ISIS: From Unified Caliphate to Decentralized Lone Wolves

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Members of a US-led coalition prepare to fight ISIS and retake Hajin. Credit to Sgt. Timothy Koster.

This September, the Syrian Democratic Forces began the final push to retake the last vestige of territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. After previous territorial concessions, the Islamic State has reorganized and consolidated their forces for a final stand in Hajin, a sliver of Syrian territory bordering the Euphrates River.

This final battle is a critical moment. Much like a wounded animal backed into a corner, it is expected that the remaining ISIS fighters, who are likely some of the most fanatical, will fight to the death without any intention to surrender. Regardless of how difficult the fight will be, coalition forces and security analysts are confident that Hajin will be retaken in a matter of months, and such an outcome would be a great victory for many reasons.

First, ISIS will lose the ability to tax Hajin’s inhabitants, limiting their ability to pay fighters. Second, they will lack any operational space to train new recruits into combatants. Most importantly, a victory would mark the end of ISIS’ ability to establish a Caliphate, one of the group’s primary political objectives. Since the organization’s inception, the group has focused on taking large swaths of territory in the Middle East. However, while this would certainly be a win, there is still the question of what happens next.

ISIS membership is estimated to be anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000, and fighters are spread throughout the world. The capture of Haijin will not result in the disappearance of these members, so there is a question as to how the organization will change after the loss of its territories.

Increasing devotion to counter-terrorism efforts by governments around the world will also pose an issue. Face-recognition and biometric technology at ports of entry have made it increasingly difficult for ISIS fighters to gain access to Western nations, and the terrorist group must now adapt to the changing situation to avoid detection by state governments. Accordingly, they have decreased their emphasis on hierarchy and relied less upon territory, focusing instead on unconventional tactics. ISIS once used conventional military force to conquer its territories, whereas now, the group has lost that capability and must adapt a clandestine strategy in order to survive.

This shift in organizational structure has significant implications for ISIS’ future strategy. ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks have increased substantially, and will likely become even more common in the future. Internet-savvy campaigns to spread ISIS propaganda have inspired attackers around the world to commit acts of terror.

These solo attackers, or “lone wolves,” are difficult to pinpoint because they either have no direct affiliation with the group or operate within a small, cellular structure which has little to no communication with other group members. The Pulse Nightclub shooting, the NYC truck attack, and the Las Vegas mass shooting are all examples of lone-wolf attacks; for example, though he was not an official member of the Islamic State hierarchy, Omar Mateen still claimed allegiance to ISIS before going into Pulse Nightclub and killing nearly 50 people. These types of incidents are exactly what ISIS wants.

Many of these lone wolves do not have the training and resources needed to pull off a 9/11-scale attack, so instead, they turn to terrorism on a smaller scale. It is disturbingly easy for an ISIS-inspired individual to rent a U-Haul and run people over by the Hudson River, but incredibly difficult for a group of official members of a terrorist organization to hijack four planes and fly them into the Twin Towers. Focusing on recruiting and radicalizing lone wolves is, therefore, the easiest and most effective way for ISIS to ensure that their mission is carried on in the future.

Notably, the greatest impact of lone wolf attacks lies in their ability to incite fear and hysteria. Though the concrete impact of a lone wolf attack pales in comparison to the carnage of a large-scale incident, the possibility of a lone wolf attack still gravely concerns millions of people around the world.

The conventional capabilities of ISIS have been reduced dramatically, but people around the world should not turn a blind eye. In the words of an ISIS spokesman encouraging lone wolves to enter the fight, “the smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us and more effective and more damaging to them.”

Kabul Wedding Hall Bombing

Last Tuesday, November 20, 2018, religious scholars and clerics gathered in the Uranus Wedding Hall in Kabul, Afghanistan. The hall was being used for a wedding as well as for an assembly of scholars congregating to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, a national, and widely celebrated holiday in Afghanistan. At 6:20 p.m. the bombing of the convocation took place, killing around 55 people and injuring 100 more, leaving many in critical condition.

The bombing is claimed to be a suicide bombing according to the Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, Najib Danish, who also confirmed the death toll at the time. This attack, while horrific, is not remarkable in its manifestation.

Amidst a 17-year long war with the Taliban and a resurgence of suicide attacks, said to be claimed by lingering Islamist State loyalists, the Afghan government and its people are losing sight of a future that is not saturated in violence and marked by bloodshed.

Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has continuously condemned attack after attack, labeling them inhumane, anti-Islamic, and haram, an Arabic word used to describe an act in Islamic jurisprudence that is forbidden in the eyes of God. As of 2016, it is estimated that 100,000 people have been killed since the U.S. invaded in 2001, and of that figure around 30,000 people are believed to have been civilians. Both these figures have continued to rise since then and show no signs of slowing down.

According to the United States Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, the UN Assistance Missions to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented around 37 attacks on places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers in 2017 alone.

The attack at the wedding hall in Kabul is a prime example of the terrorism that has been plaguing the region for years now, mostly by the Taliban, but also by other extremist groups that have found a safe place to operate amongst the chaos. Although the Taliban has not claimed responsibility for the attack last Tuesday, it is not unheard of for the organization to attack religious sites.

Unknown to many who are not overly familiar with Islam the term constantly regurgitated by press and media alike, jihad, is not a naturally violent nor extreme prospect of Islam. In fact, most devout Muslims will take part in some sort of jihad. Jihad is used to describe a struggle or a fight, usually against oneself in an effort to improve one’s own devotion to God.

Organizations like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State have claimed to be acting in accordance with jihad, whether it be against false Islamic practices or governments in violation of sharia. However, these groups have always been in violation themselves. They kill mercilessly and subjugate innocent people to their extreme beliefs and ways of life. Despite this, the Taliban has control of more Afghan land in their possession since 2001 insinuating that recruitment has been strong enough to keep the organization, not only afloat, but thriving.

It is important to understand that organizations like the Taliban, like most terrorists’ groups, prey on and seek to exploit youth that find themselves in exceedingly difficult situations. Youth are often disproportionately affected by war and economic strife. An example of this is evident when analyzing the birth of the Taliban in 1994.

Afghanistan has a long history of foreign intervention, first by the British, followed by the Soviets in the late 70s to the late 80s, and most recently the U.S. What this means is that during its inception, the Taliban targeted young men who had grown up in refugee camps, young men who knew nothing but war. The Taliban did not promise them a return to their homeland, rather the creation of a home they never knew.

Currently, the situation has become so dire that the Afghan government has discussed having peace talks with the Taliban in an effort to avoid more casualties. The government has even gone so far as to recognize them as a valid political entity. This has not proven fruitful but neither has violent retaliation, as seen by both the Afghan and U.S. militaries. So where then can a solution be found?

There is no easy fix, however, possible solutions could be attacking the problem at its core. In other words, citizens are the key to peace. Much of the recruitment today happens online, social media platforms have already started partnering with intelligence agencies to find solutions to limit access to the sites where recruitment takes place. In addition, educating young people, especially young men, in regions of high contestation is crucial.

Young people who decide to join extremists’ organizations often see no other option, in many of their eyes the government has failed them.

Youth must be shown another way and enlightened on the atrocities that organizations like the Taliban commit. It is critical that the government focuses on emphasizing and providing other ways to address legitimate grievances, not only to curb the flow of recruitment but also to build trust among the Afghan population again.

Zulfi Hoxha (Abu Hamza al-Amriki): A Case Study of Radicalization

In early 2018, news emerged that a 25-year old from New Jersey was fighting as a commander for the Islamic State in the Levant. Zulfi Hoxha, who goes by the kunya Abu Hamza al-Amriki, initially became famous in jihadist circles after participating in a beheading of a Kurdish soldier. Hoxha is now a major propaganda figure in the terror network.

Hoxha’s family immigrated to the United States roughly forty years ago from Albania. His family spent much of their time in America owning and operating a restaurant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Growing up with two brothers and a sister, Hoxha had a relatively stable upbringing. However, when Hoxha was only thirteen years old, his father passed away.

Shortly following the death of his father, Hoxha’s family sold the restaurant. Following the New York Police Department’s radicalization model, stage two of the radicalization process often begins with a catalyst event that challenges one’s beliefs. Hoxha regularly attended a mosque in Atlantic City, however, it is not immediately clear which mosque he attended. Hoxha’s mother, Ltefaji, stated that her son Hoxha “hated” the people at the mosque. 

Growing up in New Jersey, Hoxha was a member of the 1.8% of the population that adheres to the Islamic faith. Being the child of immigrants, particularly from Albania, it is possible that Hoxha felt, at times, like an outcast. Former high school classmates of Hoxha shared that he was a loner and socially ‘goofy’.

There is an Islamic Center that caters to Sunni Albanians in northern New Jersey, but it is unlikely that his family would make this commute on a regular basis. In Atlantic City, there is the Masjid al-Furgaan Mosque as well as the Muslim Community Organization of South Jersey organization. Both of these religious institutions adhere to Salafist Islamic beliefs. Hoxha had a consistent presence on social media as well as on various gaming networks. The content of many of his messages indicates that Hoxha was adopting extremist views.

Hoxha left for Syria in 2015. After arriving in the country he sent a message to a friend stating that he was “in the safe house”. This message was followed by a statement indicating that he would be engaging in three months of further training. Hoxha’s mother, Ltefaji, confirmed that she spoke with her son in early 2017. However, she has not been contacted by him since. It is believed that Hoxha is still alive, his departure and increasing isolation from family may be attributed to his further radicalization. Moreover, this could be an attempt to prevent himself from being tracked or targeted by the United States.

Hoxha demonstrated several signs of being on the path to radicalization. He should have been considered ‘high-risk’. A strong comparison can be made to Hoxha’s ‘profile’ and radicalization process and the recruitment process of various street gangs in the United States. Relative instability within immigrant communities, who have not fully assimilated to American society, often breeds a situation that drives youth from these communities to group together.

This instability is often enhanced by the social and economic marginalization of these communities.  The death of Hoxha’s father occurred during a critical developmental period of his life. This was followed quickly by the departure of his family’s longstanding business (i.e. a catalyst event). When one becomes radicalized it often follows a significant life event.

Up to 75% of domestic jihadists knew or were in contact with another jihadist prior to becoming radicalized. With Salafist organizations operating in the small Muslim community in Atlantic City, it is plausible that someone from within this community introduced some extremist beliefs to Hoxha. These beliefs, paired with perceived marginalization that Hoxha likely felt as an immigrant minority, made him highly vulnerable to further Salafist recruiting.

The proximity to Salafist organizations within the Islamic community that Hoxha belonged to cannot be ignored. Furthermore, Hoxha would have been increasingly vulnerable to online recruiting as he was a documented user of social media platforms and gaming platforms that the Islamic State uses to recruit youth.

Intervention programs, used by many major cities in an effort to address high-risk youth and young adults, could be reformatted to be applied to a counter-terrorism model. By focusing resources on major population centers, a model can be shaped and altered as it evolves. In the case of Hoxha, working with Sunni Muslim religious figures in these areas to identify behaviors, trends, and individuals, a profile of risk can be established (i.e. high-risk, moderate-risk, low-risk). Intervention models indicate that the individual has shown some warning signs that have been identified by experts previously as being indicators of potential future behavior.

Through close cooperation with religious figures within the community, social workers, and law enforcement, various intervention programs can be applied to reduce radicalization.

Defining the Problem and Reaching a Solution: A Reflection on How to Counter Violent Extremism

“Violent extremism knows no boundaries.” That was the message that Rise to Peace founder Ahmad Mohibi used to open “How to Counter Violent Extremism,” the latest Rise to Peace panel discussion, which took place this Tuesday at the Elliott School of International Affairs. With that in mind, the panelists – Leanne Erdberg, U.S. Institute of Peace; Jesse Morton, Parallel Networks; and Edward Burkhalter, U.S. Department of State – offered their perspectives on the best ways to counter violent extremism.

The panel’s first challenge was defining extremism and terrorism. Leanne Erdberg offered a legal definition: terrorism is limited to action, while extremism also includes violent thoughts. Jesse Morton focused on the definition’s practical implications. Terrorists, he poses, are cemented in their action, and thus countering terrorism is necessarily catching and punishing those who commit violent acts. An extremist is undergoing a cognitive radicalization process and can pulled away from extremist movements. Counterterrorism, he says, is the realm of law enforcement, but CVE is more complicated, and requires the engagement of more stakeholders.

Conversation then moved to how the problem of extremism has grown. Jesse Morton observed that mainstream media informs social media radicalization. For example, Islamophobic narratives in news media fuels polarization narratives used by radicalizers online. In a similar vein, Edward Burkhalter noted that A 24-hour news cycle can make problems seem more severe than they really are, and it is important to focus discussion on proven research.

Panelists then discussed the shortcomings of past efforts to curtail violent extremism. Jesse Morton provided historical background by discussing the roots of the “hearts and minds” in marketing campaigns and advertising.

Leanne Erdberg built on this theme by questioning the framing of programs and success in general. She argues that CVE that operates within an advertising scheme, which treats the communities they serve as an audience rather than giving them agency over the process. Programs that abandon that approach and instead emphasize people taking their future into their own hands are more empowering and more successful.

Ahmad Mohibi discussed CVE shortcomings in the context of Afghanistan. He said that CVE is impossible without trust, and in Afghanistan the trust between the Afghan and American government and the Afghan people is lacking. As long as people feel disconnected and distrustful of their leaders, extremism will continue. Edward Burkhalter provided a U.S. government perspective, acknowledging the futility of trying to improve a community without consulting its members. He elaborated, saying that the U.S. tries to follow a “do no harm” approach, and be sure that CVE or development efforts do not have unintended consequences. The only way to accomplish that is by relying on local partners.

A look at Saudi Arabia in light of recent events and moving forward

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan during a meeting with leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Trump will use the nation that is home to Islam’s holiest site as a backdrop to call for Muslim unity in the fight against terrorism Sunday, as he works to build relationships with Arab leaders.AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Last Monday I attended the Inaugural Annual Gulf International Conference in Washington D.C. where Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi was scheduled to speak on the importance of a free press.

However, over the weekend, Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul. On Monday while at the conference, the official word was that the Saudi government had no knowledge of the situation but would examine it closely.

At the conference, Khashoggi’s presence and spirit were palpable, but most participants believed Khashoggi was murdered for speaking out against the regime’s reign of terror in Yemen. Since the conference, the Saudi government’s position has shifted from denial to assertions that the journalist died in a fist-fight during interrogation.

It is no coincidence that the President of the United States took his inaugural international trip to Saudi Arabia, while predecessors chose neighboring countries like Canada or Mexico.

President Trump voiced his friendship with the Kingdom while still on the campaign trail, and continued his support from the beginning of his presidency, making it clear that he wanted a strong diplomatic and economic relationship with the Saudi government.

Although President Trump espoused the importance of a strategic partnership with the Saudis as a way to stabilize the region, many have questioned his motivation. In 2001, he sold the entire 45th floor of Trump World Tower to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for $4.5 million. It is this relationship that many believe has, at least partly, clouded his judgment. Trump spent the week supporting the Crown Prince and King, claiming they denied involvement and pledged to investigate and hold accountable those who killed
Jamal Khashoggi.

The U.S. has a complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia and the death of Jamal Khashoggi makes it even more complex.

The Saudis invest heavily in the U.S. economy and have traded in excess of $23 billion per year. However, the Saudi government is also said to have economic ties to terrorist organizations, not to mention an abysmal human rights record. The U.S. government has repeatedly overlooked both the terror funding and human rights violations.

The current administration is said to have even greater motivation to overlook human rights issues. The president’s son-in-law and Senior Policy Advisor to the Middle East, Jared Kushner has close relations with the Crown Prince. Additionally, the U.S. has secured a multi-million dollar arms deal, which the President touts as a boom for defense jobs (this remains to confirmed).

Complicating the relationship and U.S. response is the fact that Khashoggi was a U.S. resident who wrote for the Washington Post, but not a U.S. citizen, justifying a more hands-off approach from the President.

At the conference, congressmen, journalists, and retired ambassadors resoundingly supported punitive action by the U.S. against the Saudi regime. Many speakers shamed President Trump and called for the United States to cut diplomatic ties with the Saudis, enact sanctions, and put human rights ahead of arms deals. The consensus was that continuing to support the Saudi regime after such a blatant act of violence designed to silence a critic called into question not just the ethics of Saudi Arabia, but also the ethics and values of the U.S.

Would the U.S. put an arms deal ahead of human rights, knowing that the arms would be used in the Saudi’s campaign against the people of Yemen? One week after the conference, the truth regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance is beginning to emerge, and a clearer picture of the Saudi regime is coming into focus.

One week ago, the Saudi government denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death, and today they reiterate their denial of their role in attacks on civilian targets in Yemen. There is undisputed evidence
that the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi’s death and that of many civilians in Yemen, yet the regime continues to stall, deflect, lie, and justify their actions, while the U.S. and international community look the other way.

It is time to shine the light clearly on the Saudi government’s actions and stop their terroristic activities and human right abuses.

It is time to hold them accountable for their military campaign in Yemen, the financial support of terror groups such as the Taliban and Hamas, and the death of Jamal Khashoggi. No doubt, a sustainable solution that puts human rights ahead of violence is going to be a difficult solution to implement. But if we put an arms deal first, worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, disrespecting basic freedoms, then we are complicit.