PS21 Event Writeup: ‘Changing Face of the Middle East’

By Rebecca Lille

Photo Credit: Ross Bradford

PS21 Chief of Staff, and chair for the event, Sam Genge, opened by welcoming everyone. He introduced the topic, explaining that discussions on the changing face of the Middle East are still very much needed. He stated that although people generally have a good working knowledge of the Middle East and related issues, the topic is complex, and in-depth, knowledgeable discussion is still important.

Henry Smith, Partner at Control Risks, highlighted emerging trends in the Middle East. He referenced the new Democratic House in the US, hoping to “clip the wings” of the Trump administration, and with it, the presence of the US in the Middle East. Smith suggested that we are unlikely to see consistent US policy regarding the Middle East. In response to the US de-prioritising of the Middle East, the regional powers are preparing to take more control, and looking to Asian powers for the future. A key focus for Smith, is the important role of climate change. He noted that there is increasing evidence to suggest that natural weather issues, such as drought, are linked to civil instability, pointing to the Syrian conflict as just one example. Smith concluded by highlighting some positives trends. He noted the recent successes against ISIS, the possibilities of peace or negotiated settlements in both Syria and Yemen and the economic boom taking place in Egypt.

Cinzia Bianco, Senior Analyst of the Arabian Peninsula at Gulf State Analytics, further outlined trends in the Middle East. Bianco suggested that the post-Arab Spring Middle East has seen a significant decline of the role and interest of global powers and lacking commitment of resources from the West. Global actors had hoped that regional powers would step in to establish a new and coordinated balance of power. However, instead, states have focused on individual growth and influence in a zero-sum game mentality. As a result, the centre of regional politics has shifted to the Arab Gulf, reflecting the financial might of assertive local actors such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Bianco also analysed the Gulf players’ role vis-à-vis the resurgence of political Islam, discussing the transformative political role of the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Libya, and its continued presence as a significant player in Syria. Bianco said that, while the conflict between Islamists and anti-Islamists is catalysing attention the most, rising inequality is having a neglected but crucial effect on shaping the political landscape in the region. Bianco suggested that of all regional trends, this is the most important long-term, influencing the balance of power both at the regional and at the domestic level.

Niamh McBurney, consultant at Versik Maplecroft, warned that, contrary to a number of recent media suggestions, ISIS are still present in Iraq, although their capabilities are extremely limited in comparison to previous years. There are, however, other groups similar to ISIS around, and these too pose a threat. Since its invasion in 2003, the Iraqi environment and have completely changed. Politically, there appears to be a somewhat positive trend. The elections held in 2018 saw the most successful hand over of power since the invasion. However, McBurney also discussed the recent popular protests in South Iraq as a new feature of Iraqi politics, stating that these were caused by a multitude of drivers, but the cut off Iranian gas supplies were a great influence. In addition to this, climate change caused heightened tensions. The security forces have stepped in, providing resources such as water and power, but McBurney predicts similar issues and protests for summers to come.

Emad Mostaque, Iran and regional specialist, began by discussing the political theory of the social contract – suggesting that the Middle East, has seen a considerable redrawing of this contract in recent years. In collaboration with this shift, the politics of the region have seen a move towards personality politics. However, Mostaque said that this move is not confined to the Middle East, pointing at Trump’s success in the US as another symptom of this trend. the Middle East is also witnessing a shift towards more libertarian views. With these changes occurring, Mostaque questioned when the breaking point will occur, offering several possibilities; when water tables get too low; when Egypt’s economic boom ends; or when international pressures on Iran amount to foreign intervention. Mostaque concluded that the breaking point is of key concern, as are the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, with the latter posing a possible incoming humanitarian disaster. Mostaque remarked on the recent successes against ISIS, stating that although these look promising, he predicts an ‘Al Qaeda 3.0’ is likely to emerge soon.

London Event 19 February – Changing Face of the Middle East

Tuesday, 19 February, 6pm,  Juju’s Bar and Stage, Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London. 

Civil wars, dictators, terrorism – how did we get there and where do we go from here? Eight years after the beginning of the Arab Spring, the region is still in turmoil. PS21 discusses trends and explanations for the Middle East’s current Turbulence. We’ll be attempting to answer questions such as, why didn’t the Arab Spring succeed and what does the future of the Middle East look like?


Peter Apps (Moderator) – Reuters Global Affairs Columnist, Founder and Executive Director of PS21

Lara Fatah – Director Alfa5 & Consultant, Kurdistan expert

Henry Smith – Partner, Control Risks

Cinzia Bianco – Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula, Gulf State Analytics

Emad Mostaque – Iran and regional specialist

Doors open at 06.00 p.m., with discussion beginning at 07.00 p.m. and, as usual, the bar will be open throughout.

Sign up here.

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PS21 Event Writeup – ‘What next for Iran’

Given the recent protests in the Islamic Republic and the controversies regarding its nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic finds itself at a crossroads. PS21 gathered in Whitehall to discuss what happens next.

Dina Esfandiary, Fellow at King’s College London, noted the occurrence of riots in Iran was in itself nothing new, however she identified differences from previous unrest: the protests were widespread and the protesters themselves had become bolder with slogans directly attacking the Supreme Leader.

A key difference lies in the government reaction. Unlike during the 2009 post-election protests, the government was willing to at least partially legitimise the demonstrations through acknowledging their demands. This time, the complaints were largely over economic grievances rather than political.

Esfandiary did not see this as an advance towards democratisation but rather as a new tactic of the system: reforms to stay in power, realising that the riot response from 2009 will not be accepted anymore.

Forward looking, Esfandiary sees growing discontent in the Republic, as well as worsening relations with Gulf Arab states (except for Qatar) which will not result in a direct war but will play out through regional rivalries and conflicts.

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Research Fellow at RUSI, presented a more detailed insight into the Iran nuclear deal and the uncertainty surrounding it since October 2017.

Tabrizi referred to a “conversation shift” that had taken place over the past few weeks between the Europeans and the US. European governments are trying to figure out a way to address the concerns raised by the Trump by the deadline of May 12th, when the US might not renew sanctions waivers, but doing so without antagonising Iran is a tall order.

For Iran the connection between the deal and the economic state of the country were crucial, as this was the basis that President Rouhani ran his campaign on. The uncertainty which characterises the future of the deal following Trump’s election thus also affects the economic situation of the country, Tabrizi stated.

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,

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.



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.



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,

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.

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.


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.


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.



An Unconventional Superpower

First edition of Abraham Ortelius‘ map of Asia (1572), displaying a vast network of waterways across East Asia, advocating his belief that a shipping route existed through China to the Northern Sea and thence, by way of the Northeast Passage, to Europe.


By Tim Abington. Tim is a 6th form student applying to study International Relations at the University of Birmingham in September.

Despite what would appear to be voters’ best attempts to say otherwise, there is still a case for multilateralism. Why? Because time and time again the physical world proves it can quickly overwhelm the human one when single states are simply not able to cope with a geography that ignores the human notions of sovereignty or national borders.

When talking about geography it’s hard not to use a map. Maps should be used more – they illustrate points in a direct manner that is hard to ignore.

So now, turning to your nearest atlas, flick to the relief map of the Middle East and glance at the contours. They show that anti-immigration arguments of misled compassion are missing a major point. Syrian refugees enter Europe partly because geography leaves little alternative. To the East are the Zagros and Elburz mountain ranges; to the South, the Syrian desert; neither are particularly hospitable or inviting to humans. To the West, the European plains, a flat relief, easily navigable and a moderate climate. It is ironic that one of the geographical factors that helped Europe conquer the world is now pushing it into a retreat.

Another geographical factor, climate change, goes well beyond that cliché image of a lonesome polar bear. It causes floods across Northern India whilst turning Southern Spain into a desert. Consequently, agriculture – always sensitive to its environment – is facing its biggest test in decades.

The Earth is getting warmer and crops are feeling its effects. Just as the English lawn turns yellow in summer, maize will wilt and die. Temperature rises will reduce growing seasons, increase heat stress and increase the range of various pests and disease vectors. There is no doubt that the ‘everyday staples’ will be affected by climate change. Last year, orange juice concentrate prices rose 21% as poor weather wreaked havoc with Brazilian harvests. Conditions are not going to get any more favourable, as the globe warms and air masses heat up, they hold a larger quantity of water vapour, resulting in greater precipitation. Quite simply, it rains more.

Across Northern Bangladesh the most common form of cultivated crop is Boro Rice, ideally suited to growing in shallow water. Yet all too easily, the entire crop is washed away by a rainfall that is just too much for paddy capacity. Rice forms the staple diet in South East Asia, so the issue is not limited in scope to just Bangladesh.

Staying in the region, South Asia is actually a perfect example of how international cooperation is required to overcome geographical barriers. The region is covered in rivers, wide and vast bodies of water, they ignore borders and flow as geography allows. The river sources are generally located in the Himalayan highlands of Nepal whilst the mouth flows out across the deltas of India. Any decisions made by Nepal, whether they be the building of dams or reservoirs, will have consequences all along the river basin, leaving rice paddies destroyed and populations displaced. Nepal imports $204 million of rice from India; it is in its interest to cooperate and minimise disruption to rice yields, humanitarian moralism aside, its own population needs feeding.

In September 2013 an article appeared in the ‘Financial Times’, “First Chinese cargo ship nears end of Northeast Passage transit”. 40 years beforehand, such a headline would only have been found in a science fiction novel. Yet a Chinese vessel, sailing from a port of Cold War enemy South Korea to the Netherlands – NATO and EU member – successfully completed a passage through Russian and Norwegian waters. The City saw it a testament to commercial enterprise and a sign of possible profits to come; multilateralists as proof of a need for international cooperation. International cooperation is required at all times, even more so than the current ‘hot spots’ of Suez and Panama, as ice, lack of infrastructure and a lack of civilisation in general make this a high risk (but arguably, a high reward) shipping route.

To maintain its pride of place as ‘the cheapest option’, container shipping operates to a ‘just-in-time principle’ – there is no place for petty disputes when it comes to arctic shipping. Information is needed and if that means cooperating with other less-desirable nations, then so be it.

These examples are but a tiny proportion of the multiplicity of cases where multilateral action is needed to respond to geographical hazards. The common theme across these responses is that it is in many nations’ best interests to act in concert, not so much due to ‘ideologies of cooperation’. Instead, multilateralism is required to counter geographical circumstances that overwhelm single nation states. Geography poses challenges, be it extreme weather, physical landforms or climate change. At the same time, international cooperation allows states to maintain their independence whilst overcoming these difficulties.

Geography remains a factor that will continue to determine domestic and foreign policy and any attempt to ignore it will, for the moment, remain futile.

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

London Event Nov 22- Lessons from war in Yemen

Tuesday 22nd November, 6:30-8:00pm

Oxford Research Group, Development House, 56-64 Leonard Street, London, EC2A 4LT

Of all the conflicts in which the West is found itself a player in the last decade, Yemen has proved one of the most enduring and complex. What was once the scene of a Western-backed attempt to prop up an unpopular local leader and fight Al Qaeda is now increasingly portrayed as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As we head towards a new US administration and perhaps even more uncertainty in Europe, PS21 and the Remote Control Project pull together a uniquely qualified panel with a wide range of experience in the country to discuss its lessons and what might happen next.

Peter Apps [moderator] is executive director, PS21 and global affairs columnist, Thomson Reuters

Rafat Ali Al-Akhali was appointed in November 2014 as Minister of Youth and Sports in the Government of Yemen, a post he held until September 2015. Prior to his appointment, Rafat was leading the Policy Reforms team at the Executive Bureau for Acceleration of Aid Absorption and Support for Policy Reforms. In that position, Rafat led the planning and implementation of key reforms in Yemen including fuel subsidies, power sector, and civil service reforms. He also led business environment reforms and government efforts in private sector development.

Iain Smailes retired from the British Army in January 2016 after tours as defence attache in both Afghanistan and Yemen as well as deployments with the United Nations in Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

Mai Noman is a BBC Digital journalist covering the Middle East and founding member of “Kuni wa Kun”, a Yemeni youth initiative aiming to change perceptions and practices which hinder the development of women and the Yemeni society.

Emily Knowles joined Remote Control as project manager in March 2016. She has a background in conflict analysis and security policy, and tech current research focuses on the UK’s use of remote forms of warfare such as dronesAll, special forces, training and advisory missions in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Libya.

Baraa Shiban is a human rights activist who works with the human rights organisation Reprieve. He investigated drone strikes across Yemen between 2012 and 2015. He also served as a member of the Yemeni National Dialogue (2013) – a body in charge of reviewing Yemeni laws and drafting its new constitution. He helped to run a media centre in Sanaa’s change square (2011). Baraa has worked with Yemeni civil society since 2006.

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London Event- 14 Nov, 21st Century Peacebuilding from N Ireland to Syria

Monday November 14, 6pm War Studies Meeting Room, K6.07 Kings College London

According to the Global Peace Index, there are only 10 countries in the world in 2016 which can be considered free from conflict. The ongoing crisis in Gaza; worsening conflicts in the Middle East; the international stand-off  in Ukraine and the lack of a solution to the refugee crisis are some examples of the contributing factors that have made the world less peaceful in 2016 than it was in 2015.

Drawing on the lessons learnt in the Northern Ireland peace process, our speakers will assess 21st centruy peacebuilding strategies in the context of 21st century conflicts. Do we haev the tools to tackle some of these seemingly intractable situations? What have we learnt and what have we not learnt? Our speakers will look at conflict resolution and peace building strategies, contextualised in 21st century examples.


Dr Gordon Clubb is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of Leeds and is the director of the Terrorism and Political Violence Association. He has published on former combatants in Northern Ireland and the disengagement and de-radicalisation of terrorist movements.

Dr. Anastasia Voronkova is Research Fellow for Armed Conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Editor of the IISS’s new annual publication, the Armed Conflict Survey. Anastasia holds a PhD in comparative conflict studies from Queen Mary, University of London. She has extensive fieldwork experience in Northern Ireland and the South Caucasus. Her research interests include comparative conflict resolution, communication strategies and rhetoric of non-state armed groups, the political economy of armed conflicts, security and terrorism. Prior to joining IISS she held teaching positions at University College London and Queen Mary University of London.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements. Prior to that, he was a programme manager on Syria and Iraq at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung-Middle East Office in Beirut. He also worked as a senior community services-protection assistant at UNHCR- Damascus office. He has a BA in Sociology, a post graduate diploma in counseling, an MA in social development and has just completed another MA in conflict resolution at King’s College.

Moderator: Professor Joe Maiolo is the Deputy Head of the Department of War Studies, Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, and Professor of International History. He is an editor of The Journal of Strategic Studies, and co-editor of The Strategy Reader, a member of the editorial board for Intelligence & National Security, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is currently a Visiting Research Professor at the Norwegian Defence Intelligence School, Oslo.

This event is being run in partnership with the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, at KCL.

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The Hamas Model: What makes Hamas so resilient?

women-rally-in-support-of-hamasby Linda Schlegel. Linda is an student of MA Terrorism Studies at King’s College London.

Since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism and the corresponding academic field of terrorism studies have been filling the headlines and cover-stories of newspapers and provided opening stories for news shows on TV. Not one day goes by without reference in the media to terrorist groups, a new terror attack or the question of how the West should respond to this threat. Despite the attention the subject gets in the media, the work of Terrorism Studies scholars is often disregarded in popular debates. While government and other officials are engaging in constant conversation with the scholars and their findings, citizens as a whole find themselves surrounded by popular notions of ‘the War on Terror’, but are rarely given information about the origins and dynamics of the groups engaging in terrorist acts.

In his 2009 book Radical, Religious and Violent: The new Economics of Terrorism, Eli Berman makes a valuable exploration into the dynamics of what he calls the ‘Hamas Model’ of terrorist organisations. Hamas is a group that was founded as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation founded in Egypt and aimed at providing crucial services to Muslims in both a material and spiritual sense. In Palestine, Hamas ran schools, hospitals and mosques: it was essentially a social service provider. Neither the founder of the organisation, its staff or people making use of its services had the intention to support the global jihad. In other words, in the beginning Hamas was a benign organisation aimed at relieving the socio-economic hardships faced by Palestinian Muslims.

How then does a social service provider, in essence very similar to the Red Cross and other relief organisations, turn to become one of the most active and effective terrorist organisations in the world? Berman’s explanation is twofold. The turn to violence can be explained with the experiences of the Intifada in the 1980s. In order to stay relevant and not lose popular support vis-a-vis Fatah (the Palestinian National Liberation Front. Fatah is Palestine’s major secular political party, founded by Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the PLO) and others, the organisation had to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ and support the violent uprising of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation. A militia was founded and until this day continues to engage in violent acts against Israel. The second part of Berman’s explanation concerns the effectiveness of Hamas as a terrorist organisation. He argues that it has been so successful precisely because of its continued role as a social service provider. This ensures Hamas has a network of supporters in its service users, who also constitute a pool of potential recruits. The social service branch of Hamas is the foundation on which its roof- the militia- is built upon and grew out of, and it makes the organisation as a whole very resilient in terms of popular support and easy replacement of members.

While this model does not apply to every terrorist organisation, it does provide a starting point for re-thinking certain key points in counter-terrorism strategy. Firstly, if organisations start out as and continue to act as social service providers, the accepted definition of a terrorist organisation might need re-thinking. Is Hamas a terrorist organisation or a social organisation with a violent branch? Or maybe a social organisation, which happens to also engage in political struggle through violence? It is important to understand its nature, especially in communications with those reliant on Hamas’ services: labelling an organisation terroristic, while it continues to school my children and care for my sick husband, will likely close down the conversation before it has even really started. It is important to be careful about the words that are used, especially in local counter-terrorism activities.

Secondly, leaving definitions and linguistics aside, knowing that some organisations generate support through social service provision opens new opportunities for long-term counter-terrorism activities.

In order to weaken the organisational resilience and the robust network of Hamas and similar organisations, it is vital to engage in competition with these organisations. Building schools and hospitals is often regarded as a nation-building, as opposed to counter-terrorism, activity.

However, Berman’s findings suggest that it is possible to make a real impact on these organisations by providing social services to those in need and thereby diminishing the support network that bolsters the organisation.  This is also true for circumstances that require immediate response. For instance, during an earthquake or a similar natural catastrophe, radical Muslims are, according to Berman, often the first on the scene, a long time before any humanitarian response has been thought out by the government or the international community. This enables those with a violent agenda not only to stay relevant, but to play an important part in their societies. The resulting popular support associated with the organisations members (if not their cause) is surely not in the interest of counter-terrorism work.

Lastly, the Hamas model calls into question the value of interventions and sanctions. Removing leaders or governments that are not deemed suitable for the West’s purpose risks creating a vacuum for social service provision which may be filled by violent organisations. The same applies to sanctions. Sanctions can be a legitimate tool of coercion in international politics, however if the burden of such sanctions are passed on to a country’s citizens in the form of cuts to education, health care and other services, it is entirely possible that they drive people in the arms of those who provide such services outside of the government framework.

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

SOLD OUT: London event – the changing face of counterterrorism

Photo 24.11. crowd whitehall

WHEN: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 from 17:30 – 19:00 

WHERE: Whitehall, London, United Kingdom – Exact location to be confirmed to attendees


From Paris to Brussels,, Nice, Orlando and beyond, Western states appear to be facing an almost unprecedented tempo of militant attacks – although they pale in comparison to those in truly front-line nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. With a growing number of such incidents apparently involving single radicalized individuals, often with mental health problems, how can one really define “terrorism”? And with recent attacks in Europe and North America now helping drive domestic politics, what can be done to protect civilians while avoiding further polarizing communities and deepening divisions?

Peter Apps [moderator] – executive director, PS21. Reuters global affairs columnist

Nigel Inkster – former deputy chief, MI6, now head of transnational threats and political risk for international Institute for Strategic Studies

Omar Hamid – former Pakistani police officer, now head of Asia-Pacific risk at IHS

Julia Ebner – policy analyst specializing in European militant threats, Quilliam Foundation

Frederic Ischebeck-Baum – Sir Michael Howard Centre Fellow at King’s College London and PS21 fellow.


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The PS21 Team.