Iraq in Rubble after ISIL

At the beginning of 2019, the size of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been reduced greatly by a coalition including the United States. Unfortunately, people return home to discover their towns in rubble.

The fight has been going on for over four and a half years yet ISIL has been forced to retreat to a small area in Eastern Syria called Marashida. At the height of ISIL’s power, they had controlled 10 million people.

This contributed to the massive refugee crisis out of Syria and Iraq.

Buildings are destroyed, streets are gone, and there are few public services  There are only bullet holes, twisted shrapnel, and dust. Yet despite their difficulties, the Iraqi government nor any other Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) is supporting them.

There are no hospitals either, or any sort of aid. They have no other choice but to rebuild alone. Civilians are exhausted from movement, fear, and the thought of uncertainty.

They just want a place they can have a healthy and safe life.

Yet some are worried because of President Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Syria. He claims that ISIL is destroyed yet that is incorrect.

The villagers are worried that ISIL will return to oppress them once the United States leaves. This will not only create havoc for the population, but ISIL could start to recruit again, thus growing in numbers and territory.

American military leaders do not know when they should withdraw from Syria, even though the president has made announcements about.  This uncertainty creates instability all over the world. Russia is going to involve themselves more in Syria, NATO is unsure on how to react.

President Trump might not follow through with this move. If he does pull out, it would be best if NATO and other European Union (EU) countries stepped in to make sure that the terrorists are defeated and that human rights and peace are achieved at the end of the conflict.

Having Russia being the only other party involved in Syria would be dangerous for the global order and regional order in the Middle East. It is against US and EU interests and would be detrimental on the process of having freedoms in the Middle East post-conflict.

The returning of refugees and civilians back to their hometowns in Syria have been dramatic due to the destruction of their schools, hospitals, and homes.

Many are hopeful for the future but struggle to rebuild because they are alone on this venture.  The uncertainty created by the US for proposing a pull out of military forces in Syria create worries for the people living there and that this will create the growth and spread of ISIL again.

It is imperative to have the EU and NATO to maintain strong even if the US pulls out to be a voice of freedom and human rights.



Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

Plans for Still-Radicalized Members of the Islamic State

A man surrenders outside Baghouz. Image Credit: Al-Jazeera.

            Near-victory has been declared over the remnants of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria. However, some fighting still remains, and the implications of continued conflict are beginning to be explored. Waves of often-reluctant Islamic State members coming to surrender exacerbate the daunting job that those participating in the fight against extremist ideologies are facing. As recently as last week, 3,000 suspected fighters and active Islamic State members have surrendered, overloading those tasked with analyzing the future threat these individuals pose. This writing intends to promote a conversation about the dilemma of those ‘hardcore’ believers in the Islamic State, examining how or if they can assimilate to Western society.

            Since December, roughly 60,000 people have fled from the area around Baghouz, Syria, the last populated stronghold of the crumbling caliphate. These individuals have been captured or placed into displaced persons camps. Estimates suggest that around 10% of these people are believed to be Islamic State fighters, with many others being family members of current or former fighters. Through various Islamic State propaganda outlets, as well as debriefing reports from people who have previously fled Islamic State-controlled territory, it is known that there has been a strong effort to indoctrinate children into the ideology spread by the group. For this reason, the children of Islamic State members should receive increased attention in the deradicalization process.

            The Islamic State has continued its propaganda campaign, which was once a driving factor behind the groups rapid expansion, from within Baghouz. In one video, a man going by the kunya of Abu Abdel Adheem states that “it is said that we have lost – but God’s judging standard is different”. In another, a man going by Abu Abd al-Azeem, is quoted as stating “Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in Hell”. This is hardly the language of repentant individuals or individuals, making it unlikely that they will be susceptible to many deradicalization programs.

            It is unclear how many foreign fighters of Western origin remain in Baghouz, but those that are there should be considered some of the most adherent followers to the group. Many existing deradicalization programs are targeted towards individuals who are psychologically open to leaving an ideology. Those individuals still clinging to the last remnants of the caliphate in Syria, and those who have reluctantly surrendered, do not generally fit into this profile. Numerous Westerners, including Americans, have been captured recently and are considered suspected members of the Islamic State. It is important to distinguish between individuals who were indeed captured and those who willingly surrendered due to a change in ideology and not due to the caliphate being on the losing side of the conflict. Those who have surrendered of their free will are likely good candidates for deradicalization programs. Those who have surrendered but remain loyal to the vision of the Islamic State represent a real problem for all Western nations.

Further complicating the situation, there are Westerners still engaged in the fighting. Zulfi Hoxha, an American who goes by the kunya of Abu Hamza al-Amriki, has risen through the ranks of the Islamic State and is now believed to be a Senior Commander. There have been no public declarations of his death or whereabouts. How exactly do we plan to deradicalize Hoxha? Is deradicalization even a possibility?

            Those Islamic State members still operating in Iraq and Syria have been displaced from their once-vast caliphate. Some have given up on the vision, but it appears that many still place their loyalty in the future of the proto-state. Numerous officials from the United States have suggested that they do not believe that there are any senior Islamic State members, including caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Baghouz. The unknown location of these leaders represents the continued threat that the group will once again reform down the road, with lessons learned. Until then, it is imperative that we decide what to do with those who have left.


John Patrick Wilson is a Law Enforcement Professional and Research Fellow at Rise to Peace

Who are Warren Christopher Clark and Zaid Abed al-Hamid?

Warren Christopher Clark (left) and Zaid Abed  al-Hamid (right) in SDF Custody.

In January 2019, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured a group of men who they state were seeking to launch attacks against civilians fleeing the small pockets of territory still under Islamic State control. The group consisted of men from around the globe, including Pakistan, Ireland, and the United States. Warren Christopher Clark and Zaid Abed al-Hamid, two of the men captured by SDF forces, were named and identified as American citizens by their captors on social media based on forms of identification on their persons. Clark, who goes by the kunya of Abu Mohammad al-Ameriki, has since been positively identified as an American from Texas. Al-Hamid, who now goes by Abu Zaid al-Ameriki, has a much less clear background.

Clark’s background has been explored and significant insight has been gained from Clark himself in videotaped interviews he participated in while in SDF custody. Clark is a former substitute teacher from the Houston metropolitan area. It is believed that Clark is 34 years of age. It has been confirmed that he graduated from University of Houston, where he majored in political science and minored in global business. After several years of being a substitute teacher, Clark began to watch videos of the Islamic State online. Curious, Clark was able to make contact with an Islamic State representative, sending them a resume and cover letter explaining his desire to teach English to children in the caliphate. Clark states that he is a convert to Islam, though it is unclear when he converted. After traveling to Syria via Turkey, Clark states that he never picked up arms for the caliphate. In interviews after he was captured, Clark stated that he did not regret joining the group, and even justified beheadings conducted by the group, comparing them to executions in the United States criminal justice system.

While questions remain about al-Hamid and his background, it is known that he is originally from Trinidad, where he was detained in 2011 for plotting to kill their prime minister. Beyond this, al-Hamid was featured in numerous Islamic State propaganda videos where he discusses converting to Islam and the struggles he faced practicing his religion there. Rumors have circulated that al-Hamid is a dual-US citizen. This has not been confirmed, but his use of al-Ameriki in his kunya suggests some background in the United States. When al-Hamid made his journey to the caliphate, he brought along his wife and multiple children. It is unclear if they are still alive.

Clark, who has been transferred to US custody and brought back to Texas, has since been indicted and charged with providing material support to the Islamic State. The indictment covers a period from 2011, when he first drew the attention of federal law enforcement officials for online activities pertaining to jihadists social media entities.

Early investigation into both Clark and al-Hamid has not resulted in substantial findings in terms of potential solutions for further countering violent extremist ideology. Both Clark and al-Hamid were converts to Islam. In both of their lives, it appears that there was or may have been a feeling of marginalization within society. Clark, despite having a formal education, could not find a full-time position teaching. Al-Hamid, in Islamic State propaganda videos, stated that he struggled practicing his faith in Trinidad and felt like an outsider. Both men appeared to have been at least partially influenced by online extremist sites.

The lessons learned thus far in both Clark and al-Hamid’s cases is limited. However, perceived or real marginalization appears to be an underlying factor in both cases respectfully. Time will dictate policy recommendations to prevent radicalization, but one cannot ignore the continuous appearance of marginalization in case studies of those who have become radicalized towards extremist ideologies.

The Caliphate’s Returnees? From the Refugee Camps of Syria to bin Laden’s Grave

From 2003 to May 2011, I was a prominent Jihadi propagandist, the head of a New York City based organization that set the tone, template, and methodology for radicalization and online recruitment in the West.  It was the era of al-Qaeda, not ISIS. However, as the controversy continues over whether Hoda Muthana, the 24-year-old Yemeni-American who joined the so-called Islamic State and now sits in a refugee camp in North-Eastern Syria, should be returned to the United States, it seems to me that we ought to reflect on a bigger picture. We need to consider that in the Hoda Muthana situation, the true victor will be neither Donald Trump nor Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi; instead we should remember the ghost of Osama bin Laden, whose long-term strategy lives on.

Ms. Muthana was twenty years old in 2014, when she left her Alabama home and made her way to ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate.  As the terror group’s territorial control spread from Eastern Syria to Northern Iraq, a terrain the size of Britain, its propaganda became all the more powerful.  Osama bin Laden once claimed that “everyone follows the strong horse,” and at least two hundred and fifty Americans heeded ISIS’ call.

When she first arrived in Syria, Ms. Muthana tweeted a photo of her American passport. She wrote, “Bonfire soon; no need for this!” On Memorial Day in 2015, she called for attacks in New York City.  Now, like most who have survived the collapse of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, she claims that she is “deeply sorry” and wants to return. Yet, the Trump administration contends that her status as a citizen no longer applies.

Like other Western governments, it appears the Trump administration will attempt to deny the rights of those lingering in the refugee camps and prisons of northeastern Syria that should be afforded under international law.  Were I still a propagandist, such a circumstance would have given me fodder for weeks. Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib were all cornerstones of our propaganda machine. ISIS targets Western civilians simply because they are non-Muslim, at least that is what an article in their English-language magazine suggested in 2015.  

I penned the lead article of the first English-language jihadi magazine in 2007. We were fighting the West, in part, because of the unequal application of the rule of law. This made it quite easy to claim that the ‘war on terror’ is actually a ‘war on Islam’. This narrative plants the seed that sprouted and went viral when Syria’s civil war became a front of bin Laden’s global insurgency.  As he described it, “the freedom and democracy that you call for is for yourself.”

The controversy surrounding Ms. Muthana’s return also highlights the danger of sustained height and domestic polarization, two prongs of bin Laden’s strategic plan.  In a 2004 speech directed at the American public, bin Laden explained, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations…” Does the weeklong controversy that a few women jihadis can stimulate not prove that this remains the case, that, while serious, the threat remains overblown?  The only difference is that it is no longer about waging war and wasting resources abroad, but about whether spending money to bring those that traveled abroad to join the terrorists may one day lead them to wage war on us at home. These are not indicators associated with success.

Also alarming is the polarizing nature of the debate.  The Trump Administration’s position largely has to do with a need to appeal to an anti-Islamic base. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, twenty-five percent of conservatives had unfavorable views of Muslims.  Today, most polling holds that rate at around sixty percent. Anti-Muslim sentiment serves a key-prong of the growing anti-establishment, right-wing sentiment that is sweeping throughout Western nations. In response, the mosqued American-Muslim community has allied with the Democratic Party.  Many left-leaning legislators have supported Ms. Muthana’s return. Nevertheless, around twenty-five percent of Democrats now hold unfavorable views of Muslims, more than conservatives on 9/11. A 2016 poll conducted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that fifteen percent of Democrats thought Islam should be illegal.  All of this conjoins with bin Laden’s plan of inducing collapse from within.

For certain, bin Laden would not have supported ISIS.  Before he died, the godfather of global jihad had already distanced al-Qaeda from their Iraqi offshoots.  And by 2014, the so-called Islamic State was brandishing supporters of al-Qaeda as apostates. In turn, al-Qaeda ideologues warned ISIS that controlling territory would prove impossible.  They had already done so, unsuccessfully, in places like Somalia, Yemen, and Mali. They also warned against ISIS’ excessive zeal and wanton violence. Now, however, in the event that Ms. Muthana and others are not returned to their countries of origin, their expressions of regret will not prove a means of rejecting the notion of an Islamic State modeled on 7th Century norms.  Instead, they may serve as a means of rejuvenating al-Qaeda, proving their criticism of ISIS correct.  Already, pro-al-Qaeda Jihadi groups in Syria, numbering in the tens of thousands are running deradicalization camps for ISIS survivors and defectors.  These jihadists would be all too happy “liberate” women like Ms. Muthana, their children, and men from the refugee camps and prisons of northeastern Syria.  We might recall that ISIS itself was resurrected by way of a prison break at Camp Bucca in 2013.

These considerations are largely missing from the sensationalist debates.  In a similar scenario last week, a British woman, Shamina Begun, set off a jointed firestorm in the United Kingdom when she also asked for return from the same refugee camp.  In an interview, she defended her actions, but said she had not made propaganda, claiming, “I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left.” It is a common narrative. Last year, the story of a Canadian man, Abu Huzaifa, served as the focal points of a popular New York Times podcast produced by the intrepid reporter Rukmini Callimachi.  Hazaifa had returned to Canada after joining ISIS and admitted to carrying out executions in Syria.  Canada went into a frenzy when the government determined that they did not have enough evidence to charge him criminally.  To make matters worse, it seemed that he was not remorseful. Interviewing for that podcast, I described the three fundamental beliefs jihadi propagandists used in recruitment.  It was clear that Abu Huzaifa still held them, but I emphasized the need for patience. Deradicalization is a process, not an event. Often times, it is not unlike the ups and downs of recovery from addiction.  Soon thereafter the controversy subsided and most moved on to the next episode. Now, however, Abu Huzaifa is doing well and an intervention program has helped him turn things around. He is deradicalizing, denouncing some of the core beliefs of jihadism in general, and is re-identifying with the value of Western norms.  I remain hopeful that he will one day become a voice not unlike my own.

The world has changed a great deal since I was arrested outside a mosque in Casablanca in May of 2011.  Just days after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and weeks before my colleagues Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both American citizens, were killed in a drone strike in Yemen.  Many then proclaimed the beginning of the end on the war of terror. Yet today, almost eight years later, the landscape looks like perpetual war. At home, America is torn into two black-and-white political camps.  Polarization abounds. Nearly eighteen-years after September 11, 2001, we’re waging a war on violent extremism, at home and abroad.

Internationally, we are losing the ability to project liberal values.  We have become an object of resentment, particularly in the Middle East.  Overwhelming numbers of Arab youth now prefer the stability of authoritarianism to democracy.  More Sunnis in Iraq support ISIS-style sharia law than the governance of the Iraqi state. This, of course, is music to the ears of Bashar Al-Assad, Syria, Iran, Russia and China.  A new era of great-power rivalry has returned. Bin Laden’s war of attrition and policy of “bleeding to bankruptcy” does not seem an impossible feat. In fact, Osama’s son Hamza, the godfather’s prince, looks poised to wage his father’s jihad far into the future.

Yet, it is not too late.  To snatch victory from the jaws of unrecognized defeat, it is time to recognize that it is no longer merely about who the Islamic terrorists are, but about who we are, as well.  It is time we stop letting terrorists take us away from the principles that built the liberal world order. To start this transition, we should bring Ms. Muthana, her child, and others like them home.

Jesse Morton is a former extremist and founder of the Parallel Network.

Terror’s New Form

Source: The East African (2014)

Author: Caleb Septoff

Perhaps one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history is the invention of the internet, which landmarked the beginning of the digital age in the modern era. Its uses span multiple fields and in large part is responsible for the high levels of rapid globalization we have become accustomed to today. Although it has improved humanity in many facets, it has also led to the increase in the susceptibility of nations’ and individuals to cyber-attacks. The internet has evolved over the last decade with the inception of social media and cyber currency, but with this evolution comes a new wave of terrorism in the form of cyber-attacks, propaganda, hacking, and online recruitment. The threat has grown substantially – enough for even university institutions, namely New York University (NYU), to offer cyber security majors and courses solely to deter these types of attacks.

Before venturing into the subject of digital terrorism, it is important to explore something less widely known to the average internet user; this being the deep web and dark net. The internet is composed of two main points of access; the surface web and the dark web. The surface web is most common to everyday users and comprises mainly of search engines, like Google and Bing, and the information found is unrestricted. Comparatively, the deep web differs mainly in size, estimated at four to five hundred times bigger than the surface web, accounting for 90% of the internet. In comparison to the surface web, the wealth of information stored on the deep web is gigantic. Most of the deep web is restricted by applications, which grant access to databases or password protected sites. Anything from social media, such as Facebook or Instagram, to online banking are considered part of the deep web. In addition to its size, the dark web differs  in its accessibility. Despite popular beliefs, the deep web and dark net are not synonymous. Rather, the dark net exists hidden below the surface web. The dark net is almost entirely unregulated and is even harder to access than the deep web. To date, the dark net hosts an unknown number of websites, but the content ranges from people sending messages who wish to maintain anonymity to underground drug dealing, sex trafficking, weapons dealing, and the focus of this article, terrorists and extremists’ sites.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh, was the first terrorist organization to truly maximize their outreach using the internet. When Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate, a wave of propaganda and recruitment media took social media by storm. While destructive, authorities and the companies themselves were able to mitigate much of the content since it took place on the more accessible surface web. However, the organization consistently found new ways to respond to authorities’ crackdowns. First, they began attracting people through social media and other corners of the surface web and then slowly moved them towards more difficult protected places like domains and chat rooms on the dark net. In addition, the use of messaging applications that offered heavy encryption, like Telegram, were core ways for them to communicate. The use of these cyber tools aided in attracting over 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 10 different countries to flock to Syria to fight on ISIL’s behalf, and even more followers aided the organization from remote positions around the globe. In early 2018, New York Times’ reporter, Rukimini Callimachi, released a podcast by the name of “Caliphate.” The podcast goes into detail about one Canadian man’s experience of being recruited through multiple steps, starting on social media and eventually moving into private chat rooms. Callimachi’s reporting highlights how effective ISIL’s extensive reach was, not only technologically, but by simply creating effective connections with people, especially the youth.

Thus far, terrorists’ groups have not been able to do much more than the defacement of webpages and execution of minor cases of hacking. For example, a series of attacks in 2015, all claiming ties to Daesh, were executed in various countries. Most notably, a self-titled group called Cyber Caliphate managed to hack Malaysia Airlines’ main website, deface the French TV5 broadcast station, and hack the US military Central Command’s YouTube and Twitter accounts. Technology is continuously growing and it gets more sophisticated every year. As greater attention turns to digital recruitment and terrorism, these “small” attacks will grow larger in scope and harm. The possibility of cutting electric to hospitals or inciting mass riots through the spread of false media is very real and dangerous. The need to find adequate responses to the rising dangers of cyber terrorism is crucial to the future of counter terrorism. Perhaps most conspicuously, the important question becomes how to best be proactive in thwarting attacks and rather than simply being reactive.

The international community has a plethora of different third-party watch dogs when it comes to war and terrorism, whether they come in the form of global entities like the United Nations (UN) or International Non-Profit Organizations (INGO). In addition, a multitude of international treaties and agreements exist to set standards for war and outline what is not acceptable. The Geneva Convention, one of the most important and widely known, is comprised of four treaties and three protocols that establish standards for humanitarian rights and treatment during times of war. Yet, something these organizations don’t cover adequately is how to respond to cyber warfare and digital terrorism. One of the greatest challenges in dealing with these online threats is attribution, or ascribing blame to those who have committed the crime and proving it. According to a RAND Corporation video on the subject, they identify three main types of attribution: political (dealing with diplomatic knowledge and political actors’ objectives), technical (IP addresses, log file analysis, etc.), and clandestine (classified information and political insights).

Categorizing makes it easier to decide how to interpret the crime and, thus, how to assign punishment. However, it is not simple to prove digital crimes without access to data that, for the most part, is private, anonymous and not easily tracked. Citizens’ right to privacy and the level of privacy that is entitled has become a topic of high contention in the debate for higher cyber security. Although these are difficult issues to deal with, the international community needs to step up and begin to take action before cyber warfare reaches a level with much higher stakes. Like the UN, there needs to be a large international organization that can specialize in cyber security and cyber terrorism. It would require the nonexistence of any political affiliation to be effective and act on behalf of any country that requires its services to increase its credibility. Perhaps, most important, would be its role in providing international laws on cyber warfare and attacks to clearly and concisely build a foundation or framework for security agencies to work from. It would also be responsible for developing the mechanisms for freedom of expression and privacy; although this would most likely fall to the specific countries rather than the independent watch dog organization.

Social media platforms have done relatively well at combing through their users and content to locate possible terrorist activities, but this is not enough. Further action needs to be taken regarding regulation. Systems need to be devised to adequately monitor both the surface web content and the deep and dark web to locate, deter and respond to these threats before they can implement harm to critical infrastructures, governments, businesses, and even the psyches of viewers. Creating measures to regulate data and prevent data mining for terrorist activities is crucial to preventing the attacks in the future. There is no easy answer to the rising threat of cyber terrorism and warfare, but it’s imperative that solutions and international cooperation begins sooner than later.