Boko Haram and Nigerian Instability

Since November, over 60,000 refugees have fled from Nigeria in fear of Boko Haram.   Image Source: IRIN

Boko Haram, or the Islamic State in West Africa, is a formally nonviolent militant organization based in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The group aims to “purify” Nigeria and other territories based on their own Salafist ideals. Clashes with the Nigerian government in 2009 over an investigation into the organization sparked a violent uprising, which has escalated in years since.

Decade Long Crisis

Boko Haram’s persistent insurgency in Nigeria has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and displaced millions since it began in 2009. It is estimated that about 35,000 individuals have been killed in the insurgency, making this conflict the region’s deadliest of all time.  The United Nations Refugee Agency claims that attacks across the Lake Chad Region have left over 2.5 million individuals displaced, including 250,000 individuals from Nigeria alone.

On February 5th, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that Boko Haram had been “decimated.”  He stated that his government had achieved enormous feats in the campaign against Boko Haram, and had reduced their criminal activity to a minimum.  While major military operations by the Nigerian military have been able to contain and significantly degrade the organizations territory, Boko Haram remains a major threat which has continued to devastate northeastern Nigeria. The continued attacks have limited Nigeria’s economic development, disrupted community life, destroyed infrastructure, and now pose a threat to the upcoming general elections.

Increased Severity of Attacks

Since November, a wave of renewed attacks has forced over 60,000 Nigerians to flee their homes and marked the highest level of disruption in over two years.  Attacks in recent months by Boko Haram have also become increasingly deadly. On November 18th of last year, Boko Haram infiltrated a military base in Metele of northeast Nigeria. They were able to overpower Nigerian troops, loot valuable military equipment, and allegedly kill over one hundred soldiers- essentially destroying the base.

Earlier this year, Boko Haram attacked the city of Rann in northeast Nigeria after the withdrawal of troops left the town vulnerable to attack. The town had been set up as a shelter area for the millions of individuals displaced in the conflict.  Around 9:00 am on January 28th, a group of Boko Haram fighters arrived to the town of Rann and set fire to the structures of the town in order to kill any displaced individuals still hiding.  According to Amnesty International, the attack killed 60 individuals, making it the deadliest confirmed Boko Haram attack to date.

Satellite image of Rann, Nigeria after the January 28th Boko Haram attacks.  The red coloring shows healthy vegetation, while the dark brown and black coloring shows areas heavily burned from the attack.  Image Source: CNES/Airbus and Amnesty International

Is Military Inadequacy is Causing Vulnerability?

In recent months, Boko Haram has been escalating attacks, building their arsenal, and shifting tactics in order to remain a threat to the Nigerian military.  As Boko Haram’s tactics have shifted away from conventional strategies- including increasingly sophisticated tactics such as the use of drones to track the military’s positions, the adaptation of foreign fighters, hiding within the local population, and the use of guerilla warfare tactics and infrastructural buildings- Nigerian forces have struggled to adequately adapt to new threats.

Nigeria’s defense strategy has left them increasingly vulnerable to attack. While Boko Haram’s attacks have been escalating, security in northern Nigeria has been deteriorating, and troops have been provided with inadequate weaponry and equipment.  Despite Nigeria’s large military defense budget, it appears as though troops have been pulled out of high-risk regions and left without sufficient weapons. Even further, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Sean McClure, the Nigerian military has not been able to adjust to the advancing threat of Boko Haram, and continues to rely on conventional warfare tactics.  Without a change in their military strategy, the Nigerian Army may not be able to defeat Boko Haram in the near future- and with elections soon approaching, many question how the next government can regain control of the country.

The Mosul of Southeast Asia? Countering Extremism in the Philippines

Filipino and American forces shaking hands in September 2017. Image Credit: Cpl. Robert Sweet, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

The recent tension between the Philippines’ security forces and Islamic separatists has exposed the cultural, economic, and military inefficiencies of the central government in countering terrorism. Strengthening cooperation with the United States will help the government tackle these issues more effectively, helping them solve some of the coordination and collective action problems which currently plague their operations. By briefly covering the history of the conflict, stating who the major extremist groups are, and examining how they act, this article shall propose recommendations that can promote further cooperation to counter extremism, encourage more cultural and religious cohesion in civil society, and help break up the revenue-generating activities of terrorist groups in the Philippines.

The church bombing in Jolo on January 27th 2019, which killed twenty people, highlights the recent flare-up in tensions between Catholics and jihadist groups in the Mindanao region. This attack came just days after a referendum of autonomy was held in the area where the majority of citizens voted to approve the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. The referendum was part of a deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – an organisation that has been fighting for independence for decades.

The country has been a victim of these attacks before, all claimed by ISIL and its affiliates. On August 28th, 2018, an improvised explosive device (IED) tore through a festival in Isulan in the same region as the church bombings. On July 31, 2018, a bomb exploded in a van at a security checkpoint on the southern island of Basilan, killing ten and wounding eight. In 2017 a group of pro-Islamic State (IS) jihadists captured and held part of the city of Marawi in the province of Lanao del Sur.

Historically, the security and police forces of the Philippines have failed to deal with extremist groups active in the South Philippines such as Abu Sayyaf/ISIL, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The source of tension dates back to Islamist militancy in the 1970s, while groups such as ISIL relative newcomers to the region. IS, however, has yet to acknowledge the Philippines as an official wilayat, or franchise.

Despite this, dozens of groups in the Philippines claim allegiance to IS. They have even aided the Maute group – an ISIL affiliate – in seizing strategic parts of the city of Marawi on the 23rd May 2017 in a standoff with government security forces- causing 1,100 fighter and civilian deaths and the displacement of 400,000 people. The conflict subsided with the government’s evacuation of residents in the city and the subsequent bombing campaign. The execution of the two main jihadist leaders in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, ended the conflict but also created a hotbed for extremist activities that further destabilized the region. The Filipino military alone is ill-equipped to deal with these types of insurgent groups, facing a lack of capacity, poor coordination, and geographic obstacles in its struggle to fight extremism. Although one hundred US military advisers were on the field, in addition to US and Australian intelligence support, their combined strength was not enough to stop a credible, potent jihadist threat.

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Map displaying the location of Marawi. Image Credit: BBC.

In 2015, the US ended the campaign of Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines, which was formerly the largest counter-terrorism operation in Southeast Asia. Research shows that the presence of US Special Operations Forces (SOF) to train and equip, advise and assist, and contribute to civil/military information operations helped reduce the level of support for terror groups. The presence of US SOFs also improved the tactical and operational efficiency of the Philippines Security Forces. With an average presence of 600 SOF present in the Philippines between 2001-2014, this number has now plummeted by more than half. The latest news reported the US would increase the number of SOFs to 261 in joint military operations with Filipino security forces. In 2019, uncertainty surrounding the American presence in the Middle East also holds implications for the American presence in the Philippines, potentially threatening their battle against internal extremist forces. With planned withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan and an overall laissez-faire approach to US military presence around the world, it is unclear whether the US will maintain or increase cooperation with the Philippines in areas such as counter-terrorism, maritime security, and humanitarian aid.

US presence in the region makes a significant difference. Recommendations to improve counter-terrorism strategies include targeted US involvement in maritime security to prevent IS-affiliated groups such as Abu Sayyaf from carrying out kidnap-for-ransom operations on ships going through the South China Sea. As of 2016, the group has raised around $7 million from kidnapping operations, using this money to finance further extremist activities. Maritime security can prevent these groups from conducting successful kidnappings and have a positive impact by helping the Philippines combat other internal challenges. For this cooperative relationship to operate well, the government must also form stronger partnerships with Malaysia and Indonesia to encourage intelligence sharing and patrolling of sea lanes, which they have already carried out through trilateral patrols. Moreover, strategic partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and Australia can help only with the US acting as a facilitator and leader on this front. Without this guidance, counter-terrorism strategies are much less effective. Careful communication and constructive cooperation might even help in convincing the US to re-establish its Joint Operations Task Force – Philippines to contain a potential rising terror threat.

For the IS, the Siege of Marawi was a propaganda victory which enabled them to extrapolate a local conflict into a larger Muslim-Christian sectarian war. Being able to hold the largest city in the southern region of the Philippines gave the group legitimacy in jihadist circles and enabled the recruitment of more foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia. As a result, this development has lead to fears that the Philippines will become a hub for terrorists fleeing places where ISIL have lost ground, such as Iraq and Syria.

To counter this threat, the Filipino government must not only use military means, but religious and cultural ones as well. Research by DAI published in August 2018 showed how marginalization and discrimination were stronger predictors of violent extremism than poverty, social conflict, or corruption. The government of the Philippines should therefore strengthen its cooperation with civil society groups on the ground and encourage the development of more cohesive communities. The government has already put in place a policy that would include Muslims in the military. This can lead to more support from the local community, especially in the Mindanao region, and help create room for dialogue. Further policies, such as encouraging millenials with influential social media presence to spread the message of peace or strengthening the government’s deradicalisation programme, can go a long way to help bridge the differences within civil society and marginalized religious communities.

Dialogue can also be a constructive tool at the international level. A balanced tone must be struck, and Duterte must abandon the use of nationalist and inflammatory rhetoric against the presence of US troops. Effective diplomacy can encourage the American government to strengthen their relationship with the Philippines through continued humanitarian aid, technical military assistance, and engagement with local government, civil society, and ASEAN through Congressional delegations and non-governmental organisations. Efforts such as the adoption of the Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movements of Moderates in 2015, pushing for a more moderate political environment within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), are steps in the right direction.

The Philippines must also follow up on lessons learned from training with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Anti-Money Laundering Council to closely monitor the economic maneuvers of domestic extremist groups. It is already a member of the Asia Pacific Group (APG) on Money Laundering and is no longer subject to its monitoring process. However, the IS have been funding smaller extremist groups, including the Maute Group, which now engages in looting, kidnapping, and the illegal drug trade to finance their activities. As Duterte’s disastrous war on drugs has shown, it is wise to use means other than military force to combat illegal activities. To combat this problem, the US should not only strengthen trade cooperation with the Philippines, but also play an active role in setting up stable financial architecture in the region to counteract more illicit money-laundering operations, such as those by North Korea.

In order to tackle these extremist elements, the United States must increase its role in maintaining security in the region. Not only will this require action from the government of the US, but also NGOs, charities, private citizens, and Congressional influence are necessary to promote humanitarian aid and cooperation with civil society in the Philippines. Larger military and technical assistance will help promote maritime security and counter-terrorism on the ground. And finally, positioning as an economic power in southeast Asia will help both the US and the Philippines cut terrorist funding whilst at the same time developing a stable architecture and sphere of influence that could repel terrorist activities.

Countering Extremism in the Digital Age

Source: Rand Corporation (2016) 

The Global War on Terror has challenged Western conceptions of warfare. The days of clearly defined winners and losers amongst nation states, as seen in the world wars, are largely in the past.

Tomorrow’s winners and losers will be defined in much more blurred terms as ongoing battles of information and communication seek to win over the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The State Department has acknowledged that for any legitimate success to occur in the fight against terrorism, countering the propaganda of extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS) is critical. While entering the fight in the war of information is a massive step in furthering counterterrorism efforts, the State Department has not yet taken the steps necessary to match the surging campaigns of extremist networks, particularly IS.

The State Department first officially began this type of counterterror operation with the creation of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). The CSCC was active on social media, directly challenging IS profiles with counter-messaging while conducting various media campaigns such as ‘Think Again, Turn Away’.

Conceptually these were reasonable strategic maneuvers that attempted to challenge the cyber prominence of the IS’s media strategy as well as online recruitment efforts. However, what came to be considered tit-for-tat online trolling between low-level jihadists and the United States government likely emboldened and legitimized the IS.

The State Department would go on to restructure the CSCC, creating the Global Engagement Center (GEC), which is also tasked with addressing social media activities of nation states such as Russia. The GEC however is experiencing similar issues in conjunction with reported limited staffing and funding.

The IS media strategy has often been simplified by Westerners in an effort to de-legitimize the IS as a whole. However, this has led to a fundamental separation between our understanding of the IS propaganda campaign and the means by which we counter it. In order to truly combat a propaganda campaign, its purpose, narrative and mission must be understood.

Once these elements are comprehensively understood, a counter-narrative strategy must be implemented rather than a counter-messaging strategy. A successful counter-narrative strategy must address issues to include factors that IS relies on to recruit vulnerable individuals to their ranks: desires for purpose and belonging. A counter-narrative campaign must also be inclusive of the Muslim faith, understand local cultural concerns, and be conducted in a way that does not appear to be dictated by the West.

The CSCC did re-post relevant material from news outlets in the Arabic world in an effort to appear more representative of local cultures, as opposed to speaking purely as an American source. Beyond the limited scope of the CSCC and GEC efforts, several governments now deny terror networks a platform to circulate their propaganda.

This strategy places pressure on social media platforms to promptly delete extremist content and profiles. This strategy does slow the spread of propaganda, but does not provide a counter-narrative to what these groups are using to recruit and draw sympathy.

The State Department’s GEC has implemented one significant upgrade from its predecessor: one of the GEC’s core competency areas, ‘partnerships’, has the GEC develop partnerships with organizations, religious leaders, and community leaders to help engage with those at risk of becoming radicalized or to help those who are already.

One recommendation for a counter-narrative strategy proposes that the narrative must portray the IS as manipulative and as a failure, as opposed to promoting the often-observed idea that the group is tremendously dangerous. Any successful counter-narrative campaigns must be directed towards specific sub-audiences of those vulnerable to radicalization or those radicalized who are vulnerable to being deradicalized.

The IS has been the latest international terror network to capitalize on the ease of using the internet to communicate propaganda. Terror networks have become adept at using the internet to accelerate the radicalization process, share ideals, and develop support networks across the globe, all while remaining largely uncontested by the governments of the world.

The State Department must conduct systematic changes in the near future if there is to be hope for success in this war of ideas.

First, the State Department must see an increase in staffing to properly manage the overwhelming load of work that comes with fighting international terror propaganda on the internet.

Second, incorporating community and religious leaders will be essential to foster an image that this is not a counter-narrative strategy dictated solely by the United States government.

Third, the GEC, in conjunction with these community and religious figures, must jointly develop the counter-narrative strategy.

John Patrick Wilson is a Law Enforcement Professional as well as a Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

Mohammed Hamzah Khan: Case Study of an American Extremist

Mohammed Hamzah Khan, the young man radicalized in the suburbs of Chicago.

Born in the United States to first generation immigrants, Mohammed Hamzah Khan and his siblings were raised about 35 minutes west of Chicago in the middle class suburb of Bolingbrook, Illinois. Considering he was a student at Benedictine University, a well-known Roman Catholic university, it can be understood why it was such a surprise when Khan was arrested by federal authorities at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Khan was detained with his brother (16) and sister (17) at the airport, where they intended to fly to Vienna before taking a bus to Turkey where they would meet with an IS operative who would smuggle them into Syria to join the caliphate. Mohammed was seen by authorities as the influence over his younger (and still juvenile, in the U.S. criminal justice system) siblings. Accordingly, his siblings were released to their parents without charges- but Mohammed remained.

Zarine Khan, Mohammed’s mother, stated that he and his sister were radicalized and preyed upon by IS recruiters on various social media accounts. In preparation for his travel to the caliphate, Khan got a job at a local store and raised sufficient travel funds for both himself and his siblings. It should be noted that Khan bought round trip tickets for the trip in an effort to mask their plans to travel to the caliphate- belying that there was likely some coaching in operational security by an IS operative online. Khan’s lawyer stated that Khan desired to join something bigger than himself, longing for a higher purpose. Khan’s lawyer made a strong argument against a long prison sentence, referencing the U.S. prison system and its record of further radicalizing individuals.

After years of court proceedings, Khan was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, including time already served. Upon his release from prison, he enrolled in the College of DuPage, earning a 4.0 GPA and academic honors- though he remained subject to routine and random searches of his living quarters and electronic devices for at least 20 years after release. In the spring of 2018, Khan was found to have accessed multiple prohibited social media networks and- in clear violation of his parole. The judge tasked with overseeing Khan’s case stated that Khan had demonstrated major steps of rehabilitation, exemplified by his schooling successes, and suggested that the violations were due to a lack of maturity. However, on the day that federal authorities searched his room and discovered his parole violations, they also uncovered an IS flag and documents in Arabic under his bed- the translation of which remains unclear.

In light of this, it is understandable to wonder what could have driven an American citizen to such radicalization. Khan is the child of immigrants, making it possible he felt marginalized as a result. Additionally, Khan is a Muslim of Indian descent- a community which does not necessarily have a large population in the Chicago area, potentially deepening Khan’s marginalization even among the Chicago Muslim community. It is possible that these factors contributed to Khan’s recruitment and radicalization. However, Khan’s schooling also proved that he has above average intelligence and can function without issue in western society.

Notably, Khan had no criminal history prior to his arrest for attempting to provide material support to the IS. There is little information available about Khan’s time in prison, but it is critical to question whether further radicalization occurred during his time in custody. Khan’s attorney mentioned that it could potentially be more dangerous for Khan to have a lengthy prison sentence, due to the extremist ideologies often fostered in prison culture. Within prisons, those prisoners who are radicalized are typically radicalized by other inmates and not by outside motivators. Since Khan was already radicalized, he would have been susceptible to other inmates’ radical influence as well.

Discussion of reform in the United States prison system is beyond the scope of this particular research or case study; however, one reform policy could clearly limit radicalization in this case and others. To counter radicalization within prisons, personnel working in corrections must be diversified. This is particularly true when discussing radicalization amongst the Muslim prison population. The Salafist ideology suggests that the West is at war with Islam, and having a mostly Christian, Caucasian prison staff could increase the “us versus them” mindset amongst prisoners- making more prisoners susceptible to radicalization. Implementing hiring procedures and protocols to ensure that staff more accurately mirror the demographics represented in the prison population at each particular facility could help reduce some types of radicalization. This policy implementation would take a significant amount of time, but could be impactful in decades to come.

Ultimately, Mohammed’s case is an unusual one, but it is not entirely isolated. With the rise of IS recruiting online and through increasingly global networks, the United States must prepare for more cases like Mohammed’s- and implementing prison reform could be a key first step.

Psyops: A New Frontier in Counterterror?

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An American soldier spreads free newspapers to the people of Baghdad as part of a mission in psychological operations. Image credit: Department of Defense.

“Capture their minds, and their hearts and souls will follow”.

This slogan, popular among psyops experts, clearly exemplifies the main implications and targets of psychological operations in war.

The term “psyops” refers to strategic operations aiming to evoke emotional reactions in other people. Daniel Lerner, Social Scientist and Military Intelligence Officer in World War II, identified three levels of psychological operations:

  • White Propaganda: characterized by gentle methods of persuasion. The information given is truthful and not strongly biased. Sources are cited. At this level, the most powerful techniques are narratives, framing, omissions and emphasis.
  • Grey Propaganda: the source of information is ambiguous or non-disclosed, but the messages cannot be proven false. Information shows a clear bias, and a combination of omissions and selective emphasis is used.
  • Black Propaganda: achieves its objectives by means of falsifications. Its purpose is to create confusion and deceive its audience about the origins of information. This strategy has proven to be the least effective and durable in the long term.

Today, psychological operations play a key role in counterterrorism programs. If properly used, strategic communication can help induce a shift in human behaviors and attitudes- potentially making psyops a kep weapon in the fight against terrorism.

According to current approaches and approved studies, in the war against terrorism psychological planned activities are expected to act on at least four areas, with the purpose of:

  • inhibiting people from joining terrorist groups;
  • producing dissent within groups;
  • facilitating exit from groups;
  • reducing support for groups and their leaders.

Before being able to change human emotions, every counterterrorism strategy must first understand what causes them. For this reason, it is of primary importance to investigate the variables that motivate people to join extremist groups before we can engage in successful psyops.

Messages spread by jihadist extremists clearly label their enemies as disbelievers and invaders. These strong and dangerous beliefs are a powerful means of promoting extremist ideology, and must be countered with our own narratives. In order to be effective, these counter-narratives should be able to reverse the effects of jihadi propaganda by promoting a positive image of democratic societies and values. Psyops can be used to introduce potential radicals to more positive images of secular society.

Peace-building is an extremely complex and delicate task, one which requires the intervention of several forces and involves a wide range of actors coming from different cultural backgrounds. Even so, we must not give up hope. The stakes are high: if we are successful, the reward will be more freedom, respect and peace for all of global society.