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What is Islamic State?

November 19, 2015

Summary: Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate” across the Mediterranean Basin, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia.  Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of convictions.  Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed.  Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse” and the end of the world.

Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate”.  It is also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Daesh (the Arabic equivalent of ISIL).

November 2015: Paris Attacks article here

March 2015: ISIS in Afghanistan article here

March 2015: US bombing campaign against ISIS article here

March 2015: ISIS Five Year Plan article here

January 2015: ISIS emerging in Afghanistan article here

October 2014: ISIS and propaganda article here

ISIS logo

The brand

Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Islamic State seeks to carve its own territories out of the Iraq and Syria and aspires, ultimately, to extend these conquests much further, into North Africa, Southern Europe, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia. These territories are described by IS as the “Caliphate”, a deliberate reference to historic Islamic conquests.

Map ISIS expansionism

The aspiration

If its writings and statements are correctly understood, IS wants to create specific religious prophecies: to engineer or provoke a large military confrontation in the Middle East with non-believers (including Western infidels and Muslims of different persuasions). Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse”, whatever this actually means, and to bring about the end of the world.


Al Qaeda 2.0?  New generation jihadis

Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of extreme religious, political, governmental, legal and military convictions. There are parallels with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, in terms of religious perspective. It is currently engaged in ground combat, with thousands of fighters under its control, for control and control and consolidation of Iraq and Syria as a stepping stone to further military conquests. Unlike Al Qaeda, which remains a series of franchised terrorist groups, IS is already in the process of setting itself up with a full and recognisable state structure: an economy, a currency, a legal system, social, educational and medical services. Some Islamist terrorist organisations in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are choosing to declare loyalty to IS – perhaps recognising the power and momentum IS has achieved in a relatively short period of time.

IS progress in Syria and Iraq, March 2015

Islamic State is hard to penetrate and to understand: journalists, politicians, NGOs, diplomats are all at extreme risk of death if they engage directly with IS. Even something simple as how to describe the organisation (IS? ISIS? ISIL? Daesh?).  The world struggles to understand what IS is, what its appeal is and what it really wants (and therefore how to deal with it).  At least Russia and President Putin are playing on the same chessboard as the West with the same broadly recognisable rulebook.  Will there ever be the equivalent of IS ambassadors or diplomats, with whom discussion and negotiation could take place?

With its rigid interpretation of Islam – rejected by millions of fellow Muslims – and its excessive willingness to employ butal and indiscriminate violence, torture and terror, it does not seek dialogue or compromise.  While IS continues to exist and even occasionally thrive in the ungoverned spaces of Syria and Iraq, attacks such as in Paris in November 2015 – and worse – look likely to continue.

Further reading:
Graeme Wood, March 2015 – What ISIS really wants

Islamic State attacks Paris

November 14, 2015

Summary: The terror attacks in Paris were almost certainly conducted by Islamic State and killed or wounded nearly 500 civilians. It seems possible that some of the attackers came to Europe as recent refugees through Greece. A backlash against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers looks inevitable. The incident may not yet be over: suspects on the run and “sleeper” attackers may contribute to further violent acts in the days to come. The attack could have been worse: a terrorist group with light mortars or RPGs, dug-in and prepared to fight from defensive positions, could bring a modern city to a standstill for days, not hours.

No easy solution: troops on the streets can be counter-productive and unsustainable

Thus far it appears that the well-coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris last night have killed nearly 130 and wounded around 350 innocent civilians. The assault has been claimed by Islamic State and there seem to be no reasons to dispute this claim. These were well-timed assaults by a handful of seemingly highly trained and motivated individuals armed only with small arms and suicide vests.

French President, Francois Hollande, has declared the attacks an “act of war” by Islamic State although prosecuting such an asymmetric conflict as a “war” is, from the historic experience of many European nations, generally complex, painful, unrewarding and long-drawn out. Terrorist groups operating in urban areas employing atrocity and fear as their main weapons of choice are extremely difficult to eradicate unless some form of political shift takes place. Islamic State does not appear to function as a “traditional” terrorist group in this respect.

Options for Mr Hollande and Europe as a whole are uninviting: increasing the bombing of distant IS desert bases and flooding the streets of Paris (or London, Brussels, Stockholm, Madrid…) with police, gendarmeries or even soldiers on high alert are both counter-productive and unsustainable.  It should therefore come as no surprise that these weapons and tactics are highly favoured by Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban. The action resembled nothing less than the “complex” attacks frequently conducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They can bring cities to a standstill. But it could get a lot worse. The difference between Taliban complex attacks and the one that hit Paris last night is the preference on several occasions for the Taliban to attempt to “dig in” to a building and force the security forces to fight to get them out. In this approach they create or scout out suitable buildings as defensible positions. They then either fortifying them in advance or bringing additional supplies of food, water and ammunition with them into the building once the fighting starts. The aim is to continue the fight for as long as possible – every hour of resistance creates more terror, more TV and social media coverage and more propaganda.

The attack may not yet be over: intelligence leads are taking security forces to Belgium attempting to trace suspects. IS seem to claim they despatched eight suicide vests and only seven have thus far been accounted for. It is certainly not impossible that other attacks may emerge, either as a result of the hunt for perpetrators and facilitators on the run or even from new attackers waiting to build on the chaos and confusion in a “double blow”.

I sat in the ISAF headquarters for 24 hours over two days in September in 2011 under Taliban attack. A 12-storey building site with a good view and line of site to ISAF and the US Embassy had been reconnoitred and prepared in advance as a fighting position. There were only five or six fighters with small arms. But their trump card was an 82mm ex-Soviet recoilless rifle, which operates more or less like a light artillery piece in that you point it directly at the target. It was not particularly accurate in untrained hands. But a city in which there is the continual crack and crump of gunfire over a period of hours – or even days – is a strong propaganda victory for asymmetric attackers. It was the case in Kabul, which has a certain weary expectancy of these things. But the impact of such an event in a modern Western European city, if small terrorist groups have the capability to project shells over distance – RPGs, recoilless rifles (as the Taliban used in the 13th September attack) or light mortars – would be a devastating escalation of terror. If a financial district or transport and communications centres (think railway stations or airports) could be brought under even just sporadic shellfire over hours or days, large parts of the city would close and the authorities would be rushed in to assaulting buildings that the terrorists groups had already prepared for defence – casualties could be very high. This approach is certainly something that should be worried over by Western security and intelligence groups – if IS had had a couple of small mortars, an RPG and a slightly different plan, the fight in Paris could still have be ongoing tonight.

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours - storming it was costly and difficult

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours – storming it was costly and difficult

Looking wider, inevitably we should expect and fear a backlash against Muslim communities and refugee/asylum groups. Reports from Paris point to at least two of the attackers having had passports that had been processed by the Greek authorities as refugees or migrants in the last few months. It is likely that much intelligence work will be trained on this angle in the coming months.

I note now that the Swedish police are now boarding trains to check IDs in an attempt to identify refugees and migrants. This was before the news from Paris. But a largely unregulated flow of migrants has been on my mind for some time as a possible route for terrorist groups to infiltrate (or re-infiltrate, in the case of some) into Europe. It is likely that border controls will be further tightened on and within the perimeters of Europe. It is also likely that this initiative is largely too late. Furthermore, “self-radicalisation” of young men in Muslim communities will likely carry on, regardless.

Kiev and hybrid war…

November 10, 2015


One of my favoured excuses for failing to produce blog articles regularly is that I am not in the comfort of my office.  I am actually in Kiev at the moment trying to better understand “hybrid warfare” (aka ambiguous warfare, new generation warfare, etc, etc).  I shall report in once I have absorbed sights, sounds and ideas…


Syria: Does Russia have it all its own way? What can go wrong for Russia?

October 20, 2015

Summary: The West should be cautious not to overstate the effectiveness of Russian military actions in and around Syria. A lot of things can go wrong in anti-terror operations as the US can testify…

Russia is certainly benefitting from the seizing of strategic initiative and its media is making much of its highly pro-active role. Russia is inserting itself into the US-shaped hole in the Middle East and the West is being made to look and feel wrong-footed. But the focus is perhaps too much on the powerful impact that Russia is having at the moment and less aboout the mid- and long-term problems that can emerge.

Russian airstrikes in SyriaThis colonial flag (and fast-jet) waving Russian venture has many weaknesses that will likely emerge with time. Russia is enjoying the same form of “honeymoon”period that US forces enjoyed in Afghanistan – and, yes, even in Iraq – with initial military engagement and some swift superficial success.

But Russia will drop bombs in the wrong place. Russian aircraft will crash. Russian military personnel will suffer casualties. If Russians fall into the hands of ISIS, they can expect a highly public and unpleasant death that even Russia Today will not be able to conceal or spin. Surface to Air Missiles and anti-tank weapons will emerge in the hands of terrorist groups. A collection of asymmetric attacks from ill-defined militia/terrorist/fundamentalist groups will inevitably land rockets, mortars, IEDs and suicide bombs on Russian political, military and economic targets – and not just those Russian targets inside Syria. It is happening already:

13 October 2015: Two shells hit the Russian embassy Tuesday in the Syrian capital of Damascus as hundreds took part in a rally to thank Moscow for its intervention in the civil war. A report by the Associated Press (AP) said that it was not clear if there were any casualties, but another report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) confirmed that there were no casualties.

There can be no clever use of “Little Green Men” here – no close cultural, linguistic and popular ties to help special forces to operate and gather intelligence or to enable friendly and obedient militia groups to spring up. Russia will likely experience the same insurgency frustrations that the US has done since 2001 – trying to shoot mosquitos with a cannon, or eat soup with a knife. Whichever metaphor we choose, there is little evidence that Russia has the skills for this.

While Mr Putin congratulates himself for his vigorous new venture, he might consider that there are very good reasons why the US has struggled here and backed away. Just a matter of time?

US Troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016

October 16, 2015

Summary: Barack Obama grudgingly but rightly decides to retain a small military presence in Afghanistan for a small amount of time.  The airpower component will ensure the presence is not purely symbolic. 

Staying for a little bit longer

Staying for a little bit longer

Many news outlets are reporting the long-anticipated decision by US President Barack Obama to retain a US military presence inside Afghanistan:

BBC News, 15 October 2015: President Barack Obama has confirmed plans to extend the US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016, in a shift in policy.  Speaking at the White House, he said the US would keep 5,500 troops in the country when he leaves office in 2017.  Originally all but a small embassy-based force were due to leave by the end of next year.  But the US military says more troops will be needed to help Afghan forces counter a growing Taliban threat.  There are currently 9,800 US troops stationed in Afghanistan.  The US forces will be stationed in four locations – Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.”

Although Mr Obama looks to have had his heart set on ending the American wars he promised to end when he became president, the decision is not entirely a surprise. One of Afghan President Ghani’s first missions on becoming president was to travel to Washington to ask for precisely such an extension, on grounds that the security situation was still very unstable. Since Ghani’s request, fighting between Afghan government and insurgency forces (primarily the Taliban) has only increased. The Taliban seem to have been able to shrug off the July shock revelation that their leader, Mullah Omar, had in fact succumbed to illness in 2013. They have sustained offensive operations through the spring, summer and now autumn. In a worrying demonstration of the distance the Afghan army’s independent capability still has to travel, Kunduz was briefly captured in September. It was only recaptured with the help of active US military intervention.

But what does this small extension of relatively small numbers of forces actually allow the US to do? At the peak of the multi-national International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployment, in 2011, some 140,000 soldiers, primarily American, had their boots on the ground. I wrote about the complex, convoluted and unsatisfactory Obama decision-making process for the 2011 “surge” of 30,000 extra troops here. Doubtless, a smaller scale version of this debate was had in the White House and the Pentagon in the last few months.

We should probably expect the 5,000 troops to be allocated against some of these core functions:

  • Securing the US Embassy in Kabul (1,000 troops?)
  • Base protection of US-controlled installations in Afghanistan: Kabul, Bagram (a large former-Soviet airbase 50km north of Kabul), Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and Kandahar to the south.
  • Training, liaison and advisor programmes for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)
  • Special Forces capacity to target Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS targets of opportunity in the region
  • Airpower – to support these four missions and to be able to support the ANSF in extremis

It is not a lot of fighting force but will likely allow the ANSF to hold the line. We should expect some other European troops to remain committed as well, particularly the UK, perhaps picking up additional training and Special Forces duties. The airpower component will be crucial and certainly takes it a little bit further than pure symbolism.  But the symbolism is also at play, operating in two ways. It demonstrates that the US will remain committed but it makes it that little bit harder for the Taliban – who have not had a bad year, given the loss of their leader – to sit down for talks. Their consistent assertion has been that there should be no official (note I am saying “official” here) talks until the infidels have left.

Dutch MH-17 report findings: who would have thought it?

October 14, 2015

Summary: The Dutch report finds, unsurprisingly, that a Buk-launched surface-to-air missile brought down flight MH-17. The Russian media machine twists and flails as it tries to find a credible response – most favoured appears to be the “not our kind of missile” approach.  Next step is the criminal report, due in December.  It will likely conclude the missile was fired from rebel territory by rebels, possibly with Russian support.  Expect more Russian media convolutions.

Apparently not...

Apparently not…

The much-anticipated Dutch investigation report into the technical cause of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 was released yesterday. The aircraft exploded over the fields of Eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014 as a conflict between Ukraine government troops and Russian-backed separatists was underway.

With the necessary but stark language that you would expect from a technical investigation, the report explains the horrific death of 298 human beings thus:

“On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines operated flight MH17, an airworthy Boeing 777-200 with the registration 9M-MRD, in cruise flight near the Ukrainian/Russian border at 33,000, under the control of Ukrainian Air Traffic Control and was operated by a competent and qualified crew.
At 13.20:03 hours (15.20:03 CET) a warhead detonated outside and above the left hand side of the cockpit of flight MH17. It was a 9N314M warhead carried on the 9M38-series of missiles as installed on the Buk surface-to-air missile system.
Other scenarios that could have led to the disintegration of the aeroplane were considered, analysed and excluded based on the evidence available.
The impact killed the three persons in the cockpit and caused structural damage to the forward part of the aeroplane leading to an in-flight break-up. The break-up resulted in a wreckage area of 50 square kilometres between the village of Petropavlivka and the town of Hrabove, Ukraine. All 298 occupants lost their lives.”

It should be stressed that this is the technical report only. The criminal investigation – who was to blame for the missile launch and why – is still be produced.  An unpleasant detail that I had not considered was that some of the evidence (fragments of the missile) were taken from the bodies of the three crew inside the cockpit, which bore the brunt of the explosion.

With the possible exception of the Russian population, for whom these findings probably came as a complete surprise, this report comes as something of an anti-climax. This straightforward conclusion was reached by most impartial analysts within days of the event. It was a simple military cock-up by ill-trained and poorly disciplined rebels.  This happened in the heat of battle, with rebels (possibly with Russian military personnel in support) flushed with the success of similar shoot downs of Ukrainian military high- and low-altitude aircraft only days before.

The most morbidly fascinating aspect of the aftermath of this tragic event has been to watch the full array of Russian governmental, diplomatic, military, intelligence, political, technical, industrial and informational (above all the use of Russian media) tools to thwart independent investigation and subvert this highly damaging and embarrassing conclusion over the months and years after the aircraft’s destruction.

Like a cloud of fast-moving metal objects, a cloud of alternative (often competing and frequently laughable) theories were flung into the airwaves with the willing collaboration of social media trolls based around the world. These ideas flickered and danced for a few moments and then were gone. At one point MH17’s demise was supposedly the result of a failed Ukrainian attempt to shoot down President Putin’s personal jet. The Russian government was careful not to come down in favour of any theory, but doubtless facilitating their exposure and watching carefully to see if any were “sticky” enough to remain attached to the wall of Western media and popular opinion.  Often these false explanations were debunked within minutes.

I steeled myself to follow the English language coverage on Russia Today TV live over a few hours yesterday as it attempted to identify and extract any crumbs of comfort.  Much airtime was dedicated to the Russian test explosion of a similar Buk missile against the side of a similar aircraft in order to demonstrate that the blast and impact would be very different if a Russian missile had been used.  The announcement of these “findings” came, not coincidentally, at the same time as the announcement of the Dutch report, suggesting intent to clutter and confuse rather than clarify and instruct.  I note that no test firings designed to simulate Ukrainian SU-25 ground attack aircraft cannon or missiles seem to have been undertaken, perhaps suggesting that this particular cluster of theories is being quietly dropped.

The culprits were not identified in this report and neither were they intended to be. That will wait until the criminal investigation report comes out around December 2015.  We should expect an even more intense and vitriolic rolling barrage of denial, denouncement and deflection from the Russian government/media nexus, growing in intensity, between now and then.  If the Russian government is very lucky, maybe the Dutch report will find it too difficult to conclude one way or the other who actually fired the missile and why.

But I am reasonably confident that this second, and more crucial, report will conclude that the missile was fired from a Buk surface-to-air missile launcher in rebel (ie Russian-backed) territory.  It will have been fired either by poorly trained rebels, poorly trained rebels with Russian personnel supporting or just by Russian weapons operators.  I do not believe that there was a deliberate attempt to knowingly shoot down a civilian airliner.  I also subscribe to the very credible theory that this Buk probably made its way in from Russia in the days before and made its way hastily back in a similar timeframe, minus one of its missiles.

The Russian government and its government media arm is functioning like a battered army on the retreat after losing ground on the battlefield. But it is not retreating in disarray.  It has had time to recognise the direction in which this battle is probably heading.  It is operating a sensibly flexible defence based on damage limitation. It will start retreating to a second defence line of pre-planned positions and arguments, looking for opportunities for quick counter-attacks as they arise. Third and fourth lines of trenches are likely already being dug. I suspect they will privately accept the Buk missile conclusion in the report and make this the next battleground – it would certainly be unwise simply to attack the report writers as incompetent and/or CIA-stooges.

They will move from throwing up the smokescreen of implausible theories to something like:

  • It was the Ukrainian’s fault for allowing civilian aircraft fly over a war zone – they are the ones really to blame.
  • It was the wrong kind of missile – we don’t use them but the Ukrainians do.

Finally, if the criminal findings – as they likely will – conclude that the missile was launched in a rebel area by rebels. The last-ditch defence will be:

  • Well, these things happen in war, it was a confused situation.
  • The rebels are untrained and clearly they messed up.  Nothing to do with us.
  • It was a highly fluid battle space – who knows who controlled what areas at what times?
  • What the hell were the Ukrainians doing sending civil aircraft into a war zone?
  • In any case, absolutely no Russian military personnel were involved.

And finally, as the last informational redoubt threatens to fall to the enemy:

  • It was a genuine accident, we have identified some of the rebels and will cooperate in attempting to apprehend and punish them.
  • It was clearly an accident in the heat of battle and therefore NOT a war crime.
  • The Russian government is not to blame and had no control over the rebel actions.
  • This is a CIA/Western media plot to smear Russia – as usual.

Essentially, in the worst case – missile found to have been fired by rebels – the Russian government might have to be prepared to hang some of the rebels out to dry and ensure they take the blame. Anyone involved in the shoot down will have plenty of time to disappear.

I did wonder whether, in all this intense propaganda twisting and turning from Russian state-controlled media we might see a resignation or two from journalists pushed too far to tread an increasingly stressed party line. Nothing yet. But the chances of this must surely increase when the criminal report findings come closer.

Afghanistan, Russia and Dostum

October 8, 2015

Summary: Dostum in Chechnya seeking Russian help against terrorism in Afghanistan…

Dostum and Kadyrov

I just saw this brief news article from the Interpreter Magazine:

Yesterday, October 5, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov received Gen. Abdul Rashid Dustum, the first vice president of Afghanistan, he reported on his Instagram page (translation by The Interpreter):“We discussed questions of economic, trade and cultural cooperation. We devoted particular attention to the struggle with terrorism in general and the Ibliss state [ISIS] in particular. Dostum noted that ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead. In order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia’s support, as in Syria. We expressed confidence that the leadership of Russia will make a positive decision in response to this request.”

LifeNews and reported that Dostum also noted Chechnya’s real experience in battling terrorism.“Both Ramzan Kadyrov and I have been waging the struggle with international terrorism. And in this field we can make a substantive coalition. We can learn from each other. We don’t have concrete projects of cooperation yet, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any in the future.”
Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, was once a general in the Afghan army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, then later became an independent warlord who took part in battles against the mujahideen fighters in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. He spent some time in exile in Turkey in 2009 before being allowed to return to Afghanistan by then-president Hammid Karzaai.

It will likely be unclear for some while whether the trip serves Afghanistan’s government or Dostum’s own agenda.  Dostum has regularly talked about forming his own army to fight the Taliban if the central government was not up to the job.  Russia is aggressively and pro-actively expanding its military reach, most recently in Syria.  Where next?  The idea of an independently funded and armed Dostum is not a pleasant one.

Bombing a hospital: how and why..?

October 5, 2015

Summary: A US airstrike levelled a Kunduz hospital, killed civilians and aid workers. Information does not yet allow a full judgement on the “how and why” but it seems less likely the Taliban were a prime cause. Human errors and the stresses of battle in various forms may have fatally complicated the communication between Afghan security forces on the ground and US air controllers.

For some days and weeks now, a battle for control of Kunduz city, in north-eastern Afghanistan, has ebbed and flowed, with the population stuck in the middle, fleeing when they can, or hunkering down in shelter where they must.  Taliban and government forces have grappled inconclusively, plant flags and taking selfies in the various squares and roundabouts of the city’s centre.

In the small hours of last Saturday morning, a US flown and controlled aircraft – likely an AC-130 “Spectre” gunship of some variety – opened fired on the southern-western suburbs of Kunduz city over the period of an hour.  The action appears to have been at the request of embattled Afghan security forces engaged in combat against Taliban fighters in the area.

NYT, General Campbell said that Afghan forces had come under fire near the hospital and then called for help.

The gunship’s fire power probably included a couple of 25-40mm chain guns and a rapid firing 105mm howitzer. These are designed to fire from the same side of the aircraft while it slowly circles its target. The impact of the strike on the target was devastating. And in the wrong place.

hospital, kunduz, msf, fire damage

Final casualty figures will likely become clearer in the days to come, but it seems as if something in the vicinity of 22 hospital workers and patients, including children died in the attacks and subsequent fires that destroyed many of the buildings. Medecin Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) lost a number of their own staff in the attack. The NGO’s Director has since gone on to explicitly describe the event as a war crime, noting that the hospital’s GPS coordinates had been transmitted to all parties of the conflict.  US official military sources seemed to acknowledge some level of culpability by stating that an air strike had gone astray.

NPR, 4 Oct: MSF’s General Director Christopher Stokes, saying in a statement that the group operates “[under] the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed,” insisted that anything less than a fully independent probe of the incident would be unacceptable.

“Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient,” Stokes said.

“We reiterate that the main hospital building, where medical personnel were caring for patients, was repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid, while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched. We condemn this attack, which constitutes a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” he said.

In an interview on Sunday’s Weekend All Things Considered, MSF Executive Director Jason Cone said it has been the “darkest couple of days in our organization’s history.”

Speaking with WATC host Michel Martin, Cone reiterated Stokes’ description of the attack as “a war crime.”

MSF have called for an independent and transparent investigation. The Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has called for an investigation. US President, Barack Obama has said the same.

The Taliban have been quick to capitalise, highlighting “Barbaric American forces bomb civilian hospital in Kunduz” on their website, declaring that no Taliban fighters were in the hospital, something that the slightly more reliable MSF have also stated. The Russian government, recently pursuing its own bombing campaign against various anti-Assad forces in Syria, is also condemning the US attack – and greatly tempting fate in so doing.

There have been many civilian casualty incidents since the conflict began in 2001. Suicide bombings are perhaps the most indiscriminate of all but a misdirected air strike can be more devastating.

But it is a war crime to deliberately target hospitals, schools or places of worship.

There seem to be a handful of plausible explanations for this tragedy:

  1. The US aircraft hit the hospital in error when they were aiming at Taliban forces in the area – very possible.
  2. The Taliban were firing from the hospital and US/Afghan forces collaborated to neutralise this target – seems less likely.
  3. Targeting error on the Afghan side – they transmitted bad or misleading information to US tactical controllers who relayed this flawed targeting information to the aircraft. Possible.
  4. Targeting error on the US side – failure to distribute, circulate or otherwise accurately employ GPS coordinates given to them, or otherwise mismanaging targeting information and procedures. Possible.
  5. Different form of attack entirely – an Afghan security force artillery strike or a Taliban suicide or rocket attack coincident with US air activity. Much less likely – and certainly no evidence.

Every once in a while I find myself believing the Taliban. With the help of MSF, who were operating in the hospital at the time, it seems unlikely that the Taliban were activity deployed inside the hospital grounds, despite the protestations of the acting provincial governor that they were “100 per cent used by Taliban”.  The incident looks to have been an almighty mistake somewhere in the chain of command and control between Afghan security forces making the request and US forces, several thousands of feet above, attempting to respond.

The action of sending GPS coordinates to the US (and Taliban and Afghan government) forces, as MSF appears sensibly to have done, makes the action seem more deliberate but does not guarantee safety.  Human error when under duress in a confused “fog of war” can corrode or overrule all manner of safeguards and procedures. In 1999, the US managed to bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade totally unintentionally during the Kosovo bombing campaign because they had out of date maps. And even more pertinent to the Kunduz incident, in late 2001 at the battle of Qala-i Jangi prison near Mazar-e Sharif, US Forward Air Controllers called in a strike on top of soldiers – and a tank – belonging to General Dostum, whose forces were besieging the Taliban.

T-55 tank knocked out by “friendly fire”, November 2001, Mazar-e Sharif

In this incident, the error occured because the US soldier on the ground had had to change the battery on his GPS device, erasing the most recent stored data and defaulting to the coordinates of his own location when he powered it back on.

Alternately, it is perhaps significant that some Afghan political and military sources appeared initially to have been arguing that, as the Taliban were clearly in the hospital grounds (this is disputed and may well be incorrect), it was therefore acceptable to target the hospital. The Americans are known to be saying that the air strike was conducted at the request of the Afghans. To be fair to the Americans, they have made strong efforts to learn from their “collateral damage” mistakes. I suspect they have a better understanding of the legal and moral implications of knowingly striking a hospital.  We might see a parting of the ways between US and Afghan explanations as investigations proceed.

Is it possible that a crucial “oh, by the way, the Taliban target we are giving you is actually in a hospital” piece of information did not clearly make its way from poorly trained and disciplined Afghan security forces to US personnel and aircraft in the area?

If the Afghan security forces are found to have deemed it acceptable to attack a hospital purely because it was believed to have Taliban in, they may yet be facing a war crimes charge that the Americans will be scramblling to avoid. Interestingly, the Washington Post is suggesting that Afghans are almost sympathetic to the dilemma of Taliban fighting from hospitals and the necessity of attacking them regardless.

Accurate information needs to emerge first, before judgement can be made, but I suspect a chain of human errors to be the most likely cause. As a final thought, I wonder how many buildings are described as “hospitals” or “clinics” in Kunduz? As part of the media reporting, I came across a snippet in several news agencies, including Indian Express, referring to the MSF hospital’s wrecked compound as lying in the east of the city (mapping suggests it is to the south west), with evidence of automatic weapons, including one machine gun, poking from the burnt windows.

Indian Express, 4 Oct: Afghan officials said helicopter gunships returned fire from Taliban fighters who were hiding in the hospital, and AP video footage of the burned out compound in the east of Kunduz city shows automatic weapons, including rifles and at least one machine gun, on windowsills. But Stegeman said there were no insurgents in the facility at the time of the bombing.

Maybe it is easy to get clinics confused.  US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter described the bombing occurring under “hazy circumstances”. In the stress and fog of war, in a night time battle against a shadowy, hard to identify enemy flitting through narrow streets, I can readily see how human error can trigger an unpredictable and undesired chain of events.

Ukraine: Far right on the Southern front

October 5, 2015

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon*

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog ( on topics related to ongoing conflicts. Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: As the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine have solidified, extremist political groups – often ideologically confused – are arrayed in geographical clusters. This post will take a look at the far right groups which occupy the southern front of pro-Russian Donetsk, the ideologies which they follow and what significance such groups hold in Donetsk.

Inside eastern Ukraine, the disputed territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (“DPR” & “LPR” respectively) have become a melting pot for armed nationalist groups of various convictions. The “DPR” and “LPR” are the two pro-Russian de facto states which comprise the disputed eastern territories in Ukraine. Together they form a confederation known as “Novorossiya”, meaning “New Russia”. This confederation exists only on paper, and is as controversial as the de facto states that comprise it. Over the course of time nationalist groups have fallen into geographic clusters in which groups of different convictions are located. In Lugansk, historically a Cossack area, the Cossack identity is very strong. A “National Militia” has been formed in which Cossack battalions perform a task equivalent to that of the less impressive “DPR” Republican Guard – a type of territorial defense brigade. Militia groups in the Donetsk region, on the other hand, appear more diverse, including Soviet revivalist groups to the north and west of Donetsk and Rus’-centric nationalist groups lining the southern front.

Rusich, nationalist

Storm Group Rusich: perhaps a few dozen strong

Rus’-centric nationalism is nostalgic for the old Rus’ states of medieval times. They are considered to be the predecessors to modern Russia. This is often characterized by the use of Slavic pagan symbology and runes of that era and location. Such nationalism is not new, nor is it specific to Russia: nationalists of Scandinavian countries often look to Viking/Norse roots to strengthen and reinforce their own national identity. These fighters often arrive in theatre voluntarily through privately funded organizations similar to the Imperial Legion , a radically orthodox neo-monarchist organisation. Such organizations are often responsible for tasks such as preliminary training and transport to the “war zone”, at which point the local authorities will take over.

When talking about Rus’-centric nationalism, a prominent group is Storm Group Rusich (referred to simply as Rusich from now on) which is, curiously, a favourite all around. Although the Rusich group is only a few dozen strong, it has become quite popular with pro-Novorossiyan media and has caught a lot of attention from western social media sources . It is to be found within the 1st battalion “Viking” of the 1st brigade of the “DPR” army corps which embraces the same kind of ideology although to a much lesser extreme. Just south of the Viking battalion is the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard commanded by Aleksander “Varyag” Matyushin, who was far more vocal with his nationalist ideas before the fighting started. The culture of this battalion is similar in many ways to “Viking”, although more geared towards a revival of the Russian monarchy rather than being infatuated with Rus’/Viking symbolism (although they are no strangers to such things). This rather odd mix of interests makes it one of the more ideologically confused groups in the conflict. But one thing all of these groups do have in common is a distaste towards the “DPR” leadership and the “communists, socialists and Chechens” which hold the front line in the capital region.

Viking Battalion, Russian nationalists of the

Viking Battalion, Russian nationalists of the “DPR”

Varyag group

“More enemies, more honour!”

Ironically, the infamous Azov battalion of Ukraine, to be found on the other side of the front lines, espouses similar views and symbology. Azov has taken criticism from western and Russian media alike for its strong nationalistic overtones and use of symbols rooted in the regional ancient culture long irrelevant to everyday life by now. Azov embraces symbology tied to Germanic neo-paganism. The most notable example being the unit logo which features the black sun – most commonly associated with Nazi symbology. Recently the logo has transitioned into something resembling the SS twin lightning flash symbol. Rusich, which in the past has engaged in battle with Azov, is more partial to Slavic neo-paganism as evidenced by their usage of the Kolovrat – the Slavic equivalent of the black sun, however they do at times use Germanic neo-pagan symbology. A qualified guess as to why both sides employ such symbology is used is that they consider the old Vikings, both Rus’ and Scandic/Germanic, to be the ultimate representations of whiteness and that they in turn believe that employing such symbology will make them culturally pure. On top of this, these symbols all tie in to the Rus’ state run by the Varangians back in medieval times, suggesting strong nostalgia for a “pure” Russian state.
The use of neo-paganism amongst these militia groups seems more for cultural and ideological purposes than religious ones, Rusich being the only known exception which actually carries out heathen rituals, footage of these rituals used to be publically available but were taken down due to negative attention. There is also a high presence of Russian imperial symbology. This is especially popular with the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard, which finds inspiration from different times at which Russia and its predecessors were considered to be great on their own, in this way, neo-pagan symbology does not directly clash with the Orthodox Christian undertones of Imperial Russian symbolism.

Such strong symbology attracts many new outside fighters who recognise this symbology as an invitation to fight for their cause. These fighters often stem from various nationalist groups like Russian National Unity but also nationalist groups from countries outside Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact the most prominent fighters from Rusich are not even native to Russia. Rusich’s leader Alexey “Serb” Yurevich is a young Serb, with somewhat of a celebrity status in “Novorossiya” and Russia, even taking a trip to St. Petersburg with a Norwegian neo-nazi from his platoon last year to attend a conference with active duty Russian service members. These two fighters receive the majority of pro-Russian media attention in the form of interviews and airtime when they have announcements to make.

Although the most prolific groups with nationalistic ideals of this kind are mostly situated along the southern “DPR” front, small groups with similar views of neo-monarchism and Slavic neo-paganism are starting to pop up in Lugansk, both in Cossack units as well as independent brigades. This is no great surprise as Rusich began as a Lugansk militia group. But it does seem to be colliding with what seems to be an attempt by higher powers to concentrate that brand of nationalism in one place. This might address a fear that groups of opposing views could turn against each other in the absence of a tangible common enemy if ceasefires hold.

It is not uncommon for militia units to operate vigilante night patrols and enforce their own forms of localised martial law: the “DPR” leadership may have chosen one of the least densely populated regions for the least-disciplined of parts of their militia which they have less control over. The “DPR” in particular appears to be reacting to fears of infighting, effectively militarizing the political party “Donetsk Republic” which holds the majority of seats in the “People’s Council”, the legislature of “DPR”. This is being done by accepting large amounts of soldiers from the same units to join the party , .

Donetsk and Lugansk have been host to many lethal power plays between militia groups and the local governments. The assassination of Aleksey Mozgovoi, the former commander of the “LPR” Separate Mechanized Battalion “Prizrak”, is one of the better known examples. Mozgovoi was vocally critical of the “Novorossiyan” leaderships and survived one assassination attempt before being killed in the second. Other militia leaders have suffered the same fate, or have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

There are many different politically charged militia groups within “Novorossiya”. The ones this article focuses on are the most notable in the context of political ideology or because of the extreme nationalist nature of their beliefs.

There is cause for concern here.  Such a large collection of militia groups with more or less the same nationalist ideology in a small region with a power vacuum still being filled is dangerous. This could have serious internal political and security implications for the ruling governments of these de facto states, which have a history of less than ideal ways of dealing with opposition. In the long run, if these factors do lead to instability, it will mean more trouble for the Donbass region and its stakeholders.

At the international level, where people come from abroad to fight for a common nationalist cause, returning fighters could pose a security risk to their home nation.  The prospect of the pro-Russian nationalism in its different forms having a recent military experience is worrisome.

Afghanistan: Ground conflict intensifies

September 28, 2015

Summary: ground conflict flaring up in the north and east initiated by Taliban and “ISIS” groups.  Some reports suggest part of Kunduz now in Taliban hands

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Kunduz – officials fleeing to the airport…

Update, 28 September: BBC and others are reporting part of Kunduz has fallen into Taliban hands:

BBC, 28 September 2015: Hundreds of Taliban fighters have stormed the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz, seizing control of half of it, police say.

Militants have occupied some government buildings, including a prison, and heavy fighting is continuing.

One report said the Taliban had raised their flag in the city centre.

The government said at least 25 militants and two Afghan policemen had been killed and that reinforcements had been sent to the city.

Monday’s attack appears to be one of the most significant mounted on a provincial capital by the Taliban, correspondents say.

Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Husaini told the BBC’s Mahfouz Zubaide that militants had captured the jail in Kunduz and freed about 500 prisoners, including members of the Taliban.

The Taliban, for their part, are reporting their fighters are in the city centre:

Kunduz Update: Mujahideen reach the main square

The attacks launched on Kunduz city by Mujahideen early this morning are said to be still ongoing at the moment.

Officials reporting from the city say that Mujahideen have so far overrun a police station, 4 check posts; from direction of Kabul Bandar Zakhel village,  Se Darak area, 200 bed hospital, Amrullah Omar Khel compound and Bagh Zara’at area; from Imam Sahib Bandar directon Sheikh Zahir village, Zar Kharid area and 2 check posts.

So far 15 police are confirmed killed, dozens wounded, Commander Bashir detained, 7 vehicles, 2 motorbikes, 3 RPGs, 3 PKMS, 13 AK rifles and a sizable amount of other equipment seized.

Mujahideen have currently reached the main city intersection, are targeting the governors compound and clearing the small remaining pockets from enemy presence.

More details about the operation will be updated as information arrives.


There is a lot of activity going on in Afghanistan, most of it unhelpful.  It seems as if fighting has increased in the north and east of the country.  Reports suggest that the Taliban are making renewed and sustained efforts to pressurise and ultimately seize the north-eastern city of Kunduz.  Earlier this year, Kunduz was making the headlines for similar reasons.

Voice of America, 28 September 2015: Taliban militants have launched an assault from several directions on the strategic northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz.

Police say government forces are fighting the insurgents in at least three Kunduz locations. A police spokesman said “heavy fighting is ongoing in Khanabad, Chardara and at Imam Saheb, the main entrances to the city.”

The coordinated attacks began early Monday.

Insurgents have been involved in intense fighting in the once tranquil province of Kunduz since April.

On top of this, reports that large-scale attacks by ISIS have been made in the eastern province of Nangarhar against police outposts.

The fall of a significant city would be very bad for the government and a significant morale boost for the Taliban who are struggling with unity issues after the death of Mullah Omar in July.  But information (the battle progress, casualties, objectives on both side) is sketchy – a fairly constant problem in the conflict in Afganistan, particularly now that ISAF has pulled out.

Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, authorities said hundreds of Islamic State militants staged a coordinated pre-dawn attack against key security outposts in Nangarhar province. Afghan forces have forced the extremists to retreat.

Officials said it was the first major attack by Islamic State militants against Afghan forces, coming after months of reports that the extremist group is becoming more and more powerful in Afghanistan.

We should be careful about the use of the term “ISIS” but it is very possible – indeed likely – that some former Taliban and HIG groups are rebadging themselves in part as a reaction to internal Taliban problems and also due to the high profile and rise of ISIS – this is the group to be seen to be in.

IBN Live, 27 September 2015: The attacks in Achin were confirmed by the border police commander in eastern Afghanistan, Mohammad Ayoub Hussainkhail. They came a day after a UN report warned that IS was making inroads in Afghanistan, winning over a growing number of sympathisers and recruiting followers in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.

Afghan security forces told UN sanctions monitors that about 10 per cent of the Taliban insurgency are IS sympathisers, according to the report by the UN’s al-Qaeda monitoring team.

The jihadist group has been trying to establish itself in Afghanistan and challenging the Taliban on their own turf.

Some Taliban insurgents, particularly in the restive eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, have adopted the IS flag to rebrand themselves as a more lethal force as NATO combat troops depart after 14 years of war.

Vice President, Dr Abduallh Abdullah has recently acknowledged government problems in meeting the popular expectations for progress:

Voice of America, 27 September 2015: He admitted that the National Unity Government has not clearly communicated to the Afghan people about what he called “harsh realities” — the challenges they face from poverty and the threat from Islamic terrorists.

Attacks from the Taliban have grown and Islamic State is starting to take advantage of the leadership dispute among the Taliban.

But Abdullah said the government has so far achieved mixed success. Despite a contested presidential election that put the country in political limbo for months last year, Abdullah said the Afghan people have a revived confidence in the political process and the government.

Both sides – government and insurgents – still have problems but both are still in the fight.  This is stalemate and nothing on the horizon resembling either constructive talks or something to tip the balance.  Small wonder why Afghans are still leaving the country in droves:

Al Jazeera, 16 September 2015: Afghanistan’s passport department has been inundated with applicants.

According to the passport agency’s employees, they are now issuing an average of 2,000 passports a day, a threefold increase from six months ago. Unofficial reports from one border crossing in Nimruz province claim that over 8,000 Afghans cross into Iran on a daily basis. The total number may be much higher, given Afghanistan’s porous borders and multiple crossing points.

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