US Counter-terrorism Strategies

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The administration’s counter-terrorism strategy doesn’t stop with ISIS. Earlier this year the military dealt a severe blow to al Qaeda and the Taliban when it was confirmed that a U.S. airstrike killed al Qaeda leader Hazrat Abbas in the Afghan province of Nangarhar. Abbas served as a senior commander for al Qaeda and the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. His forces were responsible for numerous attacks and kidnappings on both sides of the border.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) explained why Abbas’ death is such a heavy blow to al Qaeda. Read about the CEO of FDD, Mark Dubowitz.

Abbas is what the US military refers to as a “dual-hatted” jihadist commander. The NATO Resolute Support identified connections between al Qaeda, the Taliban, and a host of other terror organizations operating in the region. NATO command concluded that Abbas’ integration of multiple organizations highlights the relationships between terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

Beyond the battlefield, the principal counter-terrorism office at the U.S. Treasury Department, The Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI) received $141.8 million in the budget bill signed by President Trump. In addition to counter-terrorism, the budget increase will help the TFI with its operations to oversee U.S. sanctions programs such as those implemented against Iran and North Korea. TFI’s role will become more important than ever now that the Iran Nuclear deal has ended with sanctions reinstated. For more, read Mark Dubowitz’s opinion on the failed deal and how it will affect national security going forward.

This past January the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the Trump administration’s counter-terrorism strategy going forward in Syria in the form of five steps to prevent the return of ISIS: Stabilization initiatives; de-escalating the conflict; counter-terrorism efforts with allies; a political transition in accordance to the U.N. framework; and reducing malicious Iranian influence.

He framed the objectives in the broader context of U.S. counter-terrorism policy, and also described three principal factors that characterize the Syrian situation today: ISIS is not entirely defeated; the Assad led government controls around half of Syria’s territory; and strategic threats to the U.S. do not just come from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Sunni Salafist terrorist groups.

These policies meant stepping up U.S. diplomatic engagement in the Syrian conflict while maintaining a military presence that is focused on preventing ISIS from rebuilding. One goal of this effort is to create the necessary conditions for a political transition away from Bashar al-Assad, and the return of Syrian refugees. Without Assad in power, Iran’s influence will diminish.

The new plan combines many essential lessons learned from past mistakes and attempts to find a middle-ground approach to foreign policy. Secretary Tillerson carefully explained why, “it is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict, and assist the Syrian people as they chart a course to achieve a new political future.”

Since those remarks President Trump has moved quickly against the Islamic State, directing the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop an aggressive plan to defeat the group. Backed by American-led air power, the allied militias have cleared Islamic State fighters near the Iraqi-Syrian border. American warplanes bombed Islamic State bunkers, killed high-level operatives, destroyed significant combat infrastructure as well as disrupted supply routes.

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Hamas – The Real Palestinian Catastrophe

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Palestinian nationalism is at its lowest point ever. According to members of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) the dream of an independent Palestinian state appears increasingly distant.

Divided leadership, with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is largely to blame. Recently Palestinians commemorated their 70th “Catastrophe Day” (referencing the anniversary of the United Nations recognition of Israel). However, the real Palestinian catastrophe was the regression of their cause into dictatorship, corruption, violence, and extremism.

Last week Hamas organized masses of protesters-some armed with pipe bombs and grenades-to storm the border fences. To increase the crowd size, Hamas paid school children and released prisoners. Their stated goal was to protest the illegitimacy of Israel’s borders, but the real reason was to cover for their failure to govern Gaza properly. The region is overwhelmed by poverty, water and electricity shortages, and record high unemployment opportunities for its 1.8 million people. The terrorist organization has shown little interest in governance and instead devotes resources to staging these “protests.” It’s clear all blame for Gaza’s suffering should go to Hamas.

Unfortunately, things are not much better in the rest of the region. On April 30th Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech to the Palestine National Council (PNC), during which he blamed the “social behavior” of Jewish people for the Holocaust. Abbas is known for his history of making anti-semitic comments, but this most recent speech only reaffirms his administration’s lack of willingness to cooperate with the Israeli government. At this gathering, Abbas skipped any voting procedures and re-elected himself by applause. For all other legislative positions, the election depended purely on loyalty to Abbas. Government positions have grown quite competitive in recent years due to the poor conditions of the private sector and many higher up positions seem to go to the highest bidder. The apparent violation of democracy left many Palestinian observers in despair.

Corruption in the West Bank grows day-by-day. Judicial independence is limited. The leaders of civil liberty organizations face jail time for “challenging national unity.” The best-known public Palestinian research organization is on the verge of financial collapse. In 2015 Abbas closed down an NGO founded by former prime minister Salam Fayyad by seizing its funds and closing its bank accounts. Like Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority arrests and detains journalists who criticize its leaders. In one surprisingly blatant example of financial corruption, released documents showed that money was spent on non-existent entities such as salaries to employees of an airline company that no longer exists. The suspected recipients of the paychecks are Abbas loyalists.

The tension in the region couldn’t be higher; the vast array of responses from members of The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran-nuclear deal reflects the GCC’s disunity. It may well be that the window for a sovereign Palestinian state closed in 2008. Certainly, there is no prospect of an early deal with Israel, and in Arab capitals, enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause is on a rapid decline.

A Quick Look at the Hezbollah Terror Group

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Hezbollah was founded in 1989 by a group of Shiite religious leaders. The group was inspired in part by the teachings of Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 revolution in Iran. Hezbollah’s early leadership mobilized Lebanon’s Shiite population to resist Israel and began training hundreds of recruits in Eastern Lebanon.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, but Hezbollah was permitted to keep its weapons. In 1985 Hezbollah issued a public manifesto of its ideology and stated one of its chief goals to be the end of Israel, the liberation of Jerusalem, and the formation of an Islamic state in Lebanon.

Since the end of the civil war, it has become an essential player in Lebanese politics, while depending on its ability to retain support among Lebanon’s Shiite community.

Recent Attacks

Hezbollah has orchestrated countless terrorist attacks since its formation, including the 1983 suicide bombing of the US Embassy (killing more than 300 US personnel), the 1992 attack of the Israeli embassy in Argentina (killing 29), the 1994 London Israeli Embassy attack (injuring 29), and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, killing 19 US citizens.

More recently, the 2006 Lebanon War was a 34-day military conflict in Lebanon and Northern Israel, which started when Hezbollah militants fired anti-tank missiles at two armored Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence. The attack killed three and injured two.

Israel responded with airstrikes and artillery fire on targets in Lebanon, an air and naval blockade, and a ground invasion of Southern Lebanon. The war continued until August 14th, 2006. By the end, Hezbollah had made thousands of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians living in towns in Northern Israel.

Threat Going Forward

Perhaps the most significant threat that Hezbollah poses to US interests lies in its relationship with Iran. Hez­bol­lah answers to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The country has played a vital role in building up Hezbollah’s military capabilities over the years, which enabled the group to fight the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006. I personally follow one of the leading experts on Iran Mark Dubowitz of FDD here. For Iran, Hezbollah’s military strength serves as an essential deterrent to any potential US or Israeli plan to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. If they strike Iran, then Iran could rely on Hezbollah to attack northern Israel.

This threat is more dangerous now than ever before, given the strained relationship between the US and Iran. On May 12th, President Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Iranian nuclear agreement and reinstituting sanctions. Mark Dubowitz from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently spoke more in-depth about the criticisms of the deal. Check out Mark Dubowitz’s website here for more information.

Financing Terror: Follow the Money Trial

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Understanding how terrorist organizations fund them is an essential step in targeting them more effectively. While there are standard trends, it’s vital to look at the specifics of each organization to understand how they finance their activities. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, (FDD), created the Terror Finance Briefing Book to educate policymakers on how terrorist groups fund their operations. FDD — run by Mark Dubowitz —is a nonpartisan, policy institute based on Washington, D.C. Read more about it here, or check out their channel to hear interviews, see news clips, and view other resources run by FDD on YouTube.

ISIL

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is one of the highest funded terrorist organizations in the world. Unlike most terrorist organizations ISIL isn’t reliant on outside income. Instead, they derive the majority of their finances from land-holdings and exploiting resources such as petroleum, taxes levied against the local population, extortion, illegal drug production, and money stolen directly from banks. It’s estimated that in 2016 ISIL had revenue north of $500 million. The year before that, they likely earned between $1 and $2 billion. The majority of the organization’s expenses cover the cost of supplies and salaries for fighters as well as administrative fees. However, as ISIL suffered territory losses and a reduction of revenue, there have been severe cuts to wages. Due to the uncertainty of future earnings, it is likely ISIL will become more dependent on external donors and will increase exploitative practices such as kidnapping for ransom to finance its operations.

Hezbollah

In recent years, U.S. officials have stated that Hezbollah was “in its worst financial shape in decades.” The organization primarily spends its revenue on its fighting forces in Lebanon and Syria, and on the provision of social services in southern Lebanon. These expenses, as well as U.S. sanctions and the ongoing Syrian civil war, have strained its funding. Despite the negative toll on their balance sheets, Hezbollah is likely to stay afloat thanks to external support from Iran, which contributes roughly a billion dollars a year. However, that isn’t their only source of income. Hezbollah has a vast network of illegal businesses around the world and in many ways acts more like a cartel than a terrorist organization. Several countries in South America give the group’s smuggling and trafficking networks safe harbor. Hezbollah has laundered money and run front companies on six continents.

Al-Qaeda’s Branch in Syria – HTS

Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which now calls itself Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), generates tens of millions of dollars per year. The group’s financial strength depends on maintaining its image as a more civilian-friendly, alternative to ISIL. To meet this goal, HTS pays for sharia courts, provides healthcare, free electricity, water, and subsidized food, and has several charitable operations, in addition to paying for soldiers’ salaries and military equipment. The group primarily funds itself through ransom, foreign donations, and the exploitation of resources from the land it controls. In recent years kidnapping has become more crucial after it lost oil fields to ISIL.

ISWA – Boko Haram

The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), also known as Boko Haram, is not as well financed as many of its counterparts, but is buoyed by its mobility and low-cost operations while acting for the most part in a poorly governed territory. The Nigerian military has increased pressure in recent years, but it’s unlikely their effort will stop ISWA. By exploiting vulnerable populations for resources, the group managed to generate a revenue of at least $10 million a year until 2015. They have historically taken advantage of the unpoliced borders to execute raids against villages in order to steal food and livestock, but recently the Nigerian government has stated that their funding has declined, and that they have been struggling to pay their fighters’ salaries. One strength the organization has, making it resistant to restrictions on the banking sector, is their use of the hawala system to move money and accept donations from foreign sources without being tracked.