Bioterrorism: How Real is the Threat?

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Much of the WMD threat today is focused on nuclear weapons and North Korea. However, bioterrorism is a threat worth analyzing. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines bioterrorism as biological agents (microbes or toxins) used as weapons to further personal or political agendas. Almost any pathogenic microorganism could be used in a bioterrorist attack, though anthrax and smallpox worry officials the most. The lethality [1] of an effective bioweapon is hard to conceive – one gram of anthrax can contain one trillion spores, which can result in a death toll of between 20 and 100 million people. Some say that the threat of bioterrorism is largely overblown [2], while others are adamant about not underestimating the risk [3]. Factors to consider when assessing the risk include the current global terror environment, the potential for terrorists to obtain pathogenic agents, the ability to weaponize said agents, and successful deployments thereof.

Many weapons of mass destruction require large facilities and highly suspicious components that call attention to nefarious actors. On the other hand, biological weapons can be assembled in a laboratory or home without raising suspicions and require technology that is dual-use [4] in nature. This heightens the threat of a bioweapon for two reasons. First, equipment like aerosolizers and recreational drones [5] can be purchased at easily accessible technology or home improvement stores and be used at home to create a bioweapon. Second, the dual-use dilemma also applies to research, as sanctioned and defense-related experimentation and studies can be conducted on biological weapons as a façade to gain insight into how to create them.

Though the means of purchasing the equipment necessary to create bioweapons, and the ability to create them in one’s home due to the small-scale nature of the agents are feasible, weaponizing the agent remains a significant challenge. The media often underestimate the obstacles involved in creating and effectively deploying a biological weapon, which allows some to misjudge their risk of being involved in an attack. For example, according to the late Dr. J.B. Tucker [6], a chemical and biological weapons expert, to develop an anthrax weapon, one would have to do the following:

“…obtain and cultivate a virulent strain of the bacterium, induce it to sporulate, process the spores into a liquid slurry or a dry powder, formulate the agent with stabilizing chemicals, fill It into a specialized sprayer that can disseminate the spores as a fine-particle aerosol, infecting those exposed through the lungs.”

It is evident that there are many hurdles to overcome in order to create an effective biological weapon. Many of these hurdles can be conquered if the person creating the weapon has real expertise, but there are also environmental elements [7] that can destabilize the agent and render it useless. These weapons are quite sensitive to heat, sunlight, wind, and humidity. Therefore, even if a weapon was created and the means for deployment were obtained, the unpredictability of Mother Nature still stands in the way.

The Biological Weapons Convention and Compliance

One issue that remains at the forefront of the biological weapons issue is that the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) does not have any enforcement mechanisms. The 1972 ­Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which bans the “development, stockpiling, transfer, and use of biological weapons worldwide,” does not have any valid system to verify that the signatories to the BWC are complying with the established rules of the treaty. While treaties in the past have successfully mitigated disasters without a formal compliance mechanism, and the absence of any real biological weapon attack could be attributed to member states adhering to the convention, the current international political climate is not one in which trust and partnership are feasible options to ensure the safety of the global citizenry.

Reason abounds supporting the notion that a biological terrorist event is possible and likely – this includes the dual-use dilemma and lack of verification in the BWC protocols. One other piece of evidence that lends credibility to this assertion is that many terrorist groups are becoming increasingly apocalyptic and random in their killing. Rather than killing a targeted audience, groups such as ISIS [8] believe the enemy is any person who disagrees with their beliefs. Since biological weapons can kill more people than a nuclear war [9], the apocalyptic nature of some terrorist organizations has rightfully raised concerns about their potential interest in such a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

While many hurdles exist that must be overcome in order to create a biological weapon, bioterrorism remains a credible threat. It would be a mistake to overestimate the threat and focus too much attention on bioterrorism to the detriment of other, potentially more probable hazards. However, though unlikely, a successful bioterror attack would be catastrophic to innocent human lives, as well as overwhelming to the healthcare industry, creating dramatic fear for the future.

Sources:

[1] https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/busting-anthrax-myth
[2] http://www.phcintelligencer.com/2015/10/12/bioterrorism-neither-likely-nor-practical/
[3]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/17/biological-terrorism-could-kill-people-nuclear-attacks-bill/
[4] https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/pubContent.aspx?d=22233
[5]https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-11-10/homeland-security-warns-of-weaponized-drones-as-terror-threat
[6]http://www.springer.com/cda/content/document/cda_downloaddocument/9789400752726-c1.pdf?SGWID=0-0-45-1355019-p174548321
[7] https://adacounty.id.gov/Portals/Accem/Doc/PDF/terrorfaq.pdf
[8] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
[9]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/17/biological-terrorism-could-kill-people-nuclear-attacks-bill/

The United Kingdom and the Challenge of Far-Right Ideologies

Huge crowds: Hundreds gathered in a show of solidarity

Participants gather during a vigil near the Finsbury Park Mosque, the scene of Darren Osborne’s vehicular terrorist attack. [1]

On June 19, 2016, Darren Osborne, motivated by anger about the terror attacks in the United Kingdom, drove his vehicle into a group of Muslim worshipers outside the Finsbury Park Mosque.  Osborne killed one, Makram Ali, and injured nine others. Ali had collapsed on the sidewalk prior to the attack and a group of Muslims had stopped to lend assistance. While the group was providing aid, Osborne struck with his vehicle.  Ali died at the scene.

On February 1, 2018, a British court decided Osborne’s fate. He was found guilty. Osborne was convicted of murder and attempted murder. Evidence presented during the trial showed that Osborne had recently become radicalized from anti-Muslim extremism propaganda. Justice Bobbie Cheema-Grubb stated that “[Osborne’s action] was a terrorist attack. [He] intended to kill.” [2] Osborne was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 43 years.

This attack represents another in an ongoing problem of radical right-wing attacks occurring in Great Britain. In June 2016, Helen Joanne (Jo) Cox, a Member of Parliament, was murdered by a far-right extremist. Cox was a member of the Labour Party, who, prior to the Brexit referendum, advocated for the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union. Her killer, Thomas Mair, claimed to be a political activist and witnesses claimed he had shouted, “This is for Britain,” when he attacked Cox [3]. Prior to the attack, Mair had reviewed white-nationalist websites and followed far-right political leaders.

These incidents were not the first acts of far-right extremism in the United Kingdom.  They may very well not be the last.

The United Kingdom has witnessed the rise of far-right groups that promote nationalist and anti-Muslim ideologies. National Action, which celebrated Jo Cox’s murder, became the first far-right group to be described as a terrorist organization in the United Kingdom [4]. Far-right groups like the English Defense League and Britain First have staged anti-Muslim protests. Britain First’s leaders, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were arrested and charged in Belfast, Northern Ireland for “using threatening, abusive, insulting words or behavior.” [5] The United Kingdom, unlike the United States, has very stringent laws governing hate speech and its promotion in public spaces.

A message and floral tributes for Jo Cox

Mourners pay respects and leave messages outside Parliament Square following the death of MP Jo Cox. [6]

Hate speech is strongly prohibited in the United Kingdom. In the United States, you can stand on a street corner and champion whatever ideology you believe is appropriate.  An individual can advocate religious condemnations, shout racial epithets, or denigrate a particular nationality. The United Kingdom, however, prohibits this type of commentary in public spheres [7]. Individuals in the United Kingdom can still preach their ideologies, however, they risk a greater likelihood of being arrested for incitement. Leaders of far-right movements face possible arrest and imprisonment when they move their anti-immigrant and anti-Islam views into the public arena.

To be clear, being a far-right political group does not make an organization a terrorist group. Even advocating racial or religious prejudice does not necessarily make yours a terrorist group. However, the promotion of hateful ideologies can lead members to take matters into their own hands with violent consequences. Britain First may condemn the actions of individuals like Thomas Mair [8], but condemnation does not absolve them of previously advocating hate against a community or faith.

The internet provides a platform for spreading far-right extremist ideology.  The United Kingdom’s far-right platforms are immediately recognizable alongside the writings and work of other far-right organizations across the globe such as American white-supremacist groups and neo-Nazi movements. The internet offers an extensive platform to incite individuals to perpetrate hate crimes and terrorist acts against different communities.

The United Kingdom has a long, violent past with terrorism. Northern Irish terrorism remained an ever-present danger from the 1970s until the 2000s.  Terrorists perpetrated notable violent attacks in the 2000s including the London bombings. These attacks continue into the present with lone-wolf stabbings and vehicular assaults. Far-right extremism in the United Kingdom, however, persists, overlapping with these other periods of terrorist activity. Far-right organizations have not limited their violence to one faith or creed. The attacks on MP Jo Cox and Makrim Ali demonstrate that domestic politicians and members of other religious faiths are both viable targets.

Terrorism is a tactic used in pursuit of a political goal: to generate fear and intimidation in a specific population. Far-right terrorist actors engage in these attacks to promote their brand of politics. Osborne perpetrated his vehicular attack in pursuit of an anti-Muslim agenda. Mair shot and stabbed a Member of Parliament in pursuit of a nationalist agenda. Far-right movements are growing in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe. Governments need to assess where all types of terrorists, foreign or domestic, come from and combat the environments in which their extremist ideologies arise.

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Sources:

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-40324590
[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42920929
[3] https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/16/europe/british-mp-jo-cox-attacked/index.html
[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/12/neo-nazi-group-national-action-banned-by-uk-home-secretary
[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/14/britain-first-leader-paul-golding-arrested-in-belfast
[6] https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/16/europe/british-mp-jo-cox-attacked/index.html
[7] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/4/pdfs/ukpga_20080004_en.pdf
[8] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/16/labour-mp-jo-cox-shot-in-leeds-witnesses-report/

Education Has Become A Casualty of War

Last week, USA Today published an article about a boy named Said in Kenya who had been unable to attend school for more than three years because of the presence of the violent extremist group al-Shabab in his town. According to the article, dozens of schools in the area had been closed for as long as four years since al-Shabab began to use the region as a staging ground for its attacks, leaving thousands of children across the region without proper education.

Unfortunately, this story is not unique. All across areas plagued by violent extremism, education for children is one of the first institutions to suffer. In eastern Ghouta, Syria, almost one in three school-age children, approximately 1.75 million, are out of school due to threats of violence and destruction. According to a Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 25 million children are out of school due to the disruption of violence in Pakistan.

Afghan school children walk home after classes near an open classroom in the outskirts of Jalalabad. Afghanistan has had only rare moments of peace over the past 30 years, its education system being undermined by the Soviet invasion of 1979, a civil war in the 1990s and five years of Taliban rule. (Noorullah Shirzada/Getty Images)

While violence, loss of life, and destruction are some of the immediate effects of terrorism, the long-term impacts are much more complex and, perhaps, more harmful.

Terrorism leaves an economy crippled as local businesses and infrastructure are decimated by violence and it can leave deep psychological scars in its population. But the long-term effects of the loss of education are dangerous and heartbreaking.

Children walk home from school in a Nairobi slum. Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

A lack of education leaves an entire generation disadvantaged and seriously stagnates the development of a country, especially after years of destruction. It leaves millions of bright, gifted children without a way to fulfill their potential.

Without education and the opportunities and knowledge it brings, populations tend to be more vulnerable to extremist rhetoric and radicalization, leading to a perpetuation of the problem. Protecting and continuing to encourage educational programs could prevent future conflicts from emerging and improve the quality of life for millions of people.

Scarred: Hamida Lasseko, Unicef’s deputy representative in Syria’s capital Damascus, said: ‘When one says that it is the worst place to be as a child, in Syria, for now, I would agree. Children are missing from education, they are out of school. Children have the hidden wounds, and these wounds form scars’

Education is immeasurably important, and while countless studies have tried to fully grasp the scope of its impact, it reaches much further than one can imagine. This issue is not about one Kenyan boy named Said, but millions of children who are bright and deserve a future without fear.

 

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Sources:

[1] Kenya: Terrorism by al-Shabab is so bad, kids can’t go to school. (2018, February 2).

[2] Section, U. N. N. S. (2017, December 11). UN News – Violence shuts schools, deprives children of medical care in Syria’s East Ghouta, warns UNICEF.

[3] Human Rights Watch | 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor | New York, NY 10118-3299 USA | t 1.212.290.4700. (2017, March 27). Dreams Turned into Nightmares | Attacks on Students, Teachers, and Schools in Pakistan. 

U.S. International Terrorism Strategy in 2018: New Battleplan or More of the Same?

© Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. International Terrorism Strategy in 2018: New Battleplan or More of the Same?

On January 30, 2018, President Donald Trump presented his State of the Union speech before Congress and the nation.  Since 9/11, presidents’ State of the Union speeches have consistently highlighted the impact of terrorism and the United States’ strategy in combating its global presence. Yet, President Trump’s speech mentioned terrorism a handful of times and often in the context of immigration concerns. Although the United States is not the only power fighting against terrorism and extreme ideologies, as a vital actor, it remains important to understand the United States’ objectives and planned actions moving into 2018.

Through 2016 and 2017, the world has watched the gradual, ongoing pushback of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. The US-led coalition has consistently brought the attack against ISIS terrorists. Kurdish forces and Arab allies reclaimed Mosul and later Raqqa.  Today, the so-called Islamic State retains only a small fraction of the territory it once claimed.

Map of ISIS Territorial Control[1]

The fight is not over though.  ISIS maintains a foothold and their hateful ideology continues to spread online.  Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy failed to outline a comprehensive strategy regarding how the factors underlying the conflict will be addressed, the same problem as the past administration. On January 18, 2018, Secretary of State Tillerson outlined five goals for U.S. national security interests in Syria:

  1. Defeat of ISIS, al Qaeda, and terrorist threats to the U.S.;
  2. Resolution of the Syrian conflict through the U.N. political process that assures President Assad’s removal
  3. Diminish Iranian influence;
  4. Safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced peoples; and
  5. Syria remains free of weapons of mass destruction.[2]

While these goals are laudable, they fail to articulate the U.S. strategy in Syria and the deployment of U.S. counterterrorism forces.  Tillerson affirmed that, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will maintain a military presence in Syria.[3] Just like in Iraq, inadequate management of this victory can lead to the rise of a similar or greater terrorist threat in the region in years to come. The U.S. must remain leery of declaring victory without the assurances of responsible governance and plans to address deep cultural and religious tensions.  As Secretary of Defense Mattis indicated, the U.S. must be mindful what ISIS can morph into following their territorial defeat.[4]

For Afghanistan, the Trump Administration’s goals are more simplistic.  In 2017, President Trump increased the troop levels from 8,500 to 14,000.[5] General Votel, U.S. Central Command, indicated that an increase in American trainers would be vital to expand the fight against insurgents and the Taliban.[6] Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. military was given greater latitude to strike targets and operate within these conflict zones.

Partnerships with Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan, will help in tempering the conflict. A strong U.S. security presence, with a freer reign of tactics, may push back the Taliban and insurgency parties, but only the regional actors may be able to completely resolve the conflict.  President Trump’s determination to withhold aid from Pakistan will not aid that objective or regional stability. U.S. troops may be able to reduce the Taliban and extremist fighters, but terrorism will not end in the area if Afghanistan and Pakistan are not players. One thing is certain, the Trump Administration is focused on the elimination of the Taliban and terrorist fighters in Afghanistan.

Map of South Asia and Conflict Parties, and U.S. Troops in Afghanistan[7]

In conjunction with President Trump’s rhetoric, U.S. actions in the Middle East and South Asia are moving toward greater militarism.  The U.S. military has been able to reduce terrorist organizations’ strength.  This may lead to some positive outcomes, but it rarely has led to complete success against terrorism. Iraqi and Afghans history shows that the military cannot be the sole solution.  President Trump’s State of the Union did not address any methods or plans to counter violent extremist ideology (a root of many of these conflicts) in the region.  A comprehensive terrorist strategy – military and diplomatic – is necessary.

Sources:

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[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034

[2] https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/30/donald-trump-syria-strategy-216551

[3] https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/30/donald-trump-syria-strategy-216551

[4] http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/370295-the-isis-defeat-myth-no-one-talks-about-isis-sympathizers-and-us

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/up-to-1000-more-us-troops-could-be-headed-to-afghanistan-this-spring/2018/01/21/153930b6-fd1b-11e7-a46b-a3614530bd87_story.html?utm_term=.83275c5c3741

[6] http://time.com/5085376/afghanistan-us-military-strategy/

[7] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-11/trump-is-playing-a-dangerous-game-with-pakistan

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Terrorism Has No Religion

Terrorism has no religion and no homeland. It is wrong to attribute terrorism to the teachings of a specific religion. Terrorists do not distinguish between Christian churches and Islamic mosques. Places of worship, in fact, be they mosques or churches, have both been harmed routinely by terrorists.

In addition to Christians and Muslims both being victims of terrorist attacks, terrorist attacks have targeted Sunni and Shiite mosques alike across the Middle East. In attacking holy sites, terrorists seek to destabilize the security and stability of the state, especially the economic sector. They seek to spread chaos and confusion among multiple groups and they seek to stir sedition and sow the seeds of sectarian strife.

Christian Churches of Egypt:

Churches in Egypt have been targeted by a series of terrorist bombings. Who can forget the December 11, 2016, terrorist attack on St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church (commonly known as El-Botroseya Church) in Cairo’s Abbasia district? 29 people were killed and 49 people, mostly women, and children were wounded [1]. And who can forget the twin terrorist attacks on April 9, 2017, that targeted St. George’s Church in the Egyptian city of Tanta and Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria? These attacks left 47 people dead and 126 injured [2]. 76 innocent people lost their lives inside houses of worship in these three attacks. The peaceful sounds of hymns mixed with the evil sounds of explosions. The following video describes the attacks on the two churches:

The Muslim Mosques of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia:

On Friday, June 26, 2015, an Islamic State (ISIS) militant bombed Al-Imam Al-Sadiq mosque in the Al-Sawabir district of Kuwait City, killing 27 and injuring 227 during Friday afternoon prayers [3]. Further, the attack took place during the holy month of Ramadan, during which time Muslims worldwide fast to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Those who were injured or killed were all praying when the terrorist entered the mosque and detonated his explosive belt [4]. The sounds of the peaceful Azan (the Muslim call to prayer) mixed with the evil sounds of explosions. Not only the Islamic, but the entire world was outraged by the attacks on the mosque in Kuwait.

These videos show the attack on the Shiite mosque in Kuwait:

On Monday, July 4, 2016, also during the holy month of Ramadan, a suicide bomb attack took place in the parking lot of Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque. Al-Masjid an-Nabawi is one of the largest, holiest mosques in Islam.It was built by the Prophet Muhammad [5]. The mosque is located in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Four policemen were killed and five others were wounded in the suicide bomb attack [6]. Two other attacks took place in Saudi Arabia. One near the United States’ consulate in Jeddah and another targeted a Shiite Muslim mosque in Qatif. Terrorists have no respect for what is holy. The attack on one of Islam’s holiest sites brought condemnations from all around the Middle East and the world. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “This bombing, which happened during Ramadan outside the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque, proves that terrorism has no religion and no faith.” [7]

The following video shows the attack on the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque). It also shows two other attacks that took place at the same time Al-Masjid an-Nabawi was attacked:

The sentiment “Terrorism has no religion,” is no longer just a slogan: it is a dictum. Terrorists do not care about the sanctity of a Muslim mosque or a Christian church. They don’t differentiate between Sunni and Shia. Terrorists commit vile crimes in the name of peaceful religions.

Sources:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/11/world/middleeast/cairo-coptic-cathedral-attack.html
  2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/church-bombing-cairo-egypt-tanta-kills-dead-wounded-injured-latest-a7674761.html
  3. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33287136
  4. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kuwait-blast/islamic-state-suicide-bomber-kills-27-wounds-227-in-kuwait-mosque-idUSKBN0P618L20150626?virtualBrandChannel=11563
  5. https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12435.doc.htm
  6. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/suicide-attack-holy-site-saudi-arabia-city-medina-reports-86052859
  7. http://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast/2016/07/160704_saudi_arabia_blast

More than Ideology: The Radicalized Identity

With the rise of violent extremism and terrorist groups like Daesh recruiting and radicalizing people all over the world, we have attempted to understand the root causes of violent extremism, often linking it to poverty, history of criminality, or even affiliation with certain religions. After years of trying, and failing to pinpoint an exact root — i.e., the evil gene in ordinary people —  one must acknowledge that the problem is more complex than that.

The British theatre play The Believers are but Brothers, which has become a smash hit in the last year, inadvertently underlines a fact researchers often overlook: identity. In the play, playwright Javaad Alipoor tells a striking story of the online radicalization of young men[1]. More than serving as a cautionary tale, it illustrates how radicalization can happen to everyday people, and that violent extremism is much more than just personal beliefs, it is an identity.

While ideology is the lifeblood of a terrorist organization, by offering an initial motive for action and a unique perspective of the world, it is the identity a person cultivates by being part of a group that is potentially so dangerous.

Ideology unites individuals; it is powerful at bringing like-minded people together. Yet it is the common identity that makes violence an option and can influence people to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the ideology.

The process of radicalization can manifest differently in distinct areas, varying in methods, populations, and rates of success across countries, yet the common factor is the vulnerability in individual identity that people who become radicalized share[2]. This vulnerability can be caused by concrete factors such as a lack of socioeconomic opportunity, societal marginalization, and institutional oppression and violence[3].

Let’s imagine a young man spending much of his time online, not unlike the ones portrayed in Alipoor’s play. He may not be intentionally seeking or even be exceedingly attracted to extremist ideology, but he might feel a void and question things he has been taught. As he finds himself immersed in a new community, he forms an attachment to it and its ideology. Organizations like Daesh gain support for their cause by creating a group identity through validating people’s grievances and creating a sense of belonging which bolsters confidence[4].

Ideology is only one layer of radicalization. Underneath it, deeper is a shared sense of belonging and personal significance. Members do not believe in their cause — they are the cause. It is the sense of being part of something, it is a validation of your personal existence.

Group identity is incredibly influential. It can lead to an escalation of violence, group think, or even the rejection of outsiders, simply because they are not part of the same group. This is especially amplified when the identity is threatened, i.e. through war or other types of conflict, when “Us versus Them” dynamics become more powerful[5]. It can even increase adherence to extremist ideology since everyone else in the group believes in it too[6].

Acknowledging identity, unfortunately, does not make the fight against violent extremism and terrorism any easier– quite the opposite. There is no antidote that could make it all disappear. One small step in combating extremism and its ideology is recognizing the attachment people cultivate and the meaning they find in their causes. There is little logic to identity, but it is the most powerful tool extremist organizations have.


Sources:

[1] Lukowski, A. (2018, January 30). What Radicalizes Young Men? This Show Tells You via WhatsApp. The New York Times.

[2] Provines, C. G. (2017, September 29).Understanding Radicalization Through the Lens of ‘Identity Vulnerability.’ Columbia University Journal of International Affairs. 

[3] Provines, C. G. (2017, September 29).Understanding Radicalization Through the Lens of ‘Identity Vulnerability.’ Columbia University Journal of International Affairs. 

[4]Provines, C. G. (2017, September 29).Understanding Radicalization Through the Lens of ‘Identity Vulnerability. Columbia University Journal of International Affairs.

[5] Musgrove, Luke & McGarty, Craig. (2008). Opinion-Based Group Membership as a Predictor of Collective Emotional Responses and Support for Pro- and Anti-War Action. Social Psychology. 39. 37-47.

[6] Musgrove, Luke & McGarty, Craig. (2008). Opinion-Based Group Membership as a Predictor of Collective Emotional Responses and Support for Pro- and Anti-War Action. Social Psychology. 39. 37-47.

The Laptop Bomb: The Latest Extremist Weapon and Homeland Security Nightmare

© Harun Maruf-Daallo Airlines Flight 159 after an explosion from a laptop bomb

The new threat for TSA and Homeland Security officials is not suicide bombers, but what is being described as a “laptop bomb”. For many years now, terrorist organizations – such as ISIS, Al-Shabaab, even dating back to Al-Qaeda – have been working steadily to create a bomb that can slip through x-ray machines and make its way onto an aircraft. This has caused a nightmare for the Department of Homeland Security due to the worry “that ISIS is particularly tech-savvy and has shown an unusual willingness to turn consumer tech into weapons” [1].

One event that sparked the questioning of x-ray machine usage at U.S. airports was the detonation of a laptop bomb on a Daallo Airlines passenger plane back on February 2nd, 2016. Officials say that “suspect Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh, a Somali national, carried the laptop computer with a bomb in it onto Daallo Airlines Flight 159” [2]. The bomb detonated before the plane reached its normal cruising altitude, essentially saving the plane and its passengers from something that could have been devastating. It still raised the question of exactly how Abdullahi managed to slip this explosives-laden laptop through security systems and x-rays at the airport. A scarcity of upgraded systems could have caused the bomb to slip through security. “Most airports in the developed world use the latest generation of multiview X-ray machines, but some airports in less developed parts of the world still use single-view X-ray machines significantly less reliable in detecting explosives” [2]. The U.S. has state of the art security and x-ray machines in its airports, but it would take only one snafu to allow a bomb through.

The laptop bomb’s arrival has coincided with attempts to smuggle bombs in shoes, purses, and even underwear. “Saudi-born (Ibrahim al-)Asiri, 34, who was based in Yemen, was behind the failed Christmas Day attempt in 2009 to bring down a Detroit-bound plane by a suicide bomber with plastic explosives sewn into his underwear” [4]. This demonstrates how dedicated to achieving their goals terrorists are and the lengths to which they will go.

©AFP/Getty Images-TSA screening laptops for bomb material/residue

One of President Trump’s principal campaign objectives was to tighten U.S. security and border protection. In response to a growing number of threats from ISIS and other intel, the Trump Administration announced a ban that “forced passengers to put any devices larger than a cell phone in their checked baggage,” [3] from, “10 airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.” [3] A foiled plot that involved “explosives hidden in a fake iPad that appeared as good as the real thing” [4] was one of many factors that prompted the ban. Public outrage soon followed, and people began to question if it was a requisite security measure or “Islamophobia”. Since then, security procedures have been revamped and new measures have been implemented, discontinuing the ban.

© Department of Homeland Security

There will always be a struggle to stay one step ahead in the battle between Homeland Security and terrorist organizations. As Homeland Security updates their technology and screening processes for passengers, terrorist organizations will continue to test their newest variants until they fulfill their perennial goal of taking down a U.S. (or U.S. bound) commercial airliner. It will be a difficult task; U.S. airport screening processes are top-notch.

Sources:

  1. http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/airlines/news/a27432/laptop-bomb-airplane/
  2. https://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/11/africa/somalia-plane-bomb/index.html
  3. http://time.com/4867860/laptop-ban-lifted-airline-donald-trump-john-kelly/
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/26/plot-explosives-ipad-us-uk-laptop-ban

Midwest and Terrorism

Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

Everyone always says write about what you know, and I know the Midwest – especially Indiana.  The Midwest remains an amazing and welcoming place, but, like any region, there remain a few things that are dissatisfying.  The Midwest’s cultural understanding of terrorism endures as its most perplexing and unfortunate characteristic.

I have spent most of my life in Indiana and I can attest to the friendly, humble people who appreciate hard work, hospitality and honesty. The Midwest, or maybe just Indiana, is a place where, if your car broke down on the side of the road, two or three people may pull over to ask if you are okay and whether there is anything they could do to help. They may even offer to take you to the nearest service station or wait with you until a tow truck shows up.

That earnest, amicable culture can hide some dark truths, though.  Unfortunately, since 9/11, the narrative regarding terrorism has led to a stigma about the Muslim community and its disposition towards terrorism.  The characterization of Muslims as terrorists often epitomizes many Midwesterners’ understanding of what is and is not a terrorist.

Whenever an Islamic extremist is behind an attack in the U.S. the narrative quickly and inexorably ties the terrorist and the Islamic faith together. This narrative, thus, labels all Muslims as terrorists rather than a small subset who twist religious faith to fit a hateful ideology.  I would be lying if I were to say that I have not heard, “We should just kill them all,” or “Muslims just hate us,” in response to each new attack.  Ask a Midwesterner to identify notable acts of terrorism in the U.S. and I can tell you which ones will come to their minds: 9/11, the Boston Marathon Bombing, San Bernardino and the Pulse Nightclub.

Boston Strong Memorial before the 2014 marathon

However, those are not the only acts of terrorism in the U.S. and they are not the only attacks attached to a hateful ideology.  America has a history of activists killing abortion doctors in the name of religious faith. White nationalists have increasingly engaged in attacks, murderous or otherwise, in the U.S.  In 2012, Wade Michael Page shot and killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  In 2015, Dylann Roof hoped to start a race war when he murdered nine African American churchgoers in South Carolina.  In 2017, a white nationalist drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others in Virginia.

While these events are equally horrific as any terrorist attack, these do not carry the same stigma as acts perpetrated by Islamic extremists.  Frequently, the discussion centers on mental illness or guns and their availability.  Unlike the Muslim community, few blame the entire white American population for the actions of select individuals.  Few question whether the religious or moral ideology to which these actors adhered was inherently incompatible with American culture and society’s well-being.

First responders address the wounded following a white nationalist’s vehicular attack on counter protestors at the “Unite the Right rally” in Charlottesville, VA.

I believe that two narratives are woven for the American people in the Midwest when it comes to U.S. terrorism. Terrorism is either Islamic extremism or just random acts of violence.  I believe the former (intentional or not) can be explained in two manners: an unfamiliar religion is easier to spurn when fewer people have a significant understanding of its practices or, alternatively, that the frequency of Islamic extremist attacks makes it seem like Islamic extremists are worse than other types of terrorists.

I believe that the average Midwesterner does not have a comprehensive grasp of Islam.  Growing up in a post-9/11 world, I recall that my primary and secondary education touched upon Islam only briefly and only in history courses.  I do not recall any substantial exploration of the teachings of Islam and I do not believe many of the educators would feel comfortable teaching something so unfamiliar to them.  Unless the curriculum has changed – it has been several years – I imagine that the academic courses remain similar today. For many, their understanding of the Islamic world is filtered through their education and copious TV viewing. Indiana, like much of the Midwest, remains a predominately manufacturing state wherein you needn’t have a theological education to make a living supporting yourself and a family.

Alternatively, the media narrative with respect to Islamic terrorism frequently overshadows the regularity of other terrorist events.  It is true that Islamic extremists have engaged in some of the recent deadly attacks on American soil.  However, as noted, these attacks do not encompass all terrorist attacks in the U.S.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that from September 12, 2001, to December 31, 2017, far right groups have engaged in 62 extremist attacks resulting in 106 dead. In the same period, Islamic extremist groups engaged in 23 incidents resulting in 119 casualties. Notably, San Bernardino and the Pulse Nightclub resulted in 63 of the 119 fatalities.

This misunderstanding can be resolved with one simple change: education.  Education is key to helping bridge the divide that separates communities and creates radicalism.  Radicalism can develop not only in the Islamic world but also in our quiet communities across America.  The more we foster an “Us vs. Them” mentality, the more we radicalize our own society. In our communities, we must develop a better understanding of Islam and other religions. We must push back against hateful scapegoating based on religion, race or political views.

Terrorism is not tied to a single ideology.  Hate is its own ideology regardless of religion, race, or political system. Hate prevents us from engaging in open discussion to try to resolve our differences. Some people may be compelled to commit evil acts of revenge and chaos. Some, however, may simply be misguided individuals who followed a trusted family member or friend down a dark path or trusted a religious leader to teach them right from wrong. Some simply felt they finally found a group to belong to.

My cultural understanding from living in the Midwest leads me to believe that the Midwest is made of good people who want to raise families as best they can without living in fear, the same goal as a majority of people across the world.  To eliminate that fear we need to review how we discuss all types of terrorism and the many ideologies that compel terrorists to act.  The solution cannot be found in violence but in education.

Indiana Covered Bridge Festival

Sources:

“Boston Strong: Communal Healing After Tragedy.”, accessed Jan 25, 2018, 

Countering Violent Extremism: Actions Needed to Define Strategy and Assess Progress of Federal Efforts. 2017: US Government Accountability Office.

Peter Bergen. 2017. “Charlottesville Killing was an Act of Domestic Terrorism.” Cnn, Aug 13,. 

Wilson, Nick and Writer, Staff. “Covered Bridge Festival upon Us.” Greencastle Banner Graphic., last modified 2016-10-14T00:00-0400, accessed Jan 25, 2018, 

Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Europe unsure of how to reintegrate the offspring of the Islamic State

As ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate has collapsed in Iraq and Syria, many European States have to decide whether or not to let the children of European women who have joined the terrorist organization back into their country of origin.

Last December, three French-born children of suspected Islamic State members were flown back to Paris as the first act of repatriation of this kind. Similar kinds of appeals have been made by families from Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. This does not mean that these countries have agreed on a procedure, however.

In Belgium, the Council of Ministers has decided to allow entry to children younger than 10 if DNA research confirms their Belgian heritage. Similarly, in the Netherlands decisions are based on DNA tests to determine that a child has a Dutch parent.

Some have argued that letting former militant families back into their countries of origin would be a security risk that could make states increasingly vulnerable. While the caliphate might have collapsed, the ideology can last and has the potential to spread. According to researchers in Germany, radicalized children do not integrate well and “know nothing but war”.

However, many of these arguments seem only to emphasize the impact that the wrong kind of education has on children instead of trying to implement the right kind. This means tackling extremist ideology with education, new ideas, opinions, and a lot of family assistance. Many of these European states do not have an agenda that targets reasons people leave their home countries and join the caliphate in the first place.

While it might be easier to leave these children alone and not repatriate or educate them,  it is better to take control of the situation and understand the radicalization process in order to avoid these instances in the future. These children are often born into a terrorist organization, rather than having chosen to be in it.

It is understandable that authorities in European states are hesitant to invite members of terrorist organizations back into their countries, even if these “members” are small children. On the other hand, it is important to remember that if radicalization is possible, so is de-radicalization.

The Defeat of ISIS’s “Caliphate” Does Not Mean the Defeat of ISIS’s Ideology

What Does the Future Look Like for ISIS?

Though the international coalition in the war against ISIS has experienced more gains than losses over the past few years, by no means is the enemy defeated. However, ISIS remains a fragment of what it once was and its goals appear even more unattainable. ISIS will never fully disappear. Its ideology is just as dangerous as its fighters, and while fighters can be physically defeated, an ideology cannot. This is especially true in the era of the internet, where an entity does not need to control a territory and its people to espouse ideas and maintain a following. While ISIS, as a physical organization, may become greatly diminished to the point it seems non-extinct, radical extremist ideology will prevail.

Background

ISIS formed out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a splinter group of Al-Qaeda central that emerged after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and aimed to entice a sectarian war and establish a caliphate [1]. In 2006, AQI was rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). They held a large swath of territory in Western Iraq, but in 2008, U.S. troops and Sunni tribesman significantly degraded the group [2]. As the Syrian Civil War ramped up in 2011, ISI used this state of turmoil in which the government was distracted by rebel groups, to try and govern land, led by their Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [3]. After U.S. combat forces withdrew, a vacuum was created that allowed the Islamic State to exploit the “weakness of the central state” and the “country’s sectarian strife” [4]. After growth in Syria, in 2013 the group began seizing land in Iraq leading to the adoption of the name Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) [5].

In June 2014, ISIS seized Mosul and announced the creation of a caliphate. This move prompted military action from the U.S. in the form of Operation Inherent Resolve. According to the Department of Defense, as of August 2017, the Coalition had conducted 13,331 airstrikes in Iraq and 11,235 airstrikes in Syria. As of May 2017, ISIS has lost 70% of the territory it controlled in Iraq in 2013 and 51% in Syria [6]. ISIS is rapidly losing its seized territory, and with it goes its dreams of a global caliphate.

Iraq and Syria: May 2017 (Source: theglobalcoalition.org)

Why Won’t Traditional Counterterrorism Work Against ISIS?

ISIS’s goal is to establish a caliphate and enact Sharia law. The counterterrorism tactics used against ISIS did little to degrade them initially. According to David Kilcullen of the book Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, ISIS does not hide out in rural deserts like past terrorist groups; they live in urban areas amongst civilian populations. This means drone strikes are difficult because of the almost guaranteed collateral damage. Furthermore, killing leadership will not harm the group because of its cell-like structures. Attempts to cut off funding did very little to degrade the group because the land they held sustained them with oil fields, banks, and antiquities. Countering their propaganda remains difficult because young, susceptible men find the ideology incredibly inviting. Pure military strength has taken most of the physical caliphate away from ISIS, but their ideology remains and their ability to inspire attacks is an enduring threat. Thus, the answer to the question is such – traditional counterterrorism did not work against ISIS because ISIS is an insurgency, not just a terrorist group.

Will ISIS be Defeated?

According to Audrey Cronin, Professor of International Relations at American University, ISIS is not a terrorist organization; it is an insurgent group that uses terrorist tactics [7]. This is important to keep in mind when attempting to discover what the future may hold for ISIS, as well as figuring out what are the best ways to respond to the continued threat. It is still absolutely vital to respond to the terroristic aspects of the organization, but it is important to keep in mind that the end of terrorism does not mean the end of its other elements.

Cronin has explained six ways in which terrorism ends – success, failure, negotiation, repression, decapitation, and reorientation [8]. ISIS will not succeed in establishing a global caliphate; it has lost too much territory and it was never a truly achievable goal. It will not fail or self-destruct because it functions in a cell-like structure, so while one cell may struggle, another cell can still operate unaffected. Negotiation is not feasible as the group’s demands are simply too ludicrous. Decapitation, in which a leader is killed or arrested, will do nothing to degrade ISIS because, while Baghdadi is a powerful symbol and well versed in Quranic studies, he is just that; a symbol of the movement, but not a real leader [9].

SEAN CULLIGAN/OZY

Reorientation is how ISIS will end; they will transform into a different type of group. It is important to note that the end of terrorism does not mean the beginning of peace [10]. ISIS will no longer remain an insurgent group that uses terrorism as a tactic, but they will continue to pose a threat in terms of sporadic attacks via its cells. Daniel Shapiro, professor of International Affairs at Princeton, does not think ISIS “has significant prospects for renewed growth anywhere” but does agree that the threat of attacks do remain [11].

What Will Work Against Radical Ideology?

The threat of terrorism will never fully go away. Diminishing ISIS’s territory has hindered their ability to finance themselves, coordinate, and plan large-scale attacks. However, taking away their physical caliphate does not mean ISIS cannot continue to propagate on the internet in the form of a virtual caliphate. We cannot win a war on ideology with weapons. The threat of a global caliphate is no longer existent, but the dangerous ISIS-inspired mindset will remain. As Scott Atran argues in his book Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, and the (un)Making of Terrorists, de-radicalization, just like radicalization, works from the bottom up, not the top down [12]. This begs for continued advancement of community programs, including those that stress education and reinterpreting theology, to ensure susceptible young men and women do not radicalize via the internet, as well as collective vigilance to stop homegrown attacks.

Sources:

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/19/AR2007111900721.html

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/12/middleeast/here-is-how-isis-began/index.html

[3] The ISIS Apocalypse. William McCants 2016.

[4] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/isis-not-terrorist-group

[5] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/12/middleeast/here-is-how-isis-began/index.html

[6] http://theglobalcoalition.org/en/maps_and_stats/daesh-areas-of-influence-may-2017-update/

[7] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/isis-not-terrorist-group

[8] How Terrorism Ends. Audrey Cronin. 2009.

[9] http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/30/can-the-islamic-state-survive-if-baghdadi-is-dead/

[10] How Terrorism Ends. Audrey Cronin. 2009.

[11] https://www.princeton.edu/news/2017/10/20/shapiro-what-fall-raqqa-means-future-isis

[12] Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, and the (un)Making of Terrorists. Scott Atran. 2010.