What Poker Tells Us about ISIS’s Changing Strategy 

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Discussions concerning the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have lately shifted to when, rather than if, the group will ultimately be defeated. After being pushed out of longtime strongholds in places like Mosul and Raqqa, the group no longer appears to pose the kind of entrenched threat that prompted the intervention of global powers just a few short years ago. Surprisingly, the game of poker offers important lessons about the group’s changing strategy amid its current circumstances. One reason why poker is such a popular game is because it offers players with weak hands the opportunity to turn the tables on stronger opponents. While ISIS undoubtedly weakens with every passing day, the potential threat it poses remains at an all-time high. If the global community no longer takes this threat seriously, or shifts attention to other issues, ISIS could successfully reverse its fortunes.

The most important rule of thumb for poker players is to never place a bet when the odds of winning are smaller than the expected payoff. For instance, when the odds of winning a hand are 4 to 1, and the expected return on a bet is 3 to 1, experienced players know to avoid wagering their money. This is known as the “Strict Calculation Matrix” and it ensures that players only place bets when they are in a relatively strong position. But there is one important exception: the concept of “implied odds.” If additional cards are to be drawn, the future (implied) odds could change in a player’s favor, even if that player currently holds a losing hand. This is often the case in many popular variants of poker, such as Texas Hold ‘Em. Players with weak hands therefore continue to bet based solely on their expectations of the future.

All terrorist groups, including ISIS, hold weak hands. While ISIS finds itself in a particularly dire situation at the moment, the group has always been in a position of weakness relative to its enemies. Even at its strongest, such as when the group seized Mosul, ISIS anticipated a day when it would be strong enough for a large-scale fight against the governments of Syria, Iraq, and their allies. The most important clue to this anticipation of the future is their intense focus on apocalyptic prophecies. In fact, the title of the group’s former online publication, Dabiq, was named after the prophesied site of Armageddon. But today, with its military forces routed, ISIS’s apocalyptic visions seem more distant than ever, and the concept of implied odds especially relevant. 

With its conventional capabilities diminished and territorial control slipping away, ISIS is likely to refocus its energies on surviving until it can fight again in the future. To do this, its best chances lie in transitioning from an experiment in state-building to a low-level insurgency relying primarily on terrorism. But to successfully reverse its fortunes, it needs a “big hand” to get back in the game—an attack or set of attacks so shocking that it demonstrates the group’s resilience to both enemies and supporters. To accomplish this, the group is pursuing two important strategies. 

First, ISIS is accelerating its calls to the “soldiers of the caliphate” around the world, hoping to inspire individuals to commit brutal attacks. The group still maintains sophisticated media and communications operations which it is leveraging to encourage sympathizers to launch attacks, particularly in Western countries. This strategy has generated the few high-profile attacks for the group in recent months, such as December’s subway bombing in New York City. Expect such attacks to become more, rather than less, frequent in the coming months. 

Second, despite its declining operational capacity, the group is likely more focused than ever on planning a major, catastrophic terrorist attack. Just as the 9/11 attacks served to reinvigorate al-Qaeda, ISIS is undoubtedly hoping to pull off an attack so sensational and so barbaric that it would shore up support and re-brand the group as a growing, rather than declining, threat. We know that the group tried to access a nuclear power plant in Brussels, for instance, but a devastating, headline-grabbing attack could be carried out in a variety of ways.

These strategies are risky, of course, but they offer the best chances for the emergence of “ISIS 2.0.” And since the strategies rely on terrorist attacks to salvage the credibility of the organization and attract new supporters, the true demise of the organization cannot be achieved through military means alone. Like all terrorist organizations, the key to ISIS’s decisive defeat lies in comprehensive and sustained military, diplomatic, legal, and communications operations. This includes redressing the grievances of the populations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere who are most attracted to the group’s messaging. If the U.S. and its allies turn their attention to other problems around the world, as lately seems to be the case, ISIS might launch that one attack that shifts the odds back in its favor. As Boko Haram has demonstrated in Nigeria, terrorist groups thought to be “defeated” may only grow more violent. The U.S. and its allies should make a sustained, long-term commitment to ensuring that ISIS’s weak hand never improves.

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Hypotheses on the Terrorist Bombing in a Bogota Shopping Mall

On June 17, the eve of Father’s Day, an explosive device ripped through a women’s bathroom in Bogota’s upscale Centro Andino shopping mall, reportedly killing three women and wounding at least eight people. A young French woman who reportedly had helped a children’s school in a low-income Bogota neighborhood died in the blast, and her mother was injured, according to news reports.

Based in Bogota, I coincidentally walked by Centro Andino about an hour and a half before the explosion, which authorities called a terrorist act. A big question is if this bombing is a portend of more terrorist bombings to come in Colombia—sadly, it wouldn’t be surprising.

This bombing happened, ironically, as Colombia’s largest guerilla group, the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is in the process of disarming and integrating into legal civilian society, after waging 52 years of war. A revised version of a peace accord between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC—which critics say is cosmetic, but which Santos and the FARC insist is significant—was ratified by the Colombian Congress November 30, 2016, after voters in a nationwide “plebiscite” rejected the first version of the accord by about 50.2% to 49.7% in the balloting last October 2, with about 62% of the electorate in abstention.

It would be irresponsible to jump to unsubstantiated conclusions about the Centro Andino bombing as the police investigation moves forward. (Authorities have publicly released drawings intended to approximate the respective faces of two men of interest or possible material authors of the crime, according to some eyewitness descriptions of them, say news reports.) However, we can ask the following question: For whom could the terrorist bombing in the Centro Andino shopping mall supposedly benefit (in a perpetrator’s warped mind-set)?

The following is a list of potential suspects—though it is not necessarily meant to point a finger at any particular group or person, nor is it a list in order of presumed preponderance of suspicion:

  • The Clan del Golfo (“Urabenos”) or another drug-trafficking or post-rightist-”paramilitary” group known as BACRIMs, a Colombian acronym for criminal bands? The Clan del Golfo has reportedly made public calls in the past to be included in some sort of dialogue with the Colombian government, alluding to peace dialogues that the FARC and Colombia’s still active, second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have had with the government. Bombing a major city in an upscale part of town where the “elite” and upper classes frequent would put pressure presumably where the perpetrator(s) would feel it counts—in the view of the perpetrator(s).
  • The ELN? The Marxist ELN high command has repudiated in tweets the Centro Andino terrorist attack. But observers point out that the ELN is a “confederated” organization, with autonomy among its units. The ELN high command doesn’t appear to have full control over its entire organization, according to Colombian Defense Ministry sources, though ELN leaders claim that the ELN has tight unity.
  • The FARC? The FARC has publicly condemned the Centro Andino bombing. The organization is currently working towards disarmament and integration into legal civilian society. Having signed a peace accord, it would seem to be counterintuitve that the FARC would be behind the Centro Andino bombing, or other terrorist acts. Moreover, if found culpable of being involved in criminal violation of the peace accord, FARC members could lose the peace accord’s “transitional justice” benefits, face ordinary jail time, or even extradition to other countries courts.

But could the FARC somehow be connected to “sending a message” that if the Colombian government doesn’t comply with the peace accord? The FARC is very capable of hitting the state and “oligarchy” where it most hurts, in the high-class parts of major cities.

Both the Colombian government and FARC have pointed the finger at each other at times, complaining about the issue of perceived or real non-compliance or delays on some things in the peace accord. Each side is stressing its own commitment and desire to comply with the peace accord, despite problems that pop up.

There could be a hypothesis—as some Colombian military officers floated to me in the past without evidence—that the FARC could perhaps surreptitiously continue contacts with outlawed armed groups (even with dissident FARC groups with which the FARC has publicly denounced and disassociated itself) with an aim to have some sort of option whereby armed action could conceivably be used as a pressure tool so that the Colombian government complies with the peace accord. The FARC has vehemently rejected that notion, though, and says that it is fully dedicated to peaceful solutions.

  • Dissident FARC armed groups? It cannot be excluded as a possibility. But why would dissident FARC groups want to draw even more heat on themselves, when they seem to be concentrated on their own narcotics interests in remote jungle areas—unless supposedly like the Clan del Golfo, they would want to put pressure to enter into some sort of dialogue with Colombian government?
  • Another guerrilla group, such as the new shadowy Revolutionary Movement of the People (MRP, in its Spanish initials)? Not much is known about this apparently tiny group that some Colombian authorities reportedly think might have come into existence around late 2015, or even what it is about, except for maybe some pamphlets under the name of the MRP alluding to Marxist-style for-the-poor, anti-rich/anti-elite rhetoric. It is reported to have or have had some supposedly tangential connection to ELN urban networks and to some extremists in Colombian universities.

There are some press reports of indications supposedly pointing toward alleged MRP involvement in the Centro Andino bombing, and some of these reports mention past small-scale urban bombings where the MRP is a suspect. But a document circulating in social media and identifying itself as being purportedly written by the MRP has denounced the Centro Andino bombing and denied any involvement in it. (So far, there is no independent confirmation of the document’s authenticity.)

  • Right-wing extremists? They could perhaps have a motive for trying to undermine the peace accord—which they may see as undermining their own interests, say regarding issues of political or land reforms, etc—and the Centro Andino terrorist attack could perhaps be aimed (in this possible scenario) to distract a public into raising doubts about the FARC’s intentions for peace and the future.
  • A disgruntled employee, an extortionist or a mentally deranged person?
  • A “lone wolf,” either a Colombian national or non-Colombian inspired by whatever reason? Colombia hasn’t had a history of Islamic extremist-inspired terrorism. The possibility of a “lone wolf” seems to be remote in the Centro Andino bombing, given past and recent trends of terrorism in Colombia.

The above are just some hypotheses on possible suspects—nothing solid established, yet. And remember that any person in the women’s bathroom where the bomb exploded or nearby—whether dead, wounded or not—could in standard police procedure have to be checked out for being perhaps a possible suspect. But let’s not jump to conclusions.

I returned to Centro Andino Father’s Day at about 12:30 p.m. (the day after the bombing), and it was mostly empty. There was a very small smattering of people in its food court at that time. Knowing the resiliency and strength of Colombians, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Centro Andino crowded, again.

But the sad forecast is that the Centro Andino bombing will not be the final terrorist attack in Colombia.

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Brussels’ Big Terrorism Problem: Is This the Islamic State?

On this morning of March 22, 2016, the long tail of terrorism once again struck Europe. Less than a week after Belgian authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers, explosions have shaken multiple transportation hubs in Brussels, Belgium. At the time of this writing, two bombs have detonated at the Brussels airport and a separate bombing has occurred at the Maelbeek subway station. While the dust has yet to settle in Brussels, it appears more than two dozen have died from multiple blasts. The Brussels bombings, a major attack coming only months after Paris and days after the arrest of Abdeslam in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, confirms that Europe has a major terrorist problem in its midst.



Timing and Techniques: Is this the work of the Islamic State?

Few facts have emerged since the bombings. But the timing and techniques utilized in today’s attacks suggest that the same network that perpetrated the Paris attacks in November likely orchestrated this massacre. Last week, Belgian authorities arrested Abdeslam in the neighborhood where he grew up. He was the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris attacks and he eluded authorities for more than four months.  Two other suspects allegedly escaped when Abdelslam was caught.

Logically, one might assume this attack occurred in response to the Abdelslam arrest. Abdelslam’s terrorist facilitation network, having watched the arrest of their comrade, likely assumed law enforcement would continue rapidly pursuing any additional leads produced by intelligence gained during last week’s arrest. The choice for those still at-large in the network is to either go-to-ground and elude authorities or immediately accelerate any potential plot or plots currently being prepared. The speed at which this attack occurred suggests that the network had likely been preparing for this attack in some manner for many weeks or months prior to Abdelslam’s arrest.  The similarity of the attack to Paris, using suicide operations against soft targets, and the speed at which it was executed in relation to a Paris connected arrest suggest the Islamic State, either directly or through its network, is involved. The social media app Telegram is already littered with Islamic State propaganda stemming from the attack.

Capacity and Competency: Europe has a two-fold counterterrorism problem

The failure to detect and interdict the Paris attacks in November seemed to point to a problem of capacity. European countries, having stood by and watched for years as their angry boys were radicalized and recruited into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, seemed to have far too many terrorism suspects and resulting leads to manage. The volume of potential terrorists to cover seemingly exceeded the capacity of European authorities. In November, I discussed the “Iceberg Theory” of terrorist plots, where for the eight to ten Paris attackers, “we should look for two, three, or possibly four dozen extremist facilitators and supporters between Syria and France.”  Today I suspect we are seeing more of Europe’s terrorism iceberg.

Last week’s arrest of Abdelslam and today’s failure to detect and disrupt a major terrorist attack similar to that of Paris suggests a far more ominous counterterrorism problem in Europe — incompetence. Belgian authorities arrested Abdelslam in Molenbeek, an area swept repeatedly by counterterrorism authorities in recent months. The arrest of Abdelslam should have immediately triggered an intense buildup in law enforcement activity to disrupt a likely retaliatory attack. Additionally, today’s attacks at the airport and in the subway system used suicide missions armed with explosives. The use of explosives suggests that a significant terrorist facilitation network likely remains in Europe empowering attacks al Qaeda always dreamed of executing but for which they lacked the operational support capability.

Belgium, a smaller European country, appears to have both a capacity and competency problem with regards to counterterrorism. Other small European countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have also been home to large concentrations of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Do they have the same counterterrorism capacity and competency problems as Belgium?

Safe Harbor and Bleed Out: Last decade’s al Qaeda fears have come to fruition with the Islamic State

Ten years ago following the London subway bombings, analysts feared the potentially deadly consequences of disaffected European diaspora communities providing safe harbor to returning terrorist foreign fighters (Bleed Out)  and inspired young boys. Al Qaeda never successfully mobilized these disaffected young boys to execute a string of attacks on Western targets. Today, the Islamic State’s current and former foreign fighters have come from these disaffected communities on a scale several fold larger than the numbers produced during al Qaeda’s heyday. In the coming months, the Belgian and European response to the wave of Islamic State networked and inspired attacks will likely influence the future of the Islamic State as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq. Will these attacks provoke a heavy backlash against already disaffected diaspora communities further empowering the Islamic State’s message? Will they further push European countries to resolve the Syrian conflict to stem refugee flows and apply increased pressure on the Islamic State? Will they finally bring about needed intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation between European countries? The Paris attacks were treated as an investigation, one pursuing a network associated with a single plot. Brussels on top of Paris demonstrates that this as a Europe-wide issue requiring a unified and coordinated response.

As the smoke still rises over Brussels, counterterrorists around the world must again pick up their intensity. The Paris attacks triggered a wave of Islamic State affiliate and networked attacks on three continents, provoked competitive attacks from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and inspired lone wolves and small cells in Philadelphia and San Bernardino. Brussels, like Paris before it, may likely create the same phenomena. Any plot(s) in either the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s network may very well be accelerated. Any inspired wannabe from afar may see today’s media attention as the final motivation to undertake violence. For the Islamic State success breeds success. Can the world’s counterterrorists stop this trend?

Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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Playing the Long Game: Unrest and Changing Demography in Xinjiang

The latest bout of violence between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese erupted in Lukqun, a township in China’s far western province called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.  There, about 35 people died last week when, according to Chinese accounts, Uighur protesters attacked a police station, a local government building, and a construction site—all symbols associated with the Han Chinese.  In April a similar incident occurred near Kashi (or Kashgar), Xinjiang’s second largest city; 21 people died.  In fact, almost every other year since the 1990s, Xinjiang has experienced at least one incident in which a dozen or more people are killed.  The most notable case in recent memory happened in 2009 when 197 people perished in ethnic strife that engulfed the provincial capital of Urumqi.


With such recurring violence, little wonder that tensions between the two ethnic groups in the region run high.  Even so, Han Chinese have continued to migrate to Xinjiang since the 1950s.  At first, they came as part of official Chinese government efforts to build a reliable local workforce and defend the country’s western borders.  But since the 1990s, many Han Chinese have willingly moved to the region to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by government spending on infrastructure and commercial investment in the energy and mining industries.  As a result, the province’s cities have boomed and new towns have sprouted from the grasslands that ring the Taklimakan Desert.

So many Han Chinese have migrated to the region that many Muslim Uighurs fear that they could soon become a minority in their ancestral homeland.  Chinese censuses chronicle the rise in Xinjiang’s Han Chinese population from 6 percent in 1945 to 40 percent in 1980.  And though the proportion of Han Chinese living in the region has held fairly steady since then, the population of Xinjiang has risen dramatically, from 13 million to over 21 million.  Plus, one must add the tens of thousands of Han Chinese who travel to the region in search of seasonal or temporary work.  Historically, the vast majority of the Han Chinese in Xinjiang dwelled in its northern part, where most of the energy and mining industries are clustered, while the vast majority of the Uighurs lived in the largely agricultural southern expanse.  But since the new railway to Kashi was completed in 2000, ever more Han Chinese have settled in not only Urumqi, but also southern areas once dominated by Uighurs.  Aware of the new tensions that would be raised, Chinese leaders have focused on economic development as the central way to pacify the local population.

Just one month ago, Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, went on a fact-finding tour of Xinjiang in the wake of April’s unrest.  He travelled extensively across the province, visiting Uighur villages as well as settlements of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).  The quasi-military XPCC has long been Beijing’s vehicle for Han Chinese migration and instrument of control in Xinjiang.  Apart from its farming and industrial work, it maintains a well-armed militia capable of containing local unrest.  When Yu addressed a regiment of the XPCC’s 4th Division, he urged its members to interact with minority groups to locally resolve differences.  Then, he said, provincial authorities could take full advantage of Beijing’s support to further the region’s economic development and ultimately curb the “three evil forces” at work there: separatism, extremism, and terrorism.

Certainly Beijing has encouraged massive investment in the region.  That investment has produced double-digit economic growth in the province over the last decade; even as growth in China’s eastern provinces has flagged.  Both ethnic groups have been made better off.  But Uighurs continue to fare relatively worse than their new Han Chinese neighbors, who reap the biggest rewards from the Uighurs’ native lands.  Moreover, many of these new residents of Xinjiang have chosen to live in segregated communities, particularly in Uighur-dominated areas.  Entirely new Han Chinese towns have popped up adjacent to existing Uighur ones.  Together with often stringent surveillance of Uighur communities and the perception of Chinese contempt for Muslim practices, such separation has fueled resentment among many Uighurs.  They feel that they are gradually losing not only their lands and autonomy, but also their identity.

With such underlying tensions, it is of little surprise that unrest periodically flares up in Xinjiang.  Despite Beijing’s assertions that international separatist organizations are behind the violence, most of the unrest has been local, sparked by local events like an execution or a police roundup of suspected militants.  In any case, Beijing’s hold on the region remains as firm as ever.  While some have roundly criticized the government’s heavy-handed crackdowns on the Uighur population—such as the three-month long “strike hard” campaign in 2011 that entailed 24-hour police patrols, identity checks, and searches of people and vehicles—as being unproductive, they do underscore Beijing’s determination to do whatever it takes to subdue local dissent.  Altogether, the XPCC, the People’s Armed Police, and ultimately the Chinese military—arrayed as they are across the province and made increasingly responsive with new transportation links—remain well positioned to contain any recurring violence, unless of course China itself is thrown into crisis.

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Why al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms

For several months up to the recent French intervention in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been able to gain, control, and govern large swathes of the Sahel.  Towns such as Kidal and Timbuktu fell under the rule of strict forms of Sharia law and many perceived al Qaeda as resurgent.  Many rightly noted the collapse of Qaddafi’s Libyan regime provided operational space and caches of weapons emboldening AQIM’s push into Northern Mali.  

However, other analysts of the Sahel and terrorism have suggested AQIM’s growth and the proliferation of its offshoots (Ansar Dine and Movement for the Unity of Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA)) comes equally as much from the network’s ability to acquire resources through illicit schemes such as drug/cigarette trafficking and most importantly kidnapping.  Over the past several years, AQIM, more than any other al Qaeda affiliate, has been able to effectively kidnap travelers to the region (mostly Europeans) and then successfully extract multi-million dollar ransoms.  Serge Daniel in his book, “AQMI, l’industrie de l’enlèvement” (AQIM the kidnapping industry)” tried to account for the ransoms paid to AQIM in recent years:

Daniel says two French companies paid a total of 13 million euros (a little over $17 million) for the release of the hostages, Austria paid three million euros, Spain nine million and Canada three to five million. Source: Global Post

Essentially, France indirectly funded AQIM for years building up the terror affiliate to only now commit further blood and treasure to defeat the group.  Unforunately, France is not alone in falling into a vicious fund-then-fight cycle with a terrorist group.  

On the surface, kidnapping and smuggling appears an ideal financial engine for terror groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates. This assertion, however, ignores the inherent challenges encountered when any organization, whether terrorist group to criminal enterprise, undertakes illicit funding schemes.  Kidnapping and ransom operations introduce significant transaction costs which significantly devalue the gross sum of revenues.  Kidnapping operations create a series of internal costs for terror groups:

  • Networks Of Intermediaries –  Negotiations and payments for kidnapping operations require layers of middlemen with each network extracting a percentage of the overall take.
  • Transaction Time – The time between hostage taking and ransom payments can be significant requiring the terror group to maintain a solid reserve of capital to sustain its operations between transactions.  Essentially, time is money, and in the case of kidnapping operations, a cost to the terror group.
  • Hostage Deaths – The trauma of kidnapping and the harsh environments in which terrorist groups operate often result in the death of hostages.  The death of a hostage hurts the terror group directly in terms of loss revenues. But, even more damage occurs indirectly as the hostage death erodes trust for future ransom negotiations.
  • Infighting – In any business, transactions often lead to conflict.  This is particularly true in illicit industries where trust is constantly being questioned.  Kidnapping negotiations naturally generate friction between intermediaries and when negotiations become protracted parties may turn to open conflict.
  • Declines in Hostage Availability – As groups like AQIM continue to kidnap hostages, the availability of hostages naturally declines requiring the terror group to operate at longer distances to acquire captives.  This distance imposes significant logistical costs.  
  • Undermines Terror Group’s Ideology – Inevitably, in illicit schemes and even licit enterprises, business gets messy and the terror group must make choices with regards to sustaining its resource flow.  Often times, these choices result in alienation of a terror group’s local base of popular support or hypocritical conflicts of interest between the terror group’s deeds and its words.  The recent accusations of Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter who has fallen out of favor with al Shabaab, demonstrate how al Shabaab’s turning a blind eye to Qat distribution in Somalia for the purpose of taxation has called into question the group’s committment to al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia law.
  • Opportunity Costs – When al Qaeda is dedicating more time, manpower and resources to illicit fund generation, they are spending less time recruiting and training new operatives, planning operations and executing attacks.

All al Qaeda affiliates and terror group’s in general must participate and rely on illicit and licit funding schemes to some degree.  But what really separated al Qaeda from other terror group’s was its ability to garner donor revenues from wealthy supporters.  As Gregory Johnsen accurately noted in his recently published book on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) entitled the The Last Refuge, what separated al Qaeda from other Sunni extremist groups was Bin Laden, his understanding of business and his command of resources. 

 “Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.”

Donor resources provide essential support to global terrorist groups.  Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates, when sustained by donor contributions, can dedicate more manpower to planning and executing attacks as operatives are freed from the burdens of illicit/licit fund generation. Likewise, a donor empowered al Qaeda can more easily build local support by granting funds that embolden their ability to govern locally.  Most importantly, donor funds prevent al Qaeda groups from undermining their ideology to sustain their short-run resource needs.  As seen in this graphic, I estimate that each donor dollar equals roughly five dollars in illicit fund generation. 

Today, while there remain many ideological challenges to al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death, the terror group and its affiliates face equally large obstacles securing donor resources to allow for significant operational expansion.  al Qaeda’s efforts to expand operations in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak have been frustrated by resource generation.  Thomas Joscelyn notes in a recent article that Muhammad Jamal al Kashef: 

“complains that he “received an amount of money from our brothers in Yemen,” a reference to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), “but it was much less than what is required.” Zawahiri is “aware” of the “huge amounts of money” needed to purchase arms, set up training camps, move vehicles into the Sinai Peninsula, and “provide for the families of the brothers who work with us.”  Source: The Long War Journal

As I noted last summer, today al Qaeda and its affilaites are one of many rather than the only Salafi-Jihadi extremist group operating throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.  The uprisings of the Arab Spring have created a plethora of ideological and financial competitors to al Qaeda.  For a terror group to break out and begin securing donor resources at a pace greater than its competitors, they must do one thing better and faster than other groups: successfully execute high profile attacks on Western targets.  Donors, like good investors, like supporting winners.  Therefore, those al Qaeda affiliates or new upstarts that pull off the most impressive attacks may find themselves more able to garner important donor revenues.  Only Mokhtar Belmokhtar has grabbed international media attention in recent years.  Will his actions garner him and “Those Who Sign With Blood” more donations in the future?  Only time will tell…

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