  A case in point occurred in 2016 when a young male and female were arrested in Sydney, Australia for sending $5,000 to IS[3].  This operation didn’t occur over night.  If for example it ran for two months, intelligence and security agencies spent an estimated $6 million dollars to investigate $5,000 going overseas.  The two offenders were refused bail and remanded in custody, with the male being sent to a supermax prison.  Is sending a young male to supermax for terror financing going to change his views or intensify them?

The key question is, for an almost entirely self-sufficient group, is enforcing this small amount of finance an efficient and productive measure?

Option #1:  The Australian government continues with total enforcement of laws regarding terror finance.

Risk:  This option maintains the status quo.  The continuation of the total enforcement of these offences may lead to effected communities feeling targeted and vilified by authorities.

A risk this option poses is that the resources and finances used in these investigations are not being used in more serious matters.  Whilst intelligence and security agencies are busy investigating small time terror financers, other serious offences are going unchecked, these offences include human trafficking, large-scale drug importations and actual terrorist activity being directed at citizens.

Gain:  This option allows political capital to be garnered, particularly with a government obsessed with giving the appearance of being tough on terror.  It also sets an example to other individuals who may be contemplating financing terror groups that their actions are unacceptable and will be investigated and prosecuted.

Option #2:  The Australian government conducts a cost and benefit analysis before investigating the financing of groups such as IS.

Risk:  The risks in this option are profound.  Individuals may use this loophole to contribute to their group of choice by only donating small amounts, knowing they won’t be investigated if the amount is small enough.  This small donation activity may be seen as a gateway to conducting further terrorist related activities and a key step in the radicalization process.

Politically, this option is problematic.  If this option became policy, it would be seized upon by the government’s opposition to imply they are soft on terrorism.

Gain:  Australian government terrorism-related resources and finances are diverted into more serious criminal offences and social programs.  Deradicalization programs in schools and community centers could be better funded, perhaps stopping individuals wanting to finance a terror group, or even help stop a terrorist attack before it happens.  The government could make the case that by saving resources in this area they are in fact showing a genuine attempt to stop terrorism before it happens, reducing the need to be tough on it.

Other Comments:  It should be noted that in cases of financing terror groups such as Al-Qa’ida who have a greater reliance on outside donation, option two would not be feasible.  As such, these incidents would be investigated as usual.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Centre for the analysis of terrorism. (2015). ISIS Financing

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Olding, Rachel. (2016) Texts between schoolgirl terror suspect and co-accused Milad Atai released in court. Sydney Morning Herald.

Australia Economic Factors Islamic State Variants Option Papers Ryan McWhirter

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?  Options for the U.S. Presence in Syria

Dr. Christopher Bolan has served in Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt and worked as a Middle East foreign policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney.  He presently teaches and researches national security issues at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @DrChrisBolan.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  U.S. Force Posture in Syria following the strategic defeat of the Islamic State (IS).

Date Originally Written:  February 23, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  February 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author writes from the perspective of a seasoned regional analyst focusing on the Middle East.

Background:  The U.S. military battle against IS is nearing completion in both Iraq and Syria.  An intensified U.S. air campaign in support of local ground forces has effectively (and literally) destroyed the physical infrastructure of the so-called IS “caliphate” that at its peak occupied a territorial expanse roughly equivalent to that of Great Britain, extended its brutal authority over 11 million people, and gave it access to annual economic resources estimated at $1 billion[1].  In Iraq, a combination of U.S.-equipped and trained Iraqi security forces fighting alongside a variety of Shi’ia militia groups (some backed by Iran) allowed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare victory over IS in early December 2017.  In Syria, Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces enabled by U.S. special operations forces and an aggressive coalition bombing campaign liberated the IS caliphate’s self-proclaimed capital at Raqqa last fall and IS is now largely restricted to the Idlib province.

Significance:  The combined coalition military advances in both Iraq and Syria represent the strategic defeat of IS as a terrorist organization capable of holding territory in the Middle East.  These visible defeats strike at the heart of IS’s claim to leadership of the global jihadist movement.  The destruction of the ‘caliphate’ leaves IS a much diminished and impoverished organization.  Nonetheless, these significant battlefield victories do not entirely eliminate the IS threat as it remains capable of inspiring (if not planning) attacks that threaten regional instability and target Western interests.  In Iraq, a continued U.S. military presence codified through traditional security assistance programs in coordination with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad is virtually a foregone conclusion.  However, Syria presents a different strategic calculus for U.S. policymakers as they weigh options at a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be consolidating his control with the active support of his allies in Moscow and Tehran.

Option #1:  Establish a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria.  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in mid-January 2018 that the U.S. “will maintain a military presence in Syria” for an indefinite period of time[2].  In doing so, Tillerson committed the U.S. to achieving an expansive set of strategic objectives that include: ensuring the defeat of IS and al-Qa’ida; diminishing the influence of Iran; facilitating the return of Syrian refugees; advancing a United Nations (UN)-led political resolution to the crisis; and guaranteeing that Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Risk:  The continued presence of the U.S. military in Syria is opposed to one extent or another by virtually every other important actor in Syria including the internationally recognized government of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and even North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey.  The proximate defeat of IS and the failure of the U.S. Congress to explicitly authorize U.S. military operations in Syria seriously erodes the international and domestic legal basis for this presence.  More importantly, the actual risk of direct military conflict between the U.S. and any one of these outside actors or their local proxies is real and growing.  In early February 2018, the U.S. conducted defensive strikes killing hundreds of Syrian troops and dozens of Russian contractors.  Meanwhile, the U.S. announcement that it was creating a Kurdish security border force in northern Syria prompted the ongoing Turkish incursion into Afrin that is now threatening a direct military confrontation between a NATO ally and both the Syrian Army and U.S-backed Kurdish militias.  Lastly, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has directly threatened the U.S. with a punitive ‘Ottoman slap’ if the U.S. doesn’t end its support for Kurdish elements or abandon its positions further east in Manbij[3].

Gain:  Russian and Iranian military support to Assad have given him the decisive advantage in the civil war restoring his control over the majority of Syria’s population and key economic centers.  Given this existing reality, an indefinite U.S. military presence in eastern Syria may well be the only concrete leverage that the U.S. has to influence the behavior of the other actors in this crisis.  To accomplish the wide-ranging goals of U.S. strategy as articulated by Tillerson, however, this presence will likely need to maintained or even expanded for the foreseeable future.

Option #2:  Withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria.  The U.S. could use the recent battlefield victories against IS as a justification to declare ‘mission accomplished’ and begin a phased and conditions-based withdrawal of forces from Syria.

Risk:  As Tillerson himself argued, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria could create a security vacuum which IS and other Islamist terrorist groups would exploit to regain a foothold in eastern Syria.  Moreover, with the UN Geneva peace process moribund, the absence of a physical U.S. presence on the ground will leave policymakers with precious little direct leverage to influence the ultimate political or military outcomes in Syria.  This approach also feeds the perception of declining U.S. regional influence and could bolster the reputation of Russia and Iran as reliable partners.

Gain:  U.S. policymakers could use a phased withdrawal as diplomatic leverage to press for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria to include Russia, Iran, and their paramilitary proxies (e.g., Hizbollah, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps).  The scale and timing of the U.S. withdrawal could be explicitly tied to the departure of these other foreign forces, as well as to progress in defeating the remnants of IS.  This would accomplish the two most critical U.S. strategic objectives outlined by Tillerson:  the defeat of IS; and reducing the influence of Iran.  Additionally, such a phased withdrawal would relieve the U.S. of the substantial costs of reconstruction in Syria which is estimated to easily exceed $250 billion[4].  Finally, the prospect of an imminent U.S. military withdrawal would increase pressure on Kurdish elements to come to a workable compromise with both Damascus and Ankara and thereby bolster prospects for a durable political outcome in Syria that enhances regional stability.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] John Feffer, “The Fall of the House of ISIS,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 25, 2017.  Available at: http://fpif.org/fall-house-isis/.

[2] Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria,” Hoover Institute at Stanford University, January 17, 2018.

[3] Bethan McKernan, “Turkish President Erdogan offers US ‘Ottoman Slap’ ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey,” The Independent, February 15, 2018.

[4] UN estimate quoted by Somini Sengupta, “Help Assad or Leave Cities in Ruins?  The Politics of Rebuilding Syria,” The New York Times, December 3, 2017.

Dr. Christopher Bolan Islamic State Variants Option Papers Syria U.S. Army War College Violent Extremism

An Assessment of Violent Extremist Use of Social Media Technologies

Scot A. Terban is a security professional with over 13 years experience specializing in areas such as Ethical Hacking/Pen Testing, Social Engineering Information, Security Auditing, ISO27001, Threat Intelligence Analysis, Steganography Application and Detection.  He tweets at @krypt3ia and his website is https://krypt3ia.wordpress.com.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  An Assessment of Violent Extremist Use of Social Media Technologies

Date Originally Written:  November 9, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  February 5, 2018.

Summary:  The leveraging of social media technologies by violent extremists like Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Daesh have created a road map for others to do the same.  Without a combined effort by social media companies and intelligence and law enforcement organizations, violent extremists and others will continue to operate nearly unchecked on social media platforms and inspire others to acts of violence.

Text:  Following the 9/11 attacks the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and AQ, the violent extremist organization who launched these attacks, lost ground.  With the loss of ground came an increase in online activity.  In the time before the worldwide embrace of social media, jihadi’s like Irhabi007 (Younis Tsouli) led AQ hacking operations by breaking into vulnerable web pages and defacing them with AQ propaganda as well as establishing dead drop sites for materials others could use.  This method was pioneered by Irhabi007, who was later hunted down by other hackers and finally arrested in 2005[1].  Five years after Tsouli’s arrest, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) established Inspire Magazine as a way to communicate with its existing followers and “inspire” new ones[2].  Unfortunately for AQAP, creating and distributing an online magazine became a challenge.

Today, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, VKontakte, and YouTube are now the primary modus for jihadi extremists to spread the call to jihad as well as sow fear into those they target.  Social media is perfect for connecting people because of the popularity of the platforms and the ease of use, creation of accounts, and ability to send messages that could have a large audience.  In the case of Daesh, they use Twitter and YouTube as their primary means of messaging not only for fear but also command and control as well as recruitment.  Daesh sees the benefits of using social media, and their use has paved the way for others.  Even after Twitter and YouTube began to catch on and act against the Daesh accounts, it is still easy still for Daesh to create new accounts and keep the messages flowing with a new user name followed by a digit.

AQ’s loss of terrain combined with the expansion of social media set the conditions for movement toward inciting the “far war” over the local struggle as AQ saw it before Osama bin Laden was killed.  In fact, the call to the West had been made in Inspire magazine on many occasions.  Inspire even created a section of their magazine on “Open Source Jihad” which was later adopted by Dabiq[3] (Daesh’s magazine), but the problem was actually motivating the Western faithful into action.  This paradigm was finally worked out in social media where recruiters and mouthpieces could, in real-time, talk to these potential recruits and work with them to act.

Online messaging by violent extremist organizations has now reached a point of asymmetry where very little energy or money invested on the jihadi’s part can produce large returns on investments like the incident in Garland Texas[4].  To AQ, Daesh, and others, it is now clear that social media could be the bedrock of the fight against the West and anywhere else if others can be incited to act.  This incited activity takes the form of what has been called as “Lone Wolf Jihad” which has caused several incidents like the Garland shootings to current day events like the attack in New York City on the bike path by Sayfullo Saipov, a green card holder in the U.S. from Uzbekistan[5].

With the activating of certain individuals to the cause using the propaganda and manuals put out by the jihadi’s on social media, it is clear that the medium works and that even with all the attempts by companies like Facebook and Twitter to root accounts out and delete them, the messaging still gets to those who may act upon it.  The memetic virus of violent extremism has a carrier and that is social media.  Now, with the advent of social media’s leveraging by Russia in the campaign against the U.S. electoral system, we are seeing a paradigm shift into larger and more dangerous memetic and asymmetric warfare.

Additionally, with the advent of encryption technologies to the social media platforms the net effect has been to create channels of radicalization, recruitment, and activation over live chats and messages that cannot be indicted by authorities easily.  This use for encryption and live chats and messages makes the notion of social media as a means of asymmetric warfare even more prescient.  The jihadis now have not only a means to reach out to would be followers, but also a constant contact at a distance, where before they would have to radicalize potential recruits a physical location.

Expanding this out further, the methodologies that the jihadi’s have created and used online are now studied by other like-minded groups and can be emulated.  This means that whatever the bent, a group of like-minded individuals seeking extremist ends can simply sign up and replicate the jihadi model to the same ends of activating individuals to action.  We have already started to see this with the Russian hybrid warfare at a nominal level by activating people in the U.S. such as neo nazi’s and empowering them to act.

Social media is a boon and a bane depending on it’s use and it’s moderation by the companies that create the platforms and manage them.  However, with the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech in the U.S., it is hard for companies to delineate what is free speech and what is exhortation to violence.  This is the crux of the issue for companies and governments in the fight against violent extremism on platforms such as YouTube or Twitter.  Social media utilization boils down to terms of service and policing, and until now the companies have not been willing to monitor and take action.  Post Russian meddling in the U.S. election though, social media company attitudes seems to be changing.

Ultimately, the use of social media for extremist ideas and action will always be a problem.  This is not going away, and policing is key.  The challenge lies in working out the details and legal interpretations concerning the balance of what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes illegal activity.  The real task will be to see if algorithms and technical means will be helpful in sorting between the two.  The battle however, will never end.  It is my assessment that the remediation will have to be a melding of human intelligence activities and technical means together to monitor and interdict those users and feeds that are seeking to incite violence within the medium.


Endnotes:

[1] Katz, R., & Kern, M. (2006, March 26). Terrorist 007, Exposed. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/25/AR2006032500020.html

[2] Zelin, A. Y. (2017, August 14). Inspire Magazine. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://jihadology.net/category/inspire-magazine/

[3] Zelin, A. Y. (2016, July 31). Dabiq Magazine. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://jihadology.net/category/dabiq-magazine/

[4] Chandler, A. (2015, May 04). A Terror Attack in Texas. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/a-terror-attack-in-texas/392288/

[5] Kilgannon, C., & Goldstein, J. (2017, October 31). Sayfullo Saipov, the Suspect in the New York Terror Attack, and His Past. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/nyregion/sayfullo-saipov-manhattan-truck-attack.html

 

Al-Qaeda Assessment Papers Cyberspace Islamic State Variants Scot A. Terban Violent Extremism

An Australian Perspective on Identity, Social Media, and Ideology as Drivers for Violent Extremism

Kate McNair has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology from Macquarie University and is currently pursuing her a Master’s Degree in Security Studies and Terrorism at Charles Sturt University.  You can follow her on Twitter @kate_amc .  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Title:  An Australian Perspective on Identity, Social Media, and Ideology as Drivers for Violent Extremism

Date Originally Written:  December 2, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  January 8, 2018.

Summary:  Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is a leading initiative by many western sovereigns to reduce home-grown terrorism and extremism.  Social media, ideology, and identity are just some of the issues that fuel violent extremism for various individuals and groups and are thus areas that CVE must be prepared to address.

Text:  On March 7, 2015, two brothers aged 16 and 17 were arrested after they were suspected of leaving Australia through Sydney Airport to fight for the Islamic State[1].  The young boys fouled their parents and forged school letters.  Then they presented themselves to Australian Immigration and Border Protection shortly after purchasing tickets to an unknown middle eastern country with a small amount of funds and claimed to be on their way to visit family for three months.  Later, they were arrested for admitting to intending to become foreign fighters for the Islamic State.  October 2, 2015, Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, 15 years old, approached Parramatta police station in Sydney’s West, and shot civilian police accountant Curtis Cheng in the back[2].  Later it was discovered that Jabar was inspired and influenced by two older men aged 18 and 22, who manipulated him into becoming a lone wolf attacker, and supplied him the gun he used to kill the civilian worker.

In November 2016 Parliament passed the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2016 and stated that “Keeping Australians safe is the first priority of the Turnbull Government, which committed to ensuring Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the tools they need to fight terrorism[3].”  More recently, the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act of 2002 was extensively amended to become the Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Police Powers and Parole) Act of 2017 which allows police to have more powers during investigations and puts stronger restrictions and requirements on parolees when integrating back into society.  Although these governing documents aim at honing in on law enforcement and the investigation side of terrorism efforts, in 2014 the Tony Abbot Government implemented a nation-wide initiative called Living Safe Together[4].  Living Safe Together opposed a law enforcement-centric approach and instead focused on community-based initiatives to address the growing appeal of violent extremist ideologies in young people.

Levi West, a well-known academic in the field of terrorism in Australia highlighted that, in the cases of the aforementioned individuals, they have lived there entire lives in a world where the war of terror has existed.  These young men were part of a Muslim minority and have grown up witnessing a war that has been painted by some as the West vs Islam.  These young men were influenced by many voices between school, work, social events, and at home[5].  This leads to the question on whether these young individuals are driven to violent extremism by the ideology or are they trying to find their identity and their purpose in this world.

For young adults in Australia, social media is a strong driver for violent extremism.  Young adults are vulnerable and uncertain about various things in their life.  When people feel uncertain about who they are, the accuracy of their perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes, they seek out people who are similar to them in order to make comparisons that largely confirm the veracity and appropriateness of their own attitudes.  Social media is being weaponised by violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State.  Social media, and other communicative Peer-to-Peer sharing platforms, are ideal to facilitate virtual learning and virtual interactions between young adults and violent extremists.  While young adults who interact within these online forums may be less likely to engage in a lone wolf attack, these forums can reinforce prior beliefs and slowly manipulate people over time.

Is it violent extremist ideology that is inspiring young individuals to become violent extremists and participate in terrorism and political violence?  Decentralized command and control within violent extremist organizations, also referred to as leaderless resistance, is a technique to inspire young individuals to take it upon themselves, with no leadership, to commit attacks against western governments and communities[6].  In the case of the Islamic State and its use of this strategy, its ideology is already known to be extreme and violent, therefore its interpretation and influence of leaderless resistance is nothing less.  Decentralization has been implemented internationally as the Islamic State continues to provide information, through sites such as Insider, on how to acquire the materiel needed to conduct attacks.  Not only does the Islamic State provide training and skill information, they encourage others to spread the their ideology through the conduct of lone wolf attacks and glorify these acts as a divine right.  Together with the vulnerability of young individuals, the strategy of decentralized command and control with the extreme ideology, has been successful thus far.  Based upon this success, CVE’s effectiveness is likely tied to it being equally focused on combating identity as a driver for violent extremism, in addition to an extreme ideology, and the strategies and initiative that can prevent individuals to becoming violent extremists.

The leading strategies in CVE have been social media, social cohesion, and identity focused.  Policy leaders and academics have identified that young individuals are struggling with the social constraints of labels and identity, therefore need to take a community-based approach when countering violent extremism.  The 2015 CVE Regional Summit reveled various recommendations and findings that relate to the use of social media and the effects it has on young, vulnerable individuals and the realities that Australia must face as a country, and as a society.  With the growing threat of homegrown violent extremism and the returning of foreign fighters from fighting with the Islamic State, without programs that address individual identity and social cohesion, violent extremism will continue to be a problem.  The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have designated Community Liaison Team members whose role is to develop partnerships with community leaders to tackle the threat of violent extremism and enhance community relations, with the AFP also adopting strategies to improve dialogue with Muslim communities. The AFP’s efforts, combined with the participation of young local leaders, is paramount to the success of these strategies and initiatives to counter the violent extremism narrative.


Endnotes:

[1] Nick Ralston, ‘Parramatta shooting: Curtis Cheng was on his way home when shot dead’ October 3rd 2015 http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/parramatta-shooting-curtis-cheng-was-on-his-way-home-when-shot-dead-20151003-gk0ibk.html Accessed December 1, 2017.

[2] Lanai Scarr, ‘Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said two teenage brothers arrested while trying to leave Australia to fight with ISIS were ‘saved’’ March 8th 2015 http://www.news.com.au/national/immigration-minister-peter-dutton-said-two-teenage-brothers-arrested-while-trying-to-leave-australia-to-fight-with-isis-were-saved/news-story/90b542528076cbdd02ed34aa8a78d33a Accessed December 1, 2017.

[3] Australian Government media release, Parliament passes Counter Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill No 1 2016. https://www.attorneygeneral.gov.au/Mediareleases/Pages/2016/FourthQuarter/Parliament-passes-Counter-Terrorism-Legislation-Amendment-Bill-No1-2016.aspx Accessed December 1, 2017.

[4] Australian Government, Living Safer Together Building community resilience to violent extremism. https://www.livingsafetogether.gov.au/pages/home.aspx Accessed December 1, 2017.

[5] John W. Little, Episode 77 Australian Approaches to Counterterrorism Podcast, Covert Contact. October 2, 2017.

[6] West, L. 2016. ‘#jihad: Understanding social media as a weapon’, Security Challenges 12 (2): pp. 9-26.

Assessment Papers Australia Cyberspace Islamic State Variants Kate McNair Social Media Violent Extremism

Playing “Good Jihadi-Bad Jihadi”

Ian Wilkie is an American lawyer and terrorism expert living outside of New York City.  Wilkie has lived in Europe, Asia, and Africa and speaks multiple foreign languages.  He is a veteran of the U.S. Army (Infantry), completed French Foreign Legion commando training, and graduated from Vassar College and Tulane Law School.  Wilkie lived in South Asia post-9/11 where he conducted research and has been a consultant and advisor to two U.S. government agencies.  He has also worked for two of the three largest law firms in the world and has served as general counsel to hedge funds.  Wilkie possesses a deep knowledge of terrorist strategy and is currently working on a book called “Checkmate: Jihad’s Endgame.”  Follow Wilkie on Twitter @Wilkmaster.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Title:  Playing “Good Jihadi-Bad Jihadi”

Date Originally Written:  December 5, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  January 1, 2018.

Summary:  U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter[1] and Ronald Reagan[2] aligned the U.S. with jihadists in Afghanistan against Russia and later gave weapons to Salafi-jihadis allied with Osama Bin Laden[3].  Less than 20 years later, Al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon.  Presently the U.S. is bogged down in Syria and continues to make the foreign policy mistake of playing “Good Jihadi-Bad Jihadi.”

Text:  The United States has been fitfully fighting Muslim-majority countries since shortly after the founding of the nation.  President Thomas Jefferson saw enough of a piracy and kidnap threat to mobilize the Navy and newly formed Marine Corps and deploy them to Africa[4].  Centuries later, the use of violence against civilians is a hallmark of Islamist extremists.  Informed by Islamist interpretations of ample examples in scripture (Qu’ran[5] and Hadith[6]), religious “holy warriors” find it easy to commit atrocities and justify them on perceived religious grounds.  Some clerics support this violence, and some have even gone so far as to condone the use of nuclear[7] and biological[8] weapons against “infidels” based their interpretation of sacred texts.  The violence of these Islamist actors, whether on 9/11 or in Europe, Africa, or the various countries of the Middle East today, is not in doubt.  The history of violence associated with the Islamist jihad (“struggle”) to convert the world to Islam is rife with examples of massacres and forced conversions[9].  Put bluntly, the blood lust of these violent Islamists is not even an open question, yet the U.S. still works with some of the extremists, while trying to kill others.

Afghanistan in the decade from 1979-1989 saw the U.S. advance a strategy of opposing Russia without fighting Russia directly.  The U.S., primarily the Congress and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), believed that Russia could be bloodied and beaten if the “right” people were given the right weapons, clandestinely.  To this end, close ties were forged between the CIA and jihadists and Salafi-jihadis who believed in pedophilia, polygamy, and the liberal application of violence against civilians, including religious minorities.  America knew what Osama bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar stood for, yet we still worked with them according to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” theory of geopolitics[10].  On September 11, 2001, America and the world learned the true dangers of allying with Islamist religious zealots: they may kill U.S. enemies, but they will never be U.S. allies.  Islamist religious zealots answer to their God and no one else, regardless of which faith they profess.

The cold, realpolitik calculus that the CIA made in Afghanistan to work with jihadists and Salafi-Jihadis may have hastened the break-up of the Soviet Union, but it also hastened the end of America’s moral leadership in the eyes of the world.  When these “good” jihadis the U.S. once armed and trained utilized tactics from World War 2[11] against American buildings, the American response was telling: the Saudi allies and sponsors of violent jihad were permitted to leave the U.S., no questions asked[12].  The softball investigation of official Saudi ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11 reflected yet another Machiavellian choice by Washington; the oil money and strategic advantage of remaining allied to the bandit Kingdom[13] outweighed any practical considerations of justice for the victims.  The Saudi departures and lackluster investigation were a clear case of vested interests and money overwhelming U.S. morality and yet, almost two decades later, the survivors and the almost 3,000 dead still demand justice.

America’s reaction to 9/11 consisted of removing the Afghan Taliban from power, but not eliminating their base of support in Pakistan, their illicit drug networks, or their financial backing across the Sunni Muslim world.  The American response largely ignored the fundamentalist horrors of the Afghan Taliban’s behavior towards women, children, and minorities and focused only on which “externally focused” terrorists they were giving refuge to.  Rather like its 180° shift on Osama Bin Laden, the U.S. went from bombing the Afghan Taliban to inviting them to peace talks, in effect treating them like normal people and not the barbarians that they are.  In 2017, the U.S. is still open to sitting across the table from “men” who rape little boys[14] as a matter of honor and shoot schoolgirls in the face[15] as a point of pride, which is moral capitulation of the very worst kind.

Shifting to Syria, we encounter the most egregious examples of playing “Good Jihadi-Bad Jihadi” that the U.S. has ever engaged in.  The fact that the CIA was willing to advance the fiction that foreign fighters from Sunni theocracies were anything but jihadis shows you how gullible and uninformed they believe Americans are[16].  From an ethical point of view, there is no such thing as a “moderate” Sunni foreign insurgent in Syria and there never will be.  Syria is another example of the U.S. trying to advance a larger goal (oppose Shia Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) by making a moral compromise and allying with malign forces.  In Syria, the U.S. has sent entire warehouses full of weapons to some of the most suspect killers on the planet[17].  For example, U.S. antitank missiles have been used by “friendly, moderate rebels” to attack medevac missions and even journalists[18].  Jihadis that the U.S. knows, and possibly trained[19], have used chemical weapons dozens of times in that conflict[20].  That the insurrection in Syria failed is largely due to the fact that Islamist jihadis don’t fight in lanes; they fight everyone and especially each other.  The U.S. continues to arm “bad” jihadis, as there is no such thing as a “good” jihadi, and the results speak for themselves.


Endnotes:

[1] Brzezinski, Zbigniew (Interview). “How Jimmy Carter and I Started the Mujahideen” https://www.counterpunch.org/1998/01/15/how-jimmy-carter-and-i-started-the-mujahideen/ (Accessed 22 Nov 2107).

[2] Kaplan, Fred. “Reagan’s Osama Connection” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2004/06/reagans_osama_connection.html (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[3] Harnden, Toby. “Taliban still have Reagan’s Stingers” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1357632/Taliban-still-have-Reagans-Stingers.html (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[4] Hitchens, Christopher. “Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates” https://www.city-journal.org/html/jefferson-versus-muslim-pirates-13013.html (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[5] Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. “Islam Is a Religion of Violence” http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/09/islam-is-a-religion-of-violence-ayaan-hirsi-ali-debate-islamic-state/ (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[6] Anonymous. “1.B Violence in Hadith Books” https://islamreligionofwar.wordpress.com/1b-violence-in-hadith-books/ (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[7] Tobey, William & Zolotarev, Pavel. “The Nuclear Terrorism Threat” https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/nuclearterrorismthreatthailand2014.pdf (p.10, Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[8] Gunaratna, Rohan & Pita, René. “Revisiting Al-Qa`ida’s Anthrax Program” https://ctc.usma.edu/posts/revisiting-al-qaida’s-anthrax-program (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[9] Konrad, Mike. “The Greatest Murder Machine in History” http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2014/05/the_greatest_murder_machine_in_history.html (Accessed 5 December 2017).

[10] Coll, Steve (2004). Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Penguin, pp. 125-128.

[11] Editor, Military History Now. “One Way Ticket – Japan’s Kamikazes Weren’t the Only Suicide Pilots of WW2” http://militaryhistorynow.com/2014/03/17/one-way-ticket-japans-kamikazes-werent-the-only-suicide-pilots-of-ww2/ (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[12] Sperry, Paul. “Inside the Saudi 9/11 coverup” https://nypost.com/2013/12/15/inside-the-saudi-911-coverup/ (Accessed 24 Nov 2017).

[13] Zakaria, Fareed. “Saudi Arabia: The devil we know” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/saudi-arabia-the-devil-we-know/2016/04/21/2109ecf6-07fd-11e6-b283-e79d81c63c1b_story.html (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[14] Agence France-Presse. “Male rape and paedophilia: How Taliban uses ‘honey trap’ boys to kill Afghan police” http://www.firstpost.com/world/male-rape-and-paedophilia-how-taliban-uses-honey-trap-boys-to-kill-afghan-police-2837546.html (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[15] Johnston, Ian. “Malala Yousafzai: Being shot by Taliban made me stronger” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/malala-yousafzai-being-shot-taliban-made-me-stronger-f6C10612024 (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[16] Mazzetti, Mark, Goldman, Adam & Schmidt, Michael S. “Behind the Sudden Death of a $1 Billion Secret C.I.A. War in Syria” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/middleeast/cia-syria-rebel-arm-train-trump.html (Accessed 4 Dec 2017).

[17] Sanger, David E. “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/15/world/middleeast/jihadists-receiving-most-arms-sent-to-syrian-rebels.html (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[18] Russia Today. “US anti-tank TOW missile used in attack on RT journalists in Syria” https://www.rt.com/news/323810-us-missile-journalists-attack-syria/ (Accessed 5 Dec 2017).

[19] Adl-Tabatabai, Sean. “State Dept: US-Backed Forces Executed Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria” http://yournewswire.com/state-dept-us-forces-chemical-weapons-syria/ (Accessed 22 Nov 2017).

[20] “State Dep. Admits Opposition in Syria Has Chemical Weapons”
https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/State-Dep.-Admits-Opposition-in-Syria-Has-Chemical-Weapons-20171020-0006.html (Accessed 24 Nov 2017).

Allies & Partners Assessment Papers Ian Wilkie Islamic State Variants Taliban (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) United States Violent Extremism

Options for a Future Strategy for the Afghan Taliban

Paul Butchard is a graduate student in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London in the United Kingdom, where he is pursuing his master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security.  He also holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Politics.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Options for a future strategy for the Afghan Taliban.

Date Originally Written:  July, 12, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  July 17, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of someone with influence over strategic policy making within the Afghan Taliban, possibly a member of the Quetta Shura.

Background:  The Taliban has seen continuous conflict for over two decades now and despite its overthrow in 2001 by the United States and the 2013 death of its founder Mullah Omar, remains a potent force within Afghanistan.  The Taliban is currently estimated to hold more territory than at any time since 2001[1].

Significance:  Given the territorial degradation being suffered by Daesh in Iraq and Syria and the presence of a Daesh affiliate in Afghanistan, the Taliban may once again find itself in the crosshairs of an international anti-terrorism coalition.  There are also increasing levels of international training and advisory support being given to the Afghan government[2] to counter the Taliban.  These developments raise the prospect of United States and international re-engagement in Afghanistan.  As such, the Taliban must constantly assess their future direction should they hope to survive and thrive.

Option #1:  Enter negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan (GOA).  Although announcing their intentions not to participate in peace talks, the Taliban, or factions within it, have previously indicated a willingness to engage in negotiations to achieve political goals.  This is evidenced by their opening of a political office in Doha, Qatar and engagement in talks in 2014 among other events.

Risk:  The Taliban risks giving up the 86 districts they currently estimate themselves to fully or partially control, potentially for few guarantees[3].  This option risks the support afforded to the Taliban by Pakistan’s military, as identified by a recent United States Defense Department report, among numerous other sources[4].  Pakistan would not approve a deal in which it loses influence or operational control over the Taliban or subsidiaries like the Haqqani Network.  Pakistan would also oppose subsequent warming of Afghan-Indian relations.  Military demobilisation of any kind leaves the Taliban potentially vulnerable to United States and allied forces reorienting to Afghanistan post-Daesh, a risk when the Trump administration centres its national security policy on the confronting of “[T]he crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds[5].”

Gain:  The GOA has continuously reaffirmed its willingness to enter peace talks with the Taliban and the pardon issued to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is evidence of a willingness to provide concessions[6].  This option has the support, even if understated, of the British and United States governments[7].  The Taliban enjoyed considerable military success against Afghan forces (ANSF) in 2015-16[8].  Thus, it is in a strong position to push for concessions such as autonomy within its strongholds such as the Pashtun region.  This option enables the Taliban to avoid the ire of the United States coalition turning toward Afghanistan after Daesh in Iraq and Syria are defeated.  This option also points to the possibility of restoration of the notion of the Taliban as a sociopolitical not just militant movement.  Should the right deal be reached, this option also provides chances to increase Pakistani influence in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and thus sustain or increase support from the ISI to the Taliban even against international pressure.

Option #2:  The Taliban continues the insurgent war against the ANSF.  This course of action is the one currently favoured and being pursued by Taliban senior command.

Risk:  Although gaining considerable ground since coalition forces withdrew, the Taliban, like the ANSF, has been unable to break the stalemate in Afghanistan.  The Taliban is unlikely to win back Afghanistan through force of arms alone.  By continuing military operations, the Taliban risk attracting the attention of the United States military, which may soon turn to combating the Daesh presence in Afghanistan more directly after the Daesh territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria are eliminated.  By persisting primarily with a military strategy, the Taliban remain somewhat hostage to the whims and machinations of their Pakistani patrons, should the future political environment change, due to domestic or international pressure, the Taliban could theoretically find themselves short on friends and overwhelmed by enemies.

Gain:  The Taliban is enjoying a military resurgence since the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.  There are few prospects of an outright ANSF victory.  Operation Mansouri, the recent spring offensive by the Taliban has combined guerrilla tactics, conventional assaults and an increasing number of suicide operations to devastating effect[9].  The Taliban have also seemingly learnt from both coalition successes in Iraq and Afghanistan and from Daesh in their use of small, mobile special operations type units with advanced equipment carving inroads to populations centres and forming of human intelligence networks and sleeper cells, rather than full frontal attacks.  The Taliban’s efforts have culminated in the appearance of the Sara Khitta, or Red Group, a Taliban commando force[10].  Such successes display that the Taliban remain militarily capable and it may be unwise to sacrifice such capability.  The fact that the Taliban have sustained a war of attrition against coalition and ANSF forces shows they have no pressing need to cease military operations, the poppy cultivation it protects, and the goal of conquering the Afghan government it is working toward.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] O’Donnel, L (2016, June 16) The Taliban now hold more ground in Afghanistan than at any point since 2001. Retrieved July 11, 2017, from http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/pentagon/2016/06/16/afghanistan-nicholson-commander-pentagon-report-war/85972056/

[2] Associated Press (2017, June 16) US sending almost 4,000 extra forces to Afghanistan, Trump official says. Retrieved July 10, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/15/us-troops-afghanistan-trump-administration

[3] Roggio, B (2017, March 28) Afghan Taliban lists ‘Percent of Country under the control of Mujahideen’. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/03/afghan-taliban-lists-percent-of-country-under-the-control-of-mujahideen.php

[4] United States Department of Defense (2017, June) Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from: https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/June_2017_1225_Report_to_Congress.pdf

[5] Talev, M (2017, May 22) Donald Trump drops phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ on Saudi Arabia trip to soften tone on Muslims. Retrieved July 12, 2007, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/donald-trump-saudi-arabia-radical-islamic-terrorism-muslims-soften-tone-iran-palestinians-israel-a7748541.html

[6] Rasmussen, S.E (2016, September 22) ‘Butcher of Kabul’ pardoned in Afghan peace deal. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/22/butcher-of-kabul-pardoned-in-afghan-peace-deal

[7] Yousafzai et al. (2016, October 18) Taliban and Afghanistan restart secret talks in Qatar. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/18/taliban-afghanistan-secret-talks-qatar

[8] Koven, B.S (2017, July 09) The End of Afghanistan’s Spring Fighting Seasons and the Demise of the Afghan National Security Forces? Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-end-of-afghanistan%E2%80%99s-spring-fighting-seasons-and-the-demise-of-the-afghan-national-secu

[9] Roggio, B (2017, April 28) Taliban announces start of ‘Operation Mansouri’. Retrieved July 11, 2017, from http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/04/taliban-announce-start-of-operation-mansouri.php

[10] Snow, S (2016, August 12) Red Group: The Taliban’s New Commando Force. Retrieved on July 11, 2017, from: http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/red-group-the-talibans-new-commando-force/

Afghanistan Islamic State Variants Option Papers Paul Butchard Taliban (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan)

Islamic State Options: Pivot towards Australia

Phillip Etches is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Australian National University’s International Security and Middle-Eastern Studies program where he focuses on networked non-state threats.  He can be found on Twitter @CN_Hack.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Possible shift in Islamic State’s (IS) operational focus towards Southeast Asia and the threat to Australian citizens.

Date Originally Written:  February 22, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 20, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This options paper is written from the perspective of an individual with command seniority within IS, or influence over the strategic-level policymaking of that organisation.

Background:  The overall goal must be the demonstration that IS remains a viable enterprise, whether as a landholding caliphate or a check on the Western threat to the Ummah.  Prior to Western intervention, a “balanced” strategy involved fighting for territory within “near enemy” spaces such as Iraq and Syria while also operating in as many “far enemy” spaces as possible.  Doing so allowed IS to show that it could establish a new caliphate while simultaneously using kinetic and information operations directed at Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America to demonstrate to believing people that IS was capable of projecting beyond its immediate territory.

Significance:  IS is at an inflection point where it must alter the balance of its strategy towards a new far enemy, and show that it retains the initiative by beginning to target Australian citizens and interests more aggressively.  Doing so will show that IS can still function despite territorial losses, that it retains the initiative, and inspire hope in those whose confidence has been shaken by IS setbacks in Iraq and Syria.  This pivot to Australia is vital if IS is to retain its control over its perception and reality.

Option #1:  Continue attempting to inspire remote or unaffiliated persons to conduct attacks by way of broadly targeted messaging or manipulation of social/familial ties between IS personnel and individuals in the country.

Risk:  The principal risk of the present course is a lack of impact and credibility.  The persons who have thus far answered IS’s call have been portrayed as alone, insufficiently lethal, or of compromised standards and morals[1].  This portrayal has allowed the Australian government and media to characterize operations in Australia as the products of mental illness or juvenile delinquency, lessening the kinetic and psychological effects of our operations.  Additionally, operational risk comes from institutions and legislation involved in Australia’s internal security, forcing willing persons to mount small, unsophisticated attacks only.  As such, broad messaging will therefore continue inspiring small attacks, but will not generate the psychological effect we desire.

Gain:  The main gain of Option #1 is the higher likelihood of successful – if small – attacks which will show that IS can operate without restrictions on time or location.  A secondary gain is the increased certainty which comes from following a proven course.  While the current approach does little to change the overall strategic situation, it will avoid provoking a change in behaviour on the part of the Australian internal security establishment, lowering the risk of creating unforeseen future operational challenges.

Option #2:  Targeting Australians in Southeast Asia via IS personnel displacing from Iraq and Syria or via cooperation with pre-existing networks in the region.

Risk:  The biggest risk to IS from this approach will be the immediate response, as the relevant network elements will be endangered by any post-operational security crackdown in the countries where they mount attacks.  In addition to likely immediate costs, Option #2 will alter the challenges faced by IS in future, particularly given that Southeast Asia is within Australia’s near abroad.  Should the Australian government be sufficiently provoked, it will use any available multilateral and unilateral means – as it has before – to prevent future operations.  Any networks known to be sympathetic to IS will also come under stronger Australian scrutiny.  As such, the principal benefit of operation against Australians outside the attention of the Australian government will likely be lost after the first satisfactory attack.

Gain:  The most obvious gain of Option #2 is that it responds to the challenges of Option #1.  Targeting Australians in Southeast Asia will address the risks of the current approach by enabling the use of competent pre-existing networks beyond the auspices of Australia-based security organizations.  Additionally, operating against Australians in Southeast Asia will enable IS to harness the fears held by many Australians about the Jihad in Southeast Asia and rekindle the anxiety they felt after the 2002 Bali Bombings.  This impact will be enhanced if notables such as Abu Bakar Bashir are able to lend their support to the attacks as they did with the original Bali Bombings.

Other Comments:  It may appear that the geographical remove between Syria and Southeast Asia, unlike that between Syria and Europe, is too great to feasibly conduct operations at a distance.  However, it should be noted that operations can and have been directed at such distances by IS, and tactics, techniques, and procedures can be devised to ensure smooth operation in the absence of direct control by Caliph Ibrahim.  Furthermore, IS has a number of brothers from Indonesia and Malaysia[2].  Their experience both at home and fighting in Syria will make them capable operatives, and with some preparation they should be able to carry out the requisite planning, targeting, and execution of operations against Australians.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Buggy, K. (2016). Under the Radar: How Might Australia Enhance Its Policies to Prevent ‘Lone Wolf’ and ‘Fixated Person’ Violent Attacks? Canberra, Australia:Australian Defence College’s Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies

[2]  Dodwell, B., Milton, D., & Rassler, D. (2016). The Caliphate’s Global Workforce: An Inside Look At The Islamic State’s Foreign Fighter Paper Trail. West Point, NY:USMA

Australia Islamic State Variants Option Papers Phillip Etches Violent Extremism

Government of Iraq Options for Islamic State Detainees

Loren Schofield is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Non-Commissioned Officer with 16+ years’ experience in Special Operations and Unconventional Warfare.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  With the renewed offensive against the Islamic State (IS) by the Government of Iraq (GoI), what should be done with captured IS fighters and how can the GoI prevent future incursions?

Date Originally Written:  February 20, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  February 27, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the GoI as they consider what to do with captured IS fighters.

Background:  Mosul is the last major stronghold in Iraq for IS.  This past week the GoI launched an offensive to take back the western side of Mosul which will prove to be much tougher than retaking the eastern half of the city.  Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) warn that there could be up to 650,000 civilians trapped in territory still controlled by IS[1].  The offensive started just as graphic videos appeared on social media showing men in Iraqi Security Force (ISF) uniforms beating and killing unarmed people on the streets of Mosul[2].

Significance:  The manner in which the ISF treats captured IS fighters, as well as civilian non-combatants, will have long-term effects for the GoI.  How IS fighters and civilian non-combatants are handled post-capture will affect the rebuilding of Iraq, the GoI’s reputation within the international community, and will be watched by the GoI’s enemies.

Option #1:  The GoI and ISF treat all captured IS fighters and civilian non-combatants in accordance with the Geneva Convention and other applicable laws related to human rights and armed conflict.

Risk:  Option #1 will force the GoI and ISF leadership to take a firm hand with their personnel who are caught violating the Geneva Convention and other applicable laws related to human rights and armed conflict.  Option #1 forces the GoI to take a very unpopular position (unpopular with Iraq’s own people as well as the ISF) which could risk GoI political positions during the next elections.  Punishment of ISF who mistreat captured IS fighters and civilian non-combatants could even cause some of the ISF to mutiny thus splitting the force when cohesion is needed.

Gain:  By adhering to the Geneva Convention and other applicable laws related to human rights and armed conflict it puts the GoI and ISF on the moral high ground and shows the world that even in this difficult situation, the GoI and ISF place a priority on human rights and international law.  This will encourage NGO’s and other organizations that provide aid to come in and help the Iraqis rebuild their country.  Option #1 prevents members of the coalition from potentially removing their forces at the time the ISF is most in need should ISF mistreatment of captured IS fighters become publicly known and politically sensitive.  Option #1 will set a precedent and show the Iraqi people who were stuck in territory controlled by IS that they will be treated humanely once freed.

Option #2:  The Supreme Court of Iraq classifies IS as an invading force, tries every IS member on Iraqi soil in absentia, finds them guilty of crimes against humanity or a similar charge, and sentences them to death.  The GoI announces this verdict through all manner of media, to include leaflet drops over IS territory.  The GoI makes it clear that IS fighters will not be captured.  In essence, the GoI uses IS propaganda videos and the understanding of how IS trains and brainwashes their own fighters against them.

Risk:  With IS fighters knowing that surrender is not an option they will dig in and fight harder.  Even though there are many IS fighters who already plan to do this, there will always be a percentage that might potentially surrender.  With Option #2’s declaration those IS fighters who would surrender has been turned to zero.  The fighting will now be more dangerous and more brutal and cause more ISF fatalities.  The fighting will take longer, cause more civilian casualties, and cause worse damage to existing infrastructure.

Gain:  Option #2’s psychological element is as important as the actual military operation to destroy IS.  This psychological element will weaken IS by using the same type of fear that they are known for against them.  If a route to Syria is left open, some IS fighters may attempt to flee instead of face certain death (probably the same percentage of fighters will consider this as would consider surrendering).  Option #2 will also prevent long-term and expensive trials where detainee status (combatant, prisoner of war, criminal, insurgent etc.) may be used by lawyers to delay or extend trials.  The strategy of not capturing IS fighters as they are considered an invading force by the Supreme Court of Iraq will send a message to unfriendly State or non-state actors and may act as a deterrent.  If Option #2’s death sentence is only used on actual IS fighters, and not against the civilian non-combatants who were forced to support IS, the military and political leadership will likely see mass approval from Iraqi citizens.

Other Comments:  While the legalities of the Supreme Court of Iraq trying every IS fighter in absentia may be questionable, it allows coalition forces who want to support the GoI to continue in their support.  It may be a gray area, but sometimes gray is good enough.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Graham-Harrison, Emma, Fazel Hawramy, and Matthew Taylor. “Iraq Launches West Mosul Offensive as Torture Videos Emerge.” The Guardian, February 19, 2017. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/19/torture-videos-cast-shadow-over-iraqi-forces-west-mosul-offensive

[2]  Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Iraqi PM Announces West Mosul Attack as Images of Security Forces’ Brutality Emerge.” The Guardian, February 19, 2017. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/19/violent-videos-threaten-iraqi-campaign-mosul.

Detention Iraq Islamic State Variants Loren Schofield Option Papers Psychological Factors

Syria Options: Safe Zone

Carlo Valle has served in United States Marine Corps and the United States Army.  A graduate of History at Concordia University (Montreal) he is presently pursuing a Masters in Geopolitics and International Relations at the Catholic University of Paris.  He can be found on Twitter @cvalle0625.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


National Security Situation:  Civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 4, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 2, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is a former enlisted member of the United States military and a constructivist who believes that international relations are influenced by more than just power and anarchy but also by the construction of identity.  The article is written from the point of view of the U.S. towards the Syrian Civil War.

Background:  The Syrian Civil War has moved into its fifth year.  A combination of intertwined and conflicting interests has created a stalemate for all sides thus prolonging human suffering.  Attempting to break the stalemate, Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air forces are bombing civilian targets in rebel-controlled areas, despite claims of targeting only the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra-held areas.

Significance:  The conflict has sparked a mass exodus of refugees fleeing the fighting.  This mass exodus has overwhelmed neighboring countries and Europe.  To ease this refugee burden and human suffering, some have proposed establishing safe zones.

Option #1:  Establish a safe zone.  A safe zone is a de-militarized area intended to provide safety to non-combatants.

Risk:  For Syria and Russia to respect a safe zone it must protect non-combatants and remain neutral.  If Syrian opposition forces use the safe zone as a place from which to mount operations Syria and Russia could then justify attacking the safe zone [1].  If the safe zone is attacked by Syria and Russia, and U.S. and Coalition troops protecting the safe zone are killed or wounded, the U.S. risks war with Syria or Russia [2].  Additionally, if U.S. and Coalition troops discover Syrian opposition forces in the safe zone hostilities could erupt.  These hostilities could be used by ISIL or Al-Nusra to recruit new fighters and be a political embarrassment for the U.S. and the Coalition.

Establishing a safe zone will require a sizable neutral military presence that can deter attack and dissuade the Syrian opposition attempting to occupy the safe zone [3].  The military personnel protecting the safe zone must have clear rules of engagement and the overall safe zone mission will require a conditions-based arrival and exit strategy.  Just as important as establishing a safe zone is knowing when and how to extract oneself.  This goes beyond fear of media or political accusations of “being stuck in a quagmire” or “appeasement.”  Instead, the concern is based in judging whether the safe zone is becoming an obstacle to peace or worsening the situation.

Gain:  Establishing a safe zone will protect non-combatants thereby reducing the number of refugees overwhelming Syria’s Mid-East neighbors and Europe.  In the long-term, refugees that are unable to return to their homeland may destabilize the region by being unable to integrate into their host-nation’s society or by falling into the trap of radicalism[4].  Similar situations have happened in the 20th century with the Palestinian refugee crisis and Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Option #2:  Forgoing a safe zone.

Risk:  Not establishing a safe zone runs the long-term risks of regional instability or a new wave of radicalism that could be a problem for decades.  According to Stephen Walt, the U.S. has no interests in Syria to justify any involvement[5].  However, the Syrian Civil War has brought social and economic strain upon Syria’s neighbors and Europe.  In the Middle East, U.S. regional partners could turn their backs on the U.S. if they feel that the U.S. is not acting in their interests i.e. taking actions to stem the flow of refugees.  U.S. relationships in the Middle East are already strained due to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.  In Europe, refugee migration has ushered a wave of anti-European Union populism that questions the very international system of cooperation the U.S. has benefitted from since the end of World War II.  Were this questioning of the international system to fracture Europe, it would not be able to counter Russian aggression.

Gain:  The biggest advantage to forgoing the safe zone is the ability to keep other options open. U.S. and Coalition forces could be better used elsewhere, likely focusing on near-peer competitors such as Russia or China.  U.S. and Coalition forces could be employed in the Baltic States, or in the Pacific Rim to counter Russian aggression and China’s rise.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Joseph, E. P., & Stacey, J. A. (2016). A Safe Zone for Syria: Kerry’s Last Chance. Foreign Affairs. Accessed from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2016-10-05/safe-zone-syria

[2]  Bier, D. J. (2016). Safe Zones Won’t Save Syrians. National Interest. Accessed from http://nationalinterest.org/feature/safe-zones-wont-save-syrians-17979

[3]  Stout, M. (2015). [W]Archives: When “Safe Zones” Fail. War on the Rocks. Accessed from http://warontherocks.com/2015/07/warchives-when-safe-zones-fail/

[4]  Kristoff, N. (2016). Obama’s Worst Mistake [Op-Ed]. The New York Times. Accessed from http://nyti.ms/2aCJ54F

[5]  Walt, S. M. (2016). The Great Myth About U.S. Intervention in Syria. Foreign Policy. Accessed from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/24/the-great-myth-about-u-s-intervention-in-syria-iraq-afghanistan-rwanda/

Carlo Valle Civil War Islamic State Variants No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Russia Syria United States

Syria Options: No Fly Zone & Remove Assad

Barefoot Boomer is a U.S. Army officer and has served in both the Infantry and Armor.  He is currently a Strategic Planner serving in Texas.  He can be found on Twitter at @BarefootBoomer.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.


National Security Situation:  Civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  November 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 19, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Barefoot Boomer is a Strategic Planner with the U.S. Army and has previously served in the Operation Inherent Resolve Coalition Headquarters which leads the U.S. effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Background:  Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011 there has been no limit to the suffering of the Syrian civilian population.  Not only has the violence caused regional instability and the largest refugee crisis in recent history, but the cost in civilian lives has grown exponentially, the siege of Aleppo being a prime example.  Thousands of civilians have been under siege in Aleppo for over two years, victims of Syrian and Russian aerial attacks.  Civilian targets, including hospitals and neighborhoods, have been bombed killing many.  Aid convoys attempting to relieve the siege have also been attacked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian supporters.

Significance:  Nature abhors a vacuum.  So does U.S. foreign policy, hence the reason why the U.S. seeming inaction in Syria is mind-boggling to some.  Disturbing images of dead civilians, including heartbreaking pictures of young children, have provoked calls for the international community to “do something.”  The lawlessness and indiscriminate targeting of civilians as well as the huge flood of refugees streaming out of Syria has turned a civil war into an international crisis.  As the U.S. is the leader of the anti-ISIS Coalition, and would be the main executor of, and bear the brunt of any operation, it is prudent to understand the U.S. position as well as implications.  Any intervention by the U.S. and her allies is also significant to regional neighbors and actors, such as Syria and Russia.

Option #1:  Establish a no-fly zone in part of Syria.  A no-fly zone is airspace designated as off-limits to flight-related activities[1].

Risk:  There are numerous risks involved in establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians and refugees fleeing the ongoing fighting.  Militarily, attempting to set up a no-fly zone that could reasonably protect civilians would be a tremendous task.  The U.S. and her allies would have to use air power to establish air superiority to protect the area from Syrian and Russian air attacks.  This would mean conducting actions to suppress air defenses and destroy Syrian and Russian aircraft, either in the air or possibly on the ground.  It would also have to include hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. ground troops to support air operations.  The logistics involved would also be incredibly complex.  The political risks are just as daunting.  Seizing sovereign Syrian territory in order to establish a no-fly zone with U.S. troops would be a de facto invasion, which would anger Assad’s main ally, Russia.  The threat of U.S. and Russia confronting each other would rise exponentially, just as the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford Jr has insinuated[2].

Gain:  There would be little gain from establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.  Not only would the immediate risks outweigh any perceived gains in the long-term but it would not necessarily help those people still trapped inside Aleppo or other population centers.

Option #2:  Remove Assad.

Risk:  Ultimately, the underlying cause of civilian deaths and suffering in Syria is the Syrian regime itself, led by President Bashar al-Assad.  If the U.S. and its’ Coalition of willing allies decided, under the auspices of a Responsibility to Protect[3] Syrian civilians, to attempt to address the underlying cause, they would become directly involved in the civil war and remove Assad from power.  The risks in doing so are enormous, not only to the U.S. and the Coalition, but to the Syrian people they would be attempting to help.  It would take hundreds of thousands of Coalition troops to do regime change similar to what the U.S. did in Iraq in 2003.  The U.S. public has little stomach for another Middle East regime changing war or the spending of blood and treasure that comes with it.

Gain:  Removing Assad would most assuredly lift the siege of Aleppo and relieve the horror civilians are experiencing on the ground but it would not necessarily stop the sectarian strife and political upheaval that are at the heart of the civil war.  If nothing else U.S. involvement would increase tensions with not only Russia and other regional actors but would embroil U.S. forces in another possibly decade-long occupation and stability operation.  More civilians, not less, may be caught up in the post-Assad violence that would certainly hamper efforts at rebuilding.

Other Comments:  Any decision made regarding involvement in Syria must come down to risk.  How much risk are the U.S. and her allies willing to take to ensure the safety of the Syrian people, and how much is there to gain from that risk.  Also, with a new U.S. President assuming office in January 2017, there is uncertainty about whether U.S. Syrian policy will stay the same or radically change.  Ultimately, weighing the spending of blood and treasure to establish a no-fly zone in Syria must be bounded within the confines of U.S. national security interests.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Hinote, C. (2015, May 05). How No-Fly Zones Work. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/05/05/how-no-fly-zones-work/

[2]  Dunford tells Wicker controlling airspace in Syria means war with Russia. (2016, September 25). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4621738/dunford-tells-wicker-controlling-airspace-syria-means-war-russia-mccain-throws-tantrum-dunford

[3]  Office of The Special Adviser on The Prevention of Genocide. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

Barefoot Boomer Civil War Islamic State Variants Leadership Change No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Russia Syria United States

Red Team Options for Syria: The Fall of Raqqa, Syria from an Islamic State Perspective

Vincent Dueñas is a Master of International Public Policy candidate and Strategic Studies concentrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a U.S. Army Major.  The views reflected are his own and do not represent the opinion of the United States Government or any of its agencies.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


isw-map-20161208

Source: Institute for the Study of War

National Security Situation:  Fall of Raqqa, Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 15, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is a red team exercise, written from the point of view of a senior planner in the Islamic State who is tasked with recommending strategy options, assuming that Mosul, Iraq will fall and that Raqqa will be next.

Background:  The ultimate goal is and remains the establishment of a powerful caliphate that can govern and impose Shari’a.  This will be done by reinforcing the legitimacy and authenticity of the Caliphate.  The likely fall of Mosul in Iraq necessitates a reexamination of the core tenets of our current campaign plan in order to ensure the Caliphate’s continued existence in Syria.  We are experiencing significant losses in personnel and manpower in Mosul, Raqqa, and al-Bab, as the enemy fighters push aggressively into our territory [1] (See Map Above).  To date we are estimated to have lost over 15% of our land holdings since 2015[2].  We initially did three things well to establish the Caliphate: 1. Tapped into Sunni Muslim grievances, 2. Established functioning local governance that benefited true faith Sunni Muslims and 3. Launched spectacular terror campaigns against Western targets, using sophisticated media campaigns.

Significance:  We are now at a critical point on the battlefield where we must decide on how best to consolidate and reorganize in order to prevent total annihilation and be able to continue waging jihad and protect the Caliphate.

Option #1:  Maintain a primarily conventional warfare strategy with a widespread harsh punishment strategy against civilians in our controlled territories.

Risk:  The primary risk in Option #1 stems from maintaining a conventional warfare strategy that would lead to a siege of Raqqa and a potentially catastrophic military defeat of our forces.  This would discredit our claim to the Caliphate and potentially risk the life of our leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A secondary risk stemming from the continued use of widespread harsh punishment against the civilian population in our territories is the potential for local populations to turn against the Caliphate and provide information and support to the invading enemy.

A tertiary risk is encouraging the continued support of the great powers, Russia and the U.S., because of their perceived progress.  Currently the great powers are only committed to air power and very few ground forces because their populations only tacitly support military action.

Maintaining our current conventional and punishment strategy almost ensures a direct confrontation against all of our forces, which could potentially overwhelm us.

Gain:  The greatest gain to undertaking Option #1 is that if we were to begin defeating the enemy forces, backed by the great powers, we would fulfill the legitimacy that we initially claimed when we overwhelmed eastern Syria and western Iraq.  Success in conventional warfare would increase the belief in al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate worldwide and a continued widespread harsh punishment strategy would fulfill the implementation of Shari’a without concession.

Option #2:  Transition to an insurgency warfare strategy with a targeted punishment strategy against civilians in our controlled territories.

Risk:  The primary risk in Option #2 stems from the transition to an insurgency, which jeopardizes the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate by disappearing into the shadows when the stated goal was to spread Shari’a actively.  Our current gains in international messaging and reach could be greatly diminished if it is believed that the Islamic State had been defeated and dissolved.

Gain:  The most obvious gain in Option #2 would be the continued existence of the Islamic State.  Al-Baghdadi and the Caliphate would be preserved and could reorganize to continue the jihad.  The first prerequisite for a successful insurgency is the ability to identify totally with the cause and the population attracted to it[3].  The Islamic State and the Caliphate identify completely with the cause of Shari’a and the entire majority of the population that seeks Sunni Muslim rule, thus stands most poised to overtake groups like al-Qaida and convert all Muslims sects to our path.

The likely fall of Raqqa would still occur, but would not wipe out the majority of our forces as we blend into the populations of cities like Palmyra and the border regions between Abu Kamal, Syria and Al Qu’im, Iraq.  These areas can remain under our firm grip as a weak Syrian government would be unable to extend governance effectively.

Shifting to an insurgency strategy would mean expanded guerrilla tactics against Syrian government forces and rebel forces in order to ensure a disruption of any sense of control, with the possibility of exhausting great power support.  Even more beneficial would be the increased ability for the Islamic State to act subversively to pit Russia against the U.S. through guerrilla attacks masquerading as either Assad forces or anti-Assad forces. An insurgency would sow continued instability throughout the country and prevent any direct confrontational military engagements.

The transition to a targeted punishment strategy would begin to spare Sunni Muslims thus removing a strong distaste that has emerged over our tactics.  Among other Muslims and non-believers, a more judicious use of punishment would encourage compliance and submission to Shari’a and more easily allow us to collect resources through taxes.

An insurgency would also allow us to successfully exploit the historic grievances of our targeted areas.  These Sunni Muslims have witnessed the indiscriminate killing of Sunnis at the hands of Hezbollah and the Assad government who are Shia.  The Islamic State offers the retribution that they seek and through a more judicial hand we can attract broader support.

Other Comments:  An important capability that has not been discussed, but which we have perfected, is our unique capacity to operate on the internet.  Our continued existence can be supported and expanded by using more sophisticated internet-protocol masking software that will allow us to continue publishing propaganda and maintain social media presence to actively recruit foreign fighters and encourage lone wolf attacks.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Gutowski, Alexandra. (2016, December 8). ISIS Sanctuary: December 8, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/isis-sanctuary-map-december-8-2016.

[2]  Islamic State and the crisis in Iraq and Syria. (2016, November 2). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034.

[3]  Galula, David. (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. New York: Praeger.

 

Islamic State Variants Option Papers Red Team Syria Vincent Dueñas Violent Extremism

Options for Turkey in Syria

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Chris Townsend is an active duty U.S. Army officer with 20 years of service.  He is a Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer.  He can be found on Twitter @FAO_Chris and has written for the Journal of Defense Resources Management, Small Wars Journal, Armchair General, and the Strategy Bridge.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Turkey’s options regarding the civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  November 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 12, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is an active duty military officer currently focused on Multinational Logistics for a Geographic Combatant Command.  This article explores Turkey’s options in the Syrian Conflict.  The author’s opinions of Turkey’s options in Syria have been informed by his experiences as a Foreign Area Officer and benefitted from articles published by World Politics Review, Politico, The Middle East Institute, The Atlantic Council, and Stratfor.

Background:  Following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, protests in Syria resulted in a security crackdown that devolved into outright civil war between Alawi leaders and loyalists and the largely Sunni resistance.  Refugee flows from conflict areas have created problems for all neighboring countries.  Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been actively involved in the resistance, while Lebanese Hezbollah has supported the Syrian ruling regime.  Russia has intervened on behalf of the Syrian government, while the United States has provided training and equipment to resistance fighters.  Kurdish militias in Northern Syria have largely supported opposition forces.  The complex and dynamic array of forces presents significant challenges politically and militarily for Turkey.

Significance:  The ongoing sectarian struggle in Syria presents significant security challenges for Turkey.  The presence of international and indigenous military forces in Syria as well as heavy refugee flows fleeing the fighting all represent a threat to the security and stability of the Turkish state.

Option #1:  Containment.  Turkey can close its border and protect its airspace until the situation in Syria is resolved.

Risk:  Refugee flows will create problems at the border and a potential humanitarian crisis that would draw condemnation from the global community.  Kurdish militias will be able to link up and may represent a perceived threat to Turkish security.

Gain:  Refugees are kept out of Turkey.  Turkish military involvement is limited to border security and airspace defense.  Turkey provides a neutral space for negotiations between belligerents and reaps potential diplomatic gains.

Option #2:  Syrian Buffer Zone.  Turkey pushes ground and air forces south to secure Northern Syria from Azaz in the West to Jarabulus in the East.

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Risk:  Turkish troops exposed to increased conflict from Syrian Forces.  Potential clashes with Kurdish and Russian military elements could escalate conflict.  Actions could be seen as the invasion of a sovereign nation and will likely be met with condemnation and potential sanctions.  No-fly zone activities to support the buffer zone may be challenged by Russia or Syria with ramifications for interdiction.  Turkish resources are insufficient to sustain such an effort and would require external support for extended operations.

Gain:  Provides a safe space for refugees without allowing them into Turkey.  Prevents Kurdish elements in the East and West from linking up.  Provides a learning opportunity to Turkish Forces by deploying troops and equipment into combat with a minimal logistics tail.

Option #3:  Support to Syrian proxy Jaysh Halab (Army of Aleppo).  Turkey provides training and equipment with support from Saudi Arabia to its proxy in Syria to maintain a Turkish footprint without Turkish presence and prevent Kurdish elements from combining into a larger force on Turkey’s southern border.

Risk:  Exposure to culpability for actions of the proxy force if war crimes are committed against Syrian or Kurdish soldiers or civilians.  Lack of vetting capability exposes the proxy to infiltration by other elements.  Little clarity of intent as forces are engaging both Kurdish and Syrian forces.

Gain:  Proxy inhibits Kurdish momentum towards unification of forces.  Increased relations with Saudi Arabia help to further offset Iranian influence in the region.  Turkey poised to establish proxy as peacekeeping force if hostilities cease, maintaining influence in Syria and positive control of border interests.

Other Comments:  Turkey seems to be currently pursuing all three options simultaneously.  A border wall is under construction.  Turkish forces are operating in Syria. Jaysh Halab is receiving support but its early activities seem to be anti-Kurd instead of anti-Syrian Government.  The Turkish presence in Northern Iraq serves as a hedge that will largely funnel retreating Islamic State forces west into Raqqah, Syria.  The Turkish or proxy forces to the North of Raqqah provide pressure and limit options for the Islamic State as threats emerge from the East and South.  Turkey represents a potential spoiler for U.S. efforts to clear Raqqah as their involvement creates political hazards by limiting U.S. options and increasing the risk of rejection by Kurdish partners.

Recommendation:  None


Endnotes:

None.

Chris Townsend Civil War Islamic State Variants Option Papers Syria Turkey