The militant group the Islamic State has used social media, videos, and pamphlets in its recruitment efforts. Above: a screenshot from one of their videos. (YouTube)

The extremist groups gaining ground in Iraq and Syria have benefited from the Arab Spring uprisings by reframing the aspirations and disappointments of marginalized youth to gain support, said Richard Barrett in this Q&A with the Global Observatory. Mr. Barrett helped establish the system-wide United Nations working group on terrorism known as the Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force, and also served as coordinator of the UN’s al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team.

In this interview, Mr. Barrett noted the limited impact that the UN’s counterterrorism strategy has had in some countries but said that the strategy itself should not change. He also discussed the role of governments and the Islamic faith in sectarian violence.

Mr. Barrett, now Senior Vice President of the Soufan Group, was interviewed by Michael R. Snyder, research assistant with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.


A modified screen grab of the 2014 Global Peace Index. For the dynamic version that includes previous years, go here.

The 2014 Global Peace Index released its findings last month, concluding that peacefulness worldwide has dropped for the seventh straight year (the index itself started in 2007).  Daniel Hyslop, research manager for the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), which produces the index, talked to the Global Observatory last week about what that means. The interview was conducted by Ramy Srour, Assistant Web Editor at the International Peace Institute.

How does the IEP measure "peacefulness," and what would you say are some of the challenges in capturing this concept?

The definition of peace in the Global Peace Index is negative peace. And that is the absence of violence, or the absence of the fear of violence. So we're measuring direct violence. That’s in contrast to something like positive peace, which is really about the institutions, attitudes, instructions that underpin an environment that is not violent.


Iraqi Shiite tribesmen brandish their weapons as they show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces, Karbala, Iraq, June 17, 2014. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

The sudden and sweeping advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its recent announcement of an Islamic caliphate have thrown the entire Middle East region into a cloud of uncertainty. Images of ISIS forces dismantling the Sykes-Picot border posts between Syria and Iraq have cast an additional veil of doubt over prospects for long-term peace and stability. And while it remains unclear what the concrete consequences of the announcement of a caliphate will be, there are signs that ISIS’ actions are already contributing to a shift in the region’s dynamics.

How some of the key regional powers—Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—will react to the ISIS advance is tricky to predict. What is clear is that the four countries have substantial interests at stake, and ISIS’ recent gains are already pushing them to adjust accordingly, either to secure strategic gains or to avoid losing power and influence. Below are some possible implications.


Kenyan soldiers serving with AMISOM stand in front of the al-Shabaab flag painted on the wall of Kismayo airport, Somalia, October 2, 2012. (AU-UN IST Photo/Stuart Price)

It has been almost three years since Kenyan troops were deployed in neighboring Somalia to create a security buffer zone on the Somali side of the border. The main aim at the time was to reduce growing insecurity in Kenya, which has affected the country’s economy—especially the tourism industry. Since the deployment and subsequent integration of Kenyan troops into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), however, the goal of reducing insecurity is yet to be realized. Instead, the insecurity—which some attribute to the very presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia—has continued to rise.

The recent attacks on June 16 in Mpeketoni, Lamu County, Kenya, where more than 60 people died, are another reminder that terrorist incidents are increasing since Kenya’s deployment in Somalia. Despite the ongoing debate between government and opposition groups about the cause and perpetrators of the Mpeketoni attacks, Kenya’s presence in Somalia remains an important factor.


Young men stand guard during a demonstration by a local militia formed to provide security in Marka, Somalia, April 30, 2014. (UN Photo/Tobin Jones)

Can community policing deter terrorism in weak states where government security sectors are unable to cope with violent extremism? This is a question of mounting urgency in a number of countries beset by terrorist groups, including Iraq and Nigeria. It is of growing importance in both Somalia and Kenya, where the militant group al-Shabaab has regrouped over the past year and launched a series of devastating terrorist attacks that national law enforcement—as well as the multinational African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia—have been unable to prevent.

In Somalia, the national police formed a community police program in June 2014, while in Kenya, calls are being made for Somali communities to self-police their neighborhoods against threats by al-Shabaab as an alternative to the heavy-handed Kenyan police crackdown on Somali neighborhoods.


In the northern province of Raqqa, Syria, female students wear full face veils (niqabs) in accordance with sharia law enforced by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which  took control of the area last fall. (March 31, 2014/© Stringer/Reuters/Corbis)

The swift and destructive advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Iraq could affect the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, as ISIS’ seizure of Iraqi military equipment and financial resources is likely to give the group a comparative advantage over other rebels in Syria, said Dr. Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Pierret, who has advised US, British, and other Western governments on the Syrian crisis, spoke to me by telephone on Monday, June 16 about ISIS’ advance in Iraq and its implications for the Assad regime, Syrian rebels, and the response of key regional players.

In the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, ISIS has been fighting against other rebels in an effort to gain full control of Syria’s eastern flank. According to Dr. Pierret, ISIS’ seizure of Iraqi armored vehicles and of over $400 million during its advance toward Baghdad could tilt the balance, both materially and psychologically, in favor of the terrorist group.

“There is also a symbolic dimension here,” he said. “ISIS victories in Iraq have provided the group with some prestige,” which, he said, ISIS could use to render other rebel groups like al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) more hesitant about fighting against it.


Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki in May 2008. (Staff Sgt. Jessica J. Wilkes/US Air Force)

Dr. Charles Tripp, professor of politics at SOAS University of London, spoke to the Global Observatory’s Ramy Srour yesterday on recent developments in Iraq and if support for Maliki is waning among his allies, and what the US, Iran, and other regional players might do about the militant group ISIS’ growing insurgency, which some believe is threatening to divide the region.

Dr. Tripp has researched extensively on the Middle East and on the nature of autocracy, state, and resistance in the region.

Given ISIS’ extensive gains in the majority Sunni areas and reports that Kurdish fighters have now seized the town of Kirkuk, do you think Iraq is disintegrating into three de facto states, a Sunni, a Kurdish, and a Shia state?

I don't think it's got to that stage yet. I think that since 2003, there have been two de facto states in Iraq–one is ruled from Baghdad, and the other from Irbil in the north, in the Kurdish area. When you look at the solidity of the Kurdish area, it certainly looks like a state to me. It has its own economy, armed forces, sovereignty, Parliament, and so on.

I think the situation in the northwest of Iraq, the so-called Sunni areas of Iraq, is far more fluid and, despite the claims that it is going to establish the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), it's still a very uncertain situation and I don't think one could talk about three states at all, no.


Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) advance during an anti-Shabaab operation near Afgooye, Somalia, May 24, 2012. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)

The militant group Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) has once again made international news headlines, this time with two deadly attacks carried out on May 24 on the Somali Parliament building in Mogadishu and La Chaumiere restaurant in Djibouti. News reports suggested over a dozen people were killed, including the attackers in each incident.

These attacks have prompted renewed scrutiny of al-Shabaab’s current status, its strategy, and its principal tactics and procedures, and two narratives have emerged. One describes a resurgent al-Shabaab that is now unified, transnational, and is readily able to exploit weaknesses in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali Federal authorities. The other narrative suggests al-Shabaab’s fortunes are at an all-time low, its reinvention was forced by necessity, and its levels of popular support in Somalia are diminishing daily. Al-Shabaab is thus currently fighting to survive and has become more desperate.

Early indications from AMISOM’s latest series of offensive operations, Operation Eagle, suggest that while the second narrative is more persuasive, al-Shabaab remains an active and potent enemy that will focus on exploiting weaknesses within AMISOM and the Somali authorities. It is these weaknesses that need to be remedied to keep al-Shabaab on the back foot.


A truck in Abuja, Nigeria promotes the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter tag being used to protest last month's kidnapping of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram. (Medina Dauda/VOA)

Following the Nigerian government’s flatfooted response to the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls last month, the West African country this week asked the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Boko Haram and declare it a terrorist organization. What’s needed now is a concerted, coordinated regional strategy to deal with the group’s increasingly brazen attacks, according to Comfort Ero, Program Director for Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Ms. Ero spoke to me by telephone from Nairobi about the evolution of Boko Haram, the Nigerian government’s response, and the international community’s options. Ultimately, she said, “all roads lead back to Nigeria and Nigeria taking ownership of the problem.” 


In New York this past September, the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF)—an informal intergovernmental body made up of 29 like-minded states and the EU, co-chaired by the United States and Turkey and focused on the delivery of capacity-building assistance—announced their intention to create a global fund to support local, grass-roots efforts to counter violent extremism. This is a departure from traditional funding sources, which to date have stemmed mainly from governments that have a natural preference towards larger multi-year projects thus simplifying the initial investment costs and project administration.

The Global Fund on Community Engagement and Resilience will provide support that is better able to reach the community level where countering violent extremism (CVE) projects will have the most buy-in and impact, and have more flexible, smaller disbursements. In addition, the fund is the first ever initiative to allow for public-private partnerships in CVE in its many manifestations, which can vary significantly across different regions.  

All of this sounds very different from traditional counterterrorism which has historically been more associated with law enforcement and military initiatives with a focus on putting “boots on the ground” than development or conflict resolution efforts. While there is value in enhancing operational capacities of governments to pursue terrorist groups and bring them to justice, the evolving nature of contemporary terrorism has prompted greater focus on preventive approaches. The traditional terrorist organization with members requiring specialized knowledge and training has, to a large extent, been replaced by networks of ideologues, supporters, and operatives spanning several political boundaries and using faster travel and communications technologies to move ideas and materiel. In short, they’ve globalized. The Internet has even made it possible for individuals to be inspired, and then plan and carry out an attack without any formalized contact with known terrorist groups or extensive training. 

Consequently, policymakers and practitioners have placed increasing emphasis on countering violent extremist ideas and narratives that underpin support and recruitment.  This preventive approach has focused on addressing what the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy calls the “conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism,” which include “prolonged unresolved conflicts, dehumanization of victims of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, lack of rule of law and violations of human rights, ethnic, national and religious discrimination, political exclusion, socio-economic marginalization, and lack of good governance.” Following on this, there has increased engagement with practitioners and policymakers focusing on development, conflict prevention and resolution, peacebuilding, education, arts, and culture. 

However, there continues to be reluctance among a number of development and other practitioners about engaging in work designated as “counterterrorism.” This reflects concerns about the safety of field personnel and the securitization of assistance; the political sensitivities about the designation of, and engagement with, terrorist groups; and bureaucratic inertia in many governments—as well as international organizations like the UN—which impede collaboration. 


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