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Joseph Fitsanakis

Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University

With the world constantly following the events in the Middle East, much now depends on the shape, form and ‘policy’ Islamic State is going to take. What form will the IS take? What role will cryptocurrencies play in funding terrorists? How can Russia and the US cooperate in fighting mutual security threats? RIAC expert Tatyana Kanunnikova discusses these issues with Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis, Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University.

With the world constantly following the events in the Middle East, much now depends on the shape, form and ‘policy’ Islamic State is going to take. What form will the IS take? What role will cryptocurrencies play in funding terrorists? How can Russia and the US cooperate in fighting mutual security threats? RIAC expert Tatyana Kanunnikova discusses these issues with Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis [1], Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University.

Islamic State is perceived as an international threat. In which regions is it losing ground and in which ones is it on the rise? Could you please describe IS geography today?

Joseph Fitsanakis

Groups like the Islamic State are mobile. They tend to move and redeploy across international borders with relative ease, and are truly global in both outlook and reach. It is worth noting that, from a very early stage in its existence, the Islamic State incorporated into its administrative structure the so-called vilayets, namely semi-autonomous overseas provinces or possessions. These included parts of Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and of course Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. By the first week of 2018, the Islamic State had all but eclipsed from its traditional base of the Levant. How has the loss of its administrative centers affected the organization’s strategy? There are two competing answers to this question. The first possible answer is that ISIS’ plan is similar to that of the Great Britain in 1940, when the government of Winston Churchill was facing the prospect of invasion by the forces of the German Reich. London’s plan at the time was to use its overseas colonies as bases from which to continue to fight following a possible German takeover of the Britain. It is possible that ISIS’ strategy revolves around a similar plan —in which case we may see concerted flare-ups of insurgent activity in Egypt, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kenya, and elsewhere. The second possible answer to the question of ISIS’ strategy is that the group may be entering a period of relative dormancy, during which it will concentrate on cyber activism and online outreach aimed at young and disaffected youth in Western Europe, the Caucasus, and North America. According to this scenario, ISIS will use its formidable online dexterity to establish new communities of Millennial and Generation Z members, and renegotiate its strategy in light of the loss of physical lands in the Levant. This scenario envisages an online geography for the Islamic State, which may eventually lead to the emergence of a new model of activity. The latter will probably resemble al-Qaeda’s decentralized, cell-based model that focuses on sharp, decisive strikes at foreign targets.

Commenting for an article in Asia Times, you said that ISIS returnees are extremely valuables sources of intelligence. How can they be effectively identified in the flow of migrants? How exactly can security services exploit the experience of these militants?

The reliance on a small number of dedicated fighters mirrors the recruitment tactics of the Islamic State (and al-Qaeda before it).

In its essence, the Sunni insurgency is a demassified movement. By this I mean that its leaders have never intended for it to become a mass undertaking. The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda before it, does not depend on large numbers of followers. Rather it depends on individual mobilization. Senior Islamic State leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mohamed Mahmoud, Tarad Muhammad al-Jarba, and others, have no interest in deploying 10,000 fighters who may be reluctant and weak-willed. They are content with 100 fighters who are unswerving in their commitment and prepared to devote everything to the struggle, including their lives. Consider some of the most formidable strikes of the Sunni insurgency against its enemies: the attacks of 9/11 in the United States, the 7/7 bombings in the United Kingdom, the November 2015 strikes in Paris, and the fall of Mosul in 2014. There have been more large-scale strikes on Russian, Lebanese, Afghan, Egyptian, and other targets. What connects all of those is the relatively small number of totally dedicated fighters that carried them out. The fall of Mosul, for example, which brought the Islamic State to the height of its power, was carried out by no more than 1,500 fighters, who took on two divisions of the Iraqi Army, numbering more than 30,000 troops.

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The reliance on a small number of dedicated fighters mirrors the recruitment tactics of the Islamic State (and al-Qaeda before it). The latter rested on individual attention paid to selected young men, who are seen as reliable and steadfast. This is precisely the type of emphasis that should be placed by European, American and Russian security agencies on suspected members of terrorist groups that are captured, or are detected within largest groups of migrants. What is required here is individual attention given by security operatives who have an eye for detail and are knowledgeable of the culture, customs and ways of thinking of predominantly Muslim societies. However, most governments have neither the patience nor expertise to implement a truly demassified exploitation campaign that targets individuals with an eye to de-radicalization and — ultimately — exploitation. The experience of the Syrian migrants in countries like Italy and Greece is illustrative of this phenomenon. The two countries — already overwhelmed by domestic political problems and financial uncertainty — were left primarily to their own means by a disinterested and fragmented European Union. Several members of the EU, including Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom have for all practical purposes positioned themselves outside of the EU mainstream. At the same time, the United States, which is the main instigator of the current instability in the Middle East, shows no serious interest in de-radicalization and exploitation programs. This has been a consistent trend in Washington under the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In your opinion, will cryptocurrencies become a significant source of terrorism funding? Some experts believe that pressure on traditional methods of financing may facilitate this process.

In the old days of the 1970s and 1980s, most terrorist groups raised funds primarily through extortion, kidnappings, bank robberies and — to a lesser extent — drugs. Things have changed considerably in our century. Today, cryptocurrencies are not in themselves sources of funding — though it can be argued that the frequent rise in the value of many cryptocurrencies generates income for terrorist organizations — but more a method of circulating currency and providing services that generate funds. With the use of cryptocurrencies and the so-called Darknet, terrorist organizations are now able to engage in creative means of generating cash. They include the sale of pirated music, movies and, most of all, videogames. They also engage in the sale of counterfeit products, including clothing, electronics and other hi-tech accessories. Additionally, they sell counterfeit pharmaceutical products and even counterfeit tickets to high-profile sports events and music concerts. Those who buy those products often pay for them using cryptocurrencies, primarily through the Darknet. Looking at the broad picture, it is clear that the use of cryptocurrencies constitutes a form of asymmetric finance that circumvents established financial structures and operates using irregular means that for now remain largely undetected. Few terrorist groups will resist the temptation to employ this new method of unregulated financial transaction.

How can Russian and US intelligence and security services cooperate in combating terrorism? In December 2017, media reported that CIA had helped its Russian counterpart foil a terror attack in St. Petersburg. What should be done to deepen and broaden such kind of cooperation?

Despite friction on the political level, cooperation between Russian and American intelligence agencies in the field of counter-terrorism is far more routine than is generally presumed. Last December’s report of the CIA sharing intelligence with its Russian counterpart was notable in that it was publicly disclosed. Most instances of intelligence cooperation between Washington and Moscow are not publicized. In February 2016, the then CIA director John Brennan stated publicly that the CIA works closely with the Russian intelligence community in counter-terrorism operations directed against Islamist militants. He described the CIA’s relationship with Russian intelligence officials as a “very factual, informative exchange.” He added that “if the CIA gets information about threats to Russian citizens or diplomats, we will share it with the Russians”. And he added: “they do the same with us”. Brennan gave the example of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He said: “We worked very closely with [Russian intelligence agencies]” during the Sochi games to “try to prevent terrorist attacks. And we did so very successfully”. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Brennan’s statement.

Professionals are always more likely to find common areas of interest. So, in what areas, apart from combating terrorism, can Russian and US intelligence services cooperate?

With the use of cryptocurrencies and the so-called Darknet, terrorist organizations are now able to engage in creative means of generating cash. They include the sale of pirated music, movies and, most of all, videogames.

There is a virtually endless list of common concerns that ought to and often do bring together American and Russian intelligence agencies. To begin with, there are two major existential threats to the security of both countries and the whole world that demand close cooperation between Washington and Moscow and their respective intelligence agencies. The first threat is the black market in weapons of mass destruction, notably chemical weapons, biological agents, and even radioactive material. In the past 20 years, there have been several cases of individuals or groups trying to sell or trade radioactive substances. The fear of such weapons possibly falling into the hands of non-state insurgents should be sufficient to entice close cooperation between American and Russian intelligence agencies. The second existential threat is that of global warming and its effects on international security. It is no secret that the rise in global temperatures is already having a measurable negative impact on food production, desertification, sea-level rise, and other factors that contribute to the destabilization of the economies of entire regions. Such trends fuel militancy, political extremism, wars, and mass migrations of populations, all of which are serious threats to the stability of the international system. Solving this global problem will require increased and prolonged cooperation on the political, economic, and security/intelligence level between the United States and Russia. The two countries must also work closely on a series of other topics, including standardizing the global regulation of cryptocurrencies, diffusing tensions between the two rival nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, tackling the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, preventing the destabilization of Egypt (the world’s largest Arab country), combating the growth of Sunni militancy in West Africa, and numerous other issues.

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Among other things, you are an expert in the Cold War. At present, Russia and the USA are experiencing a period of tensions in their relationship. In your opinion, what should be done in order to overcome these challenges and mend fences?

For those of us who remember the Cold War, and have studied the development of Russia–US relations in the postwar era, the current state of affairs between Washington and Moscow seems comparatively manageable. Despite tensions between Washington and Moscow, we are, thankfully, very far from an emergency of the type of the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or even the 1984 collision between the US plane carrier Kitty Hawk and the K-314 Soviet submarine in the Sea of Japan. How do we avoid such dangerous escalations? The answer is simple: regularize communications between the two countries on various levels, including executive, political, economic and security-related. Such communications should continue even or, arguably, especially at times of rising tensions between the two nations. The overall context of this approach rests on the indisputable truth that Russia and the United States are the two central pillars on which the idea of world peace can be built for future generations.

1.Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Prior to joining Coastal, he built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. An award-winning professor, Dr. Fitsanakis has lectured, taught and written extensively on subjects such as international security, intelligence, cyberespionage, and transnational crime. He is a syndicated columnist and frequent contributor to news media such as BBC television and radio, ABC Radio, Newsweek, and Sputnik, and his work has been referenced in outlets including The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Politico, and The Huffington Post. Fitsanakis is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org, a scholarly blog that is cataloged through the United States Library of Congress, and a syndicated columnist.


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