The Globe: Countering The ISIS Diaspora

NurPhoto via Getty Images

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Easter this year was a stark reminder that the world is not safe from the machinations of the Islamic State. In Sri Lanka, over 200 Christians were killed during their Easter worship by ISIS-inspired radicals; and the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is apparently still alive according to recently surfaced video, despite claims by Russia that they killed the most wanted terrorist in the world. The events of April have shown that ISIS is nowhere near dead as President Trump proclaimed. As the terrorist group loses its territory, it will merely reassess its priorities and become an international terrorist organization like al-Qaeda. We have already seen this across the developing world, from West Africa to South East Asia.

Unfortunately, the recent developments with ISIS spreading across the globe should come as no surprise to anyone who studies terrorism. Whenever a conflict ends that involves combatants from foreign countries, these individuals often travel back to their homeland or other states in hopes of spreading their ideology. In the academic world, such an event is known as a diaspora, or in this case, terrorist diaspora. Post-Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is a prime example of this. With the Soviets defeated, veterans of the Afghan mujahideen sought to bring their holy war to their homelands. Countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Republics within Russia all played host to rising Islamic fundamentalist groups whose mission was to overthrow the governing power with an Islamic state. After Osama bin Laden was killed and al Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan decimated, the group decided to move to regions that they could more effectively operate in the shadows. Thus, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) became the group’s main havens as they could plan and carry out their attacks as US presence was not nearly as strong as it was in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Even though ISIS is now without much of the territory it stole in Iraq and Syria, the militant group is now extending its reach to other parts of the globe. In my first article on Afghanistan, I mentioned how ISIS has established bases of operations in the East, including Nangarhar province where the vital Khyber Pass into Pakistan and the city of Jalalabad are located. According to the Counter Extremism Project, besides Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, ISIS is operating in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the North Caucasus while also carrying out attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Belgium, Bangladesh, Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, Tunisia, and Kuwait. As should be obvious, the terrorist organization, while it has mostly lost most of its home territory, it shifting from localized insurgent group to a global terrorist and insurgent movement that is bent on causing the most damage it can.   

There are two main points that states that are currently battling extremism must take away from these events. First, they must share and respond to information about possible terrorist threats before attacks such as the Easter bombings can happen, and that states must. This is a problem that has plagued society for decades and can happen at any level of government, from inter agency (such as the divide between the FBI and CIA in the days leading up to 9/11) to the international sphere. In the case of the attacks in Sri Lanka, the country’s head of national intelligence informed the head of country’s law enforcement that the attack was going to happen, but no action was taken to increase security around Christian churches.

The other takeaway from recent terrorist attacks, whether its Islamic extremists or white supremacists, is that states must tackle the growing use of the internet as a means for these fanatics to recruit and proliferate their propaganda. ISIS thrived because social media makes it incredibly easy to radicalize people by sharing videos of their actions, and using messaging or private social media groups to recruit those susceptible to their ideology. From these sites, potential recruits are then contacted by ISIS members over encrypted messaging services like Telegram and then directed to make weapons and explosives for the group’s attack.

States are already looking for ways to crack down on the spread of radical materials on the internet. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and French President Emmanuel Macron are seeking to foster partnerships between governments and social media companies in order to target radical propaganda before it can be disseminated to a large audience. This might include pre-screening posts, banning the public from accessing terrorist manifestos as was the case with New Zealand prohibiting the publication of the Christchurch Mosque shooter’s manifesto. However, such a proposal opens up other issues. If we want to know the threats society faces, shouldn’t we know what makes these terrorists click? Such a proposal could also lead to a slippery slope in which the government has a greater say in what we do on social media.

These concerns over freedom of speech and information are not misplaced; but at the same time, security agencies must be able to prevent the dissemination of radical paraphernalia. By permitting access to these manifestos, governments are merely encouraging people to open themselves to the risks of radicalization. Indeed, researchers have found that mass shootings, such as those that have plagued US schools, are often inspired by past shootings (Columbine, for example). This theory of ‘contagion’ could also be applied to terrorism as people across the world saw the initial successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a sign that the group was right and wanted to contribute to its monstrous goals.

But what can we do as a community? If we want to siphon of the flow of recruits to these terrorist groups, we must not give them what they really want -- attention. Attention is what fuels radical organizations as they can use it to show our weakness. While we must not allow terrorists to go unpunished, they cannot be allowed to exploit our fears or change our society as this is their ultimate goal. Some news services are pledging not to utter the names of these terrorists or link their manifestos as a way to rob them of their notoriety. This is one trend that hopefully proliferates in order to dissuade people from carrying out these malignant attacks.

ISIS will sadly continue to be a threat as it shifts its priorities from creating a caliphate to engaging out acts of terrorism across the globe. This threat is undeniable and states must work with each other and with tech companies to stem the flow of Islamist propaganda that is used to recruit susceptible individuals. Preserving freedom of speech is a just and noble cause, but society must seek to tear the narrative out of the terrorists hands in order to prevent them from radicalizing anyone else to their twisted crusades.