February 19, 2024No Comments

Anant Mishra on the current security and political situation in Afghanistan

In this session, Professor Mishra discusses the capacity of the security forces to control the territory, the Islamic State Khorasan Province, and the division within the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Professor Anant Mishra is a Visiting Fellow at the International Centre for Policing and Security, University of South Wales.

Interviewers: Agostino Bono and Camilla Cormegna - Crime, Extremism and Terrorism Team

February 8, 2024No Comments

African narco-jihadism among al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates: waging a halal war by haram means

Author: Ilas Touazi - Africa Team


The interlinkages between international phenomena such as the illicit drug economy, transnational organised crime, conflict, and terrorism have become the absolute reality of globalisation and the complex interdependence that reflects its savage side. The spread of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their regional affiliates as key predatory actors in global governance through paradoxical guerrilla warfare using theological justifications and political fabrications to promote “narco-jihadism,” exploiting Haram  money for a Halal cause, makes Africa the new epicentre of the nexus between organised crime, narcotics, and terrorism's nebulae.

A triptych of terrorism, religion and organized crime: a marriage of carp and rabbit between haram and halal

In Islam, the main source of prohibitions and permissions comes from the Qurʾān. Thus, “Halal” means anything that is permitted or conforms to Islamic law with a set of rules concerning the adherents' principles of life and “Muslim morality.” It includes, among other things, nutritional standards that comply with Sharia law. Conversely, the concept of “haram” refers to matters that are unacceptable or illegal under Islamic law, i.e., all harmful chemical substances (toxins) that are dangerous to human life and health, as well as the consumption of narcotics and drugs are considered prohibited (Haram). While the involvement of al-Qaeda and Daesh in the dirty narcotics business is a heady cocktail under a triangle that combines politics, religion, and jihadist crusades, narcotics and terrorism have no religious hue.

Islamist terrorist groups have justified jihad as halal and part of the acts of “ijtihad” or martyrdom as a necessary religious duty carried out by the “muharribun” against the “kuffar” (infidels), thus constituting a halal and legitimate cause. Although the Qurʾān explicitly forbids the outbreak of war and authorises combat only against real aggressors, jihadist thinking has adapted to political realism, authorising wars of expansion, even using illegitimate means, i.e., Haram. Indeed, with the internationalisation of the jihad, previously focused on the “near enemy,” then towards the “far enemy,” described in the Islamic vision as the “home of war” (dar al-ḥarb), thus making it possible to wage an offensive jihad, using narcotics to spoil Western society with drugs and the ongoing use of mass production and distribution of illicit drugs, intrinsically contrary to Islam, as a pretext to advance religious and ideological objectives and justify the “holy” war against the West.African Jihadist terror-crime nexus spectrum: A cross-trigger-incubator cycle

African Jihadist terror-crime nexus spectrum: A cross-trigger-incubator cycle

“Narco-jihad” is the contradictory and absurd justification of acts of violence in the name of religion, fuelled by the revenues of the illegal drug trade, which consists of spoiling “infidel” Western forces with drugs and consolidating Islamic rule, not by faith but with a well-calculated guerrilla strategy, since the drug economy remains one of the main sources of funding for jihadist-matrix terrorism in Africa. The practice of narco money for jihad dates from the Islamist mujahideen” groups against the Soviet Union. As for post-modern jihad, the use of cryptocurrencies and bitcoin has overtaken traditional methods of transferring funds as part of “crypto-jihad.” Meanwhile, with globalisation, the end of the Cold War, and the “global war on terror,” the “terrorism-crime continuum” became a growing threat, forming an adaptive alliance to changing circumstances. On others, terrorist and organised crime groups used a dual “modus operandi” nexus, including logistics and material support, and protections under geographical “safe havens” deeply intertwined over “hybrid groups.”

Henceforth, African jihadi narcotics rely on religion, local conflicts, anti-western rhetoric, corruption of government officials, and the general feeling of injustice to gather support. However, the “black hole syndrome,” in which the convergence between terrorist nebulas and transnational organised crime groups is mainly occurring within Sahel’s “ungoverned space,” where a weak or failed state has created conditions ripe for jihadist actors connections, including Niger’s narco-networks to gain economic and political power. In so doing, a complex “glocal jihad” is emerging, linking local, national, regional, transnational, and global levels in a dialectical, blurred, and intertwined process that goes beyond local spatial realities, as applied by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in its strategy of geographical expansion in the Sahel with complex interconnections between smuggling networks and illegal arms and drug trafficking. In this respect, jihadist groups operating in West Africa have maintained their actions and even expanded, opportunistically and pragmatically resorting to various sources of funding, with the smuggling of drugs and narcotics, particularly cocaine and cannabis resin, playing a key role in the entrenchment of “narco-jihadist” activities in the Sahel region. Notably, Al-Mourabitoun and the Gourma Katiba focus on kidnapping for ransom and trafficking in drugs, arms, and transnational criminal activities.

Africa’s narco-jihadism landscape and trends: dual dynamics between hybridization and trans-nationalisation

The African threat landscape has consistently changed, and the narcotics routes are varied, with Guinea-Bissau as a key “narco-state” facilitating the flow of illegal narcotics, with drugs transiting through the Sahara, passing Jihadist zones, North Africa, and then on to Southern Europe. As a result, the east coast of Africa is becoming a hub for the international heroin trade networks and forms an integrated regional criminal economy with its long coastline providing landing sites and safe routes for Afghan heroin destined for markets in Europe and North America. Simultaneously, according to the UNODC World Drug Report 2023, Africa remains a key region for cocaine trafficking, mainly in West Africa, while North Africa is a central axis for the inter-regional smuggling of cannabis resin and cannabis. However, half of the pharmaceutical opioids seized worldwide between 2017 and 2021 were in Africa, largely due to the non-medical use of tramadol. This is why, more recently, tramadol has been a main aspect of “narco-jihadism” under an era of “low-cost terror”, including Captagon, which has become the “drug of Jihad” used initially by Islamic state fighters and militants of narco-terror groups in the Middle East region, also known as the “cocaine of the poor,” “ISIS’s drug,” and then spread through African jihadist operatives as war drugs and money laundering business.

Credit: https://greydynamics.com/cocaine-cashew-status-quo-in-africas-first-narco-state/

AfricaIndeed, the 2023 Global Terrorism Index report has heightened the relationship between terrorism and ecological threats under a vicious cycle of progressively greater asymmetrical challenges, mainly clustered in African regions. As such, the 2022 Ecological Threat Report (ETR) identified that most African countries have emerged as “hotspots” affected by climate change, terrorism, conflict, and crime, with the highest risk in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). However, African jihadist groups are moving more towards environmental terrorism, which encompasses not only wildlife crime but also smuggling and all kinds of activities, including the illegal taxation of natural resources, which accounts for 38% of conflict financing, drugs (28%), seizures and looting (26%), and money extorted from kidnappings for ransom (3%).While a study conducted in 2023 by UNODC has demonstrated that illicit financial flows (IFFs), including smuggling of migrants (SOM) and trafficking in persons (TIP), especially women and children, with the involvement of non-state armed groups and terrorist and violent extremist groups (VEGs), have cross-border implications through the west African region with Islamic state local affiliates,. 

The African franchises of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: Narco-jihadism, a necessity that allows prohibitions 

Some areas of the African continent, have become a new global hotspot for narco-jihadist activities. Local VEGs, claiming inspiration from ideologies espoused by Al-Qaida or Daesh, reflect a “proto-state” version of governance that operates within a wider political economy characterised by “business models” with “Big Man” patron-client organisations or “warlords,” as Mokhtar Belmokhtar's nicknamed “Mister Marlboro,” using cigarette smuggling to finance AQIM and affiliated groups such as Ansar Al-Sharia. However, Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin  has engaged with illicit economies and tactical use of economic warfare through its involvement in post-modern razzias (or rezzous), which replaced the ancient caravan trade in the Sahel-Saharan belt with a criminal economy based on cannabis resin (hashish), then cocaine. Indeed, the narco-jihadism networks spread across ethnicities and tribes, namely with “black jihad,”exploited by Ansaroul Islam, building alliances with criminal gangs such as Lahmar and Tuareg traffickers and TilemsiArabs. In West Africa, the drug trade has fuelled the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) with illicit trade networks, particularly synthetic opioids, and charges “transit taxes” to narcotics trafficking. However, Al-Shabaab militants have financial or operational links with the pirates. These close ties are referred to as the “sea jihad.” In fact, in December 2023, a new alliance was formed with Somali pirates operating off the coast, receiving 30% of all ransom proceeds.

Certainly, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State African affiliates have used the religious tax known in Islam as zakat as a source of legitimacy and religious authority, imposed on herders in the Sahel with the demand for cattle as payment for zakat, on the one hand in exchange for protection and on the other for financing jihadism. Although zakat in Islam is not explicitly given in exchange for services, it has been usurped by JNIM and the Islamic State-Sahel Province (ISSP) in the name of religion, becoming a coercive measure and a source of illegitimacy under the new guise of “cow jihad.”Meanwhile, Boko Haram has normalised gender-based violence as a strategy of terror with the commodification and militarization of women as sex slaves; this is built around some theological justifications that permit submission to men and the exploitation of women, including forms of slavery or human trafficking for sexual purposes. Whereas Islamic law considers human trafficking, including violence against women and children, drug trafficking, and smuggling, to be crimes of ta'zir.


The process of terrorist groups using religion to promote narcotics causes, particularly in the African continent, has become part of the postmodern jihadist landscape. That’s why counter-terrorism must be based first and foremost on an understanding of the patterns and modes of jihadist thought, as well as on a solid grasp of the intellectual matrices and theological foundations that represent an effective, preventive tool for building resilience in the face of violent extremism and mitigating the factors behind this globalized phenomenon. Hence, education and academic work in favour of the new moderate discourse are constants to expose their shortcomings and contradictions in the form of a soft approach that must accompany hard structural and operational counter-terrorism.

October 24, 2022No Comments

Ido Levy on ISIS vs Al Qaeda

Interviewers: Anna Lorenzini and John Devine.

Ido Levy talks about the deep conflict between ISIS and Al-Qaeda and its possible implications from a strategic point of view, the significance that they believe the West has within this scenario, and whether some recent events such as the war in Ukraine or the upcoming Israeli elections may affect terrorist activities. 

Ido Levy is an associate fellow working with the Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program and a PhD student at American University’s School of International Service. His work focuses especially on Near East Policy on counterterrorism and military operations, particularly relating to jihadist groups.

October 5, 2022No Comments

Conversation with Stefano Piazza (Italiano)

A conversation with  Stefano Piazza on the capabilities of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State since the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri and future developments.

(Una conversazione con Stefano Piazza sulla condizione di Al-Qaeda e dello Stato Islamico dopo la morte di Ayman al-Zawahiri, e uno sguardo agli sviluppi futuri).

Interviewer: Francesco Bruno.

June 8, 2022No Comments

Analysis of the nexus between Human Trafficking and Terrorism.

Author: Arianna Caggiano.

This is a critical commentary of the research paper launched by the OSCE Organization: Trafficking in Human Beings and Terrorism. Where and How They Intersect: Analysis and Recommendations for More Effective Policy Response.

Human Trafficking as a tactic of terrorist groups

Over the years, human trafficking has increasingly become a modus operandi used by terrorist groups to finance and carry out their activities. To this extent, as human trafficking constitutes a crime that is usually perpetrated by organized criminal groups, some scholars have stressed that the “crime-terror nexus” implies that both criminal and terrorist organizations might cooperate with each other in the furtherance of their respective goals. Despite the increasing use of organised crime-related tactics deployed by terrorists, in analysing the current legal framework in international law when it comes to trafficking in human beings and terrorism there is still no existing treaty or convention dealing with the nexus between the two phenomena. On the basis of the OSCE paper launched in 2021 on the nexus between human trafficking and terrorism, this article will try to critically evaluate from a juridical and legal point of view the analysis and findings developed by the OSCE on this matter.

Comparing Legal and Policy Frameworks of Anti-Trafficking and anti-terrorism Mechanisms

When it comes to the definition of the human trafficking’s legal framework, it is worth emphasizing that it was not until 2000 that a first definition of trafficking in human beings was given in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, better known as the Palermo Protocol. The adoption of the Protocol can be considered as a watershed moment for the legal framework of human trafficking: as of today, it counts 173 signatory States and it can be defined, thus, as almost a universal ratification. A further key role in combating human trafficking is played by regional trafficking treaties, which complement the obligations upon signatory States, especially with reference to victims’ protection. Indeed, as stressed by the OSCE research, a major principle guiding anti-trafficking legislations and policies is the principle of non-punishment of victims of trafficking, according to which Member States are obliged to «assess the individual situation of persons released from the captivity of armed and terrorist groups so as to enable prompt identification of victims of trafficking».

On the other hand, the international legal framework related to terrorism and counterterrorism is considerably more challenging and complex in comparison to the anti-trafficking international legal system. Indeed, despite the existence of a set of treaties, protocols, conventions, Security Council Resolutions, as well as “soft law” and non-binding mechanisms, there is no comprehensive instrument providing a universal and accepted definition of terrorism, as it is the case for human trafficking with the Palermo Protocol

In analysing the nexus between these two phenomena, it is of utmost importance to emphasize the constituent elements of trafficking used as a tactic by terrorist groups. Pursuant art. 3 of the Palermo Protocol, «Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force […] to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. […]». This very intense definition provided by the Protocol, shows three main constituent elements of human trafficking: action, means and purpose.

Therefore, as the OSCE outlines, in evaluating the link between trafficking in human beings and terrorism from a legal perspective, a useful approach would be one that analyses these three constituent elements when exploited by terrorist groups as a tactic to recruit individuals. In this regard, the analysis of the current legal framework on the nexus between the two crimes shows that a harmonisation in the criminalization of terrorism and human trafficking as two offences connected has not been reached yet. Indeed, despite the existence of several instruments that recognize the growing links between terrorism and transnational organized crime, the lack of a definition of terrorism still hinders the internationally community to adopt an internationally agreed-upon approach to terrorism matters, while it is not the case for human trafficking. 

The legal response that has been adopted so far to address cases where the two phenomena intersects has largely focused on criminalizing all individuals related to terrorist activities and groups. The lack of a definition of terrorism has led States to adopt different measures aimed at only criminalizing terrorists and not identifying and protecting victims. Therefore, as highlighted in the research, this approach has showed to have significant consequences for victims, who have risked being held fully accountable for all the crimes they have committed, even though they are victims of human traffickers. Based on these findings, the OSCE research concludes that a human trafficking lens when dealing with terrorist criminal offences should be applied to contribute to victim identification, assistance, rehabilitation and reintegration, and prevention of re-victimization. Therefore, it would be of utmost importance to apply the principle of non-punishment - that already exists in the human trafficking framework – in the anti-terrorism existing legal and policy mechanism. 


This critical commentary has analysed from a legal perspective the comprehensive research carried out by the OSCE organization on the nexus between human trafficking and terrorism. It has highlighted how the application of anti-trafficking mechanisms, including the principle of non-punishment, in the context of terrorism could help leading in a better way prosecution of criminal offences related to terrorism. The OSCE research might constitute the basis for an international and agreed-upon definition that considers both a security-oriented approach to prevent and prosecute terrorist offences and a human rights-based one, ensuring that victims of terrorism – and trafficked persons exploited by terrorists – are not held accountable and can access to their rights. 

All in all, the OSCE research offers significant food for thought and, using concrete cases, helps filling the knowledge gap of policy makers, academics, practitioners, and legislators on the nexus between human trafficking and terrorism. 

May 19, 2022No Comments

“He who accepts… survives”: Tales from Syria

The ITSS Verona Middle East team interviews a Syrian gentleman who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons. He details his experiences of returning to Syrian after 12 years. He recounts his experiences from collecting his allotted rations, to experiencing the energy crisis currently affecting Syria, and more about life under dictatorship and civil war.

Interviewers: Anna Lorenzini and John Devine.

March 29, 2022No Comments

The Role of NGOs in the Sahel Region: A talk with Marianna Mormile

Progettomondo is an international non-governmental organization founded in 1966 to promote sustainable development, human rights, and a new form of justice and conscious migration in Latin America and Africa. In Italy and Europe, the NGO promotes global education and the encounter between different cultures. Marianna Mormile is the country director for the Sahel Region and in this podcast, she discusses the role of Italy’s ONGs in the Sahel region, and the situation in this conflict area.

Interviewing Team: Michele Tallarini and Alessandra Gramolini

English Translation of the Interview:

MICHELE: Good day everyone, and welcome back to the ITSS Verona Youtube Channel. We are Alessandra and Michele from the Africa Team. Today we will talk about the situation in the Sahel. For this episode, we are delighted to host Marianna Mormile from Progettomondo, an NGO from Verona which operates in Africa and Latin America. Marianna works as country director for the Sahel, and she lives in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. ​ We would like to start by expressing our gratitude to our guest for accepting our invitation and for sharing her high-level experience and knowledge with us. 

MARIANNA: Thanks Alessandra and Michele for this opportunity. Sharing your opinion and experience is always important and often there is no time to do so, so thanks again for the opportunity.

MICHELE: Thank you again. We would like to start with a first general question:  what is your point of view as an Italian who lives and works in Burkina Faso regarding the situation in this region? What are, in your opinion, the main problems affecting this area which is one of the most complicated in the world?

MARIANNA: I have a vision of the area's problems through the projects that we implement with Progettomondo, and through direct contact with communities, state actors, and other non-governmental organizations. As regards our interventions, I can tell you that certainly the news arriving in Italy are few but they allow us to give timely information on what are in a certain way stable situations of the presence of terrorist armed groups that organize attacks on populations and local authorities; hence a situation that is quite difficult from a security point of view. 

At the beginning, it was an issue of claims and attacks against the central power and therefore with attacks focused more on law enforcement agencies and state actors, such as mayors or other institutional objectives. In this context, the religious component seems to be more of a vehicle than a real justification. In fact, there are villages that are intimidated and subject to certain rules for women and men, forcing the population otherwise to abandon the area, but this seems more like a strategy to recover resources and therefore forage, pushing these flows of displaced persons. 

There is therefore certainly a humanitarian crisis, both in Burkina and in Niger (which are the two countries that Progettomondo follows), albeit in a different way due to the different backgrounds of the two countries. At the moment Burkina is at the peak of its crisis, with a high presence of displaced people and the risk of an imminent food crisis. In fact, last year it did not rain and therefore we are waiting for the consequences that will come. International organizations are trying to understand how to frame the interventions in order to respond to this food crisis that is expected very soon. So in conclusion, the main issues are those relating to safety, which sees no improvement, and a food crisis that goes on for periods but which is configured as constant and which could have a peak this year.

ALE: Thank you very much, Marianna. Going back to what you said about Burkina Faso, which is currently reaching the highest level of crisis, do you think the recent coup d’etat will be a turning point on the political agenda as regards the fight against terrorism?

MARIANNA: It must be said that the communiqué of the coup leaders, who are now in power, and who are trying to establish a transitional government, contained a point concerning the fight against terrorism. It says there would be improvements and a specific interest in making Burkina out of this problem of security and instability. To date, however, there is no real improvement, even if it is necessary to specify that the coup happened only 2 months ago. 

The situation has not changed to date despite the coup leaders coming from the military world, and in theory they should have the right skills in the security field or in any case have a particular focus on this issue. In the press release, there is also a specific point concerning greater attention to the families of fallen soldiers: this certainly denotes an attitude of greater attention. However, even if the problem has been formally addressed, no real and concrete improvements are seen. In truth, this is not a result that can only be achieved by operating in Burkina and only by operating from a military point of view: it would in fact be necessary to do a wide-ranging work that includes several factors.

MICHELE: You talked about a moment of great crisis for Burkina and how these problems must be addressed in a global way and from different points of view. In this sense, what is the role of the Italian NGOs operating in the Sahel and in particular in Burkina and Niger? And are there any substantial differences in approach in the intervention strategies of the agencies of the various countries?

MARIANNA: It must be emphasized that the intervention in the Sahel is constantly changing. NGOs like us are trying to have a continuous analysis not only of the needs of the territory but also of the strategies to respond to these needs trying to enhance their expertise, and to form gradually. This is because there are various emergencies affecting the communities we work with and it is, therefore, necessary to continually re-calibrate interventions to respond to new needs. For this reason, I would point out, as a common strategy of NGOs, the continuous analysis of the needs of the territories: for example in one of our projects in the north of Burkina, on the border with Mali, we have recently completely redesigned the intervention strategy as regards nutrition and health. Indeed, in few years the situation has changed a lot and therefore the project, as it was originally conceived, risked no longer being operational in all areas. 

There is therefore a desire to integrate a humanitarian component more and more: Italian NGOs, and in particular Progettomondo, are helping the populations of some areas to stabilize, thus making the support offered effective and continuous. We see that in Burkina, and recently also in some areas of Niger, the need to find a balance between the two interventions is becoming crucial. Therefore the donors are pushing us in more multi-sectoral interventions, but in reality, it is necessary that we also work on the ground, completing each other and trying to have more elements in such a way as to operate on different levels. 

There is certainly a commitment from Italian NGOs to be able to continue to make their contribution in regions in which the situation is changing rapidly. In Niger, Italian cooperation has historically supported the agricultural sector; in Burkina, in addition to the agricultural sector, there is a strong aid in the healthcare sector, with interventions, for example, against malnutrition. Here there are also NGOs from other countries: some have had the most humanitarian fiber even in unsuspected times, due to purely periodic food crises. It must be said that Progettomondo and other Italian NGOs have a more proximity approach, working directly on the field, with direct assistance to the communities. This approach also helps to connect and to support the technical services and the local authorities, thus intervening both in the community and at the institutional level. Another type of approach can be the “substitution,”, mainly for emergencies, in which we intervene to replace the State, but always only until it organizes itself to be able to overcome these difficulties. 

ALE: Following this last sentence, according to your experience and your work in the NGO and seeing the work of other NGOs, can international cooperation be able to help make these countries independent of foreign influence?

MARIANNA: Answering this question is very difficult. I can only say that we, as Progettomondo, do not work in geopolitics so we do not have an institutional position, we work following the principle of neutrality, not favoring any kind of deployment but only for the overall improvement of the situation in these territories. We do not enter the political sphere, it must be said that in our work we have to deal with other States' choices in foreign policy. For example, Sahel is a region in which there are constant migratory flows, and in the 2015 Valletta summit, it was made explicit the principle of externalization of borders, i.e. blocking migratory flows at borders really far away from those of the European Union. 

Having said that, surely in the Sahel we can recognize France, China, Russia, and Turkey among the countries that have the most influence. Burkina was a former French colony, and therefore they are closely linked to France, which does not renounce to emphasize this link on every occasion. There is also an open debate on the ECOWAS situation and the new currency: the CFA franc is directly correlated to France. Now the  idea is to replace it with the ECO, but we do not know yet how things are going to change in reality. Perhaps in Mali after the CEDEAO sanctions, there will be the possibility to replace the CFA franc with the ECO, but in reality, it is still very complicated. So I don't know what kind of answer to give in this regard, certainly in some countries of this region foreign influence is very rooted and very often it is not contested, in some cases, it is even accepted.

ALE: You have been very kind, Michele and I would like to thank you again for your time and for sharing your perspective on the field. It was a pleasure for us to have you as a guest of our video podcast series. Thanks for watching, and stay tuned for all other ITSS initiatives here on youtube and on our official website. Have a nice day

March 24, 2022No Comments

The Lesser Known Side of Al Qaeda’s Conventional Warfare: 055- Brigade

By: Francesco Bruno

As a member of the Armed Forces, I have recently become involved with battlefield studies where, as students of war, we aim to enrich our knowledge on a variety of topics to rediscover practices and knowledge that would sustain our fighting ability in the future. This process of active learning is also known as “Lessons learned” and can be conducted across military campaigns and battlefields They also allow for the exploration of a variety of dimensions, including tactics, movement of troops, objectives, targets, and how these dimensions impact the war in broader terms. Personally, I found these exercises extremely interesting and exciting. I, therefore, decided to conduct a Lessons Learned of al-Qaeda, especially of the 055 Brigade to demonstrate how this group of staunch fighters summarises al-Qaeda’s best traits and practices. It is one of al-Qaeda’s finest products and has become a forgotten dimension of al-Qaeda’s war in Afghanistan due to the much more famous and developed networking capabilities of the organisation. Why would this analysis be important? Gen. Erwin Rommel once said, “Sweat saves blood, blood saves lives, but brains saves both,”. Thus, by providing an alternative analysis of al-Qaeda’s conventional warfare capabilities, I aim to spark curiosity and interest in the practices, capabilities, and tactics of the 055 Brigade to learn from our enemy and gather lessons that we could implement in the future. Of course, I do not believe that this article will in any way provide a complete analysis of the Brigade due to the limited amount of information available, but, as Otto Von Bismarck said, “Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others”. Finally, to do the aforementioned, I will encompass three aspects: the nature of the brigade, its role and main functions, and finally its warfare capabilities. 

Carl von Clausewitz’s concept of the Centre of Gravity stated “no matter what the central feature of the enemy’s power may be—the point on which your efforts must converge—the defeat and destruction of his fighting force remains the best way to begin, and in every case will be a very significant feature of the campaign”. Al-Qaeda’s fighting force was composed of two main parts, the 055 Brigade or Lashkar-E-Zil and its extensive international network.[1] The 055 Brigade came to life in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s relocation from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1998. It had a multinational fighting force between 500 and 5000, which experts argue was comparable to “Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards”. Some of the militants were veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979 - 1989) while others were sent by a variety of regional and national jihadist groups including Uzbeks, Libyans, Saudi, Egyptians, Algerians, Sudanese, Chadi, Mauritanians, Somalians, Yemenites, Indonesians, Malaysians, and Uyghurs. The brigade was trained in a military base outside Kabul and became the conventional force of al-Qaeda reporting directly to Osama bin Laden and worked jointly as the backbone support for the Taliban forces across the country. 055 Brigade was therefore a multinational joint project which is often underestimated due to their lack of high-profile operations during the Afghan War between 2001 and 2003. However, their presence was felt in the campaign to capture Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, the battle for Bamiyan in 1999, the massacre of Shia population near Hazarajat in 2001, and in the battle for Tora Bora the same year. The head of the brigade was Jumaboi Ahmadjonovich Khodjiyev, known as Juma Namangani, an Uzbek with three decades of warfare experience and a very scarce public record.[2]

The 055 Brigade resembled al-Qaeda’s creative and unique approach to warfare. To explain this, the article will explore three functions of this formation. The first and most known function was to support the Taliban forces in conventional fighting by providing frontline support to the less experienced Taliban fighters. A key feature of the brigade was to provide critical morale boost to the Taliban troops demonstrating its ideological commitment and military expertise. It is indeed important to understand that the Taliban have never been a fully integrated group as many might think. Instead, they have historically been divided among smaller factions and splinters, often divided between staunch ideologically motivated and professional fighters and local grievance-motivated fighters. This second group was composed by inactive members working temporarily for the Taliban often being farmers or shepherds. Based on this distinction, the 055 Brigade constituted a backbone against defection. 

Secondly, the 055 Brigade defines al-Qaeda Organization’s unique chameleonic and elitist nature. The 055 Brigade was a conventional force using unconventional techniques mostly based on an arabicized version of British and U.S. special forces training methods. This is unique across terrorist organisations. The ability of an organisation, such as al Qaeda, to train, equip, and deploy a force of this nature and to employ it flexibly demonstrates its ability to mix creativity and warfare knowledge. Specifically, the variety of personalities and characters within the brigade is quite stunning. It included not only veterans of the Afghan-Soviet War, which were trained in guerrilla warfare including ambushes, sieges, raids, strongpoints, and urban combat, but also a new generation of fighters with a much better education and deeper loyalty towards al-Qaeda’s leader, Bin Laden. This coupled with their staunch ideological convictions and decisiveness in sacrificing themselves in the name of the cause made of them an extremely useful and powerful tool. 

In terms of operational capabilities and equipment, the 055 Brigade demonstrated its superiority by being better equipped and trained than the average Taliban soldier. They wore commercial night goggles, advanced Western sniper rifles with night sights, light spotter aircrafts, and utilise modern communication systems in addition to mortars, RPGs, machine guns, and AK-47s. The troops were involved in longer and more sophisticated training than what was provided by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Pakistan. The latter tied the brigade to fighting operations in Kashmir against the Indian Security forces. Whilst, the experience from the Soviet-Afghan War in al Qaeda’s 055 Brigade became evident in Operation Anaconda (2002). US and allied forces found themselves to fight asymmetric guerrilla fight, closely resembling the mujahidin’s skirmishes with Soviet heliborne Spetsnaz troops (Russian Special Forces) in the 1980s. Consequently, the fighters could operate in large and small groups as well as specialized mobile teams up to 3 to 4 people, granting them the mobility to transfer across multiple frontlines and regions of the country. In addition, they were given the chance to choose which path suited their career development. This included changing theatres of operations as well as deciding to commit martyrdom.[3] This last point highlights al-Qaeda’s ability to provide its members with a simple “Career Development Plan”, but very much in line with those provided by employees across western businesses, demonstrating a commitment to upskill the troops. 

Thirdly, the 055 Brigade’s flexibility and adaptability aligns with al-Qaeda Organization’s ability to optimise, remodel, and redeploy its forces and capabilities based on operational needs. It is clear that the 055 Brigade could not operate outside the region as an entity due to the lack of heavy equipment and transportation. However, al-Qaeda could count on another side of its fighting capabilities, the unconventional network of cells and partners around the globe. Al-Qaeda was at the time, and certainly continues to be, one of the most elite terrorist organisations across the globe. Their expertise in military tactics, administration, and logistics built on years of protracted conflicts has allowed the members to possess a certainly rare expertise and knowledge base. The 055 Brigade has been employed to provide specialist training and logistical support to al-Qaeda’s partners around the globe with the objective to initiate local jihadi revolts. The latter focused on providing leadership in technical, military, and administrative matters to al-Qaeda’s international partners. This was demonstrated by the use of such fighters in the expansion in Southeast Asia, where 055 Brigade members were routinely used to train local fighters across Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.[4]

Since 2002, the 055 Brigade has been renamed Lashkar-E-Zil and reformed in Pakistan as an auxiliary force of al-Qaeda to support a variety of local groups and the Taliban insurgency moving across border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also continues to participate in the fighting in Kashmir. Some of the most devastating attacks committed by this brigade were under the direction of Mustafa Abu Yazid and Ilyas Kashmiri, who were both killed in 2011. Some of the most ferocious attacks include Major General Amir Faisal Alvi, the former commander of Special Services Group of the Pakistan Army, in November 2008, in Islamabad and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Members of Laskar-E-Zil include former member of the Pakistani armed forces, veterans, and newly acquired members recruited from a variety of organisations and conflicts globally.

To conclude, despite Qaeda has never had the ability to field a conventional army in the purest sense, the internationalisation of the 055 Brigade, its mobility, adaptability, chameleonic nature coupled with employing highly advanced technology tools resemble al-Qaeda’s creativity, knowledge and highly adaptable nature as an organisation. The ability to acquire soldiers from over a dozen nations demonstrate its attractiveness and elitist nature. The staunch ideological commitment of the 055 Brigade fighters should be of clear interest as it demonstrates the commitment of al-Qaeda’s members to fulfil their mission and decisiveness in battle and in operations. The introduction of administrative and logistical practices built upon almost three decades of wars has enabled the organisation to provide its members with “Personal Development Plans”, providing them the flexibility to choose their role, career path, and development within the organisation while being paid for it. The ability to work in large as well as small, specialised groups resembling U.S. and British special forces demonstrates the ability of the organisation to remain at the forefront of warfare knowledge. The adaptability of these forces to become a multiplier  was exemplified by their ability to join and form cells to provide specialised training to a variety of global partners while adding that extra edge to the Taliban forces during the Taliban insurgency. All in all, the 055 Brigade demonstrated to be one of the finest products of al-Qaeda. This, in turn, shows how the organisation can hardly be seen as a relic of the past. 

[1] Rohan Gunaratna.2001. Inside al-Qaeda pp.58-60

[2] For more information on Juma Namangani please visit: http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e1214

[3] Gunaratna Inside al-Qaeda p.60

[4] Rohan Gunaratna.2001. Inside Al-Qaeda p.222

February 21, 2022No Comments

A Conversation with Giovanni Giacalone on Al Qaeda and Islamic State

Giovanni Giacalone has an MA in Islamic Studies from Trinity Saint David University of Wales and a further specialization in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism from the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism-IICT. He is currently a senior analyst at the Europe desk for the UK-based think-tank Islamic Theology of Counter-Terrorism and for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies-Itstime at the Catholic University of Milan. He was country-coordinator for the Globsec European project “From criminals to terrorists and back”, with the objective of analyzing the crime-terror nexus among jihadist foreign fighters. He is the author of several books and chapters on jihadism. He has lectured security managers, and law enforcers on Italian soil, and has testified in audition on security to the Italian parliament.

In this interview, Giovanni talks about the death of Al-Baghdadi, whether and how the death of Al-Qurayshi will affect ISIS operational capabilities, possibilities of defeating terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the ISIS and Taliban threat on Europe.

Interviewers: Adelaide Martelli and Francesco Bruno.

February 21, 2022No Comments

To Stay or Run? What Afghanistan’s future looks like

By: Angelo Calianno.

Today, I have returned to Afghanistan after 4 years. 

In 2018, I left a country that was a constant victim of Taliban attacks; In Kabul, this happened around twice a week, but the rest of the country suffered much more frequently. I left a country at war, where roads were closed due to the sever risk of kidnapping and murder. Today in Kabul I find myself in a surreal situation. The Taliban are wandering around the city with American semi-automatic weapons and items of US Military uniform. What used to be official army checkpoints are now manned by the Taliban. The Afghan tricolor has been removed and replaced by a white flag with Arabic scripture scrawled across it. It reads:

I am a witness that no one deserves worship but Allah. I am a witness that Mohammed is his only prophet.”

Taliban representatives keep telling me at each encounter: “Now, everything is safer. We have defeated evil; The Americans were evil. We fixed the corruption and restored order. We won this war and expelled those who occupied us.”

By: Angelo Calianno.

However, it only takes a little bit of time to understand that things are not exactly as they are presented. In the capital alone, more than half of the shops, cafes and tearooms are closed; in the provinces, it is even worse. The streets, which were once a bustling scene of life, are now crowded by dozens of women and children begging to scrape together a few coins, people running clinging to taxis or simply sitting in the middle of a busy main road.

It is true that the attacks have decreased (since they were mainly carried out by the once-opposing Taliban who have now forced themselves into power), but they have not stopped. The men of DAESH, better known as ISIS-K, are now the opponents of the Taliban regime and the former Taliban insurgents are finding themselves dealing with their own insurgency. Suicide attacks occur in the most crowded places and "sticky bombs" are planted near the checkpoints. Under the Taliban the conflict has not ceased – the position of its players have simply changed.

By: Angelo Calianno.

In a country where conflict is still raging, where cash flow has frozen, where you have to wait months to withdraw only 200 dollars, where more and more people are starving,  and where no viable plan has been announced, what kind of future is possible? We asked Noor Mohammad Ahmadzai, Professor of Research, Assessment, and Language Education at Kabul University.

Mohammad, every day you go to your office at the university, but without students. How are you feeling these days?

"It is very difficult; we are all very worried. I used to earn 1000 dollars per month, now I just got 500 for 4 months and I have to support my family too. I keep coming here because I have to, but in reality, all we do is wait, it has been months now.

We Professors have also tried to have a dialogue with the Taliban, also proposing to divide the classes between men and women, even on different days in order to be able to give more education. However, the answer never came; they keep postponing the meetings or not responding at all.”

Many people, especially the young, fled immediately after the arrival of the Taliban. What do you think? Are you trying to escape too?

It is very sad for me that all those people ran away, but I cannot blame them. People try to build a better future for themselves and their loved ones, and as you can see, we know nothing here except that the Taliban are in charge and that there is no money. Furthermore, Afghanistan imports almost everything, so we are forced to always rely on the dollar. In short, our currency has no purchasing power.

About me, I would never go away. First, I love this country, I am in love with it and anyway, I am not that young to start a new life elsewhere.

Other than that, I would never leave my students. They are already having a terrible time. Generations here know nothing but attacks, bombs, occupation and wars. I couldn't leave them without even a teacher's lead".

I would like to ask you two possible solutions: an idealistic one, which you dream of, even if it may never happen, and a more realistic one, a solution that could be a real possibility

“The ideal solution would be place without the Taliban and with a democratic force. However, it is not realistic now. Of course, there would be the Tajiks: “The Lions of Panshir’, now the only group that could oppose the Taliban regime (even they are economically too weak now). Nevertheless, this perhaps means another war. Afghanistan will not survive another conflict.

This country has already suffered too much.

I think the best scenario now would be the diplomatic pressure from the international communities. Trying to convince the Taliban, perhaps through economic agreements, to integrate ethnic minorities such as Hazaras, Shiites, Tajiks and Uzbeks into the government. Above all, reopen schools and universities.

Many of the Taliban are boys who have been training and fighting since they were children. They know only weapons and hatred. I am sure that they too, connected with civilization, with more educated people, can change. Even if at the moment, this change seems so far away.”

While there are people like Mohammed still holding out hope for their country, many Afghans are now only focusing on how to escape the place they once called home. Every day, hundreds of people queue outside the embassies of neighboring countries, Iran and Pakistan,​ trying desperately to get an exit visa. Thousands more try to cross the borders illegally through the mountains.

Every time I interview someone or listen to a story, I am told a prayer:

“Don't turn your back on us. Please continue to follow what is happening in Afghanistan, it is the only thing keeping the Taliban from doing the same things they did 20 years ago. Being at the center of media attention is keeping us alive.”