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.”
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.