Archive for December, 2015

It has been a quiet holiday period so far, though I kept busy catching up on work and doing a couple of solicited op-eds. This first one was in response to the British Defence Secretary’s announcement of the deployment of more British forces to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram for Newsweek. Another out later in the week on something else. Also, spoke to the Guardian about recent events in Afghanistan and a long ago interview with Washington Post finally emerged in this great overview of Chinese relations with Central Asia and what this means for the Sino-Russian relationship by Simon Denyer.

Britain’s Support Could Be Key To Beating Boko Haram

1224_Cameron_Buhari
Prime Minister David Cameron, left, shakes hands with Nigeria’s then-President-elect Muhammadu Buhari in London, England, May 23. The U.K. has promised to double its deployment of military personnel to Nigeria to help with the fight against Boko Haram. Neil Hall / Reuters

 

Back in March, Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The announcement was met with concern both in terms of what this meant about ISIS’ global spread, but also what it might mean for one of Africa’s most brutal terrorist groups. In reality, very little changed, with the exception that Boko’s media output professionalized somewhat. What the declaration highlighted, however, was the group’s persistence as a feature of the international terrorist landscape, and how clearly more needed to be done to counter the group.On December 21, the U.K. showed its commitment to this goal with the announcement that it would increase its deployment of soldiers to 300 to support Nigeria’s fight against the group. Taken against a backdrop of increasing deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and potentially Syria, the U.K. can appear to be spreading itself very thin, but in reality the approach being undertaken in Nigeria is likely the most sensible way for outside powers to play a role in countering regional terrorist groups.Boko Haram is unlikely to develop into a direct threat to the British mainland. It can never be discounted that individuals somehow linked to the group might end up becoming involved in plotting in the U.K., but the threat from the group is far more pronounced regionally. Born out of a longstanding tension between north and south Nigeria, blended with local tribal differences and with an overlay of violent international Islamist ideology, Boko Haram is a product of local history narratives being co-opted by adopting a global ideology.

Given the U.K.’s strong historical links to the region, it makes sense that Britain would see the fight against Boko Haram as an important foreign policy priority. The deployment of forces to act as trainers for the Nigerian authorities is the most logical contribution to make. Ultimately, the U.K. does not have the necessary forces to deploy in substantial numbers to operate on the ground and eradicate the group, and, in any case, it is not clear that this would be the most effective way to deal with the militants.International terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS have attempted to reach out to the group to support it, but have encountered problems in trying to operate in Nigeria. Notwithstanding this, Boko Haram has developed links with other regional terror organizations (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab), though this is usually instigated by the group seeking connections and training outside its borders. It has also increasingly demonstrated an interest in launching attacks across Nigeria’s borders in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. This is where the biggest threat from the group lies: What was at first a local northeastern Nigerian problem is slowly developing into a regional menace.

As with many conflicts dealing with groups that are born out of local problems with an international ideology overlaid on top, the reality is that the fundamental causes for the group’s existence are only ones that local forces and politicians will be able to properly deal with. An external force may be able to provide some support and play a role in eliminating key leaders or disrupting networks, but this is merely managing the problem.

To deal with the underlying issues that Boko Haram is able to feed off for its support, the Nigerian government will have to find ways of alleviating the gross inequalities that exist between the north and south of the country and the longstanding tensions that exist between different tribal communities in Nigeria. Additionally, it will now have to find ways of working with neighboring powers to ensure that the problem is one that is contained and eliminated, rather than simply displaced across borders.

None of this is something that an outside power like the U.K. will be able to undertake by itself. At best, the U.K. can play a supporting role to local efforts. And this is where the role of trainers is key. Whilst regionally the Nigerian Army has a fairly good reputation, it has faced capability problems—both in terms of funding and equipment, but also corruption and problems with alleged human-rights abuses. The contribution of some British trainers will help not only provide Nigerian forces with a higher degree of professionalism, but also act as a signal of support to the (relatively) new government of Muhammadu Buhari.

More broadly, it is also increasingly the manner in which Western countries will find themselves trying to fight terrorist groups around the world. Rather than sending in ground forces to take and hold territory as an outside force, the effort will be focused on growing a local capability to deal with their own domestic problems. Local forces are more likely to be accepted by the local populations, and will have a more attuned sense of on-the-ground dynamics. This is the approach that has been tried in Afghanistan and is very much the focus of efforts in Iraq and Syria.

Building up local capacity to deal with local problems is the heart of the West’s response to foreign terrorist organizations. But at the same time, as has been seen in Afghanistan recently, it is also not clear that this is always the most effective solution or the degree to which local forces are able to overcome historical tensions to deal with longstanding problems. Whether it proves to be the answer for Nigeria will take time to tell, but by deploying more forces in a training capacity, the U.K. is demonstrating that London thinks it is the best approach.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a U.K.-based defense thinktank. He tweets @raffpantucci

 

Advertisements

More catching up, this time a literature review paper done with RUSI colleagues Clare Ellis and Lorien Chaplais as part of a larger project we are working on looking at Lone Actor terrorism. Lots more on this project to come in the first quarter of next year. In the meantime, spoke to the BBC about a Chinese national who went to fight alongside the YPG against ISIS (which is where the picture comes from), the Wall Street Journal about the year in terrorism, Deutsche Welle about terrorism and gun control in the US, Voice of America about China and international cooperation in terrorism, and to the Independent about the UN resolution on Syria. The entire paper can be found here, below is the brief introduction.

Bai Si Pan YPG_Dec 2015

Lone-Actor Terrorism: Literature Review

Lone-actor terrorism is not a new phenomenon; however, research suggests the threat is increasing as pressure from security services forces a tactical adaptation and groups call on those who share their ideology to act alone without direction or support

This paper is the first publication in the Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism (CLAT) project, which aims to improve understanding of, and responses to, the phenomenon of (potentially) violent lone actors through analysis of comprehensive data on cases from across Europe.

Despite recent depictions within the media, lone-actor terrorism is not a new phenomenon; however, research suggests the threat is increasing as pressure from security services forces a tactical adaptation and groups – including Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) – call on those who share their ideology to act alone without direction or support. This paper examines the current state of knowledge surrounding the phenomenon, assessing the limitations of the literature and identifying where further research should focus to add real value to countering the threat. Three recommendations are made: first, increased methodological rigour in empirical research; second, focus on process as well as perpetrators; and third, specific examination of the confluence between returning foreign fighters, domestic Daesh supporters, and the lone-actor threat.

Catching up on some old posting again now that we are closing in on Christmas, and first up is a short report with Sarah from a workshop we did in Almaty looking at the Silk Road Economic Belt’s economic dimension. Part of a bigger project we are working on at RUSI which is going to be a major priority in the coming year.

The Economics of the Silk Road Economic Belt

On 20 October 2015, RUSI held a day-long workshop in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in collaboration with KIMEP University and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The focus of the workshop was the economics behind the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and its impact in Central Asia. The key areas of discussion examined the potential benefits that the SREB could bring to participating countries, the integration of the SREB with other economic projects and the various funding mechanisms through which the SREB will be financed. The workshop brought together participants from Almaty, Astana, London, Beijing, Shanghai, New Delhi and Russia, including representatives from academia, the private sector and think tanks.

The first session discussed the real benefits of the SREB to both China and participating countries along the road. There is a risk that the SREB will simply turn Eurasia into a set of transport routes emanating from China, aimed at increasing the volume of Chinese goods going to Europe. Other than transit fees, China has not made it explicitly clear as to what other value participating in the SREB can add to economic development. Special economic and free-trade zones are one opportunity, such as that of Khorgos on the border of Kazakhstan and China, or those planned for Pakistan. However, the extent to which these are benefitting Central Asia is still unclear, and those for Pakistan are still under discussion. Kazakhstan’s side of this free-trade zone is noticeably less developed than that of China’s, highlighting that not all of these projects are implemented to meet maximum potential.

Furthermore, China’s emphasis on connectivity as a key goal of the SREB runs the risk of over-emphasising railway development as an end goal, since not all goods are cost-effective to transport by rail. High-value goods are the ideal product: one participant from Kazakhstan noted that Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the national railway operator, had begun transporting Apple products from China, cutting down delivery time from sixty days (by sea) to eighteen days (by rail). For the SREB project to be successful, therefore, both Xinjiang, the northwestern Chinese province, and the countries along the Silk Road route need to increase their high-tech manufacturing capacity to produce these high-value goods for transport, neither of which are currently visible.

Understanding  of  the  project  has  been  limited  by  Beijing’s  vagueness  on  practical implementation. The Chinese government’s ‘Visions and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ strategy paper, published by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), emphasises the objectives of the SREB, such as connectivity and greater financial integration. However, it does not give practical detail on how this will be achieved. This approach of laying out a grand vision without detail is typical of the Chinese government. So far there is not even a formally government-endorsed map of the exact routes of the SREB.

The workshop discussion highlighted a potential explanation for this. China’s goal may not be to unpack the details itself but instead to seek ideas and engagement from SREB countries to determine where participation can provide most benefit to them. China does not want to limit its options or jeopardise the project’s ‘inclusivity’ by over-defining its approach. There is an opportunity, therefore, for countries along the SREB to provide proposals back to China. However, there are some practical questions that China will need to address. Although its open-
ended encouragement of connectivity is central to the SREB, certain political and geographical difficulties in implementing this are so far unresolved. Anyone who has travelled within Central Asia knows the difficulty of flying direct between most regional capitals, while land travel between the countries in the region is hindered by longstanding border disputes.

Although the SREB has broadly been received with enthusiasm by Central and South Asia, the lack of clarity around its planned implementation has led to some suspicion. India stands out as  the country in the region most apprehensive of China’s plans. As one workshop participant said, ‘there is no Indian perspective at the moment’, in part due to a perceived lack of information from Beijing. The suspicions relate to whether there is a broader Chinese geopolitical strategy behind the SREB and whether political strings will become attached to China’s infrastructure investment.

India’s concerns over a geopolitical strategy are mainly due to the maritime element of the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, which runs through the Indian Ocean. It covers ports in countries located around India, such as Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan, but not India itself. This has raised alarm bells in New Delhi, who perceive China as encroaching on India’s waterways. China’s investment into the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which cuts through the disputed areas of Kashmir as well as highlighting China’s strong connection with Pakistan, is also a challenge for India. There are areas where India and China can co-operate on this SREB project, such as the Bangladesh–China–India–Burma corridor or areas where both have interests, like Iran. However, India requires more detail and reassurances regarding China’s intentions.

A large part of the day’s discussion focused on the issue of integrating the SREB with other economic projects. Russia has recently voiced its desire to integrate the SREB with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Kazakhstan has proposed something similar with its ‘Bright Road’ (Nurly Zhol) policy. Although the Bright Road policy, which focuses on infrastructure development, is consistent with the aims of the Chinese project, SREB integration with the EEU is somewhat more complex. As one workshop participant pointed out, the EEU is an organisation with an institutional and regulatory framework, whereas the SREB is more of a ‘vision’ covering a variety of concrete projects. ‘Integrating’ these in practice may be difficult. A special economic zone may once again be an answer to this, and the EEU and China are currently exploring this idea. The EEU’s external tariffs may present an immediate barrier to increased trade with China, although one benefit is that once this barrier is overcome countries gain access to a significant economic space consisting of five countries. However, to facilitate trade, China and Russia will need to address a number of bilateral trade issues. For example, the Russian–Chinese border currently suffers from excessive bureaucracy that, in particular, prevents cross-border travel and trade.

The third key aspect of the discussions examined the means by which the SREB will be funded. A major tool will be multilateral and national institutions driven by Beijing. China has allocated $29.8 billion to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s (AIIB) overall $100 billion capitalisation and $40 billion to the national Silk Road Fund. Furthermore, the China Development Bank (CDB) is the lead financial body for the SREB, investing $890 billion into over 900 projects. There are also bilateral funding relations between SREB countries and Chinese provinces. For example, the recent Tbilisi Silk Road Forum held in Georgia was the first event on the SREB co-sponsored by the Chinese state held outside of China. The principals on the Chinese side were the provincial governments of Xinjiang and Shaanxi. On top of this, China is seeking to stimulate public–private partnerships to help progress the project finance, as well as exploring opportunities of collaboration with other international financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Most participants agreed, however, that the predominant mechanism for SREB co-operation will continue to be bilateral agreements. As one workshop participant mentioned, China recently pledged $46 billion for the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor alone, a number that puts China’s commitment into context when it is compared to the total $100 billion capitalisation of the AIIB. This highlights the degree to which China is likely to continue to prioritise bilateral agreements over its multilateral financial vehicles. A note of caution was made regarding the enormity of some of the SREB deals announced. As one participant pointed out, it seems in reality that the CPEC deal included a repackaging – or at least a reinvigoration – of some historical agreements between China and Pakistan, such as the development of Gwadar port and the Karakorum Highway, projects that have been underway for years. This demonstrates a lack of clarity in the detail behind some of these enormous declarations of financial support.

A repeated theme that came up during this discussion related to the broader transparency and governance of the SREB, particularly in participating countries outside of China. One workshop participant highlighted the need for SREB countries to ensure necessary reforms are conducted in the domestic markets to provide a degree of security and flexibility and to avoid an over-reliance on Chinese investment. The slow-down in the Chinese economy may produce constraints on China’s ability to meet its ambitious investment programme. A lack of transparency as regards the relevant information has led to questions over China’s asset quality. One workshop participant stated that a ‘sudden large injection of external cash could exacerbate existing problems [in the domestic economy] rather than help’. Thus, SREB participants should ensure they protect and reform their own markets in preparation for any large investments from China to maximise returns and protect against a lack of transparency in the deals.

Another question mark surrounding China’s funding of the SREB projects is the value this produces for China itself. The divestment opportunities or returns China makes on its infrastructure development projects in, for example, Central Asia, remain unclear. Much of the historical bilateral projects have been funded through linked loans, where China provides the funding through loans that have stipulations attached to them, such as the requirement that Chinese companies implement the projects on the ground. In other cases where China’s Eximbank or CDB has provided loans to fund projects, it is unclear whether there are any short- or medium-term returns or even security on the investment. One workshop participant pointed out that given the dominance of the state in China’s economic policy and the government’s long-term vision of investments, China can afford more time to sit on these investments without requiring immediate returns. Moreover, another participant noted that some projects, such as when Eximbank loaned the money for the high-voltage power line recently unveiled in Kyrgyzstan, provide the Chinese government with foreign investment legitimacy and thus material return is not necessarily the priority.

It is clear that no one wants to be left out of China’s SREB initiative. However, questions remain over the implementation plan of the project. For some SREB countries, there are significant concerns over the project’s ultimate geostrategic goal as well as the detail of the various routes, both of which need more clarification from Beijing. However, it is clear that while China has ideas for how the SREB should develop, it is also seeking proposals from other countries about its development. This presents an opportunity for SREB countries to take ownership over the direction of their participation and to determine how best to maximise the benefits nationally.

Sarah Lain is a Research Fellow at RUSI. Sarah Lain’s research looks at Russia and the former Soviet states. In particular, she focuses on China and Russia’s relations with the five Central Asian states.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI. His research focuses on counter-terrorism as well as China’s relations with its western neighbours.

A short response to last Friday’s incident in Leytonstone for the Guardian where an apparently mentally troubled man attacked some people on the tube. Unclear case, though his expression of ideology suggests a possible terrorist connection in there somewhere. A depressing event that will highlight the persistent problem of both loud ideologies and lone actor terrorists. Anyway, the piece looks at the strange effect of people choosing to video such events instinctively these days. Beyond this, spoke to Financial Times and AFP about the event, though AFP slightly misunderstood what I had said – my suspicion around the police making the link to terrorism so quickly was that they knew him before, not that it was linked to Syria as written.

Flight or film? How cameraphones made the bystander key to spreading terror message

Leytonstone attack footage demonstrates the way witnesses are a tool in the terrorists’ arsenal – but also how it can backfire

Sunday 6 December 2015
Last modified on Monday 7 December 2015 00.50

In the 1970s, an American special forces officer turned academic called Brian Michael Jenkins declared that ‘terrorism is theatre.’ The logic was that politically minded terrorist organisations were keener to disseminate their message than cause deaths. The deaths were part of the way to attract attention, with the priority being visibility to advance their message. High-profile hijackings or public murders were the norm, with the 9/11 attacks the apex of this approach.

Previously the medium to disseminate this message was the television news. Now, with video cameras ubiquitous in our phones, we are all mediums through which terrorists can transmit and broadcast.

The brutal murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 was a turning point in terrorist messaging. Using basic weaponry, the two murderers butchered the off-duty solider before stating their creed to anyone who was standing around to listen. Having prepared no clear video or other statement of intent, the two men were entirely reliant on the wider public around them to help spread their message through short video clips recorded on telephones. And yet this medium worked to the point that, in some ways, that particularly brutal but low-casualty attack had more impact than larger terrorist plots that followed.

Woolwich was not the first low-tech terror attack in the UK. In 2010, a young woman from east London entered the office of her local MP, Stephen Timms, armed with a knife from Tesco and attempted to kill him for his vote years earlier in support of the Iraq war. And in the days prior to the murder of Rigby, a Ukrainian far-right terrorist murdered Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham.

Yet neither of these two incidents had the same sort of resonance as the murder of Rigby as there was no audience to capture them on their cameraphones. The internet was not immediately flooded with images, meaning that everyone could immediately latch onto the attack and shout about its awfulness or tweak and rebroadcast them advancing their own narrative.

On Saturday night in Leytonstone, just as in Woolwich, the attacker’s stated intent and actions were captured on camera. The subsequent broadcasting of the message around the world meant that the attack and its message resonated almost immediately. It remains to be seen whether extremist groups will capitalise on the footage in the same way that al-Shabaab did in the wake of the Woolwich incident and make it the centrepiece of an hour-long film lauding the act and calling for others to emulate it. But doubtless some of the images that were captured of the attacker on Saturday night will find their way into terrorist publications and media.

This phenomenon is in some ways the reflection of the increasingly diffuse terrorist threat that is faced. Previously, you had to go to specific locations or people to find radical material. Now it is widely available and accessible, meaning all sorts of people can latch on and express the ideology without having any contact with a terror group. But now things have gone a step further, where we are all broadcasters for the group, capturing and advancing their message through our personal recording devices that offer unvarnished views of incidents as they happen.

The one positive side to this diffuse and random form of messaging is that the attacker no longer completely controls their message. He or she can shout about Syria, but cannot stop the stalwart Londoner shouting back ‘You ain’t no Muslim bruv’ – a catchphrase that is likely to resonate as widely as the failed attack.

  • Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

My contribution in the excellent magazine Prospect to the public conversation in the UK last week about bombing Syria in the wake of this week’s parliamentary vote. It tries to explore what exactly kinetic military campaigns can do to counter terrroist oranization, using a few historical examples to outline some successes.

Will Bombing Ever Get Rid of Islamic State?

FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2001 file picture, Marines with full battle gear prepare to board transport helicopters at the U.S. military compound at Kandahar airport for a mission to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/John Moore, File) PHOTO PACKAGE FOR USE WITH AFGHANISTAN ANNIVERSARY STORIES

This week’s vote to bomb Syria brings to mind a question: can hard power destroy terrorist groups? While it often may not be able to completely eradicate the groups’ ideologies, hard power does have a role in countering terrorist organisations. Historically there have been a number of successes in using it to degrade and even destroy them. This success comes in three main forms: decapitation, eradication or targeted applied force. Yet while all three can cause a group to be substantially degraded, the reality is that often the underlying causes and problems remain, meaning that while the group can be temporarily displaced, it is often not completely destroyed.

The first approach is decapitation, whereby a terrorist group is struck in such a way that its leadership is eliminated. A prime example of this is the Shining Path group in Peru that in 1992 was dealt a deadly blow when its leader Abimael Guzmán was captured by Peruvian authorities. While in the immediate wake of the strike the group’s violence increased, over time the group degraded and gradually faded away. Elements linked to it mutated into a criminal organisation, but the group has now largely disappeared from public concerns.

The second approach is a razed-earth military campaign, destroying the group, its territory, and membership with no mercy or quarter. An example of this is the campaign waged by the Sri Lankan government after the breakdown of talks in 2006 with the Tamil Tigers which led to an aggressive military campaign and the defeat of the group in May 2009. Using an aggressive land and air war, the Sri Lankan government slowly pushed the group back until it was cornered and ultimately collapsed. Many thousands were captured, while others were killed with a few hardcore figures managing to flee the country. But since then, while the aspiration to freedom still remains amongst some Tamils, the organisation is no longer able to assassinate state leaders and control territory.

For the rest of the piece, please go to the Prospect site

 

A short reaction piece to events this week in San Bernadino, a strange terrorist attack that reflects a trend that has been visible for a while in terms of terrorist attacks taking an increasingly confusing aspect in terms of direction and ideology, but also adjacent to a reality in the United States of large-scale weapon ownership. The piece was published in a Spanish paper called La Razon, and so I have posted the Spanish, and below that the original English submitted. Undoubtedly more on this topic as time goes on.

La difusión del terrorismo

Con EE UU aún sacudido por los asesinatos de un agente de Policía y otras dos personas en una clínica de planificación familiar en Colorado, la localidad californiana de San Bernardino se ha convertido en escena de un nuevo tiroteo masivo. La naturaleza de lo sucedido en California no está clara todavía, pero los primeros datos apuntan a la creciente dificultad y naturaleza confusa de la amenaza a la que se enfrentan las sociedades modernas. Hasta ahora han salido a la luz las conexiones con Arabia Saudí de los sospechosos del tiroteo, que uno de ellos había trabajado en el centro de discapacitados donde sucedió el ataque y que había discutido con sus colegas hacía poco, y se considera claro que el ataque fue planeado. Este hecho unido a sus conexiones con el extranjero sugiere un posible móvil terrorista, pero al mismo tiempo, la discusión y la conexión personal con el centro podrían apuntar a otra causa.

Tampoco hay razones suficientes para descartar que ambos hechos estén relacionados. Existe la posibilidad de que los sospechosos hubieran estado expuestos a material radical y que estuvieran planeando algo; en este caso, la pelea con el resto de trabajadores habría sido el desencadenante de la acción. No obstante, como ambos sospechosos murieron, es posible que nunca lo sepamos con certeza.

Es probable que el mundo continúe presenciando tales atrocidades en el futuro. El aumento de la difusión de ideologías extremistas, junto a las reacciones de furia e imitación, además del fácil acceso a armamento pesado, apuntan al hecho de que continúe esta plaga de explosiones repentinas de ira. Entre éstas, están la matanza de Robert Dear en Colorado, la masacre en San Bernardino o los atentados más elaborados de París o Bamako. El terrorismo, en sus múltiples formas, continuará siendo una característica de la sociedad organizada durante los próximos años.

The Diffusion of Terrorism

With the United States still shaken by the murders of a police officer and two others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, San Bernadino, California was the scene of another mass shooting this week. The exact nature of what went on in California was unclear, but the early contours of what is known point to the increasingly difficult and confusing nature of the threat that modern societies face. With news that the individuals involved in California had links to Saudi Arabia, that one of them had worked at the disabled home that was targeted and had recently fallen out with his colleagues, and at the same time the clear evidence that they had planned their attack – a whole series of analytical details are suggested at that leave no clear conclusion.

The pre-planning and the links abroad suggest a possible terrorist motive, but at the same time, the row and personal connection to the target suggest something else. And there is no reason to necessarily conclude that the two are not even linked in some way. The possibility exists that the individuals will now be discovered to have consumed some radical material and been considering doing something, and the row with co-workers was the trigger into action. Given both of the suspects are now dead, it is possible we will never really know.

Looking forwards, it is likely that the world will continue to see such confusing atrocities. The increasing diffusion of extremist ideologies and the rapidity with which people can adopt them, alongside the longstanding human reactions of anger and emulation, as well as the easy access to heavy weaponry all point to the fact that such sudden explosions of anger are headed to continue to plague us. Be this like Robert Dear’s slaughter in Colorado, the as of yet unclear massacre in San Bernadino or the more clearly calculated slaughter’s in Paris or Bamako. Terrorism in its many forms will continue to be a feature of organized society for some time to come.

Catching up on some old posting again, this from a piece that was co-authored with RUSI colleague Dr Sasha Jesperson for a special publication issued for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that just took place in Malta. Thanks to Sasha for taking the lead on this one!

Calibrating a Commonwealth-wide response to Terrorism

Terrorism is a menace that resonates across the Commonwealth. From resident domestic violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the LTTE in Sri Lanka, to groups launching cross-border attacks from neighbouring countries like Al Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya or Uganda, to lone actor attacks in Canada and Australia, terrorism can be found in some shape in most countries. Yet the reality is that when one looks at the cumulative numbers in comparison with other threats to human life, casualty counts are relatively low. This is not to dismiss the danger from terrorism, but given the current hyperventilation around ISIL (so-called Islamic State or ISIS) in particular, it is important to make sure that this is borne in mind; and furthermore, that care is taken to ensure that the expressions of violence which purport to be linked to ISIL are properly understood within their respective contexts.

Fears around terrorism are of course not baseless. Many West African countries have watched the growth of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) with concern, and there has been evidence of AQIM networks having particular influence over parts of Boko Haram. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the threat of terrorism in the West spiked – and later materialised in the form of the attacks in Bali 2002 and London in 2005, to name just two. Yet the influence of Al Qaeda, the group behind much of these fears, has not been as significant as initially feared. The group has managed a number of attacks and continues to attempt to launch plots. It has further managed to help grow off-shoots in various countries, including Commonwealth countries, highlighting the dangers of such pernicious ideologies. But it has failed to transform and take over the world in the manner which it claimed to be attempting to do.

A New Set of Fears

ISIL appears to present a new set of fears. The group has a public relations strategy that makes Al Qaeda appear archaic and detached, finding innovative ways of engaging with social media to spread their messages, recruit and radicalise new members from as far as the UK, Canada and Australia, as well as the Western Balkans and West Africa. The increase in foreign fighters travelling to join ISIL from around the world has prompted many governments to act, implementing new legislation in an attempt to stop people leaving their country of origin and punish those returning. Concerns have also been raised that the current surge of people displaced by the conflict in Syria is potentially being used as a cover by the group to send its people around the globe.

But the greatest fear arises from ISIL’s state-building aspirations and the growth of its self-declared caliphate, and all the trappings of statehood and success that accompany this. Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to ISIL, and the adoption of the new name ‘Islamic State in West Africa’, has led to increased fears across West Africa about what this means for the group’s activity and impact in the region. This is only heightened by the ISIL’s claims of expanding their caliphate into West Africa. Yet, it is unclear the degree to which there has been much back and forth between the two groups – ISIL and Boko Haram – beyond rhetoric or some exchange of tips and capability in terms of developing a more professional media output. Since the formal pledge of bayat (allegiance) by Boko Haram to ISIL, there has been a noticeable improvement in the video output by the West African group. But beyond this, there has not been much more tangible evidence of fighters or money flowing between the two groups in a widely organised fashion.

The West African Dimension

In many ways, therefore, the link between Boko Haram and ISIL is an extension of Nigeria’s existing problem with violent extremism, rather than something new. A politically-minded terrorist organisation seeking to attract attention to itself, Boko Haram saw the advantage of adopting the ISIL name to bring the bright light of publicity and attention to their cause. Nevertheless, it represents a worrying trend for other Commonwealth nations in the region. While the problem may be largely an extension of an existing issue, the decision by Boko Haram to adopt the ISIL brand reflects both an eagerness to attract more attention and a consequent push towards an even more extremely divisive brand of violent rhetoric. This aspect is something that has worrying ramifications for countries across the Commonwealth,
and particularly in West Africa.

Ghana offers a particular case study within this context. Geographically close to Nigeria, it is therefore close to the expanding local ‘caliphate’. Ghana has a sizeable Muslim population (though accurate numbers are hard to find, with reports estimating it is somewhere between 18 and 45 per cent). Throughout history Muslims and Christians in Ghana have had a good relationship, but the spread of ISIL into West Africa is raising fears of domestic radicalisation. In early October, Ghana’s Deputy Education Minister, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, addressed Muslims in Accra about ISIL agents at Ghanaian universities seeking to recruit fighters. Two students have already been identified as joining ISIL and there are concerns among some in the international community based in Ghana that many more
have been recruited in the north of the country.

While these findings suggest that the fear of government ministers of ISIL infiltration is justified, there is a risk of over-reaction and polarisation. Northern Ghana, where the majority of Ghana’s Muslim population resides, has experienced violent clashes sparked by ethnicity, land disputes and chieftancy rights for over 20 years, as detailed by Emmanuel K Anekunabe in Modern Ghana (30 November 2009). Although this has historically not been centred on religion or a Muslim-Christian antipathy, there is a risk that fears of ISIL radicalisation may marginalise Muslim communities and create a divide, in turn driving more people into the hands of ISIL. As the brand is perceived to be more present in neighbouring countries like Nigeria, there will be a growing tendency for security forces to look for the problem; and in some extreme cases, this might have a self-fulfilling effect.

This phenomenon is most recently illustrated by Tom Parker, from the UN Counter Terrorism Centre, who highlights the strategy of terrorist groups in provoking an overreaction from affected governments, which then strengthens the cause of the terrorist group and increases support for their activities (‘It’s a Trap’, The RUSI Journal, 160(3), 2015) . Although the fear of ISIL penetration has not resulted in the draconian state responses described by Parker, there is potential for it to single out certain groups, putting them at greater risk of marginalisation. As Parker points out, “provoking an overreaction by the authorities helps to accelerate the polarisation of society by alienating potential security partners – such as moderate members of a minority community – and providing powerful support to terrorist narratives of victimhood and injustice.”

Underlying Grievances

Such a response links to the debate over the role of economic, political and social marginalisation. These forms of marginalisation have been linked to violent extremism, in many cases identified as a ‘push’ factor for radicalisation. Weiss and Hassan argue in their book on ISIL’s roots that the persistent marginalisation of the Sunni Arab majority in Iraq pushed large numbers into violent extremism (ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, 2015). Other cases in which substantial socio-economic grievances feature include northern Nigeria (where the Hausa speaking Muslim north has tended to experience political marginalisation and economic deprivation), Somalia (where Al Shabaab has been especially successful at recruiting from minority clans), and, in previous decades, Sri Lanka (where the Tamil population endured decades of marginalisation). Whether marginalisation is a necessary or sufficient factor for involvement in violent extremism is widely debated. Gupta argues that it is not a sufficient factor, that grievances need to be instrumentalised by charismatic individuals or ‘political entrepreneurs’, and social and psychological factors need to align as well (ILSA Journal of International Comparative Law, 11(3), 2005). With the case of ISIL, the use of social media and other methods to recruit members may fill that role.

This lesson is one that is not only salient in an African context. In the West, government’s choice of language has in some cases served to further strengthen the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that radical groups feed off to draw people to themselves. By talking of ISIL as an ‘existential threat’ or a ‘nihilistic death cult’, the government rhetoric is elevating the group in importance, but also speaking in terms that are not dissimilar to those deployed by the group. Taken adjacent to language that suggests that governments need to engage in countering not only the violent extremists who help recruit people into ISIL, but also non-violent extremist groups as well, there is a danger that a large section of society is being purposely marginalised. The danger is again of a self-fulfilling prophecy where the casting of the ISIL threat as part of a wider community of extremists means a broader community feel isolated – and consequently closer to ISIL.

The lesson is a simple one. Although the threat posed by ISIL is generating concern and fear across the globe, it is essential that governments do not overreact. While ISIL does appear to present a much more far-reaching threat than their predecessors through the use of social media and ability to engage with individuals that previously appeared out of reach, to date the expansion of the caliphate is more a product of local grievances expressing themselves through the adoption of the ISIL brand (and therefore the rejection of an old order that was perceived as a failure) rather than a strong and direct connection. This is not to say that it will not expand further (and has already made worrying inroads in various places around the globe), or that it is not a substantial problem that will pose a major headache for security officials for the next decade; but rather, that governments need to be sure that in addressing the problem they are focusing on the right issues. Finally, attention needs to be paid to overreaction, something that in many cases will only make the fundamental problem worse.