Can Europe Make It?

The Islamic State and radicalisation: the need for informed opinion and proportion

Tough grandstanding, as when London Mayor Boris Johnson called for the reversal of the legal presumption of innocence when Britons are caught travelling to Iraq and Syria, is dangerous and counter-productive.

Chris Chaplin
22 October 2014

Protest outside Regent's Park Mosque, London. Demotix/Guy Corbishley. Some rights reserved.

The continued territorial expansion of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, combined with allegations that several hundred British citizens are now within its ranks, raises some hard questions as to the ideological, humanitarian and strategic threat the movement represents. Politicians and activists of all stripes have rightly raised their concerns over the movement and on 24 September the UN Security Council passed a resolution that underscored the need to prevent travel and support for IS foreign fighters.

In the UK, the need to stem the spectre of radicalisation has led the UK home secretary Theresa May to support measures to ban ‘extremist’ literature and increase surveillance while security services have been busy arresting suspected would-be terrorists.

While these actions underline the pertinence of home grown radicalisation, they are also predominantly reactive in nature rather than based on a proactive long-term de-radicalisation strategy. Policy makers are frequently failing – at least in their public rhetoric - to move beyond either criminological narratives concerning the movement’s supporters or outmoded ideas of radicalisation based on the idea of territorial-based terrorist ‘cells.’  

Indeed, although the Syria conflict has led to the greatest influx of would-be fighters since the Afghan war against the USSR, we need to be cognisant of its dynamics. IS recruitment is far more multi-layered than the concept of coherent but decentralised ‘cells’ – characteristic of al-Qaeda - would imply. It is, first and foremost, predominantly regional, facilitated through pre-established ‘radical’ networks whose members may support IS due to ideological overlap between their own Salafi-Jihadist convictions and the movement.

In comparison, European support is predominantly facilitated not through physical networks but via online pundits, preachers and authors – none of whom are often directly linked to IS. Rather, they facilitate contact within online Jihadist forums and chat-rooms, framing the movement as a global political cause.   

Multi-layered recruitment – international and local differences

The use of western spokesmen and executioners by the IS has, rightly, stirred anxieties as to the impact and global dynamics of the movement. Yet we must not over-emphasise the centrality of their anti-western concerns. Olivier Roy – a renowned expert on political Islam – has cautioned us not to understand IS as a hostile alternative to the west. Rather, he believes it to be a ‘reterritorialisation’ of non-localised radical agents - the latest embodiment of an al-Qaeda ideology that, he continues, will inevitably unravel as they attempt to enforce their globalist ideology on local communities.

Roy’s insight is enlightening, not least as it touches upon the use of social media by IS as well as the importance of the Internet in recruitment; but we must add greater flesh to this analysis. IS have an incredibly active media wing, the I’tisaam Media Foundation, which circulates communiqués, videos, follows online discussion and also publishes annual reports covering IS activities. However, information targeting European based would-be supporters is frequently not disseminated directly. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Violence has, for example, reported that a good proportion of western fighters received information via individual online supporters not directly linked to the movement.[1]

These disseminators, who romanticise Jihad-Salafist ideology, are not explicitly linked to the IS, but rather act as mediums through which potential supporters can gain wider access to online forums, communities and literature. While they include a number of tech-savvy promoters, they are also backed by a number of ‘spiritual authorities’ like US-based Ahmad Musa Jibril and Musa Cerantonio, who provide unofficial support for the movements ‘religio-political’ credentials.[2]

Further, it is through the Internet that much Salafi-Jihadist literature that ‘frames’ the current Syria crisis in easy to grasp political terms is accessed. For instance, the popular tract, Abdullah bin Muhammad’s the ‘Two Arm Strategy’ by an al-Qaeda ideologue (not affiliated with IS) is increasingly popular amongst would-be Jihadists; arguing that the Arab Spring has provided the right mix of chaos to allow Jihadi’s to build a caliphate and gain popularity by answering to the humanitarian and security needs of the civilian population.

Consequently, we must not view western radicalisation as either coordinated or somewhat endemic within Muslim communities and mosques. It is virtual and, while disseminators may provide linkages and moral assistance to facilitate travel to the region, predominantly conducted on an individual level. More so, the reliance of tech-savvy online pundits and political tracts like the ‘Two Arm Strategy’ may underline a clear line of Jihadi thinking but it also attests to how little actual expertise of Islamic sciences is needed to understand the movement’s anti-western ethos. Unlike the apolitical Salafism promoted by Saudi Arabia, or even the concept of the Caliphate endorsed by Hizbut Tahrir (who condemn the IS), the ideas of IS don’t require years of religious learning amongst lay sympathisers.

In contrast the main thrust of IS – both in terms of expansion and recruitment – remains regionally focused. Its popularity plays on both a crisis in religio-political authority amongst disgruntled political Islamists as well as the hyper-sectarian cleavages of war torn Syria and Iraq.

This is of little surprise given the fact that the movement can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Jordanian Salafi-Jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi created the al-Tawhid al-Jihad. Although al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and his group heavily diminished during the US surge, it was never completely wiped out. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became its leader in 2010, it re-emerged from its strongholds in Nineveh Governate - capitalising on the hostility many felt towards the sectarian policies of the former Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki towards Sunni communities.

As what is now the Islamic State expanded its operations into Syria, it played on ideological overlaps between its own Salafi-Jihadist ideology and that of al-Qaeda. Certainly, the two should not be conflated; there has been notable hostility between IS and the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al Sham. Yet, it has built links amongst Salafi-Jihadist organisations in order to challenge (although not eclipse) the authority of al-Qaeda. For instance, members of Anshar al-Sharia Tunisia and Libya, two groups officially affiliated to al-Qaeda, have seen many of their rank and file join IS divisions, while the Iraqi Jama’at Anshar al-Islam have almost ceased to exist thanks to the defection of many of its fighters. It is from these groups, several of whose members have already seen direct conflict that IS receives the bulk of its foreign fighters. 

Rethinking radicalisation policies  

This leads us to the crux of any domestic and/or global response to IS and radicalisation – understanding and proportion. Politicians are right to point out the criminal element of radicalisation but tough grandstanding, as when London Mayor Boris Johnson called for the reversal of the legal presumption of innocence when Britons are caught traveling to Iraq and Syria, is dangerous and counter-productive.

Indeed, as IS western supporters tend to mix simplistic Islamic concepts with political generalisations, ideas such as Johnson’s can easily confirm suspicions that the west applies one set of standards for themselves and another for Muslims.

Rather than pander to the rhetoric of inapprehensible terror plots at the expense of civil liberties, our approach to IS must include constructive public dialogue, engagement with potential Jihadists, as well as finding adequate ways to facilitate the return and fair trial of returnees. Government programs such as the Channel program – that identifies ‘at risk’ individuals - as well as the willingness to learn from the successful German Hayat program are a positive step. But pundits must not, as Roy reminds us, inflate the image into an anti-Western alternative, but rather condemn its regionalist ambitions.

It is telling that several Britons already wish to return home, apparently disillusioned with the movement. [3] Indeed, IS’s expansion undermines its own ‘global’ ideological underpinnings as frequently its actions include fighting other Sunni Muslims – including Salafi’s and Salafi-Jihadists. Pointing out these discrepancies is important in stemming its political appeal, but also offers a timely lesson: we must also take care not to undermine our own basic concepts of human rights at the expense of fear-mongering and anti-Muslim bigotry.

[1] International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Violence, Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks, 2014

[2] International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Violence, Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks, 2014

[3]ISIS: ‘Disillusioned’ British Jihadists in Syria Want Safe ReturnInternational Business Times, 5 Sep 2014

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