The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) released the seventh edition of its Global Terrorism Index (GTI) in late November. On the basis of its overall findings of the GTI, especially concerning the Middle East and the activities of the Islamic State (IS), we can conclude that despite IS’ territorial defeat and the subsequent death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, terrorism has not declined as much as many had imagined. More importantly, the terrorist map appears to be in a process of transition, as is perhaps evidenced by the fact that the Taliban surpassed IS as the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2018.
It looks like the terrorist phenomenon is returning to its prime incubator: Afghanistan. But the shift is probably temporary. The US is working to contain the Taliban by means of the peace negotiations that have recently been resumed in Doha. Meanwhile, IS continues to operate in Syria and Iraq, many other parts of the region and elsewhere. According to the report, IS still possesses large resources that could enable it to resurge in the mid-future. The organisation is also urging its adherents, over the Internet, to “organise, arm, and fund” new terrorist operations to avenge the fall of the caliphate. Moreover, as the GTI observes, IS continues to enjoy the allegiance of 12 “provinces” in West Africa (including the recently announced Central African “province”) and the Khorasan (parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and some neighbours). In addition, there remain thousands of trained combat veterans who have fought in Salafist-Jihadist arenas since 2012 (ie, before IS declared its existence), and IS and its affiliates still have the capacities to recruit new cadres in other conflict zones.
In general, the GTI maintains that Salafist-Jihadists groups “are proving to be an enduring global security threat”. The phenomena or trends that perpetuate that threat, according to the report, include the Sunni-Shia conflict that overlaps with the Saudi-Iran regional proxy wars playing out in Syria and Yemen and elsewhere; the collapse of states across the Middle East and North Africa, most extensively in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen; and climate change which has destroyed livelihoods and which helps drive recruitment because terrorist groups have been using access to food and water as either a weapon or a tool of war. Moreover, the withdrawal of US troops in Syria not only may increase the risk of an IS resurgence in Syria but may also increase the terrorist threat in Europe due to escaping high-risk prisoners from Kurdish-run prisons in Syria. And Turkey’s invasion into Syria to attack the People’ s Protection Units (YPG) is shifting the YPG’s focus from fighting IS to fighting Turkey.
The report also suggests that another trend works to perpetuate the threat from Salafist-Jihadist groups: the recent rise of right-wing extremist groups, including white supremacy groups (WSG) that are on the rise in Europe and elsewhere. Indeed, the report cites Kathleen Belew, an international authority on the white-power movement, as saying that terrorist attacks by the WSG have been the dominant form of terrorism in the US over the past 10 years.
The report also points to several future trends such as cyber war and the battles of ideas. Terrorist groups will continue to draw on advances in modern communications technologies and platforms to strengthen their capacities. For example, the Telegram application has helped IS continue recruitment. Also, according to the GTI, IS has been building a “cyber army” to conduct cyber wars against the West. “In 2016, IS united five distinct hacking groups into a ‘United Cyber Caliphate’,” it reports. “Information warfare and cyber operations, however, are proving to be the terrorists’ most valuable weapon,” it continues. “With the growing nexus of crime and terrorism, terrorists are conducting secret transactions and buying untraceable firearms online.” Terrorism is using virtual space to rebuild and consolidate its infrastructure.
Counter-terrorism experts fear that a large part of the cyber threat will focus on military infrastructure, critical infrastructure and commercial targets in the West by “Advanced Persistent Threat” (APT) groups which not only work for states but also freelance. There is concern that “[if] Al-Qaeda or IS were able to buy cyber-attack capabilities, then large swathes of critical infrastructure could be attacked, including critical power grids.”
Use of modern communication technologies by the extreme right has also triggered alarm. The report cites the example of the “far-right white supremacist who killed 51 people at a Christchurch mosque in March 2019 when he e-mailed his 74-page manifesto and live-streamed his attack on Facebook where it was shared 1.5 million times.”
The report is not optimistic in its assessment regarding the reproduction of even more violent extremist groups using advanced technologies and unconventional combat capacities that these groups can obtain easily, such as drones.
The prognosis is consistent with other reports. For example, the African Peace and Security Council has reported that extremist groups in the Sahel and Sahara region have already obtained such capacities. Conflict zones, such as Libya, are the main source for such weapons. Libya, alone, accounts for 80 per cent of the arms transfers and trade that have been feeding terrorist groups in Africa recently. There is concern that these groups will have access to other powerful means of criminal warfare via the “dark web”, such as biological and chemical weapons.
In its discussion of the battle of ideas, one of the most important, if not the most important, arenas in the war against terrorism, the GTI report cites Ali Soufan, the founder of the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy: “The real battle lies in the battle of ideas and the methods that terrorists are using to recruit. If we are not able to counter those, this war will never end.” In this framework, it introduces Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power”, defined as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” The mystery behind the “soft power” of IS has not been fully appreciated by the coalition in its war against terrorism in Syria and Iraq, yet the factor has been crucial to the organisation’s recruitment operations.
Perhaps, in this framework, it is useful to mention the ideas and narratives disseminated by what might be described as the organisation’s first generation of propagandists and laid out in the online pamphlet by Abu Bakr Al-Naji, “The Management of Savagery.” The ideas continue to hold an appeal to target recruit groups. It holds that “in a state of chaos and savagery, even the strongest militaries can be defeated because ‘overwhelming military power (weapons, technology, fighters) has no value without the cohesion of society.’” In short, strong armies lose value in weak societies.
Another weak point in the fight against terrorism was predicted early on, at the beginning of the century, by David Arquillo who said that terrorist organisations will increasingly make extensive use of the Internet using highly motivated and technologically savvy cyber war teams against opponents that are unable to muster the same degree of intensive, professional and collective energies to counter the spread of extremist ideas.
Military strategists have overlooked another important factor related to the use of the world wide web, namely that a transnational terrorist group such as IS does not need the backing of a great power or even a tangible world power, because it has the backing of the “military domain of ‘virtual power.’”
“Instead of being dependent on one nation, they can crowd-source ‘all nations’ to harvest foreign fighters, cyber-mercenaries, e-terrorists and digital currencies to create not only a real caliphate but also a virtual united cyber caliphate.”
The report concludes with a sort of roadmap for combating globalised terrorism and the new strategies it is using to disseminate its narratives, attract adherents, acquire arms and funding and wage war. A main feature of the roadmap is the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which includes Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube and is working in concert to remove terrorist information. “Google35 and Facebook are investing heavily in AI-based programmes, but extremists are finding alternative ways to spread their messages,” the GTI writes.
“War against extremist groups cannot be ‘won’ in the traditional sense,” the GTI concludes. “Since their ideology provides a long-term strategy and justification for global jihad way into the future, which cannot be easily countered with military action, especially not by external Western forces.”
Accordingly, much more work needs to be done in the area where IS has been most successful, namely the battle of competing narratives. In this framework, “Europe has a big role to play in promoting its democratic values and key regulatory frameworks. EU member states and the commission need to strengthen their cooperation with Internet and social media companies. The US should follow the 9/11 Commission Report which recommended: ‘The US government must define what the message is, what it stands for. We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbours. It includes respect for the rule of law, openness in discussing differences, and tolerance for opposing points of view.’” As for other countries, they should furnish models of moral leadership and social justice and actively apply policies that reflect these principles in the short and mid-term.
The report predicts that, in the long run, IS or its equivalent will not be able to attain its goal of creating a universal caliphate and that over time it may collapse due to overreach and its internal divisions. Therefore, in the short term, the report recommends that efforts focus on “inoculating our youth from extremism”, which entails offering them the means for a dignified life and providing effective security, healthcare and education. It also recommends the creation of a new Global Partnership for Development Fund, built on global solidarity and designed along the lines of the German Marshall Fund that was created after World War II.
Lastly, the report states, “Efforts should focus on key diplomatic messages that the West is not opposed to Islamic people and that the West is not trying to suppress their religion and political change. Fundamentally, people need to feel that they are in control of their destinies and that their lives matter.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.