Women and their Role in Violent Extremism

Recruitment of women by violent extremist organizations has increased in recent years due to their value as strategic, political, and social tools in service of the organization’s mission. They attract less suspicion, making them valuable in bombing missions, but they also are of deep symbolic importance in the organization’s daily progress.

Al Qaeda Women - Women and their Role in Violent Extremism

Recruitment of women by al-Qaeda disturbs Iraq government

In 2016, Indonesian police arrested two women, Dian Yulia Novi and Ika Puspitasari, after they had planned a suicide bomb attack.[1] These occurrences are often puzzling to officials since it is usually assumed women are only indirectly involved in extremist organizations through supporting or hiding their husbands or other men. This is not necessarily true.

While the exact number of women in terror organizations is unclear, the recently collapsed IS caliphate sheds light on the tally, like the approximately 800 women who had joined Daesh that are now being detained in northern Syria[2]. Roughly 10% of radical Islamic groups’ members are women, a portion that is surprisingly large and inspires questions about why women join these organizations. [3]

Women join terror organizations for the same reasons men do, despite the disparity in numbers from each gender who join. While women are often portrayed as more “virtuous” and “passive” than violent, they are drawn to the community, the ideology, and the identity just like men are. The promise of liberation, empowerment, and a cause to live for draws men and women alike to extremist groups[4]. In recent years, both women and men have come from all over the world to join the cause they believe in.

The presence of women in violent extremist organizations is important due to the symbolic significance they carry. Women joining ISIS, for example, are vital to the ideological effort through social-media recruitment. They represent the future of the cause and perpetuation of the ideology as wives and mothers.[5] While research suggests that they are not involved in daily violence as much as men are, they are far from passive.

While there are some valuable accounts, more research is needed to shed light on the exact roles women play in these communities, and what potential impact they have. Terror organizations have long understood women’s significance to their cause. They are potentially even more dangerous due to the lack of suspicion they arouse, and the support they are able to inspire in young recruits.[6]


[1] Ayuningtyas, Kusumasari. Indonesian Seminar Outlines Women’s Roles in Terror Prevention. (January 26, 2018). 
[2] 800 female Daesh terrorists detained in northern Syria. (February 10, 2018). 
[3] Moss, C. (2017, July 2). Why Do Women Become Terrorists? The Daily Beast
[4] Attia, B. M.-E. and S. (2017, May 9). Female terrorists and their role in jihadi groups. 
[5] Baker, Aryn (September 6, 2014). How ISIS Is Recruiting Women From Around the World. 
[6] Says, A. E. (2016, October 28). Increasing number of women recruited by terrorists.

Syrian Conflict: When Great Powers Do Not Play Well Together

Syria remains a disaster; for the people who remain there, for those who’ve fled but hope one day to return and for those who seek a sound, diplomatic solution.  The catalog of actors operating in the theater, even at this late date, is increasingly alarming: Syrian pro-government forces, Syrian rebels, ISIL-terrorists, Russian armed forces, and U.S. coalition forces. International actors like Russia and the United States claim to have entered the conflict to subvert the threat of ISIL. Both sides dispute the other’s rationale. But when direct military contact occurs between the United States and Russia, that threatens not only the goal of reducing ISIL terror but the stability of the whole international order.

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Graphic by Anastasia Beltyukova and Henrik Pettersson for CNN[1]

Innumerable horrors have emerged from the region since the Syrian Civil War’s start.  Each is terribly important, but ISIL’s offenses engender a category of sadism and butchery that cannot be ignored.  ISIL engages in genocidal campaigns against minority populations like Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. It has murdered internationally protected journalists in manners too barbaric for mass media consumption and advocates extremist violence the world over[2].  This only scratches the surface of ISIL’s crimes.

The United States committed to combating and reducing the ISIL threat in 2014. In concert with European and Middle Eastern allies, the U.S. supported regional friends with a crippling campaign of airstrikes directed against ISIL. The advent of Russian intervention, however, complicated things.  In 2015, Bashar al-Assad’s regime requested Russian assistance in combating Islamic extremists and rebel factions alike.  Though ISIL has been significantly reduced since 2014, the U.S. and Russia maintain daily military operations in Syria. Global concerns mounted in February 2018 when pro-government forces, backed by Russian mercenary squads, attacked U.S. forces and Syrian allies.

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© U.S. Air Force Photo/ Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt[3]

Another case in point, a U.S. drone destroyed a Russian made T-72 battle tank on February 10th, 2018.  No U.S. or allied troops were killed, but reports indicate three Russian affiliates died in the tank [4]. The T-72 in question was reportedly moving, with coordinated indirect fire, on a position held by coalition advisors and Syrian Democratic Forces, the latter of which is a Syrian rebel group supported by the United States and its allies[5]. This incident followed another assault in which pro-Syrian forces attacked coalition troops on February 7th and 8th. U.S. coalition forces are reported to have killed 100 Syrian operatives following this unprovoked attack on coalition headquarters [6].

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US Marines firing a howitzer in Syria © US Marine Corps

Questions persist regarding Russia’s motivation in the conflict. Since its intervention, it has consistently bombed rebel groups allied against Bashar al-Assad [7]. To justify its strikes, Russia labels as terrorists any group contending for power with Assad. Russian operations have helped the regime dramatically reduce the rebel threat while leaving the lion’s share of the ISIL fight to the American-led coalition. At this point in the conflict, with the threat of ISIL reduced, Russian and American backed proxies, to say nothing of national forces, are increasingly coming into conflict with each other, as February’s developments prove.

We may never know who was killed in the tank or how many Russians died in the February 8th coalition forces assault, but the escalating conflict between the world’s sole superpower and its former cold war adversary helps no one, especially not Syrians whose homeland has become an arena where international scores may be settled. US-Russian relations are at a low due to Syria, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.  Further conflict promises to exacerbate an already fraught bond.

ISIL should remain the focus of American and Russian military operations.  The so-called caliphate has been diminished, but it has not been defeated.  Its calls for extremist violence have been heard across the world.  The U.S. has witnessed ISIL-inspired violence in San Bernardino, Orlando, and in the bombing and vehicular attacks in New York City. A Russia-bound commercial airliner over Egypt was bombed out of the sky by ISIL. Bombs claimed by ISIL have exploded in the metros of St. Petersburg. American and Russian nationals have traveled to Syria, fought for ISIL, and threaten to wage further conflict upon their return home. ISIL and its propaganda remain virulent threats to both nations.

The Syrian Civil War is rightfully viewed as one of the great geopolitical cataclysms of the young, 21st century.  Hundreds of thousands of people are dead and millions have been displaced, yet peace remains elusive. These great powers should be working together, not at odds, to resolve global conflicts. Better US-Russian commitment to avoiding concentric operational areas mitigates the likelihood of further conflict. To be sure, awareness of one another’s airspace exists, however, each country must honor such arrangements.  As long as the Syrian Civil War drags on, the possibility of even more destructive conflict remains.  It seems self-evident that resolving the civil war should be everyone’s priority.

Disagreements between the U.S. and Russia would hardly disappear were the two to resolve their differences over Syria, but so doing would remove two adversaries from a kinetic combat zone and remove a critical issue that’s currently impeding bilateral relations. A resolution would allow each nation to fight international and regional terrorism directly rather than eliciting proxy warfare in the guise of fighting terror. For the Middle East’s sake and that of the rest of the world, the United States and Russia must do better.


[1] https://www.cnn.com/2016/08/25/middleeast/syria-isis-whos-fighting-who-trnd/index.html
[2] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/isil-committed-genocide-minority-groups-isis-160317132446363.html
[3] http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104470/mq-9-reaper/
[4] http://www.foxnews.com/world/2018/02/13/us-drone-destroys-russian-made-tank-in-syria-in-self-defense-officials-say.html
[5] http://www.businessinsider.com/video-of-us-destroying-russian-t-72-tank-in-syria-with-drone-strike-2018-2
[6] http://www.businessinsider.com/us-syria-killed-100-russian-syrian-backed-fighters-2018-2?r=UK&IR=T
[7] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/01/syria-airstrikes-everything-you-need-to-know

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Bitcoin: How Terrorist Organizations are Using Cryptocurrency to Fund Operations

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© Freedom’s Phoenix: Donna Hancock

Bitcoin is the new talk on the streets these days. You may have heard about it on the news recently or in everyday talk and commotion. It is the new hot commodity that has features similar to Venmo and PayPal but is essentially its own unique type of currency. Bitcoin has been called a cryptocurrency, “that was created in 2009 by an unknown person using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto.” [1] Bitcoin is unique in the sense that there is no official bank of Bitcoin, so trading Bitcoin is as easy as sending it from you to me and vice versa. This means that “transactions are made with no middlemen” but can come at a cost as Bitcoin is not insured by the FDIC [1]. Altogether, Bitcoin’s “hype” has come this past year in multiple accounts of people investing in Bitcoin and over time, have turned into millionaires.

How does Bitcoin relate to terrorism?

Terrorist groups, especially and mainly ISIS, have caught on to the use of Bitcoin and now may be using it to fund their efforts. It seems to be the perfect avenue for channeling money as stated before how loose the regulations are on the cryptocurrency. Essentially, it can operate and function perfectly for what the terrorist organizations need. Anonymous wallet ID’s, no federal insurance, and no limits. A true terrorist organization’s dream has been presented.

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© Wikimedia Commons-ISIS propaganda encourages the use of Bitcoin in the form of donations

Back in December of 2017 a, “resident of Long Island in New York, Zoobia Shahnaz, allegedly used Bitcoin and other virtual currencies to launder $85,000 and send it to ISIS.” [2] Although a large amount of money being donated such as this may raise eyebrows as it did in this case, smaller increments of money are not as easily detected. According to The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the “ISIS-affiliated website Akbar al-Muslimin” has posted a link for acceptance of Bitcoins that “are allegedly for the website, but in the ITIC [The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center] assessment they may be used for ISIS broader goals, one of which is rehabilitating its propaganda machine and possibly also for funding terrorist attacks abroad.” [3]

What has been done?

Countries around the world have begun to implement and update their regulations on the cryptocurrency such as Japan, China, and Australia. [1] Malaysia has also begun to place tighter regulations in their country. The “Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), its central bank, has required that conversions of cryptocurrencies into cash must be reported under the strict transactions under anti-money laundering laws.” [4] Measures such as these allow the country to fully oversee the operations of terrorism financing and tracking which is essential in the battle to slow and stop it. [4] The United States Congress has also followed similar measures. New York Democratic Representative Kathleen Rice has pushed for a bill deemed “House Resolution 2433, the Homeland Security Assessment of Terrorists’ Use of Virtual Currencies Act, would require the DHS to conduct a threat assessment on if, when, how, and why terrorist groups like ISIS are using cryptocurrencies to fund violence at home and abroad.” [5] Bills such as these are what will make up the core of the fight against illegal donations and funding to ISIS.  The bill passed the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate.

What can be done?

It’s simply a matter of understanding what is going on and how terrorist organizations are using Bitcoin to their advantage. Tighter regulations must be put into place and counterterrorism measures must be at the forefront of slowing down illicit donations and funding to ISIS through Bitcoin. As our society has been engulfed in the features and benefits of the technological age of the 21st century, here is a firsthand problem faced by intelligence and cyber analysts. The more measures and standards that are put into place, the harder it is for the trafficking of Bitcoin. There will always be loopholes and channels that terrorist organizations can move their funding, but tightening Bitcoin standards is a key to resolving this problem.



  1. http://money.cnn.com/infographic/technology/what-is-bitcoin/
  2. http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2018/01/09/bitcoin-can-help-terrorists-secretly-fund-their-deadly-attacks.html
  3. https://www.express.co.uk/finance/city/893151/Bitcoin-price-latest-news-ISIS-terror-cryptocurrency
  4. http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/fears-over-bitcoin-use-in-terror-financing
  5. https://www.inverse.com/article/31775-congress-bitcoin-terrorism-bill-house-subcommittee

Bioterrorism: How Real is the Threat?

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Much of the WMD threat today is focused on nuclear weapons and North Korea. However, bioterrorism is a threat worth analyzing. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines bioterrorism as biological agents (microbes or toxins) used as weapons to further personal or political agendas. Almost any pathogenic microorganism could be used in a bioterrorist attack, though anthrax and smallpox worry officials the most. The lethality [1] of an effective bioweapon is hard to conceive – one gram of anthrax can contain one trillion spores, which can result in a death toll of between 20 and 100 million people. Some say that the threat of bioterrorism is largely overblown [2], while others are adamant about not underestimating the risk [3]. Factors to consider when assessing the risk include the current global terror environment, the potential for terrorists to obtain pathogenic agents, the ability to weaponize said agents, and successful deployments thereof.

Many weapons of mass destruction require large facilities and highly suspicious components that call attention to nefarious actors. On the other hand, biological weapons can be assembled in a laboratory or home without raising suspicions and require technology that is dual-use [4] in nature. This heightens the threat of a bioweapon for two reasons. First, equipment like aerosolizers and recreational drones [5] can be purchased at easily accessible technology or home improvement stores and be used at home to create a bioweapon. Second, the dual-use dilemma also applies to research, as sanctioned and defense-related experimentation and studies can be conducted on biological weapons as a façade to gain insight into how to create them.

Though the means of purchasing the equipment necessary to create bioweapons, and the ability to create them in one’s home due to the small-scale nature of the agents are feasible, weaponizing the agent remains a significant challenge. The media often underestimate the obstacles involved in creating and effectively deploying a biological weapon, which allows some to misjudge their risk of being involved in an attack. For example, according to the late Dr. J.B. Tucker [6], a chemical and biological weapons expert, to develop an anthrax weapon, one would have to do the following:

“…obtain and cultivate a virulent strain of the bacterium, induce it to sporulate, process the spores into a liquid slurry or a dry powder, formulate the agent with stabilizing chemicals, fill It into a specialized sprayer that can disseminate the spores as a fine-particle aerosol, infecting those exposed through the lungs.”

It is evident that there are many hurdles to overcome in order to create an effective biological weapon. Many of these hurdles can be conquered if the person creating the weapon has real expertise, but there are also environmental elements [7] that can destabilize the agent and render it useless. These weapons are quite sensitive to heat, sunlight, wind, and humidity. Therefore, even if a weapon was created and the means for deployment were obtained, the unpredictability of Mother Nature still stands in the way.

The Biological Weapons Convention and Compliance

One issue that remains at the forefront of the biological weapons issue is that the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) does not have any enforcement mechanisms. The 1972 ­Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which bans the “development, stockpiling, transfer, and use of biological weapons worldwide,” does not have any valid system to verify that the signatories to the BWC are complying with the established rules of the treaty. While treaties in the past have successfully mitigated disasters without a formal compliance mechanism, and the absence of any real biological weapon attack could be attributed to member states adhering to the convention, the current international political climate is not one in which trust and partnership are feasible options to ensure the safety of the global citizenry.

Reason abounds supporting the notion that a biological terrorist event is possible and likely – this includes the dual-use dilemma and lack of verification in the BWC protocols. One other piece of evidence that lends credibility to this assertion is that many terrorist groups are becoming increasingly apocalyptic and random in their killing. Rather than killing a targeted audience, groups such as ISIS [8] believe the enemy is any person who disagrees with their beliefs. Since biological weapons can kill more people than a nuclear war [9], the apocalyptic nature of some terrorist organizations has rightfully raised concerns about their potential interest in such a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

While many hurdles exist that must be overcome in order to create a biological weapon, bioterrorism remains a credible threat. It would be a mistake to overestimate the threat and focus too much attention on bioterrorism to the detriment of other, potentially more probable hazards. However, though unlikely, a successful bioterror attack would be catastrophic to innocent human lives, as well as overwhelming to the healthcare industry, creating dramatic fear for the future.


[1] https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/busting-anthrax-myth
[2] http://www.phcintelligencer.com/2015/10/12/bioterrorism-neither-likely-nor-practical/
[4] https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/pubContent.aspx?d=22233
[7] https://adacounty.id.gov/Portals/Accem/Doc/PDF/terrorfaq.pdf
[8] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

The United Kingdom and the Challenge of Far-Right Ideologies

finsburyparkvigil - The United Kingdom and the Challenge of Far-Right Ideologies

Participants gather during a vigil near the Finsbury Park Mosque, the scene of Darren Osborne’s vehicular terrorist attack. [1]

On June 19, 2016, Darren Osborne, motivated by anger about the terror attacks in the United Kingdom, drove his vehicle into a group of Muslim worshipers outside the Finsbury Park Mosque.  Osborne killed one, Makram Ali, and injured nine others. Ali had collapsed on the sidewalk prior to the attack and a group of Muslims had stopped to lend assistance. While the group was providing aid, Osborne struck with his vehicle.  Ali died at the scene.

On February 1, 2018, a British court decided Osborne’s fate. He was found guilty. Osborne was convicted of murder and attempted murder. Evidence presented during the trial showed that Osborne had recently become radicalized from anti-Muslim extremism propaganda. Justice Bobbie Cheema-Grubb stated that “[Osborne’s action] was a terrorist attack. [He] intended to kill.” [2] Osborne was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 43 years.  

This attack represents another in an ongoing problem of radical right-wing attacks occurring in Great Britain. In June 2016, Helen Joanne (Jo) Cox, a Member of Parliament, was murdered by a far-right extremist. Cox was a member of the Labour Party, who, prior to the Brexit referendum, advocated for the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union. Her killer, Thomas Mair, claimed to be a political activist and witnesses claimed he had shouted, “This is for Britain,” when he attacked Cox [3]. Prior to the attack, Mair had reviewed white-nationalist websites and followed far-right political leaders.

These incidents were not the first acts of far-right extremism in the United Kingdom.  They may very well not be the last.

The United Kingdom has witnessed the rise of far-right groups that promote nationalist and anti-Muslim ideologies. National Action, which celebrated Jo Cox’s murder, became the first far-right group to be described as a terrorist organization in the United Kingdom [4]. Far-right groups like the English Defense League and Britain First have staged anti-Muslim protests. Britain First’s leaders, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were arrested and charged in Belfast, Northern Ireland for “using threatening, abusive, insulting words or behavior.” [5] The United Kingdom, unlike the United States, has very stringent laws governing hate speech and its promotion in public spaces.

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Mourners pay respects and leave messages outside Parliament Square following the death of MP Jo Cox. [6]

Hate speech is strongly prohibited in the United Kingdom. In the United States, you can stand on a street corner and champion whatever ideology you believe is appropriate.  An individual can advocate religious condemnations, shout racial epithets, or denigrate a particular nationality. The United Kingdom, however, prohibits this type of commentary in public spheres [7]. Individuals in the United Kingdom can still preach their ideologies, however, they risk a greater likelihood of being arrested for incitement. Leaders of far-right movements face possible arrest and imprisonment when they move their anti-immigrant and anti-Islam views into the public arena.

To be clear, being a far-right political group does not make an organization a terrorist group. Even advocating racial or religious prejudice does not necessarily make yours a terrorist group. However, the promotion of hateful ideologies can lead members to take matters into their own hands with violent consequences. Britain First may condemn the actions of individuals like Thomas Mair [8], but condemnation does not absolve them of previously advocating hate against a community or faith.

The internet provides a platform for spreading far-right extremist ideology.  The United Kingdom’s far-right platforms are immediately recognizable alongside the writings and work of other far-right organizations across the globe such as American white-supremacist groups and neo-Nazi movements. The internet offers an extensive platform to incite individuals to perpetrate hate crimes and terrorist acts against different communities.

The United Kingdom has a long, violent past with terrorism. Northern Irish terrorism remained an ever-present danger from the 1970s until the 2000s.  Terrorists perpetrated notable violent attacks in the 2000s including the London bombings. These attacks continue into the present with lone-wolf stabbings and vehicular assaults. Far-right extremism in the United Kingdom, however, persists, overlapping with these other periods of terrorist activity. Far-right organizations have not limited their violence to one faith or creed. The attacks on MP Jo Cox and Makrim Ali demonstrate that domestic politicians and members of other religious faiths are both viable targets.

Terrorism is a tactic used in pursuit of a political goal: to generate fear and intimidation in a specific population. Far-right terrorist actors engage in these attacks to promote their brand of politics. Osborne perpetrated his vehicular attack in pursuit of an anti-Muslim agenda. Mair shot and stabbed a Member of Parliament in pursuit of a nationalist agenda. Far-right movements are growing in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe. Governments need to assess where all types of terrorists, foreign or domestic, come from and combat the environments in which their extremist ideologies arise.



[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-40324590
[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42920929
[3] https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/16/europe/british-mp-jo-cox-attacked/index.html
[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/12/neo-nazi-group-national-action-banned-by-uk-home-secretary
[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/14/britain-first-leader-paul-golding-arrested-in-belfast
[6] https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/16/europe/british-mp-jo-cox-attacked/index.html
[7] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/4/pdfs/ukpga_20080004_en.pdf
[8] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/16/labour-mp-jo-cox-shot-in-leeds-witnesses-report/

Education Has Become A Casualty of War

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Last week, USA Today published an article about a boy named Said in Kenya who had been unable to attend school for more than three years because of the presence of the violent extremist group al-Shabab in his town. According to the article, dozens of schools in the area had been closed for as long as four years since al-Shabab began to use the region as a staging ground for its attacks, leaving thousands of children across the region without proper education.

Unfortunately, this story is not unique. All across areas plagued by violent extremism, education for children is one of the first institutions to suffer. In eastern Ghouta, Syria, almost one in three school-age children, approximately 1.75 million, are out of school due to threats of violence and destruction. According to a Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 25 million children are out of school due to the disruption of violence in Pakistan.

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Afghan school children walk home after classes near an open classroom in the outskirts of Jalalabad. Afghanistan has had only rare moments of peace over the past 30 years, its education system being undermined by the Soviet invasion of 1979, a civil war in the 1990s and five years of Taliban rule. (Noorullah Shirzada/Getty Images)

While violence, loss of life, and destruction are some of the immediate effects of terrorism, the long-term impacts are much more complex and, perhaps, more harmful.

Terrorism leaves an economy crippled as local businesses and infrastructure are decimated by violence and it can leave deep psychological scars in its population. But the long-term effects of the loss of education are dangerous and heartbreaking.

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Children walk home from school in a Nairobi slum. Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

A lack of education leaves an entire generation disadvantaged and seriously stagnates the development of a country, especially after years of destruction. It leaves millions of bright, gifted children without a way to fulfill their potential.

Without education and the opportunities and knowledge it brings, populations tend to be more vulnerable to extremist rhetoric and radicalization, leading to a perpetuation of the problem. Protecting and continuing to encourage educational programs could prevent future conflicts from emerging and improve the quality of life for millions of people.

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Scarred: Hamida Lasseko, Unicef’s deputy representative in Syria’s capital Damascus, said: ‘When one says that it is the worst place to be as a child, in Syria, for now, I would agree. Children are missing from education, they are out of school. Children have the hidden wounds, and these wounds form scars’

Education is immeasurably important, and while countless studies have tried to fully grasp the scope of its impact, it reaches much further than one can imagine. This issue is not about one Kenyan boy named Said, but millions of children who are bright and deserve a future without fear.




[1] Kenya: Terrorism by al-Shabab is so bad, kids can’t go to school. (2018, February 2).

[2] Section, U. N. N. S. (2017, December 11). UN News – Violence shuts schools, deprives children of medical care in Syria’s East Ghouta, warns UNICEF.

[3] Human Rights Watch | 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor | New York, NY 10118-3299 USA | t (2017, March 27). Dreams Turned into Nightmares | Attacks on Students, Teachers, and Schools in Pakistan. 

U.S. International Terrorism Strategy in 2018: New Battleplan or More of the Same?

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© Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. International Terrorism Strategy in 2018: New Battleplan or More of the Same?

On January 30, 2018, President Donald Trump presented his State of the Union speech before Congress and the nation.  Since 9/11, presidents’ State of the Union speeches have consistently highlighted the impact of terrorism and the United States’ strategy in combating its global presence. Yet, President Trump’s speech mentioned terrorism a handful of times and often in the context of immigration concerns. Although the United States is not the only power fighting against terrorism and extreme ideologies, as a vital actor, it remains important to understand the United States’ objectives and planned actions moving into 2018.

Through 2016 and 2017, the world has watched the gradual, ongoing pushback of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. The US-led coalition has consistently brought the attack against ISIS terrorists. Kurdish forces and Arab allies reclaimed Mosul and later Raqqa.  Today, the so-called Islamic State retains only a small fraction of the territory it once claimed.

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Map of ISIS Territorial Control[1]

The fight is not over though.  ISIS maintains a foothold and their hateful ideology continues to spread online.  Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy failed to outline a comprehensive strategy regarding how the factors underlying the conflict will be addressed, the same problem as the past administration. On January 18, 2018, Secretary of State Tillerson outlined five goals for U.S. national security interests in Syria:

  1. Defeat of ISIS, al Qaeda, and terrorist threats to the U.S.;
  2. Resolution of the Syrian conflict through the U.N. political process that assures President Assad’s removal
  3. Diminish Iranian influence;
  4. Safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced peoples; and
  5. Syria remains free of weapons of mass destruction.[2]

While these goals are laudable, they fail to articulate the U.S. strategy in Syria and the deployment of U.S. counterterrorism forces.  Tillerson affirmed that, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will maintain a military presence in Syria.[3] Just like in Iraq, inadequate management of this victory can lead to the rise of a similar or greater terrorist threat in the region in years to come. The U.S. must remain leery of declaring victory without the assurances of responsible governance and plans to address deep cultural and religious tensions.  As Secretary of Defense Mattis indicated, the U.S. must be mindful what ISIS can morph into following their territorial defeat.[4]

For Afghanistan, the Trump Administration’s goals are more simplistic.  In 2017, President Trump increased the troop levels from 8,500 to 14,000.[5] General Votel, U.S. Central Command, indicated that an increase in American trainers would be vital to expand the fight against insurgents and the Taliban.[6] Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. military was given greater latitude to strike targets and operate within these conflict zones.

Partnerships with Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan, will help in tempering the conflict. A strong U.S. security presence, with a freer reign of tactics, may push back the Taliban and insurgency parties, but only the regional actors may be able to completely resolve the conflict.  President Trump’s determination to withhold aid from Pakistan will not aid that objective or regional stability. U.S. troops may be able to reduce the Taliban and extremist fighters, but terrorism will not end in the area if Afghanistan and Pakistan are not players. One thing is certain, the Trump Administration is focused on the elimination of the Taliban and terrorist fighters in Afghanistan.

Picture1 2 - U.S. International Terrorism Strategy in 2018: New Battleplan or More of the Same?

Map of South Asia and Conflict Parties, and U.S. Troops in Afghanistan[7]

In conjunction with President Trump’s rhetoric, U.S. actions in the Middle East and South Asia are moving toward greater militarism.  The U.S. military has been able to reduce terrorist organizations’ strength.  This may lead to some positive outcomes, but it rarely has led to complete success against terrorism. Iraqi and Afghans history shows that the military cannot be the sole solution.  President Trump’s State of the Union did not address any methods or plans to counter violent extremist ideology (a root of many of these conflicts) in the region.  A comprehensive terrorist strategy – military and diplomatic – is necessary.



[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034

[2] https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/30/donald-trump-syria-strategy-216551

[3] https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/30/donald-trump-syria-strategy-216551

[4] http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/370295-the-isis-defeat-myth-no-one-talks-about-isis-sympathizers-and-us

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/up-to-1000-more-us-troops-could-be-headed-to-afghanistan-this-spring/2018/01/21/153930b6-fd1b-11e7-a46b-a3614530bd87_story.html?utm_term=.83275c5c3741

[6] http://time.com/5085376/afghanistan-us-military-strategy/

[7] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-11/trump-is-playing-a-dangerous-game-with-pakistan


Terrorism Has No Religion

Terrorism has no religion and no homeland. It is wrong to attribute terrorism to the teachings of a specific religion. Terrorists do not distinguish between Christian churches and Islamic mosques. Places of worship, in fact, be they mosques or churches, have both been harmed routinely by terrorists.

In addition to Christians and Muslims both being victims of terrorist attacks, terrorist attacks have targeted Sunni and Shiite mosques alike across the Middle East. In attacking holy sites, terrorists seek to destabilize the security and stability of the state, especially the economic sector. They seek to spread chaos and confusion among multiple groups and they seek to stir sedition and sow the seeds of sectarian strife.

Christian Churches of Egypt:

Churches in Egypt have been targeted by a series of terrorist bombings. Who can forget the December 11, 2016, terrorist attack on St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church (commonly known as El-Botroseya Church) in Cairo’s Abbasia district? 29 people were killed and 49 people, mostly women, and children were wounded [1]. And who can forget the twin terrorist attacks on April 9, 2017, that targeted St. George’s Church in the Egyptian city of Tanta and Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria? These attacks left 47 people dead and 126 injured [2]. 76 innocent people lost their lives inside houses of worship in these three attacks. The peaceful sounds of hymns mixed with the evil sounds of explosions. The following video describes the attacks on the two churches:  

The Muslim Mosques of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia:

On Friday, June 26, 2015, an Islamic State (ISIS) militant bombed Al-Imam Al-Sadiq mosque in the Al-Sawabir district of Kuwait City, killing 27 and injuring 227 during Friday afternoon prayers [3]. Further, the attack took place during the holy month of Ramadan, during which time Muslims worldwide fast to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Those who were injured or killed were all praying when the terrorist entered the mosque and detonated his explosive belt [4]. The sounds of the peaceful Azan (the Muslim call to prayer) mixed with the evil sounds of explosions. Not only the Islamic, but the entire world was outraged by the attacks on the mosque in Kuwait.

These videos show the attack on the Shiite mosque in Kuwait:

On Monday, July 4, 2016, also during the holy month of Ramadan, a suicide bomb attack took place in the parking lot of Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque. Al-Masjid an-Nabawi is one of the largest, holiest mosques in Islam.It was built by the Prophet Muhammad [5]. The mosque is located in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Four policemen were killed and five others were wounded in the suicide bomb attack [6]. Two other attacks took place in Saudi Arabia. One near the United States’ consulate in Jeddah and another targeted a Shiite Muslim mosque in Qatif. Terrorists have no respect for what is holy. The attack on one of Islam’s holiest sites brought condemnations from all around the Middle East and the world. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “This bombing, which happened during Ramadan outside the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque, proves that terrorism has no religion and no faith.” [7]

The following video shows the attack on the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque). It also shows two other attacks that took place at the same time Al-Masjid an-Nabawi was attacked:

The sentiment “Terrorism has no religion,” is no longer just a slogan: it is a dictum. Terrorists do not care about the sanctity of a Muslim mosque or a Christian church. They don’t differentiate between Sunni and Shia. Terrorists commit vile crimes in the name of peaceful religions.


  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/11/world/middleeast/cairo-coptic-cathedral-attack.html
  2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/church-bombing-cairo-egypt-tanta-kills-dead-wounded-injured-latest-a7674761.html
  3. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33287136
  4. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kuwait-blast/islamic-state-suicide-bomber-kills-27-wounds-227-in-kuwait-mosque-idUSKBN0P618L20150626?virtualBrandChannel=11563
  5. https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12435.doc.htm
  6. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/suicide-attack-holy-site-saudi-arabia-city-medina-reports-86052859
  7. http://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast/2016/07/160704_saudi_arabia_blast

More than Ideology: The Radicalized Identity

With the rise of violent extremism and terrorist groups like Daesh recruiting and radicalizing people all over the world, we have attempted to understand the root causes of violent extremism, often linking it to poverty, history of criminality, or even affiliation with certain religions. After years of trying, and failing to pinpoint an exact root — i.e., the evil gene in ordinary people —  one must acknowledge that the problem is more complex than that.

ISISRecruitPosterW - More than Ideology: The Radicalized Identity

The British theatre play The Believers are but Brothers, which has become a smash hit in the last year, inadvertently underlines a fact researchers often overlook: identity. In the play, playwright Javaad Alipoor tells a striking story of the online radicalization of young men[1]. More than serving as a cautionary tale, it illustrates how radicalization can happen to everyday people, and that violent extremism is much more than just personal beliefs, it is an identity.

While ideology is the lifeblood of a terrorist organization, by offering an initial motive for action and a unique perspective of the world, it is the identity a person cultivates by being part of a group that is potentially so dangerous.

Ideology unites individuals; it is powerful at bringing like-minded people together. Yet it is the common identity that makes violence an option and can influence people to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the ideology.

The process of radicalization can manifest differently in distinct areas, varying in methods, populations, and rates of success across countries, yet the common factor is the vulnerability in individual identity that people who become radicalized share[2]. This vulnerability can be caused by concrete factors such as a lack of socioeconomic opportunity, societal marginalization, and institutional oppression and violence[3].

Let’s imagine a young man spending much of his time online, not unlike the ones portrayed in Alipoor’s play. He may not be intentionally seeking or even be exceedingly attracted to extremist ideology, but he might feel a void and question things he has been taught. As he finds himself immersed in a new community, he forms an attachment to it and its ideology. Organizations like Daesh gain support for their cause by creating a group identity through validating people’s grievances and creating a sense of belonging which bolsters confidence[4].

Ideology is only one layer of radicalization. Underneath it, deeper is a shared sense of belonging and personal significance. Members do not believe in their cause — they are the cause. It is the sense of being part of something, it is a validation of your personal existence.

Group identity is incredibly influential. It can lead to an escalation of violence, group think, or even the rejection of outsiders, simply because they are not part of the same group. This is especially amplified when the identity is threatened, i.e. through war or other types of conflict, when “Us versus Them” dynamics become more powerful[5]. It can even increase adherence to extremist ideology since everyone else in the group believes in it too[6].

Acknowledging identity, unfortunately, does not make the fight against violent extremism and terrorism any easier– quite the opposite. There is no antidote that could make it all disappear. One small step in combating extremism and its ideology is recognizing the attachment people cultivate and the meaning they find in their causes. There is little logic to identity, but it is the most powerful tool extremist organizations have.


[1] Lukowski, A. (2018, January 30). What Radicalizes Young Men? This Show Tells You via WhatsApp. The New York Times.

[2] Provines, C. G. (2017, September 29).Understanding Radicalization Through the Lens of ‘Identity Vulnerability.’ Columbia University Journal of International Affairs. 

[3] Provines, C. G. (2017, September 29).Understanding Radicalization Through the Lens of ‘Identity Vulnerability.’ Columbia University Journal of International Affairs. 

[4]Provines, C. G. (2017, September 29).Understanding Radicalization Through the Lens of ‘Identity Vulnerability. Columbia University Journal of International Affairs.

[5] Musgrove, Luke & McGarty, Craig. (2008). Opinion-Based Group Membership as a Predictor of Collective Emotional Responses and Support for Pro- and Anti-War Action. Social Psychology. 39. 37-47.

[6] Musgrove, Luke & McGarty, Craig. (2008). Opinion-Based Group Membership as a Predictor of Collective Emotional Responses and Support for Pro- and Anti-War Action. Social Psychology. 39. 37-47.

The Laptop Bomb: The Latest Extremist Weapon and Homeland Security Nightmare

Picture1 8 - The Laptop Bomb: The Latest Extremist Weapon and Homeland Security Nightmare

© Harun Maruf-Daallo Airlines Flight 159 after an explosion from a laptop bomb

The new threat for TSA and Homeland Security officials is not suicide bombers, but what is being described as a “laptop bomb”. For many years now, terrorist organizations – such as ISIS, Al-Shabaab, even dating back to Al-Qaeda – have been working steadily to create a bomb that can slip through x-ray machines and make its way onto an aircraft. This has caused a nightmare for the Department of Homeland Security due to the worry “that ISIS is particularly tech-savvy and has shown an unusual willingness to turn consumer tech into weapons” [1].

One event that sparked the questioning of x-ray machine usage at U.S. airports was the detonation of a laptop bomb on a Daallo Airlines passenger plane back on February 2nd, 2016. Officials say that “suspect Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh, a Somali national, carried the laptop computer with a bomb in it onto Daallo Airlines Flight 159” [2]. The bomb detonated before the plane reached its normal cruising altitude, essentially saving the plane and its passengers from something that could have been devastating. It still raised the question of exactly how Abdullahi managed to slip this explosives-laden laptop through security systems and x-rays at the airport. A scarcity of upgraded systems could have caused the bomb to slip through security. “Most airports in the developed world use the latest generation of multiview X-ray machines, but some airports in less developed parts of the world still use single-view X-ray machines significantly less reliable in detecting explosives” [2]. The U.S. has state of the art security and x-ray machines in its airports, but it would take only one snafu to allow a bomb through.

The laptop bomb’s arrival has coincided with attempts to smuggle bombs in shoes, purses, and even underwear. “Saudi-born (Ibrahim al-)Asiri, 34, who was based in Yemen, was behind the failed Christmas Day attempt in 2009 to bring down a Detroit-bound plane by a suicide bomber with plastic explosives sewn into his underwear” [4]. This demonstrates how dedicated to achieving their goals terrorists are and the lengths to which they will go.

IMG 3120 - The Laptop Bomb: The Latest Extremist Weapon and Homeland Security Nightmare

©AFP/Getty Images-TSA screening laptops for bomb material/residue

One of President Trump’s principal campaign objectives was to tighten U.S. security and border protection. In response to a growing number of threats from ISIS and other intel, the Trump Administration announced a ban that “forced passengers to put any devices larger than a cell phone in their checked baggage,” [3] from, “10 airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.” [3] A foiled plot that involved “explosives hidden in a fake iPad that appeared as good as the real thing” [4] was one of many factors that prompted the ban. Public outrage soon followed, and people began to question if it was a requisite security measure or “Islamophobia”. Since then, security procedures have been revamped and new measures have been implemented, discontinuing the ban.

airpots2 1 - The Laptop Bomb: The Latest Extremist Weapon and Homeland Security Nightmare

© Department of Homeland Security

There will always be a struggle to stay one step ahead in the battle between Homeland Security and terrorist organizations. As Homeland Security updates their technology and screening processes for passengers, terrorist organizations will continue to test their newest variants until they fulfill their perennial goal of taking down a U.S. (or U.S. bound) commercial airliner. It will be a difficult task; U.S. airport screening processes are top-notch.


  1. http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/airlines/news/a27432/laptop-bomb-airplane/
  2. https://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/11/africa/somalia-plane-bomb/index.html
  3. http://time.com/4867860/laptop-ban-lifted-airline-donald-trump-john-kelly/
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/26/plot-explosives-ipad-us-uk-laptop-ban
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