Showing posts with label Counter Insurgency. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Counter Insurgency. Show all posts

24 April 2017

Why the UK Will Lose the Information War Against Terrorism

by Abigail Watson

If the government continues to refuse comment on most of its counterterrorism activity abroad it will struggle to win what is increasingly a war of narratives and the strategic use of (dis)information.

Terrorist groups around the world are increasingly placing as much emphasis on winning wars of words as they are battles on the ground. In fact, WIRED recently described ISIS as being “as much a media conglomerate as [a] fighting force.” It has revolutionised the dissemination of its radicalising material, shunning the secret and password-encrypted caution of predecessors such as Al-Qaeda, in favour of open-source social media posts and high-quality footage that is instantly accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

In contrast, the UK and its allies appear to be faltering in 21st century responses. In September 2015, the UK launched the “Counter-Daesh Communications Cell” and has, like the US, created a counter-Daesh twitter page to better communicate its policies in the conflict against ISIS. The US and partners have also met in attempts to establish “a messaging coalition, to complement what’s going on the ground.” The evidence, however, suggests that these efforts are not working.

A leaked internal assessment by the US State Department admitted to poor progress, concluding “the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively trumped the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.” Charlie Winter and Jordan Bach-Lombardo recently concluded in The Atlantic: “As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum.” 

23 April 2017



At approximately 2:40 in the afternoon of March 22nd, British-born Khalid Masood — a violent criminal who had previously been investigated by MI5 for links to extremists — deliberately drove into pedestrians making their way across Westminster Bridge. He killed a mother on her way to collect her children from school, a pensioner, and two tourists. After crashing the rented vehicle into the gates of Parliament, Masood ran into New Palace Yard and stabbed an unarmed policeman to death before being shot and killed by plainclothes officers. In contrast to other recent attacks in Western nations, which have frequently (sometimes incorrectly) been labeled acts of “lone-actor” terrorism, Masood’s assault was followed by a volley of articles with titles such as “Remote-Control Terror,” “Don’t Bet on London Attacker Being a Lone Wolf,” and “The Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist.” Analysts were keen to point out that “lone-actors” are very rarely truly alone and that instead they tend to emerge from within broader, extremist milieus. Moreover, what sometimes seems like lone-actor terrorism at first glance turns out to be connected to, if not directed by, foreign terrorist organizations. Yet the official word on Masood is that, regardless of his associations, he acted “wholly alone.” To accurately understand the nature of terrorism today, patient, measured analysis and consistent use of terminology are necessary. It is therefore important to re-examine the concept of lone-actor terrorism and to try and appreciate where it fits within the overall spectrum of jihadist terrorist activity in the West.

19 April 2017

The Two Faces of Terror: Why the West Loses

By G Murphy Donovan

G Murphy Donovan isn’t impressed. As far as he’s concerned, the fight against Islamic terrorism has two faces today – public relations and “strategic hokum.” Yes, chest-thumping political rhetoric, do-nothing conferences, and faux coalitions continue to substitute for coherent strategy. A truly viable approach, however, needs to accept an uncomfortable truth – the ultimate problem the West faces is a virulent form of religious imperialism.

This article was originally published by the Small Wars Journal on 9 April 2017.

“Our values (sic) will prevail, never giving in to terror,”

The fight against Islamic terror has two faces today, public relations and strategic hokum. The recent meeting of the ministers of the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS in Washington illustrates these phenomena. Whilst the foreign ministers of “68 nations” were wining, dining, and thumping their chests inside the Beltway, another soldier of Islam successfully struck the British parliament in London. Whatever the purpose of the Washington soiree, it was undone in London by a single Muslim martyr with better motivation and better credentials than any infidel foreign minister. Indeed, the slaughter on Westminster Bridge, enjoyed global press coverage above the fold for a week.

Targeted Killing: A New Departure for British Defence and Security Policy?

By Abigail Watson

The precipitating event is pretty clear: On 21 August 2015, Reyaad Khan – a UK citizen fighting for ISIS – was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a British drone. The strike, which occurred months before the UK parliament formally OK’d the use of military force in Syria, subsequently led to prolonged debates about the legal basis for targeting one’s own citizens outside of a warzone, parliamentary oversight and government transparency. As Abigail Watson describes here, these debates haven’t been resolved.

This article was originally published by the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Control Project on 28 March 2017.


On 21st August 2015, Reyaad Khan – a UK citizen fighting for ISIS – was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a UK drone1 in an operation possibly supported by UK Special Forces.2 This strike occured months before parliamentary approval of the use of military force in Syria, which was not given until December that year, and seemed to mark the first time the UK had undertaken a lethal strike that was outside of a war the UK was militarily involved in.

The then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced the strike as a “new departure”3 for British defence and security policy to a surprised Parliament, who were keen to understand both how the strike had occurred when they had voted against UK military engagement in Syria in August 2013 (and once again in September 2014 when they approved the use of force in Iraq but explicitly refused to extend operations to Syria)4, and on what basis the government had approved the use of lethal force against one of its own citizens abroad.

Unfortunately, the statements that followed from Cameron, the Permanent Representative to the UN (Matthew Rycroft) and the Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon) were both “confused and confusing”5, making it hard to assess how “new” or how controversial this strike was. For example, Cameron claimed that the strike was the first time that “a British asset has been used to conduct a strike in a country where we are not involved in a war,”6 and was taken in self-defence.7 This would be hugely significant, as it would mean that the UK has joined the US in conducting targeted strikes against terrorist threats in areas where it is not at war – raising important questions about where you draw the line on when states can and cannot use lethal force. However, Rycroft’s, statement to the UN also justified the strike on the basis of the collective defence of Iraq.8

18 April 2017

Are Small Wars Just Big Wars That Are Smaller?: Why Our Conventional Wisdom About Small Wars Leaves Us Learning Little

By Grant M. Martin

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

Are Small Wars Just Big Wars That Are Smaller?: Why Our Conventional Wisdom About Small Wars Leaves Us Learning Little

Supposedly there are some lessons we should have learned in the recent small wars within Afghanistan and Iraq. The conventional wisdom is that these lessons are mostly different in degree from “big” wars, that small wars are not fundamentally different from big wars. I assert, however, that small wars are different from big wars in kind, and therefore the lessons we learn must likewise be different in a very fundamental way. Instead of taking our usual big war conceptual construct of “tactical, operational, and strategic” levels of war, I propose instead that during small wars military personnel are involved in three activities: tactical actions, theoretical attempts to make the tactical actions meaningful, and policy prioritization. Before I offer a defense of this concept, I will investigate the terms “tactical” and “operational,” prior to offering a theory and logic for small wars that will differentiate them from big wars.

Tactical and Operational Lessons Learned

"Small wars are operations undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory for the preservation of life and of such interests as are determined by the foreign policy of our Nation."[i]

17 April 2017

Learning From The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

By Paige Ziegler

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were a highly successful terrorist organization who were famous for successfully forming a fully functional military. Their fight for separation from the Sri Lankan government lasted a quarter century, and parallels can be drawn between the Sri Lankan conflict and the current situation in the Middle East (and elsewhere). With civilian casualties reaching staggering numbers and negotiations leading nowhere, Sri Lanka had elected a new government and, with it, a new approach. By leveraging popular support, utilizing external countries to manage the conflict, and employing strategic military measures, the new Sri Lankan government recovered its country. Duplicating similar political actions and military maneuvers as those that proved successful for the Sri Lankan government may usher in peace for the Middle East.


LTTE leaders training at Sirumalai camp in India in 1984. (Wikimedia)

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are an ethnic secessionist terrorist organization stemming from Sri Lanka. Following the Sri Lankan liberation from Britain in 1945, two predominant ethnicities emerged, the Sinhalese and the Tamil, who made up approximately 74% and 18% of the population, respectively.[1] The two ethnic populations lived in relative peace for almost a quarter century following their separation from Britain. However, a slowly growing unequal distribution of power left the Tamils politically and socially isolated. As a result, tensions between the two ethnicities rose, and the Tamil sought separation.[2] To make separation a reality, Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the LTTE in 1976. The organization desired to establish a separate state, called Tamil Eelam. The framework of the organization was both hierarchical and pyramidal, made up of a two-tier structure that included military and political elements. It was hierarchical in the sense that Prabhakaran was the chief, but pyramidal in the sense that there were leaders of sub-groups and multiple centers of powers amongst those groups. The Central Governing Committee, headed by Prabhakaran, oversaw both the political and military dimension while empowering subordinates to achieve intelligence, political, and military success.[3] This distribution of power set the LTTE up for a favorable outcome.

CTC Sentinel | Volume 10, Issue 3 (March 2017)

Published by Combating Terrorism Center


In our feature article, Seamus Hughes and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens focus on the threat to the United States from the Islamic State’s “virtual entrepreneurs” who have been using social media and encryption applications to recruit and correspond with sympathizers in the West, encouraging and directing them to engage in terrorist activity. They find that since 2014, contact with a virtual entrepreneur has been a feature of eight terrorist plots in the United States, involving 13 individuals.

In our other cover article, Ahmet Yayla, the former police counterterrorism chief in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa near the Syrian border, outlines how investigations into the New Year’s Eve Reina nightclub attack in Istanbul have made clear the “immense scale of the Islamic State threat to Turkey.” While the attack, remotely steered by Islamic State operatives in Raqqa, was the work of a single gunman, a 50-strong network in Istanbul with access to at least half a million dollars provided logistical support. With the Islamic State declaring all-out war on Turkey, Turkish counterterrorism capacity severely weakened by recent purges, as many as 2,000 Islamic State fighters already on Turkish soil, and the possibility that Islamic State fighters will flood into Turkey as the caliphate crumbles, Yayla warns of severe implications for international security.

16 April 2017

*** Counter-terrorism Pitfalls: What the U.S. Fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda Should Avoid

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Executive Summary

In pledging to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. President Donald J. Trump looks set to make counter-terrorism a centrepiece of his foreign policy. His administration’s determination against groups that plot to kill Americans is understandable, but it should be careful when fighting jihadists not to play into their hands. The risks include angering local populations whose support is critical, picking untimely or counter-productive fights and neglecting the vital role diplomacy and foreign aid must play in national security policy. Most importantly, aggressive counter-terrorism operations should not inadvertently fuel other conflicts and deepen the disorder that both ISIS and al-Qaeda exploit.

Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State

Executive Summary

The Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda-linked groups, Boko Haram and other extremist movements are protagonists in today’s deadliest crises, complicating efforts to end them. They have exploited wars, state collapse and geopolitical upheaval in the Middle East, gained new footholds in Africa and pose an evolving threat elsewhere. Reversing their gains requires avoiding the mistakes that enabled their rise. This means distinguishing between groups with different goals; using force more judiciously; ousting militants only with a viable plan for what comes next; and looking to open lines of communication, even with hardliners. Vital, too, is to de-escalate the crises they feed off and prevent others erupting, by nudging leaders toward dialogue, inclusion and reform and reacting sensibly to terrorist attacks. Most important is that action against “violent extremism” not distract from or deepen graver threats, notably escalating major- and regional-power rivalries.

The reach of “jihadists” (a term Crisis Group uses reluctantly but that groups this report covers self-identify with; a fuller explanation for its use is on page 2) has expanded dramatically over the past few years. Some movements are now powerful insurgent forces, controlling territory, supplanting the state and ruling with a calibrated mix of coercion and co-option. Little suggests they can be defeated by military means alone. Yet, they espouse, to varying degrees, goals incompatible with the nation-state system, rejected by most people in areas affected and hard to accommodate in negotiated settlements. Most appear resilient, able to adapt to shifting dynamics. The geography of crisis today means similar groups will blight many of tomorrow’s wars.

14 April 2017

Can Military Might Alone Defeat al-Shabaab?

By Mustafa Bananay

Developing a “security pact” to tackle insurgent jihadists al-Shabaab, who continue to stifle state-building efforts, is one of the key agenda items at the upcoming high-level conference on Somalia scheduled for May this year in London. This complex challenge first depends on identifying what makes al-Shabaab such a resilient movement. Despite some success on the battlefield, this is an understanding that has largely escaped Somalia’s various security forces—and their international supporters—until now.

Donors such as the United Kingdom, European Union, and United States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Somalia’s security services, including 1.8 billion euros pledged in September 2013 as part of the “New Deal Compact.” Yet al-Shabaab remains a potent force throughout most of the country. The London conference thus presents an opportunity to develop security architecture—and associated justice mechanisms—more in line with previous political progress in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab continues to demonstrate sophisticated organizational planning and execution of attacks. While the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali army have made significant military gains in liberating areas previously under the group’s control, this has brought little overall stability. This is largely because systems of governance and delivery of basic services to citizens have often failed to follow military operations. In addition, the retaking of major towns by AMISOM and government forces often leaves swaths of rural areas in the hands of al-Shabaab, which in turn shifts strategy to attacking main supply routes, rendering towns isolated. At the same time, the federal government has yet to establish a broad, predictable, and consistent policy framework of governance that appeals to communities.

Lessons from Insurgent Warfare

By Octavian Manea

SWJ discussion with Seth G. Jones, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, as well as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His latest book is Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State, published by Oxford University Press, November 2016.

We tend to identify historical COIN principles that are applicable over time. But let’s ask the question from the perspective of the other side, the insurgent. What is old and new in concerning insurgent warfare? What are the continuities, the unchanged guiding principles of insurgency?

One issue that has been consistent across time is the range of strategies available to insurgents. In particular, insurgents have three main options. One was made famous by Mao: the use of guerilla warfare. Guerilla campaigns involve the use of ambushes, raids, and targeted assassinations. Their goal is not to defeat an opposing army or a government in battle, but to undermine the political will of the government. An essential pillar of guerrilla warfare is the political apparatus, which is important to mobilize the population. A second is a conventional strategy, which involves taking governments on in set-piece battles and defeating government forces on the battlefield. Third, some insurgent groups have used a punishment strategy, which involves targeting the civilian population. We do see insurgents at various points target non-combatants in specific villages or regions, often because they assess that these populations are supporting the government in various ways. Over time, insurgent groups have used some combination of guerilla warfare, conventional warfare, and punishment during a campaign. These are some of the tried and generally well-used strategy options available to insurgent groups.

Sweden’s Wisdom on Terrorism


Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of Sweden paying his respects to those killed in the terrorist attack in Stockholm last week. CreditOdd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Each terrorist attack tests anew the values of openness and tolerance essential to free societies. Stockholm became the scene of another such attack on Friday when a barreling truck was turned, yet again, into a deadly weapon. This time four were killed and 15 were injured.

Though details are still being investigated, the attacker was apparently an Uzbek man who had been denied asylum and ordered to leave Sweden. This will no doubt add grist to the arguments of those — the autocrat Viktor Orban, the French right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen — who conflate terrorists with immigrants in search of a better life and refugees fleeing deadly conflict.

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13 April 2017

Terrorism in Russia


On Monday, the subway system of St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city, was the site of a massive bomb blast that killed 14 commuters and wounded more than 50 others. (A second, unexploded device was subsequently found and defused by authorities.) The attack marked the most significant terrorist incident to hit the Russian Federation since December of 2013, when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the main train station of the southern Russian city of Volgograd ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi.

But it is also much more. Monday’s bombing is the latest sign of Russia’s worsening terrorism problem, as well as a portent of things to come.


Most directly, Monday’s attack in St. Petersburg can be viewed as blowback from Russia’s ongoing intervention in Syria. Since September 2015, the Kremlin has become a major player in Syria’s grinding civil war, establishing a significant—and open-ended—military presence in the country in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

Russia’s involvement has paid concrete strategic dividends, making it possible for Russia to reinforce its historic naval base at Tartus, establish a new air base in Latakia, and forward deploy an expanded naval force in the eastern Mediterranean, among other gains. But it has also made Moscow the target of Islamist ire, with both the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, pledging to retaliate in Russia.

12 April 2017

** 9 questions to ask after a terrorist attack

Daniel L. Byman

The confusion following a terrorist attack often exacerbates the fear, and sorting fact from fiction is difficult as the media races to uncover details and social media explodes with speculation. In the hope of mitigating some of this confusion in the future, Dan Byman offers nine questions to ask after a terrorist attack. This piece originally appeared on Lawfare.

With perhaps ten or more dead in St. Petersburg in what looks like a terrorist attack on a metro station there, the questions are starting to mount. Is it really terrorism, or was there some other reason for the violence? If it is terrorism, who did the attack, and why this target? Is this an isolated event, or the beginning of a large campaign? These and other questions make the list long, but the queries after each attack are also familiar: Americans asked similar questions after attacks in Orlando and San Bernadino, and Europeans after violence in Paris, Berlin, and London.

Horror and confusion mark the hours and days after a terrorist attack. At such a time, little can, or frankly should, be done to minimize the horror and associated outrage. The resulting confusion, however, often exacerbates the fear, and sorting fact from fiction is difficult as the media race to uncover details following an attack and social media explodes with speculation. When a sniper killed five police officers at a peaceful rally protesting police violence, authorities initially feared there were multiple attackers. Some jihadist plots initially labeled “Lone Wolf” attacks in fact involved links to an array of Islamic State figures, while in others the Islamic State role was at first exaggerated. Initial media reports form a lasting impression that is hard to shake and has a long-term impact on public attitudes and public policy. Years after the 9/11 attacks, people would still ask me about reports of al-Qaida financing itself by selling blood diamonds from Africa or the wave of follow-on attacks it planned—even though the 9/11 Commission and other investigations gave definitive accounts that discredited these initial reports.

10 April 2017

How Russia Became the Jihadists’ No. 1 Target


It’s still too soon to say who is responsible for the bombing on Monday of the subway in St. Petersburg, Russia—but it wouldn’t be surprising if international terrorists were responsible. Russia is fast replacing the United States as the No. 1 enemy of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups motivated by violent and puritanical Salafist ideology.

This shift is rooted in recent Russian actions in the Middle East—including its escalating intervention in Syria and its moves toward intervention in Libya with the recent deployment of special forces to an air base in Egypt—that have drawn the ire of militant Sunnis worldwide and elevated Russia as the jihadists’ top target. And if the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria collapses and foreign fighters, an estimated 2,400 of whom are from Russia, attempt to return home and fix their sights on the Kremlin, the situation could dramatically worsen for Moscow.

Terrorist groups have made their changing priorities clear. In an ISIS video titled “Soon Very Soon Blood Will Spill Like an Ocean,” an ISIS fighter threatens Russian leader Vladimir Putin directly, citing the country’s intervention in Syria and its growing alliance with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah as proof that Moscow is the chief proponent of a growing Shiite axis throughout the Middle East. Forty other Syrian rebel groups have concurred, pointedly saying that “any occupation force to our beloved country is a legitimate target.”

Tripura: Residual Friction

Giriraj Bhattacharjee

In their “eviction notice” sent on January 2, 2017, to media, the Biswamohan Debbarma faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-BM), along with Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK), set March 31, 2017, as their deadline for Bengalis and Hindi speakers to quit Tripura, parts of Assam and West Bengal. The notice declared, “We strongly oppose heinous killings by Indian Army and rehabilitation programme for Bangladeshi Bengalis…. We hereby would like to notify Indian citizens (Bengali and Hindi speaking people) to quit Kamatapur (consisting parts of Assam and West Bengal), Karbi-Longri (Karbi Anglong Hill District in Assam), and Tripura.” The notice was signed by KLO ‘chairman’ Jiban Singh Koch, NLFT-BM ‘organising secretary’ Sengphul Borok and PDCK ‘chairman’ J.K. Lijang. The trio is reported to be associated with the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESEA), a consortium of Northeast militant groups mentored by the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) and the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I).

These threats notwithstanding, Tripura (along with Mizoram) remained the most peaceful State in the entire Northeastern region of India, in terms of insurgency-related fatalities. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), there were no such fatalities in 2016, a trend largely consistent since 2013; though 2014 was an exception with four fatalities [two civilians and two Security Force (SF) personnel]. At peak, 514 such fatalities were recorded in 2000, including 453 civilians, 16 SF personnel and 45 militants. The Northeast region as a whole registered 160 fatalities, including 61 civilians, 17 SF personals and 82 militants, in 2016.

Why You Can’t Shoot Terrorists With Lasers, Yet

By Patrick Tucker

The coalition airstrike that recently killed more than 100 civilians in Mosul underscores a familiar challenge of dense, urban warfare: how can the military more precisely hit targets from the air? Lasers represent the apogee of precision and the Pentagon has several ongoing programs that will reach readiness in the coming years. The head of Air Force Special Operations Command recently said that lasers should absolutely be “part of the discussion” about how to hit terrorists — but so should the significant legal and practical obstacles that remain.

The military already uses low-power lasers to guide its weapons, from missiles to small arms. But recent advances in solid-state fiber lasers have renewed Pentagon interest in high-energy weapons that might do the damage by themselves, firing from everything from trucks to experimental helicopter drones

When commanders and military leaders talk about how they will use such lasers, they are careful to describe them as primarily defensive, useful for disabling enemy drones, missiles and even vehicles. Yet there is also considerable discussion about how, when, and why they might be used against enemy troops as well.

What I Learned from Reading the Islamic State’s Propaganda Instruction Manual

By Charlie Winter 

Editor’s Note: The Islamic State has long issued a steady torrent of sophisticated propaganda to demonize its enemies, inspire its followers, and advance its cause in general. How does the Islamic State think about its own propaganda efforts? Through serious sleuthing and impressive analysis, Charlie Winter of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has unearthed the Islamic State’s media guide for its own operatives and explains to us its three-pronged strategy.

Two years ago, the Islamic State published a video about its propaganda operations. The 12-minute clip, which was produced by its Wilayat Salahuddin Media Office, celebrated strategic communication in a manner that was unprecedented. It framed offensive and defensive “information jihad” as an aspect of the Islamic State’s warfare that was easily as important as any of the material battles it was waging at the time.

The video wasn’t just interesting because of its hyperbolic exaltation of propaganda—there was something else, too. Right at its outset, a young man—one of the Islamic State’s media officials—was shown casting his eyes over a pocket-sized booklet titled Media Operative, You Are a Mujahid, Too. It was the self-proclaimed caliphate’s field guide for information warfare, a document that I’d heard rumours about, but never actually seen. After this video finally confirmed its existence, I spent months trawling through encrypted chatrooms and password-protected forums looking for it, but to no avail. Until, that is, 2016, when its second edition finally appeared on of the Islamic State channels I monitor on Telegram.

9 April 2017

US-Pakistan Counterterrorism Needs a New Focus

By Ahmad Majidyar

While the U.S. and Pakistani counterterrorism efforts have degraded al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), sectarian violence across the country continues unabated and threatens to further destabilize Pakistan and the broader region.

On March 31, in the latest episode of attacks against Pakistan’s Shia minority, at least 22 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a bomb blast that apparently targeted a Shia women’s mosque in Parachinar, the capital of FATA’s Kurram Agency bordering Afghanistan. The Jammat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a branch of the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed credit for the carnage. Parachinar’s majority Shia population has repeatedly been targeted by sectarian Punjabi outfits as well as Taliban militants that use the city as a corridor to enter Afghanistan. In January, another attack in the area – claimed by the TTP and a faction of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) – killed and injured more than 100, mainly Shia Muslims.

Sectarian strife is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. While the Sunni-Shia divide was negligible during the first three decades of Pakistan’s existence (1947-77), the 1979 revolution in Iran and the Islamization policies of Pakistani military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) radicalized Pakistani Sunnis and Shias alike and set the stage for ceaseless sectarian violence in the country throughout the 1980s and 1990s. After the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, there was a lull in sectarian attacks in Pakistan, as then-President Pervez Musharraf banned most Sunni and Shia militant and sectarian groups. But Musharraf’s crackdown proved to be more a tactical gesture to impress Washington than a genuine effort to clamp down on terrorism and sectarianism at home; his government soon released most of the 2,000 militants associated with banned terrorist and sectarian outfits.

The Counterterrorism Yearbook 2017: The United States

By Colin P. Clarke

In November 2016, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was set to authorise the use of military force to include broader authorities to strike al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group operating throughout the Horn of Africa. This change in legislation demonstrates just how protean the threat posed by violent non-state actors remains more than 15 years after the attacks of 9/11.

For the United States countering terrorism saw both progress and setbacks in 2016. Barack Obama acknowledged as much in a speech in December when he asserted that, while the US has made great strides against both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), terrorism would remain a threat to the US for the foreseeable future. Terrorism continues to pose a range of challenges for the US across the globe.

Middle East: Throughout 2016, US CT policy grew more assertive in combating IS. Working with elements of the Iraqi military and Kurdish Peshmerga, the US has led a multinational coalition to retake critical territory from the group in both Iraq and Syria. The current operation to retake Mosul is perhaps the centrepiece of this policy, alongside the forthcoming operation to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, IS’s headquarters in Syria.