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Exclusive Interview with Phil Gurski on Female Extremism

Phil Gurski Interview - Exclusive Interview with Phil Gurski on Female Extremism

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

As a part of The Women in Extremism Program, Rise to Peace’s Simone Matassa had the privilege of interviewing Phil Gurski to talk all matters of female terrorism. Phil Gurski, who is the President/CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, has over 30 years experience as a strategic intelligence analyst specializing in radicalization and homegrown Islamist extremism with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Public Safety Canada, and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). The interview with Phil focused on the gender side of radicalization, female motivations for extremism, and women’s role in counter-terrorism initiatives.

What gender differences are present in radicalization processes and what do you think are the main differences between how women are radicalized compared to men?

Phil Gurski: I think the answer to this question is that there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypical myths that there are significant differences, and hence that women either have to be treated differently or [and this is more important and more dangerous] that somehow women’s roles are minor and not as serious. And, therefore, in instances where women have traveled to join terrorist groups that we tend to think it’s not nearly as serious and tends to treat them with kid gloves.

We certainly saw that especially with Islamic State, where a lot of women played that card and claimed they were coerced by their male companions and actually had no real part in terrorist activity – that they took more of a background-position. I think this myth has had an effect on how people look at female terrorists [female jihadis]. Agency is the key issue here as there has been this unfortunate assumption that women don’t have agency and have somehow been forced or duped.

People often assume that Muslim women don’t have choices, as it’s a male-dominated faith, and that the women actually never agreed to do anything and were actually just following their husbands. The cases I was involved with women were very much as devoted to the cause as their husbands, brothers, boyfriends, etc. so I think we have to be very suspicious when women try to deny they had any role to play and that they were somehow innocent victims of a terrorist movement. From that perspective, the penalties and approaches should be the same – I don’t see a gender distinction.

Do you think gender roles play a big part in how women are viewed in terrorism? Are women just as equally capable of carrying out terrorist attacks compared to men or do gender roles prohibit them? 

Phil Gurski: Historically, women played incredibly important roles in terrorist groups i.e. IRA, Baader–Meinhof in Germany, LTTE in Sri Lanka. So there is no question that women have and are capable of carrying out active roles in terrorist groups up to and including carrying out attacks and killing themselves in suicide attacks. When looking at Jihadis early on, there certainly was a gender division within most groups which saw women as the support role.

Leaders such as Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri would say this. They would say we welcome our female members, but this is very much a man’s job. Then Islamic State came along and really reversed the paradigm. They very much stated that isn’t actually true; women are capable of carrying out activities on our behalf and this is – I think – why you probably saw a larger percentage of women actively going to join Islamic State with or without partners.

We had a famous case in Canada in 2015 where three young women in high school sought to join the Islamic State and got as far as Cairo before they were turned back by authorities. But this was completely on their own accord. I do not think that there is inherently a different role or paradigm for women terrorists. There may be some physical differences in strength etc. but when we try to maintain this while saying women are the weaker sex, we do a disservice to women who are terrorists and I think we also underestimate the role they can play.

What are women’s motivations for joining a terrorist organization- do they differ from that of a man joining a terrorist group?

Phil Gurski: I do believe they are one and the same. Using the Islamic State as an example: the Islamic State was remarkably successful in doing a couple of things. First of all, establishing the Caliphate as the ideal Islamic homeland that had appeal for an awful lot of people.

I know from the investigations we carried out people would talk about this; that they finally have a real Islamic State where Islamic law will be practiced and everything would be great. Secondly, they appealed to people to help build this State. And thirdly, they were very successful in pointing out atrocities that true Muslims have to reverse, whether these were atrocities carried out by the West or carried out by dictatorships.

This appealed to any believing Muslim who wanted to make a difference, so I think the motivation would be the same for both men and women. There is also a sense of adventure and an intense hatred for the societies in which they live. We saw a lot of people turn their backs on Western society saying they can’t live in this apostate regime anymore and that they have to go to where Islam is being practiced. I definitely saw this as much with the women as I did the men, so I would say there is not a major distinction between the motivations as to why either gender would choose to join a terrorist group.

What part can women play in countering terrorism and preventing the processes of radicalization?

Phil Gurski: The fact that more women have joined terrorist groups means you have more women coming back, and women who have abandoned the cause and can talk about the experience in the sense that it wasn’t what they originally thought. A small percentage of those women want to go public, but the vast majority want to leave it behind them due to the repercussions.

I think there is room for women who do come back to say here is what I saw, here is what I believe to be the case, and here is how it proved to be a complete lie. I think they can play the same role as former men could, I don’t see any difference in that respect given the fact we are seeing more of them they could maybe appeal to a different audience then the men could. We are in a time now where we have greater numbers than we have had historically in terms of women who have gone to fight or gone to support Islamic State as members and have got out. But I do think women could have something to say especially to children – kind of like the scared straight programs in prisons where they basically use their own experience to show others that it’s not worth it.

Conclusion

What can be taken from this interview with Phil Gurski is that there is an undeniable relationship between gender and extremism that is largely unexplored. While current societal stereotypes halter women’s roles in terrorism, there is still a need to be vigilant while looking at the female side of extremism.

As Phil alluded, when people underestimate the power and role of women, it becomes dangerous and creates an environment where women can go unnoticed for their violent actions.

More research and demonstratable interest in female extremists is needed to pave the way to preventative measures in helping tackle the gender issues in terrorism and to shaping policy in how female extremists are prosecuted.

View the full interview below:


Simone Matassa, a counter-terrorism writer and Head of the Women in Extremism Program at Rise to Peace.

Extremism Assessment Series: Far-Left Extremism

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Image Source: Fox News, Lukas Mikelionis

  • Based on Marxist principles – left wing extremists believe that the working class should revolt against those in power; Can often be classified as “antifascist”.
  • One of the major goals of left-wing terrorism is the creation of a “utopian” society
  • There is absolutely no religious facet of leftist ideology
  • One of their biggest tactics is “provocation” – provoking those in power to overreact in order to garner more sympathy and members
  • Primary targets are government buildings, symbols of authority, and right-wing conservative rallies/demonstrations

Summary of Extremist Narrative

 The leftist narrative can be defined as a desire to overthrow the current political state and replace it with an anarchist or communist system. Members of these left-wing groups are often-times autonomists, which is a term used to describe individuals who are anti-authoritarian and believe they exist outside of the political system. One of the biggest characteristics of these groups is the desire for society as a whole to rise up and revolt. These left-wing groups do not discriminate and allow anyone who believes in their ideology to join their ranks.

 History of Ideology in the United States

 Leftist ideology originated around the time of the industrial revolution. Many were flocking from the countryside to find jobs in new factories, making the demand for work very high. Factory owners had no trouble filling vacant spots. Karl Marx, a German law student, saw the differences between the workers and the factory owners and started to describe the working class as “proletariat” and the factory owners as “bourgeoisie”. He saw that the factory owners did not have to work as hard as the working class, yet they kept getting richer and richer. Marx called this a “capitalist society” and believed that a revolution of the working class was inevitable. He believed that the working class would be victorious and a “communist society”. This formed the basis of leftist extremism, with individuals believing that a classless, moneyless, and stateless society is the only option.

During the 1980’s, left-wing terrorism was attributed to 74% of all terrorist attacks in the US Left wing terrorist groups today are based in communism, anarchism, or socialism, which are all connected to Marx’s teachings. Today, these groups are reflections of the current political climate meaning that members of these groups believe that the political culture of their country is too right-wing or fascist. Throughout history, there have been several known leftist groups that operated within the US, including the United Freedom Front, New World Liberation Front, Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, and ANTIFA. Some of these groups are supported from outside countries such as Cuba, China, and Russia. They have also found support in the Communist Party of the USA.  Just recently, Trump declared that he may soon try to classify ANTIFA as a major terrorist organization.

 Current State of Far-Left Extremism

 Left-wing extremists are still active, not only in the U.S., but around the world. While these leftist groups serve different purposes, they all have an underlying theme of replacing the existing political system and removing class labels. Some even aim to carve out new nations within the US. Although the FBI reports that right-wing extremists are more of a concern today than left-wing extremists, they also acknowledge that left wing extremism still exists and should not be ignored.

As David Rapoport has stated, terrorism comes in waves. Left-wing terrorism was highly active in the 19060’s to the mid-1980’s, after which right-wing terrorism became active. This suggests that left-wing terrorism will become more active in the coming years. Due to the fact that left-wing extremists are more likely to be educated and from urban areas, they are better able to effectively organize demonstrations and attacks than their right-wing counterparts.

One of the more active left-wing groups in the US today is ANTIFA. ANTIFA’s main ideology is rooted in the antifascist movement, which was first seen under Hitler’s rule in Nazi Germany. Today, the antifascist movement is violent and threatening to society at large. ANTIFA members attend alt-right movements and demonstrations in order to protest and put an end to “alt right messages of hate.”  ANTIFA leaders have called for violence in order to confront conservative groups, often times putting innocent people in danger. Some of their tactics include burning cars, attacking right-wing protestors, and destroying property/businesses.

ANTIFA does not have a clear, hierarchical structure, bringing us back to one of the main characteristics of left-wing groups; anyone can join and participate as long as they support the cause. There are times when ANTIFA members will call for non-members to meet them at rallies in order to protest against right-wing conservatives.

Left-wing extremist groups are primarily operating under capitalist systems where they believe that there are inexpressive amounts of marginalization and inequality at the hands of the current political party. These groups often attend right-wing conservative rallies in order to violently protest and oppose right-wing hate rhetoric.

As mentioned earlier, left-wing groups do not discriminate against members and believe that anyone who believes in their antifascist cause can join their movement. There are no religious undertones, making this group very diverse and fluid in their recruitment. Left-wing groups also utilize social media in order to attract individuals to their movement. They will often call on others to join their cause, recruiting individuals who may feel marginalized or disgruntled with their current political climate.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Extremism Assessment Series: Far-Right Extremism

  • Far-right extremism describes ideologies and movements that are more radical than traditional conservatism, and often promote xenophobia, racism, white nationalism, Neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, and related ideologies
  • Modern far-right extremism began in the 1860s, and was met by efforts to eliminate the Ku Klux Klan’s presence after the Civil War.
  • From 2009 through 2018, 73% of terrorist attacks in the United States were committed by far-right extremists
  • Far-right extremist ideology is largely enacted by lone actors rather than groups
  • The primary method of recruitment for far-right extremism is through online platforms including social media sites, chat rooms, and other websites
  • Increasing anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment has given rise to far-right extremism in places such as the United States, Australia, and Europe
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A collection of flags representing different streams of the far-right movement available in the open-source.

Summary of Extremist Narrative

Far-right extremism describes ideologies and movements that are considered more radical than those associated with traditional conservatism, and is often linked to ideologies that promote xenophobic and racist views such as white nationalism, anti-Semitism, Neo-Nazism, authoritarianism, and others.

Far-right extremism often takes inspiration from regimes of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

 History of Far-Right Extremism in the United States

 Modern far-wing extremism in the US was first recognized by scholars during the 1950s, as a way to understand and explain McCarthyism and its break from political norms of the time. However, it is understood that far-right sentiments, groups, and actions began to form long before they were labeled by social scientists, around the 1860s and 1870s in the Reconstruction era. During that time, President Ulysses S. Grant took legal and legislative acts to eradicate the Ku Klux Klan and its offshoots following the civil war.

From then on, far-right extremism reappeared in many forms, and to varying degrees of success, from the formation of the Second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 to a politically-motivated resurgence in the 1990s in response to prominent issues of the time, including abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 led to new arrests of far-right organizational leaders, but such ideology continued to be prevalent and inspire violence throughout the next two decades and beyond. Subsequent instances of far-right extremist violence in the US include the shooting at Emanuel Africa Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which resulted in the death of nine people, as well as the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018 which resulted in 11 deaths. From 2009 through 2018, 73% of terrorist attacks in the United States were committed by far-right extremists, and between 2016 and 2017, right-wing inspired violence quadrupled in the US.

Today, some government officials across multiple branches and agencies have expressed concern over far-right extremism. However, the movement to properly address far-right extremism is hindered by multiple factors, including the absence of a formal domestic terror law in the United States, lack of grant funding to research right-wing extremism, and a general difficulty in studying such ideology due to its lack of cohesion.

 Current State of Far-Right Extremism

 Far-right extremism is currently largely based in hate rhetoric. Topics of focus for far-right extremist rhetoric include anti-immigrant and anti-government sentiments, and appeals to those affected by real or perceived economic instability and social isolation. Such rhetoric has given rise to disorganized bouts of low-level violence, as well as violence that results in mass causalities around the globe.

In the United States, most far-right extremists engage in low-level violence, with only one percent of attacks by people unaffiliated with an established far-right group involving firearms or explosives. Far-right extremist groups are largely instable and notwithstanding, and most far-right extremists are lone actors.

However, there are a couple of prominent, long-standing groups associated with far-right ideology that contribute to the spread of the ideology and violence, and potential recruitment agencies to followers of far-right extremism. Such groups include the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), skinheads, neo-Nazi groups, and other militias. In the United States, alt-right groups Identity Evropa and Patriot Front constitute some of the largest and most pervasive organizations of their kind. While these groups represent the more formalized, structured end of far-right extremism, they are still mainly fragmented and unsophisticated themselves.

 Prominent Sites of Operation

Far-right extremism operates around the globe, but is especially concentrated in areas in which populist and nationalist political movements have recently become popularized in mainstream political and social thought. The majority of far-right extremist individuals and groups operate out of the United States of America, in Europe, and in Australia.

In the United States of America, the combination of a history of far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, renewed anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the growth of alt-right, populist politics has resulted in some of the most prominent examples of far-right extremism around the world. After the 2016 election, far-right violence grew, including nine deadly incidents in 2017.

In Europe, increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa has spurred an increase in xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment, which evolved into far-right ideology for some members and groups in society. Attacks against Muslims and refugees in Europe have increased significantly beginning in 2015. Some far-right attacks in Europe have been coined as retribution attacks, as they occur after instances of Islamic extremism.

Far-right operations in Australia are less active, but still existent. From 2011 to 2017, there were five far-right extremist attacks in the country.

While these are the prominent countries in which far-right extremism operates, the ideology does not act as a country-specific, individual entity. There is a growing, global network of far-right extremists fueled by increasing interactions between likeminded individuals and groups around the world. This is demonstrated through instances such as the American far-right group Rise Above Movement (RAM) meeting with European white supremacist groups in Germany, Ukraine, and Italy.

Recruitment Methods

 Social media and other forms of online news consumption are the primary methods of recruitment utilized by far-right extremist groups. Recruitment is achieved on popular platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook as well as sites such as Gab and Reddit. Through online interaction with followers, the far-right have been able to recruit new followers and members, coordinate travel to protests, rallies, and conferences, organize trainings, fundraise, and foster communication across individuals and groups that share similar ideologies.

Prominent websites associated with far-right ideology include 8chan and the Daily Stormer, but recruitment is also achieved on more mainstream, popular platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit. The radicalization of multiple far-right extremists who have been responsible for recent terrorist attacks around the globe has been linked to such websites. For example, the far-right extremist responsible for the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018 was a user of Gab, a site frequented by far-right extremists and associated messaging.

The cycle of recruitment and radicalization is perpetuated as far-right extremists not only draw inspiration from online communities, but then project their activities out into those communities as well. In 2018, the far-right extremist that attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand announced the attack on Twitter and 8chan and broadcasted it live on Facebook, which quickly spread and was replayed countless times on other platforms. This paves the way for media consumers to become encouraged and recruited into far-right extremist ideology or actual groups by watching this extremist act, or even to commit copycat attacks.

In addition to far-right extremists utilizing a heavy online presence to enact recruitment efforts, there has been an increased effort to protect anonymity while increasing recruitment through distribution of propaganda. This propaganda often in the form hard-copy materials such as flyers, posters, stickers, and more. From 2017 to 2018, the amount of hard-copy propaganda materials increased by 182% overall, with a jump from 421 to 1,187 reported sightings of far-right materials. These materials are not only found in large cities and public spaces, but are also often concentrated on and around college campuses. This allows right-wing groups and individuals to tap into vulnerable members of the age group afflicted by feelings of a lack of belonging, and yearning for community.


The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Prevention and Redemption Initiatives Are Key to Countering Terrorism in Russia

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The mountains of Chechnya where “going to the forest” is a colloquial term for joining an extremist group. Photo Credit: eTurboNews.

A series of recent incidents validate the Russian Federation’s concerns over the rise of internationally-linked terrorist groups active within its territory. This security matter is heightened by the presence of battle-hardened fighters who returned from fighting in the Middle East and North Africa. The main query that emerges is whether Russian authorities will amend their counterterrorism tactics, or continue to engage in a framework simplified as a nexus of a military-bureaucratic-judicial instruments.

Russia has long contended with the dilemma of homegrown terrorism, especially in the North Caucasus region. Radicalization and the development of terror cells were intrinsically linked to the Chechen independence movement that expanded into neighboring Dagestan. Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al- Qaeda) once called the region ‘a shelter’ for fighters from across the globe. It is little wonder then that Daesh capitalized on homegrown ethnic grievances in Russia’s ‘inner abroad’ for recruitment.

Russian officials estimate that approximately 4000 citizens fought as militants in the armed conflicts in Syria. The state of affairs shifted domestically too. Militants that once operated under the banner of Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) transferred allegiances to Vilayat Kavkaz —  a branch of Daesh in the North Caucasus. Russia identifies the pan-Islamist political movement Hizb ut- Tahrir (Party of Liberation) as a terrorist organization, and deems it culpable in the recruitment of foreign fighters as well. It is undoubtedly a case where international groups seized upon already active movements to franchise ideologies.

As a consequence, recent terror-related events in Russia are linked to the international moniker of Daesh, although the actors are domestic agents. The Federal Security Service (FSB) conducts operations across Russia linked to Daesh through a perpetrator’s affiliation, but few links to the umbrella organization. For instance:

• April 13: two suspected members were killed in a raid in Tyumen; an oil rich town in Siberia.
• June 26: a declared member who created explosives and sought to carry out attacks in the name of Daesh was neutralized in Saratov; a city in the southwest.
• July 1: police in Khanty-Mansi (a region in western Siberia) sent out an alert of a woman suspected of membership in an international terrorist organization being in the area.
• July 12: Moscow District Court sentenced seven members of Daesh to 15-21 years of incarceration for planning to attack the Sapsan train in Saint Petersburg in 2017.

These cases exhibit a Russian reliance on strict legislation and applications of force as primary counterterror tactics. Numerous laws have been passed, including the revocation of citizenship for naturalized citizens, life sentences for some terror-related crimes, and guidelines aimed to counter proliferation of extremist ideology, especially the contentious Yarovaya package.

A preference for the military-bureaucratic-judicial nexus and intelligence collection means psychological rehabilitation and cultural efforts receive less attention. Up until 2013, Russia applied such methods until preparations for the Sochi Olympics required hardline policies. However, emphasis on these two spheres provide Russian authorities with a humanitarian method to prevent radicalization before it takes root, and to counterbalance extremist teachings post-indoctrination, to those willing to relent. This is a key recommendation that needs to be met at many levels.

Those at risk of radicalization must be exposed to civil society organizations that promote tenets of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue. Exposure to educational and employment prospects, tolerant views amongst peers, and wider community solidarity provide numerous opportunities for exchange.

Preservation of cultural traditions that display a wider understanding of ethnicity and religion — that have not been manipulated to advocate extremist or political views — teach at-risk youth they are already part of an important community, rather than a terrorist cell or a linked international organization. Sports provide additional occasions of solidarity, especially those that prioritize strength of character. For example, combat sports widely practiced across the region place the historic mindset of a ‘Caucasian warrior’ in a positive context, at the same time young girls practicing tightrope walking in Dagestan are taught to be ‘fearless’.

Psychological supports and deradicalization initiatives are of vital importance in the current context. These programs are especially beneficial to returnees willing to shun extremist views as they are offered a path towards redemption, as well as chances to inform at-risk peers of the realities of membership in such groups. The Comprehensive Plan of Counteraction of Ideology of Terrorism 2019-2023 reveals provisions covering this matter. As well, a member of the Russian State Duma announced the development of a rehabilitation center focused on individuals influenced by Hizb ut- Tahrir in annexed-Crimea, though it is viewed as politically motivated.

The Russian Federation strongly relies on military-bureaucratic-judicial methods as violent extremism and terrorism are serious infractions under the criminal code, as they should be. It seems easier to manage the localized and decentralized nature of domestic extremism in that framework. However, such hardline measures should be employed concurrently with softer methods aimed at prevention and redemption. They offer broader social advantages in totality.

Réjeanne Lacroix is the Editor-in-Chief at Rise to Peace.

Women’s Roles in Al-Shabaab: Deeper Understanding and Research Is Needed

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The ‘daughters’ of Al-Shabaab, armed with assault rifles. Credit for image and caption: Al Jazeera.

In April 2019, it was reported that recent studies over-emphasise the role of men in terrorism, therefore overlooking and underestimating the influence of women. Accounting for over 15-25% of membership in terrorist organisations, women possess a significant role in the recruitment, operations and delegation of terrorist groups, to name a few.

Data originating from the Western Jihadism Project revealed that the role of women in such organisations take the form of traditional gender roles, where women are less likely to be involved in the planning of attacks, and more likely to support the organisation “behind the scenes”. Given this context, this piece will explore the role of women, specifically within the Al-Shabaab.

A woman in the Al-Shabaab operating in Kenya participated in an interview held in 2015 with an Al-Jazeera reporter. She recounted to have given shelter to Al-Shabaab members, whilst they referred to her by the name “Mother”. This woman also stated that she remembers providing accommodation to a young man named Ikrima. Ikrima would later be identified as one of the planners of Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that left over 67 people dead.

Consistent with this woman’s account, it is identified that women in the Al-Shabaab play the role as “wives” of fighters, and partake in domestic activities. Women in the Al-Shabaab are reported to also be used as sex slaves, in addition to helping to attract new recruits. These women are often tricked into the Al-Shabaab by being lured with the prospect of employment, counselling or financial support. Some of these women who escaped have shared their stories, though they lived with the lifelong emotional, psychological and even physical scars inflicted upon them by the group.

In 2017, one woman stated that she had fell victim to this luring, and shared her account of the horrors she experienced while she was forced into sexual slavery by the Al-Shabaab. This woman recounts being smuggled from Kenya into Somalia and was brutally beaten and raped by as many as six Al-Shabaab men. One day, when the camp was empty of men, she managed to escape and encountered authorities who helped her to a hospital and eventually back to Kenya. She later learned that she was infected with HIV. The Al-Shabaab are reported to use women in sexual slavery to control the breeding of the next generation.

With consideration to the foregoing, not all women within the Al-Shabaab are tricked or lured into operating with the group. Recent studies have shown that there exists women voluntarily travel to Somalia to support the group’s agenda. A ‘key aspect’ to the Al-Shabaab’s operations is that Somali officials (such as officers or border control agents) do not recognise nor do they perceive women as a threat, allowing women to seamlessly pass through security checks. Therefore, women are often tasked with the transport and smuggling of weapons and go undetected at checkpoints. They are also tasked with gathering intelligence and information for the Al-Shabaab, as their manoeuvres and actions as women often pass without arousing suspicion.

The concern raised here is that the role of women within the Al-Shabaab remains under-reported, overlooked and rather unexplored. Continued research and analysis should be therefore encouraged regarding the significance of the role of women in the Al-Shabaab. Moreover, it must be emphasized that not all women within the Al-Shabaab are working with the group voluntarily, and a greater issue that must be addressed are the women who voluntarily join the group.

It has been reported than many young women specifically from Kenya travel to Somalia to join the group. These women often feel helpless in their former communities, and severe poverty often push them to join the Al-Shabaab. Another motive for women joining the group are their feelings of resentment towards Kenyan authorities who may have mistreated their sons or husbands. Joining the Al-Shabaab is therefore a form of retaliation and revenge, and analysts have even reported that for these women, joining the group is a form of empowerment.

However, as previously mentioned, once these women have experienced the reality of their role within the group (the brutal treatment and being forced into sexual slavery), women are left with two core choices: either remain in the group or attempt to return to Kenya. Those who remain in the group have reported that they stay because of fear or hopelessness. Those who attempt to return to Kenya face difficulty in returning to their former communities, and even face extrajudicial killings by Kenyan authorities if it is discovered that they were in Somalia assisting the Al-Shabaab.

The vulnerability and precarity of women’s roles in the Al-Shabaab necessitates more profound research, and equal recognition when conducting studies related to the group’s operations. Although not all women are tricked into joining the extremist group, resources can be made available to all women to provide education of the realities of the horrors of the Al-Shabaab. It has even been suggested that Somali forces should encourage more female presence of officers within their commands, to empower women and to demonstrate that there are options to empowerment, and that they need not to join the group.

Extremism Assessment Series: Antifascist Action (ANTIFA)

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Image: The most identifiable form of the Antifa logo used by the group and found in public sources.

  • ANTIFA represents a semi-disorganized collection of extremists on the far-left, sometimes considered the alt-left
  • ANTIFA is more accurately described as a brand, as opposed to a formal group, however, for ease of understanding it may be referred to as such throughout this assessment
  • With the upcoming presidential election, ANTIFA violence should be expected to rise alongside increasing political turmoil

Summary of Extremist Narrative

 ANTIFA’s self-described purpose is to counter fascism and prevent fascism from taking root in society. The ‘enemy’ of ANTIFA does not stop solely with fascists, however. Individuals believed to be far-right, conservative, and even individuals considered center-left on the political spectrum may be identified as an enemy of ANTIFA. Within the often militant organization, tactics for accomplishing objectives can vary from acts of violence, vandalism, criminal damage to property, or spreading of propaganda in interest of their ideology.

Within the social and political roots of ANTIFA, free speech is targeted as believers in the underlying ideology of ANTIFA believe that select speech is violent and must be suppressed for the betterment of overall society. This is a key justification for believers to resort to violence. As such, law enforcement has been deemed as an accessory to the enemy by ANTIFA as law enforcement seeks to separate clashing political protestors, hence preventing ANTIFA from attacking those they deem the enemy.

History of the group

 The majority of individuals who identify as ANTIFA come from Marxist political backgrounds, including communists and socialists. It is important to understand that ANTIFA does not represent a single organization or network. Numerous groups or individuals may consider themselves ANTIFA members, leading to the group being highly disorganized in terms of the overall structure.

The history of the ideology that brought about ANTIFA can be found in both the history books as well as in the writings of various political theorists. Communism, socialism, and far-left anarchism have had a small following within the US for well over a century. Such Marxist political leanings often call for a societal revolution to rise up through militant activities to support their political agendas.

Political theorists have argued that the spread of extremist political leanings begets the rise of the opposite form of extremism along the linear political spectrum. Regardless of which form of extremism first came about, ANTIFA believes that ‘fascist creeping’ has begun to attempt to take hold within the United States. This partially is cited as justification for violent acts against those considered supporters of fascism. While various international groups have used a varying version of ‘anti-fascist action’, the current American use began in the mid-2000s.

In the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections, ANTIFA surged in activity and membership with followers engaging in acts of violence across the nation. Protests and counter-protests sparked civil unrest unlike anything observed in decades in the United States with groups like ANTIFA at the forefront of the violence.

 Current state of the movement

 ANTIFA is very much active as an extremist ideology and brand. With the modern version of the group having become increasingly active and violent since its inception just over a decade ago, ANTIFA will be a source of far-left extremism for the foreseeable future. The ability for ANTIFA to inspire and recruit people into its brand of thinking is highly dependent on a politically volatile United States, which most would agree is the current operating environment. With the looming 2020 presidential election approaching, look for ANTIFA or ANTIFA inspired violence to increase.

 Where is ANTIFA operating?

As has been widely observed, ANTIFA is often found participating in political protests across the nation. Primarily located in major US cities or on college campuses nationwide, ANTIFA often has a presence amongst more volatile far-left protests.

 What are the primary recruitment methods into the movement?

ANTIFA messaging can be found easily on the internet. The spread of Mark Bray’s 2017 writing, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is a ready source of information for the brand and helps to spread its ideology. The spread of this and related writings on the internet has been fostered by various online communication platforms that also serve as communications centers for the coordination of physical militant activities and the organization of protests and counter-protests.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Content Moderation Presents New Obstacles in the Internet Age

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Image Credit: Cogito Tech (Cogitotech)

The first instance of a terrorist recording violent crimes and posting it online occurred when Mohammed Merah — the perpetrator of the 2012 Toulouse and Montauban attacks in France — did just that with his GoPro. Seven years later, the culprit of the Christchurch mosque shootings used a similar method. These attacks both beg the same question: How are social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter handling extremist content posted to their sites?

As a consequence, tech giants began the process of addressing this problem and seek to formulate a specific mechanism that targets extremist content. Facebook and Google focus significant attention towards development of their automated systems or AI (Artificial Intelligence) software to detect and eventually remove content that violates their policy.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) acts as a cooperative between tech companies to pool extremist content already in existence. A key purpose is to create unique digital fingerprints of contentious material called “hashes.” Hashes are then shared within the GIFCT community to ensure an expanded reach to tackle such material efficiently and the burden is lifted upon a single network to contain the bulk.

YouTube uses techniques like automated flagging also. Membership of their Trusted Flagger Program includes individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and government agencies that are particularly effective at notifying YouTube of content that violates its Community Guidelines. YouTube has removed 8.2 million videos from its platform using these techniques as of March 2019.

In a Wired interview, Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Mike Schroepfer described AI the “best tool” to keep the Facebook community safe. AI is not infallible though, as it sometimes fails to understand the nuances of online extremism and hate. This is the point where the human moderators enter the picture.

The Verge provided a detailed piece detailing the lives of Facebook content moderators. Once the post has been flagged, the moderator can either delete it, ignore it or send it for further review. The moderators are trained to look at signs that are distressing for any number of people.

It took 17 minutes for the original live stream of the Christchurch attack posted on Facebook to be removed. That was more than enough time for it to be downloaded, copied, and posted to other platforms. Facebook claims it removed 1.5 million copies of the Christchurch footage within the first 24 hours, but copies remain.

Content moderation is such a mammoth task for social media companies because of the sheer scale of their operations. Millions of people are online and accessing these services at the same time. Errors are expected. The Christchurch attack exposed a glaring shortcoming in content reporting: livestreaming. Moderation has mechanisms for standard uploaded videos but there are not enough tools to moderate a livestream.

Another issue facing social media companies remains the tech savvy nature of modern extremists. Such content can be uploaded by manipulating audio and video quality to bypass the filters in place. Language poses another problem as most of the automatic content moderation is English-language based. Nearly half of Facebook users do not speak English therefore the company needs to expand its technology to incorporate other languages.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram continue to develop their AI tools and improve their human moderator strategies. Nevertheless, the sections taking advantage of current security loopholes are evolving as well. With 4.3 billion internet users in the world in March of 2019, content moderation itself is under scrutiny.

Hezbollah and the Terror-Crime Nexus

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Image Credits: Foreign Policy illustration and Getty Images

As the US security apparatus continues to publicly focus on Iran’s expansion in the Middle East, it has done little to actively address the threat posed from Iran’s favorite proxy, Hezbollah, on the southern border. Hezbollah has been known to operate international money laundering and drug trafficking operations via Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico for years. These operations, other than, notably, the Lebanese Canadian Bank case, have most often been prosecuted as drug-related crimes, rather than crimes of terrorism.

Hezbollah’s drug enterprise is not separate from its terrorist activity. Hezbollah, as directed by Iran, began engaging in the drug trade from its inception in the 1980’s, “for Satan—America and the Jews. If we cannot kill them with guns, so we will kill them with drugs.” As such, the American strategy of prosecuting drug crimes connected to Hezbollah as just that, rather than as crimes of terror shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Hezbollah’s motives.

According to a 2018 CDC study, cocaine was involved in 19.4% of drug overdose deaths in 2016— cocaine which has often made its way into the US via Hezbollah channels. In recent years, the spike in prescription drug related deaths has led the Trump administration to declare a national emergency. The opioid epidemic has at least partially driven the decline in US life expectancy, and opioid overdose victims are often found to have also taken cocaine.

The CDC study claims that in 2016 alone, more than 10,000 Americans died from drug overdoses involving cocaine; that number is more than three times the amount of Americans that died in 9/11. When you take into account the stated goal of Hezbollah to use drugs as weapons to neutralize its enemies, one wonders why the American government has yet to address this activity with the same severity as it does traditional acts of terror.

There is a law on the books that could have been used to prosecute this enterprise: the United States enacted a federal terror financing statute in 1994 after 1993’s World Trade Center bombing, under which entities can be prosecuted for knowingly providing “material support or resources” to another entity to conduct terror operations.

While money laundering can often remove the evidence needed to prosecute terror financing under the 1993 statue, the proof uncovered by the Project Cassandra task force directly ties the drug trafficking funds to Hezbollah. However, up until now, the failure to do so appears to be political, as the Obama administration allegedly did not want to engender bad faith during the Iran deal negotiations.

This has resulted in severe immediate threats to US homeland security. In May, a New York court indicted Ali Kourani, a naturalized US citizen and Hezbollah operative who allegedly attempted to identify Israeli targets in New York and obtain information on John F. Kennedy International Airport security protocols. Prior to setting up shop in New York, Kourani was previously involved with a dealership in Michigan that sold used cars to Benin; it is not unlikely this business was part of the network of used car dealerships used to launder Hezbollah’s drug profits.

Even as the United States aims to keep tensions away from its soil by announcing its intent to establish a military coalition to protect commercial shipping vessels in the waters surrounding Yemen and Iran, it leaves its doorstep unguarded by failing to take direct action against these networks.

Now that the current administration has pulled out of the deal, and is faced with rising tensions from Iran, the next move should be to go after Hezbollah’s crime-terror infrastructure under terror financing laws. Project Cassandra amassed the evidence; the Trump administration should use it to protect US citizens and put pressure on Iran.

Exclusive interview with Khalid Noor on Doha peace conference

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From Left, Khalid Noor and Lotfullah Najafzada at Doha peace conference. July 8, 2019.

Amid a series of peace talks over the last months, Taliban and Afghan representatives gathered in Doha and agreed on a roadmap to end the 18 years of war. Since last year, the U.S. appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the lead Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation to broker a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, in hopes for a long term ceasefire. 

In Doha, Qatar, a meeting co-hosted by German and Qatari officials brought together diverse individuals interested in achieving lasting Afghan peace. Sixteen Taliban and sixty Afghan representatives (composed of delegates from political parties, government officials and civil society organizations) engaged in discussions that led to a potentially positive arrangement. Doha conference, instilled newfound hope as the Taliban agreed to reduce its reliance on violent attacks by avoiding various public spaces. Rise to Peace’s Ahmad Mohibi interviews Khalid Noor, one of the participants at Doha conference, to give a closer look at the future of the Afghan peace process. 

What is your takeaway from the Doha Peace Conference?

Khalid Noor: I think the Doha meeting was a great opportunity for the two sides [Taliban and the Afghan representatives] to sit down and share their issues, and to explain their concerns with each other. The talks provided the opportunity for both sides to discuss some of the most sensitive and critical topics that were overlooked at previous peace talks. For instance, we talked about regime creation. I personally changed the nature of the meeting from ceremonial to more serious discussions with my thoughts, that we want the regime to be the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — this is our goal and our red line. The Taliban wants an Islamic Emirate and that’s their red line. 

What were some of the questions that were brought forth to the Taliban at the Conference?

Khalid Noor: We would like to know how likely it is that the Taliban is willing to participate and accept our Islamic Republic if we bring substantial changes. My next point was that elections are valuable to us and we are not willing to lose them at any cost. Our fellow citizens are concerned about this, but they want to know: will you [Taliban] participate in an Afghan lead election that is controlled and financed by Afghans after reaching an agreement on a coalition government?

The moderator interrupted me shortly after my first two questions and requested if it’s possible to avoid technical and serious questions in order to not disrupt the meeting. I respectfully accepted but continued with my last question: Is it possible to elaborate and emphasize freedom of speech? For instance, you [Taliban] have said though press releases and other forms of public messaging, that the Taliban would respect freedom of speech. Although, in your other statements the Taliban threatens media over the same matter. It’s imperative for us to understand, ‘what’s happening on your side and what is your vision of certain freedoms in Afghanistan?’

What was one of the main points that both parties were mostly concerned about?

Khalid Noor: After listening to each other’s questions and concerns, the two sides started to raise their issues about violent attacks. For instance, we shared our sorrows and criticized the current Taliban tactic of sending suicide bombers to kill innocent people in congested parts of the cities. It is not Islamic or logical. The Taliban also criticized the Afghan government by saying that the government ‘only talks about the civilian casualties caused by us [Taliban] and not the night operations conducted by the government, that resulted in the martyrdom of our people and civilians. No news agency reports that. So, when you [Afghan government] raise such concerns, it’s also necessary to discuss our casualties as well.’ One of the Taliban members sternly asked, “Do you think our civilian casualties are not human beings?”

Were there any other matters discussed following the Taliban’s concern of mass casualties?

Khalid Noor: The Taliban raised another point about human rights after we repeatedly defended human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. They told us, “since you are speaking about human rights, is human rights only what you hear about on television and what you believe is right, or do you think about what we go through? They [Afghan National Security Forces and Coalition Forces] enter our homes at night, disrespect our women, our children, and mothers.  For example, one of our commanders was arrested by the Afghanistan National Intelligence Agency and the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

When he was taken into custody at NDS, the investigators told him “Now call your God to help you.” The Taliban expanded on this example and challenged us on “what part of this misbehavior of our personnel, where torture is following the principles of human rights?” They continued and said, “if you look at the prison systems, they are not fair to us [Taliban]. Aren’t your human rights’ values applicable to this case or it’s only the media that shows our negative actions?” Taliban said “we are not denying our mistakes. We have done mistakes but to be fair, it’s good that both sides accept the mistakes.”

Who were some of the other key representatives at this Conference?

Khalid Noor: The two sides listened carefully to each other’s issues and concerns. Our Muslim scholars, who were part of the Kabul delegates, also condemned Taliban actions and illustrated that our interpretation of Islam is better than the Taliban interpretation. The Muslim scholars added that it’s imperative that we [Afghan and Taliban] scholars sit and discuss these issues and come to a conclusion whose interpretation of Islam is right or wrong.

Would you consider this meeting successful?

Khalid Noor: The main point of this meeting was that an opportunity emerged so that both sides could clearly raise their thoughts patiently. This was unlike many other peace talks. In previous conferences, the intra-Afghan dialogues were smaller, about 5-6 people from the Taliban and Afghan side. Unlike before, this time we were part of a bigger team where we discussed various topics. Most importantly, the Taliban delegates participated in the conversation and answered questions. This was a great achievement.

What can be done to increase the likelihood of success in future peace talks?

Khalid Noor: On day two, we were more open to collaborative discussions compared to the first day where mostly everyone was serious and had this hatred towards each other. Representatives from both sides felt comfortable to share something and they listened to each other. I really think that this was a good meeting as the two sides exchanged ideas. If we had one or two more days, I really believe that our discussion could have been more technical and friendlier. It’s imperative to keep such talks in the future. In addition to actual Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations, we need to have separate dialogues, because negotiations can be tough sometimes and in that circumstance, it’s better to refer the issue to the dialogue team, so they can discuss it without a judgment call or simply answer out of ignorance.

Do you believe that the Taliban will keep their promise in efforts to reduce violence? 

Khalid Noor: It’s too early to know if the Taliban will keep their promises or not. But I have to express that the two sides [Taliban and Afghan government] should be involved and support each other. It’s important that both the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban fighters implement the promise reached by both sides at the meeting. We are both held accountable. A judgment call can be made if we see a civilian casualty in any of their attacks. We would ask them: You promised us that you would not attack civilians, so what happened that now you attacked schools, hospitals, and targeted civilians? Thus, their promise is a way to keep them responsible for their actions.

This is in case they break the agreement, and they most likely will. But, it’s difficult for us to understand how strongly they are going to keep their promise.

What are some of the drivers for the Taliban to end their fight and join the Afghan government?

Khalid Noor: Some of the main reasons that the Taliban are willing to come to a negotiated settlement and end the war which the Afghan and American governments, along with the international community, believe that no party or side will create peace through war or the use of force. Neither the Taliban can defeat us, nor we can defeat them. In the past 18 years, we have been fighting continuously on the frontlines. Although the Taliban had massive casualties, they are still standing strong against the Afghan government. I do believe that each side has come to the understanding that negotiations are the best option, as war is not the solution to problems.

At the same time, we can tell they [Taliban] are tired of fighting and do not want to continue this war. Their foot soldiers are getting older and the leadership may face trust issues with the current generation of soldiers, as they may not be as loyal. I do not know for sure, but this is my personal understating.

Taliban said, “We also would like to see our children go to school. But because of you [Afghan government], we seek refuge in the mountains, so we cannot send our children to gain proper education and have the basic needs of living.”

What can the Afghan leaders offer to meet those drivers?

Khalid Noor: I strongly believe that the two sides [the Afghan government and the Taliban] should compromise on certain issues and accept each other’s point of view. Without compromise and understanding, there is no other way to solve the problem. The two sides should meet in the future to discuss their concerns. They may need to revise some of their strong policies or views to reach the common goal of a deal to build a regime in Afghanistan.

How does the U.S. contribute as the main broker in intra-Afghan dialogues?

Khalid Noor: The U.S. role in negotiations is critical. Bringing the two sides to a negotiation table is great assistance. Second, if the U.S. direct talks with the Taliban are successful, then this will definitely support the Afghan peace process. Additionally, the U.S. role in pressuring political parties and the Afghan government, so they can come to a united stand in efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, is very critical. I do believe that the U.S. has a key role in encouraging politicians, elites and the opposition to work together on a unified agenda and concept.


Ahmad Mohibi, a writer and activist is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) – Does joining terrorist groups challenge gender roles within society?

Photographer: Nicolas Bedoya

Source: Bloomberg

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (Spanish: Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) is a violent extremist group founded in 1964. The FARC is a Marxist-Leninist group that aims to redistribute wealth within the country and reform the government of Colombia. Their main tactics have been involvement in criminal organizations and challenging the Colombian government by way of terrorist attacks, including things like car bombs injuring civilians and attacks on government military forces like police and soldiers.

The FARC is considered a terrorist group by the Colombian government and other nations around the world. This organization has a significant number of female members and some completely female factions. At one point in time the group’s female members comprised 40% of the group’s members.

After 52 years of violent conflict against the Columbian government, this violent communist group agreed to peace. In 2017, the group rebranded itself to become the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. At this time it became an official political party and disarmed itself. Although the group officially agreed to demobilization, dissident rebels with ties to the FARC still incite conflict and have continued to carry out attacks in recent years.

Women who joined the FARC express that their motivation came from their grievances that were not being addressed in normal Colombian society. Things like lack of opportunity for women, lack of education, poverty, and social inequality were all factors in the recruitment of women into this group. Joining the violent group allowed women to have leadership roles and gave a sense of purpose to a life within which they felt stuck. Membership in the group offered women “relative autonomy and a control over their lives” that was not accorded to them in the often patriarchal and rural societies of Colombia. Women state they joined in order to have leadership opportunities and escape traditional norms.

Rather than depicting female extremists as victims of radicalization who were lured or brainwashed into violent roles, this demonstrates that women turned to extremism to attempt to subvert their victimhood, which was derived from a patriarchal context, and not the violent group they chose to join. As such, one should not essentialize men and women to assume that they have inherently different reasons for choosing to join extremist groups. Instead, more emphasis should be placed on the opportunities and conditions within particular society that would lead women, and men, to this path of radicalization.

Women who are in leadership roles within the FARC can move from background or supporting positions to frontline jobs, allowing women to experience some emancipation from strict gender roles in their own societies. Being part of this extremist group has provided a place from which women can make political statements about their qualms with patriarchal and society void of opportunity by using violence. But should women really have to turn to violence in order for their voices to be heard? Further, do the leadership roles they enjoy within the FARC transfer into their civilian lives and everyday societies in Columbia?

Female extremists participating in the violence of terrorist groups is thought to incite the participation of others and garner popular support. In some societies with a traditional sense of gender roles, women are expected to stay in the home. As such, if women are vying for a particular cause and resorting to violent groups then it may be viewed as more dire a situation because they have had to ‘leave the home’. Women are undoubtedly an asset to violent groups. But are their contributions inherently valued or are women merely serving as additional bodies and fodder for violent attacks? Thus, are women really being liberated from their traditional role if they are “expendable assets to serve terrorists group nefarious agendas”?

The Colombian government attempted to provide demobilization programs to fighters in order to re-integrate them back into society. With the resurgence of violence, even after peace agreements, the program does not seem to be working. Although these women mostly cite their experiences in the FARC as positive ones, their autonomy and agency in their militarized roles made it harder for them to integrate back into life after their role in the conflict was over.

Disappointingly, some programs that attempt to reintegrate women back into society by way of employment opportunities fall right back into gender roles by offering women jobs in industries like hairdressing or being seamstresses. Overall, programs and policies that provide assistance to ex-extremists must pay more attention to why these women chose to join in the first place in order to dissuade the potential of recurring violence in the future.

Amy Hetherington

Amy is working on her MA thesis in Peace and Conflict in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. Her course work focuses on religious extremism and political violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Amy’s thesis work examines the correlates for support/sympathy for Islamic terrorism in Muslim majority countries. Amy completed her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University, Canada in Religious Studies and World Languages with an International certificate. At Rise to Peace, Amy is a counter-terrorism research intern within the department for Women Extremism.

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