Europe counterterrorism

Investment in Prisons as a Counterterrorism Approach

At a time when Europe is undergoing a new wave of terrorist attacks, the challenges posed by prisons and the monitoring of ISIL prisoners should be a focus in the fight against terrorism.

Prisons are places where inmates may be vulnerable, in contact with extremist ideas, and subject to recruitment. There the creation of networks between skilled criminals and radicalized detainees is facilitated. But prisons also face new challenges as the number and the diversity of profiles of radicalized detainees are increasing. And although they serve very different sentences, they are mainly of short duration, which poses a threat to Europe as many of them will soon be released. To reduce this threat, governments should invest in the prison system, even if it is not popular.

All these challenges regarding radicalized detainees were highlighted in a report published in July 2020 by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). At the time of its release and amongst the ten European countries they surveyed, 54% of detainees who showed signs of radicalization were convicted for “regular” crimes. And 82% of all extremist inmates categorized by ideology were jihadists. According to Europol, it is indeed the terrorist affiliation that counted the most arrests in Europe between 2015 and 2019.

stchart - Investment in Prisons as a Counterterrorism Approach

Source: Basra, Rajan, and Peter R. Neumann. “Prisons and Terrorism: Extremist Offender Management in 10 European Countries”, International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), July 22, 2020, pp. 7-8.

The ICSR report indicates as well that the repatriation of European ISIL fighters – due to the loss of the territory of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – is an element that could impact radicalization in prison. The danger with their incarceration is that they may influence others and create more radicalization within the prisons, which could aggravate this problem even further.

Radicalization in prison is true all the more worrisome since some of the terrorists who have carried out attacks in Europe have been radicalized or have had contact with affiliations in prison. A case that illustrates this is the shooting at Charlie Hebdo and the siege of the Hyper Cacher in Paris, which took place in January 2015. Two of the assailants, Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibali, met at the Fleury-Merogis prison, the largest prison in Europe. There, they met Djamel Beghal, who trained in Al-Qaeda camps and who became their mentor.

This case, which is back in the news with its trial, shows that the prison system has failed to prevent radicalization. Currently, most of the countries have adopted a mixed approach in their prison regimes to prevent extremism, which means that the most dangerous inmates are separated while the others are dispersed among the prison population. But even separated, dangerous detainees are not totally prevented from interacting with others or taking action.

Another challenge is the imminent release of hundreds of radicalized prisoners due to the fact that most of them have received short sentences. According to Europol, the average length of prison sentences for terrorist offenses in Europe was six years in 2019. Because some prisoners strengthened their beliefs and commitment to their extremist ideas in prison, they emerged much more dangerous than before. The challenge then is to reintegrate them into society in the best possible way.

With the exception of a minority, the terrorist attacks linked to prison since 2015 in the countries surveyed in the ICSR report have generally occurred between four months and two years after the release of the offenders. To take a current example, Kujtim Fejzulai, the perpetrator of the attack in Vienna on November 2, 2020, was released from prison 11 months earlier, in December 2019.

The rate of recidivism is low, but a characteristic of terrorism is that the impact of attacks is disproportionate to the resources and people involved. This rate is also not representative of reality and could be undervalued because some die in their attack or go abroad and do not return to prison.

In order to reduce radicalization in prisons, governments should take what may be unpopular but necessary decisions by investing in prisons. According to Rajan and Neumann, the ICSR report’s authors, they must ensure that prisons are neither overcrowded nor understaffed to ensure their security and control. Prison staff should also be trained to develop expertise that would help them notably to differentiate radicalized behavior and prisoners who just practice their faith.

Moreover, governments should encourage the sharing of information between the different services involved in the prison system and the fight against terrorism. Failure to communicate is recurrent and can lead to the release of radicalized prisoners who commit attacks. Also, extremism assessment tools should be frequently evaluated with a prison staff trained in their use and provided with the resources to implement them. And defining what “success” means is important to evaluate the results.

Prison regimes should be evaluated as well and readjusted to the behaviors and characteristics of specific offender groups. In addition, probation should be linked to prison and be seen as a stage of the same process and governments should adapt proactively their procedures and processes to changes in reality.

Last but not least, treating radicalized prisoners with respect and fairness should be the norm. Extremist ideologies rely on tales of humiliation and representations of their enemies. This game should not be played rather there should be a focus on fundamental values such as human rights and the rule of law.

Radicalization in prisons is not a new phenomena but it is currently reaching high levels. The prison population is changing and includes more radicalized inmates with more diverse profiles who serve different but often short sentences. While the repatriation of European ISIL fighters could aggravate radicalization in prison, the imminent release of radicalized prisoners worries European countries and that is why prisons should be at the center of the authorities’ concerns in their fight against terrorism. Investing in prisons may be unpopular but it is necessary.

Rise of ISIS in Afghanistan

Special Report: The Rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is one of the deadliest and most potent terror groups the world has ever known and has made its way to Afghanistan. It emerged due to interstate fragility, foreign policy failure, and perennial instability in the Middle East. The 2003 United States’ intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring contributed to the creation of ISIS. The United States’ removal of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — hardly the region’s first socio-political convulsion — facilitated figurative tectonic shifts in political and religious realities. Sunni Muslims, who long ruled Iraq, suddenly found themselves overtaken and systematically oppressed by Shiites. ISIS capitalized on the subsequent Sunni grievance. Given the recent developments which have included President Trump dropping the “mother of all bombs” which targeted a network of tunnels used by ISIS in 2017,  the loss of territory in Syria and the continued battles with the Taliban, has led ISIS to look for new opportunities. This search has led ISIS to move toward Afghanistan as they are geographically strategic and currently the government is very fragile.

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Afghan Aid Dependency: Two Alternatives for Foreign Donors

With just over 77% of its government budget dependent on foreign aid, Afghanistan’s prospects of establishing a self-reliant state in the near future appears bleak. In spite of the billions spent by individual countries and multilateral institutions, the question of how to sustainably use donor funds to embed resilience in Afghanistan has confounded policymakers for decades, culminating in several reports highlighting the country’s “phantom aid” problem.

After receiving much criticism for its sudden departure from Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States has since spent anywhere from $800 billion USD to upwards of $1 trillion USD in what remains America’s longest war. Of these expenditures, just 14% is constituted as foreign aid, with 75% of this aid earmarked as military/security assistance, as opposed to economic aid.

Yet, a cursory review of Afghanistan’s developmental woes suggests many of its ailments remain tied to economic obstacles like chronic unemployment, corruption, poor provisioning of government services, and an overreliance on the agricultural sector. Incessant frustrations from the donor community have led to fatigue, which has been exacerbated by political infighting within the Afghan government, as well as an unclear strategy or criterion for when international forces may exit the country.

This perception of little to no return on investment (ROI) for Western taxpayers has made foreign aid a recurring target among populist candidates and parties demanding retrenchment from “forever wars”. In the case of the US, foreign aid to Afghanistan reached its peak in 2012 at $13 billion USD, a sum that was followed by steep cuts that now amount to just under $5 billion USD sent in 2019.

Regardless of the outcome of intra-Afghan dialogue, the continuation of gradual cuts toward aid (which began during the second of the Obama administration) seemingly conflicts with the public-facing objective of the development community, which ostensibly seeks to address underlying socioeconomic factors that feed into conflict.  USAID figures demonstrate that donors remain fixated on funding kinetic solutions to resolve insecurity in Afghanistan, as well as neighboring Pakistan, which has seen its US foreign aid inflows dwindle in a similar fashion.

A peace deal cinched with the Taliban won’t necessarily result in increased revenues or even decreased expenditures from the government. Instead, Afghanistan’s fragility suggests injections of aid will be most critical in the months and years after an agreement is reached and statecraft can begin in earnest. As the appetite toward military-aid dissipates, donors should turn to alternative financing options when allocating funds, including “Aid for Trade” and Conditional Cash Transfers.

Aid for Trade

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines Aid for Trade as an effort “to align donor and partner countries’ strategies in promoting trade as a leverage for poverty reduction.” In short, aid for trade seeks to reduce the cost of facilitating goods and services and promote the recipient nation’s export sector by addressing infrastructure deficits and providing technical assistance to the private sector. Such a strategy has proven successful in funding efforts like port upgrades to improve maritime trade, expanding access to affordable Internet services, and digitization training for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

In the context of Afghanistan, Aid for Trade can harness what has traditionally been the country’s greatest economic advantage: its geography. Notwithstanding its status as a landlocked state, Afghanistan sits at the nexus of some of the fastest-growing regions in the world, which provides opportunity to reap advantages in overland trade. Yet harnessing this advantage requires building the necessary physical and digital infrastructure that can support the reliable and safe transportation of goods withing Afghan borders.

At present, the standard mechanism for aid delivery has been conditioned on a number of restrictive measures that stipulate what can be purchased with the aid, and from whom it can be purchased from. Ostensibly, the logic behind the conditional aid was designed to create strict parameters that compelled accountability from the aid recipient. Yet, as exhibited by the “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” reports published by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), such conditions have not repelled opportunities for graft, which is often carried out through opaque procurement regimes that allow funds to disappear among the lengthy supply chain of contractors and sub-contractors.

Furthermore, conditional aid can often stipulate requirements that damage the recipient’s economy. This is particularly true in the case of food aid, where donor governments will use aid to pay their own farmers to export the products, which undercuts the prices that the agricultural sector in the recipient country can charge. Considering the fact that Afghanistan’s agricultural sector employs roughly 40% of the workforce and is responsible for contributing nearly one-quarter of the country’s GDP, reorienting aid to focus on productive investments (e.g. irrigation, equipment/materials, transportation) that lower the cost of trade is more likely to boost incomes instead of distorting local markets.

Conditional Cash Transfers

Though still conditions-based, conditional cash transfers (CCTs) differ from the status quo in that they tend to be far smaller in scope and scale. The “conditional” in this context refers to the requirement that the recipient fulfill a certain objective before the funds are released, which stands in stark contrast to other programs that deliver larger sums in shorter timeframes. The advantage of Conditional Cash Transfers is latent in the psychology of incentives, where signs of waste, fraud, and abuse can result in the immediate termination of future disbursements, giving donors more flexibility over their purse strings, while also encouraging long-term adherence to specified goals.

CCTs have proven successful in a number of policy realms, including decreasing homicides in Brazil, improving healthcare delivery to vulnerable children in Ghana, and incentivizing farmers across South America to cease the cultivation of illicit crops in favor of legal alternatives. For Afghanistan, CCTs can be especially useful in combating illicit poppy farming which fuels 90% of the world’s opium and heroin production. Though forceful eradication programs have been implemented, they have failed to make a dent in production, leading to an entrenchment and reliance on the opium trade to sustain rural household incomes.

The economic, political, and security ramifications of targeting poppy farmers has made the Afghan government reluctant to tackle cultivation of illicit crops. Yet, CCT programs provide a useful medium in establishing and sustaining evidence-based programs that have demonstrated efficacy in illicit crop eradication such as crop substitution programs supported by subsidies that are paid directly to farmers and that minimize institutional involvement.

The politicization of foreign aid is a consequence of misaligned objectives between donors and recipients, in addition to flawed and ineffectual distribution. Achieving such objectives requires recalibrating the criteria that donors use to both allocate aid and subsequently measure its efficacy. Though security remains pivotal, a lasting reconstruction agenda will depend far more on targeting aid toward economic initiatives that enable Afghans to gradually reduce their dependency on foreign aid, replacing it with sustainable revenues generated by the country itself.

Remembering Rajani Thiranagama and Examining the Roles of Women in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

”One day some gun will silence me and it will not be held by an outsider but by the son born in the womb of this very society, from a woman with whom my history is shared.”

The quote above is from Rajani Thiranagama just few months before her assassination in 1989. She was assassinated by the people she sought to represent. While this event occurred 31 years ago, it begs the question where do women in Sri Lanka stand now, especially after the Sri Lankan Civil War?

Rajani was an individual who loved peace, order, equality and strove for a harmonious society. What made her memorable was her courage to realize this philosophy into reality. When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) betrayed her hope for peace for the people of Jaffna, she officially cut ties with the organization. She was forced to flee to the United Kingdom with her children shortly afterwards.

In the 2005 documentary “No More Tears Sister” it was mentioned how Rajani felt like evading the conflict and moving far away. However, for the people of Jafffna, she overpowered her fear and returned to Sri Lanka.

When atrocities committed by the Sinhalese government, the LTTE militants and the Indian peacekeeping forces peaked, Rajani along with fellow university colleagues formed an organization that criticized the actions of the atrocious groups and strove to achieve basic rights for the people of Jaffna. She also documented each and every local woman whose male family members were either killed or missing, and highlighted their plight. She compiled her report and named it “No More Tears Sister.”

Looking into the situation post-war, according to an article by United Nations Women, there is underrepresentation of women in political and public decision making in Sri Lanka. Even though it claims that women are 56% of voters, there is only 5% representation through legislators. The source of such plight is considered to be lack of educational opportunities and lack of encouragement of women in decision-making.

During the civil war, political movements and organizations that strove for peace were initialed by women, such as Mother’s Front. However, after the war, hardly any such large-scale representation of female participation is evident. In consequence of poor representation, laws in the country discriminate against women. To give some examples, marital rape remains legal, there are discriminatory legal restrictions on women in the workforce and limitations have been imposed in relation to inheritance and property.

In a common-sense point of view, women are linked with peace. Due to perceiving their roles as nurturers, women are considered to be effective mediators. Ironically this role seems to be limited to only resolving conflicts at the familial level or just remains unsung as “unofficial” contributors to their communities. There are few instances of the official recognition of women in the peace-building process as well as much less encouragement of their role in it.

During the period of the Sri Lankan Civil War, women suffered the most. They had to go through the trauma of losing their children, husbands, fathers and brothers throughout the conflict. In those times of helplessness, they had to gather courage and run their household. As they have experienced the state of vulnerability during the war, they know the value of peace.

This is why there is a need to empower, encourage and acknowledge women in their potential to take on roles in the peace-building process. The first step towards it can be through proper representation, especially in decision-making.  Peace can be only achieved through equal access to opportunities and proper representation.

–Nelofer Laskar

From Bonn to Doha: Why Is Afghanistan Still at War?

In December 2001, the city of Bonn, Germany hosted a conference on Afghanistan after the joint operation by the United States military and the Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban regime. The conference ushered in a new era for Afghanistan in which a democratic government was established that ensured elections, women and human rights, and civil and political liberties.

War was thought to be over and the reconstruction process funded by massive amounts of international aid that had poured into the country began. Nineteen years later, Doha is hosting another conference on peace for Afghanistan. Why does Afghanistan continue to find itself at war?

After the collapse of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan experienced a couple of peaceful years with no war and political turmoil. As the US redirected its military and political focus on the Iraq war, the Taliban based in their safe haven of Peshawar, Pakistan, used the opportunity to regroup and reemerge. The first question that comes to mind is how did they manage to grow as strong as they are now in the face of coalition forces and the fairly well-equipped Afghan national army?

The first response would be the fact that they have safe havens in neighboring Pakistan. Originally, they were supported by the Pakistani government and used as a proxy army to ensure Pakistan’s benefits in Afghanistan. After their collapse, and especially because Pakistan’s role was completely ignored at the Bonn conference, they still seemed to be of use for fulfilling Pakistan’s strategic goals.

This means that they had both safe havens and the support and encouragement from Pakistan which enabled them to retreat any time they were under attack, get medical services, re-equip and re-launch their attacks wherever possible. The question why the US and the world have not held Pakistan accountable and for supporting many other terrorist groups is yet to be answered.

The second response is ethnic supremacism. New research by Civil Society of Afghanistan indicates that ethnic supremacism is one of the main roots of war in the country. This is in line with the stances of the Afghan presidents since 2001. Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, in an interview with BBC denies calling the Taliban a terrorist group. In another interview, he even says that the Taliban have every right to control some parts of the country since they are also Afghans.

Likewise in 2015, current president, Ashraf Ghani, objected that it was unjust that 98% of the prisoners in Bagram prison were speakers of the same language while he knew that those prisoners were convicted of terrorist actions. Both presidents have repeatedly called Taliban brothers instead of terrorists or enemies of Afghanistan.

The former first vice president, Younus Qanuni, in his recent interview said that President Karzai dealt with the Taliban, after their reemergence, under the influence of ethnic emotions. That was one of the reasons why the Afghan government never drafted a clear strategy for fighting terrorism and allowed the Taliban to grow into the deadly group they are today.

In general, one can assume that a decisive determination to fight the Taliban into their collapse did not happen for different reasons. Perhaps, military use was not an ideal solution.

Now that peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are in progress in Doha, brutal attacks in Kabul saps optimism about achieving peace and security. Recently, terrorist gunmen attacked Kabul University and killed more than 22 students, injuring at least 22 others. Although ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack, the first VP of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, declared that they had found evidence indicating that the attack was performed by the Taliban.

A couple of days before that, terrorists stormed a cultural center in Kabul and killed 41 people while injuring 84 others. Again, ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack. The main question that comes to mind, thus, is if ISIL or any other terrorist groups are capable of perpetrating such deadly attack in the capital city of Afghanistan, to what degree people can be hopeful that a peace deal with Taliban will actually bring peace to their country?

Rise to Peace