The Biggest Threat We Face Right Now Is Not Terror, It’s Polarization
The terror attacks mounted by radicalized groups around the world are exactly that. They are terrifying attacks. By attacking civilians in what would normally be a benign environment they induce feelings of terror in the wider population, which is ultimately their weapon of choice.
As horrific and real and tangible the attacks are, the reality is that they are small in nature, yet the perception is that they are large and therefore many are at risk. For every actual casualty there are many thousands that are terrorized and it is through this terrorization that the real threat presents itself, and it is the polarization of communities and cultures.
For as long as terrorists have existed, which is many centuries, their goal has been to achieve the maximum effect in relation to the number of casualties created. And terrorist attacks do just that. A terrorist attack resulting in less than 200 deaths will prompt messages of sympathy from Heads of State across the world and result in changes to legislation, not just in the target nation, but likely in others also as a result of their shocking and unpredictable nature. The more significant reactions though, will come from the members of the public themselves.
While the involvement of political leaders and the reactions of governments are significant, they are not necessarily as significant as the changes in individual behaviour can be. At one end of the spectrum, people may choose to avoid public events like sporting events or music concerts, or they won’t frequent restaurants or pavement cafes in the same manner that they did. This may not seem like much, but they are having their freedom and their way of life impacted. Much more alarming however, at the other end of the spectrum, communities can quite rapidly become polarized.
As socio-cultural groups become identified as being involved with or responsible for terrorist attacks, other groups will come to distrust and even resent them. Little by little the two groups will be pushed apart creating divisions that are far more dangerous than the terrorist attacks themselves.
Although it is accurate to say that the Paris attacks were committed by radicalized Muslim extremists, it is absolutely not accurate to say that all Muslims are radicalized extremists. But that’s not how everyone sees it. Without understating the importance and the need for prompt and robust action to investigate theses attacks and prevent future attacks we must all strive to resist the polarization that is a real and very tangible threat to our future security.
In the aftermath of the 13th November attacks we have seen many positive acts by many individuals. From tweets offering shelter in Sikh Temples for those unable to get home as a result of the attacks to people adding the French or Lebanese flag to their Facebook profile picture with the hashtag Pray For France, or Pray for the World, there have been countless acts that show support for those affected. Sadly there have also been calls to restrict immigration and other unfounded negative responses aimed at Muslim communities, many of whom have been resident in western countries for generations.
With less than 1% of Muslims being radicalized and only a percentage of those being prepared to commit acts of violence, blaming all Muslims for the terrorist attacks is not just a mass over generalization but it is also a damaging and polarizing act. And when any cultural, ethnic or religious group starts to feel isolated there is a very real risk that communities will move further apart becoming increasingly polarized and as they do, levels of both understanding and trust decrease.
This doesn’t mean that we should throw open the gates and admit uncontrolled numbers of Syrian and other immigrants, but we mustn’t isolate existing communities either. Because if we do we will be creating the exact conditions needed for radicalization to fester creating the biggest security risk that we have seen in recent years. And the radicalization won’t necessarily be confined to single group, it can happen in any group, as wherever we see isolated and polarized communities in the world we also see conflict. As we face the challenges of radicalization we must work harder than ever to ensure that our communities don’t become polarized, because if they do, the terrorists win. And then we all lose.
Jihadists target Africa and Afghanistan, but also eye China and Russia
All Mr. Mohamed wanted was a job and a marriage.
A 22-year-old Somali farmhand, Mr. Mohamed, skeptically retorted, “is that right?” when Al Shabab recruiters sought to convince him that the defence of Islam needed him.
“What I really need is a job and a wife,’ Mr. Mohamed added.
The farmworker was persuaded when the recruiters for one of Africa’s oldest jihadist movements promised to find him a wife.
The jihadists never did. Instead, when Mr. Mohamed’s battle injuries disabled him, Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate, pressured him to sacrifice himself as a suicide bomber.
Mr. Mohamed fits the profile of an average African rank-and-file militant recruit who sees jihadism as an opportunity to escape poverty rather than the fulfillment of a religious command.
The recruits’ lack of religious education works in the militants’ favour. Recruits are in no position to challenge their militant interpretation of Islam.
A 128-page United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) survey of 500 former militants showed that 57 per cent knew little or nothing about Islamic religious texts.
Challenging notions that Muslim religious education creates a breeding ground for militancy, the study showed that it reduced the likelihood of radicalisation by 32 per cent.
Islamic State recruitment in Afghanistan has proven to be a different beast.
It benefitted from outflanking Al Qaeda as the primary transnational jihadist group in the region, independent of and opposed to Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.
In contrast to Africa, the Islamic State had a more ready-made pipeline of battle-hardened militants and auxiliaries with its cooptation of groups like Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The cooptation brought in militants with superior knowledge of the local and regional landscape. Some were scions of influential political and warlord families who provided logistical support by helping the Islamic State gain access to official documentation and plan attacks.
In addition, Afghanistan’s Salafi communities’ relations with the Taliban are strained and former Afghan security force personnel at risk of persecution by the Taliban after their takeover in the wake of the US withdrawal in August 2021 turned out to be equally rich hunting grounds.
Finally, the Islamic State benefitted from its questioning of the Taliban’s Islamic credentials in contrast to Al Qaeda which supports the Afghan movement.
In defending the Taliban, Al Qaeda has projected the group’s declaration of an Islamic Emirate, which the Afghans have not characterized as a caliphate, as an alternative to the Islamic State’s notion of a caliphate as declared in 2014 when it controlled swathes of Syrian and Iraq.
“Skepticism of the Taliban has long characterized a certain segment of the jihadi movement that is more puritanical or doctrinaire in orientation… The Islamic State provided a home for the more radical strain of jihadi thought… The group’s rise to prominence has meant that more and more jihadis have come to view the Taliban as an apostate movement,” said scholar Cole Bunzel in a recent study of jihadist attitudes towards the Afghan group.
The distinct profiles of militants in Africa and Afghanistan suggest different trajectories with divergent geopolitical impacts, at least for now.
As a result, in Africa, counterterrorism efforts emphasizing political, social, and economic reform on par with security and law enforcement in a bid to reduce militants’ recruitment pool and deprive them of a conducive environment, is in the short-and middle-term a more feasible approach than in Afghanistan, where they rely on ideology and religious fervour to a greater degree.
That is not to say that reform is unimportant in Central Asian nations like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, targeted by the Islamic State.
Even so, cross-border jihadist operations in Afghanistan and Africa pose different challenges and create diverging opportunities for external powers like China, Russia, the United States, and Europe.
For Russia, Africa generates a significant opportunity to expand its global reach and influence. Russia capitalised on the tightrope that the United States and Europe walk as they balance the need for reform with inevitable support for autocratic partners in the fight against militancy.
The management of that balance by France, long the major external power in the fight alongside the United States, has ultimately disadvantaged it and opened doors for Russia.
Countries like Mali and Burkina Faso are cases in point.
Mali highlighted the importance of strengthening good governance. In 2020, a weak government produced a military coup that ruptured relations with France and paved the way for the replacement of French troops by the Wagner Group, Russia’s shadowy mercenary force.
France’s departure from Mali signalled an end to its decade-long fight against Islamic insurgents in the Sahel.
Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron increasingly focused on reversing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and declared as much by halving the number of French forces in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania to 2,200 and limiting their mission.
Mali withdrew six months earlier from the G5 Sahel multi-national military force, composed of troops from Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, in a further blow to Western counterterrorism efforts.
The drawdown of French troops spotlighted the inability of the US-sponsored Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), founded in 2005, to effectively assist West and North Africa in the fight against militancy.
The partnership was designed to adopt a holistic approach to address the region’s political, development, socio-economic, and governance challenges.
In practice, it was a mismanaged policy tool focused almost exclusively on security assistance and strengthening local military and security institutions. As a result, it spent US$1 billion for over a decade and a half with little to show for itself.
In a bid to bolster US support for the Sahel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a visit to Niger in March, the first ever by a Secretary of State, $150 million in new humanitarian aid. Mr. Blinken’s message was echoed by Vice President Kamala Harris during visit this week to three African states, Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Nonetheless, despite more than a decade of US and French-led counterterrorism efforts, militancy is spreading, most recently to the West African coastal states of Benin and Togo.
In testimony last year to the Senate Armed Forces Committee before he stepped down as head of the US Africa Command, Gen. Stephen J Townsend, warned that “seven of the 10 countries with the largest increase in terrorism in 2020 were in sub-Saharan Africa, with Burkina Faso suffering a 590 per cent increase.”
Desperate to end the violence, many in West Africa welcome Russia and the Wagner Group, hoping they may succeed where France and the United States and corrupt regional governments have failed.
In Mali and elsewhere in the region, Russian psychological warfare helped pave the way for the Wagner Group.
So did Russia’s willingness, in contrast to France and the United States, despite the high cost to civilian life of their actions, to conduct and allow local governments to wage counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations unconstrained by human rights concerns.
Yet, the combination of brutality with no political, social, or economic component of any significance, and lack of differentiation between transnational militants in Africa, such as Al Qaeda affiliate Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) and various regional self-autonomy movements, promises to produce short-term results, at best, rather than structural solutions.
The failure to distinguish between different types of militants precludes the design of tailor-made approaches that address specific grievances and reduce the risk of driving non-jihadist tribal and ethnic movements into the arms of religious militants.
Moreover, by paying Russia and the Wagner Group for their services in concessions for natural resources, commercial contracts, and/or access to critical infrastructure, such as airbases and ports, African governments enable Russia to embed itself in their economies and social fabric.
In Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation of 20 million, protesters waving Russian flags attacked the French embassy and a cultural institute in Ouagadougou, the capital, after a military takeover in September 2022, the second in a year.
The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was among the first to congratulate the new junta, praising it for doing what “was necessary.”
Russia was a factor in the coup, even if Russia may not have instigated it, and despite assurances by Burkina Faso’s new president, Captain Ibrahim Traore, that his country would not follow in Mali’s footsteps.
West African sources close to Mr. Traore said he had toppled the leader of Burkina Faso’s first coup, Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, because he was dragging his feet on turning to Russia after France refused to sell him military equipment, including helicopters.
The US, France, and Russia’s focus on counterterrorism in West Africa ignores the north of the continent at their peril.
Officials, strategists, and analysts believe that North Africa’s experience dating to Algeria’s bloody war in the 1990s against Islamist militants and militancy in Libya and Tunisia in the wake of the 2011 popular Arab revolts, as well as Egypt’s brutal crackdown on Islamists in 2013, has, at least for now, firewalled the region against militancy.
The opposite could be true. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown regional economies into chaos. Many perform worse than they were on the eve of the 20l11 uprisings. Socio-economic disparities, corruption, and unemployment have increased. Significant segments of the population are angry, frustrated, and hopeless.
A report in 2021 by the US Institute for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that “frustration with the inability of regional governments to address these problems boiled over in 2011, leading to popular revolutions that toppled three of the five regimes in power in North Africa. Yet, despite these highly visible and destabilising popular uprisings, reform has been slow. As a result, the social and economic factors that have made the region so fertile for terrorist recruitment and incitement remain unaddressed.”
If Europe may be the external power most affected by increasing instability and political violence on its periphery, China could become the major power most targeted in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
China has moved more firmly into the Islamic State’s crosshairs in the past year.
At the same time, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), long a transnational jihadist group aligned with Al Qaeda, has increasingly shifted from pursuing global jihad to wanting to liberate the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
The party’s deputy emir, Abdusalam al-Turkistani, signalled the shift in a seven-page statement on Telegram.
Speaking in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, rather than Uyghur or Arabic, Mr. Al-Turkistani, asserted that “we are not from China, our homeland is East Turkistan… We are your Muslim brothers from East Turkistan of Central Asia… We are not terrorists; we are fighters for the freedom of the oppressed Uyghurs in East Turkistan.”
Mr. Al-Turkistani’s assertion that his group, formerly known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was not a terrorist organisation was undergirded by a decision in 2020 by the US State Department to take the movement off its terrorism list.
China got a taste of what the Islamic State and TIP shifts could entail when three men stormed a Chinese-owned hotel in the centre of Kabul, the Afghan capital, in December 2022. The attackers were killed, and five of the approximately 30 Chinese nationals in the hotel were wounded.
It was the first attack on a Chinese target since the Taliban came to power in August 2021. The Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility.
A day earlier, Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu expressed “dissatisfaction” about security and urged the Taliban to improve its protection of the People’s Republic’s diplomatic mission.
The attack followed a series of anti-Chinese statements and publications by the Islamic State in which the group denounced Chinese “imperialism.” The renewed focus broke the Islamic State’s five-year silence about China.
It also raised the spectre of the group attacking Chinese targets in Pakistan as it did in 2017 when it kidnapped and executed two Chinese nationals in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, a key node in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Similarly, the TIP vowed revenge for China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in a statement released a week before the attack on the hotel.
Western governments, Uyghurs, and human rights activists have accused China of imprisoning more than one million Turkic Muslims to reshape their religious and ethnic identity in the mould of the country’s rulers.
The brutal repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the effort to Sinicise Islam in China is one major reason why the People’s Republic is in jihadist crosshairs.
Another is China’s largely unnoticed growing commercial interests in Afghanistan.
China is one of only a handful of countries to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul, and trade with Afghanistan, even if it, like the rest of the world, refuses to recognize the Taliban regime.
Nevertheless, China advised its citizens in Afghanistan, Kabul’s largest ex-pat community, to leave the country “as soon as possible” in the wake of the hotel attack.
Meanwhile, arrivals at Kabul’s airport are greeted by a billboard beckoning them to Chinatown, a collection of drab 10-storey buildings in the northwest of the city populated by shops selling Chinese products ranging from office furniture to appliances, solar panels, toiletries, and clothing.
In addition, China’s first infrastructural project in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a 57-hectar, $216-million industrial park that sprawls across the northeastern edge of Kabul. China picked the project up after the United States abandoned it with US forces’ withdrawal and President Ashraf Ghani’s fall.
China has since removed tariffs on 98 per cent of Afghan goods and revived an air transport service to import US$800 million a year worth of pine nuts.
Africa and Afghanistan may be jihadists’ current centres of gravity, but militants’ ambitions go far beyond.
Islamic State attacks on Afghan mosques near the border with Central Asia and a purported cross-border missile attack on Uzbekistan have dashed Central Asian hopes that the Taliban would be able to control the frontier region and shield former Soviet republics from the jihadists.
Like China, Russia’s involvement in the African fight against extremism will, sooner rather than later, make Russia a jihadist target.
An Islamic State suicide bombing in September 2022 near the Russian embassy in Kabul in which two Russian embassy staff were among six people killed may have been a shot across Moscow’s bow.
Offering alternatives across Africa to men like Mr. Mohamed, the former Somali militant in search of a job and a wife, would enhance counterterrorism efforts in Africa and Central Asia, provided the United States, Europe, and local governments have the political will to implement necessary reforms.
That will be far more difficult in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is internationally isolated, desperate to hold on to power, and unwilling to meet minimal conditions of the international community that wants to see more inclusive policies.
The 2022 attacks on the hotel and the Russian embassy in Kabul suggest that Russia and China are increasingly in jihadist crosshairs in ways that could see militants expand their theatre of operations, and, in the case of Afghanistan, target others like the United Arab Emirates, that do business with the Taliban.
Author’s note: An earlier version of this article was first published by Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses
The Afghan Foreign Minister Is Wrong About ISIS: It Threatens Regional Security
Recent claims made by the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, Amir Muttaqi, that there is no Daesh or ISKP presence in Afghanistan are not only unsubstantiated but also refuted by recent developments on the ground. The US Intelligence reports on terrorism have claimed that IS and other regionally focused terror groups maintain an active presence in Afghanistan and are conducting terrorist activities. Furthermore, ongoing military operations by the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) against ISKP in Afghanistan repudiate claims made by FM Amir Muttaqi about the absence of ISKP.
Recent weeks have seen a number of ISKP militants being arrested and key commanders being killed by Afghan Special Forces during raids in Kabul and various cities of Balkh, Nangarhar, Panjshir, Jawzjan, and Faryab provinces. These military operations are a clear indication of the active presence of ISKP in Afghanistan and its operational capabilities. Such activities pose a significant regional threat to not only Afghanistan but also its neighboring countries.
In addition to military operations, Afghan Taliban sources have claimed that they have found millions of USD at an alleged ISKP hideout in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province. The discovery of such hideouts, coupled with the arrest of militants and the killing of key commanders, is a clear indication of the operational bases of these terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The discovery of significant amounts of money also indicates that these groups are well-funded and pose a severe threat to regional security.
Furthermore, the killings of ISKP/Daesh commanders, including Qari Fateh and Ijaz Amin Ahangar, inside Afghanistan, are undeniable proof of the presence of terrorist groups and their operational bases in the country. The presence of such groups and their activities pose a significant regional threat and endanger the stability and security of the entire region.
The claims made by FM Amir Muttaqi that there is no presence of Daesh or ISKP in Afghanistan are not only unfounded but also dangerous. These claims are likely to lull regional actors into a false sense of security, which can have disastrous consequences for the entire region. The threat posed by these terrorist groups is real, and it is imperative that regional actors work together to counter this threat effectively.
It is also essential to note that the US country reports on terrorism are based on factual evidence and are compiled after extensive research and analysis. The reports are not biased or politically motivated, as is being suggested by some Afghan officials. These reports are an important source of information for policymakers and regional actors, and it is crucial that they are taken seriously.
The recent actions taken by the International Assistance Group (IAG) against ISKP/Daesh are indeed a welcoming development, and it is expected that the same level of commitment will be shown in dealing with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threat as well. IAG is bound to fulfill its commitment under the Doha deal that Afghanistan’s soil will not be allowed to be used for violence and terrorism against any country.
The Doha deal is a crucial agreement between the United States and the Taliban that was signed in February 2020. It aims to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and ensure that the country does not become a breeding ground for terrorist activities. Under the agreement, the Taliban committed to preventing terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh from using Afghan soil to launch attacks against other countries.
The TTP is a significant threat to regional security, and it is imperative that steps are taken to counter this threat effectively. The group has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and its activities pose a significant threat to the stability and security of the entire region.
It is essential that IAG works closely with the Afghan government to address this threat effectively. Kabul’s cooperation with bordering states in counter-terrorism efforts is in mutual interest as Afghanistan itself is becoming a hotbed of terrorism.
IAG’s actions against ISKP/Daesh are a welcoming development, and it is expected that the same level of commitment will be shown in dealing with the TTP threat as well. Kabul’s cooperation with bordering states in counter-terrorism efforts is in mutual interest, and it is crucial that regional actors work together to ensure peace and stability in the region.
The Role of Technology and Innovation in Countering Extremism and Terrorism
Extremism and terrorism are on the rise at a never-before-seen rate in the entire world. These two global threats have been seriously harming social cohesion, economic development, and human life all over the world. Governments, civil society, and private organizations have all struggled to find viable solutions to these threats. Since the development of modern technology, terrorist groups have used it more frequently to carry out their attacks. Due to the spread of these violent and radical ideologies, many people have died, the property has been destroyed, and nations and regions have become unstable. Military action, law enforcement, and intelligence gathering are just a few of the strategies that have been used in response to counter these threats. The use of innovation and technology, however, is one strategy that is gaining popularity.
Somehow, it has been determined that the internet, social media, and other digital communication channels play a significant role in the spread of extremist ideologies, recruitment, and attack planning. In order to stop this activity, efforts have been made to monitor and thwart extremist content online using technology. Tech firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, for instance, have created algorithms to recognize and delete extremist content from their platforms. In order to find and remove extremist content, Facebook uses machine learning algorithms. Similarly, YouTube has created a system that combines human review with machine learning in order to remove content that violates its policies. However, extremist groups are increasingly making use of these channels to spread propaganda and find new members. Governments have also passed laws governing online content and pressed businesses to take action against extremist content.
Due to advancements in surveillance technology like drones, facial recognition software, and biometric scanners, it is now possible to monitor and track potential threats more effectively. Terrorist plots have been detected and stopped in their tracks using these technologies. For instance, the installation of biometric scanners at border and airport checkpoints has boosted security and reduced the risk of terrorist attacks. Similarly, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics are two additional ways that technology is being used to combat extremism. It is possible to find patterns in online behavior that may be signs of extremist activity using AI and data analytics. AI algorithms, for instance, are capable of analyzing online conversations and social media posts to find words and phrases that extremist groups frequently use. Then, this data can be used to spot people who might be at risk of radicalization or to keep tabs on the actions of recognized extremist organizations.
In addition to these measures, counterarguments to extremist ideologies have also been disseminated using technology and innovation. Social media and other platforms can be used to disseminate messages of acceptance, comprehension, and unity that can work as a counterweight to the messages of hatred and division advanced by extremist groups. The “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign, which aims to counter ISIS propaganda by offering alternative viewpoints, is one example of an initiative that has shown promise in this area.
Over time, technology has played a bigger role in counterterrorism operations. To find and stop terrorist activity, governments all over the world have made significant investments in technologies for intelligence gathering, surveillance, and data analysis. Drones and other unmanned vehicles have completely changed how counterterrorism operations are carried out. These technologies have improved the effectiveness and efficiency of counterterrorism efforts by lowering the number of human casualties and collateral damage.
Law enforcement agencies around the world have faced a significant challenge as a result of extremist groups’ use of social media to disseminate their propaganda, find new members, and organize attacks. However, technology has also provided opportunities to counter this threat. Social media data has been analyzed to find extremist content using cutting-edge techniques like machine learning, natural language processing, and AI-powered algorithms. Another instance of how technology can be used to combat terrorism and extremism is the development of block chain-based solutions. By tracking and tracing extremist groups’ financial transactions, block chain technology can stop them from gaining access to money and resources. These technologies can aid in the swift identification and removal of extremist content, the prevention of its dissemination, and the blocking of access to the websites and social media accounts of extremist groups.
Furthermore, a key tactic that can help stop the spread of extremist ideology and radicalization is empowering communities through technology to prevent extremism. Technology has the potential to promote understanding, communication, and community building—all of which are essential for creating robust and resilient communities. We can contribute to preventing the conditions that breed extremism and radicalization by utilizing technology to empower communities.
Providing communities with information and resources is one way to give them more power. Online platforms, for instance, can be used to distribute educational content on the perils of extremism and the value of tolerance and inclusivity. By making these tools available, we can lower the risk of radicalization and assist people in making thoughtful decisions about their beliefs and behavior. We can aid in creating solid and resilient communities that are less vulnerable to extremist ideologies by facilitating access to information and resources, encouraging communication and dialogue, and fostering social and economic development. To effectively prevent extremism, technology must be used responsibly and ethically, in addition to other strategies.
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