Analysis: Women becoming growing force inside Islamic State, says expert

Islamic State womenThe role of women inside the Islamic State is growing, as the Sunni militant group is transmuting into an underground organization, according to a Harvard University terrorism expert. Since its meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been known for advocating for strict segregation between men and women. In the early stages of the group’s emergence, combat roles were exclusively performed by men, while women’s roles were limited to childbearing and housework. But according to Vera Mironova, Visiting Scholar in the Economics Department at Harvard University, and former Associate of the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the Islamic State’s policy on gender roles is shifting rapidly.

Mironova, who has carried out research in Iraq while embedded with the country’s Special Operations Forces, argues that the Islamic State has been “quietly shifting its insistence of strict gender hierarchy” and is now “allowing, even celebrating, female participation in military roles”. In an article published earlier this week in The New York Times, Mironova states that early indications of this shift were visible as early as 2017. In October of that year, ISIS publications issued calls for “women to prepare for battle”. Within a year, the group was publicly praising its women fighters and even published a video showing veiled Islamic State female fighters firing AK-47 assault rifles. The video praised women fighters for “seeking revenge for [their] religion and for the honor of [their] sisters”.

In her article, the Harvard terrorism expert says that it is not possible to estimate with accuracy the number of women who have picked up arms on behalf of the Islamic State. But she adds that interviews with Iraqi military and police officials suggest that female Islamic State fighters are now “a regular presence that no longer surprises, as it did a few years ago”. There is a tradition of fervent women supporters of the militant group that dates from its very beginning, claims Mironova. She gives the example of female radicals who insisted that their husbands or sons join the Islamic State, or who sought to marry Islamic State combatants in order to be part of “mujahedeen families”. Recently, however, the relative scarcity of male fighters in the ranks of the militant group has led to calls for females to take their place in the front lines. As the Islamic State is transmuting into an underground organization, women are also becoming more useful as covert operatives because they attract less attention by Iraqi or Syrian government troops.

In many cases, women supporters of the Islamic State who lost male family members in the ongoing war pick up arms or put on suicide vests in order to extract revenge. In other cases they do in order to secure protection, favors or money for their families from the insurgents. The fact is, says Mironova, that women fighters are becoming more prominent in the Islamic State’s combat lines and are even participating in the group’s suicide bombing campaign. The latter continues unabated in Iraq and Syria, despite the near-complete loss of the Islamic State’s territorial control, says Mironova.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 February 2019 | Permalink

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Hundreds of MI5 officers prepare for Brexit violence in Northern Ireland

New IRAThe British Security Service (MI5) has over 700 officers —more than 20 percent of its entire force— stationed in Northern Ireland, due to fears that the Brexit process might reignite the centuries-long sectarian conflict there. In 1922, nationalist rebels managed to dislodge Ireland from the British Empire. But six counties in Ireland’s north remained under British dominion, and today form the British territory of Northern Ireland. Irish nationalists have for decades engaged in an unsuccessful campaign —at times peaceful and at times violent— to unite these counties with the Republic of Ireland. Following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, nationalist and British loyalist groups in Northern Ireland terminated their armed operations and entered the political arena, effectively sharing power in the British territory. The integration of Ireland and Britain into the European Union helped in that process by effectively bringing to an end border checks between the two countries. Thus, pro-British loyalists continued to live under British rule, while nationalists have been able to cross from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic and back without restrictions, as if the two states were effectively unified.

But this open-border regime is about to change once Britain leaves the European Union in March. Many fear that the reinstated border will remind nationalist communities in the North that the island of Ireland remains partitioned and will thus reignite secessionist sentiments. A few days ago, the London-based newspaper The Daily Mail cited an unnamed “counterterrorism source” who said that MI5, Britain’s primary counterterrorism agency, had stationed a fifth of its force in Northern Ireland. The agency is allegedly monitoring a number of dissident republican groups —a term used to describe armed groups of Irish nationalists who continue to reject the nationalist community’s majority view to endorse the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998. One such group —which is commonly seen as the most formidable in existence today— is the self-described New Irish Republican Army. The New IRA was formed in 2012 when dissident republican cells joined another dissident nationalist group, known as the Real IRA. The new formation is particularly strong in Northern Ireland’s extreme northwest, which includes urban centers like Derry. British security officials believe that the New IRA consists of about 40 hardcore members who are committed to an armed campaign against British rule in the North.

Nearly 50 New IRA militants are currently serving sentences in the British and Irish prison systems, while several raids of New IRA members’ residences and other properties have unearthed weaponry —including fully automatic weapons— and explosives. But the group managed to detonate a car bomb in Derry on January 19 of this year. The bomb employed gas canisters and went off nearly 30 minutes after an unidentified man called a charity shop located nearby and issued a bomb warning. Police officers rushed to the scene and were there when the bomb exploded. There were no injuries, according to reports in local media.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 January 2019 | Permalink

‘Illusion of safety’ blamed for deaths of four US service members in Syria

Manbij SyriaThe “illusion of safety” has been blamed for the death of four American service members in northern Syria last week, after a suicide bomber attacked a restaurant, killing at least 19 people and wounding countless others. The deadly attack happened in Manbij, a small Kurdish-majority town near the Syrian-Turkish border, which American forces previously viewed as an oasis of security in the war-torn country. American troops fought alongside a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters who in 2016 took control of Manbij from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since then, American forces have remained in the area —mostly to prevent a military invasion by Washington’s ally Turkey, which views the Kurds as terrorists and has threatened to destroy their armed forces.

The relative stability of Manbij was violently disrupted last Wednesday, when a man detonated a suicide vest inside the Palace of the Princes restaurant in downtown Manbij. Until that moment, United States forces had lost just two members during the Syrian Civil War. Four more Americans died in Wednesday’s blast, including two service members, a military contractor and a civilian intelligence officer working for the Pentagon. Three other Americans were wounded and were airlifted out of the country. In an insightful article published last week, The New York Times quoted a US Special Forces member who wondered whether the US troops in northern Syria have “developed a false sense of security” in what remains a dangerous conflict zone. “The illusion of safety”, said the anonymous commentator, had caused the behavior of American service members in Manbij to fall into predictable routines. That became a vulnerability that the Islamic State was able to exploit, he said.

The Sunni militant group targeted the Palace of the Princes, one of the most popular eateries for Americans in Manbij. The Times quoted locals who said that American troops appeared to eat there nearly every time they patrolled the city, “often many times a week”. They would even park their military vehicles outside the restaurant while dining there, they said. The paper commented that many US troops had “grown complacent and should have varied their […] routes or increased their operational security” while on patrol. Unfortunately, however, their presence —and lack of adequate security— was noticed by the Islamic State, which targeted them on Wednesday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2019 | Permalink

Barcelona on high alert after US State Department terrorism warning

Las Ramblas BarcelonaPolice in Barcelona have intensified security checks in some of the Spanish city’s most recognizable landmarks, following a security warning from the United States Department of State. The surprise warning came in the form of a post on the popular social networking site Twitter on Sunday, December 23. In the tweet, the Department of State advised travelers to “exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including buses”. It added that terrorists could “attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, and other public areas”. It is rare for the Department of State to issue warnings for specific locations, unless the US government is in possession of critical intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Hours after the Department of State’s warning, Miquel Buch, Minister of the Interior for Spain’s Catalonia region, told a radio station in Barcelona that local authorities were “engaged in assessing the warning” by the US authorities. Local media reported that increased police presence was visible around bus, minibus, train and metro stations throughout the Catalonian capital. Heavily armed police presence was also notable in Barcelona’s most popular tourist landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, and the mile-long Las Ramblas pedestrian Boulevard at the city’s center. There was no information about the precise nature of the US warning, but there were reports in Catalonian media on Tuesday that the alert notice involved the possibility of a vehicular attack by Islamists during the Christmas holiday season.

In August of 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born Islamist drove a van into large crowds of tourists at Las Ramblas, killing 14 and injuring nearly 150 people. Abouyaaqoub’s attack was followed by another assault by five men in Cambrils, a small seaside town south of Barcelona, who drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and injuring six more. All six men were members of the Islamic State. They were shot and killed by police and security forces.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 December 2018 | Permalink

Islamic State issues drone bomb warning following London airport chaos

Islamic State dronesOn the heels of chaotic scenes at Britain’s Gatwick Airport, which remained closed for three days due to reported sightings of drones, the Islamic State has released images on social media showing drones carrying packages to large Western cities. The images, which appear to be PhotoShopped, have reignited concerns that the group may be close to launching attacks on civilian targets around the world using drones. Known formally as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones have become increasingly accessible to private consumers in recent years. They range from miniature toy models that can be controlled via smartphone applications to highly sophisticated models that can carry significant loads to high altitudes.

In recent years, it has been reported that several militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Pakistan, have made use of drone technology for surveillance and combat purposes. But observers believe that the Islamic State may have the most advanced drone arsenal of any non-state group in the world. The militant Sunni-Muslim organization launched an experimental armed drone campaign in Iraq in 2016. A year earlier, Islamic State fighters had been seen making use of commercially purchased drones for surveillance purposes in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. In 2016, the Islamic State built several workshops to modify commercially purchased drones, and eventually to build its own models. In January 2017, the group announced the establishment of a new unit called “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen”, which operated a sizeable fleet of modified combat drones. The following month, the Islamic State claimed to have killed with the use of drones nearly 40 Iraqi soldiers in a single week. The militant group said it did so by using drones to drop three-pound mortar shells on Iraqi troop positions.

Counterterrorism specialists are concerned about what they see as the Islamic State’s “growing ambition” to use drones in the battlefield. But they doubt that the use of drones can by itself affect the outcome of battles. A much larger concern is the possibility that the Islamic State could transfer its drone knowledge outside the battlefield. It has long been confirmed that Islamic State militants have systematically discussed the possibility of deploying drones in civilian areas to drop explosives or even weaponized chemical substances. In October of this year, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray told the United States Congress that the threat of the use of drones by a group like the Islamic State against American tarets was “steadily escalating”. Wray said that the FBI assessed drones “will be used to facilitate an attack in the United States against a vulnerable target, such as a mass gathering”. He added that his assessment was based on several factors, such as the retail availability of the devices, the “lack of verified identification requirement to procure” drones, their ease of use, as well as the experience in the use of drones that militant groups have been amassing abroad.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 December 2018 | Permalink

Wave of bomb threats prompts hundreds of evacuations in four countries

Toronto subway evacuationAn unprecedented “flood of bomb threats” prompted hundreds of evacuations and closures of private buildings, transport hubs and offices in four countries on Thursday, causing confusion and in some cases panic. The threats —which numbered in the hundreds— were issued throughout the day Thursday against businesses, schools, hospitals and media companies in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is the first time in history that such a large wave of bomb threats was issued against so many targets internationally.

Police agencies in the United States and Canada said that most of the threats were emailed, but some were phoned in by unknown individuals. They warned that devices containing explosive compounds such as tetryl or trinitrotoluene would be detonated unless funds were deposited into an international account using the virtual currency bitcoin. The messages also warned that the alleged devices would be detonated if “any police activity or unusual behavior” were detected. A deadline of one business day was given to deposit the funds. Throughout the day, police agencies across three continents issued notices cautioning people to remain aware of their surroundings and report suspicious messages or behavior. It was eventually determined that virtually all bomb threats were not credible.

However, it was the sheer number and geographical extent of the threats that shocked law enforcement agencies across four countries. In the United States, threats were reported in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Oklahoma City, where over dozens of specific addresses were targeted. Nearly 30 schools were placed on lockout in the state of Colorado, while numerous buildings were evacuated in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Cincinnati and Seattle. Smaller cities were also affected, including South Bend, Indiana, Grand Rapids, Iowa, Charlotte, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia, and Park City, Utah. In Canada dozens of bomb threats were issued in Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Toronto, where five of the city’s subway stations were shut down for several hours. Media reports late on Thursday said it was unclear how many —if any— of those targeted paid the bitcoin ransoms demanded by the hoaxers.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 December 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Strasbourg attack raises serious security concerns in Europe

StrasbourgThe terrorist attack in the French city of Strasbourg on December 11 raises important security concerns for Europe’s ability to defend itself against a rapidly evolving Islamist insurgency. The attack lasted 10 minutes, from 7:50 to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening, and targeted shoppers in Christkindelsmärik, a large Christmas market held annually in Strasbourg. The lone shooter, who has since been identified as Chérif Chekatt, a French citizen, was reportedly heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) repeatedly as he opened fire on the unsuspecting shoppers. He also tried to stab some of them using a knife. Chekatt eventually exchanged fire with French soldiers and officers of the National Police before fleeing the scene of the attack in a taxi cab. Three people were declared dead at the scene, while 12 others were urgently transported to nearby hospitals. Six of them remain in critical condition. Chekatt remained at large until Thursday evening, when he was shot dead by police in Strasbourg.

It is important to stress that the choice of Strasbourg as the site of the terrorist strike was not accidental, nor was the attack spontaneous. A city and of nearly 500,000 inhabitants in its greater district, Strasbourg is one of the European Union’s de facto capitals. It hosts several European institutions, including the building of the European Parliament. Its geographical location on the French-German border epitomizes the crossroads of Franco-German cultural traditions. Its distinct character symbolizes the coexistence of Europe’s two leading powers, which forms the cornerstone of the European Union project. The majority of Strasbourg’s residents are bilingual and communicate in Alsacien, a peculiar mixture of French and German. The city also exemplifies a distinctive brand of 21st-century Christian unity through the balanced coexistence of Catholic and Protestant religious cultures. The Christkindelsmärik —the venue that was attacked on Tuesday— is Europe’s largest Christmas market and symbolizes precisely that coexistence. Providing that Tuesday’s attack was sanctioned and/or planned by the Islamic State or one of its affiliate organizations, its strong symbolism is apparent.

As Washington Examiner commentator Tom Rogan noted on Wednesday, it appears that the perpetrator of the attack was able to acquire a semi-automatic weapon, as well as grenades. Unlike the United States, accessing these types of weapons in Western Europe is exceedingly difficult. This is so especially in France, a country that has remained in a perpetual state of heightened security since the Paris attacks of November 2015. It is even more perplexing that Chekatt was able to acquire this type of weaponry, given that his name featured on the terrorism watch lists of France’s security and intelligence services. Additionally, says Rogan, one of the operational trademarks of the Islamic State centers on adhering to a sharp division between its arms procurement networks and the individuals who carry out terrorist attacks. This means that a wider Islamist network in France, Switzerland or Germany, was able to armed and possibly trained Chekatt in Europe, since the attacker is not believed to have visited the Middle East or North Africa.

Rogan also points out that Chekatt —a French-born 29-year-old petty criminal— was radicalized while serving time in prison. This raises important questions about Salafist-Jihadi radicalization networks inside Western European prison systems. The security implications of this realization inevitably widens the security considerations of Europe’s counterterrorism agencies. The latter have so far focused primarily on the danger posed by the return of European Islamic State volunteers from the Middle East. The problem, however, appears to be more complicated.

Ultimately, the Strasbourg attack demonstrates that, despite several years of concerted efforts, the ability of European counterterrorism agencies to prevent strikes by Islamist groups on European soil is limited. Meanwhile, European streets are busy during the Christmas season, with indoor and outdoor markets and festivals, concerts, as well as a host of religious observances taking place in thousands of different locations across the continent. Should Tuesday’s attack in Strasbourg mark the beginning of a sustained terrorism campaign by the Islamic State, December could prove to be a deadly month in Europe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2018 | Permalink