#UnitedCVE: Q & A With Anne Azza Aly and Bennett Clifford


Anne Azza Aly speaking at a UNODC Counterterrorism Expert Group Meeting at the UN HQ in Vienna, Austria © Onnik James Krikorian 2015

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) recently published another of my pieces on radicalisation in Georgia and once again, the research work of Bennett Clifford proved invaluable to support general observations I’ve also made with regards to the problem of radicalisation in Georgia. My recent Q & A with Bennett also proved interesting enough to merit posting it in full on this blog.

But first up, however, is Anne Azza Aly, a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) practitioner from Australia who I’ve met before at a Hedayah and Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) event I spoke at in December 2014.

Anne was also a speaker at a United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) counter-terrorism meeting at the UN HQ in Vienna in November. I had wanted to write a much needed piece on how the CVE and tech communities are not working together to counter radicalisation as well as they should. However, a key interviewee for that didn’t get back to me so I had to shelve it.

Moreover, although their organisation has a lot to offer the CVE community, and will almost certainly do so in the future, they’re not yet engaged in this sphere. And this was going to be the point of my article. Yes, tech companies are getting involved, but opportunities are being missed.

In particular, and although Google. Facebook, and Twitter are working with CVE practitioners, those involved in digital activism are not and it’s these organisations with the knowledge and experience of using low cost or even free tools to empower grassroots individuals and organisations whatever the goal. Think Tactical Technology as just one example.

Instead, as millions of dollars becomes allocated to CVE, commercial software companies are seeking to take their slice of the pie even if they have no experience of their tools being used in activism or outreach work of the type that CVE practitioners conduct.

Anyway, Anne and I spoke a lot about this in Vienna and so I wanted to quote her in the piece. She’s really got a lot of important things to say and because my piece never saw the light of day, I thought I’d post her responses to a few quick email questions on this blog.

J.M. Berger tweeted some months ago about what he called the CVE-Industrial Complex, alluding to the creation of a sphere where many now wanting to get into the act because of money being made available. Do you think that criticism is fair, especially with regards to software tools for CVE practitioners?

It is a completely fair and very accurate assessment. It is also an unfortunate state of affairs that individuals with no track record, background or understand of the complex issues involved in doing CVE work are swarming to the field because of the funding opportunities. In terms of software tools specifically, there is ofcourse a greater need for CVE to be approached from multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary perspectives but we shouldn’t underestimate the level of content knowledge and understanding that is required to develop tools that are actually useful to the end user and we should consider the limitations of tools that are developed without such expertise knowledge and guidance.

As a CVE practitioner yourself, what limitations does the cost of software tools place on you or any of the individuals and/or groups that you work with?

Most of our work is face to face so we don’t rely a lot on software tools. However one of the limitations is really the absence of effective and useful software to work with.

At the UNODC meeting you gave the example of some tech companies supporting CVE practitioners. Can you provide some examples and is this a good model for others to follow?

Yes, both Google and Twitter are very active in this space. They have both run workshops for content creators on challenging VE online using their social media platforms for good. There is a lot of pressure on these organisations to remove VE content once it appears- this kind of whack a mole approach is very limited in its effectiveness as removing content is not a fool proof way of dealing with the use of the internet by violent extremists.

Instead, an approach that also harnesses the power of civil society groups and individuals to challenge online content in more organic ways can be much more useful and this is where education and awareness raising can be most useful and where tech companies and organisations can play an important role.

Anything you’d like to add re. the use of software and related tools? Is there anything you particular need?

I think this is a new area still in its infancy and so we have to proceed with caution and ensure that money is not wasted on initiatives that are driven by false assumptions and lack of coherent understandings of the issues at hand.

As for Bennett, his work in Georgia is incredibly important and not least because there’s precious little actual research openly available. Instead there’s a lot of polemic pieces from others with little to no experience of how and why radicalisation occurs.

Of course, there are some exceptions, such as the Information Centre of Kakheti, but anyway, Bennett’s work has proven indispensable for me. I’ve quoted him extensively here, here, and here, but here’s the full text of a recent Q & A on the situation for my latest piece.

In your paper, “Georgian Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq: Factors of Violent Extremism and Recruitment,” you talk about religion as a ‘national’ identity rather than a solely religious one. Moreover, following the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, the situation changed. Was this also the case for Georgia’s ethnic Azeri minority?

Georgian Azeris are, of course, not only an ethnic minority, but a religious one as well. The breakup of the USSR led many of its former republics to attempt to create their own independent conceptions of nationality through links to the pre-Soviet past. In the Georgian case, religion — specifically, Georgian Orthodoxy — became a central feature of what it meant to be “Georgian.”

The two concepts are almost inseparable and this leaves religious minorities in a difficult position. They can speak Georgian, vote in Georgian elections, hold Georgian passports, and meet every other feature of Georgian civic, political, and national identity, but still be thought of as somewhat “not Georgian” due to their religious beliefs alone.

I noted in my paper that one of the central driving forces of pan-Islamic movements such as Salafi Islam are the attempt to decouple a religious identity from a national one. In many Muslim communities a lot of debates centre around whether their national and religious identities are compatible, or mutually exclusive.

For the Georgian Azeri minority, this is expressed through competition between members of the community who favour “traditional” iterations of Islam, e.g. Shia Islam and Sunni Islam under the Hanafi madhab, which are often at times highly tied to the Georgian state and its political institutions, versus those, and in particular Salafi Islam, who disavow traditionalism on the basis that Georgian national identity is incompatible with Muslim identity.

How much focus did you afford the ethnic Azeri minority in Georgia and were there any clear patterns relating to radicalisation dependent on Shia or Sunni affiliation? There have been Shia recruits to ISIL, but is this just a Sunni problem? For example, there is radicalisation occurring and reported clashes between Shia and Salafists, most recently resulting in a fatality in one ethnic Azeri village in Georgia. 

I didn’t focus on the Georgian Azeri community as much when I first undertook the study as I was researching not only radicalisation, but radicalisation resulting in foreign fighter recruitment. While the former is present in the Azeri community, cases of the latter are limited. At the time of my study there were not a large amount of incidents of Georgian Azeris leaving for Syria or Iraq besides one incident where two women left the village of Qarajala near Telavi for Syria.

In Azeri villages in Kakheti, Samtskhe-Javakheti, and Kvemo Kartli, there are instances of individuals in the Sunni mosques choosing to attend the Salafi ones instead, and there are instances of former Shia Muslims disavowing Shia Islam completely and becoming Salafis, The murder of Fikret Ahmetov in the town of Ponichala (Soğanlık) highlights this trend. Ramin Isayev, his suspected murderer, was a former Shia adherent who left the mosque in Ponichala and joined a Salafi group.

The clash was started by an interview that Ahmetov gave to Georgian TV on the growth of Salafism in the town which resulted in a dispute. These incidents are growing in frequency which points to a growing challenge for extant Muslim institutions in the regions. In Qarajala, there were several incidents of petty thieves having their fingers cut off by Salafists as this is the punishment suggested by their interpretation of shari’ah.

So, it’s not just a Sunni problem; Shia Muslim institutions and communities also face competition from Salafi Islam. When discussing the threat posed by radical variants of Salafi Islam, Shia institutions may be more at risk because Salafis are highly critical of Shias, referring to them as rafidha — apostates — for their refusal to recognise the first three successors of the prophet Muhammad, salallahu alayhi wa’salaam.

Despite the lack of publicised incidents of foreign fighters leaving Georgian Azeri communities for Syria and Iraq, this is not to entail that it isn’t happening at all. The head Sheikh of the Georgian Muslim Department acknowledged that several Georgian Azeri youths had left to fight for the Islamic State. Radicalisation and intra-Muslim strife over sectarian divisions in Azeri villages is also extant and is a major challenge for local leaders, even if foreign fighters are limited.

One final anomaly, initially noticed in Azerbaijan by North Caucasus Caucus that is also applicable in Georgian Azeri communities is that there are no reported incidents of Georgian Azeris joining Shia militant groups in Iraq and Syria such as the Shia militias in Iraq, the forces fighting with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or Hizbullah.

In Azerbaijan, sectarian divisions are quite low profile for various reasons, but not to say there aren’t problems, and distinctions between Shia and Sunni often quite blurred with some notable exceptions. How would you describe the situation among ethnic Azeris in Georgia?

Sectarian divisions in Azerbaijan are only “low profile” because the ruling regime has an incentive to subdue conservative iterations of both Shia and Sunni Islam. Recently, protests have been escalating in Nardaran, a hotbed of Shia conservatism and the government continues its crackdown on Salafi mosques and leaders.

The major difference between ethnic Azeris in Georgia and Azeris in Azerbaijan is numbers. Simply put, Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country, and Georgia is a Muslim-minority country. Radicalisation occurs in both countries, but in Azerbaijan the major issue seems to be dissatisfaction with the ties between the Aliyev regime and the Shia religious establishment, whereas in Georgia the issue is more related to living as a minority in a largely Christian society as well as intra-community sectarian conflicts.

Before 2012, Azeri Muslims in Georgia and Azerbaijan were both represented by the same governing body — the Caucasus Board of Muslims (CBM), a Baku-based organisation led by Sheikh al Islam Allashukur Pashazadeh. In 2011, the Georgian government established the Administration of Georgian Muslims (AGM), led by three Azeris from Kvemo Kartli. The new administration has issues because of its relative youth and lack of support in the community. 

Muslim NGOs with international ties such as Ahl-al-Bayt are far more popular, the Salafis do not trust the AGM because of its connections to the Georgian government and heavy favouritism towards Shia mosques, and the community was concerned about the lack of prior consultation with Azeri religious and political leaders before its establishment.

Georgian Azeris are Georgia’s largest Muslim minority at about 300,000 people. Despite this, very few foreign fighters are Georgian Azeris. This points to the number and relative strength of independent Muslim institutions to limit the effects of sectarian conflict. However, without a doubt the Georgian Azeri community is still heavily effected by radicalisation. The situation could be improved by measures to improve religious education, take input of local community leaders into institutional decision-making, and bottom-up approaches to prevent violent extremism and sectarian conflict.

There has been concern re. Iranian Shia influence in Azerbaijan proper. Have you picked up any signs of Iranian influence among ethnic Azeri communities in Georgia?

Many sources have reported Iranian Shia missionary activity in the Azeri community. Several religious leaders attain their education and training in Iran. But, the effects on radicalisation are unclear. Three international actors provide the majority of funding for madrassas and religious material in Azeri villages in Georgia — Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey — so it is difficult to delineate the effects each actor has on the situation.

Each month brings more news related to radicalisation in Georgia: a video threatening Georgia, a police raid in Guria, and even more deaths of Georgian citizens from Pankisi in Syria. In such an environment how can we consider the situation in the country today?

The video was interesting because it depicted four ethnic Georgian fighters from a region not previously well-known for foreign fighter recruitment, namely Ajara and Guria.

Policymakers must recognise that the issue of violent extremism and radicalisation has metastasised. It is no longer merely a “Pankisi problem” and the government and local communities need to adopt strategies that are compartmentalised and deal with the specific problems that individual Muslim communities in Georgia face today.

Anne Azza Aly can be followed on Twitter here and Bennett Clifford can be followed here. Bennett’s recent paper on radicalisation in Georgia can be found here.

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