Middle East

SYRIA’S OVERLOOKED MENACE?

SYRIA’S OVERLOOKED MENACE?

The Islamic State (IS) continues to dominate Western media discourse regarding the Syrian conflict, and it remains true that they are the most dominant, and deadly, extremist force in much of the north and east of the country. However, the incessant focus on IS has overshadowed the threat posed to local and regional stability by other militant groups involved in the war in Syria. These include Jabhat al Nusra (JaN), which is one of the most successful, well-trained and well-equipped of the myriad rebel groups that have sprung up during the conflict. JaN is arguably the primary Sunni armed movement in a number of key Syrian regions, including the north-western Idlib province, the mountainous Qalamoun area along the frontier with Lebanon, and the Quneitra/Deraa zone to the immediate east of the Golan. While sharing an almost identical and uncompromising extremist ideology with the IS (although with an arguably more limited focus), JaN is a very different animal, as it combines an ability to adjust its activities to local realities and power structures, with an willingness to work with others. This brief analysis will seek to outline the group’s genesis and growth, and to identify what it is that makes JaN so dangerous, particularly, its pragmatism and its efforts to remain receptive to other Syrian rebel organisations, on occasion even with its dire enemies. First, it is worth examining just how the extremist movement evolved out of the maelstrom of the Iraq war to become such a major player in Syria.

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FOREIGN FIGHTER TERROR THREATS TO THE WEST: SOME LIGHT FROM THE PAST

FOREIGN FIGHTER TERROR THREATS TO THE WEST: SOME LIGHT FROM THE PAST

On 16 November 2014, a recording which presents itself as the latest execution video produced by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group surfaced on the Internet. As well as showing what appears to be the murder of a number of captives in graphic detail, the video also contains a direct threat to many of its viewers. In his London accent, the host tells the camera that “the Islamic State will soon, like your puppet David Cameron said, begin to slaughter your people in your streets”. During the video, the masked executioner gesticulates with a knife clutched in his hand, the fresh blood on its blade emphasising the apparent sincerity of the threat he makes. These latest words from the man beneath the black cloth mark a noteworthy new entry in a debate which has been taking place for some years.

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LEND ME YOUR EARS: THE POWER OF ISLAMIC STATE PROPAGANDA

LEND ME YOUR EARS: THE POWER OF ISLAMIC STATE PROPAGANDA

The Islamic State (IS) has made headlines for many reasons – its ability to seize and control territory, its brutal tactics, its rapid expansion that has even brought it near the borders of states such as Turkey and Jordan. However, one of the fundamental factors that has allowed the IS to make such gains has been its ability to recruit foreign fighters from around the world. Recent US intelligence reportedly suggests that as many as 15,000 individuals from around the world have enlisted to fight with the IS in Iraq and Syria. Central to the recruitment of these individuals has been the Islamic State’s technologically-savvy and advanced use of a wide variety of media tools, including social networking sites, recruitment videos and the creation of its own glossy magazine and media centre. The IS is certainly not the first radical Islamist organisation to employ such tactics – Hezbollah is particularly known for its impressive command of media propaganda – however, the IS seems to have the most sophisticated command of such media tools compared to any other widely-recognised terrorist organisation.

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STATE SANCTIONED SECTARIANISM: THE RISE OF SHI’ITE MILITIAS IN BAGHDAD

STATE SANCTIONED SECTARIANISM: THE RISE OF SHI’ITE MILITIAS IN BAGHDAD

As the body count continues to rise in Baghdad, the troubled security situation is causing great concern that the darkest days of sectarian mayhem – as witnessed throughout 2006 and 2007 – have returned. Shi’ite militias appear to be responsible for much of the bloodshed in the city, and are largely operating with impunity, employing many of the same tactics as the terrorist group that they are ostensibly fighting. These militias, which are strongly backed by Iran, have become one of the main fighting forces of the Baghdad Government, and are now believed to consist of well over 100,000 troops. Despite having played a key role in the campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the resurgence of the Shi’ite paramilitary forces is having a severe and negative impact on the stability of Iraq, particularly on its capital city.

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POLITICS OR PROFIT? THE EVOLUTION OF KIDNAPPING IN SYRIA

POLITICS OR PROFIT? THE EVOLUTION OF KIDNAPPING IN SYRIA

Recent events, most notably the execution of four Western captives by the Islamic State (IS), have focused attention onto the issue of kidnappings carried out by militant organisations in the Middle East. Although extremist groups have long exploited hostage-taking for political, diplomatic or financial gain, it is today an even more effective tactic, due in part to the fact that public audiences are becoming increasingly inured to violence. Horrific events that would previously have garnered world-wide headlines – such as suicide bombings – now often pass largely unnoticed, and fail to elicit the commentary that they once did. Kidnappings remain sensationalist in nature and thus bypass this dynamic by allowing the victim and their story to be personalised, with the uncertainty over their fate creating the suspense necessary for a long-lasting and wide-reaching story, especially if the victim is a foreign national. In addition, kidnapping has also become more profitable for militant movements than ever before, with several sources suggesting that al Qaeda and its direct affiliates alone have taken in at least US$125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which US$66 million was paid just last year, which is a troubling indication of the growing nature of this problem.

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AN EVOLUTION IN SINAI-BASED MILITANCY?

AN EVOLUTION IN SINAI-BASED MILITANCY?

As events in the wider Middle East gather pace – particularly the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq – they have overshadowed (and some would say trivialised) many other more localised threats. One of these threats is that represented by the Egyptian militant group Ansar Beyt al Maqdis (ABM). The Sinai-based extremist movement has been targeted by a massive security crackdown over the past year, but has proven that not only does it have the ability to continue its “traditional” attacks against the security forces, but has also proven its willingness to adopt new strategies. This shift in tactics is believed to have come about partly as a result of increased collaboration between it and other prominent militant organisations, such as the IS. 

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