Recent Attacks Renew Need for Global Unity on ISIS

A policeman stands guard in front of a bakery attacked by terrorists who had pledged allegiance to ISIS. Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 8, 2016. (Kyodo News/Associated Press)

The killing of more than 80 people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice last week followed multiple deadly terrorist attacks around the world at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. These incidents highlight the continued threat of the Islamic State (ISIS), which has either claimed responsibility or been suspected of complicity in all. ISIS has continued to display a particular effectiveness in dividing the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, even as its numbers and the territory under its control dwindle. World leaders and policymakers must closely study the lessons from the recent violence and work across religious, ideological, and other divides if they hope to minimize the future threat.

The Nice violence followed a June 28 attack on Istanbul’s airport that killed 45 people and injured hundreds more, with Turkish investigations pointing to ISIS as likely perpetrators. Less than a week later, six attackers swearing allegiance to ISIS stormed a bakery in an upscale area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 20 hostages and exposing shortcomings in the country’s security. A day later, a truck bomb in Baghdad killed more than 281 people, marking the single deadliest attack in Iraq since the 2003 United States-led invasion. The following day, a bombing near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, which followed blasts in Jeddah and Qatif, produced shock from the Muslim community around the world. Earlier, the US had suffered a high-profile “lone wolf” attack in Orlando that killed 49.

Symbolism continues to feature heavily in ISIS operations. The Nice attack struck at celebrations of cherished French and, by association, Western values such as secularism and democracy. The Ramadan attacks, meanwhile, were in line with a radical interpretation of the month as one of conquest and jihad, thereby holding a special reward of martyrdom. Indeed, an infographic recently released by ISIS celebrated its “Ramadan victory” of having killed and injured 5,200 people during the holy month. The graphic does not, however, mention the attacks on Istanbul airport or Medina and it is unclear how reliable the figures are. The New York Times estimates that more than 1,200 people outside Iraq and Syria have been killed by ISIS-inspired or coordinated attacks since 2014.

The recent violence highlights a number of concerns regarding state policies and the still growing threat of violent extremism. In the Istanbul case, though initial investigations by Turkish authorities pointed towards ISIS involvement, neither the Turkish government nor the terrorist group has outright acknowledged this. Public recognition might have sparked a more aggressive campaign between the two parties. Erdogan’s government has long been accused of displaying ambivalent policies towards ISIS  in favor of taking on Kurdish groups, which the government believes challenge Turkey’s territorial integrity.

The story in Turkey is not that different from Pakistan in the 1980s, when the state offered support for the Taliban fighting the Soviets. Bolstered heavily by Saudi Arabia in the form of funding for madrasah instruction, arms training, and other purposes, Islamabad was guided primarily by its desire to maintain “strategic depth” in neighboring Afghanistan. In a post-9/11 world, however, Pakistan became the frontline ally in America’s “war on terror” and the Taliban turned against the state. Underground cells spread throughout the country, an ideologically strong base of young recruits ready to fight and “defend Islam” bolstered its numbers, and the presence of a dangerously porous border with Afghanistan allowed for easy transportation of men and weapons. These factors provided the Taliban with enough strength to launch massive attacks on crowded bazaars, international airports, military bases, and even children’s schools within Pakistan—in other words, a purportedly Muslim movement became the most significant threat to a Muslim society.

Turkey and other similarly besieged countries cannot make the same fatal mistake of failing to conduct a timely and realistic assessment of the threats they are facing. An inability to understand that brainwashed young men who cross borders or even time zones to fight in Syria against Western forces can return to fight against the state could ultimately create a generational crisis that will be very difficult to counter. Compounding this is the recent decision to close the Incirlik air base; a key site for the US-led global coalition countering ISIS to launch airstrikes against the group’s strongholds and the first casualty of Erdogan’s authoritarian clampdown following Turkey’s recent failed coup attempt.

The attacks in Saudi Arabia could, meanwhile, prove to be a game-changer for campaigns against ISIS in Muslim countries if they are indeed proven to have links to the group. The House of Saud is notorious for obscuring the details around terrorism, but a suicide attack near the Prophet’s Mosque—the second holiest site after Mecca—is likely to enrage Muslims and help turn the tide against ISIS, whose violence is viewed as increasingly targeting the Islamic community. While this community has painstakingly tried to disassociate itself from groups like ISIS, an attack near the Prophet’s Mosque and any similar subsequent incidents provide a narrow window of opportunity for the non-Muslim and Muslim worlds to forge more of a unified front, by more effectively presenting the radicals of ISIS as a common enemy in need of defeat.

These recent attacks also reveal that the ISIS public relations and media wing remains strong and can still distort policy around the group’s threat. ISIS readily claimed the Baghdad and Bangladesh attacks, as well the one in Orlando, but has been quiet on attacks in Turkey—likely owing to the strategic importance of that country’s porous borders, which allow for frequent movement of people and weapons to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria—and Saudi Arabia, which, as well as being home to the holiest sites for Muslims, has long been considered an exporter of the extremist Wahhabi-Salafist thought and practice. Authorities must therefore be careful to thoroughly investigate those attacks claimed by the group, and those that are not, to establish the truth. Ramifications from not underestimating the threat, and not debunking the group’s false claims, can include raising its profile and increasing its recruitment abilities in cyberspace.

Despite these recent attacks, it is clear that ISIS has suffered significant setbacks. Assessments by the Pentagon show a 90% drop in those travelling to join the group in the past year: from 2,000 per month, to just 200. The group has also lost 20% of its territory in Syria and close to 40% in Iraq. Strikes targeting ISIS’ energy infrastructure have also aimed to choke the financial flows on which it heavily depends.

As well as military campaigns, credit should go to efforts such as 2014’s UN Security Council Resolution 2178, which saw member states implementing stronger policies in areas such as border control, criminal legislation, and issues of reintegration and rehabilitation of returnees. This resolution is also notable for being the first under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to mention the discipline of countering violent extremism, or CVE, which advocates a less securitized approach to countering radicalization by ISIS and other groups.

While a worthy goal, CVE has still come under criticism for being too reactionary and securitized in its approach and for possibly exacerbating the problems it seeks to address. It can stigmatize certain communities—Muslim communities in Western nations and ethnic minorities in Muslim nations, among others—breed further discontent, and ultimately do little to address the root causes that generate violent extremism in the first place. The alternative is to move toward more preventive strategies that attempt to address structural causes of radicalization, are more context-driven, and put local voices and expertise to the fore. By using its comparative advantage, the UN could act as a bridge between member states with differing societies and cultures but a common cause in defeating ISIS and other extremists.

Recent success in tackling ISIS does not at all imply that the group has lost its ability to carry out brutal, high-publicity attacks around the world, as is evident in the violence of the past few weeks. In fact, ISIS remains the most adaptable enemy facing Muslim and non-Muslim states alike. It continues to evade stringent border control measures by calling for more lone wolf attacks in recruits’ home countries, and efforts to counter the group’s communications have also been slow and largely reactionary. A “counternarrative” that is sufficiently clear, consistent, and collaborative to put a definitive end to the group’s appeal has yet to be developed in either the West or in the spiritual homeland of the extremist movement.

While non-Muslims obviously have a large role to play in defeating the ISIS threat within their societies, it remains vitally important for there to be a united and constant narrative delivered by credible Muslim voices, within the local context or in the global arena, in an attempt to fill the void exploited by ISIS. Currently, these voices are typically only raised in unison in the aftermath of brutal events, and often in response to provocative political statements emanating from Western nations and attempting to portray the group and its actions as a close representation of the global Muslim community. Neither response serves anyone but ISIS, which remains a threat to Muslim and non-Muslims alike and must be treated as such.

Arsla Jawaid works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute. She is a former journalist and has consulted for several think tanks on issues of youth radicalization and CVE. @arslajawaid