Veterans Day

What Veterans Day Means To Me

I had the honor to serve with the United States Armed Forces from an early age of 15. I fought in the field with Special Forces, trained Afghan Security Forces, and advised leadership on counterinsurgency strategies to enhance the peace process.

Leaving school to serve alongside the US military was my decision and it has become my passion to fight terrorism, like many other brave men and women I have come to feel a kinship with.

This day reminds us to remain strong, united and forever determined until we win the fight against extremism and global terrorism. Many heroes sacrificed their lives to protect us including my three good friends (Afghan, American).

The willingness to fight for freedom and democracy, sacrificing everything to protect countrymen, family and homeland is a Veteran.

This day brings great memories from being joked at for being a young teenager to patrolling in the mountains of Afghanistan, seeing brave soldiers frightened by scorpions to convincing the newly deployed forces to try the local food without getting food poisoning and interpreting funny local jokes into English, realizing no one is laughing but me.

We should all be proud of our sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers that have lost their lives for America and the vulnerable of the world. It is hard to outlive the ones we love and remembering their heroism is vital.

Today is not about arbitrating whether the war is right or wrong, necessary or unnecessary, who is to blame or not – it’s about honoring the brave men and women who served to protect the United States of America and its commitment to Democracy. It’s about honoring those who have sacrificed their lives to combat terrorism and keep all of us and our way of life safe. It’s about sharing condolences and supporting the families who have lost heroic loved ones. May they rest in peace!

Today is a special day to remind all of us that Veterans serve the motherland without regard for partisanship.

For this day, this year, the country needs to put aside its divisiveness, join hands, stand up wherever you are at 11:00 am and honor all who lost their lives for us.

May this day remind us that unity is our victory – being different is our beauty and diversity makes us strong.

Use this day to combat various forms of violent extremism – from lone wolves on the domestic front, to organized insurgent and international terrorist groups that operate in all corners of the globe, from the Far East and the Horn of Africa to South America, and the Middle East, for extremism has no boundary.

Ahmad Shah Mohibi

Photo: Ahmad Shah Mohibi (age 17), Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan — 2007

Narcotics and Insecurity: How the Afghan-Tajik Drug Trade Derails Peace

A special field report by Rise to Peace. 

Taliban makes 10 million Afghanis daily via drug trafficking in northern Afghanistan. For years, the Taliban continue to smuggle and traffick narcotics such as heroin  along the Kukche River in the Darqid and Khawaja Bahawuddin districts of Takhar province.

This highly lucrative black market venture relies on two important branches. Armed smugglers transport heroin to the Dasht-e Qala district of Takhar, however, the Taliban facilitate the transnational nature of these particular shipments as they cross the border into Tajikistan.

As a result, the Taliban profits 10 million Afghanis ($127, 800 US) from this black market venture daily, excluding the shares diverted to drug traffickers and armed guards.

Heroin is not the only illicit product peddled by the Taliban. In coordination with narcotics traffickers and gunmen in the province, the Taliban import alcohol, and tablets known as “tablet K” (a synthetic drug with an unclear composition that acts as a stimulant) from Tajikistan. Many Afghans have died in recent years due to the use of such synthetic drugs and their intoxicating effects. Once narcotics such as these tablets are imported to Takhar, they are easily distributed across Afghanistan.

The Taliban control trafficking routes and cooperate with narco-traffickers based on mutually beneficial terms. The importation of alcoholic beverages (such as wine) and illegal drugs (such as tablet K) typically occurs in the north-eastern provinces of Afghanistan because they offer fewer impediments. Only a body of water — the large Kukche River —  separates the borders between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. 

Is the Afghan experience unique versus other drug hotspots?

Afghanistan is the top cultivator of opium globally and a major player in the heroin trade. Countries with similar narco-agricultural portfolios, such as Mexico and Colombia, reveal that the drug trade has certain similarities no matter a state’s location. Traffickers use violence and armed groups to ensure preferred corridors remain under their control. This often conflicts with the involvement of national security forces positioned to counter this broad human security threat. 

Furthermore, like their foreign counterparts engaged in the narco-trade, the Taliban and Tajik drug lords rely on state instability and unstable socioeconomic factors to lure individuals — such as border guards, insecure infrastructure, government officials and those in poverty — to ensure the safe passage of their contraband goods. Transnational black market schemes typically ensure the largest profits.

How do officials conspire with the Taliban to garner profits?

Drug smugglers and some former government officials work together with the Taliban to smuggle Afghan heroin to the vast market of Central Asia through Tajikistan. A former Takhar governor, who does not wish to be named, stated the following to a Rise to Peace journalist: “the war beyond Takhar is a war between the mafia of power and the heroin war that the Taliban have been able to coordinate with unarmed Marines.”

Mullah Qadar a top Taliban commander who is also a graduate of the Shariah department at Takhar University  told an unarmed man, who was later interviewed by Rise to Peace, that the Taliban’s leadership strongly controls the districts surrounding Kunduz province to ensure a continuous stream of income from drug trafficking and taxes imposed on the people.

Kunduz is a key province in northern Afghanistan that connects Kabul with Takhar and Badakhshan province. As it is a strategic point, the Taliban usurped control over the region from the Afghan government three times in the past 18 years

The Taliban taxes farmers in these areas under their influence to acquire funding for military operations to ensure their presence remains. According to Mullah Qadar, who worked as deputy governor of Takhar for a long time: “Taliban have various ways of income in Kunduz. When I was with them, we collected revenue from textiles, taxed farmers, and charged small fees for some businessmen selling their products or goods in an open market.”

Further insight into the northern Afghan-Tajik drug trade was offered by those interviewed.

Why did you import wine from Tajikistan when you know it’s unlawful and illegal?

We had a deal with the heroin traffickers. They gave us the goods, we transported them and made revenue to keep our resistance going. The export of heroin to Tajikistan and the import of alcohol and tablet K into Afghanistan generated the most revenue for us and the Taliban are still doing it.

How does the Taliban smuggle heroin to Tajikistan?

Taliban receives the product from Afghan drug traffickers and then coordinate with Tajik smugglers who are on the other side of the river. According to a smuggler: “Taliban have close coordination with Tajikistan’s border guards. After they get our heroin, they ship the stuff through small boats, or in most cases, via a localized water technique called Kema that has the ability to transfer drugs. 

Karghan Tapeh, which is the capital of Khatlan province of Tajikistan, is the destination of these particular contraband materials. It acts as a transit point where alcohol and tablet K are loaded and transferred to the Taliban.

Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defense spokesman Fereidun Muhammad Aliev states that ‘more than ten’ Afghan smugglers are targeted along this route annually and their bodies are surrendered to Afghan authorities. Nonetheless, he continued that the prevention of further smuggling on this lucrative route is difficult given the Taliban’s presence in the shared forests and river areas between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

A strong Taliban presence correlates to increased trafficking in the area.

Local authorities in Takhar also confirm that the majority of regional heroin smuggling occurs along this route with help from the Taliban. Afghan officials arrest numerous smugglers attempting to transport drugs via trucks or import heroin and wine in the districts each year. A border police officer told a Rise to Peace journalist, “the presence of the Taliban has made it difficult for us to stop the import and export of illegal stuff.”

After years of presence and major funding, the Taliban now have a bazaar (market) known as Omari Town in the districts of Darqid and Khawaja Bahawuddin. This market is unlike many others in Afghanistan because people can easily buy and sell arms, ammunition, drugs, and wine. They control more than a thousand shopkeepers. Afghan security forces have destroyed most of the shops in operation, but the market continues once they are gone.

The Taliban’s next move is to create a transnational market where Afghans and Tajiks cross the border to buy each others’ goods without getting visas as is common in northern Afghanistan. They would maximize their finances and control over surrounding districts under this scenario.

Like the Afghan-Tajik border, the Taliban continuously uses Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Iran for clandestine purposes. For instance, the boundary with Pakistan is typically used to facilitate the transfer of guns, donations and foreign fighters. As a result of this, the United States’ government suspended aid to Islamabad over their harboring of terrorism. 

The likelihood of the peace process is significantly reduced if the Taliban continues to fund its operations through illicit resources and narcotics while negotiating with the American and Afghan governments. It is vital to cut their finances (especially assistance from wealthy foreign donors) and block their drug trafficking routes. As long as drug trafficking remains profitable, the Taliban will continue to buy weapons, ammunition and pay fighters, which leads to a continuous cycle of war. Bankrolling the Taliban means they will not enter peace process negotiations in good faith.

Making peace at the macro-level is good, but it is imperative to pay closer attention to the sources of Taliban financing. This is important to stop the insurgency from gaining strength and subsequently challenging local governments.

It is apparent that these Taliban fighters engaged in the drug trade are self-serving bandits uninterested licit employment. Simply put, they do not care about the Islamic faith and manipulate the concept of jihad to suit their narrow personal interests. Their greater mission is accomplished as long as they make money and live in luxury. 


A copy of this report was provided to the Afghan National Security Council and the local government in Takhar province. For full reports and inquiries, please contact Rise to Peace.

Extremism Assessment Series: Earth Liberation Front (ELF)

  • Originally established in 1992 in Brighton, United Kingdom, ELF now operates in 17 countries and is thought to be a descendant of the Animal Liberation Front due to their increased cooperation.
  • Uses a “leaderless resistance” model to take the profit motive out of environmental destruction by causing property damage to businesses. The ELF targets companies that “exploit the Earth, its environment, and its inhabitants.”
  • Advocates for “monkeywrenching”, a euphemism for acts of sabotage and property destruction against industries and other entities perceived to be damaging to the natural environment. One of their most popular forms of attack is arson.


Summary of Extremist Narrative

The ELF is a completely decentralized group with no hierarchical structure or central leadership. The ELF mainly consists of a network of self-funded cells which carry out attacks under the ELF name. The ELF targets businesses and corporations which are thought to be harmful to the environment, such as companies working in genetic engineering, genetically modified organism (GMO) crops, deforestation, rural cluster and development, and energy production to name a few. They utilize several attack styles, with arson being the most popular form of criminal activity carried out by the group.

History of the Group

The ELF was originally established in 1992 in Brighton, United Kingdom before spreading to the rest of Europe. It is now operating in 17 countries and consists of an entirely decentralized structure. The ELF is known to cooperate with the Animal Liberation Front due to their similarities in radical ideology.

What sets the ELF apart from other environmental protest groups is their radical ideology and actions. The ELF follows two trains of thought, the first being “Biocentrism”, which regards all organisms on earth as equal and deserving of moral rights and considerations, and identifies biodiversity and wilderness as an absolute good against which all other actions should be judged.

The second philosophical approach that the ELF follows is “Deep ecology”, which calls for a general rollback of industrialization and the restoration of the ecological balance. While neither of these schools of thought are generally violent or criminal, the ELF uses these philosophies to justify their violent actions as moral. Radical environmentalist groups believe that human beings are the source of the environmental problem and advocate for the destruction of environmentally-harmful corporations and industries.

Current State of the Movement

Following 9/11, the FBI began to focus on all forms of domestic terrorism including eco-terrorism. In 2004, the ELF was ranked as the number one domestic-terror threat in the US, surpassing white supremacists and militias as the FBI’s top priority. A wave of arrests known as “The Green Scare” led to a massive crack down on eco-terrorist groups. Although these eco-terrorist groups have never killed anyone, they have caused massive amounts of property damage as well as economical damage to hundreds of corporations.

According to an article titled The Earth Liberation Front and Environmental Terrorism, the ELF and the ALF are believed to be responsible for over 600 criminal acts between the years of 1996 and 2002, causing more than $43 million in damages. Another article mentioned a string of arsons, including a fire in 2003 that caused $50 million worth in damages to a five-story apartment complex. A banner that was left at the scene of the fire made it clear that it was the work of the ELF, but those who set the fire were never found.

The ELF has an active website where they claimed responsibility for arson attacks and other criminal activity across the US. They also have a training manual that calls itself an “arson guide” for ELF members. The loose structure of the ELF group makes it even more difficult to track down those responsible for their criminal acts.

In recent years, however, the number of attacks carried out by the ELF and other eco-terrorist groups has declined. According to a START article, the number of incidents in the past few years has been significantly lower than in the early 2000’s. Looking at the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), the most recent ELF attack logged in the US was in 2009 in Everett, Washington, where an unknown assailant stole a track hoe and toppled two radio transmission towers. The attack caused more than $2 million dollars in damage and the ELF was prompt to claim responsibility.

The most recent attack logged in the GTD was in Athens, Greece in 2015, suggesting that the ELF’s momentum has dwindled in the US. This may be in part due to law enforcement’s major crackdown on eco-activists across the country. Many of these protesters have faced terrorism charges for acts such as chaining themselves to construction sites to prevent further environmental damage. The increase in eco-activist arrests is seen as a resurgence of “The Green Scare” that was seen in the early 2000’s.

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

Iran

Iran’s Approach to Turkey’s Military Operation in Northern Syria

Iran joined numerous countries that scrutinized Turkey’s military operation (Peace Spring) in northern Syria. The operation has been discussed and commented on not only by the Iranian authorities, but also by the Iranian press, social media, and even in Friday sermons.

Most of these assessments and comments indicate negative views against Turkey’s actions. The level of criticism has at times resulted in what could be considered as a serious insult against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Iran sought a policy focused on stability, such as the advocation of the continuation of the Assad regime. In this context, Iran provides various kinds of support, especially in the military field to Assad. Some high-level Revolutionary Guard Army officers lost their lives during the clashes in Syria, and large ceremonies were held in Iran to honor them. To summarize, Tehran aims to use its position in Syria as a deterrent against regional and international forces.

Statements by Iranian authorities, in particular, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, called on Turkey to end the operation as soon as possible. Emphasis on Syrian territorial integrity and that a viable political solution could only come through political negotiations was apparent.

Further, to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the events, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani cancelled his official visit to Turkey on the day the operation began and the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad postponed his trip to Istanbul for an event.

The conservative segment close to the Iranian religious leader used more severe expressions in their reaction to the operation. Farhikhtegan Newspaper —which is known for its close ties to Dr Ali Akbar Velayati; the international relations advisor of the Iranian religious leader Khamenei — used the title “Sultanism in the Service of Terrorism”.

The Tasnim News Agency predicted that the future of the operation would be similar to the situation of the Saudi military operation in Yemen. The Friday imams — representatives of the religious leader — also used similar language in their sermons, such as heavy criticism of Turkey, blaming Turkey of having Ottoman dreams and engaging in Mongolian-type aggression.

In the Iranian Parliament, many deputies made statements against the operation. Declarations stated that the operation was illegal and that it would further complicate the situation in Syria. However, some Azeri members of parliament expressed support for the operation. In these statements of support of Turkey, they claimed that the military operations were carried out in order to fight against terrorism.

Iranian artists have not kept their disagreement with the operation silent either. Their reactions mostly focus on the humanitarian dimension and serious allegations, such as genocide and alleged evidence of war crimes. Some Iranian singers cancelled performances in Turkey as a response to the Turkish operation in northeastern Syria.

Additionally, in some parts of Iran, civilians took some form of action. A demonstration held in front of the Embassy of Turkey in Tehran attracted a significant number of participants; even some that wrote anti-Turkey and Erdoğan slogans on walls. Other protests occurred in the cities of Senendec, Bane, Merivan, Chios and Mahabad in the west of Iran.

Such demonstrations do not occur very often and it should be noted that this expression against the Turkish military operation was permitted, or at least tolerated, by the government.

Social media revealed even broader —and often more extreme —reactions of Iranian citizens. Messages went so far as to claim that the military operation would be the downfall of Erdoğan and called for boycotts of Turkish products.

The position — or lack thereof —of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards is an additional remarkable point to consider. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the religious leader, referred to as the rahbar (guide), and the Revolutionary Guards that act under him are significant actors in the determination of the state’s domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, it is interesting that neither the religious leader nor the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards who typically state their opinions on almost every subject, have not made any statements about the Turkish military operation so far.

This silence drew criticism from all segments of Iranian society, however this lack of public comment can be regarded as an opinion. It is important that in a country like Iran, where every action takes place under strict control by the government, at least the people were allowed to react.

Iran and Turkey —rivals throughout history — remain at odds over their respective interests in the Syrian crisis. Iran perceives Syria as the axis of resistance and it does not want to lose its interest in the territory, therefore it is of little surprise that the reaction of the Iranian public continued after the military operation concluded.

Despite the aforementioned points, the two nations attempt to follow a balanced policy towards each other due to their commercial and cultural relations. Iran currently experiences serious economic difficulties due to sanctions and it will want to maintain its influence in the Middle Eastern countries, especially Syria.

Harun Basli has a MSc. in Persian Language and Literature. He conducted important research on Turkey-Iran relations and Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as radicalization and violent extremism in the region. He worked as a consultant on security cooperation in Tehran and currently acts as a researcher at the Global Center for Security Studies.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Rise to Peace.

A Profile of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Origins to His Final Days

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a United States’ orchestrated raid on October 26. The well educated and self-made man in many respects was also the world’s most sought-after terrorist due to his position as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; an organization known for their brutality and cruelty.

Origins

He was born in 1971 as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri and was nicknamed “the believer” as a child because of the time he spent at his local mosque as well as his dedication to reciting the Koran. In the 1990s, he moved to Baghdad and obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Islamic studies, eventually going onto gain a Ph.D. at the University of Baghdad.

In 2003, the US led a large-scale intervention in Iraq and by then, Baghdadi steadily gained influence in the region as well. Baghdadi reportedly helped create a group that set out to attack US troops and their allies.

Then, in early 2004, Baghdadi was detained by US troops and placed in a detention center at Camp Bucca. The camp itself was considered to be a nesting ground for future violent criminals as they became radicalized and developed their networks and relationships, as well as curating their future plans of attacks while there.

Baghdadi left Camp Bucca early because he was deemed to be a low threat individual. He came to be linked to Al-Qaeda which eventually led to his involvement and succession in the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010. ISI continued to carry out their brutal and rebellious attacks, causing even more chaos in the region. The attacks were based on a very extreme view and interpretation of Islamic law. They targeted those who did not behave or practice Islam in the way the organization saw fit.

The ISIL Years

Over the past few years, ISIL and Baghdadi began to increase their power and domain over the region, but Baghdadi also became significantly less visible to the public eye. While ISIL has been linked to worldwide attacks and killed thousands, the US-led coalition slowly began to drive them out of their ruling territory, forcing them into regroup and move elsewhere.

Many believed Baghdadi was killed in an airstrike in the middle of 2017, but come that September via a snippet of audio, he was believed to be alive still.

He was alive and called for yet more brutality and violence in the region. Finally, earlier this year in April 2019, video of Baghdadi surfaced with him urging his followers to continue fighting and attacks. The information available as of now is that Baghdadi is in fact, dead. Confirmation is said to have come from DNA testing of his remains.

Understandably, confirmation of this sort of attack is desired by a great many people and governments around the world. As to the level of confidence, the US has remained in their stance and level of confidence that Baghdadi was in fact killed during the raid. Baghdadi’s remains are said to have been tested almost immediately giving way to an identification. On-site technicians who were with the US troops during the raid used DNA samples from Baghdadi along with pieces of his body that had been destroyed during a self-inflicted blast.

The Raid

The location of the chain of events was the village of Barisha near the Turkish border. It is said that Baghdadi had been under surveillance for at least the last couple of weeks, with perhaps even former disgruntled employees and wives of his sharing information with authorities after being arrested.

States with armed forces deployed in the region were reportedly given advance notification of the impending raid by the Delta Force, an elite special operations team. Multiple aircraft such as helicopters were used as the special forces team made their short journey from Iraq to the site of the raid. Once on the ground, a short gun battle broke out while the US helicopters fired missiles at the two houses on the site. One house was completely flattened.

The US team, once on the ground, called out to Baghdadi to surrender himself but only two adults and 11 children are said to have emerged from the compound. During this, Baghdadi tried to escape into a tunnel network on the property, but the US kept firing, crumbling walls and doors all around. Baghdadi was in the tunnel when he presumably realized he could no longer hold out or escape, spurring him to detonate his suicide vest bomb. The explosion from the vest killed him as well as three of his children he had brought with him into the tunnel.

There were also other causalities, two of such were women believed to be his wives, but their bodies were left behind as they were deemed too risky to move out of the belief, they too were wearing explosive vests. According to the White House, five enemy combatants were killed inside the compound along with others outside. No US troops were injured with exception of light superficial wounds. Additionally, one of the US military dogs is said to have been seriously injured but left the raid when troops retreated and the mission as over. As or right now, the dog is doing well and back in service.

The End… Or Is It?

Baghdadi is said to have been in Idlib in an attempt to rebuild IS there since much of their territory had been lost in recent years. The likely response to the death of Baghdadi on part of ISIL is to name a successor for the group. Furthermore, revenge-seeking individuals and anger-fueled attacks brought on by his supporters are likely to occur in the aftermath.

baghdadi ISIL

Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Consequences and the Future of the Islamic State?

On October 26, United States special forces conducted a raid in Barisha, in northwestern Syria, that concluded with the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Fear of capture made him detonate a suicide vest while being pursued in a tunnel. According to US officials, the death of ISIL’s former Caliph is the result of five intense months of investigation by intelligence services.

Therefore, there is no doubt that Baghdadi’s last video in April – five years after his last appearance – may have been the catalyst towards his death. Coincidence or not, thirteen years ago, US strikes that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, happened just one month after he appeared in a video in May 2006.

Baghdadi’s death is a turning point and marks the end of ISIL as experienced by the international community. After having lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIL has now lost the last link of its so-called Caliphate originally founded by Zarqawi during the US intervention of Iraq.

The short-term success of this unique ideological position could only function through the destruction of communities and the killing of countless lives. However, ISIL under Baghdadi’s authority will always be remembered as the terrorist group that first used new technologies to achieve its goals: drones, propaganda videos worthy of Hollywood movies, and use of the Internet to recruit many foreign fighters.

Despite the lack of information about his real role and powers within ISIL, killing al-Baghdadi still remains truly symbolic as he was the public face and voice of the most pro-active contemporary terrorist organization.

Terrorist attacks across the Middle East and in Europe, heinous crimes such as executions of journalists, aid workers, and a Jordanian pilot, and broadcasting decapitations of civilians were all results of his preaching. He was also the link and the best interlocutor with other affiliate groups throughout this region.

ISIL will experience a period of uncertainty in the short term. Indeed, due to the qualifications of the former, the Islamic State cannot afford to have a leader known solely as a fighter, but a combination of war experience and religious knowledge is a must.

Moreover, the new leader will have to be well known and respected, otherwise, some groups’ leaders may not pledge allegiance. For example, Aboubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria, could negotiate strongly his allegiance to the new Caliph.

De facto, this could result in a dispersion of different ISIL branches and a lack of coordination between them. However, ready-made biographies with family trees and organizational charts were found on a number of ISIL leaders who were killed. This is a sign that the Caliphate may have prepared a scenario for the future.

Nevertheless, the death of the former Caliph does not mean the end of ISIL. The terrorist group is now a “brand” and will persist in Iraq and Syria as an insurgency and a franchise in many parts of the world.

Franchises are to be found in Yemen, Libya, West Africa and in Afghanistan. These countries represent a big threat because they possess multiples factors (political, criminal and terrorist) that helped ISIL rise in the first place. This is besides the ongoing threat of the return of foreign terrorist fighters in Europe. It still remains the biggest challenge for intelligence services.

In a short-term vision and from a counter-terrorism perspective, it is always good news that al-Baghdadi has been neutralized. But for occidental governments, they need to be prepared for the next step, as they fear vengeance and revenge from radicalized people within their home countries.

They could be willing to follow orders from al-Baghdadi’s last video in which he stressed the importance of spreading terror worldwide at all costs.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was not as infamous as Osama bin-Laden, but the aftermath of his death is undetermined. It could, however, produce graver consequences.

ISIL

Decapitation of the Leader of ISIL and Its Potential Implication?

In a successful operation on October 26, United States special forces killed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) in Idlib, northwestern Syria. What could be the implications of this very critical operation for the actors in the conflict and the impact on ISIL itself?

From a strategic perspective, this operation could be a sample of the model that the US applies to Syria in the coming years. The United States coordinated the operation with the parties in the conflict, including Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Syrian Kurds. Given Russia’s dominant role in Idlib, the Assad regime’s presence and Turkey’s control over the northern Idlib, the United States notified them about the US military presence in the area.

The US military launched the operation from Erbil in the Kurdistan Regional Government. Although the Incirlik military base in Turkey is closer to Idlib (around 100 miles) than Erbil in northern Iraq (more than 400 miles), the US military chose Erbil over Incirlik which indicates the United States’ distrust of Turkey given Turkey’s long-time involvement with al Qaeda and ISIL affiliates.

According to President Trump, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were involved in the operation by providing intelligence. Although Turkey has been trying to push the United States against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), it seems that Turkey’s move has not proved successful at all. On the contrary, SDF and the Syrian Kurds will continue to stay as partners of the United States. In short, although the US military pulled out of northeastern Syria, it will continue to be actively involved in the country.

As for the impact on the group, of course, the operation could trigger a chain of events that could affect ISIL in several ways. Because the group emerged in Iraq as the Islamic State in Iraq and then became ISIL under Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s leadership, his death would be a devastating blow for its members. However, given the decision-making structure of ISIL, they could survive this.

Decapitation or targeted killing of a leader of a terrorist organization is considered an effective counterterrorism tactic in the short term. On the one hand, as a short-term effect, it could disrupt activities of the group, create panic and mayhem among the members, resulting in intra-group conflict.

On the other, it could mobilize group members toward more actions and pursuing new attacks against their targets. When the target is a highly charismatic leader, then this could act as a catalyst for future attacks. In fact, research showed that the decapitation of leaders of ISIL may not lead to the intended results unless other steps are taken.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was not the founder of ISIL and had not been as charismatic as Osama bin Laden, the founding leader of al Qaeda, nevertheless, he has been the most important figure in the organization. Since the founding leader of IS — then it was al Qaeda in Iraq — Abu Musab al Zarqawi was killed in 2006, ISIL transformed itself into a hybrid organization under Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s leadership between 2010 and 2016.

Unlike his three predecessors, under al Baghdadi’s leadership, ISIL’s impact on the region exceeded the boundaries of Iraq. ISIL became the leading terrorist group that created its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria and attracted thousands of foreign fighters from more than 100 countries.

However, given the continuing decline, loss of territory and recruitment, his death may not create significant repercussions among current membership. But, the fact that he detonated a suicide vest and killed himself could be seen as a sacred sacrifice by other ISIL followers in the region and around the world, which might act as a catalyst for future attacks.

In Syria, between 2013 and 2015, ISIL had been the focal point for those who wanted to join the ‘jihad’ in Syria. Now a reverse trend might be seen in which ISIL members could leave the group and join other local groups in Syria.

According to some sources, al Baghdadi nominated Abdullah Qardash as his successor in August, but his death could lead some members to leave the group and trigger fragmentation within the group, especially if the leadership position is not filled soon. Because of the nature — what I describe as — of the transitivity character of these members, it would not be a surprise to see some of these members joining in the ranks of the al Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.

Localized ISIL affiliates could take further steps to fill the vacuum and emerge as the dominant group. However, this will all depend on the territory where they are active. For example, IS in Khorasan Province could become the more prominent group within IS.

Successful targeted killings could provide states with the window of opportunity to inflict further damage against organizations like ISIL operationally. But more importantly, such developments could also enable governments and other concerned parties to spend more time and energy on prevention and de-radicalization efforts, reaching out other countries to strengthen cooperation and collaboration to tackle the underlying causes that terrorist organizations have been exploiting.

Regardless, from a counterterrorism perspective, the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is a success. While it is critical, the true definition of success in counterterrorism is not just about the decapitation of the leadership.

Like the previous examples, including al Zarqawi and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi will be succeeded by another leader. The real challenge is to come up with policies, strategies, and tactics that address the underlying causes, terrorist organizations exploit.

What Does a Chinese Invitation to the Taliban Mean for Afghan Peace Talks?

In a sudden development, China invited the Taliban to a two-day intra-Afghan peace conference in Beijing. This is a peculiar development as Beijing demonstrated little interest towards the prior peace process and Afghans remain critical of any potential for peace with the Taliban. Peace talks resumed weeks ago in Islamabad, Pakistan, however, the addition of Chinese interests reflects the international nature of what is at stake with stability in the region.

The Taliban publicly announced that they would travel to Beijing to initiate another round of peace talks.  Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban political spokesman, said on September 23 that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s co-founder, met with Chinese diplomats in Doha, where the group has a political office.

This is concurrent with information received by Rise to Peace. A source from Kabul stated that there will be another round of talks with the Taliban soon. They expressed that,

“It’s going to be different to before, stating that the conditions of peace would be different now. Thus, it would appear that the Taliban are open to a new round of peace talks, but not only with the US.”

China’s abrupt involvement in the Afghan peace process will undoubtedly impact the US counter-terrorism strategy in the region. Recent visits to Afghanistan by United States Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Defense Secretary Mark Esper already reveal the differences of opinion offered by US foreign policy decision-makers.

Trump’s growing impatience with the presence of American armed forces still entangled in the Afghan conflict — fueled by the 2020 presidential election — is matched by Pelosi’s urgency to maintain a presence in the region. Pelosi counters that US troops are needed for the sake of stability and the possibility that Afghanistan might return to its previous role as a haven for terrorism.

Despite multiple stakeholders in the Afghan conflict — including multi-national organizations and numerous nation-states — China’s active interest in the region reveals the vast reach of regional instability and as a result, could provide an alternative to the peace talks that have already failed.

Beijing has cooperated with Kabul over the years in regard to economic development and trade, therefore Chinese interests in a stable Afghanistan are easily identifiable. As one of the co-heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China — along with Russia — considers Afghan concerns as innate to discussions on security in the Central Asian space. It is logical that they would pursue a proactive stance in regard to inviting the Taliban for peace talks, as well as meetings with Chinese diplomats, due to ongoing diplomatic efforts between the two states.

Mainstream media coverage of Afghanistan has faded since the end of a turbulent election period and the rise of conflict along the Turkey-Syria border. However, July 2019 witnessed the highest number of civilian casualties that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has ever recorded in a single month. The third quarter of this year saw an unprecedented spike in civilian casualties, with 1,174 civilian deaths and 3,139 injured.

It appeared that a revival of peace talks between the United States was possible last week despite hostile rhetoric between the two camps and an increase in violent attacks. Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US envoy for Afghan reconciliation, met with the Taliban in Pakistan. Each side is alleged to have discussed confidence-building measures that could include a possible prisoner swap or a reduction in violence to help with the peace process.

The EU Perspective 

Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, has decried “the tragic uselessness of such death in the face of widespread recognition that there can be no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.” His words were echoed by Khalilzad and EU envoy Roland Kobia, among other representatives from the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations. All acknowledged that “a sustainable peace can only be achieved through a negotiated political settlement.”

Aftermath of US-Taliban Peace Talks Collapse

The breakdown of talks between the US and Taliban earlier this year led both pro-government troops as well as other insurgencies within the region to step up attacks. Last week, Afghan forces performed a clearing operation in Baghlan province.

The operation took place in the areas of Dand-e-Shahabuddin, Dand-e-Ghori and the Kela Gai areas where at least 16 Officers were killed. A Ministry of Defence spokesperson justified the military action by citing previous successes in which dozens of Taliban insurgents, including commanders and shadow district governors, had been killed during operations in Badakhshan, Takhar and Kunduz provinces.

US-Afghan Relations 

Given the nature of the relationship between the US and Afghan security forces, it is clear that the US was aware of the provincial ‘clearing’ campaigns and likely provided support. This emphasizes their stance as being currently committed to military action in the region despite the fact the Pentagon released a plan for an abrupt Afghan withdrawal. Officials cautioned, however, that the planning is a precaution and there is currently no directive from the White House to pull American troops out of Afghanistan.

Taliban Military Action

In addition to US and Afghan government military action, the Taliban have also increased attacks. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed in a statement that fighters used a large truck packed with explosives in an attack near a police headquarters, leaving dozens of Afghan security forces dead and wounded. The attack occurred during a relative lull in violence in the post-presidential election period that saw a surge in attacks by the Taliban, who denounced the vote as a sham. Severe attacks continue as sixteen police officers were killed in attacks on security checkpoints in Northern Kunduz province this week.

US-Taliban Relations

The New York Times reported that “a news website with deep access to senior Taliban officials reported that Mr. Khalilzad had met “repeatedly” with the Taliban during his time in Islamabad,” suggesting it was more than one meeting. This, in addition to the EU/UN urging immediate steps to reduce violence and civilian casualties, resulted in a call for a ceasefire while intra-Afghan peace talks take place.

Peace Talks vs Violence: The Challenges Facing the New Afghan Government 

The Taliban and the Afghan government remain in a cycle of violence where one attacks and the other retaliates, sometimes with foreign support. This continues to happen despite demands for peace from Afghan civilians, hints towards resolution from the Taliban, US interests and now China in favor of the resumption of peace talks.

The key factor influencing the cycle is the lack of intra-Afghan dialogue. Talks between the Taliban and the US did not lead to discussions between the Ghani administration and the Taliban. Therefore, it could be argued talks produced little progress, if it all, and the two remain more divided than ever. This is a result of the state of limbo faced by the government as they await the results of the September 2019 election.

Engaging in dialogue with the Taliban will be one of the major challenges facing the victors of the Afghan presidential elections. However, it is integral that such lines of communication are opened to maintaining peace in Afghanistan whilst allowing a US withdrawal.

As China readies itself to engage, President Trump remains confident in his relationship with Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, and in the ability of the Pakistani government to play a positive and productive role in the negotiations between the United States and Taliban stakeholders.

Conclusion

As Afghanistan awaits the results of the September election, it will be crucial for political parties to ensure they are represented at the Beijing talks and in any potential talks between the US and the Taliban. This ensures that the winning party is able to open up direct discussions between the government and the Taliban.

However, if efforts in Beijing or with the US are successful — subsequently transitioning to intra-Afghan dialogue — the US must maintain a presence and military support in the region, as peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government does not necessarily mean peace for the other 21 active terror organizations in the region. Afghanistan’s fragility due to terrorism means that foreign support for counter-terrorism campaigns remains crucial for the foreseeable future.

Nancy Pelosi in Afghanistan

Pelosi and Esper in Afghanistan: To Leave or Not To Leave?

Two United States envoys visited Afghanistan this week: the Secretary of Defence Mark Esper under the direction of President Trump and a congressional delegation headed by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. These trips signify the growing divide in opinion related to the US strategy in Afghanistan.

Trump’s growing impatience with the presence of American armed forces still entangled in the Afghan conflict — fueled by the 2020 presidential election — is matched by Pelosi’s urgency to maintain a presence in the region. The Speaker counters that US troops are needed for the sake of stability and the possibility that Afghanistan might return to its previous role as a haven for terrorism.

Esper’s unannounced trip on Sunday marks his first visit to the country since being confirmed as Pentagon chief. His unannounced arrival comes amid uncertainty about the administration’s strategy after the collapse of peace talks with the Taliban.

The Secretary told reporters on Sunday that the number of US troops in Afghanistan could be reduced to 8,600 — while maintaining counterterrorism operations — but the reduction would have to coincide with a peace agreement. The United States currently has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is significantly less than the 130,000 troops that were stationed there in 2009 as part of broader counter-insurgency operations.

The Pelosi-led delegation met with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan women and ‘briefly compared notes’ with Secretary Mark Esper. Pelosi concluded: “While Afghan women have made some progress in some areas, more work is needed to ensure their security and durable economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan,” which highlights her belief that US support is integral to peace and development in Afghanistan.

Trump consistently critiques any US involvement in the Middle East and a series of tweets reflected that sentiment. He noted: “Fighting between various groups has been going on for hundreds of years. The USA should never have been in the Middle East. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”

Although these tweets were specifically defending his withdrawal from Syria, the president’s view on US military involvement in Afghanistan is clearly in support of exiting the region. Meanwhile, Pelosi’s comments — especially those urging the need for support of Afghan women — appear to support the need for extended US involvement in the region, providing both military and societal support.

Esper told reporters “the aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement.” However, the Taliban’s propensity for violence continues to divide opinion in US circles as Trump’s initial decision to host a Taliban delegation at Camp David was met with heavy criticism.

The Taliban refuses to compromise on their demands, such as their desired institution of the patriarchal Islamic Emirate, characterized by strict social and cultural policies based on man-made principles and radical ideologies. As long as their use of violence and patriarchal political ideologies continue, the US will face divisions over its Afghan strategy.

The US is by no means the only international stakeholder in Afghanistan. The European Union envoy to the region Roland Kobia said, “The EU would like to see a swift resumption of the US bilateral talks with the Taliban and the start of negotiation between the government and the Taliban.”

The EU diplomat also called on the Afghan presidential candidates to contribute to the transparency of the electoral process and avoid any moves that could create problems for the election results.

Kobia’s comment on the presidential candidates re-enforces an important factor to consider when assessing the differing US opinions on the region: the Afghan elections. Putting aside the US-Taliban talks and the conflict itself, it is important to note that all of this is taking place while the country’s politics are in limbo.

Afghanistan is awaiting the results of the September 28 election. Riddled with accusations of fraud and voter-discrepancies, the post-election period has been tumultuous. This chaos is multiplied with the constant onslaught of Taliban instigated violence.

Opening a dialogue with the Taliban will be one of the most significant challenges facing the victors of the September 2019 elections.

Dialogue between political actors is integral to the maintenance of peace in Afghanistan whilst allowing a US withdrawal. However, intra-Afghan dialogue will be impossible without continued support from the US. It is integral that the US keeps its policy towards Afghanistan distinct from its withdrawal from Syria, despite growing criticism and support for Trump’s decision in the Middle East.

Military support in the region remains crucial, especially during this fragile transitional period as Afghanistan nervously awaits election results.

Although the envoys are divided in opinion, they must focus on insight gained during the 18-year Afghan intervention and put domestic political conflicts aside for the time being.

Afghanistan Strategy

Afghanistan: An Exit Strategy Is Not a Strategy

Afghanistan: An Exit Strategy Is Not a Strategy

The US secretary of Defense Mark Espers traveled to Afghanistan this Sunday on unannounced trip weeks after the US special envoy for the Afghan peace and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Taliban in Pakistan to eventually resume the peace talks.

Esper told reporters that the US will reduce its troops to 8,600 and withdrawal will take place in case of a peace agreement with the Taliban. The United States currently has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is significantly less than the 130,000 troops that were stationed there in 2009 as part of broader counter-insurgency operations. 

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement. That is the best way forward,” said Esper.

In early September, President Donald Trump declared the Afghan Peace Talks ‘dead.’ This decision unfolded when Trump allegedly planned a secret Camp David meeting with the Taliban. It was then abruptly canceled because the Taliban committed acts of terror that killed 12 in Afghanistan, including an American soldier. While the US left the negotiating table and then re-entered, the Taliban met with Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China; major adversaries of the US. It is best for the US to resume peace talks to ensure America’s global leadership and national security.

What’s Next?

Taliban’s intention of violence has not changed at all —and they have repeatedly targeted populated areas of the cities including schools and mosque, like yesterday’s mosque suicide bombing that killed 62 in Nangarhar province. In July of 2019, at the Doha peace conference, the Taliban agreed to reduce violence by withholding attacks on religious centers, schools, hospitals, educational centers, bazaars, water dams, and workplaces.

Hopes for a resumption of the talks between the US and the Taliban were sparked when a Taliban delegation met with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad last month. This was a potential step towards discussion between the US, Afghans, and the Taliban, but no decision has been made yet. 

American forces provide a reliable partnership in the path towards Afghan stability, therefore the United States should not step away from its presence in Afghanistan, even in the instance that a cohesive agreement is reached between the Taliban and pertinent regional actors. A framework such as this is essential to ensure that Afghanistan does not turn into a battleground for terrorism as it was between the 1980s and 1990s.

The Taliban refuses to compromise their demands, such as their desired institution of the patriarchal Islamic Emirate characterized by strict social and cultural policies based on man-made principles and radical ideologies. 

This form of governance is not religiously endorsed as it is incongruent with the Muslim society and strong Islamic beliefs inherent in Afghanistan. For instance, Islam does not prohibit girls from attending school, nor does it call for the slaughter of innocent civilians. The Taliban engages in both.

Afghans do not want to lose the achievements of the last 18 years and that is their proverbial ‘red line.’ The Taliban have not openly expressed at any point — even during any of the high-level meetings— any of their visions of an ideal Afghanistan or how they would cooperate with fellow citizens to achieve prosperity. 

All the Taliban has done is repeatedly assert demands for the withdrawal of foreign troops. In their terms, they argue to ‘end the foreign occupation in Afghanistan.’

It is imperative that the US understands what is at stake if they decide to leave Afghanistan. Important questions arise: Will the Taliban remain loyal to their promises? Will there be a guaranteed agreement that the Taliban will no longer harbor terrorism? These are some of the main challenges in the Afghan peace process that resulted in the suspension of the talks. 

Numerous elements are at play since Afghans do not want a life in a bleak regime devoid of good fortune; the US does not want al-Qaeda and terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base, and the Taliban does not want a US presence.

Everyone is currently waiting for the votes to be counted and finalized in the recent Afghan presidential election prior to any conclusion. Important players await to learn the winner and if Afghanistan will go into crisis. 

It is only proper that the United States provide a peace deal for the sake of the future of Afghanistan. This remains the sole solution available to American policymakers as an assurance that the last 18 years of post-9/11 intervention were not spent in vain. Further, the current global political atmosphere commands that the United States adapt its commitments within Afghanistan and focus greater attention towards the East. China continues its ascendence and an ever-stronger India are taking their places on the world stage. In the case that Washington chooses to leave Afghanistan, another regional power may quickly supplant their former position and advance to this strategic location. 

Peace talks can play a pivotal role in America’s shifting foreign policy priorities. Though there are opportunities to be had, the United States should not rush the negotiation process for the sake of a deal ahead of the 2020 presidential election. 

The advancement of democratic processes and norms in the fragile nation-state, as well as a guarantee that any government charged with the future of Afghanistan and its people are held to account in the face of human rights abuses and governmental shortcomings, are key priorities that must be upheld. This is an identifiable challenge that is sure to be realized as Afghanistan’s central government in Kabul seeks to rebuild and strengthen itself in the wake of a 4th Presidential election. 

American values must not be sacrificed at the negotiation table also. Girls and women must be protected so that they are provided with the opportunity to succeed in Afghanistan’s economic, social and cultural institutions. 

The ability of girls and women to attend school, enter the labor market, and contribute to the societal success of Afghanistan should be of the utmost importance to all vital stakeholders. This has not been the view of Taliban leaders, but this particular belief must be strongly resisted if Afghanistan is to move past the challenges and strife of past decades towards a new, vibrant and more peaceful future. 

Afghanistan presents a complex situation on many levels, therefore it is important to employ both hard power and diplomatic approaches. Negotiations should only be engaged with those Taliban factions that want to negotiate while military pressure must be applied to those factions unwilling to lay down their weapons. Additionally, Afghan soldiers must continue to be trained and provided with badly needed heavy weaponry and air support. 

American interests must do all they can to support transparent elections in Afghanistan. A strong leader elected in a free and fair manner will contribute to a sense of legitimacy that is required for Afghan citizens to respect the leadership in Kabul.

Finally, it is essential that US policymakers pressure Pakistan and Iran in a variety of manners so that they stop harboring and funding the Taliban. All of these measures combined can lead to a long-term ceasefire and the inception of continued prosperity in Afghanistan.


Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

David Saul Acosta, Research Fellow at Rise to Peace and a graduate student at Harvard. Follow him on Twitter at @davidsaulacosta