Islamic State’s Canadian ‘Voice’ Facing Terrorism Charges in the U.S.
During Islamic State (IS)’s heyday, before the collapse of its ‘territorial caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria in 2019, a Saudi-born Canadian IS member, Mohamed Khalifa, became the main voice of IS by narrating numerous IS videos. Virtually nothing was known about the native English speaker until Kurdish forces arrested him in Iraq in 2019, and his voice was heard through interviews with the Canadian media. In such interviews, he discussed IS’s “rules of engagement” and its justifications for fighting. He additionally demonstrated his commitment to suicide bombings and IS’s cause of establishing a Caliphate (globalnews.ca, October 15, 2019).
Among the most notorious videos that Khalifa took part in was one involving U.S. journalist, James Foley, who was subsequently beheaded by a British IS member known as “Jihadi John” (thesun.co.uk, October 2). Other memorable, albeit graphic, IS videos that he narrated were “Flames of War I” and “Flames of War II” in 2014 (Twitter.com/@Jake_Hanrahan, January 17, 2019). In the latter video, using his alias “Abu Ridwan al-Kanadi,” he executed captives, whom he called “kuffar (infidels),” with gunshots to the head. The captives were subsequently buried in graves they had dug themselves before their executions.
Khalifa has now been extradited to the U.S. and taken into custody to face trial (globalnews.ca, October 2). The indictment for Khalifa notes that he e-mailed a family member short of his travels to Syria in 2013 to “fight jihad not just to defend Syrians” because he believed it was an “obligation” to re-establish the Islamic caliphate. Further, Khalifa noted that he had listened to audios of Yemeni-American preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, which exhorted him to fight jihad (Twitter.com/@StewGlobal, October 2).
As a result of Canada’s unwillingness to repatriate IS members captured in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has finally decided to prosecute Khalifa in the U.S. for his involvement in killing Americans. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Khalifa was the “voice behind the violence” and was part of the IS “Diwan of Central Media” for which he translated and narrated around 15 IS videos (justice.gov, October 2). Given that Khalifa literally recorded his own voice and violence and provided it for the world, including IS supporters, researchers, and intelligence agencies to see, the evidence to prosecute him will be abundant.
More broadly, Khalifa’s impending prosecution signals an end to an era. Gone are the days when IS controlled territory in the heart of the Middle East and could produce lengthy and professionally narrated brutal videos including Khalifa himself and other Westerners. In the future, however, aspirant jihadists will likely watch those IS videos and Khalifa’s voice will inspire them, just as al-Awlaki’s had inspired Khalifa before his travel to Syria. In the meantime, however, IS continues to release combat videos from Iraq and Syria, but oftentimes the most dramatic videos now come from IS’s provinces abroad, including in West Africa and, more recently, Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan Opens Dialogue with the Taliban Amid Russian Military Maneuvers
On September 23, the Afghan Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, tweeted and released a photo of a meeting between Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar Akhund, and Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Adviser, Talat Beg. According to Mujahid, Kyrgyzstan supports establishing positive relations with the Taliban and providing humanitarian aid to the Afghan people (twitter.com/@zabiullah_m3, September 23). Prior to the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan in August, Kyrgyzstan called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, interconnecting through the Doha peace accords between the U.S. and the Taliban, and maintained a generally neutral tone towards the national-level conflict between the then-Afghan government and Taliban (aa.com.tr, July 8). Now that the Taliban has risen, Kyrgyzstan appears to have accepted the realities on the ground and begun the process of working with the group, if not also to potentially recognize its government in the future.
Prior to 2001, the “panhandle” of Afghanistan in the Wakhan Corridor of Badakshan province, which straddles the Tajik border, remained out of Taliban control; now the Taliban has seized this region. The Wakhan Corridor is home to around 1,200 Kyrgyz Afghans, or “Pamir Kyrgyz,” whom Kyrgyzstan has expressed willingness to accommodate in Kyrgyzstan if they are unsafe in Afghanistan (rus.azattyk.org, August 17). The Taliban, however, met with the Pamir Kyrgyz and promised them safety, meaning if this was a concern to Kyrgyzstan, it has likely been alleviated (rus.azattyk.org, August 24). Furthermore, the fact that Tajikistan separates Afghanistan from Kyrgyzstan means there is no direct border between the regions. Therefore, Kyrgyzstan is relatively more secure in terms of conflict spillover than countries that neighbor Afghanistan, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Should Central Asian militants pose a threat to Kyrgyzstan, despite Taliban assurances that Afghan soil will not be used for attacking any foreign countries, Russia has stepped into the fray once again as the regional security guarantor for Central Asian states. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), for example, held a three-day training exercise in Kyrgyzstan in early September involving 500 Russian troops and units from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Russia further stated the purpose of these “Rubezh (Frontier) 2021” exercises was to respond to events in Afghanistan (gandhara.rferl.org, September 7).
Thus, even if the threat from the Taliban or Central Asian militants in Afghanistan remains low, the geopolitical posturing related to Afghanistan continues. Russia is justifying consolidating and furthering its military presence in Afghanistan on account of potential risks emanating from the country. Furthermore, in a seeming change of geopolitical positioning, the U.S. reportedly consulted with Russia about using Russian military bases in Central Asia to monitor security developments in Afghanistan (wsj,com, September 27). In contrast, more than one decade earlier the U.S. hosted its own military “transit center” in Manas, Kyrgyzstan for supplying the war in Afghanistan, but as a result of Russian pressure, the U.S. was forced to leave in 2014 (stripes.com, September 27, 2013). It appears, therefore, that Moscow is seeking to “return” Central Asia to Russia’s sphere of influence.