Shape-shifting terrorism: The new challenge

Posted: September 19, 2021 in Straits Times
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Still catching up posting material from around the September 11 anniversary. Will get around to a media round up soon, as did a lot on various topics over the past couple of months. Have a lot of work also in the pipeline which is going to be keeping me busy, but also a few bigger projects on the horizon which should be interesting. First though a piece with one of my excellent RSIS colleagues Shashi for our local paper the Straits Times, who runs a team focused on various national security threats and whom I have done some work on Singapore’s CVE strategy in the past.

Shape-shifting terrorism: The new challenge

Terrorism predated the 9/11 attacks and continues to evolve, posing new difficulties for those who seek to identify and counter its new protean form

New Zealand police officers outside a mall in Auckland where a man who stabbed six people in a supermarket was shot and killed last Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Two decades on from the atrocity of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, terrorism continues to metastasise. Terrorist spectaculars like the brutal attack at Kabul’s international airport – claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – Khorasan (ISIS-K) – continue, as do attacks like those carried out by individuals inspired by ISIS ideology, the recent Auckland stabbings being a case in point.

But to properly understand and track terrorism’s future evolutions, it is important to consider where we have come from, and where new expressions of the terror threat emerge from. Going forward, they will matter just as much as existing ones.

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

The emergence of Al-Qaeda appeared to herald an age of more brutal but in some ways clear-cut terrorism. In the immediate wake of 9/11, some other groups were forced to reconsider their use of the tactic of terrorism, not least on account of the now unacceptable nature of violence as a legitimate means to further their cause.

There now seems a sharp division between those fighting on the side of the religiously motivated terrorists, and those against them. Around the world, parties to conflicts that had a vaguely Islamist flavour would suddenly associate themselves with the jihadist notions that Al-Qaeda espoused. Often this was done less for reasons of credo than to provide an animating recruiting and fund-raising tool.

For their part, experts, practitioners and policymakers invented an entire vocabulary in the years following 9/11 – home-grown, lone wolf, self-radicalised, CVE (countering violent extremism) and – the most problematic – “deradicalisation”, as they sought to grapple with Islamist terror. An entire clubby academic circuit developed around the issue that gave the appearance of deeply pondering these constructs largely of their own making.

Curiously, this vocabulary was not in evidence when it came to earlier waves of terrorists. These ranged from those driven by ethno-separatist concerns, like the Basque separatists of ETA or the republican or nationalist groups in Ireland.

Religion sometimes featured as well – for example, the Catholic/Protestant divide that separated the two Irelands. But more often, it was driven by narcissistic individuals advancing their own grandeur and glory, like Carlos the Jackal or Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that sought to poison Tokyo’s citizenry as they used their public transport system, or individuals who believed deeply in the extreme cause they had chosen and enjoyed the celebrity it gave them – German leftist Red Army Faction leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader come to mind.

No one talked about deradicalising these individuals. The authorities then used an aggressive counter-terrorism approach focused on traditional methods. Some of the terrorists from this earlier age were killed. A largely hidden cohort became disillusioned by the violence (sometimes when confronted by the consequences of their actions). Some became disenchanted with their leaderships, and still others had time to reflect in prison. Others simply matured and began to ponder more deeply the risks involved in what they were doing. Many remained ideologically committed and were mentors for the next generation, while staying one step removed from the violence.

MEANING-SEEKING, SHAPE-SHIFTING

ISIS heralded a new moment in the narrative of global terror. While ISIS managed to trump Al-Qaeda in many ways – including in terms of building and holding a caliphate-shaped territory for some time – perhaps its most striking innovation was to effectively harness the phenomenon of lone actor terrorism, which moved centre stage from the fringe of violent extremism. Isolated individuals, in some cases directed, but often acting entirely independently, launched attacks – and ISIS perfected the narratives to inspire the individuals and claim such incidents.

In harnessing this methodology, the group was tapping into something deeper. Some of the most compelling recent academic research into extremism has shown the importance of the individual’s quest for significance. People are no longer necessarily committing acts of terrorism solely to advance a political or religious ideology. Some of this may still be present, but what stands out is young people in this social media-inflected age drawn towards extremist ideas or acts of performative violence to give their lives meaning and significance.

What might seem like a textbook case of “radicalisation”, or steps preparatory to an attack, is interpreted by analysts and by society in a specific way, providing meaning to an act that might in fact have more complex, multidimensional drivers with little to do with the ideology the individual is purporting to be acting on behalf of.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Examples can be found in some of the recent pro-ISIS youth cases in Singapore. Some of these individuals faced stressors in their lives. Many appeared to be less deeply versed in their religion, at least compared with an earlier generation of Singapore extremists from the Jemaah Islamiah.

Their infatuation with ISIS was in some ways a substitute activity that created new sources of satisfaction that distracted from the original stressor. For some of these individuals, involvement with ISIS ideology formed part of a coping mechanism that helped them avoid facing problems, such as those involving personal relationships, realistically.

These are the sorts of attacks increasingly seen in Western and Westernised societies – confused individuals (some, but not all, with mental health issues) latching on to ideas and demonstrative forms of violence as a way to excise personal issues, including alienation, anomie and disenfranchisement.

And it is no longer something that is exclusive to the violent Islamist side of the coin. Rather, ideologies become blended together in a confusing mix.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Far-right groups call for “White Jihad”, and adopt snazzy imagery (partly as a recruiting tool) that borrows from the visuals of ISIS propaganda. This mimicry is partly because ISIS was able to capture a greater share of public attention that these groups crave. This, alongside a skill in projecting narratives in bite-sized pieces that are highly attractive to a generation brought up with limited attention spans, created a highly toxic brew.

This new generation of terrorists or would-be terrorists is almost impossible to define and categorise. Crucially, it is not clear that ideology is the overriding factor defining the individual’s actions. Rather, the individual’s personality and psychology become the key factor.

Take, for example, the 16-year-old youth who was reportedly planning to attack two mosques in Singapore. Having imbibed right-wing ideology, and imagining himself as part of this community, he planned to murder Muslims in what was clearly an imitation of Brenton Tarrant’s 2019 Christchurch attacks. He was a Protestant, and to a degree felt the need to defend his religion from what he saw as an existential threat (Islam), but what seems to have been at least as important was his being motivated by a fascination with gore and violence, and ideas of the “Great Replacement”. The belief, associated with white supremacists that non-whites are taking over their homeland, appears to have been useful in giving him an outlet, but it is far from clear whether any one of these motivational strands should be privileged above others.

THE RESPONSE

Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) has done a sterling job of rehabilitating extremists who had misunderstood fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. But there is a noticeable falling off in success when it comes to self-radicalised individuals in the age of social media.

The issue now is how the relevant agencies go about creating a coherent structure around ideologies that mix and merge, and which might have inherent contradictions within them. Related to this is how to engage and deconstruct at a logical level individual ideologies that might exist within the same person, if the Western case studies are anything to go by – elements of far-right thought, far-left thinking (less prevalent, but still a concern) and, increasingly, misogynistic views.

Our future may well be one where all sorts of people will be radicalised.

Agencies in the West grappling with these issues are beginning to go upstream – in some cases, very far upstream, with a degree of success. Some of the most promising initiatives elsewhere are not about deradicalisation, but rather early intervention work – by schools, social workers, healthcare workers and, where needed, the security apparatus – building an ecosystem of diversion and off-ramps that seeks to address potential issues even before individuals have been radicalised.

It is likely that more attention should be paid to the psychological element that, in the Singapore model, has always been present alongside the religious aspect of rehabilitation.

Mentoring and teaching life skills will likely have to come into play in a bigger way. This approach helps to impart mental resilience that helps individuals cope with life stressors. Where it has been tried elsewhere in similar contexts, it has been able to help the vulnerable individual build faculties to understand shades of nuance. It holds promise as part of a larger toolkit against exclusivist, polarised or monochromatic thinking.

Some of this work already goes on, in a way, in Singapore. When it comes to the recent case of the right-wing youth who planned to murder Muslims here, it has been made known that a mentor will be assigned, with the aim of providing a positive influence and keeping the youth focused on pro-social goals.

The Internal Security Department also works with schools to hold workshops dealing with extremism. Other organisations work cooperatively in this space. The RRG also conducts outreach activities aimed at students.

These efforts aim at tackling the issue at its very wellsprings and, in the longer term, should be seen as an important complement to disengagement or deradicalisation, which will remain necessary when the individual has already proceeded down a negative trajectory.

THE NEW CHALLENGES

The challenge will be to keep this space relatively unsecuritised. If the intention is to stop angry teenagers who are reading violent but persuasive propaganda online, or catch fringe ideologies that are hard to detect or observe online, where do we draw the limits of where the security state can intrude into our lives? No one would deny the need to protect people from violence, but how far do we go in policing teenagers who might just be exploring ideas out of curiosity with no intention to act? And how to separate the angry person who might do something, from the one who is simply venting online’

There may well be setbacks along the way. Within the multi-agency triage, there will need to be acceptance that the “pattern” may well be that there is no pattern. What works for one individual, to alter his or her trajectory, may not work for another individual who in all respects seems to follow the same template.

In this type of future, it might seem that we lack clear answers about these and other related questions to eradicate the problem, but are instead stuck in a treadmill of management.

But progress would still be made if we aim now for the construction of a resilient, cohesive society that has within itself the elements of a counter-radicalisation strategy, including within agencies that traditionally have not considered themselves players in the security space.

Terrorism has transformed during these past two decades; we should ensure our response keeps up. But rather than overheatedly preparing for the next attack and assuming it will simply be like what we saw before, we should be ensuring we have properly tracked how things have evolved in order to understand where they are going next.

The threat from Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates will remain, but it is now supplemented by a series of even more complicated issues that we are likely to spend the next decade untangling.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security and executive coordinator, future issues and technology at RSIS.

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