Al-Qaeda is enduring security threat despite Hamza bin Laden’s death, experts warn

Al-Qaeda in YemenAl-Qaeda and its affiliate groups continue to be the most persistent transnational threats to the security of the West, according to experts who spoke after the alleged death of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. Last week The New York Times reported that Hamza bin Laden, widely seen as an ascending figure in the group that his father co-founded in the 1980s, was killed sometime after 2017. The paper cited two anonymous United States government officials who said that Hamza bin Laden died in 2017 or 2018 as a result of a military operation led by an unnamed state.

But experts have since warned that the death of Hamza bin Laden has not significantly weakened al-Qaeda. At a briefing in Washington on Thursday, Nathan Sales, a US Department of State acting under secretary who focuses on security and terrorism, stressed that “al-Qaeda is as strong as it has ever been”. The group’s relative quietness in recent years should not be perceived as an indication of weakness or resignation, said Sales. On the contrary, the Sunni militant group remains “very much in this fight”, he cautioned. Unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda has been patient in the past five years and has strategically allowed ISIS to “absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts”, said Sales. During that time, al-Qaeda patiently rebuilt itself and largely recovered from the blow it suffered in the years leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Today al-Qaeda retains significant territory in northwest Syria and is also present throughout Yemen, where it counts on the support of many thousands of armed fighters, according to Sales. Its affiliate group in Somalia was behind a car bombing in Mogadishu in July, while the group also took responsibility for an armed attack in an upscale suburb of Kenya in January of this year. Another expert, Jason Blazakis, who until last year directed the US Department of State’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, appears to agree with Sales. In an article published last Friday, Blazakis cautioned that Hamza bin Laden’s demise, if true, “doesn’t mean that al Qaeda no longer represents a critical threat to US national security”. On the contrary, he said, the group’s “strategic patience and focus on the ‘far enemy’”, i.e. the United States, make it “the most enduring transnational threat to US national security interests”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 August 2019 | Permalink

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Analysis: Are US border security officials ignoring terrorism threat from Canada?

Canada borderSince the election of President Donald Trump, the issue of border security between the United States and Mexico has been a major topic of national debate. But is the incessant focus on America’s southern border by the news media and politicians ignoring security concerns emanating from the country’s northern neighbor, Canada? In a thought-provoking editorial in the English-language Emirati newspaper The National, Stephen Starr employs statistics to argue that the flow of extremism from Canada into the US may represent a greater security concern for Washington than immigration flows from Mexico.

According to US government sources, six foreigners whose names featured on the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) —the central terrorist watchlist maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center— attempted to enter the US from Mexico in the first half of 2018. Starr points out that during that same period no fewer than 41 foreigners who were on the TSDB tried to enter the US from Canada. In the past three and a half years, four Canadian residents have been charged with carrying out or conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on US soil. They include a Palestinian living in Toronto and a Tunisian living in Montreal, who planned to derail a passenger train making the journey from Ontario to New York. Both were jailed for life. Another resident of Canada, Abdulrahman el-Bahnasawy, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for trying to plant bombs in New York’s Times Square and on a New York subway train. El-Bahnasawy, who was 20 when he was sentenced, was directly guided by Islamic State handlers in the Philippines and Pakistan. Starr notes that nearly 200 Canadian citizens and residents are thought to have traveled abroad to fight for the Islamic State, and that around 60 of those are now back in Canada.

While all this is happening, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, America’s main border control organization, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, appears to be ignoring the country’s northern border. It is worth noting that the 5,525 mile-long border is the longest in the world, but is monitored by no more than about 2,000 CBP agents. In contrast, over 16,000 CBP agents keep tabs on America’s border with Mexico. Responding to political pressure from the White House, the CBP keeps stationing more agents to the southern border. In the meantime, requests by CBP supervisors along the Canadian border to increase their force by 200 agents remain unfulfilled. This is despite the fact that the number of people detained while trying to enter the US illegally from the Canadian province of Quebec has nearly trebled since 2015, notes Starr.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 2019 | Permalink

ISIS could make bigger comeback than 2014 in Iraq and Syria, warns new report

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is capable of make a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain, according to a new report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The Washington-based think-tank’s report is based on the most recent data about the presence in the Middle East of the militant Islamist group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The 76-page report (.pdf) is titled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, and is written by ISW’s researchers Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou.

The authors claim that the Islamic State moved its forces undercover during the multinational military campaign that eventually sacked its self-proclaimed caliphate. They go on to explain that by “deliberately withdrawing and relocating may of its fighters and their families”, the group managed to preserve a large part of its fighting forces, which are “now dispersed across [Iraq and Syria] and are waging a capable insurgency”. The latter is funded through ISIS’ global finance network and armed with weapons and other war materiel that the group managed to hide in tunnel systems and other hidden facilities. Islamic State insurgents have thus been engaged in a broad and largely successful campaign to assassinate village and town elders across Iraq, and have even reestablished a sharia-based taxation system in some of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas. The group also retains a significant presence in Syria, where it continues to battle the Syrian regime, US-supported Kurdish forces, and other Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda, according to the report.

Through its widening insurgency, the Islamic State has managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce a semblance of stability and safety in areas previously conquered by the militant group. In fact, not only are government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both countries, the report warns. The report’s authors place much of the blame for ISIS’ resurgence at Washington’s door, describing America’s hasty military withdrawal from Iraq and Syria as “a critical mistake”. In its recommendations section, the report calls on the United States to develop and implement a long-term counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, which will combine military and community-building measures. “Another limited [military] intervention will not be sufficient” to eliminate the threat, the report’s authors claim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2019 | Permalink

Indian officials admit for first time Islamic State militants are present in Kashmir

Islamic State India KashmirIndian counterterrorism officials have alleged in court that four members of the Islamic State in Indian-administered Kashmir were guided by a handler from Pakistan. The court case involves four young men from Jammu and Kashmir who were arrested last November on terrorism charges. Court documents filed recently identify the four as members of the Islamic State. This development is significant because Indian officials have until recently dismissed as overstated claims that the Islamic State is present in Kashmir. The unfurling of Islamic State banners by anti-government rioters is a regular phenomenon in Indian Kashmir. But government officials dismiss those who wave such banners as impressionable youth who have no access to weaponry or logistical support from the Islamic State. Last November’s arrests, however, highlighted the fact that the Islamic State does in fact have an armed presence on the ground in India.

The four young men have been named as Haris Mushtaq Khan, Tahir Ahmad Khan, Asif Suhail Nadaf and Asif Majid. They were apprehended in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir’s largest city, following the arrest in September of 2018 of two other men who were allegedly affiliated with a group calling itself the Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK). The group has since renamed itself to Islamic State – Khorasan Province, while recently it proclaimed an overseas province in the region, which it calls “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind). Three of the four men have been charged with attacking a tourist visitor center in the area with hand grenades. In their official indictment against the four men, officers of India’s National Investigation Agency accuse them of being “confirmed terrorists of the Islamic State”, which amounts to the first confirmation in Indian government documents of the presence of Islamic State militants in India. The 28-page indictment states that the four men were among several locals who “acted as ground workers and […] provided logistics to the ISJK cadres”.

Additionally, two of the men, Haris and Tahir, are accused of having been in contact online with a man identified as Abu Huzefa, an Islamic State recruiter based in Afghanistan. According to the court documents Huzefa is a Pakistani national and “an active cadre of the Islamic State based in Afghanistan”. He was allegedly in regular contact with the two Indian men and provided them with Islamic State literature and other propaganda material. In their indictment the NIA officers also admit that the arrests of the four men point to “a larger conspiracy of these terrorist elements propagating pan-Islamic ideology of IS by recruiting and radicalizing Kashmiri youth towards jihad and targeting security forces”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 June 2019 | Permalink

Islamic State announces new overseas province in India for the first time

ISIS IndiaThe group calling itself the Islamic State has announced the establishment of a new overseas province in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. The announcement was made over the weekend by Amaq, which serves as the news agency of the Islamic State. According to the news release, the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has named the new province “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind), and said it is based in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, which is located in one of the three administrative divisions of the Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Amaq report surfaced following an armed clash between a group of Islamist militants and Indian security forces in Amshipora, a village in the district of Shopian, which is in the foothills of the northern Himalayan Mountains. At least one Islamist militant was killed in the armed confrontation, which reportedly lasted two hours. Indian authorities identified the dead militant as Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi, and said he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The Amaq statement alleged that the militants in Amshipora had “inflicted casualties” on the security forces, but the claim was denied by the Indian government. The Reuters news agency spoke with Rita Katz, an Israeli analyst who directs the SITE Intelligence Group in the United States. She said that the announcement of a new Islamic State province “should not be written off”, but added that “the establishment of a province in a region where [the Islamic State] has nothing resembling actual governance is absurd”.

Writing in the Hong-Kong-based Asia Times, Prakash Katoch, a retired lieutenant general in the Indian Army’s Special Forces, said that the announcement of a wilayah in India was a first for the Islamic State. He warned that after announcing a province in Indian Kashmir, the Islamic State “may also attempt to increase its presence in other Indian states” with a significant Muslim presence, such as Kerala or West Bengal. Katoch noted that “a number of young men and women from Kerala” had been identified as having joined the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017. Several of them even traveled to Syria to fight for the Sunni Islamist group, he added.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 May 2019 | Permalink

Documents show ISIS plans sleeper cell attacks in Middle East, Europe

Islamic State - IADocuments acquired from retreating Islamic State fighters in Syria appear to show that the militant group is planning a series of high-profile attacks in Europe and the Middle East, using newly formed sleeper cell units. The information was revealed over the weekend by the British newspaper The Sunday Times. The London-based broadsheet said that the information was found last month in flash drive, which was left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in Syria, and acquired by Kurdish militia forces. The flash drive was found to contain dozens of internal documents belonging the militant group, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Among them, said The Times, are several memoranda authored by an ISIS leader and operations planner known as Abu Taher al-Tajiki. In his memoranda, al-Tajiki informs the group’s senior leadership that he commands numerous fighters who are willing and able to carry out strikes “far away” from the Islamic State’s strongholds in the Middle East and Africa. He states that he is in regular communication with them and that they are awaiting instructions to “undertake the operations”. Al-Tajiki then calls for the creation of a Foreign Relations Office under the Islamic State’s Department of Operations, which would be tasked with launching attacks throughout Europe. He adds that the new Office can also count on the assistance of computer hackers and other technically literate Islamic State members. In another memorandum, al-Tajiki suggests the creation of what he calls “crocodile cells” in Syria and Iraq. These cells will “lurk beneath the surface” and “attack at the right moment to assassinate the enemies of Allah”, says al-Tajiki.

The Times report comes as experts warn that the Islamic State retains significant financial power, despite the loss of its territories in the Middle East. In a well-informed article in The Atlantic, David Kenner reports from Beirut that the Islamic State without its territories is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the group cannot rely on taxation and oil revenues that used to enrich its coffers by $1 million per day during the height of its power. On the other hand, argues Kenner, the loss of its territory has freed the Islamic State from the costs associated with state-running and allows it to devote its financial resources “exclusively to terrorist activity”. These resources —cash and other assets— are formidable, says Kenner. In the words of Howard Shatz, senior economist at the Rand Corporation and an expert on ISIS’ finances, we “don’t know where it all went” after ISIS lost its territory. We do know that much of it has been invested in “legitimate commercial enterprises”, says Shatz, with the help of profit-oriented middlemen with access to markets that are as far away as Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. A lot of it is hidden in suitcases and boxes throughout Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All of it is intended to be used to fund terrorist attacks, warns Kenner.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 March 2019 | Permalink

Dutch counterterrorism report sees rise in Islamist recruitment in the West

NCTV HollandHolland’s chief counterterrorism agency has warned that, despite losing its territories in the Middle East, the Islamic State continues to recruit operatives and is ready to launch attacks in the West “at a moment’s notice”. The warning is contained in a report published last week by the Dutch National Coordinator of Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV). Established in 2005 as the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and renamed in 2012, the NCTV works under Holland’s Justice and Security Minister. It is responsible for analyzing terrorism threats and assessing the country’s domestic terrorism threat level.

In its most recent report (.pdf), entitled Terrorist Threat Assessment Netherlands, the NCTV warns that it is not only the Islamic State (known also as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) that remains highly active, but also al-Qaeda. The two groups are riding a wave of Salafist Muslim extremism that appears to be on the rise throughout Europe, says the report. ISIS, in particular, continues to engage in extensive recruitment drives in the West, which take place mostly through the dissemination of propaganda material online. There is also a proliferation of an underground recruitment movement in conservative Muslim schools and mosques across the West, says the report (.pdf).

But the most serious short-term threat to European and North American security, according to the NCTV document, comes from so-called returnees, citizens of European countries who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and are now returning —or trying to return— to their home states in the West. The majority of these men and women remain faithful to the idea of the caliphate despite the failure of their efforts in the Middle East. There is a risk that, upon their return to the West, they will connect with existing —and growing— Salafist underground networks there, and remain active in radical circles. The report also notes that both ISIS and al-Qaeda are showing increasing interest in developing chemical and biological weapons for use against civilian and military targets.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 March 2019 | Permalink