San Bernardino provides more evidence on how not to combat extremism

Published December 6th, 2015 - 11:15 GMT

The stream of recent terror attacks against targets in several countries across four continents continues to vex governments and other institutions that seek desperately to counter and eventually stop this dangerous trend. New research indicates two broad trends, however, that beg for more diligent action based on more credible diagnoses. The first trend is how very complex is the problem of terrorism and its causes, whether it is carried out by individuals who act on their own due to personal grievances, or organized groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS [Daesh] that use religion to mobilize. The second is the limited impact to date of the two principal strategies to fight these groups – military action and digital counternarrative programs.

The past week typically provides a familiar array of evidence in this arena. This includes the British government’s launching of air attacks against ISIS targets in Syria, reports of ISIS strengthening its foothold in parts of northern Libya and Al-Qaeda expanding its control of towns in southeastern Yemen.

The latest attack to attract global attention was the killing of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, this week, by the husband and wife team of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, of Pakistani origin. We will know in due course whether they were acting alone or were linked to Islamist or other groups that “radicalized” them online or through personal contacts.

Two important new reports in the United States this week clarify the difficulties involved in defeating ISIS, or at least reducing its impact around the world. The first was a study by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University that analyzed the range of individuals against whom legal action was taken. It showed that there is no single profile of a typical ISIS recruit. Rather, the very wide range of people who explore ISIS and similar ideologies suggests that no single strategy – such as social media counternarratives or more public activism by “moderate” Muslims – will succeed in reducing the threat.

Another press report said that the U.S. government’s campaign to counter ISIS recruitment efforts through online activities has not worked very well. The campaign needed to be revamped, yet again, because many existing efforts to reduce the flow of recruits to ISIS and Al-Qaeda by using online media instruments have not diminished the flow of recruits.

This has been accompanied by intense, and increasing, military actions by a dozen Arab and foreign governments against facilities and leaders of these terror groups. None of these strategies on their own or together seem to have blunted the ability of Islamist militant groups to keep expanding in pockets here and there, and to keep attracting new recruits. Every week provides fresh evidence of both these troubling realities.

Is it possible that the military, digital and other policies being carried out to defeat ISIS and Al-Qaeda are largely based on wrong or incomplete diagnoses of precisely why such groups came into being and continue to attract recruits and supporters? Are we seeing a repeat of the “war on drugs” that the U.S. government launched decades ago, without making any substantial progress in reducing drug use or trade?

The George Washington University report said that 56 people were arrested in the U.S. this year on charges of supporting or plotting with ISIS. Their ages varied, and they came from a very wide range of religions, ethnicities, professional backgrounds and places of residence, making it difficult for law enforcement organizations to spot potential recruits to radical movements before they become a danger to society. Some only dabbled in reading ISIS-related websites or social media; others traveled to Syria and Iraq; and a few seemed ready to plan attacks in the U.S. The numbers involved are relatively small. About 250 Americans are thought to have traveled or attempted to travel to join ISIS in some manner, and U.S. government agencies are investigating some 900 cases of individuals across the U.S. who allegedly support ISIS.

The second important report this week, from the Washington Post, covered the findings of an expert group commissioned by the U.S. government to assess the State Department’s programs to counter ISIS and other such militant groups, primarily by using social media. The State Department’s counternarrative attempts via social media seem to have had little impact, this and other reports have indicated. So these efforts may be scaled down soon, given doubts about “the U.S. government’s ability to serve as a credible voice against the terrorist group’s propaganda,” according to current and former U.S. officials quoted in the report.

This has been just one more typical week in the confounding “global war on terror,” in which terrorists perform their evil deeds across many countries while governments keep looking for the appropriate strategy to defeat them. If governments persist in their existing strategies, expect the terrorists to persist as well.

By Rami G. Khouri


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