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  • Author: Raffaello Pantucci, Abdul Basit, Kyler Ong, Nur Aziemah Azman, V. Arianti, Muh Taufiqurrohman
  • Publication Date: 04-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis
  • Institution: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
  • Abstract: The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has redefined almost all spheres of modern life. While states around the world are redeploying their financial resources, energies and military capabilities to cope with the challenge of the coronavirus, terrorist groups across the ideological spectrum have positioned themselves to exploit the gaps created by these policy re-adjustments. Terrorist groups are milking people’s fears amid confusion and uncertainty to promote their extremist propagandas. The rearrangement of global imperatives will push counter-terrorism and extremism down the priority list of the international community. Anticipating these policy changes, existing counter-terrorism frameworks and alliances should be revisited to devise cost-effective and innovative strategies to ensure continuity of the fight against terrorist groups. With these considerations in mind, this special issue of the Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) features four articles that identify and assess important security risks around COVID-19, given its far-reaching social, economic and geopolitical impact. In the first article, Raffaello Pantucci reasons that COVID-19 will have a deep-seated and prolonged impact across government activity, both in terms of the categorisation of risks, as well as the resources available to tackle other issues. Perceptions of risk around terrorist threats may shift, with states grappling with stark economic, social and political challenges. At the same time, security threats continue to evolve, and may even worsen. According to the author, some of the tools developed to deal with the pandemic can potentially be useful in tracking terrorist threats. However, resource constraints will require states, on a global scale, to think far more dynamically about how to adequately buffer much-needed security blankets both within and beyond their borders. In the second article, Abdul Basit outlines the opportunities and potential implications that COVID-19 has created for terrorist groups across the ideological divide. According to the author, terrorist groups have exploited the virus outbreak to spread racial hatred, doomsday and end-of-times narratives. Among jihadist groups, IS has taken a more totalitarian view of the coronavirus pandemic, while Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban have used it as a PR exercise to gain political legitimacy. Far-right groups in the West have spun it to promote native nationalism, border restoration and anti-immigration policies. Terrorist groups have increased their social media propaganda to radicalise and recruit vulnerable individuals. At the same time, these groups have urged their supporters to carry out lone-wolf attacks and use the coronavirus as a bioweapon. In the post-COVID-19 world, revisiting existing counter-terrorism frameworks to devise more adaptable and cost-effective strategies would be needed to continue the fight against terrorism. In the next article, V. Arianti and Muh Taufiqurrohman observe that the COVID-19 outbreak has had a varied impact on Indonesia’s security landscape. On the one hand, it has emboldened IS-affiliated Indonesian militant groups to step up calls for attacks, with the government seen as weakened amidst a worsening domestic health crisis. On the other, ongoing indoctrination and recruitment activities of militant groups have also faced disruptions. According to the authors, counter-terrorism strategies will need to be reoriented as circumstances evolve, particularly in dealing with the arrest of militants and the subsequent processes of their prosecution and incarceration. Finally, Kyler Ong and Nur Aziemah Azman examine the calls to action by far-right extremists and the Islamic State (IS), which reveals varying degrees of organisational coherence in the respective movements. According to the authors, such variations influence these two groups’ preferred techniques, tactics and procedures adopted in seeking to exploit the health crisis. For its part, IS has a more organised hierarchical structure, even if it has increasingly granted autonomy to its affiliates to plan and execute attacks. In comparison, the absence of a central authority, or command structure in the far-right, can lead to a fragmentation of interests. These factors invariably create uncertainties in how, when and where extremists of both ilk may seek to operationalise an attack.
  • Topic: Security, Government, Health, Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, COVID-19
  • Political Geography: South Asia, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Global Focus
  • Author: Rohan Gunaratna, Iftekharul Bashar, Farhan Zahid
  • Publication Date: 06-2017
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis
  • Institution: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
  • Abstract: In 2013, the US announced the end of its Global War on Terror (GWoT) after defeating Al-Qaeda. Two years later, in 2015, at a White House-hosted summit, the Obama administration propounded the concept of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) to confront, contain and eventually eliminate the latent threat of radicalism and extremism. Though CVE is not an entirely new concept, the purpose of the summit was to add more urgency and impetus to the various on-going non-kinetic efforts to counter extremism and its underlying causes. Recently, some media reports have indicated that the Trump administration is toying with the idea of scrapping the CVE project. Others maintain that the US is considering renaming CVE as countering radical Islamic extremism and shifting the focus back to kinetic-efforts. Regardless of the decision, it is clear that components of CVE will have to be retained if the present threat of religious extremism and terrorism is to be checked. These involve community engagement to build social resilience and counter extremism, and rehabilitation and re-integration of radical elements. Keeping this in view, the latest issue of CTTA features the CVE programmes of three Muslim-majority countries, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, focusing on the rationale and main components of their initiatives along with highlighting the achievements and challenges. Overall, the threat landscapes in Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan have some common characteristics that make the comparison worthwhile. First, all three are Muslim-majority countries with religious diversity and heterogeneity. Second, the jihadist landscape in these countries is presently split between Al-Qaeda loyalists and the so-called Islamic State (IS)-affiliates, with the latter having an ideological advantage. Third, in the recent past, these countries have witnessed an unprecedented rise of IS-inspired recruitment from the middle and upper-middle classes in urban areas. Internet and various social media platforms have played an important role in their radicalisation and recruitment. In a way, the battlefield has expanded from real space to cyber space. Or, as Thomas L. Friedman noted in his recent New York Times article, there are two kinds of caliphates – ‘real’ and ‘cyber’. Fourth, all three are grappling with the problem of growing religious conservatism and politicisation of Islam. Compounding the existing problem is the ambivalence of the authorities towards the jihadist threat in Bangladesh and Pakistan, as they have been in denial of the IS threat to their internal stability. CVE in Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan is a work in progress. Short of any major achievements, these programmes, notwithstanding enormous challenges, have shown promise. They have created awareness among these traditional Muslim societies about the threat of religiously-inspired extremist ideologies. Similarly, the indigenous natures of these programmes have bridged the trust gap between the state and society, which is the sine qua non of a successful CVE policy. When a comparison is carried out, some common traits of the CVE programmes in these countries become visible. For instance, all are aimed at balancing the kinetic and non-kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism and extremism or as Rohan Gunaratna puts it, evolving ‘smart’ responses by combining the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ responses. Likewise, in all three countries, CVE efforts are trying to neutralise the social avenues which extremists exploit to recruit people. They are sensitising masses through awareness campaigns against extremist ideologies as well as providing counter-narratives to strengthen the state-society bond. The CVE programmes in these countries however face several challenges. Pakistan and Bangladesh, for example, need to build up political consensus among the diverse political parties and interest groups on countering religious extremism and terrorism. All three countries need to institutionalise various CVE components with clearly-defined mandates, roadmaps and a dedicated professional manpower to manage these programmes. Additionally, a plethora of initiatives undertaken by civil society organisations exists alongside the government measures. There is a need to bring synergy and harmony between them for better results. Another challenge is the dependence of these programmes on donor funding which raises concern about their sustainability and longevity. The four articles in this issue deal with various aspects of the CVE programmes. Rohan Gunaratna sets the tone by discussing the shifting focus of the Trump administration from strategic to tactical and operational counter-terrorism. He argues that preventing radicalisation through community engagement efforts, and rehabilitating and reintegrating those who have been radicalised are critical to counter-terrorism efforts. Muhammad Haziq bin Jani looks at Malaysia’s CVE programmes which pre-dates the U.S. conception of CVE. He highlights Malaysia’s reliance on internal institutions and indigenous CVE policies, and stresses the need to manage trends that undercut its CVE efforts; he argues that counter-narratives and introducing upstream education measures are critical to countering the threat of violent extremism. Farhan Zahid looks at the inadequacies of the CVE programme in Pakistan, arguing that even though the country has been faced with Islamist terrorist groups since 2001, militancy and terrorism continues to pose a dominant threat. The author asserts that functional strategies, which focus on implementation of the existing CVE programme and its continued evolution in light of the changing dynamics is key to Pakistan’s progress against radicalism and extremism. Lastly, Iftekharul Bashar focuses on CVE in Bangladesh, discussing the shortcomings of the programme while the country is confronted with the growing threat of IS. The author advocates the need for a comprehensive national action plan for CVE programme that looks beyond ad-hoc responses, and a dedicated body to coordinate inter-agency response to the problem of violent extremism.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Political stability, Conflict
  • Political Geography: South Asia, Southeast Asia, Global Focus
  • Author: Rohan Gunaratna, Bilveer Singh, Mohammed Sinan Siyech, Patrick Blannin, Farhan Zahid
  • Publication Date: 05-2017
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis
  • Institution: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
  • Abstract: The Islamic State (IS) terrorist group that emerged victorious in Iraq in 2014 has lost its eminence. Presently, it is on the defensive, struggling to retain its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. This contrasts with the situation in 2014 when the group was on the rise. It was expanding territorially, producing shockingly brutal videos with cinematic flare, and proclaiming its revival of the so-called ‘caliphate’ and implementation of Sharia to beguile local and foreign Muslims and fellow jihadists. In recent months, IS has suffered several setbacks, including loss of territory, which is the focal point of its jihadist strategy. The group is also facing diminishing numbers of foreign fighters, depleting finances and high casualties of its commanders and foot-soldiers. Given the above, will IS remain relevant to the global jihadist landscape in future? The answer resides in the international community’s ability to end the conflict in Iraq and Syria and ensure post-conflict political stabilisation. Failure on these two fronts will give IS enough space to recuperate and revive. IS will seek sanctuary among pockets of politically-disgruntled Sunnis, regroup and resort to guerrilla warfare as a military strategy to fight the powerful adversaries. This is not the first time IS – earlier known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – is facing such a challenging situation. In 2006, when ISI leader Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi was killed, it suffered huge setbacks. The group went underground and re-emerged in 2010 by defeating the Sahwa Movement, the Sunni tribal uprisings against the group. ISI exploited the Arab uprisings in 2011, and expanded into Syria to eventually become the IS in June 2014. On the international front, IS’ declining influence and appeal and the vacuum created by its retreat have rendered the leadership of global jihad as a contested domain, once again, opening up the possibility of Al Qaeda’s (AQ) return to the top of the jihadi pyramid and merger between the two old jihadi allies. Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi recently stated that ‘discussions and dialogue’ have been taking place between Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s representatives and AQ chief Ayman Al Zawahiri. Any rapprochement between the two rivals is likely to further complicate the jihadi landscape in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Against this backdrop, the latest issue of CTTA provides a snapshot of jihadist activities in Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Indonesia and the resulting security threat. Strategically, there is a weak correlation between defeating IS-central and its outlying wilayats and enclaves in Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines and elsewhere. Unless each pro-IS entity is defeated physically in its respective area of operations, the fight against the Middle Eastern Salafi jihadist group will remain incomplete. Specifically, if the conditions and root causes that gave birth to IS and its militant affiliates from countries stretching across Nigeria to the Philippines are not addressed, the international community might have to prolong its battle against them or fight new extremist groups in the future. This is why ideological de-legitimisation through robust counter-narratives, conflict stabilisation in Iraq, and finding a viable political solution to the Syrian civil war are central to defeating the jihadist by-products of these conflict-hit areas. In this issue, Rohan Gunaratna discusses the recent high-profile terrorist attacks in Manila and highlights the threat posed by IS East Asia Division in the Philippines. He argues that the recent attacks, unifications of various militant groups under the IS umbrella and the clashes between Filipino security forces and IS-affiliates in Bohol point to IS’s growing influence in the Philippines, and a stark reminder that the group is trying to expand northwards. The article contends that the IS threat is likely to increase in the future, and warns that the creation of an IS nucleus in the Philippines presents not only a domestic but a regional and international threat that needs to be addressed swiftly. In the next article, Bilveer Singh discusses the revival of Al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), in Southeast Asia. The author argues that JI’s present low profile and non-militant approach may change as more hard-line JI leaders and members are released from detention in the coming months and years, and as more well-trained and ideologically-hardened fighters from Iraq and Syria return to Indonesia. Farhan Zahid details the rise of IS in Pakistan since the group’s formation in 2014, and the extent of its activities in all four provinces of the country. IS has managed to increase its clout by forming tactical alliances with like-minded local militant groups. He argues that IS is likely to assert its dominance through local affiliates in urban centers of Pakistan, specifically the Punjab province. Patrick Blannin examines IS multiple sources of funding and some counter-mechanisms deployed by the global anti-IS coalition. The paper analyses how IS exploits the volatile political and security situation across the Middle East and North Africa to generate funding, and exposes the dichotomy between the terrorist group’s religious rhetoric and its criminal enterprises. Lastly, Mohammed Sinan Siyech’s article examines IS footprint in India in the wake of the group’s suspected involvement in the recent bombing of a passenger train in Madhya Pradesh (MP) state. Although IS recruitment and presence in India is not as strong in numbers in comparison to other countries, it remains concerning given various vulnerabilities and fault-lines that exist in the country. Given the current volatile environment triggered by the rise of right-wing Hindu extremism or the Hindutva movement, another terrorist attack could contribute to communal tensions, leading to spate of violence.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Political stability, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Iraq, South Asia, Middle East, North Africa, Syria, Southeast Asia, Global Focus
  • Author: Muhammad Haniff Hassan, Nodirbek Soliev, Mohammed Sinan Siyech, Mohd Mizan bin Mohammad Aslam
  • Publication Date: 04-2017
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis
  • Institution: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
  • Abstract: The Islamic State (IS) terrorist group faces setbacks on several fronts as it continues to come under heavy pressure from the US-led coalition forces, the Russians and Syrians. On the military front in Iraq, it is slowly losing western Mosul while in Syria, its de facto capital Raqqa is being surrounded for the inevitable showdown. On the propaganda front, it is experiencing a decline in the output and quality of its media products, such as videos and publications. It fares no better on the religious front where it remains marginalised within the Islamic world and faces continuous denunciations from mainstream religious leaders for its exploitation and misrepresentation of Islam. It has failed to gain legitimacy and has in fact been branded as un-Islamic, deviant, even heretical. As IS loses its lustre and appeal with the loss of territories and impending collapse of its so-called caliphate, counter-ideology efforts should be intensified to further delegitimise IS’ theology of violence and debunk its misinterpretations of religious texts. IS’ hard-core ideology encompassing violent jihad, suicide bombing, takfirism (excommunication) and hijrah (migration), among others, have to be exposed as unquestionably flawed, transgressing Islamic legal principles and juristic process and methodology. This issue of CTTA features a critical examination of one of the principal tenets of IS’ jihadist ideology – takfirism – by Dr Muhammad Haniff Hassan. His article contrasts IS takfiri doctrine with mainstream Sunni position on the subject, exposing IS’ deceptions and deviations from true Islamic teachings. Despite the evident errors and distortions, IS ideology has gained some traction among the disillusioned and alienated. This issue is examined by Mohd Mizan bin Mohammad Aslam who focuses on the impact of IS ideology on some university students in Malaysia. He explores what causes students to join or sympathise with an extremist group such as IS, and how the government should respond to this phenomenon. Social media platforms and chat applications as well as religious discussion groups are among tools used by IS to cajole and lure students to IS activities. The author proposes the formation of a critical partnership between the government, security officials and parents to curb the radicalisation of students. Mohamed Sinan Siyech in his article analyses the relatively syncretic nature of Salafism in India and stresses the need to distinguish such Salafist groups from those that preach extremism and violence. Established Salafist organisations and non-Salafist groups are facing challenges from the spread of intolerant strands imported from the Middle East and coming through the Internet. He calls for greater attention to be paid to self-radicalised social media-savvy youngsters who are divorced from their community, draw inspiration from IS ideologues online, and take orders from IS operators in Syria and elsewhere. From India the focus shifts to Turkey where in the last one year, it has become the central target of IS’ overseas terrorist campaign; Turkey suffered the largest number of IS attacks outside Iraq and Syria. Nodirbek Soliev argues that Turkey‘s capability to fight terrorism is crucial to contain the growing threat domestically and globally. Major and regional stakeholders should closely work with Ankara to boost the effectiveness of its counterterrorism efforts. In the long term, there is a need for sustained measures by Turkey to disrupt cross-border movement of foreign fighters and to dismantle IS supply and support networks in the country.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Political stability, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Europe, Central Asia, Middle East, East Asia, North Africa, Asia-Pacific, Global Focus
  • Author: Iftekharul Bashar, Remy Mahzam, Marcin Styszynski
  • Publication Date: 02-2017
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis
  • Institution: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
  • Abstract: In the last several weeks, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and its affiliates have demonstrated their continued ability to direct and conduct high-casualty and high-impact attacks in and outside their strongholds in Iraq and Syria. On 10 February, a car bomb struck Baghdad killing 10 people and wounding 33 others. Six days later, a suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine in Sindh (Pakistan) killed over 80 people and injured 250. The latest (8 March) is the attack on a military hospital in central Kabul which killed 49 people and injured over 60. The global terrorism situation remains grim as IS continues to plot more attacks and exploits social media to subvert the alienated and disgruntled to its jihadist cause. On the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, however, IS is on the retreat, pounded by the US-led Coalition as well as Russian and Syrian forces. The Coalition forces are making significant progress in their offensive to retake western Mosul, capturing its airport, military base and main government complex. IS fighters are outnumbered and experts expect western Mosul to fall in coming months. On the Syrian front, IS has lost Palmyra again, after recapturing it in December last year, and is coming under attack in its de facto capital Raqqa. Some 400 US Marines have been sent to assist in the allied operation to retake Raqqa. It would not be long before more comprehensive, co-ordinated and forceful plans are implemented to defeat IS as well as other jihadist groups. With the likely imminent defeat of IS on the battlefronts, it is timely to discuss the global threat landscape in a post-caliphate scenario. Marcin Styszynski, in his article, highlights four factors that will influence the threat trajectory: the strategic withdrawal of IS into smaller Sunni strongholds to carry out operations and attacks, the expansion of threat frontlines by IS’ associated networks and returning fighters, the rise of sectarian and religious tensions, as well as the competition between Al Qaeda and IS. The author concludes by emphasising the need to address the root causes of political conflict and instability if the significant successes of the Coalition forces in the last two years are not to be in vain. This March issue also examines IS jihadist propaganda and information warfare in cyberspace. Remy Mahzam highlights the great emphasis IS places on online propaganda, and the significance of its propaganda magazine Rumiyah (Rome). He looks at IS calls for various forms of attacks to be executed, and attempts to influence specific groups of readers through exploitation of religious texts and powerful emotional and spiritual messaging. He concludes by spelling out what needs to be done to counter IS digital warfare. Iftekharul Bashar looks at the threat in Bangladesh, six months after the Dhaka Café attack and argues that even though the security establishment has weakened IS through hard approaches, the group is far from eliminated. In his view, the current administration needs to adopt a long-term approach to tackle the broader issue of radicalisation and the diverse threat emanating from IS, Al Qaeda and other associated groups in the country.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State, Political stability, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Pakistan, Iraq, South Asia, Middle East, North Africa, Syria, Southeast Asia, Global Focus