Hydra: The Evolving Anatomy of Extremism

War against extremist groups cannot be won in a traditional sense, writes Dr. Christina Schori Liang.

A persistent global jihadist threat

The “global war on terror,” which had as its goal to prevent another 9/11 terrorist attack, has instead increased international insecurity worldwide. Since 2001, the number of Salafi-jihadist groups has more than doubled, their membership has tripled, and they are present in more countries than ever before. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) still has considerable resources, and it has called upon its dispersed legions and Internet-inspired adherents to “organise, arm, and fund” new terror operations to avenge the fall of the caliphate.

The predominant threat to multiple states is transnational militant Salafi-jihadists who are calling for offensive jihad (holy war) in the hopes of overthrowing apostate states in order to create caliphates and practice sharia law. The Jihadist movement has proven resilient in the Middle East, parts of the Sahel, North Africa and the Horn of Africa, as well as South Asia.

A United States Institute of Peace study has suggested that Western intervention has helped increase domestic religious terrorism in states with high Muslim populations, especially in states experiencing conflict. Foreign interventions have weakened state institutions, making states more vulnerable to conflict, crime and terror.

Salafi-Jihadists groups are proving to be an enduring global security threat due to the following trends:

  1. The Sunni-Shia conflict that overlaps with the Saudi-Iran regional proxy wars playing out in Syria and Yemen and elsewhere.
  2. State collapse across the Middle East and North Africa, most extensively in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
  3. ISIL’s ability to maintain its affiliate structure even after losing its so-called caliphate. It still has the loyalty of more than a dozen “provinces” in West Africa and the Khorasan (parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and some neighbours), as well as a new Central African “province” that was recently announced.
  4. Thousands of trained combat veterans that fought from 2012-2018 in Salafi-Jihadist battle spaces, who represent a new cadre of fighters who are relocating into new conflict zones.
  5. Climate change which has destroyed livelihoods helps drive recruitment because terrorist groups have been using access to food and water as either a weapon or a tool of war.
  6. The withdrawal of US troops in Syria not only may increase the risk of an ISIL resurgence in Syria but may also increase the terrorist threat in Europe due to escaping high risk prisoners from Kurdish-run prisons in Syria.
  7. Turkey’s invasion into Syria to attack the YPG is shifting the YPG’s focus from fighting ISIL to fighting Turkey.

A new right-wing renaissance

It is important to note that terrorism is also symptomatic of a wider disease of extremism and hate which is escalating worldwide in many different guises. While populist right-wing extremism has been growing since 20007, right-wing terrorism dwindled in the wake of 9/11. In recent years, however, far-right extremist groups and white supremacy groups (WSG) are on the rise in Europe and elsewhere. According to Katherine Belew, terrorist attacks by WSG’s in the US has been the dominant form of terrorism in the US over the past ten years.

WSGs are posing a transnational challenge and are forming global networks that reach from Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine to Norway. These groups will likely persist and grow, driven by ongoing conflicts, the racist and Islamophobic rhetoric of populist politicians worldwide and growing migration.

Separatist far-right militias are fighting in Eastern Ukraine and are using it as a training ground for further action in Europe. They are gaining foreign fighters, forming global networks, and are learning from jihadi-terrorist tactics. According to the Soufan Group, more than 17,000 people from 50 countries have travelled to fight in Eastern Ukraine contributing to both Ukrainian nationalist and pro-Russian separatist sides.

Despite their ideological differences, Salafi-Jihadism and far-right groups share commonalities. They derive their strength from a similar narrative, believing they are in the midst of an existential crisis that threatens their way of life, and that the only path to ensure self-preservation is violence. Offshoots of both have apocalyptic ideologies. Both have demonstrated that their aim is to inflict mass casualties and create and exacerbate divisions within countries. Julia Ebner’s research documenting incidents across the US, Australia, France, Germany and the UK have shown that far-right and Salafi-Jihadist terrorism attacks tend to spike at the same time creating a circle of rage and terror.

The digital battlefront

21st century technology is offering terrorists new means for military operations. Multiple terrorist groups are buying and engineering drones for reconnaissance operations or to carry small munitions and IEDs. Drones could potentially be used to take down planes, as well as to disperse chemical and biological weapons in large public spaces. In 2018, one serious attempt at a large scale bio attack using ricin was foiled in Germany.

Information warfare and cyber operations, however, are proving to be terrorists’ most valuable weapon. ISIL is building a cyber army to conduct cyber warfare against the West. In 2016, ISIL united five distinct hacking groups into a “United Cyber Caliphate”. It has been publishing kill lists and distributing guidelines on terror and cyber operations. With the growing nexus of crime and terror, terrorists are conducting secret transactions and buying untraceable firearms online.

There is concern that these groups will have access to powerful criminal warfare via the dark web to attack critical infrastructure. Much of the cyber threat focused on military, critical infrastructure and commercial targets in the West is developed by so-called Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups who not only work for states but freelance as well. If al-Qaeda or ISIL were able to buy cyber attack capabilities, then large swathes of critical infrastructure could be attacked, including critical power grids.

Tahrir al-Sham, a merger of al-Nusra Front and others, is representative of a new amplified digital threat. Intelligence experts maintain that with a limited number of dedicated actors, this group could take down power grids, G.P.S. and satellite communications.

Tahrir is using platforms like Sarahah to send messages anonymously to one person—they test messages to targeted audiences to find which ones resonate and retool those that don’t. Tahrir is experimenting with an app that reaches 16 million youth, the top download in over 25 countries. They claimed to have recruited a dozen fighters in six hours with a new crowd sourcing approach using Telegram.

Multiple terrorist groups are infiltrating the whole ecosystem of cyberspace. The Irish Republican Army used to boast that “We only need to be lucky once; you need to be lucky all the time.” The maxim holds true in the internet age: one influencer, one video, or one manifesto, can have global repercussions. A prime example was the far-right white supremacist who killed 51 people at a Christchurch mosque in March 2019, when he e-mailed his 74-page manifesto and live-streamed his attack on Facebook where it was shared 1.5 million times.”

ISIL has also turned to video games to attract youth. ISIL is copying the aesthetic of first person shooter games such as Call of Duty to recruit. This allows ISIL to tap into approximately 57% of the two billion who play shooter games, most who represent their demographic target — young, male and technologically savvy. Their recruitment videos are a “visual dog whistle” to this gaming demographic.

Emerging narratives: Global civil war

Maajid Nawaz argues that “ISIL seeks not to spark a World War but to ignite a World Civil War. He points to the online playbook of Al-Qaeda’s propaganda head Abu Bakr Al Naji: The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass. It maintains that in a state of chaos and savagery, even the strongest militaries can be defeated because ‘Overwhelming military power (weapons, technology, fighters) has no value without the cohesion of society’ and may in fact ‘become a cure to the great superpower.’

According to Weiss and Hassan, Abu Bakr al-Naji has conceived an effective battle plan for weakening the enemy states through what he called “power of vexation and exhaustion” by making use of local frustrations, propaganda and political violence among the people, with the aim of provoking savagery. States will respond with even more violence and eventually governments and their partners will have lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of their people.

Behavioural research by Scott Atran in conflict zones, maintains “that sacred values such as national liberation, God and Caliphate, mobilised by devoted actors, empowers low-power groups. They are able to prevail against materially more powerful armies that rely on standard incentives such as pay, promotion and punishment.”

Killing the hydra

Terrorism is like a hydra which sprouts multiple heads. We can attempt to destroy the threat with kinetic power and drone attacks, but according to Ali Soufan, “the real battle lies in the battle of ideas and the methods that terrorists are using to recruit, if we are not able to counter those, this war will never end.” Counterterrorism efforts therefore should concentrate on combatting effective extremist narratives and their means of delivery via communication technologies.

The modus operandi of the US and its alliance partners has been to measure the “tangible” capabilities of ISIL and other global Salafi-Jihadist groups including territorial control, manpower, finances, and equipment. However, the coalition has not yet been able to understand and fully grasp the “intangible soft power” of ISIL. Joseph Nye, the architect of the term “soft power,” defines it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.”

To counter the entire global Salafi-Jihad movement, we must understand the ideology guiding it before deciding how to properly address it. These groups are multifaceted; they don’t just call for jihad, they also take credit for new roads, clinics, schools, water systems that were constructed and paid by the West to win new followers.

War against extremists groups cannot be “won” in the traditional sense. Since their ideology provides a long-term strategy and justification for global jihadi way into the future, that cannot be easily countered with military action, especially not by external Western forces. Moreover, support for terrorist groups today is also a reflection of a multitude of human security factors — social, economic, and political, stemming from crime to climate change that cannot be “neutralised” with fire power.

In 2001, David Arquillo correctly predicted that in the future “netwar” will become a policy tool of choice for terrorists, transnational criminals and revolutionary organisations. Strong netwar actors will not only have organisational, but also doctrinal, technological and social layers that will bolster their power. While ISIL is far from being the first extremist movement to combine terrorism with grandiose ambitions and territorial control, it is one of the first groups that has managed to embrace the digital domain so strategically. It marks a completely new global phenomenon by changing the importance of the military theatre into the digital domain. In some instances, the World Wide Web has become more powerful than governments, explaining why repressive dysfunctional governments afflicted by protests usually attempt to turn it off.

Stephan Walt and others have argued that “Revolutions pose serious dangers only when they involve great powers, since only great powers have proved capable of spreading revolutionary principles.” This argument does not take into consideration the growing power of digital domains. ISIL may not have the backing of a great power, but it has the backing of a 5th military domain of “virtual power” this still needs to be acknowledged by military strategists. Instead of being dependent on one nation, they can crowd source “all nations” to harvest foreign fighters, cyber-mercenaries, e-terrorists and digital currencies to create not only a real caliphate but also a virtual united cyber caliphate.

In this new security threat landscape driven by virtual extremists, hackers, bloggers and YouTubers, militaries lack the necessary skills to stop extremists from hijacking technology, tech firms and their associated ecosystem of influencers, fans, publishers and producers to achieve their goals.

ISIL’s uses a variety of platforms and has autonomous production units worldwide. It utilises narrowcasting – creating content that caters to niche audiences and hotspot-mapping social media programmes. They discuss economic, development, portray public works projects among their military wins. In the future, all extremist groups will have greater access with 5G technology, able to access the minds and eyeballs of people across the globe.

Countering the narratives

ISIL’s communication technology delivers a coherent ideology. According to Pellerin, it combines a political narrative (a new and just world order, an expansive and global caliphate), a moral narrative (hypocrisy of the West). It uses religious narratives and it deploys sociopsychological strategies. Counter terrorist approaches will need to deploy counter-narratives that are equally sophisticated.

Policymakers will also need to address the issue of fake news. In a complex world, black-and-white narratives that eliminate all confusing grey zones can be comforting. Fake news is embraced by countries, internet entrepreneurs, and extremists who brainwash vulnerable people.

Concluding observations

In trying to stop terrorist groups from spreading, the West, and its coalition partners are finding themselves in a vicious cycle of: invade, occupy, withdraw, repeat. Netwar has given Salafi-Jihadists access to domains (air, cyber) that in the past were solely in the hands of states. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which includes Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, is working in concert to remove terrorist information. Google and Facebook are investing heavily in AI-based programmes but extremists are finding alternative ways to spread their messages. Laws have not been sufficient to keep extremists from using the internet as a strategic asset.

Europe has a big role to play in promoting its democratic values and key regulatory frameworks. EU Member states and the Commission need to strengthen their cooperation with Internet and social media companies. The US should follow the 9/11 Commission Report which recommended: “The U.S. government must define what the message is, what it stands for. We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbours. It includes respect for the rule of law, openness in discussing differences, and tolerance for opposing points of view.”

The immediate goal for weakening the growth of Salfi-Jihadist groups should be containment both on and offline. Yet beyond containment, all those countering Salafi-jihadism worldwide must also deliver an example of moral leadership and social justice and thus provide a better story.

In the long run, ISIL will not be able to achieve its goal to create a global spanning caliphate. Over time, the movement may collapse from its own excesses and internal divisions. In the short term, efforts must focus on inoculating our youth from extremism, rebuilding shattered lives and delivering much needed security, access to healthcare and education. A new Global Partnership Development Fund built on global solidarity should be designed similar to the German Marshall Fund that was created after WWII. This should be led by regional powers to ensure their own security.

Efforts should focus on key diplomatic messages that the West is not opposed to Islamic people and that the West is not trying to suppress their religion and political change. Fundamentally, people need to feel that they are in control of their destinies and that their lives matter. US Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in 1941, “that our only real enemy is hate and that our best weapon is solidarity.” It is time to build global solidarity and hope – to counter the cycle of hate, extremism and misunderstanding from continuing to shape our world.

This essay was first published in the 2019 Global Terrorism Index. The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace. 

Christina Schori Liang

Dr Christina Schori Liang has been working in the field of security policy for the past 20 years. She began her career at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) in Washington D.C., and in 1996, moved to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) where she became engaged in researching, writing and teaching. In 2012, she became the Co-Director of the New Issues in Security Course (NISC) and from 2013-2016 NISC Director. She is now leading the terrorism and organised crime cluster at the GCSP. She also designs and directs courses on “Building a National Strategy for Preventing Violent Extremism” and on “Securing Global Cities.”  Dr Liang has lectured at universities, military academies, international organisations and NGOs in over 25 countries on subjects related to terrorism and transnational organised crime. Dr Liang was an Adjunct Faculty member for Boston University from 2008-2013 and is currently a Visiting Professor at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, Paris.

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