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Recovery, Rehabilitation & Reintegration of the “Lost” Children Living and Serving Under the Islamic State

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] H [/yt_dropcap]undreds of thousands of children around the world have been seduced and forced into being child soldiers and cadres in the service of armed and violent groups. Many have been successfully treated using a combination of individual, family and community interventions that relied on combinations of expressive, cognitive and behavioral therapies as well as play, song, art and dance mixed in with culturally indigenous cleansing and healing rituals. Is there a possibility of the same for the children of ISIS— the Iraqi and Syrian boys and girls seduced and forced into slavery and violence; raped; beaten and tricked into serving the brutal non-Islamic State? 

We are in a prison just outside of Suliamania trying to find out. The first boy we talk to, sixteen-year-old Nabil, is brought into the interrogation room in an orange jumpsuit reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay. His eyes and face are covered in a black mask and his hands shackled in metal cuffs. When the prison guard uncovers his eyes, I explain our purpose and ensure he’s speaking freely. Then in response to gentle questions, Nabil begins to open up to tell us how he happened to join ISIS.  

“There were two mullahs in the mosque. When the Islamic State came to our village, the older guys in the mosque started convincing kids to join. They started talking about money and cars. They told us, ‘This is a good thing to do. You are going to be really comfortable.’” 

The mullah himself drove Nabil to the neighboring village where he underwent ISIS shariah and weapons training and gave his bayat (pledge of allegiance) to the most nefarious terrorist group of our day. “I spent a month in shariah training,” Nabil explains referring to ISIS’s practice of indoctrinating all their new cadres into Islamic law as interpreted by ISIS. He denies that kids had to kill a prisoner upon graduation as we’ve heard from those who took their training in Syrian camps.[1] Although he does recall, “A guy my age killed four of our relatives.  He was from Mosul.”

The middle child of a family of seven kids, Nabil keenly missed his father who had travelled out of ISIS territory to try to get his pay as a policeman.  Salaries were no longer being paid in ISIS territory. “There was no way to get paid so he went to Kirkuk to collect his salary, but he couldn’t get back. We had no money.” 

 “I was away from my father. They played with my mind,” Nabil explains, his voice fills with bitterness recalling how he got sucked into serving the Islamic State. Nabil’s mother and older brother fought with him, ultimately kicking him out of the house when he told them he was going to join. Unfortunately this move to protect him simply propelled Nabil into the home of the mullah who eventually literally drove him into the arms of ISIS, delivering him by car to their training camp. “They trained us on weapons, shariah, verses of the Prophet, women—what they are allowed to do and not. They focused on that women need to dress like this and told us,

‘If not, we might hurt her—but we are going to hurt her family members more. A married guy who cheats on his wife, we stone him to death. An unmarried man who is caught in an affair, we flog him.’” Nabil recites the horrific list of ISIS’s rules and punishments while puffing on a thin cigarette handed to him by his prison handler, smiling jauntily when he admits that he smoked even while inside ISIS—when no one was looking. 

“I was terrified in the beginning,” Nabil admits. I ask if he liked his shariah trainer. Syrian cadres reported that their ISIS shariah trainers were very charismatic and knowledgeable, brought in from the Emirates, Jordan and Saudi, often describing them as shining and filled with a religious charisma that made them able to easily persuade their future cadres into suicide missions.[2] Not so in Iraq. “Till the time he got killed he was a monster; till he got killed no one liked him.” 

Nabil trained on the AK 47 and was assigned to the infantry. He remembers, “In the beginning the food was good.” Nabil was sixteen when he joined, but there were six or seven kids as young as fourteen who trained with him in the camp.  

Nabil spent four months serving ISIS, in which he took part in three battles against the Pershmerga. “There were three lines,” he recalls of those battles. “I never went to the first line, the older, more experienced fighters went first.” When asked for more details, he admits that the first line, just as we heard in Syria, were suicide soldiers, wearing vests to detonate if they were about to be captured—fighting to the death.[3] “Yes, they always got killed. The front lines carried guns and went in on foot and they wore suicide vests. If he doesn’t get killed, he will detonate himself.”

Nabil is a clever boy. Once in prison, still horribly missing his father, Nabil accused his father of being a member of ISIS and thereby tricked the Kurdish security officials into bringing him in for interrogation—a jubilant event for Nabil who joyfully reunited with his innocent, former policeman father. “I cannot live without my Dad. It’s been two years since I saw him,” the boy admits sheepishly—a big, irrepressible grin plastered across his face. The Kurds released Nabil’s father when they realized the trick and now his Kurdish prison handler gently ribs Nabil about it.  I watch the good rapport with this child who doesn’t appear afraid of the prison handler at all—rapport necessary for him to begin rehabilitating here, even inside the prison, something the Kurds tell me they want to attempt with kids like Nabil.

It’s March of 2017 and I am in Iraq with our International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) research director[4] in response to a request by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to advise on how to deal with children who lived and served under ISIS. There are 300,000 children, many finally being liberated, who have been taught under the brutal ISIS curriculum, learning topics about who and how to behead, while others have actually served as ISIS cadres, forced to take the lives of others in the most ruthless ways. Tough questions are posed in the Prime Minister’s conference about if such children can be recovered, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society, or is this a lost generation that either needs to be captured or killed?  Some say they should be punished; others that they need to be isolated so they don’t contaminate the rest.

When I ask Nabil about his future possibilities of reintegration—if his parents can forgive him for serving ISIS, Nabil replies, “A father will not hold anything against his son no matter what.” His smile is big as he tells me this confidently, but his face clouds over and becomes very serious when I ask about his mother. “My mother will forgive,” he assures, but seems less sure.  His brother and mother kicked him out of the family home when he told them his plans to join ISIS. But later Nabil helped his family to escape out of ISIS territory into the refugee camp in Kirkuk. “When I last saw her—when I looked at her—I don’t think she holds anything against me,” Nabil states. “I saw her in the morning before I was arrested,” he explains of their time together in the refugee camp in Kirkuk.

Nabil got paid $100 a month in ISIS, money he spent recklessly, like any young boy, “I spent it on myself. I bought a motorcycle.” His boyish adventures however were short- lived and quickly disillusioned by the brutality of the group. “I wanted to leave when I started to see the killings,” Nabil admits. “I knew they were doing wrong things,” he explains, referring to the executions of those punished for minor infractions of ISIS laws, although there is not time today for him to share his memories of all he saw.  

Nabil begin to look for ways to escape. “I was always thinking of a way to take my family and cross back into Kirkuk,” he recalls, although his first attempt to escape was on his own. “The first time I ran away, I got captured by ISIS. They whipped me 35 times and told me I had to go back to my post. ‘Do your duties,’ they warned. 

Nabil was lucky—others we’ve heard about who were caught trying to escape were beheaded on the spot. “I had a friend with me [in ISIS],” Nabil recalls. “He knew the roads of the mountains. My friend didn’t know that I wanted to run away. He told me the route, about the road that had no IEDs.” 

For his second attempt to escape Nabil went home to gather his brother, sister, mother and some other close relatives. “I came home and talked to my family telling them, ‘I want to take you to Kirkuk.’ I talked to them and then went back to my duties. I knew the timing to cross. The second time we made it.” 

I turn the interview to the possibilities of his future, if he’s to be released. “I want to see my mom first thing,” Nabil answers, wistfully. “She’s in Kirkuk. That’s my only wish in the world. I don’t care if I die. That’s the only thing I want.” 

Strong words for a young kid. When asked if he can back to the family home, he explains, “I have to live in Kirkuk with them [my family]. I have nowhere else to go. If I leave from here [Kirkuk area], I know I will get killed for sure. This is the fate of anyone who works with them.” 

“Nabil is terrified, afraid of everyone,” his prison handler explains. Indeed there are many who want to revenge on former ISIS cadres and ISIS also kills those who have defected—if they can.  Among the other forty-four defectors ICSVE staff have interviewed thus far we’ve heard too many stories of defectors being caught and beheaded on the spot.

 “I know you’ve gone missing. Our people in Kirkuk are going to kill you,” the mullah said over the phone to Nabil when he arrived in the refugee camp. “If you are not going to work for us—if you are not going to be a sleeper cell in Kirkuk, our people will kill you,” he threatened the boy. 

“As soon as I got in the refugee camp. Mullah Omar was the one calling,” Nabil explains dully. Constant terror has that effect—a need to dull the senses, go “dissociative” and feel nothing but hopeless depression. Dulling ones senses can provide a brief refuge at least from a too painful life.

When I ask Nabil if he told his parents about the mullah telephoning him, Nabil shakes his head no and his eyes widen as he explains, “Because my father was a policeman, I was scared for him.” He continues monotonously again, “I don’t know, only Allah can protect me. I must die.”  

Nabil’s already got the sense of a foreshortened future, that trauma survivors that kids and adults often feel after surviving a trauma they can’t get over. Nabil has the posttraumatic sense of being damned from the bright future with which he started his childhood.

I ask if the government can provide protection for him as he nods despondently, but then negates his nod by saying, “If I get released from here [prison], another unit will take me and kill me. They won’t be like the Persmerga. I’m afraid of anyone who has lost someone. The Spiecher [military] Base lost 2000 soldiers…It can be anyone with a desire for revenge,” he says referring to the ISIS massacre of Shia soldiers at the captured military base in Tikrit. Nabil admits having crossed into Kirkuk because, “I knew the Kurds are more easy going. I knew for sure I’m going to get captured, but in Shia areas, I’ll get killed right away.”

What can we do for this boy? He should be in school, but he can’t go home—ISIS still controls the territory he’s from. If he’s released, he’ll go to a refugee camp where there are some studies offered, but not much, and everyone surrounding him is traumatized and angry at ISIS.  The security forces acknowledge that there are ISIS recruiters and cadres in the camp.  We have evidence that in Syrian and Turkish camps kids get recruited into ISIS right in the camps.[5] It won’t be safe for him. His family may forgive him, but family members of those who were raped, kidnapped and killed won’t be so forgiving. 

And what about his release? Surely those who hold him will want kids like him to help them rat out the ISIS guys in the camp. He can be useful as an informant—if he can be trusted.

It’s all too much for a young kid. Psychologically, he’s terrified. Perhaps guilty for what he’s taken part in. He’s sure his life will end badly, and yearns badly for his parents’ love, protection, acceptance and shelter. Nabil is a lost boy and needs help. If he manages to reunite with his parents, they can love and forgive him, but can they protect him from the wider community’s stigma and punishment? 

The government may be able to offer him some limited protection but may insist that  he pays for it by turning informant as together they route out the scourge that poisoned  his life—but that too involves dangers and possible additional stigma in the end.  

And release may also go another way. Can an ISIS recruiter still manipulate him? Inside the prison there’s an older ISIS emir—Abu Islam—that prison officials tell me is capable of talking any of the others into the glorious wonders of taking a “martyrdom” mission.  As a result, the prison guards keep him isolated from the others. Suicide could be a way out for Nabil—instant forgiveness if he buys the lies of the ISIS “martyrdom” myth, release from constant terror, and a way to strike out—perhaps at someone that a recruiter can convince him is the reason for his lost and stolen childhood? Palestinians told me taking a suicide mission wasn’t that hard when you have to dull your senses to endure the traumas you’ve lived through—when you feel that you are already dead.  Nabil is showing some of those features.

No one wants it to end that way. But as long as political grievances leading to Islamic State’s rise remain in place, as long as security and justice are not delivered to everyone in Iraq regardless of religion and sect, and as long as there’s no safe way to return home or some kind of amnesty offered—at least to kids who were tricked into ISIS ranks, like Nabil was—the Iraqi authorities will either have to keep them locked up or release them back into society while holding eyes shut tight. In that scenario they’ll be hoping for the best, knowing it’s not likely to turn out well. 

Today, the Iraqi Prime Minister wants to make a plan for kids who lived and served under ISIS—and he’s right to want it. But it’s got to start soon and it’s got to be good— involving schooling, amnesty, and strong psychosocial support for teachers, parents and communities to accept these kids back into society. It will need to involve careful and caring treatment and redirection for the kids themselves as well as for their families and communities so they can be saved from all they’ve learned and trained into and to also avoid their becoming the next iteration of something like ISIS, in a world gone mad.


[1] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (December 2015). Eyewitness accounts from recent defectors from Islamic State: Why they joined, what they saw, why they quit. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(6), 95-118.

[2] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (December 2015). Eyewitness accounts from recent defectors from Islamic State: Why they joined, what they saw, why they quit. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(6), 95-118.

[3] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (December 2015). Eyewitness accounts from recent defectors from Islamic State: Why they joined, what they saw, why they quit. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(6), 95-118.

[4] Thanks to ICSVE Research Director Ardian Shajkovci for accompanying me in these research interviews in Iraq and elsewhere.

[5] Crozier, R. (May 11, 2016). Why young Syrians are joining ISIS. Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/religion-not-main-motivator-young-syrians-isis-458653 Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/religion-not-main-motivator-young-syrians-isis-458653 and Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (December 2015).

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne (March 29, 2017) Recovery, Rehabilitation &Reintegration of the “Lost” Children Living and Serving Under the Islamic State ICSVE Brief Reports  http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/recovery-rehabilitation- reintegration-of-the-lost-children-living-and-serving-under-the-islamic-state/

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Terrorism, Radicalisation and Legitimacy

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Terrorism

In discussions about fighting terrorism, the word “radicalisation” is often used, yet its meaning remains unclear. Focusing only on intellectual radicalisation risks assuming that radical ideas are a proxy for terrorism or a crucial precursor when we know this is not the case. Different paths and processes of engagement in terrorism act differently for different individuals at different times and circumstances. 

This article examines the difficulties in defining radicalisation and radicalism and concludes that radicalisation, especially participation in terrorism, is best understood as a collection of distinct processes. It then discusses several potentially exciting theories, such as social movement theory, social psychology, and conversion theory, that could encourage future research into these processes. Further, the article describes potential frameworks for comprehending how the processes may assist terroristic activity. 

Radicalisation has been arguably the most common foundation for understanding micro-level shifts toward violence during the past decade. Nonetheless, the concept has evolved into more than just a dominant police paradigm; it has also become a holistic government strategy that includes vigilance, security, vulnerability, and civic engagement. With the introduction of this approach came a slew of analysts, consultants, and professors claiming “expert” knowledge of individual conversions to political violence. Relevant researchers on terrorism and extremism have yet to agree on a clearly articulated understanding of this notion. However, the term’s meaning and bounds are hotly debated around the globe.

The definition of radicalisationby McCauley and Moskalenko (2017) is “greater preparation for and commitment to intergroup conflict and violence.” Hafez and Mullins (2015) defined radicalisation as a “gradual ‘process’ including indoctrination into an extreme belief system that lays the groundwork for violence but does not guarantee it.”

However, Alex Schmid (2013) reassessed radicalisation to improve the consistency and objectivity of discussions around this concept. According to him, 

“an individual or collective (group) process whereby, usually in a situation of political polarisation, normal practices of dialogue, compromise and tolerance between political actors and groups with diverging interests are abandoned by one or both sides in a conflict dyad in favour of a growing commitment to engage in confrontational tactics of conflict-waging. These can include either (i) the use of (non-violent) pressure and coercion, (ii) various forms of political violence other than terrorism or (iii) acts of violent extremism in the form of terrorism and war crimes. The process is, on the side of rebel factions, generally accompanied by ideological socialisation away from mainstream or status quo-oriented positions towards more radical or extremist positions involving a dichotomous world view and the acceptance of an alternative focal point of political mobilisation outside the dominant political order as the existing system is no longer recognised as appropriate or legitimate.”

Although the term “radicalism” and its subsequent derivative “radicalisation” historically has had a much broader meaning, in the context of contemporary studies and policymaking, the term “radicalisation” typically refers to a path that leads to terrorism, a gradual slide into extremism or fundamentalism, or, more generally, a movement toward justifying violence and eventually engaging in it. The great majority of definitions agree that radicalisation is a process; nevertheless, they disagree on where this process will go after it is complete. 

For instance, the European Commission’s expert group on radicalisation describes radicalisation as “socialisation to extremism that emerges as terrorism” (European Commission Expert Group 7). In contrast, the United States Department of Homeland Security describes radicalisation as “the process of acquiring an extreme belief system, including the readiness to advocate or use violence as a means” (US Department of Homeland Security). Institute for Homeland Security Studies According to some official definitions, it is a path that leads to terrorism. For instance, in the United Kingdom, it is defined as “the process through which an individual comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism that lead to terrorism” (House of Commons Home Affairs Committee).

People in representative democracies have the freedom to voice views that go to the core of issues (precisely what the word “radical” denotes) and the right to advocate for significant changes to political, economic, or social systems. Many of the concepts European “radical groupings” proposed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were ultimately incorporated into the conventional conception of political liberalism (widening the franchise, redistributing property, freedom of the press, etc.). 

This is likely why liberal constitutions protect the rights of individuals to defend radical or unusual opinions and limit free speech only when it incites violence, is offensive or is vulgar. The rules that govern the realm of thoughts are opposed to the laws that govern the world of actions. Individual conduct is rigorously watched, especially when it involves the illegal use of violence against non-combatants that is not state-sanctioned. 

Individuals and organisations who use violence without discrimination confront justifiable objections in open societies. For instance, the experts commonly use “radicalisation” while discussing Salafists and the ultraconservative Islamists. These groups are notorious for their relentless proselytising and support for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Since Salafists are affiliated with both of these terrorist organisations, this is the case. Radicalisation, however, is not contained in one aspect or region of the globe. It is seen in all types of terrorism, including leftist, rightist, anarchist, ethno-nationalist, and religious terrorism. 

Prior research and analysis support the assumption that there is no one causal pathway or explanatory theory that applies to all types of individuals. According to Walter Laqueur (2003), the search for a “universal theory” of terrorism is erroneous since “many terrorists exist, and their traits change over time and between nations.” The same seems to be true of the radicalization process.

Despite this, a variety of efforts have been made to articulate a fundamental sequence of stages, events, or obstacles that may apply to both cross-group and within-group kinds. How do individuals come to accept violent extremist beliefs (radicalise), translate them — or not — into reasons or imperatives for using terrorist action, and choose (or not) to participate in violent and subversive behaviour in the service of these ideologies? This seems to be the driving question for these initiatives.

To be clear, the great bulk of what has been written so far on “radicalization” into violent extremist ideas (particularly those supporting terrorism) is conceptual rather than factual. While the exact processes and sequencing of these changes are controversial, it is certain that various pathways and mechanisms function differently for different people. We may be able to design better-informed policies and procedures to curb and prevent the spread of violent extremism if we have a more sophisticated understanding of how this process unfolds inside and among organisations.

For decades now, the international community has worked to adopt impartial standards in times of conflict that prohibit the use of particular types of violence and weaponry by setting limits aimed to safeguard certain people and objectives. However, the neutrality of these regulations has traditionally benefitted the more powerful, leaving those with less power with few options for circumventing them. This explains why, after WWII, the greatest amount of victimisation has happened during non-international wars.

Consider also that the lack of international law to offer adequate procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes has all too often left protagonists with no choice but to resort to violence and, as a result of power imbalance, to violate the rules on the limits to violence. At a summit of chiefs of state in the Americas in 1961, President John F. Kennedy clearly said that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

Thus, in the absence of effective mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution and the rule of law that applies equally to all protagonists, the alternative is violence—and, more often than not, violence in violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law, which falls under the definition of terrorism.

Borum (2012) has sought to describe the driving elements that drive radicalisation, particularly militant Islamist radicalisation in Europe, by looking outside of the existing radicalisation paradigm.

Background factors or personal struggles with religious identity, experience with discrimination, etc. Trigger Factors or specific events that could provoke antipathy or activism; finally, Opportunity Factors include the individual’s degree of access and exposure to extremist ideas, such as physical and virtual spaces where she/he is likely to meet like-minded people. (ibid). Additionally, in developing a functional explanation for political radicalisation, McCauley and Moskalenko (2017) describe it as “a stronger readiness for and commitment to intergroup confrontation.” They outline the process using the Pyramid Model, with the base of the pyramid consisting of all persons who sympathise with the terrorists’ stated goals. All individuals who wanted the “Brits out” in Northern Ireland were part of the Irish Republican Army’s support base.

As with the staircase model, the pyramid’s higher levels are associated with decreasing numbers but increasing radicalisation among individuals regarding their views, attitudes, and behaviours as we go from the base to the apex. It was previously stated in this article that the process of radicalisation differs amongst persons.

McCauley and Moskalenko go even farther, describing how radicalisation occurs at several levels, including the individual, the group, and even the masses. Individuals may become radicalised for a number of reasons, including personal victimisation, political grievances, and joining a radical organisation, either via an existing membership with the group of a loved one or by a prolonged process of self-radicalisation. Even though self-radicalisation has been heavily debated, the presence of a group dynamic has been demonstrated to be critical for radicalisation, and an increasing number of psychological studies have shown the deadly potential of self-radicalisation.

Milgram’s 1963 experiment sought to ascertain the conditions that might persuade someone to do ”evil’. The experiment required volunteers to shock a person who answered a question incorrectly. As the number of incorrectly answered questions increased, so did the shock voltage until a lethal voltage was administered. Although no genuine shocks were administered, the individuals were unaware of this. The majority of participants gave what they thought were lethal quantities of electricity. While the experiment’s primary goal was to understand the concept of obedience in humans, it also helped explain how people could transform into radicals simply because an authoritative figure promised them significance within a group. This provided them with enough motivation to disengage from the evil they were committing morally.

Further talking about the legitimacy or non-legitimacy of radicalisation, for decades now, the international community has endeavoured to develop impartial rules in times of war that restrict the use of certain forms of violence and armament by establishing limitations designed to protect specific persons and purposes. However, the neutrality of these restrictions has historically favoured those with more power, leaving those with less power with few choices for evading them. This explains why, following World War II, the highest number of victims have occurred in non-international conflicts.

Moreover, the lack of international law to provide proper processes for the peaceful resolution of conflicts has often forced protagonists to resort to violence and, as a consequence of a power imbalance, to breach the norms about the boundaries of violence. It has always been easier for nations to proclaim self-defence and legitimacy, whereas aggrieved groups have found it more challenging to make the same claims. A significant example is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regardless of the nature of the violent action, it is legal when carried out by Israel, with the rare exception of perhaps excessive use of force. Nevertheless, it is almost always terrorism when carried out by the Palestinians. Utilising violence to instil fear in a population has been a constant throughout history. Despite what contemporary politicians claim, terrorism, as we have come to call it, is not new, nor are its responses.

Nevertheless, regardless of whether terrorism is illegitimate or not, there are three critical qualities that, when combined, distinguish terrorism from other violent social engagements. First, a violent act is considered terrorist when its psychological effects on a specific population or social aggregate, in terms of widespread emotional reactions such as fear and anxiety, are disproportionate to its actual or potential material consequences, in terms of physical harm to both people and property (Aron, 1962). Second, for such violence to impact, it must be systematic and unexpected, often directed at targets selected for their symbolic value within a dominant cultural framework and within a particular institutional framework (Thornton, 1964; Walter, 1969). Third, the injury of such targets is utilised for communicating signals and threats, making terrorism a tool for communication and social control (Roucek, 1962; Crelinsten, 1987).

Even though there is reason to believe that various state and non-state actors initiate radicalisation in reactions to oppression, hatred, bigotry, and discrimination, classifying the workflow as legitimate or illegitimate would be reducing a comprehensive and multifaceted problem to strict binary functions. Leaders of violent extremist groups, for instance, may exploit Muslims’ perceived marginalisation across the globe. However, there is a heated intellectual and political debate on whether the perceived marginalisation of Muslims throughout the globe as a source of extremism is or just an interpretation of extremist goals. Human rights abuses and the perception of international hostility may radicalise diaspora groups for sure.

Several social scientists have identified legitimacy as a crucial issue in the study of terrorism. According to Martha Crenshaw, legitimacy is “a significant obstacle in conceptualising terrorism and, indeed, any kind of political violence.” Often, legitimacy is at stake in conflicts between governments and terrorist organisations; in these circumstances, one side disputes the legitimacy of the other. Crenshaw identifies far-left terrorists “Consider actions against the state to be morally permissible and question the state’s legitimacy. Frequently, right-wing terrorists “deny the validity of protest and believe that violence in the service of order is sanctioned by the significance of the status quo.” Lastly, impacted states claim legitimacy: a state under terrorist attack is often required to “maintain and defend its legitimacy while delegitimising the terrorist threat” (Crenshaw, 1983).

States and terrorist organisations must explain their use of force or violence to obtain legitimacy and show a genuine commitment to democratic values and objectives. Given these conditions, which are necessary but inadequate for establishing legitimacy, it should be clear that legitimacy claims are not just challenging to prove but also defensible once established. A state’s legitimacy crisis might be caused by a single act (denying its citizens the right to a fair and open trial) or a sequence of interconnected actions. Ultimately, this crisis may culminate in a challenge to the existence of a state or government; this challenge may take the form of substantial civil disobedience (as happened in France in May 1968), or it may be more violent.

According to the literature in the social sciences, terrorism has been utilised in response to analogous situations. In contrast, legitimacy is a challenging and complex term with legal, political, and moral ramifications. After establishing legitimacy as a crucial aspect in the struggle between governments and terrorist organisations, so, it is not unexpected that social scientists avoid discussing the issue.

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Global Terrorist Trends 2020 to 2022: An analysis

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Over the years, the surging global trends have assumed varying characteristics between 2020 and 2022. While on the one hand, negotiations between the state apparatus and terrorists have become normalised and a part of the international relations conducted in Africa and South-Central Asia. On the other hand, the non-state actors, having accumulated far-reaching influence and fear factor, have now audaciously challenged the state’s integrity and thereby compel the government of the day to heed to its demands, from the bottom-up to the top-down.

On the other hand, far-right and politically charged acts of terrorism have primarily swept away the traditional Islamist jihadist threats facing the West without wholly diluting its essence. In contrast, the narratives about accelerationism, the great replacement theory, and video games as a radicalisation toolkit have become vital to analysing the first world’s developing security challenges.

Negotiating with terrorists: The Malian way

Amid the widening rift with the French, the Malian junta has presumably sought to acquire an alternative, even a disagreeable partner, to diminish the locals’ growing angst and frustration at continuing violence and insecurity. Accordingly, the Malian leadership is reportedly in the works of negotiating a deal with Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), an Al-Qaeda affiliate and the most rapidly expanding terrorist outfit worldwide. This step has presumably been initiated as part of the government’s last-ditch attempt to retain power and bring the ravaging war, from 2017 onwards to an end.

Analysts like Wassim Nasr believe that the already strained relationship between the Malian junta burdened with multiple economic embargoes and President Emmanuel Macron hit its rock bottom due to the prospect of a ceasefire between the government and the terrorists. He claims

“Negotiations were the last affront for France and, in the current context, it is the junta’s last card to play. But even if the negotiations ultimately fail, a ceasefire would allow the junta to boast that it has facilitated the return of displaced populations or that it has enabled a particular village to stop being encircled by the jihadists and that is what counts for the local people.”

In central Mali, several tribal leaders have signed what crudely termed as “survival pacts” with JNIM fighters in the absence of effective army control and destabilising security situation countrywide.

To preserve peace and prevent the killing of ordinary civilians and the looting of cattle by the jihadists, the communities have collectively sought to achieve a fragile but ongoing truce with this deadly terrorist organisation. However, while freedoms have been put aside to eliminate violence by the terrorists, the hard-won stability does not appear to be taken for granted. Some of these tribal heads have now called upon the government to officially open a channel for negotiations with JNIM, including them and clerics. Whether or not this will be mainstreamed and eventually bear fruit is still debated.

The Afghan-Central Asian quicksand

As the Afghan example suggests, the US-led attempts to negotiate a dignified exit from its longest-running war after 2001 also normalised diplomatic engagement with insurgents-turned administrators. Most states globally have exercised caution in granting official recognition to the Taliban’s interim government. Nonetheless, their continued engagement, beginning with the Doha agreement signed in February 2020 or the Troika Plus Meeting held in Moscow, has de facto accorded an informal diplomatic status to Afghanistan’s new regime.

A country undergoing a multifaceted human security crisis as Afghanistan is bound to be the forerunner on the Global Terrorism Index report. The internalised violent rivalry between the Taliban and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), with a potential for spillover, has added to the Afghans’ chaos and instability, especially in the Shia Hazara community, frequently jolted by bloodshed and insecurity. Moreover, replacing the Taliban as the deadliest terrorist organisation in 2021, the ISKP has continued to stage the ground for a protracted conflict locally while attempting to permeate the Central Asian borders, including those of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

It has also tried to depict any cooperation between the Taliban and the Uzbeks as a betrayal on the former’s part for colluding with a country that it accuses of being Islam’s enemy and for being heretics. Furthermore, while the outfit is hailing the allegedly recent attack on the Tajik soil as the initiation of its parent organisation’s “great jihad to Central Asia,” its association with hardened Tajik jihadists goes back to their recruitment by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and Afghanistan in 2015.

According to a Voice of America report unveiled in April 2022, the ISKP claimed to have staged ten rocket attacks, targeting the Uzbek territory, particularly a military facility in Termez. Although the Uzbek government swiftly refuted this assertion, the SITE Intelligence Group, a non-governmental organisation that tracks jihadist and white supremacist outfits’ online terrorist propaganda, has published alleged pictures supporting the ISKP’s audacious claims.

Since the fall of the Ghani administration in August 2021, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries have apprehensively looked at the evolving trends. This comes amid the growing tensions between the Taliban’s interim government and the Tajik leaders over the latter’s assistance to the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. Its torchbearers like Ahmed Shah Massoud and Amrullah Saleh are ethnic Tajiks.

The never-ending Pakistani crises

On the other hand, the evolving terrorist trends have also included Pakistan’s domestic crisis and its confrontation with the TTP. The TTP is the Pakistani branch of the Afghan Taliban. It has waged a protracted armed battle against the host state, with some of its earlier attacks, like the massacre at an army school in Peshawar in December 2014, resulting in hundreds of school children and teachers’ deaths. However, last year, after the one-month ceasefire broke down in December 2021, it had intensified its attrition. While this temporary ceasefire agreement failed to materialise into a more permanent initiative, it reinforced the normalisation of negotiating with proscribed groups and terrorists. Nonetheless, it set the stage for a probable return to negotiations with the Afghan Taliban mediating the talks based on a similar format.

Since the beginning of May 2022, the state and TTP have been re-engaged in discussions, albeit constantly arriving at a stalemate due to demands that neither side can appear to agree to. For example, end to military operations in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas and halting attacks on Pakistani installations. Over the past month, they have extended the ceasefire thrice. This time, they have done so for an indefinite period, after the last one expired on 30 May. A three-member committee to iron out differences, moderated by Sirajuddin Haqqani, has also been formed.

Pakistani officials have claimed that over 100 officers have lost their lives in TTP attacks since 2022. This is only a minuscule sample size to understand the gravity of the situation wholly. However, the state establishment has found it increasingly challenging to convince its Afghan compatriots to rein in the TTP as it had hoped and give it some respite to shift its focus to the deteriorating economic crisis.

However, the persevering patron-client ties now face the hurdle of overcoming what appears to be a nearly-insurmountable roadblock. Despite repeated requests by the Pakistani leadership, the de facto Afghan rulers have refused to cooperate on severing ties with the TTP and instead sought to militarily engage with armed forces in constructing fences along the contested Durand Line. Furthermore, an internationalised diplomatic crisis has ensued due to Pakistani forces’ “counter-terrorism operations” in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost and Kunar provinces in April 2022. Reportedly to eliminate TTP jihadists, the airstrikes killed at least 47 civilians, including 20 children.  In such instances, counter-terrorism strategies are intertwined to penalise neighbouring states who refuse to conform to patron countries’ demands.

When terrorism comes to the West: The United States, the UK, Germany, and Canada

  • The United States of America

The Capitol Hill Riots organised in January 2020 to protests against those who “stole” the election, or the most recent targeted killings of African-Americans by Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white supremacist and conspiracy theorist, in a prominently African-American neighbourhood supermarket in Buffalo, New York, reveal the country’s diverse security challenges. They are driven by the deep-rooted paranoia associated with the Great Replacement Theory – a conspiracy theory touted by ultra-right white supremacists according to whom the “superior” race, i.e., the white community in the Western world, is threatened by the immigration of non-whites, which will result in the former’s extinction.

Additionally, although not directly linked to a terrorist ideology, accelerationism, is a loophole that ought to be remedied at urgent notice. Its proponents believe that it is obligatory for the alt-right white nationalists to violently ensure the liberal democratic order’s destruction to make way for an order dominated by them to emerge. Ethnic and racial minorities, Jews, “race traitors” such as whites indulging in inter-racial relationships must also be wholly wiped out. Furthermore, it is unsurprising that such distorted notions have gained prominence during the pandemic, convincing a segment of the population that migrants and Jews bear responsibility for the spread of this infectious disease.

Seth Aaron Pendley is currently serving a ten-year imprisonment sentence for plotting to blow up an Amazon data centre, driven by the farce idea that this act would disrupt most of the internet and federal agencies’ digital communication services. He believed that the fallout would have such a devastating impact on the Americans’ lives that they would violently rise against the “dictatorship.”

On the other hand, in November 2021, a large-scale shooting at the Oxford High School in Michigan has become the first even to be categorised by prosecutors as an act of domestic terrorism in the country. The mass violence and fear generated by one of the several incidents related to gun violence in the United States has relatively convinced the authorities that acts of terrorism, whether committed by Islamist jihadists or a high school teenager, should be placed and judged within the same paradigm. Whether it was 9/11 or blood spilled at an academic institution and a supermarket, these events fulfilled some of the essential criteria of terrorism

“Any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”

  • The United Kingdom

Violence linked to alt-right ideologies has catapulted, including in the United Kingdom (UK), according to the Metropolitan (Met) Police’s Assistant Commissioner, Matt Jukes. 41 percent of arrested individuals in 2021 comprised of those affiliated with or ideologically inclined towards the alt-right. Last year, a 13-year-old teenager was arrested on charges of trying to make a bomb.

However, the Islamist jihadist threat has not waned yet in the UK. Three arrests – a 13 and an 18-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl – have been made by the police during a week on terrorism-related charges in May 2022. Although their investigations are currently viewed independently for the moment, Richard Smith, Commander of Met’s Counter-Terrorism Command Centre, has claimed that –

“It is a further indication of a concerning upward trend in police action against younger people for terrorism-related matters.”

Moreover, Prevent, a core component of the British government’s counter-terrorism, counter-radicalisation strategy, has also struggled to address the loopholes in its countrywide de-radicalisation programmes. For example, Sir David Amess, a former parliamentarian, was assassinated in October 2021 by Ali Harbi Ali, an Islamist terrorist who was once a part of this initiative.

  • Germany

In 2020, violent right-wing extremist incidents across Germany reached a two-decade high. The past statistics indicated that 23,064 alt-right-related crimes accounted for all politically-motivated crimes during that year, with an increase of 18.8 percent in violent hate crimes, including attempted murders and fatal injuries. In addition, January 2020 witnessed a racially-motivated attack against the country’s only serving black member of the Bundestag (the German federal parliament), Dr. Karamba Diaby, when his car was found riddled with five bullet holes. A week after that incident, he received a threatening email warning that he would meet the same fate as Herr Lübcke (details mentioned below).

In March of that year, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution – The German Domestic Intelligence Services) placed the alt-right Alternative für Deutschland’s (Alternative for Germany) influential party leaders under surveillance and categorically defined it as an extremist organisation. According to Herr Thomas Haldenwang, the Intelligence Chief, at least 200 lives have been lost due to right-wing extremism between the German re-unification and March 2020.

Furthermore, one must also consider two significant far-right attacks – The deadly Hanau shooting in February 2020, where nine people died and five suffered injuries by Tobias Rathjen, a right-wing ideologue driven by anti-Semitic sentiments. Even though his letters detailing his chilling thoughts had been delivered to the state authorities, no action had been taken. Following his rampage, he murdered his mother and committed suicide after returning home. This was preceded by the assassination of Walter Lübcke, a politician from Hesse, in June 2019, who was targeted by Stephen Ernst, a neo-Nazi, due to his pro-refugee stance.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian war appears to have given the German neo-Nazis a fresh impetus to advocate for their ideological aspirations –  

“When Putin marches through, men will again be men, electricity and fuel will become cheaper, Islamization will end, and the greens and lefties will all be locked up.”

This message appeared on Free Thuringians, an alt-right extremist groups’ Telegram channel.

  • Canada

The threat analysis report released by the federal administration’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre in 2021 warned that authorities’ ability to detect potential attacks committed by such religiously or ideologically motivated groupings or persons has become challenging. For example, there are hundreds of alt-right outfits across the country. Unsurprisingly, law enforcement and security personnel find it difficult to narrow down and clamp down on at-risk individuals and groups.

Furthermore, as Jessica Davis, a former Senior Intelligence Analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has aptly pointed out, while a considerable segment of radicalised people is active on social media platforms only a minority of them genuinely translate their views into threatening actions, the “challenge is really figuring out who in that big bucket is actually going to do something.” The pandemic has also witnessed a surge in neo-Nazi activities, predominantly hate crimes, as targeted violence against the Black community in Canada has catapulted by more than 96 percent, with analogies being drawn with the Buffalo shooting in the United States of America.

Conclusion

Terrorist threats have magnified over the past few years, gradually subsuming efforts to prioritise socio-economic development, particularly in fragile states. Namely, Mali is still struggling to address the local grievances and is unable to develop and implement a multi-pronged counter-terrorism strategy that works. This has forced the government’s hand and compelled it to potentially strike a peace deal with the terrorists. In addition, the efforts to do so have intensified amid the inevitable French withdrawal from the Malian territory and the desire to secure peace and stability. However, one could also assert that, like Mali, Afghanistan also served as the theatre of negotiations to end the “forever wars.”

Unstable countries in the Sahel region, including Mali, have eclipsed West Asia and North Africa region, and Afghanistan, in the at-risk category. On the other hand, according to the Global Terrorism Index Report 2022, Afghanistan has retained its place as the worst impacted by this menace third year in a row. 

Concurrently, one must remember that Afghanistan’s position has been cemented primarily because of its humanitarian and security quagmire. It is confronted with numerous challenges –  the absence of adequate funds to run the country and provide essential services and security, in addition to brain drain and the threat of a booming narco-terror economy looming ahead. The trajectory it will take is debatable despite numerous dialogues and conferences focused on its emanating issues being organised worldwide.  

Additionally, Pakistan also sought to adopt a similar playbook to halt, even partially, the radicalised elements,’ including those belonging to the Taliban’s Pakistan branch’s advance. The army and intelligence agencies have faced this mounting dilemma despite their long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban. Their radicalisation occurred in the Pakistani madrassas over two decades ago. It retained the support of subsequent governments during their insurgency against Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s administrations and the international coalition forces. As explained Sami Yousufzai, an Afghan journalist –

“Pakistan is angry that the Taliban are copying its playbook by hosting a militant group hostile to a neighbouring country.”

Invariably, such sentiments will remain unchanged because the subsequent Afghan governments are unlikely to compromise on their jihadist principles to such an extent. They are already under severe strain due to reported Uyghur defections to the ISKP and criticism for parlaying with the West. Betraying their TTP brethren would unravel the fundamental argument for waging the bloody insurgency to replace the American-backed administrations and replace them with an Islamic system based on Sharia. A group whose inability to secure the country from ISKP attacks or to overcome the humanitarian catastrophe amid the pandemic would not survive such an overreaching compromise of their Islamic beliefs. Like the Afghan Taliban, the TTP also seeks to violently overthrow the existing state infrastructure and replace it with a Sharia-backed Islamic government.

Alt-right terrorism and conspiracy theories have increasingly gained ground among the new breed of terrorists in the western world. The Great Replacement Theory is at the core of emerging security challenges. However, developed countries have also continued to experience its fallout, rapidly shifting its course from Islamist threats to alt-right domestic violent extremism or politically motivated violence. For example, first-world countries such as the United States of America have realised that individuals who are generally the amalgamation of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists pose some of the most significant domestic threats to the nation-state.

Despite emerging as the European powerhouse over the last few years, Germany has been compelled to navigate challenges of politically-motivated terrorism, frequently attributed to the alt-right ideology. As per official accounts, it is believed to have recorded at least 19 such attacks, surpassing those anywhere in the western world. A substantive degree of radicalisation occurs on chat forums and video games, particularly among middle-class persons. Over time, this can take the form of politically-motivated terrorism, and the situation appears to have worsened amid the pandemic. The United Kingdom is a case in point.

The Canadian authorities, who have remained relatively immune, vis-à-vis their western counterparts to such acts of terror, have recently begun to confront security challenges posed by lone-wolf actors and small-scale organisations.

On the other hand, while the Covid restrictions have constrained people’s ability to participate in physical meetings and engage in activities intended to cause tangible harm, hours spent traversing through online forums have spurred alt-right radicalisation and continued to inspire lone-wolf attacks. The targets of attacks are often those who are considered a threat to white supremacy, either due to their racial or religious attributes, and “race traitors.”

Nevertheless, catapulting alt-right tendencies in the West cannot dilute the threat posed by Islamist jihadists. For example, the challenges associated with Prevent, a core component of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy, have recently been subjected to greater scrutiny due to its loopholes.

These overlapping conflicts are detrimental to domestic and regional security dynamics.

As has been indicated above, governments have resorted to backtracking from their ideal positions or refraining from engagement with terrorists to save face, redirect resources towards socio-economic crises engulfing their populace, or reduce fatalities of the civilians, or state personnel, including the police, and armed forces.

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Terrorism

Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday. 

“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies. 

Assault on human rights 

During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts. 

“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General. 

The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan. 

The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.” 

Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating. 

Reaffirm core values 

Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse. 

“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. 

The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people. 

This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Ensuring long-term efforts 

The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain. 

In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”  

Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces. 

“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens.  That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said. 

“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Global strategy 

The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.   

Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism. 

Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner. 

The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities. 

The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.  

“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said. 

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