Iraqi soldiers fire a rocket against Islamic State fighters as part of efforts to retake the Baiji oil refinery. Baiji, Iraq, April 16, 2015. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi soldiers fire a rocket against Islamic State fighters as part of efforts to retake the Baiji oil refinery. Baiji, Iraq, April 16, 2015. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

Counterterrorism policy is always preoccupied with fighting the last battle, according to Mohamed-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Deputy Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and Adjunct Professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. “Clearly counterterrorism has been improving in the past couple of years given the magnitude of the threat, but we still are not able, I think, to be proactive,” he said.

Mr. Mohamedou said one thing that people should understand about the most prominent new terrorist group, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), is that it is “not a passing fad.”

“There is something deeper going on here, because you have the combination of a number of things which give us a bit of a perfect storm,” he said, noting that the situations in Iraq and Syria, the legacy of al-Qaeda, and the emergence of an unprecedented number of global fighters all contributed to the group’s rise.

Mr. Mohamedou said there are two levels to the context in which terrorism arises: “On the one hand, you have a continuing historical challenge—essentially terrorism as a modern phenomenon…There is a process by which you see the manifestation of this type of violence undermine the functioning of societies around the world.

“The second level is the specifics of the here and now. This is the other aspect of terrorism that every new generation gives it a certain latest version.”

Mr. Mohamedou said multilateral approaches provide one way to address terrorism, with the involvement of states, international civil society, and think tanks. “All of this will give us multiple entry points, which will at least enable a better understanding and hopefully a better policymaking,” he said.

This interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute, as part of a series of interviews conducted on the margins of the third retreat of the International Commission on Multilateralism, which focused on terrorism and was held on April 10-11.

Listen to interview:


To take stock of what drives terrorism today, what should international actors look at?

The first thing to keep in mind is the complexity of the nature of terrorism itself. We can speak of it in the singular or we can take a step back and see how much of a plurality there is. And so the idea is to see in recent years how fast the question of political violence, which is the other name of terrorism, has showed up at the forefront of the news agenda. Clearly, this is a post-9/11 development, but we’re going through another one these days of course with the whole discussion around the Islamic State.

I would say that what we have seen is some sort of continuity in terms of the challenges that are posed by extremist political violence to societies around the world—this is the process of radicalization that ends up targeting civilians, but around this we have also the transformation of a number of political groups as well.

Earlier you spoke about both the evolution and the context of terrorism. So what is that context that you were referring to?

This is the heart of the question. There are two levels to the process of terrorism. On the one hand, you have a continuing historical challenge; essentially terrorism as a modern phenomenon, [from the] late 19th century throughout the 20th and early 21st century. There is a process by which you see the manifestation of this type of violence undermines the functioning of societies around the world, and this is a complex matter to deal with because you have vectors that are remaining the same. This is how individuals or groups, organizations gradually drift through some sort of ideology, whatever the ideology, and then start resorting to that.

The second level is the specifics of the here and now. This is the other aspect of terrorism: that every new generation gives it a certain latest version, shall we say. We see this with a number of waves. In terrorology we call them the four different waves—the anarchist one, the nationalist one, in the 1970s the radical-left wing extremist, and then since the early 80s the religiously-oriented one. Arguably we are, in the 2010s, facing the emergence of another such wave, which I would describe as a combination of the legacy of al-Qaeda, that is the type of transnational projection, but on the other hand you have also some sort of updating of that with what ISIS is doing—mainly the combination with territoriality.

What should international actors know about ISIS to understand terrorism more broadly today?

They should realize how important ISIS is. ISIS is not a passing fad—it is not the latest group that we have to think of, such as AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) two years ago, Boko Haram for the past year. There is something deeper going on here because you have the combination of a number of things which give us a bit of a perfect storm. What does ISIS ultimately want?

On the one hand, you have an Iraqi story, which is a big component of this—this is the post-2003 situation in that country, the gradual degeneration after the [former Iraqi prime minister] Maliki management of that. ISIS is also a Syrian story—that is an Iraqi gone to Syria and back story. You have the global nature of it, you have the legacy and the imprint of al-Qaeda, which is undeniable, the references to bin Laden, the references to al-Zarqawi as the mentors of the group are right there, and you have also finally the emergence of this unprecedented global fighters wave going in. All of that gives you something which is of a specific nature. Add to this the territoriality. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to begin with, gives you the specific location—it becomes the Islamic State, but that combination makes it a bit of a hybrid, which I think is only dealt with partially in the conceptualization of it.

In the face of all of those complexities, do you see opportunities to improve or reframe multilateral approaches to counter terrorism or violent extremism?

Well there’s no other choice is there? This is what policy-makers have to do to deal with this level of violence and threat, but I do believe that dealing with this starts with a proper understanding, a proper conceptualization. Anti-terrorism is always fighting the last battle, we’re always catching up. This is a common theme in those types of policies. What can be done this time around is to learn from 10 years of post-9/11 and draw some lessons on what has been done properly and not.

Clearly counterterrorism has been improving in the past couple of years given the magnitude of the threat, but we still are not able, I think, to be proactive. Look at the sophistication of ISIS’s media operation. One of the ways to conceptualize this is to think of counterterrorism inevitably going through multilateral approaches, which is not just cooperation among states, it’s also the conceptualization. It’s the involvement of international civil society, it’s the involvement of think tanks that are able to analyze these things in a de-politicized way. All of this will give us multiple entry points, which will at least enable a better understanding and hopefully a better policymaking on this.