PS21 Event Writeup “Changing Face of Conflict 1”

Monday, March 19, 2018

At the inaugural event of the ‘Changing Face of Conflict’ series, kindly hosted by Bob Seely MP, PS21 assembled a panel of experts with diverse backgrounds and experiences. The discussion considered the growth of hybrid warfare, the effect of changing technology, as well as artificial intelligence and changing norms.

Bob Seely MP opened by sketching out how Russia had embraced a variety of forms of non-traditional warfare to pressure the West, noting that a similar degree of innovation might now be required to combat it.

Veerle Nouwens, Asia Studies Researcher at RUSI pointed to the implementation of information operations, which includes “legal warfare” through the challenging of international law, particularly by China in the South China Sea. Nouwens outlined how the EU was experiencing a fracturing of unity over China, akin to that of ASEAN, as a result of increased strategic influence operations. As an example of China’s successful use of unconventional tactics, Nouwens noted the increased militarisation of Chinese activity in the South China Sea, evidenced by the installation of weapons on newly built artificial islands.

King’s College London lecturer Samir Puri said that the world was going through an era of major reconfiguration of power, although that was in itself not new. Puri said the US was moving from being the undisputed champion of the world to one that was very much disputed. Pointing to Russia, China and Iran in particular, he said US adversaries were working very deliberately to identify the thresholds for US military reaction and to take all action they could short of that level. Puri advocated for a need to be diplomatically smart, with new responses needed for actions he described as “accepted but not tolerated.”

Adam Maisel, US Army reservist and co-founder of the Dagr Group, said the US and its allies had been left asking themselves if they understood what modern war and peace really looked like. After several decades of technical dominance, he said, US forces would likely need to learn to deal with much more capable enemies who could largely deny powerful US platforms, such as aircraft carriers, access to strategic regions such as the South China Sea. To win, it would need to lose old lazy assumptions, such as over US aerial dominance, and recruit and train people who could fight in dynamic environments.

Major Kitty McKendrick, British Army Fellow at Chatham House researching the implications of Artificial Intelligence for defence and security, said that US superiority has been traditionally linked to their technological advantage. In terms of AI, McKendrick saw two big risks: the strategic overmatch by a competitor with less control and fewer ethical considerations and the marginalisation of the human in the battlefield. The impact of AI, according to McKendrick, could also change how states conduct foreign policy.

‘Virtual jihad’: What is the role of terrorist organizations in online-radicalization?

By Linda Schlegel – Linda holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London

Photo Credit: User: Colin https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Colin/Objects#/media/File:Backlit_keyboard.jpg

In recent years, Europe has seen a stark increase in so-called homegrown terrorist attacks attributed to or claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS). From Nice to Berlin and London, individuals, who had little or no formal connection to ‘official’ terrorist groups and seemingly radicalized at least partially online, perpetrated attacks in the name of jihad. While academia and politics still debate definitional issues around the concept of radicalization and whether or not radicalization can take place purely in the virtual sphere, a continuous discussion around these issues and their implications are necessary to better understand the present threat. One of the questions arising from increased online presence and possible online-radicalization is what role hierarchical terrorist organizations play today. In a time of ‘virtual jihad’, where everyone can access everything online, how important are formal organizations for understanding the threat of homegrown jihadist terrorism?

There are two general approaches to studying radicalization: top-down and bottom-up. The so-called Hoffman-Sageman debate between historian Bruce Hoffman and psychologist Marc Sageman mirrors the dichotomy between the two approaches. Hoffman postulates that radicalization and recruitment are driven by designated ‘staff’ within terrorist organizations and that hierarchical organizations are the main driving force between terroristic violence. To him, radicalization is a top-down mechanism with a strong role played by formally organized groups actively recruiting new members. Sageman, on the other hand, sees bottom-up processes between individual members as the main driver for radicalization. His ‘bunch of guys’ theory states that small groups of friends radicalize together by social-psychological processes of mutual reinforcement and without any connection to a formal organization or movement. Only after they radicalize do these small groups seek a link to a larger group, which makes radicalization a bottom-up process. This dispute originated in disagreement about radicalization of Al-Qaida members in the early 2000s, but can help frame today’s debate about the role terrorist organizations play for online-radicalization.

Sageman – passive organizations, active peers

The internet facilitates bottom-up radicalization processes by creating Sageman’s ‘bunch of guys’ in the virtual sphere. Increased connectivity enables interactivity on a truly global scale and within real-time. It is not necessary anymore to wait for weekly meetings or phone calls, it is possible to communicate with fellow supporters of jihadist ideology at any time. Interactivity can, over time, help to form bonds between the users and help facilitate the development of a community spirit. The peer group Sageman observed offline can also form online.

In addition, one of the properties of social media – the echo chamber or filter bubble– can aid the normalization of propaganda and violence within a given online community. Similar to sound being reflected in a cave, social media platforms show users only what they and their network ‘liked’ or ‘followed’ without outside content ever penetrating these ideological bubbles. A sense of commonality is fostered and the legitimacy of claims is increased, because seemingly everybody displays the same views. The normalization of violence as legitimate is the outcome of continued exposure and the validation by the virtual peer group for this type of behavior and world view.

Hoffman – active organizations

Online-radicalization, however, does not work without the appropriate content peers can disseminate into the echo chamber and discuss. Although some users create their own content, IS and other organizations engage in professional content creation and produce a highly sophisticated propaganda output, which is then shared and commented on by users. It is no misdemeanor to speak of an Islamic State media branch with professional staff and deep knowledge about the psychological stimulation of potential new recruits. Charlie Winter, for example, has identified six key themes IS continuously uses throughout its propaganda efforts: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, belonging and utopianism. These are used deliberately and continuously throughout the IS propaganda output ensuring consistency of the message communicated to followers. The themes are aimed at arousing emotions, increasing empathy with fellow Muslims and function as a call for action as much as a holistic narrative of the conflict. Currently IS propaganda output has diminished greatly and almost exclusively focuses on the war theme, but IS has shown its sophisticated narrative development in previous years.

In addition, organizations utilize preachers and recruiters to actively facilitate a top-down radicalization development. Preachers function as accessible authority figures, who break-down the propaganda into more digestible pieces and contextualize the often short propaganda messages in longer video explanations. As social media also provides the opportunity for direct contact, recruits feel personally connected and involved with the preachers they watch and therefore with the content they distribute. Recruiters are actively involved in spotting potential recruits, contacting them and leading them through their radicalization. This has become easier and more secure in the age of social media, which provides not only the possibility to form strong personal communicational bonds with someone at the other end of the globe, but also to remain relatively anonymous in doing so, which decreases the risk of detection.

The role of terrorist organizations has changed, but not diminished in the age of social media. Radicalization and recruitment increasingly take place within the virtual sphere through social media applications and are aided by the echo chamber property of the internet. Peer groups form online, transcending previous restraints of time and space and making a global ‘bunch of guys’ possible. However, formal organizations are not simply passive onlookers uninvolved in the peer group dynamics, but actively seek to facilitate radicalization. Propaganda material is produced in a highly professional manner only formalized structures can provide and designated staff such as preachers and recruiters actively identify and engage with new recruits. Radicalization in times of virtual jihad is driven by both bottom-up group processes and top-down mechanisms of active engagement by the organization itself.

This post is a summary of a longer essay published by the author and @tillbaaken here.

Linda Schlegel holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society (distinction) from King’s College London and is a Junior Analyst at Global Risk Insight.

Iraq and Kurdistan: Untying the Gordian Knot

Peshmerga forces outside Kirkuk in 2014. Photo credits: By Boris Niehaus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33574038

By Gautham Ashok. Gautham holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London.

Just as the dust is slowly settling on a nine-month long campaign to drive the Islamic State (IS) out of Iraq, the troubled country is lurching toward another war. According to the latest reports, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have taken control of the main military airbase in the disputed city of Kirkuk in the north of the country. The airport and surrounding areas were until yesterday manned by Kurdish forces. The ISF have also taken control of a vital oil field. The move comes amid escalated tension between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil over a controversial Independence referendum. Ironically, both sides have been trained and equipped by the United States.

 

Background

The referendum over Kurdish Independence from Iraq held on September 25th was unilaterally and extra legally called by the dominant party in Northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The referendum was held both in the official provinces in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, but more problematically also in disputed areas. These areas have historically been claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil. In any event, 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for Independence from Iraq. Baghdad responded by asking the KRG to annul the results, a demand which was immediately rejected.

Following the vote, nationalist fervor in Kurdish areas reached fever pitch, as Baghdad’s assertions over the illegal vote became more and more stern. The past week has seen volatile rallying by both sides over their respective flags. Baghdad also implemented measures designed to isolate the region, by banning all international flights in and out of Kurdistan, and calling for a halt in crude oil sales from the region. The looming clash will most likely be centered in the long-contested city of Kirkuk.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which was ratified in 2005 following the US-led invasion of the country and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, mandates a three-step process for determining the status of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. Firstly, the area would have to be “normalized”, following which a census would be held. Post these steps, a referendum would be conducted to decide if citizens of Kirkuk and the adjacent areas would prefer to accede to Iraqi union under Baghdad or join the autonomous region of Kurdistan under Erbil. Due to political turbulence, sectarian conflict and economic troubles, this referendum has yet to materialize.

More recently, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters seized control of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil rich areas in 2014, following the collapse of the Iraqi Army during the initial phases of the IS assault. By capturing Kirkuk and the nearby oil fields, the Kurds prevented IS from controlling a major revenue source. The brutality of the caliphate, and prospective state failure forced Baghdad and Erbil to work together to rout out the Jihadist threat. Now that IS, has been driven out of Iraq, Baghdad desires a return to the pre-2014 status quo i.e. joint administration of the region. Erbil has thus far refused to surrender any of the gains made in 2014.

 

A Game of Dominoes

In the case of civil war breaking out between Baghdad and Erbil, the conflict would have major implications in a region already dealing with a resurgent Al Qaeda, a wounded IS and a severe refugee crisis. If fighting does break out, Turkey and Iran would both enter the fray. Both nations vigorously oppose any notion of a Kurdish nation state on their borders. Iran and Turkey also house sizeable numbers of Kurdish citizens, any conflict will escalate the chances of internal strife in their own domain. Moreover, Tehran holds considerable sway over the Shia majority government in Baghdad, and Iranian militias have been at the forefront of the fight against IS.

In this event, the Kurds will likely appeal for aid from their main ally, the US. In Washington, right wing think tanks have already started pushing the Trump administration to use the Kurds as a bulwark against the “Iranian backed government of Iraq.” If the Trump administration does heed Erbil’s call, then Washington’s position in the region will likely become even more entrenched. Kurdistan does not have an air force, and will have to rely on US airpower to repel any major advances by the Iraqi government. Such an expansion in US – Kurdish ties will most likely irk Ankara, and thereby push Turkey into a deeper alliance with Iran and Russia. Relations between Ankara and Washington are already frosty, following Turkey’s decision to suspend processing new visa applications from the US.

With regards to Kirkuk itself, recent history indicates that the Iraqi Security Forces will likely enter the city easily, but will eventually be bogged down by a likely urban insurgency. Bellicose statements and inflamed rhetoric by any of the involved parties, will likely reduce chances of compromise and peace and produce more victimization on all sides. The human cost of such a war will likely be huge, lessening the chances of democracy and instead leading to less security and more radicalization in the future.

 

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

 

 

Why Al-Qaeda has lost support amongst Western jihadists

The scene at Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square in Aleppo after the attacks in 2012, attributed to Al-Nusra. Photo credits: Zyzzzzzy – http://www.flickr.com/photos/81399520@N00/8049978198, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21884168

By Jakob Guhl. Jakob completed his undergraduate studies with a BA in Political Science and Religious Studies from Goethe University Frankfurt. Currently, he is pursuing his postgraduate studies at King’s College London, with a focus on jihadism and home-grown radicalisation in the West.

 

For over a decade following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda captured the public imagination in many Western countries unlike any other terrorist organization. But despite the optimism following the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, al-Qaeda continued to exist. Since the declaration of its caliphate however, ISIS seems to have eclipsed al-Qaeda as the most infamous and headline-garnering jihadist organization. So has al-Qaeda lost the arms race for the hearts and minds of potential jihadists? The answer very much depends on the layer of the organization and possible audience of support one focuses on.

Al-Qaeda does not constitute a unified organization. Instead, we can differentiate in between at least four layers that are associated with the network: 1) core al-Qaeda 2) regional affiliates 3) directed networks 4) undirected networks. The distinction in between these layers may not always be clear- cut. Core al-Qaeda (1) for example has sent a group of veteran members to Syria in order to influence the operations of its former regional affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (2) and AQAP (2) claimed that the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo-shooting (3 or 4) acted in its name. Al-Qaeda’s exact scope may also change over time. Over the last years, previously unaffiliated groups have joined (al-Shabaab, AQI, AQIM), and hitherto affiliated groups have parted ways (Jabhat Fatah al- Sham, ISIS) with al-Qaeda. Furthermore, al-Qaeda has established regional franchises like al- Nusrah and AQIS by itself.

To its own disappointment, al-Qaeda has never enjoyed great support amongst the global Muslim population and mainstream Islamic scholars, which were shocked by its indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants. This led al-Qaeda to re-evaluate its strategic approach and focus on local conflicts in Muslim-majority countries instead of striking the “far enemy” in the West. By appealing to the political desires of local populations and presenting themselves as the more “moderate” jihadist alternatives to ISIS, al-Qaeda affiliates have managed to gain ground, especially in Syria and Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has even managed to unite different factions anti-Assad opposition that broadly share its ideology under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al- Sham, which includes former members of Ahrar al-Sham. If anything al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates have gained strength and local trust.

However, if we look at the support from Salafi-jihadists in Western Europe and North America, the picture changes. Al-Qaeda failed to capitalize on the increased levels of radicalisation unleashed by the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Even though its regional affiliates did attract foreign fighters from the West, most of the estimated 4,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq joined its competitor ISIS.

In addition, attacks committed under the direct order of or inspired by al-Qaeda have declined further in their frequency and severity over the last few years during a time in which attacks organised or at least claimed by ISIS have risen. But why has al-Qaeda lost support amongst potential western recruits to its cause? While there is not a singular factor we can point to, there are multiple organisational, strategic and ideological reasons for AQ’s relative demise amongst westerners.

Let us turn to the organisational factors first. It has often been assumed that terrorist networks without strong hierarchies have organizational features that make it tough for states to effectively confront them. Al-Qaeda’s development after 9/11 may be a counter-example to this hypothesis. Core al-Qaeda’s capacities to carry out major attacks in the West have been significantly reduced by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the continued counterterrorism efforts of the United States. Most subsequent plots and attacks had therefore to be planned and carried out autonomously by local admirers, who were not able to establish contact to the leaders of the organization. Operations by such autonomous groups are very difficult to prevent. On the flip side, the impact of small cells remains limited, because they lack strategic direction and their attacks does not serve any attainable long-term political goals. Their violence becomes vacuous.

Next we need to look at how the strategic decisions al-Qaeda has made have disconnected the group from their western admirers. Over the last few years, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic approach away from the “far enemy” towards participation in local struggles in Muslim-majority countries through its regional affiliates. A combination of three factors can explain this change: firstly, offensive U.S. counterterrorism efforts put a lot of pressure on core al-Qaeda. Secondly, the American intelligence services simultaneously improved at preventing terrorist plots. Thirdly, the group recognized that its strategy during the 1990’s and 2000’s failed to win over Muslim populations. This led core al-Qaeda to place more importance on local conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Mali, in which regional AQ-franchises adopted comparatively more moderate tactics to win over the hearts and minds of the local populations. In a certain sense, core al-Qaeda sacrificed part of its global appeal in order to rebuild its strength by establishing more stable and sustainable bases. For western jihadists, it might have become more difficult to fully align with movements who seemed to be primarily concerned with national issues and not the global struggle.

A last explanation for al-Qaeda’s relative decline among support from Western jihadists concerns the ideological differences between itself and ISIS and the way they have been communicated. Terrorist groups thrive on narratives. Establishing a caliphate while gaining immense amounts of territory in a very short time provided ISIS with a powerful narrative. ISIS appeared to be confident, strong and victorious while al-Qaeda did not seem able to provide a powerful counter-narrative. Furthermore, ISIS communicated its message in a more accessible fashion by relying on social media, well-produced videos and stylish online magazines, while AQAP’s famous online magazine “Inspire” deteriorated in the quality of its articles and was also not published as often following the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in 2011. While al-Qaeda still put out sophisticated theological treatises, ISIS internet propaganda appealed to and specifically targeted a broader, less selective profile of volunteers. ISIS also came to be seen as the more radical, violent and apocalyptic group than suddenly “moderate” al-Qaeda. which may also have made al-Qaeda become less attractive for rebellious youth aspiring to join the cause.

When looking at al-Qaeda’s current support base, an ambivalent picture emerges. On the level of European jihadists, al-Qaeda has lost support in terms of groups committing directed or undirected attacks. Furthermore, the network has not been able to recruit as many jihadist foreign fighters from Europe as its rival ISIS. Regional affiliates of al-Qaeda however continue to be a major factors in local conflicts. Today, it has become clear that the jihadist movement is bigger than al-Qaeda and can easily survive al-Qaeda’s declining support amongst western jihadists. It will be interesting to see whether core al-Qaeda can re-establish a “safe haven” in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the American troops exit from Afghanistan. Without direction from a strong core al-Qaeda it does not seem like the group could inspire much support from potential western recruits in the future. With the current demise of ISIS’ caliphate and al-Qaeda’s preliminary success in establishing safe operational bases, it is however conceivable that al-Qaeda will present the more dangerous long- term terrorist threat to the West. Not much is left from the powerful narrative ISIS was able to present in 2014. Whether or not that might help al-Qaeda to regain its popularity among Western jihadists remains to be seen.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

“Imagining war in 2030” PS21 event writeup

The future of warfare may be coming faster than we think.

That, at least, felt like the conclusion of Tuesday’s panel on “Imagining War in 2030”, organized by the Project for the Study of the 21st Century and the British Army Intrapreneurs’ Network [BrAIN]. With dozens of military and civilian attendees packed into a relatively airless conference room in Whitehall, a panel of leading experts sketched out what looks to be a period of massive technical, geopolitical and deeply unpredictable change.

Royal United Services Institute Futures and Technology fellow Elizabeth Quintana sketched out some of the technical breakthroughs coming down the line as nations invest in new cyber, electromagnetic and growing technologies as well as hypersonic and other weaponry. Russia, she told the audience, already had a semi-autonomous humanoid robot that could fire a gun and which they intend to send to space.

Former Director Special Forces and Commander Field Army Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb outlined how the pace of change was now proceeding much faster than anyone had anticipated. The year 2030 might be only 13 years away, but breakthroughs in quantum computing, artificial intelligence and other fields were all producing breakthroughs at considerable speed. They would produce potentially massive societal and other changes, and government and military institutions were not currently keeping pace.

Kings College London lecturer and former Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Samir Puri outlined how he had seen some of these changes in action as an OSCE observer in Ukraine. Different nations would demonstrate their geopolitical ambitions in different ways in the years to come, he suggested, pointing out that while a host of states including Britain, Iran, Russia and others have their own imperial memories, they were of very different empires and shaped very different regional and global aspirations.

But not everything would change, he cautioned – it was entirely possible the US and its allies would still be embroiled in the Afghanistan war at the end of the next decade.

Balancing technology, structures, career paths

Unsurprisingly, there were a range of different views on how the military and other institutions should and could adapt to such an unpredictable future. Some questioned to what extent traditional military “pyramid” shaped hierarchies could possibly adapt [although Lieutenant General Lamb argued that while flatter hierarchies have their strengths, outright conflict required much greater resilience than they could offer].

While traditional Western militaries concentrated on traditional war fighting [phase 1 operations and upwards, in UK military terminology], many of the West’s adversaries were becoming much more adept at operating below that threshold, within “phase zero” operations. That trend was only likely to intensify in the years to come, he argued.

Most attendees felt that keeping pace with current changes in cyber and other domains was proving challenging enough, but relatively near-future breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning was felt set to provide even greater changes. While current drone warfare has actually proved very “human intensive” given the number of intelligence and other individuals involved in targeting and assessment, there will be inevitable moves towards artificial intelligence performing some if not many of those tasks. Where lines are drawn – particularly on the decisions to take human life – will be highly contested, and non-Western potential foes may be much more willing than ourselves to take such steps. [”The Russians tend to trust machines more than they trust people,” said Elizabeth Quintana, pointing to a trend she traced back to Soviet times].

Integration and flexibility would be key to handling these new trends. Lamb said he expected a special forces team of the near future would also be integrated with robotic/artificial intelligence capabilities – although what exactly that would look like was another matter.

Some attendees questioned whether the modern British Military was truly flexible enough to keep track of such new trends – although there was clearly plenty of enthusiasm for doing so.

Building the systems and processes for that would be key. As US military historian Thomas Ricks [himself paraphrasing US General Omar Bradley] once said, while might talks tactics, professionals talk logistics, real insiders focus on career structures to determine what really gets done.

Taking the debate forward

This event was the first of several planned by PS21 to explore the world of 2030 [you can read a range of pieces exploring that world on the PS21 website here]. We will also be holding further events with BrAIN later this year and into 2018.

Check out upcoming PS21 events here.

FURTHER READING

Wired.com interviews US analyst Peter Singer on the future of warfare

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist and executive Director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century. He is also a reservist in the British Army and member of the UK Labour Party. You can follow him on Twitter here

From ‘good boy’ to terrorist: What is the appeal of ISIS?

Westminster, 23 March 2017. Photo credits: Prioryman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is a trainee at the Council of Europe.

The so-called Islamic State has dominated and continues to dominate headlines with the recent Barcelona attacks, for which it claimed responsibility. Although the question of what makes someone become a terrorist has been discussed since the rise of left-wing terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of ISIS has intensified the discourse surrounding the processes of radicalization. The attackers were young and seemingly well-integrated immigrants of Moroccan descent and did not suffer from objective economic hardships. Yet they made the decision to kill and die for jihad. What drives those, who have lived in the West for all their lives or for a very long period of their lives, to sacrifice themselves for an organization that predominantly fights to gain territory in Iraq and Syria. What could make a young man murder innocent civilians and commit suicide for an imagined ideal of the caliphate or the ummah, the global community of Muslims? Governments and civil society also ask what can be done to prevent so-called ‘homegrown’ radicalization and decrease susceptibility to radical ideas.

Charlie Winter, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), has written extensively on Islamic State propaganda and identified 6 key themes in their narrative: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, utopianism and belonging. In contrast to popular belief, IS propaganda is not merely a depiction of violence and brutality such as beheadings, but includes a sophisticated understanding of which different types of narratives may drive people to seek a new, radical self-image in the name of defending the caliphate. Space does not allow for a discussion of all themes here, but the narrative of ‘belonging’ may be especially important to understand in the context of homegrown radicalization. In theory, one should feel loyalty and a sense of belonging to the country one has grown up in, but homegrown radicalization questions this assumption and the ability of Western governments to help form collective identification with the nation they are representing.

Social isolation has been shown to impact our psychological well-being, our mental health and our behaviour towards ourselves and others. Multiple theories of radicalization also involve isolation or the perceived lack of embeddedness in society at large as one of the facilitating conditions, which might make individuals more susceptible to radical ideas. ISIS propaganda is partially designed to appeal to this group of dis-embedded young people and to fill the emotional void of a lack of belonging. In the context of nationalism, Benedict Anderson has shown that we construct collective identities based on so-called imagined communities. They are imagined, because we cannot possible know every member of that community, yet we feel a connection with them based on, for example, a common nationality. For jihadists, the imagined community is not the nation, but the ummah, the global community of Muslims. ISIS constructs this community as the only community for Muslims and based on this shared identification seeks to justify violence against anyone not belonging to this group.

There is a general trend caused by the forces of globalization to, on the one hand, make almost global identification with popular culture the norm and, on the other hand, to facilitate a tendency to identify with very restricted yet transnational communities such as the ummah. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes in his book Talking to the Enemy “together with a flat and fluid world, a more tribal, fragmentized and divisive world emerges as people search for social identity and greater sense of purpose“. ISIS provides precisely this sense of social identity and purpose to fight for the group one identifies with. The propaganda is aimed at creating the image of a global brotherhood of Muslims, which stand together and fight for a holy cause against the dark forces of the West. A classical Manichean narrative, which portrays ISIS as the champion of justice and other forces such as Western states or Middle Eastern governments as the embodiment of evil. All of us seek purpose in our lives and social isolation can call previous meaning-providing structures into question. Isolated individuals are therefore vulnerable to a narrative that emphasizes belonging and purpose simultaneously.

Because socially isolated individuals may be drawn to a strong narrative of collective belonging, both governments and civil society need to engage not only in counter-messaging, but in the construction of inclusive narratives and realities to decrease the number of people ISIS propaganda may appeal to. Aside from measures to include individuals through employment, volunteering, housing and other opportunities necessary to feel embeddedness and belonging, governments should initiate a discussion on collective identity. What does it mean to be British/Spanish/German in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society? It is not enough to ensure that everyone abides the law, civil inclusion must also have an emotional component of identification with the greater collective. As humans, we seek this feeling of belonging and togetherness and if it is put into question, the likelihood that we seek it outside of the national context, increases. It is a very difficult task for governments and needs to be done carefully in order not to appear to force a pre-made national identity upon the population. Identity building works best if facilitated by institutions, but driven bottom-up by those facing the diversity in their communities every day. The fight against terrorism has and will continue to dominate the political sphere, but governments are well advised to take community building, trust enhancing and identity building ‘soft power’ measures seriously in order to counter the emotional identity appeal groups such as ISIS display. In doing so, they do not only strengthen the health of the nation overall, but contribute to the long-term decline in recruitment power due to the ‘belonging’ component Winter identified.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Imagining 2030: Post-ISIS Middle East

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is currently pursuing an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society at King’s College London.

While the ideological appeal of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) remains high as exemplified by the recent attacks throughout the United Kingdom, the group’s territorial base is constantly shrinking. It is too early to proclaim the end of the caliphate or the defeat of ISIS. After all, Al-Qaeda was believed to have vanished into nothing more than a ghost of the past, yet it continues to operate, albeit with changed organizational character. ISIS, just like Al-Qaeda, will not just vanish even if all territory held by the group was liberated. One does not simply defeat terrorism by physical force. ISIS as an idea and an ideal will continue to live on far beyond its physical manifestation.

Nevertheless, governments and civil society actors can and should prepare for the possibility of a Middle East with a much weaker presence from ISIS, and develop long-term solutions beyond the immediate military defeat of the group. The challenges in the region are manifold and the interests of powerful states such as the US, China and Russia make negotiations often conflictual rather than cordial. Many issues beyond ISIS will remain, such as the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Iran’s influence in the region or the post-war troubles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. One problem all parties will be facing equally, however, is the reintegration of those, who lived and fought under ISIS.

At its peak, ISIS controlled territory with over 10 million inhabitants. Current numbers are hard to estimate as territorial boundaries are constantly changing and the situation in Syria makes it impossible for the United Nations and other organizations to adequately assess the population size and the number of victims. Whatever the current numbers may be, it is clear that millions of people, who lived under ISIS rule will have to be re-integrated into their societies after the decline of the group. Returning foreign fighters are a problem by themselves with regards to re-integration in their home societies, but the problem will be even more pronounced in the Middle East and exacerbated by returning refugees. It is not feasible to incarcerate all those, who were forced to fight for ISIS and much less those, who perpetrated unlawful acts to simply survive under the extremist group. But how can one re-build a country where returning refugees live next to someone, who was part of an ISIS fighter group? How can the international community assist the people in Syria and Iraq to adequately deal with this situation? There are many different issues to be taken into consideration, but two possible measures are discussed below: a truth commission and de-radicalization.

The first question on the path to re-integration is whom to integrate and whom to imprison. ISIS territories, however, are currently unmonitored and it will be extremely difficult to trace crimes and violent acts to their specific perpetrators in retrospect. Therefore, a possible first step ought to be, the establishment of a truth commission. The international community has experience with this endeavour, for example in the case of South Africa after apartheid or Rwanda after the genocide. While high-ranking leaders of ISIS are likely to be tried in tribunals for crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations, low-level members of the organization are unlikely to be tried in this setting. A truth commission is a useful way of dealing with the foot soldiers before re-integrating them. It is useful for different reasons.

Firstly, it establishes an account of what happened, which is necessary in order to map-out atrocities committed. In chaotic situations such as under the rule of a terrorist organization, truth cannot be established, but in the aftermath actions can be traced back by a commission. Secondly, truth commissions are reconciliatory in nature. Rather than exercising a punishment, truth commissions place an emphasis on establishing an account of what happened and thereby aiding the process of closure for victims. They are also aimed at bringing victims and perpetrators together and to carefully re-establish relations, which is especially important considering that people of both groups need to be able to live together in order to re-build the country.

The second step needs to be some form of de-radicalization program for those, who were exposed to ISIS propaganda and may have come to accept some of it as their own world view. While Islamist groups will come and go, the long-term goal of the international community should be to counter the extremist ideology these groups spread. This may be especially relevant for children, who lived under ISIS rule and have been exposed to a high degree of ideological material and indoctrination. In many areas controlled by ISIS, TVs and other entertainment equipment were destroyed and substituted with public preaching and even military training for children of all ages. These children do not only need a de-radicalization program, but are likely to need counselling as well in order to put their experiences with ISIS in perspective and to help them overcome what they have been taught. While it is important to focus on the future and ensure that the children of Aleppo and other Syrian cities do not become a ‘lost generation’ by adequately caring for their psychological needs post their experience with extremism, it is just as important for a reconstruction of a society to de-radicalize adults.

As a first step, behavioural de-radicalization should be the goal; that is, giving up violent behaviour and the willingness to use violence to advance a political or religious agenda. This is the most important aspect to starting re-integration and the ideological component, the cognitive de-radicalization, can then be achieved in a long-term process through culture specific de-radicalization programs. Culture-specific, traditional measures to tackle local issues in the aftermath of conflict have proven to be successful, for example in the Gacaca trials in Rwanda. Many countries have experience with de-radicalization programs, for example in prisons, and this knowledge should be utilized to support Syrians in the restructuring of society.

ISIS cannot be proclaimed dead and perhaps never will be, but it is declining and therefore measures to re-stabilize the region post-ISIS can and should be discussed. There are many issues to be negotiated, economically, politically and socially, but developing an account of what happened as well as establishing some form of re-integrative program for local ISIS members are necessary steps towards a free and peaceful future for Syria. If the international community fails to support these steps, the countries affected will remain the cradle of terrorism and conflict regardless of whether ISIS will continue to exist or not.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Democracy in the UK – Why Theresa May’s comments on fighting extremism are exactly what the terrorists want

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is currently pursuing an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society at King’s College London.

Following the recent terrorist attack in London that left seven dead and several wounded and in light of the previous two attacks on Westminster Bridge and in Manchester, British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to allow for more extensive law enforcement measures in fighting extremism. The Prime Minister stated that if human rights laws would prevent the government from pursuing their agenda against extremism, the government would “change the laws so we can do it”. UK intelligence services already possess a variety of intrusive powers to manage the threat that is perceived as especially challenging in Great Britain today, namely identifying, monitoring and countering ‘homegrown’ extremists and their supporters. The British counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST outlines not only how to pursue terrorists, but extensively elaborates on both violent and non-violent extremism and how both need to be addressed by the government. In giving this speech and even more when changing the laws, Theresa May does more than fuelling an already divisive discourse in the UK, she may unintentionally increase the support for terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The debate of security versus freedom is arguably as old as state structures themselves. As Hobbes already theorized, we trade part of our personal freedom to be protected by a larger collective. Today’s understanding, however, limits the amount of freedom(s) a state entity is allowed to restrict, first and foremost the unalienable human rights laid out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Prime Minister May’s comments suggest that she is willing to undermine decades of human rights protection in the UK in order to fight extremism and terrorism. It is hardly a proportional response to the threat terrorism poses to the citizens in the United Kingdom to put non-negotiable rights in jeopardy. In 2015, there were about 1,700 fatalities due to car accidents in the UK, a number more than 34 times higher than the death rate caused by terrorism in 2017 and almost five times as much as in the worst year of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The disproportionality becomes even more evident when compared to the more than half a million death due to flu in the UK in 2015 alone.

Disproportionality and the possible deconstruction of long-standing progress on human rights protection in the UK are, however, not the only issue with May’s declared plan to limit human rights in the fight against terrorism. By putting human rights in jeopardy or even by simply stating the willingness to do so, May risks becoming an aid to the very forces she seeks to fight.

Social movement theory has long known the concept of political opportunity structure. Organizations seeking to change the status quo and to recruit supporters to their cause do not bring forward their propaganda in a vacuum. Social movements rely on a constant interplay between their own actions and the actions of the political elite and governments, that is, the political situation their potential supporters find themselves in. Governments can limit or increase the opportunity structures movements can use, for example by choosing between allowing protests to take place or to fight the protesters. Certain scholars even take this one step further, advocating for state constructivism theory. Building on Jeff Goodwin’s work No Other Way Out, scholars such as Tom Parker have argued that state actions ‘construct’ or help revolutionary movements by making it possible to associate pre-existing grievances with state actions against a certain group. Parker discusses how “democratic states unintentionally sustain the terrorist movements they oppose” whereas Jessica Wolfendale argues that many of the current counterterrorism practices pose a greater threat than terrorism itself.

Prime Minister May’s first duty is to protect British citizens, but the approach she seems to advocate for doing so may result in the exact opposite of what she seeks to achieve. Her speech and, if put into practice, the changes in laws will enlarge the political opportunity structure ISIS and other organizations already have to recruit young males, who feel isolated and misunderstood by the government and society at large. The British government could fall into the trap the terrorists set out for them by increasing the resonance of the terrorist’s narrative that Western governments are willing to perpetrate atrocities against Islam and the Muslim people even in their own countries and that therefore Western states need to be fought. ISIS, for example, brings forward the theme of ‘victimhood’ as one of the six key components researcher Charlie Winter identified in their propaganda output. Stating the intention to limit the human rights in the fight of extremism fuels the victimhood narrative certain jihadists employ to recruit Muslims in the West. The very government, whose job it is to build an inclusive society protecting minorities, can now be framed as willing to infringe upon fundamental rights of Muslims as they are the primary suspect group in today’s terrorism. As CONTEST, the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, has been shown to be disproportionately felt by Muslim communities anyways, this rhetoric will only fuel the possible susceptibility to radical world views.

The Prime Minister openly stating the willingness to infringe upon human rights, a fundamental pillar of Western liberal democracy, the chances of further alienating certain parts of society cannot be overestimated, which may increase the risk of susceptibility to radicalization. Terrorists and the extremist ideologies behind their actions need to be countered by governments and security measures are necessary, but the risk of increasing violence seems immense in this case. State repression can exacerbate grievances, especially if felt disproportionately by a certain group in society and the British state runs the risk of playing into the hands of terrorist ideologues.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Sharing guns, sharing habitus?

What explains the rise of virtual, ideological terrorist networks in the West?

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is currently pursuing an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society at King’s College London.

With the rise of the so-called Islamic State new questions for terrorism research emerged. Especially the social media use of the organization has both fascinated and worried practitioners and academics alike. One of the most worrying features of the new, virtual display of Salafi-jihadist ideology is the increasing number of people from all over the world, who seek to join this movement. We as societies need to ask ourselves what may drive young people towards this type of ideology. One of the possible underlying mechanisms for increased online radicalization from a sociological point of view is explored in the following by showing that today’s youth may be easier influenced in an online setting than older generations were.

Habitus in the age of modern communication technology

Pierre Bourdieu showed that humans are socialized in a certain milieu defined by our standing in society and thereby develop a shared set of behaviours with those socialized in similar circumstances. This shared set of practices of social interaction is called habitus. Those sharing a habitus understand each other more intuitively due to their similarities in social dispositions, while those socialized in very different circumstances, who therefore developed a different habitus, do not. For Bourdieu, the habitus is based on class, but globalization eroded traditional social milieus. Modern communication technology (MCT) is available to a majority living in the West crumbling traditional limits of access due to class. It can be argued that almost equal access to the MCTs in the West resulted in a similitude of habitus by those, who grew up using them. Social media makes socialization processes similar in one specific aspect, the online realm, creating shared dispositions and therefore the ability to intuitively interact in the virtual world. Following Prensky, individuals socialized using MCT are called ‘digital natives’.

What does this mean for the rise of virtual, ideological networks in the West? A habitus creates a shared basis for interaction and similar behaviour. This, in turn, leads to more trust in those, who display similar social dispositions and therefore makes it easier to construct one’s identity on the basis of a group sharing the same habitus. The same is true for the online realm, which partially explains the rise of terrorist networks as digital natives are likely to consume and perceive online propaganda differently, display more trust towards it and more easily commit to an ideology they are exposed to online. Terrorists networks expanded in the West partially, because digital natives are more likely to be able to form emotional bonds online and construct their identity accordingly.

There are three interrelated factors that contribute to a bottom-up rise of extremist networks in the case of digital natives: Familiarity, trust and cognitive belonging.

Familiarity

Firstly, digital natives find, access and navigate online environments more easily than older generations. The digital world constitutes a familiar environment for potential recruits and they navigate it intuitively. Importantly, they also find familiarity in the interactions with other digital natives, who share their habitus, and are therefore likely to communicate in a similar manner; something that develops naturally from a shared habitus and cannot be learned.

Trust

Secondly, while mature users tend to be cautious and aware of virtual dangers, younger generations associate online interaction with positive feelings and display a lot of trust in their virtual peers. This combination of trust and positive feelings associated with online contact constitutes a ‘cognitive opening’ for digital natives, making them more susceptible to ideas propagated by their peers. This condition is exacerbated by the tendency of online communities to create ‘echo chambers’: Once within an extreme environment, counter-messages are unlikely to reach the potential recruit. Similar to Facebook, which shows its users only what they ‘liked’, jihadi echo chambers display only messages in alignment with their ideology. Trust in the messenger, a fellow digital native, leads to more trust in the message, which is also increased by the virtual ‘echo chamber’.

Cognitive belonging

Trust is a necessary pre-condition for the third factor: cognitive belonging. Digital natives display intuitive knowledge of online interactions due to their partially similar socialization; their habitus. Some potential recruits become involved in terrorist movements, because they seek a feeling of belonging or identity, which is easier constructed in a group containing individuals similar to oneself. Despite its global reach, the shared habitus enables identity construction rested on a perception of a virtual ‘imagined community’ of similarly socialized individuals. This identity construction is achieved both through passive and active engagement with the ideology. On the one hand, when ideology is conveyed in familiar terms, it is easier to relate to. This is achieved, for instance, by utilizing Western foreign fighters to share their stories. This familiarity in messaging, only possible through similar socialization, is a tremendous advantage for recruitment. Messaging matters not only in terms of content, but also in terms of delivery. On the other hand, digital natives are used to highly interactive environments. If a group provides this room for expression, it creates an environment of constant negotiation and re-negotiation of ideology and identity. Today’s radical online communities are not only passive receivers of propaganda, they are active negotiators of the ideology.

Not every digital native is more susceptible to radical ideologies. In an online setting, however, they are more likely to perceive an online community as important and real, and, if the community is radical, are more likely to adhere to radical ideas through online interaction. One possible implication of this is that the constructors and conveyors of counter-narratives should be digital natives as well. An excellent counter-narrative will not lead to desired results if it is not received by the intended audiences in alignment with their expectations on online interaction. It is likely that the same messages have very different results depending on which generation verbalizes them. An educational effort by digital natives for their peers with content constructed by them is likely to increase the legitimacy of the counter-message due to increased trust and familiarity. It could therefore facilitate the effectiveness of counter-radicalization. Social media changes our lives and it changes the faces and mechanisms of terrorism. We need to be aware of these developments in order to counter them directly and effectively.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

 

 

Are lone wolves the future of terrorism?

The Promenade des Anglais on the morning after the 2016 Nice attack

By Linda Schlegel

In Munich a gunman shot nine people, in Würzburg a man attacked train passengers with a knife and an axe, in Ansbach a suicide bomber detonated his bomb at a music festival and in Nice a man purposefully ran over pedestrians in a truck. All these attacks took place in the last year and were executed by individuals not belonging to a terrorist organization. It is therefore not surprising that lone wolf terrorism is seen as an increasing problem.

Terrorist acts planned and perpetrated by individual actors are not a new phenomenon, but have recently come to the forefront of public awareness again with a perceived hike in attacks of this kind. The Guardian titled in June 2016 “Islamist terror has evolved toward lone actors- and it’s brutally effective” suggesting lone actors have become part of a deliberate strategy by Islamic terrorist organizations, which would imply that law enforcement and civil society alike must prepare for more of these types of attacks.

There are three questions to be answered in order to judge whether the Guardian’s concern is justified: a) What is lone wolf terrorism and how effective is it? b) Is this type of terrorism a deliberate strategy facilitated by violent armed groups? c) Is lone actor terrorism the future of attacks in the West?

The definitions of lone wolf actors vary considerably, sometimes including small cells as well as individuals. A basic definition by sociology of terrorism expert Ramon Spaaij describes the lone actor as someone, who “operates individually, does not belong to an organized terrorist group or network and whose modi operandi are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy”. In other words, lone wolves are not part of a defined organization and do not take direct external orders.

This does not mean that lone actors need to be completely detached from features of group-based terrorism; for instance, lone actors often justify their actions through a particular ideology also espoused by organizations such as Salafi jihadism or right-wing extremism. An example of this is Anders Breivik, who was not formally a member of any violent political group and who executed every single step from the planning to the bomb making and the shooting by himself without support from the outside.

The 2016 RUSI report on lone actor terrorism showed that these types of attacks are generally not extremely effective with 1.22 fatalities per attack and 76% of attacks not causing any loss of life. In terms of effectiveness, Anders Breivik as well as the perpetrator in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, are outliers in the data set producing a lot more fatalities than other lone actors. In general, attacks perpetrated by actors that can be classified as lone wolves are less common than other types of attacks. However, as shown before, recent years have seen a considerable increase in individual attackers, which leads to the question of whether attacks of this nature are part of a change in strategy by leading terrorist organizations.

It is true that the so-called Islamic State endorsed self-starter terrorists in part of its propaganda. The more general schism between different violent jihadist organizations about whether the near enemy, that is regimes in the Middle East, or the far enemy, primarily Western democracies, seems to play a role in this. Whereas ISIS is very much focused on the establishment of a caliphate, in contrast to Al-Qaeda, it also underlines a determination to attack the far enemy. For this purpose, it is far easier to recruit people, who are already in these Western countries and who cannot be easily reached by a logistical support structure. Espousing lone wolf terrorism is a rational choice for ISIS. For instance, the ‘manual’ on how to use trucks for an attack has apparently inspired the attacks in Nice and Berlin.

There is also an increasing number of attacks being claimed by the Islamic State, which may or may not have been carried out with specific reference to its ideology. It is a strategic choice to accept responsibility for all kinds of violent acts and to exacerbate the fear that the organization can strike anywhere at any time. It may therefore appear that ISIS inspired lone actor attacks increased, but this does not mean that this is necessarily the case.

A call to arms for individuals as well as claiming responsibility for a variety of attacks may be part of a new strategy, but by itself it is not enough to explain the recent rise in individual actors engaging in terrorism. It is difficult for an organization to encourage lone actors without actively recruiting them and thereby making them part of the network rather than a lone wolf. A more general societal shift may help to explain why ISIS seems to succeed in this difficult undertaking.

Already in 2001, American writer Marc Prensky observed that the rise of digital technology fundamentally changed everything especially for the so-called digital natives; that is, the new generation growing up using this technology. In his opinion digital natives process information in a very different way than previous generations did and are networked in all aspects of life. The group-level factors used to explain terrorism, such as peer pressure, group-identity, a feeling of belonging and a radicalization through interaction were thought to require physical contact.

If Prensky is correct, the new generation of violent actors may not need this face-to-face interaction to radicalize and base its identity on the group. Because they are networked already, it is easier for them to construct a virtual community with the same effects on behavior as previous offline communities. Even though they may fulfill the criteria laid out in the definition of lone wolves, they themselves would refer to being a member of a group rather than a lone actor. It may therefore be necessary in the future to alter our definition and understanding of what constitutes a lone actor. In the case of Salafi jihadism, it may not be necessary to have a recruiter in a mosque, but online propaganda could inspire enough identification with the ummah, the global community of Muslims, to take up arms. To be sure, there is significant debate about whether radicalization can take place purely online and more research on this issue is necessary, but it is a possibility that ISIS utilizes the characteristics of digital natives to inspire more self-starter terrorists far away from the caliphate.

Does this mean that lone wolf actors are the future of terrorism? The assessment is difficult. Based on previously acquired knowledge on lone wolfs, these actors are more likely to have mental health problems and generally do not fit into group structures. These characteristics can generally only be found in a small amount of people, which means these actors cannot be the future of terrorism. However, the likelihood that exclusion and frustration lead certain individuals to be inspired by lone wolf attacks should not be underestimated. Grievances are a powerful motivational source, especially if coupled with propaganda glorifying self-starter terrorism. In addition, increasing travel restrictions and monitoring by state authorities may lead those, who would have preferred to travel to Syria to join ISIS or to join another terrorist organization, to seek a different way of engagement, possibly with a lone actor attack.

One of the key questions of terrorism research, why only some individuals employ violent means in response to grievances, is also unanswered for lone wolves and especially for the new generation of digitally networked yet lone actors. One also needs to note, however, that it is possible to engage in prevention and detection measures for lone wolves specifically to counter the new trend. HorganProfessor of Global Studies and Psychology at Georgia State University, and his colleagues found that lone wolves tend to ‘leak’ their plans to family, friends or on the internet, which makes detection possible. In addition, many communities have taken on the task to prevent radicalization in youth; a measure that is also able to help potential lone wolves if the community makes an effort to include these individuals. Lone wolf terrorism is unlikely to take precedent over group-based attacks, but it is very possible that the increase of attacks in 2016 was part of a general trend towards an increase in this phenomenon.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

The era of the lone wolf

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is an student of MA Terrorism Studies at King’s College London.

texas-shooting
A man stands next to assailants’ car in Garland, Texas, USA, used in a lone wolf attack carried out by two gunmen in 2015

In Munich a gunman shot nine people, in Würzburg a man attacked train passengers with a knife and an axe, in Ansbach a suicide bomber detonated his bomb at a music festival and in Nice a man purposefully ran over pedestrians in a truck. Each of these attacks took place in the last year and were executed by individuals not belonging to a terrorist organization.

It is therefore not surprising that lone wolf terrorism is seen as an increasing problem. Terrorist acts planned and perpetrated by individual actors are not a new phenomenon, but have recently come to the forefront of public awareness again with what is apparently a significant increase in attacks of this kind. It has been suggested by some that lone actors form part of a deliberate strategy by Islamic terrorist organisations and by implication that that law enforcement and civil society alike should prepare for more of these types of attacks.

There are three questions to be answered in order to judge whether this concern is justified: a) What is lone wolf terrorism and how effective is it? b) Is this type of terrorism a deliberate strategy facilitated by violent armed groups? c) Is lone actor terrorism the future of attacks in the West?

There are many definitions of what constitutes a “lone wolf”, which vary to encompass small cells as well as individuals. For the purpose of this article Spaaij’s  definition will be used, which describes the lone wolf as somebody who “operates individually, does not belong to an organized terrorist group or network and whose modi operandi are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or hierarchy”. In other words, lone wolves are not part of a defined organization and do not take direct external orders.

This does not mean that lone actors need to be completely detached from features of group-based terrorism; for instance, lone actors often justify their actions through a particular ideology also espoused by organizations such as Salafi jihadism or right-wing extremism. Furthermore, lone actors are not literally alone; like most of us, these individuals are embedded in network structures of family, friends or acquaintances. The defining characteristic of a lone wolf is the perpetration of an attack by himself/herself without following an external order. An example of this is Anders Breivik, who was not formally a member of any violent political group and who executed every single step, from the planning, to the bomb making and the shooting, by himself and without support from the outside.

The 2016 RUSI report on lone actor terrorism showed that these types of attacks are generally not extremely effective with 1.22 fatalities per attack and 76% of attacks not causing any loss of life. In terms of effectiveness, Anders Breivik as well as the perpetrator in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, are outliers in the data set producing a lot more fatalities than other lone actors. In general, attacks perpetrated by actors that can be classified as lone wolves are less common than other types of attacks. However, as shown before, recent years have seen a considerable increase in individual attackers, which leads to the question whether attacks of this nature are part of a change in strategy by leading terrorist organizations.

It is true that the so-called Islamic State endorse self-starter terrorists through its propaganda. The more general schism between different violent jihadist organizations about whether to target the ‘near enemy’ (i.e. regimes in the Middle East) or the ‘far enemy’  (Western democracies), seems to play a role in this. Whereas ISIS is very much focused on the establishment of a caliphate, in contrast to Al-Qaeda, it also underlines a determination to attack the far enemy.

For this purpose, it is far easier to recruit people already living in these Western countries and who could not be easily reached by a logistical support structure. Espousing lone wolf terrorism is a rational choice for IS. For instance, its ‘manual’ on how to use trucks for an attack apparently inspired the attacks in Nice and Berlin. There is also an increasing number of attacks being claimed by the Islamic State, which may or may not have been carried out with specific reference to its ideology. It is a strategic choice to accept responsibility for all kinds of violent acts and to exacerbate the fear that the organization can strike anywhere at any time. It may therefore appear that IS-inspired lone actor attacks are on the increase, although does not necessarily mean that this is the case.

A call to arms for individuals and willingness to claim responsibility for a variety of attacks may be part of a new strategy, but by itself it is not enough to explain the recent rise in individual actors engaging in terrorism. It is difficult for an organization to encourage lone actors without actively recruiting them and thereby making them part of the network rather than a lone wolf. A more general societal shift may help to explain why IS seems to succeed in this difficult undertaking.

As early as 2001, writer Marc Prensky observed that digital technology was beginning to fundamentally change the way that “digital natives” interacted; a digital native being somebody from the generation which has grown up using this technology. In his opinion digital natives process information in a very different way than previous generations did and are digitally ‘networked’ in all aspects of their lives. The group-level social factors used to explain terrorism, such as peer pressure, group-identity, a feeling of belonging and a radicalization through interaction were thought to require physical contact.

However, if Prensky is correct, the new generation of violent actors may not need this face-to-face interaction to radicalize and base its identity on the group. Because they are networked already, it is easier for them to construct a virtual community with the same effects on behavior as previous offline communities. Even though they may fulfill the criteria laid out in the definition of lone wolves, they themselves would refer to being a member of a group rather than a lone actor.

It may therefore be necessary in the future to alter out definition and understanding of what constitutes a lone actor. In the case of Salafi jihadism, it may not be necessary to have a recruiter in a mosque, but online propaganda could inspire enough identification with the ummah, the global community of Muslims, to take up arms. To be sure, there is significant debate about whether radicalization can take place purely online and more research on this issue is necessary, but it is a possibility that IS utilizes the characteristics of digital natives to inspire more self-starter terrorists far away from the caliphate.

Does this mean that lone wolf actors are the future of terrorism? The assessment is difficult. Based on previously acquired knowledge on lone wolves, these actors are more likely to have mental health problems and generally do not fit into group structures. These characteristics are generally only found in a small number of people, meaning that these actors alone cannot constitute the future of terrorism. However, the likelihood that exclusion and frustration may lead certain individuals to be inspired by lone wolf attacks should not be underestimated. Grievances are a powerful motivational source, especially if coupled with propaganda glorifying self-starter terrorism.

In addition to this, increasing travel restrictions and monitoring by state authorities may lead those who would have preferred to travel to Syria to join IS or another terrorist organization, to seek a different way of engagement, possibly with a lone actor attack. One of the key questions for terrorism research- why only some individuals employ violent means in response to grievances- remains unanswered for lone wolves and especially for the new generation of digitally-networked lone actors.

However, it is also worth noting that it is possible to engage in prevention and detection measures for lone wolves. John Horgan and his colleagues found that lone wolves tend to ‘leak’ their plans to family, friends or on the internet, which makes detection possible. In addition, many communities have taken on the task to prevent radicalization in youth; a measure that is also able to help potential lone wolves if the community makes an effort to include these individuals. Lone wolf terrorism is unlikely to take precedent over group-based attacks, but it is very possible that the increase of attacks in 2016 was part of a general trend towards an increase of this phenomenon.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Post-Conflict Colombia: Demining The Battlefield

By W. Alejandro Sanchez Nieto and Brittney J. Figueroa. W. Alejandro is an international security analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_SanchezBrittney is a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a Bachelors degree in Global Studies, and a Minor in Latin American Iberian Studies.

Colombia is entering its post-conflict era as a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) has been ratified by the Colombian Congress, while talks with the country’s other insurgent movement, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacion Nacional, ELN ) will commence in January 2017. Hence, it is natural that analysts, including the authors, are discussing what the government’s priorities should be toward maintaining peace and bringing more development and justice to post-conflict Colombia. One issue that President Juan Manuel Santos is paying particular attention to is the removal of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

mines

The Situation

The use of mines and IEDs is a standard tactic utilized by insurgent and terrorist movements worldwide (Hollywood brought this issue to light via 2008’s The Hurt Locker). When it comes to Colombia, it is impossible to adequately estimate how many mines, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance lay across the South American country, as we would have to combine those that belong to the FARC, ELN and now-defunct insurgent groups.

As such, possibly the best way to assess the current situation  is by focusing on the number of casualties. In response to the problem, the Colombian government created an agency called Acción Integral Contra Minas Antipersonal (DAICMA) to track injuries and casualties caused by mines and IEDs. While overall incidents have significantly decreased since 1990, tragically, deadly explosions do still occur. For example, in 2013, two separate events of accidental mine explosions in Northern Colombia took the lives of two 13-year-old boys; one while he was walking with his grandmother, and the other during a school beach clean-up activity. Moreover, just this past November, Yisely Isarama Caisamo, a six-year-old girl from the Chocó department, tragically lost her life when she stepped on a mine. Her mother was severely injured as well, but survived. Mines have also taken the lives of animals: in January 2016, in the department of Cauca, an army dog saved the lives of 30 of his fellow soldiers when he stepped on a landmine covered by brush while attempting to secure the trail ahead.

When it comes to areas affected, most mines seem to be located in Antioquia, Nariño, and Meta. Acción Contra Minas, reports that from January 1990 to 30 November 2016, there have been 195, 121, and 63 deaths caused by mines in these departments, respectively. Of those 379 combined casualties, 106 were children. This is unfortunately not surprising, as these are areas with strong insurgent presence. The mine problem is exacerbated because areas with high amounts of mines are consistently found in rural areas where poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and lack of accessible healthcare are rampant, making it more difficult for injured people to receive quick medical treatment.

An Elevated Response

As the war comes to a close, President Santos is pushing for increased demining of the battlefield as exemplified by his 15 October pledge that in four years 21 million square meters will be cleared of mines and IEDs. In order to achieve this, the Colombian Army has created a brigade, Brigada de Desminado Humanitario, tasked with demining operations. Currently, the brigade stands at 500 troops, however the plan is to increase its number to a division, or 5000 troops, in 2017 and to double that number in 2018.

Additional troops are a welcomed initiative as mines continue to be found. For example, according to a 15 December press release by the Colombian Army, the 160th Battalion located and deactivated four antipersonnel mines in Cerro Guerrilla, in the Chocó department. The Army reported that the devices belonged to the Ernesto Che Guevara Front of the ELN.

Insurgent And International Support

President Santos’ pledge is important and commendable, and the tragic recent loss of a little girl due to an explosive, highlights the need to rid Colombia of these weapons in order to prevent further loss of life. Nevertheless, one important issue to keep in mind is that in order to achieve that 21 million square meters of clearance, the Colombian military will have to operate in territory currently controlled by the guerrillas. Hence, insurgent support will be instrumental in finding minefields, and other areas where IEDs are located, to speed up their removal. It is important to emphasize that a treaty with the FARC has been signed, but negotiations with the ELN are only starting, so it would be a gesture of goodwill by the latter insurgent group to begin helping demining operations.

We must also briefly mention the role of the international community in this process. For example, the Obama administration and the Norwegian government have launched the Global Initiative for Demining Colombia. Similarly, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) is also operating in the South American nation. As for non-governmental organizations, one major example is the British-based Halo Trust that has operated in Colombia for years.

The authors suggest that U.S. troops could be deployed to Colombia to actively help with the clearing operations. For example, the 122d Engineer Combat Battalion or the 1221st Route Clearance Company could visit the South American state and offer their expertise. These two units are singled out because they belong to the South Carolina National Guard that has been assigned to Colombia as part of the National Guard State Partnership Program. A sort of joint-mining clearance operation between the S.C. National Guard and the Colombian mining brigade would help strengthen bilateral military relations while working for a noble cause.

The Woes of Chocó

In a July 2016 press release, Acción Contra Minas outlined its goals and achievements relating to the mine situation. Some of these victories include the announcement that five municipalities in four departments:two in Antioquia, and one each in Bolivar, Meta, and Santander, were declared safe from mine contamination. Additionally, it was reported that there are currently mine-clearing operations in three other departments: Caldas, Sucre, and Tolima. The government is also working with civil society organizations as well as non-governmental organizations like the HALO Trust, Handicap International, and Ayuda Popular Noruega (APN).

While the ongoing mine-clearing efforts outlined by Acción Contra Minas are valiant, and the victories admirable, it is worrisome that Chocó, the poorest and most underdeveloped department in Colombia is not on the Desminado Humanitario 2014-2016 Plan of Action demining priority list—a list that includes 91 municipalities in 13 different departments. In many areas, mine-related incidents (both injuries and fatalities) havegenerally decreased (e.g. Antioquia, Caqueta, Tolima), while the number of incidents in Chocó hasfluctuated. For example, between 2012 and 2014, the annual total of incidents went from 16, to 10,and back to 16, respectively. In 2015, there were 17 incidents, the highest ever recorded in the department. As for 2016, the number is back down to 10.

Although the mine situation is a result of the country’s decades-old conflict, the infrastructural shortcomings of Chocó due to state neglect make the clearance of mines a more complex challenge. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento Adminstrativo Nacional de Estadística; DANE), in 2015 the poverty rate in Chocó was an astounding 62.8%, with 37.1% living in extreme poverty.Given the current economic situation of Choco’s inhabitants, those injured by mines face extreme difficulty in receiving the support they need. Quibido, the department’s capital has but one hospital for 400 000 people. This problem is aggravated because the road system in Chocó remains inadequate, despite an improvement project that first began in 1967.

The continued presence of mines and IEDs has had a deep social and very human impact on civilians living in areas where mines have yet to be extracted; hence it is imperative that Bogota continues to deploy mine-clearing missions. It is the authors’ hope that in due time, Desminado Humanitario programs will accomplish the total clearing in Chocó so that the state can then focus on setting and reaching new goals of infrastructural development in the weary department.

Final Thoughts

Mines and explosives are nasty tools of war. They do not recognize friend from foe, civilian from fighter, young from old. They lay underground waiting for days, weeks, or years before they are ignited. Countries like Cambodia and Vietnam are still suffering from these unexploded weapons of war, and Afghanistan and Iraq will suffer the same fate. Sadly, Colombia will similarly have to live with mines and IEDs in the countryside for the foreseeable future, though the creation (and future expansion) of the Army’s demining brigade, as well as international support, will hopefully quicken their removal. Cooperation with the insurgents will be key to locate the mines and other explosives in order to avoid future loss of life. Mines, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance have no place in 21st century Colombia.

The authors wish it to be known that the views presented in this essay are their sole responsibility do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated. 

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation.