This week we discuss tracking jihadis with Aymenn al-Tamimi and Russia's Syria intervention with Alexey Khlebnikov.

Related Topics:

Tracking Mideast Jihadis
An interview with Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi - The Inner Workings of ISIS

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum where he focuses on violent non-state Islamic and Middle East groups. He is a specialist on the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, and the Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS). Originally from Mosul, Iraq, al-Tamimi has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, including YPG-controlled areas of Syria, where he observed the graduation of units of the Syrian Border Security Force in January 2018. // @ajaltamimi  
Regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on ISIS, al-Tamimi has conducted in-depth analyses of the terror group’s documents to ascertain its internal system.  He has established a variety of online contacts through his knowledge of social media, and his compilation of thousands of archived documents has been instrumental in authenticating sources for news outlets and tracking the jihadi group’s activities.

Although he observed that the Islamic State project has collapsed with its loss of territory, the organization itself will likely be around for some time.  Its central leadership is based in Syria and Iraq, and it has reappeared as terror cells in northern Iraq. Although it also relies on such affiliates as Sinai, Libya, and Nigeria, which it calls “distant provinces of the Islamic State,” it is unclear whether “ISIS Central” wields full control over them.

ISIS’s virtual caliphate influences lone wolves and known wolves in the West in several ways. One way is directing operations through encrypted chat on virtual online meetings. Another is ordering operatives who come from ISIS Central to launch European attacks as part of its strategy of striking coalition states fighting ISIS.  In the long-term, when the threat posed by ISIS is compared to that of al-Qaeda, ISIS has been able to inspire extremists in a way al-Qaeda has not.

Europe, with its large-scale refugee flow and migration, has been vulnerable to jihadi attacks from ISIS operatives in specific locales who exploit the open-land borders of the Schengen Area by escaping to another country. ISIS has successfully infiltrated the migration flow in part because the fear of well-intentioned people being labeled bigots impedes the implementation of greater control mechanisms. The lack of resources and cooperation between countries in monitoring suspects has magnified the problem and requires greater investment.

The migration of Syrian refugees into Europe has created a noticeable difference in the character of cities in Germany, Italy, and France. Inoculation of migrant populations vulnerable to jihadi influence can be aided by improving cooperation between Muslim community leaders and law enforcement.  In the long run, Western governments can only do so much to change the mindset of the Muslim populations migrating to their countries. 

Muslims will have to integrate into European society and eschew the culturally autonomous “no-go zones” that are not conducive to Western liberal democracies and are anathema to their values.  Ultimately, the responsibility for overcoming the phenomenon of violent jihadism will have to come from within the Muslim world itself.

Russia’s Syria Intervention                                              
Gregg Roman debates Alexey Khlebnikov - Russia’s Regional Goals

Alexey Khlebnikov is an international relations analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council and an expert on the Middle East. He previously worked as a consultant to various think tanks and institutions in the U.S., Middle East, and Russia. He has a Master’s degree in Global Public Policy from the University of Minnesota and is currently a Ph.D. candidate, for which he has made several research trips to Syria, Israel, Egypt and Hungary. // @AleksKhlebnikov 
Moscow’s entry into the Syrian civil war, ostensibly to stabilize the Assad regime and prevent the country’s institutions from sliding into chaos, belies the fact that Russia has aligned itself with a dictator who ethnically cleansed millions of Syrians. Seven years ago, Syrian street protests were met with machine-gun fire, rocks were met with tanks, and a civil war that ultimately escalated into genocide was unleashed by Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s complicity in Assad’s actions ignored the devastating damage inflicted by the regime. Moscow prioritized its political and economic considerations to secure its regional interests, eschewing any ethical culpability.

To strengthen its presence in the region, Russia’s military intervention in the civil war enabled it to increase the size of its Latakia airbase and reconstruct its Tartus naval facility. However, it was not without a cost to Russian families who lost servicemen in Syria. Claiming parity with other countries who already had bases in the region, e.g., the U.S., France, the U.K., and Turkey, Moscow has expanded its footprint to include military police units acting as buffers between Hezbollah and Iran in the Golan Heights. These units enforce the demilitarized zone from the 1973 armistice agreement with Israel, and Turkish and Russian military police units are now stationed in a dozen bases in the Idlib province.

In a post-conflict Syria, is there any price the international community will demand of Russia for the last three years of its Syrian intervention, or will Moscow proceed to monetize its presence there as it shifts its military campaign to one undergirding a political process? Moscow is solidifying its strategic advantage as it transitions to Syria’s reconstruction phase. In light of Russia’s extended military presence, now covering more than two thirds of Syrian territory, and its continued support for Assad, a ruler who has participated in war crimes will international donors pledge monies to rebuild Syria ? Moscow has positioned itself as a beneficiary of the conflict with Russian President Putin the sole arbiter of reconstruction, supplying labor, technology, and equipment.

In the overarching fight against terror, the Trump administration and President Putin have staged joint attacks in Syria to degrade and destroy ISIS cells. Given that 5,000 citizens of Russia and the former Soviet republics joined the ranks of ISIS in Syria, fighting the terrorists abroad rather than on Russian soil suited Moscow’s security interests. But as the conflict drags on, Moscow pursues government contracts while Washington has limited its goals in Syria to eradicate ISIS in southern and northern Syria so that the country can recover from the trauma of civil war. Moscow’s goal of securing its regional interests at any moral cost emboldens Iran, Turkey, and other actors who will further destabilize the region and carve out their own specific interest areas in Syria’s ruin.

Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Communications Coordinator for the Middle East Forum