A new brief reaction piece for my home institute RUSI looking at some of the current trends in ISIS and jihadism. My preference is to use ISIS, but it appears as though the institutional choice is Daesh. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. In the meantime, I have been doing book promotion events around town, thanks to those who have hosted me and am looking forward to future ones. For those interested, here is me talking to the Henry Jackson Society. I am going to be at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend, the Hay Festival on the 31st May, and the Lewes Festival on July 18th. And hopefully more of those to come! Please also feel free to leave comments on Amazon about the book should you read it!
The Texas Attack: An Expression of Daesh’s Reach
RUSI Analysis, 11 May 2015 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
The jihadist movement known as Daesh has claimed responsibility for the aborted attack on an art contest in Texas. But other than shared motives, there are hardly anyreal linkages. Overreaction and misreading of the threat will merely play into their hands.
The claim by Daesh (or ISIS, as it is also known as) of some connection and responsibility for the attempted attack on Sunday 3 May 2015 in Texas is credible. While it is unlikely that the senior leadership within the group tasked the American pair or saw the event in Texas as a globally significant target, it is perfectly possible that it will emerge that the two men had at least some online connection to the group and were spurred into action by a combination of this contact and the group’s regular exhortations to its followers to launch attacks in the West.
At the same time, it is not clear that this is in any way an expression of the beginning of a campaign by the group to launch terrorist attacks outside its territory or that we need to worry about Daesh anymore now than before. Rather, Daesh continues to show itself to be an opportunistically canny organisation that is able to read global trends and stoke public debates at the right moment to maximise their apparent reach and power.
The threat picture for the immediate future is likely to be a continuing pattern of similar attacks, alongside a continuing potential menace of more classically directed terrorist cells. This seemingly enhanced threat, however, has to be kept in perspective and care needs to be paid not to overreact. A measured response will help deal with the problem in the longer term, while an exaggerated response will only fuel it.
Daesh Going Out?
Daesh remains a primarily Middle Eastern focused organisation, intent on growing and consolidating its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, over the past few months there has been an increasing level of connectivity and interaction between its core in Mosul/Raqqa and its regional Wilayats (provincial governorates) in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen. The degree of strength of these regional connections is not always clear, though looking at the Libyan case in particular, it is clear that there is some strong link between the centre and what is happening in that country in terms of ideology, means and direction.
A series of attacks on foreign targets in Tripoli, grim beheading videos being done to a schedule dictated from Syria/Iraq and stories of fighters and money flowing from the Levant to Libya point to something more than just an ideological affiliation.
In Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen at least there is some evidence of ideological and possibly individual, but less clear is the degree to which this is a strong flow with much direction, rather than exploratory links. On the purely aspirational end of the scale, there is the link to Boko Haram – an organisation that has shown itself to be even more opportunistic than Daesh and has proclaimed links to Al-Qa’ida and others repeatedly over the years with little tangible evidence of much by way of strong connections.
In parallel to this there has been the growth in inspired and instigated attacks in the lone actor model: plots undertaken by individuals or small cells lacking any clear command and control from an outside organisation. Choosing soft targets that can broadly be captured under the aegis of the global struggle between Islam and the West, these individuals get caught up in the fervour and hysteria around Daesh and launch attacks at home in the West under their own direction.
Some cases appear to demonstrate links back to Syria (like Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels) some may be reacting to travel restrictions (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa), while others appear simply to be attracted by the allure and hysteria of the group (like the spate of incidents in France late last year or Man Haroun Monis in Australia). For some of these individuals, Daesh’s narrative is simply the loudest in the public conversation for them to draw on.
Lone actor or copy-cat, whichever model it is, Daesh can subsequently claim it or praise the incident and appear as though it is somehow responsible for a global wave of terror.
Extensions of longer-term trends
In reality, both trends are extensions of what has been going on with jihadist terrorism for the past few years. Since around 2010 al Qaeda core’s capability and links globally have shrunk as the group’s ideology has increasingly found that the local causes that it would parasitically attach itself to increasingly moved towards advancing their own more local agendas rather than the group’s global directives. When launching attacks, regional affiliates would still use the jihadist rhetoric and targeting choices, but it was increasingly hard to see strong levels of command and control from the core. There were of course exceptions to this like Yemen where AQAP retains a strong core following loyal to the movement’s globalist perspective. But for the most part regional affiliate groups increasingly drifted away from the core’s orbit as Al-Qa’ida’s remnant leadership spent its time hiding from drones in Pakistan’s hinterlands.
The result has been a fracturing of the global jihadist movement operating under Al-Qa’ida’s ideological banner. As leaders have been killed, it has led to groups splintering into different factions. Furthermore, with a weakened core, regional affiliates have shifted in their targeting and intent back towards their own regions. In launching attacks they will still choose international targets as these bring attention and appear to be part of a global cause. Often, however, the degree to which they have been directed from the core is limited. Examples include the In Amenas attack in Algeria by an off-shoot of AQIM, or the al Shabaab linked attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
Into this fractured scene steps Daesh, offering a more hardline ideology, a new leader claiming to be Amir al Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful) who commands a territory he declares a Caliphate. Here is a narrative of success that stands in contrast to Al-Qa’ida’s declining fortunes. This quickly offers an appealing alternate power base that becomes the opposite pole to the current established jihadist narrative directed by Al-Qa’ida and draws in many of the disaffected and detached affiliate groups. Daesh appeal to them is not necessarily the ideology of the group, but rather the fact the group offers an alternate expression and successful banner to the status quo for them to attach themselves to.
The lone actor phenomenon is also not one that Daesh can claim stake to owning. Lone actor plots started to emerge in 2007/2008 (arguably Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed’s attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow in 2007 was an early expression demonstrating no level of direction by a group, though some connectivity to terrorist networks in Iraq), and have been an increasingly regular feature of the terrorist threat picture since then. In 2010 Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sought to try to harness the growing wave of such attacks and spur them further on through Inspire magazine and its ideology of ‘just do it’ attacks and ‘open source jihad’ that made jihadi terrorism accessible and actionable by everybody.
But there was little tangible evidence the magazine did much more than stoke fires that were already burning. The magazine became a staple feature of terrorism investigations. A growing number of plotters tried to build bombs to the magazines design and in online forums extremists increasingly talked proudly of being ‘lone wolves.’ But the trend towards this type of terrorism was underway prior to the magazine and there has been little clear evidence that the magazine can be singularly blamed for any specific plot.
Daesh has merely taken this strategy to the next level through its active promotion of the idea of such attacks through speeches, magazines and increasingly through individual fighters who connect through social media to the aspirant keyboard warriors who have not chosen to make the trip to the Levant, but seek it out instead online. By creating more noise around the idea of such attacks, they become more attractive and the group creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in its narrative.
This results in more people hearing it and more disaffected folk concluding that if they want to make themselves heard (for whatever reason) then Daesh’s ideology is the one to attach themselves to. All of this needs to be borne in mind against the backdrop that the ideology of violent Islamist inspired terrorism as one of the dominant global anti-establishment ideologies of the moment. Previously disaffected folk might be drawn to other movements, Al-Qa’ida or Daesh are now the alternative global movement. Again, rather than creating something new, Daesh (and Al-Qa’ida before it), have simply harnessed and attempted to spur on a trend that was already underway.
The Danger of Over-reaction
The importance of understanding the proper roots of these trends is to mitigate against the dangers of overreaction to them. If the Western reaction to the attack in Texas (and other future possible attacks) is to attack the organisation in a large fashion involving deployed armies and forces, this will have exactly the effect the group is likely hoping for.
An overreaction draws it into more direct conflict with the West making it both seem more powerful than it is, showing it able to stand up and fight directly with the world’s superpowers. It feeds into the group’s narrative of where it stands in the world and helps it become more important than it really is.
Instead, the focus needs to be on fixing the underlying reasons behind the contexts where the group’s ideology is able to take root. In Syria this means finding ways of bringing the brutal civil war to a close. In Iraq it involves building a participatory government so that the country’s Sunni’s do not look to groups like Daesh as defenders. In Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt it involves solving local problems that will help reduce the space in which the group is able to permeate.
And in the West, it involves engaging with people who are so disaffected from societies that they feel they want to rebel violently against them. None of this is easy, and for Western government’s to succeed the reality is they need to target limited resources on specific countries abroad in a global division of labour, and at home need to find ways of developing grass roots programmes to engage with specific individuals who are drifting towards extremist ideologies. But key to making sure that we do not prolong this problem any longer than it needs to be is a clear understanding of the nature of the threat that is faced.