Does the Groundbreaking Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Go Beyond the Negotiation Table?

After eighteen months of talks and nearly twenty years of war, Afghanistan looks like it has made a step in the right direction: at the end of February, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic peace agreement in Doha, Qatar. The Agreement is undoubtedly a breakthrough, and even critics of US President Donald Trump credit the administration for achieving a deal that both the Bush and the Obama administrations failed to do. Nevertheless, the three part Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan is a crucial step towards peace, but only the beginning of it.

The Agreement signed on February 29 features a commitment to end American presence in Afghanistan and guarantees that the Taliban will prevent international terrorist organizations from growing on Afghan territory. The deal also features a promise that the Taliban will engage in talks with the US-backed government for achieving a ceasefire, and a pledge to find solutions for managing the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners and 1000 prisoners from the other side.

The prospects for Afghanistan are intricate, and the fragile balance faces manifold pressures. The US-backed incumbent was declared the winner of the presidential elections five months after and led rival Abdullah Abdullah to contest results. This left Afghanistan with two de facto presidents, each assigning governors. Furthermore, Afghanistan has confirmed 4 COVID-19 cases. Given its proximity to Iran (which has confirmed over 7000 cases) and potential low detection rates, Afghanistan is adding another precipitating factor to its lengthy crisis.

The Agreement empowered the Taliban, bearing the cost of legitimizing the group by bringing it to the negotiations table. Throughout the Peace Process the Taliban have been seeking to gain back the power they lost, and the deal seems to be giving them the upper hand. Since the agreement was signed, the Taliban resumed operations against Afghan forces and beyond: last week a bomb exploded in the eastern Khost province, leaving three dead and eleven wounded, and at least twenty-nine people were killed in a mass shooting at an event attended by the country’s opposition leader in Kabul.

The US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan brings about “a long, windy, bumpy road to peace”, said  Defense Secretary Mark Esper after approving the withdrawal. The Agreement promises to reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 from 12,000 within the first 135 days, and a complete withdrawal in 14 months. As the Reduction of Violence Plan fell into the background, President Trump acknowledged “Taliban could ‘possibly’ seize power after US troops leave”, and sources indicate the Taliban are preparing their annual spring offensive.

Trusting the Taliban with safeguarding the interests of the US and its allies against terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda might have been foolish. Commentators point out the Taliban cannot be trusted with putting an end to terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan, recalling the Mujahideen civil war and the mistakes made by the US in Iraq, which opened the space for the emergence of the Islamic State. Are the Taliban trustworthy? Or will Islamic State seize the opportunity and grow stronger in Afghanistan? Previous lessons show that when radicals fight against radicals everyone loses.

The intra-Afghan peace negotiations supposed to begin in the aftermath of the Agreement are equally problematic. President Ashraf Ghani refused to accept the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners as a precondition for talks, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the rejection of the clause by the Afghan government. Furthermore, the list of negotiators is not ready and the Afghan political community does not show signs of compromise. Directions for a prospective power-sharing government are yet to materialize, and the Afghan government remains vague and weakened by the US promise to ‘refrain from intervening in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan’.

What Should Be Done?

US presence must be maintained until more progress is achieved in the domestic peace process. The US might have signed a peace agreement, but Afghan parties are still at war and the government is losing ground. The Peace Agreement allegedly contains two classified annexes that include a timeline for the next 18 months, details on prohibited attacks on both sides, and most important, how the US will share information about its troop locations with the Taliban. Many Afghans fear that the Agreement aids the Taliban, as the modalities of permanent ceasefire are not settled by the deal.

The US and its international partners must commit to funding and training the Afghan Army, and develop a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program for the over 60,000 Taliban fighters. The US withdrawal will leave behind a power-vacuum, much like the Soviets did in 1989. The 1988 Geneva Accords provided a framework for Soviet departure from Afghanistan, which commenced in less than a year. The Soviets also called it a ‘gradual withdrawal’ and facilitated a Policy of National Reconciliation. Yet, in the absence of a comprehensive DDR plan, the situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorated leading to a fully-fledged civil war. History should not be repeated.

The US troops should not withdraw until third parties such as Pakistan are committed to and included into the peace process, and international terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan are weakened, if not eradicated. Numerous international terrorist groups use Afghanistan as their bases, recruitment centers, support and organizing their fighters, and a power vacuum would give them a boost that will transcend the borders of Afghanistan.


How Refugees Make their Way to Europe: A special report by Rise to Peace

Greek border police shot and killed a refugee as he attempted to cross the border following Turkey’s announcement that the border is open.

Rohullah, an international student studying at Trakya University, stated, “I was there when I heard the gunshots. I saw a woman knocked to the ground. We were scared and ran away. I did not know about the Syrian refugee that was killed but I saw the women that were shot.”

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Rohullah is distributing food and clothing to refugees in the border of Turkey-Greece in the province of Edirne. March 4, 2020. 

He added, “My school is about a 10-minute drive from the border, and as soon as the Turkish government opened the border, refugees poured into our city on their way to the border. My classmates and I went to greet the refugees on the day that the shooting took place. All of them had crossed the Turkish border and were right in the center of the Turkish-Greek border. Some children were playing football and then suddenly, a group of refugees pushed towards the border, about 15 meters, and the Greek police began to shoot and fire tear gas.”

The victim was Ahmed Abu Emad, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo. He represents one of the thousands that have left their homeland to escape ongoing tensions and terrorism in order to have a better life. Like many before him, his journey ended before he could reach his dream. So many refugees here tell our researcher “we want to study and build a new life.” This situation is a tangible example just how conflict disrupts lives, causes immense pain and pushes the human condition to its limits.

Nearly 4500 refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine and Somalia are currently seeking to enter Greece. At this particular encampment, there were around 500 refugees and our researchers interviewed as well as aided them in ways that they could. “They camp in places near the river and by resources such as wood so they can make fires to keep them warm”, said Rohullah. 

The Interview Project 

We were able to interview one young man on his second attempt to reach a better life in Europe. Ahmad Zahir, 22, from Balkh, Afghanistan is just one of the thousands leaving with or without their families to reach Europe for a better life. Since the refugee crises of 2015, thousands of these ‘dream-chasers’ have drowned in the Aegean sea, along the Afghan-Iranian border or in perilous journeys fleeing Syria to reach Turkey. It has been a difficult endeavor full of risk, but those seeking prosperity or security consider it worthwhile to attempt.

Zahir relayed that he reached Greece on the first day that the Turkish border opened, but was arrested shortly after by the Greek border police. He paid about $25 US to get to Edirne from Istanbul.

The 22-year-old summarized his experience as: “We crossed the border on the first day, but soon we were arrested. The Greek police took our money, phones and belongings and then deported us back to Edirne with one pair of pants and a shirt. I am cold and a Turk gave me this jacket to keep me warm.”  He added that, “When the Turkish government announced that the border was open, we left everything behind, but the Greek border is closed now. We cannot go back and do not know what to do.”

Why did you leave Afghanistan?
The security situation in our country is bad with an ongoing insurgency and no jobs. My family and I decided to leave for Europe mainly to live a good life and this is now my second attempt. Without money, a place to stay or live, we do not know what our destiny will be. They said the border is open, but it has been three days since we have been here.

Where do you stay?

We have no option, but to sleep here. It is not a problem for me although it is cold, but you can see children 4-5 years old, pregnant women, and older people here. These conditions are really bad for them. The weather is extremely cold as this is winter. We are lucky to be near the trees as we burn them night and day to keep us warm. 

What’s your plan for going to Europe? New life? Work?
Everybody has this plan, not only me. Let’s see if the border will open or not*. At this point, we have nothing left to lose if we go back to Istanbul or anywhere else because we already lost everything we had. Let’s see what’s going to happen. Wait for the border to open and start a new life for ourselves. I want to go to school. *He means the Greek border.

Do you have plans to go back to Afghanistan?
If we have to, we might. But no plans now to go back because if we go back, there will be no jobs or life there for us.

Why Turkey opened its borders to Greece?

The reasoning is complex and percolated for years. In 2016, Turkey signed an agreement with the European Union during the 2015-16 refugee crisis to stem the flow of refugees in exchange for the allocation of funds to help the millions of refugees from war-torn countries. (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria had the highest number of refugees.) “All our efforts contributed significantly to the security of Europe. However, our calls were ignored by the EU and member states,” said Sami Aksoy, the Turkish foreign ministry spokesman to Aljazeera.

Turkey has subsequently pointed fingers and accused the EU of reneging on its 2016 promises and consequently opened its borders for refugees to cross into Europe on February 29, 2020. This decision came shortly after 35 Turkish soldiers were killed in an a Syrian regime airstrike near Idlib on February 27. Turkey’s decision to open its borders can be seen as a strategic move to gain the support of the EU in support of Turkish involvement in the ongoing Syrian war as well as remind them to implement the articles on the previous agreement.

Turkey currently hosts nearly 4.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, including 3.7 million Syrians. 

How do refugees cross the Turkish border? 

In 2015, when I first reported on the refugee crisis in Istanbul, Turkey was inundated with refugees from everywhere. They slept in national parks as well as beaches out of necessity and poverty. The Turkish people were generous and helped them, particularly the police. Although they came illegally to Turkey, the police did not question them unless they committed a crime.

While there, I met a human smuggler who went by the alias “Dadar.” Human smuggling is a lucrative business in Turkey and Dadar was especially prepared as he had four cell phones upon which he spent most of his time speaking with refugees. New refugees transitioned into new clients and after reaching a deal, Dadar helped them settle and provided them with food. He acted like a humanitarian aid worker, but his end goal was payment for his services.

Dadar charged refugees a fee for his services and additional charges for those traversing countries. He not only helped refugees cross the border, but also helped bring refugees from Afghanistan and Iran as well. “I enjoy doing this work because first I make good money and second I help them reach their destinations,” said Dadar.

Here are some of the fees Dadar charged the refugees for his smuggling services:

From Afghanistan to Turkey — $2000 

From Turkey to Greece — $3500

From Turkey to Germany or London — $6500

On Day 3, I went to see where he kept his clients— the refugees. We drove to a place called Zeytinburnu about 25 minutes from Sultanahmet mosque. It was there I encountered many Afghans engaged in restaurants, shops and other businesses. Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis were there too. This was the place where many new refugees from Afghanistan and Syria stayed due to the proximity to resources and the low costs.

My research has often revealed that refugees and migrants typically tend to stay in communities where there are commonalities and similarities with others. For example, there are numerous cities in the United States and European countries, such as Germany, where refugees tend to settle and create communities of their own whilst engaged in their unique cultures. They adopt these urban areas as their new home.

Dadar took me to a residential apartment complex in the crowded streets of Istanbul where he kept even more of his clients. As I walked into a unit on the fifth floor, I saw 18 people — new arrivals from Afghanistan and Iran — living together in a one-bedroom apartment. Upon arrival, Dadar greeted his clients and explained all the next steps of their journey to them.

“We will inshallah leave the city in a couple of days. Please let me know if you need anything. Your food will be on time and I’m going to buy you guys vests and then hit the road towards the border,” said Dadar to the refugees. 

The next day, I called Dadar and inquired about what to expect next. He told me to meet him for breakfast — Kahvalte. While enjoying the Turkish sultan style breakfast, he laid out his plans and offered to take me to the border. I agreed. After breakfast, he took me to the downtown of Zeytinburnu where he purchased 95 lifejackets. In order for him to transport the refugees, he worked with Kurdish Turks fluent in the language, familiar with police checkpoints and back routes.

Early morning the next day at 04:00, Dadar picked me up from the hotel and took me to a bus where we greeted the driver and 25 refugees. It is important to recognize that many refugees are not all young or travelling by themselves, but rather, families with children account for the largest number of refugees. I encountered a family of four from Kabul, Afghanistan. They sold their house in Kabul and entrusted their money with a dealer from there who would wire it upon their arrival in Germany — their final destination. For them to get to Germany, they had to go through one of the riskiest routes — the Aegean Sea.

Refugees departed by a bus while Dadar and I left in his Fiat. He chose a specific long route to avoid any ferries where a car loaded with refugees could be easily spotted by the police. After 5:40 hours, we reached our destination — Canakkale.

Canakkale was the main point of operation for smuggling refugees to Europe. From there, Dadar took them to the sea between trees and bushes. Kurdish and Afghan had already prepared the rafts and boats to depart. All 25 refugees were loaded on one boat and they were handed a knife with explicit instructions to cut the raft once they reached their destination. They were to leave absolutely no evidence behind for the Greek border police to notice.

Upon their arrival in Greece, some turned themselves in and then the Greek government sent them to different European nations. Germany received the most refugees at that time and this consequently compelled many others to risk the trip to enrich their lives. Out of the 25 refugees that I met and with whom I made the trip to the border, 8 of them are in Germany. Two added me as a connection on Facebook and we continue to be friends.

Nonetheless, not all stories have a happy ending. Thousands have drowned in the Aegean Sea whilst on their way to seek a better life, including the viral image of a Syrian toddler, Alan-al-Kurdi, whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015.

Business continued for Dadar. This was a day-to-day enterprise for him and he continued until Turkey reached a deal with the EU to close its borders to refugees. He was able to turn a large amount of money he received to a successful real-estate business in Istanbul.

Should refugees leave Turkey?

Turkey has been generous in its support of refugees across the country and even gave that eligible citizenship to make a new life in the country. It has its merits. Turkey is a beautiful and safe country and attractive to Muslim refugees as it holds the historical significance as the place of the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan who conquered Europe and Africa. Further, it is a state with a respectable Gross Domestic Product (GDP), so refugees can make a living there if they truly want.

However, most refugees prefer Europe over Turkey and this is rooted in a drive for prosperity, rather than a search for security and aversion to terrorism. They choose this logistically treacherous path rather than settling in Turkey where the government has been generous towards them. Not all refugees can receive permanent residency or citizenship to remain in Turkey, however, there are ways to improve their lot. If they decide to stay and work hard, legal residency in the country is a possibility.

Authors note:

I left Turkey and tried to reach Dadar via the phone number he provided me as I wanted to do another interview project with him. The attempt was unsuccessful. His job was not easy as he regularly fought with Kurdish human smugglers as competed with rivals over prime territory that could act as points of departure for refugees. It was a war between smugglers as they fought to smuggle more refugees to make the most money.

Editorial note:

A researcher with Rise to Peace traveled to the border between Greece and Turkey at Edirne to file a report on Day 3 of the refugee attempts to cross the Turkish border following an announcement that the Turkish border is open. All photos and videos were taken by Rise to Peace with permission and right of usage by the refugees. As part of this initiative, we interviewed one of the refugees whose interview and video are featured below. 

Numbers: Approximately 500 families in one area on the beach. In about 4 days, they left their jobs in different parts of Turkey and came here. They are in need of blankets and I even saw a newborn baby.

Ages: A diverse range from a newborn baby to the elderly. The average age is approximately 40 years old though there are a lot of young adults. There are many families with 2-3 children though there are some traveling in groups with as many as 7.

Refugees origins: Most come from Syria, followed by Afghanistan, then Iraq, and Somalia. Those from Bangladesh, Iran, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan and Palestine round out the rest.

Reasons for leaving: In search of a better life, security and an escape from terrorism.

Interview:  Ahmad Zahir, 22 years old from Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. This is his second time crossing the border.

U.S.-Taliban reached a historic agreement

Originally published at The Heat – CGTN America

“Within the next ten days, Taliban leaders are expected to begin negotiations with the Afghan government over a ceasefire and political settlement. This after the militant group and the United States signed a deal over the weekend in Doha in an effort to end the 18-year war.

Under the agreement, the Taliban will not allow al-Qaeda, ISIL, or any other extremist group to operate in Afghanistan, while the U.S. gradually withdraws its forces. It also calls for a prisoner swap.

But on Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would not abide by the terms of a release negotiated by the U.S. as a prerequisite for talks. And on Monday, the Taliban announced it would resume offensive operations against Afghan security forces.

The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said some violence is to be expected.

To discuss all of this:

  • Omar Samad served as the Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada and is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
  • Ahmad Shah Mohibi is the founder and President of Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization.
  • Peter Mansoor served in the U.S. Army for 26-years and is the chair of military history at The Ohio State University.
  • Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center here in Washington, D.Chttps://youtu.be/mV5-6RSq66Q


The Prison Environment and Its Role in Radicalization

In the last few years, several terrorist incidents in Europe have raised serious concerns about prison radicalization and the effectiveness of programs meant to counter it as well as de-radicalize individuals. For instance, the United Kingdom presents a number of cases where terrorists were radicalized while incarcerated or failed to be de-radicalized during their sentences.

The stabbing of two people in south London a month ago is a notable example as it involved an ex-offender convicted of Islamist terrorism related offences. A similar incident is the case of the London Bridge attacker who had been released from prison about one year prior to stabbing and killing two people in November 2019. The fact that the attacker in the second case underwent de-radicalization programs throughout 8 years of incarceration is particularly worrying and raises doubts about the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy.

There is also the case of the March 2017 Westminster attack carried out by a Briton who was previously convicted for non-terrorism related offences and is said to have been radicalized in prison. Moreover, some of the members of the 2004 Madrid attacks, the so-called shoe-bomber, and the person behind the 2005 failed attacks in London, are all believed to have become radicalized whilst incarcerated. It is therefore apparent that prison radicalization is not a new phenomenon, but rather a trend that can be reasonably explained by reasons why a person turns towards violence, or even worse, terrorism.

One of the key reasons why individuals resort to terrorism is the fact that they feel alienated and marginalized. Terrorist recruiters are often charismatic leaders that take advantage of the vulnerable situation of some people to introduce an extreme ideology and provide a sense of belonging. After succeeding in gaining their trust, it is easier to manipulate radicalized individuals and the process of radicalization may enter its final stage — the active involvement in violent acts.

Inmates are often isolated from society and many of them are open to alternative life-concepts and ideologies. Feeling alienated and frustrated, such prisoners are susceptible to radicalization and recruitment to terrorism. The sense of belonging to a group consisted of other like-minded people gives meaning to their life. Those people share the same radical ideas and they are fully committed to fight for a common cause using also violent means.

Moreover, increased levels of violence in prisons sometimes contributes to radicalization. In prisons, especially over-crowded ones, assaults on prisoners or staff are more likely to take place. There are numerous incidents where corrections officers have been attacked by prisoners and this is sometimes compounded with inadequate training of officers to challenge such behaviors. The risk posed to the safety of the prison staff gives extremists the space needed to radicalize inmates almost unimpeded.

In an attempt to prevent the proliferation of such extremist ideologies in prisons, it has been suggested that convicted terrorist should be isolated from the rest of the prison population. A number of separated wings especially for terrorists and extremists have been opened within prisons not only in the UK, but also in the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, the Philippines and elsewhere. However, there are studies which have shown that isolation has the opposite effect, namely to reinforce extremist beliefs. Sentencing is a related matter and often discussed in the matter of convicted terrorists that go on to commit similar offences after their release. Having said that, isolation and extended sentences intensify the problem as these variables only infuriate extremists.

Preventing dangerous extremists from radicalizing their fellow inmates is fundamental to the safe functioning of prisons and proper de-radicalization of prisoners before their release is essential to public protection. It is apparent that de-radicalization and disengagement programs need to be better funded and properly executed. Without an effective de-radicalization method, tougher sentences on terrorist related convictions will only delay, rather than prevent, future attacks.


Energy Industry: The Sector Most Affected by Terrorism

In recent weeks, a number of oil and gas facilities in Syria were struck by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by drones. This is unfortunately not the first time that this has happened as the energy sector remains a major interest of terrorist and insurgent groups operating in the region.

In regard to energy supplies, Syria is significant in the eastern Mediterranean as it was found to possess the largest proven reserves of crude oil in the region. The oil and gas industry as a whole has always been a major source of income for the country as it accounted for approximately one-fourth of government revenues. In the pre-war period, Syria was one of the major producers and exporters of petroleum supplies. Indeed, the production of crude oil before 2011, amounted to around 400,000 barrels per day, half of which were exported.

There is currently a major conflict of interests between the United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey regarding the control of the Syrian oil and gas fields. In this context, numerous attacks on Syrian energy infrastructures have been carried out either by state or non-state actors, resulting in the Syrian government losing control of key oil fields. Indeed, such attacks have far-reaching consequences for the county’s economy. The Syrian oil and gas production have undoubtedly experienced a dramatic drop since the civil war erupted. It has essentially undergone a steep fall of approximately 95%, thus forcing the Syrian government to start importing oil.

The energy industry became a legitimate target of terrorist groups in the 1990s and it is the sector most affected by terrorism at a global level. Syria is not the only example of this kind. Oil industries in Nigeria, Colombia and Venezuela are considered to have been affected by terrorism in some sense. Research has shown that in regions with high-level tensions, such as Syria, the possibilities of a terrorist attack against energy infrastructures are higher. The incentive behind such an attack may be to cause a great deal of damage in order to attract media attention, to put pressure on the relevant government or to obtain control over the energy resources.

There are numerous militant or terrorist groups seeking to exploit sources of energy and natural resources. A prime example is the Islamic State whose funding strategy included the conquering of territory rich in oil and gas. Indeed, the Islamic State heavily relied on the oil-producing areas it controlled; the exploitation of such territories reaped huge profits, making the Islamic State the wealthiest terrorist organization that ever existed. They used these profits not only to fund its terrorist activity but also to buy weapons and to recruit new members. Economic incentives played a key role in many fighters’ decision to join the group. Therefore, the protection of energy facilities in conflict zones and counter-terrorism operations is vital so that they do not fall into the wrong hands.

The energy sector is particularly important for states that largely depend on in thus social well-being depends on its proper functioning. An attack against energy infrastructure by hostile states or terrorists causes serious disruption and problems to societies as well as places national security at risk. It is therefore essential to ensure the security and safety of energy infrastructure anywhere in the world, but especially in unstable countries with fragile security. This could be achieved by working together with organizations that are specialized in energy security responsible for carrying out risk, threat and vulnerability assessments. This, in addition to developing new detection technology in preventing terrorist attacks, will help to enhance forecasting and rapid response capabilities for the protection of energy infrastructure to promote peace and security globally.

How Terrorist Organizations Could Exploit the Idlib Crisis

The Russian-led offensive in the Idlib province has already displaced at least 800, 000 people in three months. Many of them have been displaced multiple times during the Syrian Civil War and are now fleeing towards Turkey, seeking refuge in camps on the closed border. In addition to the grave humanitarian crisis it prompted, the campaign gives terrorist organizations an opportunity to exploit the current situation.

There are fears that Daesh could take advantage of the chaos to regain some of its strength, which is something that occurred in northeast Syria after the Turkish offensive last October. Although the Idlib province does not face the challenge of keeping thousands of Daesh members in prisons and camps, there are fighters, who relocated to the region from other areas of Syria, as well as Daesh linked groups. Despite little concern that the group would be able to seize territory compared to what it once held, it was still able to mobilize thousands of members and it is in possession of a considerable sum of money, making it a potent security risk. In addition, there are other groups present in the region, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which could exploit the crisis in different ways.

Terrorist groups could take advantage of the new refugee wave and head for Turkey. Idlib is home to around 3 million people and Turkey, which already hosts the largest refugee population in the world, is afraid of the new refugee influx. President Erdogan stated that Turkey will not carry such burden on its own and that all European countries will feel the negative impact of this pressure.

Besides the possibility of thousands of refugees pouring in both Turkey and Europe, there is a risk of terrorists and foreign fighters joining the wave and travelling back home or elsewhere. Syria has been known for attracting a huge number of foreign fighters who pose a security risk to their home countries. Although Turkey sealed its border, diplomats say that the country will not be able to prevent all the people from crossing to its territory. Moreover, as the offensive is continuing and the territory under rebel control is shrinking, there is a question of what will happen if advance of the operation is not halted. But, even if terrorists were not able to enter Turkey, they could benefit from their presence in refugee camps.

Refugee camps on the Turkish borders might become a hotbed of radicalization and a pool for recruitment. The majority of people fleeing to refugee camps are women and children. With a lack of security, terrorists are met with ideal conditions to spread their ideology to children, often lacking proper education, and arguably more susceptible than adults. However, as many people fled the fighting multiple times, their grievances could be exploited more easily than before, pushing them closer to the decision to join an armed group. Furthermore, refugees are living in dire conditions and poverty therefore becoming a member of an organization might be the only way to provide for their family. All in all, terrorists might take advantage of people’s situation in refugee camps in a number of ways.

As there are thousands of fighters, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian army will be able to eliminate or capture all of them. Thus, some of the terrorists might decide to hide in the camps with the aim of surviving the government’s operation and launching terrorist attacks in the future.

Currently, the only possible solution to the crisis seems to be a stop to the government offensive and a resort to diplomacy. At the same time, this scenario seems unlikely. Turkey stated that the situation will not be solved until Syrian forces withdraw. Soon after, the Syrian army consolidated control of Aleppo and pledged to eradicate all militant groups. A Turkish delegation visited Moscow on February 17 to engage in ongoing talks; however, efforts to broker a lasting ceasefire have failed in past weeks. Therefore, prospects for stoppage of the offensive and a relief to the crisis look rather dim.


Strikes Against Terrorist Leaders in Yemen Have Little Impact on Peace Efforts

Last week, the White House confirmed that a United States missile strike killed the top Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen While the assassination of Qasim al-Raymi, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official eliminated a terrorist whose roots stretch beyond 9/11, it is unlikely that it will impact violence in the country or the overall effectiveness of the terrorist group.

Reporting from several sources recount that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tracked al-Raymi and executed an unmanned drone strike against him — the second drone attack against the leadership of a US-government classified terrorist group. In recent years, his leadership was even characterized as detrimental to the AQAP’s operations and a successor, likely the reported external operations leader Khalid Batarfi, could provide the group with a sense of renewal.

Nonetheless, operations to neutralize AQAP leadership remains an ineffective way to combat the cyclical violence in Yemen. Fighting between separatist and government forces compound to create an atmosphere that breeds instability and terrorist groups like the AQAP. Prior to al-Raymi’s death, a soldier and a civilian were killed in an ambush linked to the AQAP whilst fighting between the two groups in Yemen’s civil war resulted in the loss of over 100 lives at a military training base around the same time.

American counterterrorism efforts have a long and complex history in Yemen. Since 9/11, the US has utilized everything from drone strikes, surveillance and special operations in the country. The outbreak of the Yemeni civil war in 2011 did not compel the US to shift their tactics or move towards their stated mission to “build the capacity of the local government forces, working by, with, and through these partners to accomplish our common counterterrorism objectives” in a way that proliferates the least amount of violence.

Civilians and ground forces in the Yemeni conflict face the brunt of the lack of policy development. Streets and hospitals are encompassed in the dangerous warzone. These types of situations allow terrorist groups like the AQAP to find a safe haven as those engaged in counter efforts on the ground are preoccupied with daily missile exchanges and the problematic task of sourcing enough medical supplies to treat the wounded.

The United States has suffered the consequences of its lack of amended counterterrorism policy in Yemen too. For instance, the AQAP claimed responsibility for the terror attack on the Pensacola Naval Air Station. It is evident that the war in Yemen pushed all of the players in the conflict to new levels of violent action.

The US needs to participate in peace efforts to deal with terrorism in Yemen. By leaving peace talks to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, the power imbalance of the negotiating bodies propagate mistrust and devolve into violence. With seasoned diplomats, extensive experience in peace negotiation and a relationship on both sides of the conflict, the US has tools at its disposal to bring peace to Yemen while making the world a safer place for everyone in the process.

From Violence to Politics: Will the Taliban Become a Political Party?

The Taliban has rejected engaging in negotiations many times, but President Ghani’s proposal to fully recognize the group as a legal political party in 2018 was a turning point. Terrorist organizations change and many have proven to have the ability to engage in politics. Organizations like Hezbollah or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) changed strategy and came to prioritize politics over violence for advancing their agenda. Perhaps the Taliban too is showing signs of transforming into a political party?

Tapping into politics does not necessarily mean letting go of violence. Estimated to have around 60,000 full-time fighters, the Taliban’s territorial reach does not show signs of pull back. They retain the ability to conduct high-profile urban attacks, demonstrate considerable tactical capabilities, and their attacks have become more effective in the third quarter of 2019.

As security expert Audrey Kurth Cronin points out, many groups that engaged in politics have maintained violent activities. Hezbollah became a fully-fledged political party shortly after the signing of the Ta’if peace agreement in 1989, but like the Taliban showed no signs of slowing down militarily.  Although it has been running in elections since 1992 and has become one of the most important players in the parliament, Hezbollah has not disarmed like other militias in Lebanon. Similarly, the Taliban are unlikely to commit fully to politics.

Perhaps becoming political could be a means to an end. Conflict negotiations are built on the assumption that parties want the conflict to end. However, in the case of the Taliban this is not clear. United States officials assess that the Taliban does not pose an existential threat to the Afghan government at the moment, but signal that the dynamic can change if the US alters its deployments in Afghanistan.

Negotiations could be a vehicle for the Taliban to force US troops out of Afghanistan, so they could defeat the government and other local rivals in order to reinstate the Islamic Emirate by force. Similarly, Hezbollah’s military capacity competes with that of the government of Lebanon, and both analysts and governments have argued the group’s political activity has only been means to their continuous anti-Israel terror campaign.

Engagement in politics could also feature Taliban radical splinters, which may carry on the terrorist campaign. The Taliban may not be a very fragmented organization under the leadership of Haibatullah Akhundzada, but disagreements within the group could occur if the Taliban and the Afghan government strike a deal. Radical factions could be dissatisfied with concessions made during negotiations and carry on terrorist attacks despite opposition from Taliban leadership.

The IRA is such a case – when the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 granted the formation of an Irish Free State, the organization split. The pro-treaty faction grew into the army of the Irish Free State. The anti-treaty faction – under the leadership of Eamon de Valera — carried on the terrorist campaign. Although until the Good Friday Agreement of 1996 the IRA featured multiple radical splinters that carried on terrorist attacks, the factions also engaged in politics, some growing into the most important political parties in Ireland (such as Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein).

Whether the Taliban transforms into a political party is also a regional bid. The creation of the Taliban was catalyzed by Pakistani influence.  Numerous reports have indicated that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency was involved in the creation of the Taliban, and still supports the insurgency as a matter of official policy to contain the influence in Afghanistan of its rival India.  Similarly, Hezbollah surfaced when Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps arrived in Lebanon to provide support for pro-Iranian Shiite militias against Israel, and the political party has been depicted as an outpost of Iranian influence.

Several lessons can be drawn from the experience of the Hezbollah and the IRA’s changeover to politics.

  • A comprehensive strategy for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of the Taliban should be formulated. Although the Ta’if agreement called for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, and so did several United Nations Security Council Resolutions, Hezbollah expanded its military power and did not show signs of integrating into the Lebanese Armed Forces.
  • A plan for moderating Taliban aims for Islamist government is necessary, as they will most likely seek reinstating Islamist rule in Afghanistan. In comparison, Hezbollah’s engagement in politics has been granted by the group’s receptiveness to political pluralism – “we are committed to Islam but unwilling to impose it by force”.
  • Any deals should contain areas of deliberate strategic ambiguity to minimize Taliban factionalization. The Good Friday Agreement was ambiguous enough to enable participants to describe the accord in terms that were palatable to their constituents, and so should be any agreement between domestic parties in Afghanistan.
  • The role of third-party states is crucial. In Lebanon, success and failure of conflict regulation depends on the maintenance of positive exogenous pressures, and Syrian and Iranian interests affected the trajectory of Hezbollah. Similarly, the interests of Pakistan must be considered as a key element of any potential Taliban engagement in politics.

Consequences of the Ongoing Offensive in Idlib

Without the attention it once attracted, the Syrian civil war not only continues, but has even escalated in past weeks due to the ongoing offensive in the last rebel-held province of Idlib. However, what might be perceived as a final push for victory by Bashar Assad’s regime and its allies will most likely bring yet another humanitarian crisis and further destabilize the war-torn country.

In late 2018, Russia and Turkey brokered a deal that was supposed to create a demilitarized buffer zone around the province to mitigate the crisis. Turkey is a key supporter of Syrian rebel groups and thus an important actor in the Idlib region; however, the rebels and Syrian regime continued low-intensity clashes even after the deal was reached. The Syrian Army renewed its offensive with daily airstrikes in December 2019. This offensive is ongoing despite efforts to broker a ceasefire in the beginning of January.

idlibmap 640x476 - Consequences of the Ongoing Offensive in Idlib

(Source: The Guardian)

Idlib province is home to approximately 3 million civilians and an estimated tens of thousands of fighters, therefore, the potential for an increase in internally displaced persons and a refugee influx to Turkey is significant. For example, at least 350,000 civilians have left the province for Turkey since the renewed offensive. In addition, half a million people fled before the offensive started due to fears of the attacks and sought safety in refugee camps on the Turkish border.

Such a wave of refugees may not only cause problems for Turkey, but for European countries as well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan already threatened the European Union that he would “open the gates” to Europe if Turkey does not receive additional aid to manage the crisis. With more refugees pouring into Turkey as a result of the offensive, Erdoğan might use these developments to put more pressure on the EU.

Moreover, airstrikes have killed dozens of civilians in the past days and weeks. Additionally, the airstrikes left a number of villages in ruins, targeted hospitals and schools. Such actions inflict further damage on the country and its infrastructure resulting in a more expensive, difficult and longer post-war reconstruction in the future.

Besides civilians, the question of rebel fighters present in the province remains. Due to their large estimated numbers, it is improbable that all of them will be killed or captured, therefore, these fighters could pose a security threat in the future. Syria and Iraq have attracted thousands of foreign fighters in the past who could potentially carry out terrorist attacks across the world were they to travel back home or elsewhere. Conversely, they could remain in Syria to continue terrorist activities and make the transition towards peace more difficult.

The Idlib offensive might bring the Syrian civil war closer to an end than ever before, however, the consequences would be severe. Attacks are already taking a toll on civilian lives and exacerbating a relentless humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands flee the province. Nevertheless, Assad seems determined to regain control of the entire country. It is a fair assumption that the offensive will mark yet another grim milestone in the 9-year Syrian civil war.

New ISIL Leader Officially Named and Confirmed

It was recently officially confirmed by two intelligence services that Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi is the new head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Prior to the reveal of his identity, Al-Salbi was known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi: a name implying that he is of Qurayshi descent and thus legitimizes his role as a new ‘caliph’.

Early Years and ISIL Roots

Al-Salbi — alias Hajji ‘Abdallah — was born in the small northwestern Iraqi city Tal Afar; a city once under Al-Qaeda control from 2004 to 2006 and a subsequent strategic base for the Islamic State. He graduated with a degree in Sharia law from the University of Mosul, was a religious scholar in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and is believed to be a founding member of ISIL.

Like most of the Islamic State’s leading fighters, he is a former officer who had served under Saddam Hussein and played a prominent role in the fight against the United States and its allies. In 2004, he was captured by American troops for associations with al-Qaeda and placed in Camp Bucca detention center where he met al-Baghdadi.

It was only natural that al-Baghdadi took advantage of his period of detention to indoctrinate as many inmates as possible and set up a common vision, namely the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Within Camp Bucca, Baghdadi created a network of hardline fighters that he destined for positions of leadership in the Islamic State.

The new ‘caliph’, nicknamed as the ‘Professor’, is one of those fighters connected with Baghdadi and adopted his unwavering commitment to the Islamic State. He appears to have led many of their international operations and he is considered to have played a decisive role in the enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and children, as well as the murder of an equal number of Yazidi men in Iraq, started in 2014.

Current Situation

Although the succession of Baghdadi by al-Salbi was only recently confirmed, he is likely to have taken over the day-to-day operations of the terrorist organisation well before the former’s death. Being wounded and suffering from a chronic illness, al-Baghdadi had already designated a successor since last August. During that time, the Rewards for Justice Program (RFJ) of the US Department of State announced a reward up to $5 million for information regarding al-Salbi, placing him on the list with the most wanted terrorists. There is no doubt that he will be an efficient leader that will attempt to reinvigorate the Islamic State. What remains to be seen is whether he will be as inspiring as his predecessor who had been admittedly very successful in recruiting fighters from all around the world and inciting them to fight for a common cause.

Recent discussions around its new leader indicate that the Islamic State is indeed regenerating and confirms fears about a possible re-emergence. The situation both in Iraq and Syria has created a favourable environment for ISIL to rebuild its strengths and organise its operations. This is certainly not a simple task without any territory under their control, however, regional instability has disrupted security and reduced the effectiveness of the security services.

If tensions and conflict are not addressed soon, intelligence gathering will be extremely challenging, and attempts to prevent the Islamic State from breaking their imprisoned fighters out and retaking territory will be even less likely to be successful. Consequently, prisons where IS fighters are held should be properly guarded, in order to avoid a mass break out, and a particular attention must be focused on monitoring desert regions around the Iraq-Syria border, and other areas which are beyond the control of the central government.

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