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Moscow Terror Attack Showed Growing Reach Of ISIS-K – Could The US Be Next?

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More than 140 people died in the Crocus City Hall assualt in Moscow on March 22, 2023. AFP via Getty Images

A deadly attack in Moscow on March 22, 2024, exposed the vulnerability of the Russian capital to the threat of the Islamic State group and its affiliate ISIS-K. But it also displayed the reach of the network, leading some terror experts to ponder: Could a U.S. city be next?

There has not been a mass casualty assault in the U.S. carried out in the name of the Islamic State group since 2017, when a truck mowed down cyclists and pedestrians on a New York City bikeway, leaving eight dead.

Yet five years after the Islamic State group’s territorial defeat in Baghuz, Syria, had prompted hopes that the terrorist network was in terminal decline, a recent spate of attacks has thrust the group back into the spotlight. On the same day as the Moscow atrocity, an ISIS-K suicide bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan, resulted in the deaths of at least 21 people.

As a terrorism expert and a scholar specializing in radical Islamist militant groups and the geographical scope of their attacks, I believe these incidents underscore the growing threat of ISIS-K both within the region it draws support from and on an international scale.

Amplifying influence

A successful terror attack on a Western capital is certainly something ISIS-K, or Islamic State Khorasan Province, aspires to. The intent behind the group’s activities is to bolster its position among jihadist factions by means of audacious and sophisticated attacks.

A man sits looking at screens with Tome, Madrid and London on.
An image released by pro-Islamic State media outlet Al Battar Foundation reads ‘After Moscow, who is next?’
Al-Battar Foundation

It is a strategy that showcases ISIS-K’s capabilities for spectacular operations, distinguishing it from potential rival groups. But it also enhances ISIS-K’s appeal, attracting both supporters and resources in the shape of funding and fighters.

By establishing a unique identity in a crowded extremist landscape, ISIS-K aims to undercut its competitors’ influence and assert its dominance in the jihadist sphere of the Khorasan region it targets, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and other Central Asian countries.

ISIS-K’s ambition extends beyond territorial control, engaging in a broader contest for ideological supremacy and resource acquisition globally.

An expanding threat

This global reach and ambition are evident in ISIS-K’s recent planned operations.

These include a suicide bombing in Iran in January 2024 and thwarted attacks across Europe, notably the foiled plots in Germany and the Netherlands in July 2023.

And without a doubt, a successful attack in the United States is seen within ISIS-K’s hierarchy as a major goal.

Since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, officials in the Biden administration have repeatedly warned of ISIS-K’s escalating danger to American interests, both at home and abroad.

ISIS-K’s propaganda has persistently framed the U.S. as its principal enemy – a narrative that is fueled by America’s extensive military and economic efforts to dismantle Islamic State operations since 2014.

The United States’ involvement, especially in collaboration with the Taliban — ISIS-K’s primary regional adversary — has placed America firmly in the group’s crosshairs.

Employing tactics refined during the period that the Islamic State group was most active, ISIS-K seeks to inspire lone-wolf attacks and radicalize individuals in the U.S.

The 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 dead, and the 2016 shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that resulted in at least 49 deaths, were both attacks inspired by the Islamic State group.

Targeting major powers

Taking its lead from the Islamic State group, ISIS-K in 2022 publicly condemned America, calling it an enemy of Islam.

Of course, ISIS-K had by then already demonstrated its intention to harm U.S. interests, notably in a 2021 Kabul airport attack in which 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans were killed.

ISIS-K views the U.S. in much the same way as it does Russia: both as a military and an ideological foe.

Russia became a prime target due in part to its partnering with the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria in operations against Islamic State group affiliates. Similarly, Washington has worked with the Taliban in Afghanistan in countering ISIS-K operations.

While it is easier for ISIS-K to penetrate Russian territory, given the country’s geographical proximity to major Islamist recruitment centers, such as Tajikistan, the potential for strikes in the United States remains significant.

In 2023, U.S. authorities investigated a group of Uzbek nationals suspected of entering the country from Mexico with the assistance of traffickers linked to the Islamic State group, underscoring the group’s threat.

The wreckage of a truck under a blue sheet is seen being towed away.
Eight people died in a truck attack in New York City in 2017.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Targeting American interests serve multiple purposes for ISIS-K. By striking against the U.S., ISIS-K not only retaliates against Washington’s counterterrorism efforts but also aims to deter U.S. involvement in regions of interest to ISIS-K.

It also taps into historical grievances against the U.S. and Western interventions in Muslim countries – from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the stationing of U.S. troops in significant Islamic centers in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia.

Countering a persistent threat

In response to the growing threat of Islamic State group affiliates, the United States has adopted a comprehensive strategy combining military, intelligence and law enforcement efforts.

Military operations have targeted ISIS-K leaders and infrastructure in Afghanistan, while security cooperation with regional and international partners such as Uzbekistan continues to monitor and counter the group’s activities.

On the home front, law enforcement and homeland security agencies remain vigilant, working to identify and thwart potential ISIS-K plots.

But as many experts had warned, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 has posed new challenges, inadvertently transforming that country once again into a safe haven and operational base for terrorist groups.

This retreat has also resulted in a significant loss of on-the-ground intelligence amid doubts over the efficacy of relying on the Taliban for counterterrorism operations.

Meanwhile, the Taliban are struggling to prevent or counteract ISIS-K attacks within their own borders.

The successful ISIS-K plots against Iran and Russia also reveal another vulnerability: When a country is distracted or preoccupied with other security concerns or conflicts, it can potentially compromise the effectiveness of its counterterrorism efforts.

Recent years have witnessed a decrease in high-profile attacks by groups like the Islamic State, leading many to conclude that the threat was waning. As a result, global attention — and with it, intelligence and security resources — has shifted toward escalating power rivalries and conflicts across the Pacific, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Yet, this shift risks underestimating the enduring threat terrorist groups pose, laying bare the dangers of complacency.

The Moscow attack emphasizes ISIS-K’s resolve to expand its influence, raising concerns about the potential threat to Western nations, including the United States. Considering ISIS-K’s track record and clear aspirations, it would be naive to dismiss the possibility of an attack on American soil.

The Conversation

Sara Harmouch does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Shadow War No More: Hostilities Between Israel And Iran Have Strayed Into Direct Warfare – Is There Any Going Back?

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Israel’s air defense system intercepted nearly all missiles fired from Iran on April 13, 2024. AP Photo/Tomer Neuberg

For decades, Iran and Israel have been engaged in a “shadow war.”

Falling short of direct military confrontation, this conflict has been characterized by war through other means – through proxies, cyber attacks, economic sanctions and fiery rhetoric.

Events over the last few weeks in the Middle East have, however, changed the nature of this conflict. First, Israel – it is widely presumed – broke diplomatic norms by bombing an Iranian mission in Syria. The operation, in which 12 individuals were killed – including seven officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp Quds Force – ratcheted up the stakes.

It also crossed a new threshold. Never before had that many Quds Force or other Iranian military officials been killed in a single attack by Iran’s adversaries. Almost immediately, rhetoric from leaders in Tehran indicated Iran would respond swiftly and dramatically.

Then, on April 13, 2024, Iran responded by crossing a line it had, to date, not crossed: launching a direct attack on Israeli soil.

Iran’s attack against Israel was also qualitatively and quantitatively different than anything Tehran had directly attempted before. Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said that it consisted of at least 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles and 120 surface-to-surface missiles. The attack was launched from positions in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In physical terms, the barrage caused little damage. Hagari said that 99% of the projectiles sent by Iran were intercepted by air and missile defenses, and that only one person was injured. For now, it appears that Tehran is content with its own response; the Iranian Mission to the United Nations posted a message on social media following the attack indicating that the operation had concluded.

But as an expert on national security and the Middle East, I believe the Iranian attack was not about inflicting physical damage on Israel. It was more about Iran attempting to restore deterrence with Israel following the Damascus incident and showing strength to its domestic audience. In so doing, Tehran’s leaders are also conveying the message that should Israel conduct more aggressive actions against Iranian interests, they are willing to escalate.

Friends, then longtime foes

Iran and Israel have been adversaries virtually since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the Shah of Iran fled the country to be replaced by a theocracy. New leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini broke the former regime’s ties with Israel and quickly adopted a strident anti-Israel agenda both in words and policy.

In the decades since, Israel and Iran have inflicted harm on the other’s interests in both the physical and virtual worlds. This has included major terrorist attacks backed by Iran against Israeli interests in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, Tehran’s backing of Hezbollah’s grinding insurgency against Israel in southern Lebanon, and the major operational support provided to Hamas that in part enabled the attacks on Oct. 7, 2023.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the killing of senior military officials and scientists related to Iran’s nuclear program in Iran or elsewhere in the region.

The lack of open acknowledgment by Israel of the killings was to create the illusion of plausible deniability and implant doubt about who was actually responsible.

In recent years, Iran has relied heavily on its “axis of resistance” – militant groups in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza that share some of Tehran’s goals, notably in regard to countering Israel and weakening U.S. influence in the region. In the monthslong conflict sparked by the Oct. 7 attack, Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq network have repeatedly attacked Israeli and U.S. interests.

‘A clear message’

So what comes next? A lot will depend on how Israel and the U.S. respond.

Officially, U.S. President Joe Biden has stated that in repelling the Iran missiles and drones, Israel had sent “a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten [its] security.”

But there are reports that Biden has warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Israel should “take the win” and could not rely on the U.S. supporting any offensive operations against Iran.

Men and women sit around a table in a room.
President Joe Biden and his national security team discussing Iran’s attack on April 13, 2024.
Adam Schultz/The White House via AP

A number of factors will determine whether Iran and Israel continue to launch more attacks against each other out in the open, or revert to shadow warfare.

These include how each side reads domestic sentiment. Netanyahu is already facing pressure based on his handling of the war in Gaza and previous domestic concerns regarding attempts to influence the Israeli Supreme Court, among other matters.

Likewise, inside Iran, the United Nations reports that two years after major public protests inside the country based on socio-economic conditions, the regime in Iran continues to ruthlessly suppress dissent.

Apart from domestic considerations, both Iran and Israel will also weigh the risks of more open confrontation against their current operational capabilities. Here, it seems clear that neither Iran nor Israel can decisively win a prolonged military campaign against each other.

Israel’s powerful military certainly has the ability to launch air and missile strikes against Iranian interests in the region, as they have already demonstrated in Syria and Lebanon for many years. And Israel probably could do the same for a short period of time directly into Iran.

But Israel would face major challenges in sustaining a prolonged combined arms campaign in Iran, including the relatively small size of the Israel Defense Forces compared with Iran’s military, and the physical distance between both countries. Israel has openly conducted military exercises for years that seem more focused on simulating air strikes and perhaps special operations raids against a smaller number of targets inside Iran, like nuclear facilities.

Moreover, launching a new front by directly attacking Iran risks diverting Israeli resources away from more immediate threats in Gaza, the West Bank and its northern border with Lebanon.

Of course, Israel has fought and won wars with its regional adversaries in the past.

But the conflicts Israel fought against its Arab neighbors in 1967 and 1973 took place in a different military age and prior to the development of drone warfare, cyber operations and support to Iranian-backed proxies and partners in Israel’s immediate neighborhood.

Wary of further escalation

A similar type of campaign against Iran would be unlike anything Israel has faced. Israel would no doubt find it difficult to achieve its objectives without a high-level of support from the United States, and probably Arab countries like Jordan and Egypt. And there is no indication that such backing would be forthcoming.

Iran, too, will be wary of further escalation. Tehran demonstrated on April 13 that it possesses a large – and perhaps growing – inventory of ballistic missiles, drones and cruise missiles.

However, the accuracy and effectiveness of many of these platforms remains in question – as evidenced by the seeming ease in which most were shot down. The Israeli and U.S. air and missile defense network in the region continues to prove reliable in that regard.

Given the realities and risks, I believe it seems more likely that Iran will seek to revert back to its unconventional warfare strategy of supporting its proxy axis of resistance. Overt attacks, such as the one carried out on April 13, may be reserved for signaling resolve and demonstrating strength to its domestic audience.

The danger is now that war has come out of the shadows, it may be hard to put it back there.

The Conversation

Javed Ali does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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‘I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.’: What O.J. Simpson’s Life Showed About Transcending Race And Being Trapped By It

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O.J. Simpson listens to testimony during his 1995 trial, in which he was acquitted of murder charges. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

It’s still unclear when – or if – O.J. Simpson actually said the words that rapper Jay-Z attributed to him in his 2017 Grammy-nominated song “The Story of O.J.”

But the words stuck and came to symbolize the complicated relationship the Black community had with Simpson, who died on April 11, 2024, from complications of prostate cancer. He was 76 years old.

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” Jay-Z wrote.

Indeed, O.J. did transcend race. He had the life of the rich and famous that many Black and white people could only dream of. In the early 1990s, the former professional football player and Hollywood actor was earning US$55,000 per month and had a net worth of nearly $11 million, according to court records.

But it all came crashing down on June 12, 1994, after the vicious killing of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Simpson was charged in both murders and during the trial became the epitome of Black, male toxicity. Though acquitted – in large part because of the Los Angeles Police Department’s racist history of police brutality – his trial exposed the racial divisions within America and the deep-seated resentment that many Black people had for the U.S. criminal justice system.

As a scholar of ethnic studies, I followed the case of O.J. Simpson as it unfolded and understood the jubilation that many Black people felt after his acquittal. I also understood that jubilation was more about the fairness of the criminal justice system than it ever was about O.J.

The rise of a Black media star

During the early 1960s, Orenthal James Simpson was a cultural hero for millions of Black boys and girls who saw him dominate college football as a star running back for the University of Southern California. He led the team to a national championship in 1968 and earned a Heisman Trophy, the sport’s highest award.

A Black man stands next to a white woman as they pose for a photograph.
O.J. Simpson and his wife Nicole Brown Simpson attend a party in New York City in 1993.
Rose Hartman/Getty Images

Simpson went on to have a spectacular professional football career before turning his star power to Hollywood movies and commercials, the most memorable of which saw him running through an airports to get a Hertz rental car.

Tragic fall

All of that stardom made Simpson’s arrest on June 17, 1994, even more bizarre.

I recall watching the slow-moving chase of the white Ford Bronco in which Simpson fled, followed by dozens of police cars on a Los Angeles highway. Inside the Bronco, Simpson held a gun to his head.

Given his behavior, Simpson appeared to be guilty in the court of public opinion. But during the trial, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was able to shift the focus of the case away from Simpson’s erratic behavior and to the racist behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A photograph of a Black man taken by the Los Angeles police.
O.J. Simpson following his arrest in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994.
Kypros/Getty Images

In what was dubbed by media analysts “the trial of the century,” Cochran was able to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury after he detailed the numerous forensic mistakes that Los Angeles police made in handling evidence in the case. Cochran’s defense ended with Simpson trying on a pair of gloves that prosecutors claimed were used in the murders.

“If they don’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran told the jury.

They didn’t fit.

The Simpson trial came at a time when police brutality in Los Angeles had become the subject of national media attention after the March 1991 beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers. A year later, on April 29, 1992, a jury found the four officers not guilty, and that verdict triggered days of riots in Los Angeles.

In my view, this backdrop was partly the reason why Black people saw Simpson as yet another Black man falsely charged with – and often lynched for – a crime involving a white woman.

No longer a symbol of the American dream, O.J. became the black face of domestic violence and a tragic lesson on the flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The Conversation

Rodney Coates does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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A Monumental Case, Unfolding In A Court Of Law And A Court Of Public Opinion – Trump Goes On Trial

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Former President Donald Trump stands trial on April 15, 2024. Yuki Iwamura//AFP via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump’s New York trial on charges related to paying hush money to an adult film star begins on April 15, 2024. The Conversation U.S. asked Tim Bakken, a former New York prosecutor and now a legal scholar teaching at West Point, and Karrin Vasby Anderson, a political communication expert at Colorado State University, to set the scene from each of their perspectives.

It will be a “monumental drama” inside and outside the courtroom, said Bakken. Anderson adds, “It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.”

Bakken: The scene is very dramatic: A former president is on trial, for the first time. Trump is facing relatively minor charges that are not complex, and the evidence should not require a complex presentation. But the aura surrounding the introduction of the evidence has rarely occurred in world or U.S. history. And that’s not an overstatement.

Trump has been charged with over 30 counts of filing a false document. There’s just one basic charge: that he filed a false document and enlisted other people in his organization to help him file the false document to conceal the fact that he had paid money to Stormy Daniels to urge her not to speak up about his relationship with her.

A gray-haired man in a dress shirt and tie, sitting in a study.
Juan M. Merchan, the judge who will preside over Donald Trump’s hush money trial.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Anderson: The rhetorical scene is complicated. Let’s break it into three separate scenes.

The first is sort of inside the courtroom, where there’s a modicum of moderation, particularly from Trump’s lawyers when speaking on his behalf. They speak of him as if he is like any other former U.S. president. There’s no recognition of the ways in which Trump has not conducted himself like past U.S. presidents, both in office and after leaving the White House.

The second stage is how Trump interacts with the judicial system in nonjudicial, nondemocratic ways. He’s doing a lot of communication outside of the courtroom, and that’s going to influence the way that we understand the case as it is unfolding.

One of the reasons why Trump has been subjected to a number of gag orders is because his rhetoric outside the courtroom appears to be trying to potentially intimidate jurors. If it’s not outright intimidation, then he’s openly trying to cast doubt by spreading misinformation and false information about the people who are involved in the case, including judges and their families.

The third scene is what Trump does on Truth Social, his social media platform, and at his rallies, which is what every authoritarian does: their rhetorical formula. They use their communication to destabilize democratic institutions, dehumanize opponents and scapegoat others. The institution that Trump is looking to destabilize with his pronouncements at rallies and on social media is the judiciary.

How can a judge keep control of a trial when all of this is happening?

Bakken: From what I’ve observed of Trump, once he enters a courtroom or is inside a legal proceeding, there doesn’t seem to be any issue in regard to misbehavior. He’s a practical person in that regard. But he goes just about as far as he can.

Anderson: Inside the courtroom, he and his lawyers are going to present him as a sort of normal, typical defendant, remarkable only in that he is a former president. When it is to his advantage to use democratic norms strategically, he will. But he doesn’t abide by them; he weaponizes them. What he’s really doing inside the courtroom is posing as someone who doesn’t need to have multiple gag orders applied.

Bakken: Everybody has fear in a criminal legal proceeding. You’re facing an institution that can imprison you. But the things that Trump is doing outside the courtroom, at least recently, seem to reflect his concern that he cannot control a proceeding. How does a person deal with the fear that emanates when somebody else has control over you? Some people are more meticulous and will crouch. Other people – there are few of these because the stakes are very high – will strike back. And that’s who Trump is. He’s learned throughout his life that the way he can survive is to strike back at people.

Anderson: Trump recently posted, in reference to the judge in his upcoming trial, “If this Partisan Hack wants to put me in the ‘clink’ for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH, I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela – It will be my GREAT HONOR.”

Right there, he’s hedging his bets. He doesn’t want to go to jail. What he has to do is get ahead of that message and further destabilize the democratic norms, by saying essentially, “Well, if I get convicted, it’s not me getting convicted in a court of law. It’s me getting thrown in the clink like Nelson Mandela.”

A wood-paneled courtroom.
Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom in New York.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Bakken: There are a lot of people who comment on the legal system and say exactly the same things that Trump does. Very few will accuse those people of being authoritarian.

I’m certainly not an advocate of Trump or the district attorney in this case – I’m trying to look at it neutrally. And in any number of controversial cases going back decades, we can see people arguing that the system is unfair.

Trump is on a larger stage, but he’s essentially saying the same things that 50 out of 100 people would say in downtown New York City, where his courtroom will be. They’ll say the system is rigged. I heard that, of course, as a prosecutor, and I continue to hear that on an almost daily basis from people when they comment about the legal system.

Anderson: Trump does play the victim and the martyr, saying the system is unjust and charges against him are politically motivated.

But an authoritarian doesn’t stop there. They flip it. So it goes seamlessly, both at rallies and in social media, from “Look at me, I’m like Nelson Mandela, they’re going to throw me in jail,” to “If you don’t want this terrible system to be exploiting you, you’ve got to elect me, I alone can fix it.” He pairs those two things. That’s one of the key indicators that this is not just victim rhetoric; it’s actually authoritarian rhetoric.

Since 2015, there’s been a dramatic uptick in attacks on judges. That’s a telltale sign that Trump is not just critiquing the system or even just playing the victim. He is flipping that to say, we need to fight back using these other means, and his supporters are hearing that message and they’re threatening judges.

Some last thoughts from each of you?

Bakken: The case will be a monumental drama not only inside the courtroom, but outside the courtroom. Whether the trial can go off the way trials have normally gone off is a real test of our country and our legal system. And if it does, then we can have some confidence that Trump’s extracurricular statements and admonitions have not affected the jurors.

Anderson: I hope that as people are paying attention to the trial, they see themselves as actors and participants in creating whatever culture is going to come out of this. It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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