Interview: Terrorism persists as root causes are ignored, says expert

Dina Samak , Sunday 14 Dec 2014

Counter terrorism expert Peter Knoope talks to Ahram Online about IS and the ineffectiveness of military intervention, which displaces extremism while ignoring its causes

Peter Knoope
Peter Knoope, director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, in a conference room at the Marmara Pera Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, on Nov. 14, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

More than a decade after the US announced a war on terror following the 9/11 attacks, terrorism still persists as a major threat, the only difference being that its face has changed.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, mixes new-media techniques and military skills with a medieval rhetoric promising a new state in the heart of an area facing intense political turmoil.

While a new war has been launched against yet another terrorist group some experts raise their doubts about the old methods of countering terrorism and whether military intervention is the, or at least part of, the solution. These experts agree that while the US has managed to keep the threat of terrorism away for some time, it has paid a heavy economic and moral price and the nightmare is still far from over.

In an interview with Counter Terrorism expert and Senior Visiting Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT), Peter Knoope, Ahram Online tries to make sense of the current situation.

A career diplomat, Peter Knoope was the director of ICCT from its inception until August 2014.

Prior to his arrival at ICCT, Knoope was Deputy Director of the Policy and Strategy Department of the Dutch National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism (NCTb), which was established in 2005 following the terrorist attacks in Madrid of 11 March 2004. NCTb is responsible for the development and co-ordination of the government-wide counter terrorism strategy in the Netherlands.


AO: How do you think the recent US Senate report on CIA interrogation methods will affect the US and other countries’ ability to deal with current threats (IS)?

 Knoope: There is a big difference between the EU approach to Counter Terrorism (CT) and the US approach. The US has adopted a war paradigm, where the EU has always advocated a different approach, rather focusing on the law enforcement paradigm. This matters because in a war there is a different set of rules that apply. But whatever the paradigm, there is no rule that allows for degrading interrogation techniques. It is also rare for a government to declare that torture is part of the CT approach. So, all in all, I do not think this will have a major impact on the approach to ISIS. The war paradigm is still very much at play in Iraq and in Syria because ISIS is considered an imminent threat to the interests and the people of the US and Europe (and others) as is shown by the beheadings and other acts and language of ISIS. The airstrikes are part of the armed actions against ISIS and will continue despite this report.  

AO: Do you think that the war on terror that was declared after 9/11 managed to achieve any of its aims?

Knoope: What were the aims exactly? I think the number of victims in the `West` has reduced over the last years. In that sense the war has had some result. According to research, CT measures tend to push the problem to other places and they push the organisations to other methods. In that sense the war on terror has “displaced” the issue. It has moved it to elsewhere and into other strategies.  But is has failed to solve the causes of the problem, partly also because it focused on the phenomena rather than on the root causes of the problem. If we want to solve the issue we will also need to understand the drivers of the conflict, address them while also arresting and punishing those who commit acts of violence.

AO: After 9/11 many researchers considered what happened in the US the start of a new wave of terrorism, to what extent do you think ISIS can be a part of this wave?

Knoope: There is a strong religious element in the narrative of ISIS. It capitalises on feelings of alienation and exclusion of many (youth) in a variety of environments and it frames the US and certain regimes in Muslim Majority states as the enemy that deserves the treatment that they are preparing for them. The intensely communicated beheadings are an example of how they frame their enemy and their strategy of reciprocity. All these elements are also present in Al-Qaeda.

AO: In your article “About Fear, Terrorism and What is Really New?” you mention that ISIS represent a form of terrorism deviating from the old school elements, can you elaborate more on that?

Knoope: ISIS is projecting itself as the “avant-garde” of those who fight a holy war. They are more aggressive in their methods and more determined to establish a geographic entity. These elements definitely differentiate ISIS from Al-Qaeda, to the extent that Al-Qaeda distanced itself from ISIS. However the mobilising force of ISIS is unprecedented. It appeals to many potential followers. It’s as if ISIS claims to be ahead of the curve and pushes Al-Qaeda on the defensive. ISIS has so far gained momentum, occupied territory, mobilised support and acquired a top position on the global security agenda. In that sense it is new and it has brought a new phenomenon to the Middle East and beyond that, one that many feel needs to be dealt with.

AO: Do you think the change in the nature of the funding these groups are getting (more informal compared to the support similar groups received in the 1980s and 1990s) is affecting their nature?

Knoope: ISIS has access to a variety of financial resources, including illegal trade and bank robberies. Throughout history different terrorist groups have found different sources of financing. Ransom is one of them. Illegal activities, like robbing banks is another. It always depends on the circumstances. But “support structures” play a role as well. That is one of the reasons why terrorist organisations look for a constituency and a support structure. When a terrorist group gets alienated from all its (potential) supporters, it often starts to intimidate and extort members of the public.

This can lead to civil armed resistance to terrorist organisations (like in the case of Boko Haram). This is a risky development for many reasons. One of them is there is the potential of a civil war.

AO: How can you explain the fact that some (old school) groups in the region are announcing their support to ISIS even though they do not share the same characteristics?

Knoope: ISIS is provoking an international response which makes it relevant. It is also bringing lots of foreigners to its ranks which means it has the ability to mobilise. It has taken geographic space in the Middle East which means it is militarily successful. The communication strategy of ISIS is also a major success and that is attractive.

Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, cannot claim any of these successes. In a certain sense one could say that Al-Qaeda is the loser. At this moment in time, framing oneself as belonging to the “loser” is obviously not very attractive.

AO: What do you think of the way decision makers are dealing with ISIS and similar groups in the region? Can such phenomena be dealt with in the same traditional military way?

A military approach to counter terrorism has not worked in the past. It pushes terrorist groups to other places, spaces and strategies. Military victory is hardly ever accomplished. It is always (at least) a combination of different tactics that works. One of the ingredients of a proper CT strategy is the reduction of a group’s public support base. Since the support base (or mobilising power) of ISIS is almost worldwide, this requires a firm global approach. Locally, the support of ISIS lays in the frustration of groups with the failures of government. This support base can only be taken away by winning the hearts and minds of the local population and its leaders. That is a governance issue. It is easy to lose the hearts and minds through the wrong military action.

International support (e.g. foreign fighters) is much harder to pinpoint and to influence. Also, because of the effective communication strategy of ISIS, this requires international consensus. The recent UN resolution which reaffirmed its commitment towards the preservation of international peace and security is a step in the right direction, but it is clearly not enough. Much more work needs to be done to “de-glorify” and discredit the methods and aims of ISIS.

AO: How far do you think ISIS can expand its territories? And can it go beyond the “failed states” (Iraq and Syria) to reach other countries like Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia?

Knoope: I think ISIS as an entity will be “contained” within its present geographic space. There are too many interests at stake for ISIS to be given the chance to proliferate or expand. But, as I said before, we know that the military approach to CT leads to groups being pushed to other places, spaces and into other strategies. In other words, it may vanish in one place, but it will come back somewhere else, because the root of the problem is not being addressed.

AO: Is the de-radicalisation of groups like ISIS or Egypt’s Ansar Beit El-Maqdis possible?

Knoope: There is (some) experience with de-radicalisation of individuals. De-radicalisation of organisations or groups would imply “peace negotiations” (like between PKK and Turkey at present). In my perception that is hardly feasible with ISIS. First, it would mean negotiating the borders of Iraq and Syria. It would change the architecture of the entire region. It would require the approval of Baghdad and Damascus, etc. Too many factors would be on the scale to get some balance.

Peace negotiations (or collective de-radicalisation if you want) can only work if both sides agree to it, both sides have enough interest in a peace agreement, both sides agree to a ceasefire, etc. It does not happen very often, and certainly not in early stages. The only way forward is a combined strategy of winning over the majority of the population in a certain area/country to oppose violence or a violent organisation, combined with arrests, jailing and convicting the leadership.  

AO: But do you think there is any possibility that ISIS could become a real state in the region?

Knoope: This depends very much on the balance of power(s) in the region. Short term, Damascus needs a terrorist opponent to justify its actions but its long term needs are obviously different. Iran cannot afford a security issue on its western border. Turkey has the same concern on its southern border. That is two against one. Both Baghdad and the Kurds have their own agendas.

At the same time there is a certain solidarity between the actors on the Sunni agenda on one side and the Teheran-Bagdad-Damascus-Hezbollah axis on the other. Then there is also "the international community" which is its own diverse animal made of many agendas.

In this mix of varying security agendas and interests, it is difficult to predict what is next. But the survival of ISIS in the way we see it today and with their own geographic space in the region seems unlikely. Too many relevant actors in the region and beyond have opposing interests.

AO: Egypt has decided to evacuate many Rafah residents from their homes to create a buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza: do you think that such measures can help in the war against militant groups there?

Knoope: A buffer zone helps to create more security. More specifically it helps to induce state security. The only way to fight terrorism is through the improvement of human security, however.

Only when state security and human security are synonymous can such measures help in the long run. 

AO: In your analysis you mainly argue that justice, including social justice, is the best way to counter terrorism: so how do you explain a number of those who left to fight in the lines of ISIS belonging to the middle class, some of whom were even politically involved in their countries?

Knoope: The fact that somebody is middle class does not mean that he perceives a certain situation as “just.” For a situation to be perceived as just, the laws and the implementation of them must respond to the needs of the people and the collective. When people have a higher education, their demands for justice may go up. In any case, they do not necessarily go down.

AO: The Arab uprisings introduced new territory for terrorist organisations to breed due to the setback for states that was caused by the popular uprisings, do you agree with that?

Knoope: In a certain sense that is true. The Arab Spring has also touched the security sector. This may lead (and has led) to a governance deficit or even vacuum that can be occupied by different actors, including those who seek violent solutions for certain problems.

Uncertainty, disillusionment with the new situation, repressed frustrations, all can be at play in that period of governance deficit in a post-revolutionary situation.

AO: Do you think that after the failure of the Arab uprisings in fulfilling the demands of those who believed in it, other trends of political violence (non-Islamist) could appear?

Potentially this may be the case. Collective exclusion and alienation can lead to political violence, especially if they are met with brutal repressive measures from the security apparatus. This may lead “brokers of violence” that to transform these feelings into political violence. Accommodating the voices of all interest groups in society, leaving room for minorities and diversity, plus a proper place for civil society actors are all important ingredients to avoid political violence from taking root. 


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