By THE SOUFAN GROUP
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
The disease of terrorism affects communities around the world, from the United States to Iraq, from France to China. Extremist violence continues to claim thousands of lives every year, while extremist propaganda and indoctrination prey on the frustrations of the disenfranchised. Religiously motivated terrorism has proven to be especially potent over the last decade, with violent extremists carrying out attacks that impact diverse communities across the world. However, in recent decades the majority of terrorist attacks, and the majority of casualties, have occurred in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Given the current instability and civil conflict in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, this trend looks set to continue.
As the vast majority of terror attacks take place in majority-Muslim states, it is not surprising that more than 80 percent of terror attack victims are Muslim. Between 2000 and 2013, there were a rough average of 7,600 terrorism-related deaths per year. In 2013 and 2014, however, that number rose to 18,111 and 32,685, respectively—an 80 percent increase. While 60 percent of terrorist incidents occurred in only five countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria—those countries suffered more than 80 percent of the terror-related deaths. With nearly 10,000 deaths in 2014, Iraq alone was responsible for 30.4 percent of global terror related fatalities. In fact, the ten countries with the highest percentage of terror-related deaths accounted for 88 percent of the global total, with the remaining 182 countries accounting for 12 percent.
While casualty counts are key to identifying terrorism trends, it is important to note that terrorist violence itself is only one component of the larger, complex phenomenon of violent extremism. International terrorist groups are large, multifaceted organizations with diverse sets of strategies and motivations. The regional, political, and social contexts in which they emerge serve to define their objectives and ideology, which in turn determines which individuals the groups attract.
Many terrorist groups have specific territorial objectives, and focus their terrorist activity on their perceived occupiers. Due to their narrow regional focus, the ranks of these organizations are also primarily composed of local militants. While they certainly pose a tremendous threat to regional actors, they pose less of a threat to the broader international community. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, ushered in a new era for international terrorism. As the Communist Soviet forces invaded Muslim lands, calls went out throughout the Muslim world for volunteers to beat back the Communist scourge. This call inspired many mujahideen, among them Osama bin Laden, to travel to Afghanistan to help their Muslim brothers liberate their land.
It is within this context that al-Qaeda emerged. A new paradigm had been set for a global jihad, and once the Communists had been driven back, al-Qaeda turned its focus to other occupied Muslim lands. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi soil, the U.S. too drew the ire of the group. Rather than fighting to drive the Western military presence out of Islamic lands, however, bin Laden led al-Qaeda to embrace a new narrative. This ideology of “bin Laden-ism” declared Western hegemony to be an existential threat to the survival of Islam, and therefore concluded that the Western sociopolitical apparatus must be destroyed. Every Western country, and every Westerner, was now a legitimate target for such groups.
The events of September 11 were the manifestations of that narrative on the global stage. The world watched in horror as nineteen hijackers expressed their twisted interpretation of Islam through the murder of nearly 3,000 civilians. The nature of transnational terrorism fundamentally changed, and the international community was scrambling to counter the new threat. Though there have been many criticisms of military and security policies and their impact on human and civil rights, in many ways, the global war on terror has been successful in achieving its goals. Osama bin Laden is dead and American military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban have achieved tactical goals. Despite this, excessive focus on short-term tactical objectives has not achieved the long-term stability that is necessary for sustainable peace. Furthermore, the root factors driving violent extremism, such as political instability and long-standing political conflicts, perceived injustices, alienation, oppressive regimes, and so on, persist in Afghanistan, Iraq, and across the world. As a result, the threat of extremist militancy remains prevalent in the Muslim world.
The rise of Daesh, the acronym for the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, also known as ISIS or ISIL, exemplifies this dynamic. As Daesh coalesced in the shadows of the Syrian civil war in the fall of 2013, it drew strength from the embattled Sunni population that had been dominated by the Alawite Assad regime for decades. When Daesh fighters flooded over the Syrian border into Iraq in June 2014, they again used the sectarian frustrations of the Sunni population of northwestern Iraq to fuel their advance. However, gaining support from the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria was not enough. Daesh, like al-Qaeda, envisions itself as a global movement for jihad, one that encompasses all Sunni Muslims around the world, as well as embracing the hard-line “bin Laden-ism” ideology.
Daesh, however, is unique in that it claims to actively establish a state under Islamic law, while also actively working to recruit Muslim populations abroad. Though al-Qaeda was given safe haven in Afghanistan, it was the Taliban who governed. In the territories controlled by Daesh, however, the group is responsible for all aspects of governance, from policing to education. This represents a new paradigm for terrorist groups, and one that offers a new level of extremist propaganda.
While al-Qaeda has skilled propagandists—particularly those operating as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—Daesh propaganda has utilized the Internet in ways that al-Qaeda never has. Each “province” within Daesh-held territory has its own media office, which is directly linked to the local preacher for that province. From the very beginning of the so-called caliphate, these media teams showed their expertise through the production of high-quality, professionally edited videos, magazines, and other media. The impact of this propaganda was vaulted to the global stage when a video of the gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley was posted in August 2014. Several similar execution videos followed, including those showing the beheadings of British, American, and Japanese citizens. In February 2015, the group released a video showing a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive. The group has also executed countless Iraqis, Syrians, and members of other religious and ethnic groups.
These grisly decapitation videos, though they catch global media attention, are the minority of the productions released by Daesh. The group releases many videos extolling daily life in the “Islamic State,” portraying it as a righteous paradise ruled by Islamic law. They show religious police enforcing this law, and portray “Islamic” judges doling out justice. Videos released by the group even show thieves having their hands publicly amputated, while the amputees exalt their righteous punishments. To show the mercy inherent to these harsh judgments, the convicted are immediately treated and put into ambulances. Videos also portray harsher punishments, including the crucifixion of those convicted of murder.
Daesh materials look to appeal to families as well, by encouraging young Muslim women to travel to the territory to become the wives of Daesh fighters. Some 700 women from Tunisia alone have traveled to Syria to join Daesh. The State is portrayed as a land where Muslim families can live in piety and raise children in a truly Islamic society. This has proven to be particularly effective in attracting European Muslims who feel alienated from their nations. Entire families, including those with young children, have traveled from several European countries to live in the Islamic State.
Although attracting Muslim families is a part of Daesh strategy, the majority of its propaganda is targeted at disenfranchised youth around the world. Through its use of advanced media production and online social networks, Daesh is able to distribute its message to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. In order to reach a more diverse global audience, in 2014 Daesh launched al-Hayat Media, a branch of the propaganda machine aimed specifically at non-Arabic-speaking audiences. These materials are published in numerous languages, including English, Turkish, Russian, German, Dutch, French, Indonesian, Chinese, and even sign language. The multilingual nature of al-Hayat shows that Daesh considers itself more than an Arab movement; instead, it considers itself a global Islamic movement open to all those who pledge fealty to the so-called caliphate.
This global networking effort has been extremely effective. While not all who travel to fight the Assad regime support Daesh, estimates show that individuals have traveled to the so-called caliphate from at least 86 countries, which is unprecedented not only for terror groups, but also for other rebel and separatist movements. The effectiveness of Daesh propaganda is also evident from the support networks that have been built up in countries around the world. These networks, sometimes led by those who have returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq, generally target young, disaffected Muslim men. The Daesh supporters play on the frustrations of these young men and present a life in the Islamic State as an opportunity to fight for a righteous cause. Daesh recruiters have been identified and detained in dozens of countries, including the United States, the UK, France, Tunisia, and Malaysia.
Global efforts to control the flow of foreign recruits to Daesh have had minimal impact. The bulk of foreign fighters come from Arab states, such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Hotbeds of recruitment serve as arenas for Daesh to convince disenfranchised youths to join their group. Centers of recruitment have emerged in the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad in Norway, Derna in Libya, Ben Gardane in Tunisia, and the infamous Molenbeek district of Brussels. In these areas there is less reliance on social media tactics for recruitment and more emphasis on human contact. It is more likely that close-knit groups of susceptible youths reach out to friends, family, or acquaintances with links to Daesh. Some of these youths may join Daesh in a search for belonging, purpose, adventure, and friendship.
Five thousand fighters from Europe—mostly from France (1,800), the United Kingdom (760), Germany (760), and Belgium (470)—have left to fight alongside Daesh. Evidence suggests that frustration with the secular nature of these governments along with the marginalization of the Muslim population has driven most of these foreign fighters to travel to the so-called caliphate. Initially, these fighters traveled to Syria to act as there was little emphasis placed on training to become domestic terrorists. However, the terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015, in Paris, the March 13, 2016, bombings in Ankara, and the March 22, 2016, bombings in Brussels, among many others, indicate this trend has shifted. As more foreign fighters return to their home countries, there is an increased risk they may perpetrate domestic attacks.
There has also been an increase in the number of foreign fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics (approximately 4,700 have traveled to the so-called caliphate). The involvement of Russia in the Syrian civil war could serve as an explanation for this increase.
The number of foreign fighters from the Americas has remained flat and relatively low in per capita terms. An estimated 250 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria with around 150 successfully doing so. In addition, there exist no hotbeds of recruitment or patterns of locally based recruitment. Instead, Daesh has relied on online recruitment and propaganda to reach potential recruits in the Americas. Though peer-to-peer recruitment networks pose a significant threat, Daesh’s online recruitment and propaganda network poses perhaps an even more significant risk, especially for youth. The massive online presence of Daesh allows for their members and supporters to actively promote the extremist narrative 24/7. The dispersed nature of these networks also makes disruption much more difficult, with new recruitment strategies operating on a very micro level. The online propagandists have developed strategies for profiling vulnerable individuals and targeting these individuals based on their own specific frustrations. The most vulnerable population is, again, young Muslim men, especially those living in Europe and the United States; studies indicate that those who are less grounded in their religious traditions are more at risk. Though these men are often second- or third-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority nations, the increase in Islamophobia in the West helps to exacerbate alienation from their national identities. Daesh recruiters actively encourage this disassociation, and provide tailored anecdotes of other European and American Muslims who have traveled to the so-called caliphate.
Interestingly, these online recruiters do not only target vulnerable Muslim populations. Using the same profiling techniques used for young Muslims, the recruiters identify disaffected and socially isolated young people—both male and female—and work collectively to provide these vulnerable individuals with a sense of community and purpose. Communicating primarily through Twitter and Facebook, recruiters provide an outlet for frustration, and will sometimes communicate with targeted individuals for hours every day. The recruiters extoll the virtues of Islam, and provide access to materials promoting their extreme interpretation of its teachings. Through contact with the recruiters, targeted individuals are offered a sense of community, which serves to further draw them into the extremist narrative.
The scale of Daesh’s propaganda and recruitment mechanisms is unprecedented. The extremist and expansionist characteristics of Daesh’s ideology make it a complex and ever-evolving threat to global security. Combating Daesh’s militants on the ground is a familiar task, but combating their expansive propaganda machine is not. Though governments are establishing Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) programs around the world, developing effective strategies for combating extremist ideology is extremely difficult, especially when it is being strategically distributed on such a large scale. Vulnerable youth populations, both Muslim and non-Muslim, will continue to be at risk unless government and civil society partnership programs can identify and address the root causes of their alienation from society.
As noted above, the issue of a spreading violent extremism is a large-scale challenge, yet one that absolutely and consistently defies a large-scale solution. Rather, effectively preventing and countering violent extremism requires countless small-scale approaches, each one devised and operated by the people in the affected community. This reality, that there is no one approach or program that will work across the board, frustrates governments and large organizations that, despite the best of intentions, are not seeing the best of results in their P/CVE programs. There is an unavoidable friction between governments that want to address the large-scale issue through intelligence and law enforcement, and the impacted communities that are dealing with violent extremism on an intensely personal and individual level. The causes of extremism are as unique as the individuals who are susceptible to its toxic allure; this fact forces a true grassroots approach that is supported but not developed or run by governments. The challenge for all is how to leverage the resources of government and the creativity of community.