Challenge of “Recent-ism” in the Middle East

Governments can get caught up in sweeping generalizations about the brutal extremists rampaging through Iraq, Syria and Libya based on the most recent news. ISIL, ISIS, the Islamic State – analysts in and out of governments quarrel over the terrorist group’s name and translation – have slaughtered thousands and may control up to half of Syria and a third of Iraq. The extremists’ hold over any community is tenuous. Hundreds of thousands flee the conflict, and the international community invests billions in counter-intelligence and airstrikes that bombard key holdings. Alexander Evans, who leads the UN Security Council’s expert panel on Al Qaeda, breaks down some myths about the extremists and offers recommendations. Nations must cooperate on counterterrorism and develop a long-term strategy that targets leaders, propaganda and recruitment – preventing “domino radicalization” with swift interventions that include prosecution of members who try returning from the conflict zone. – YaleGlobal

Challenge of “Recent-ism” in the Middle East

Al Qaeda and ISIL have more similarities than differences; strategic counterterrorism efforts must be applied
Alexander Evans
Thursday, June 25, 2015

Past is present: Islamic State fighters with prisoners in Syria (top); predecessor Al Qaeda marches in Yemen

NEW YORK: As policymakers and analysts wrestle with how to respond to the advancing Islamic State in Iraq and Levant extremists – also known as the Islamic State Iraq and Syria and the “Islamic State” – there is a danger of falling victim to a pervasive disease in international politics which might be called “recent-ism.” This is the difficult-to-resist temptation to look no further back than the most recent crisis or analogy to develop policy. “Recent-ism” affects counterterrorism, too. It’s easy to get caught up in sweeping generalizations about how the threat is new and profoundly different.

Yet the actions of the group are not new nor profoundly different. Resulting policy responses can be robust, but the campaign against the Islamic State will likely take years, not months, to fully deliver. This is not an argument for waiting to think, but for thinking before doing.

Three pervasive myths have emerged.

The first is that the terrorist group is more dangerous than Al Qaeda. Not true. ISIL draws on the same ideological roots. ISIL was born from Al Qaeda in Iraq, nurtured in Iraq’s sectarian trenches. Despite Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate, the similarities with Al Qaeda outnumber its differences. Both networks are vanguards of a presumed utopian revolution. Both use terrorist violence to advance their goals. Both seek to establish rule over peoples and territory, anchored in extremist ideology. The differences are few. ISIL rebranded Al Qaeda ideas into a personalized so-called caliphate led by Baghdadi; Al Qaeda struggles to manage a franchised coalition under a weakening Ayman al-Zawahiri. ISIL is systematically impatient; Al Qaeda is patient and cautious in its terrorism. The differences are mostly about tactics and leadership, not underlying strategy.

The second myth, that ISIL is the new Al Qaeda, is too early to call and too simplistic. ISIL may be the new fashion in terrorism, the brand for any aspiring violent extremist. But becoming the preferred background for extremist selfies is not the same as building a new, multi-generational brand. Failure on the ground will damage this loose organization. The idea is only as powerful as a persistent supply of triumphs. If Baghdadi dies, if the group’s control over territories continue to be nibbled away at by coalitions of countervailing forces, the myth will crumble. Moreover, claims that ISIL is the new Al Qaeda play to a simplistic model of counterterrorism, in which analysts tally up who is on which side, carefully tracking statements and declarations of bayat, or loyalty. It remains too early to call amidst a melange of declarations of bayat, anti-Western and anti-establishment sentiment, and pragmatic maneuvering. Some individuals within Al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan and Yemen have even hedged, expressing sentiments that can be interpreted as supportive by both sides. Reports suggest that Boko Haram has sworn allegiance to the ISIL, but will the group in Nigeria take orders from Baghdadi? Unlikely. Does an expression of solidarity equate to full political agreement with all the group stands for? Not necessarily. As Al Qaeda found under Osama bin Laden, affiliates frequently remain semi-detached. Opponents must track how the organization evolves.

The third myth is that ISIL is more violent and extreme than Al Qaeda. Wrong again. Al Qaeda in Iraq was particularly violent, and other groups have shown equal appetite for high-definition, filmed barbarity. Al Qaeda affiliates in South Asia as well as the Middle-East have regularly attacked and murdered minorities, filmed murders, generated digital propaganda and recruited foreign terrorist fighters. The difference is that the ISIL represents the cutting edge of the digital challenge: This younger and multinational group of terrorists tweet, text and radicalize in many different languages and produce high-definition horror videos to promote twisted ideas.

There are also three truths about the changing threat from ISIL and Al Qaeda:

First, the threat has never been more complex. This is partly due to the extensive territorial control that ISIL and other groups have gained in Syria, Iraq and now Libya. It’s also a reflection of the more than 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters who have gathered under ISIL or Al Qaeda branding from more than 100 countries. The foreign terrorist threat affects many, as individuals travel from and through countries that may not have experienced this level of terrorist threat before.

Second, the threat is complicated by the intimate links with plural local conflicts and grievances – from Nigeria to Syria and Iraq, from Libya to Afghanistan, from Somalia to Yemen, and among large numbers of radicalized Europeans. The need is urgent for better evidence, detailed analysis and nuanced understanding of what emerging counterterrorism casework can reveal. Despite many day-to-day pressures, this is not optional. Such analysis is crucial for all countries to avoid being dragged into ill-considered policy responses.

Third, while the terrorism problem is about national security, it has a growing international dimension. No one country can fully respond without working with others – often many others. Such cooperation is not easy. If fixing interagency challenges within one government is hard enough, working across international borders on sensitive issues like intelligence-sharing, passenger data-sharing and analysis quickly bump into cultural, legal and sovereignty-related boundaries.

The need is great for multilateral and national responses along with effective work to bridge these various barriers. A range of countries are working more closely, not least in improved sharing of watch lists of suspects.

“Recent-ism” can have real-world negative impacts. Analogies and metaphors are powerful, sometimes helpful. Recent experience is valuable, but so too is the collective experience of policy successes and failures. If counterterrorism needs to protect against easy generalizations, international politics must protect against the ease with which one policy agenda can tower above others. The global terrorist threat from the ISIL and Al Qaeda associates is real, complex and requires a sustained counter-effort from all states.

However, terrorism is not the only challenge to international peace and security, and nations should be wary of a narrow focus on terrorism alone. The current challenge is so difficult partly because of the interplay, often deep-seated, between terrorism and conflict. Solid analysis is one step towards considered and balanced policy responses with the greatest chance of being successful. These likely include active interventions alongside strategic patience.

With foreign terrorist fighters, this means upgrading strategic communications and targeting counter-messaging and interventions on individual networks most likely to be at risk of radicalization. As a first step, those closest to existing foreign terrorist fighters probably need immediate attention: family members, close friends, and social network connections. Preventing “domino radicalization” requires swift interventions. Equally important is assessing, rehabilitating, and where necessary, prosecuting those who return from a conflict zone having joined or worked with terrorist groups.

With ISIL’s territorial presence the challenge is greater, simply because of their footprint on the ground. Here, bullet-point solutions are more elusive – but the value of strategic patience and building effective coalitions remains. The best actions are those that steal the rhetoric of victory from the terrorists and undermine their absurd claims to moral authority. Extravagant claims to be virtuous matter to the propagandists. Governments, communities and the media are in a position to undermine this. Such counter-messaging is more convincing if accompanied by progress on the ground rolling back these groups where they hold territory, including the successful targeting of leaders.

Despite the onslaught of video propaganda, ISIL can be degraded – just as Al Qaeda was. Like the campaign against Al Qaeda, success will be measured in years. Governments have the advantage of years of counterterrorism experience, including the opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Evidence-based policies drawing on detailed analysis can help defeat ISIL.

Alexander Evans leads the United Nations Security Council’s expert panel on Al Qaeda. This reflects his personal views.

Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

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