Istanbul: Next target in ISIS narrative?

ISIS opened 2017 with yet another attack, this time targeting Istanbul. The Reina nightclub shooting, which killed 39 and injured over 40 during the early hours of New Year’s Day, is the first attack on civilians in Turkey that the terrorist group has officially claimed. The gunman remains on the run at the time of writing.

Mass attacks on civilians have become an ISIS hallmark. In Turkey, the goal to kill civilians differentiates ISIS from other groups who have launched similar attacks, such as TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) or the PKK. Both of the latter (which are linked to each other) tend to target military and/or police targets, instead of civilians (although they can often be killed in the process).

Turkey – and Istanbul in particular – has suffered many terrorist attacks during 2016. Three notable incidents were the Ataturk airport bombing (June), the Sultanahmet suicide bombing (Jan), and the Istiklal Street suicide bombing (March). Interspersed with these have been numerous TAK and PKK-claimed bombings aimed at taking down police and military targets.

There have been other ISIS-attributed attacks in Turkey, such as the November 2016 Diyarbakir car bomb, but none as deadly as the Reina shooting. This style follows a pattern already seen elsewhere, with the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Bataclan shooting in Paris. Although ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially claimed the Diyarbakir attack, that was aimed at police. The Reina shooting represents the first time ISIS has claimed an attack of this nature against civilians in Turkey, a Sunni-majority country. It’s important to note that most of the victims at Reina were Muslims.

So why has ISIS changed the modus operandi of its attacks on Turkey? One theory is that, in the past, the group considered Turkey an essential gateway for foreign fighters to reach its heartland in Syria. This theory could have been valid when the borders were still porous in 2014, but makes less sense now that they have been closed. It is also questionable in light of recent ISIS attacks on Turkey, which have killed many Turks and other Muslims. Why would ISIS attack Turkey if Turkey were still covertly helping it?

Another idea, explored in more detail here, suggests that ISIS tailors its attacks to resonate more effectively with specific audiences. Knowing the group’s tendency to follow best practice in content strategy, this would seem logical. Killing Sunni civilians (as in the Reina attack) would seemingly contradict the interests of the main ISIS support base. Killing your target audience is probably not the best way to engage with them…But somehow ISIS is able to justify its actions enough to retain influence and make them work within its propaganda narrative.

The new focus on Istanbul as an ISIS target could also fit within the original ISIS narrative as outlined in the group’s propaganda magazine Dabiq. The magazine talks at length about the many battles leading up to the conquest of ‘Constantinople’ (as Istanbul was known during Crusader times), which precedes the final showdown against the ‘Crusaders’ (i.e. Western coalition forces). If ISIS and its supporters are still following this narrative, it is possible that the latest attack on Istanbul is a natural progression along the apocalyptic storyline of ISIS propaganda.

Could this ISIS-claimed attack on ‘Constantinople’ really be a deliberate step towards fulfilling another part of the Dabiq propaganda narrative? From an ISIS perspective, Muslims who frequent nightclubs (and most likely drink alcohol) would be seen as apostates – and hence, in the mind of an ISIS adherent, their killing would be justified. That, combined with the Turkish army’s recently increased offensive against ISIS in Syria, could be reason enough to put Istanbul in the firing line. Unfortunately, it seems we can expect more attacks on Istanbul during 2017, as the conflict between the Turkish state and ISIS ratchets up even further.

 

Nuanced communities: Mapping ISIS support on Twitter

Good narrative strategies requires first and foremost an intimate knowledge of the audience being targeted. Nowhere is this more true than in attempts to counter the potent messaging of ISIS. The terrorist group has become well-known for its ability to attract young people from across the world, including those from non-Muslim majority nations, to commit violence in the name of the ‘caliphate.’

ISIS has been a fixture in the global public consciousness for over two years, from its dramatic emergence in summer 2014 to facing near-decline earlier this year, followed by resurgence with its latest attack on Berlin just weeks ago. Long before Berlin, the group had already become notorious for the quality and power of its social media messaging, professionally produced videos and slick English-language print publications.

Concerned national governments and civil society groups have made numerous attempts to counter the ISIS narrative in various ways, ranging from shutting down followers’ Twitter accounts en masse to creating alternative narratives that aim to discredit the group, its ideology and its actions. But despite all these attempts, attacks against European cities remain a very real threat.

As another gloomy and blood-soaked year of ISIS activity comes to an end, the group shows no sign of fading away. Although it has lost physical territory in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing risk of the ISIS virtual caliphate persists.

A whole range of diverse factors determine an individual’s likelihood to become radicalised, many of which have been studied in significant depth elsewhere. Social media is not necessarily the most influential factor, but it undoubtedly plays a role.

RAND, a US-based think-tank, conducted a detailed research study, published in 2016, to examine ISIS support and opposition networks on Twitter, aiming to gather insights that could inform future counter-messaging efforts.

The study used a mixed-method analytics approach to map publicly available Twitter data from across the Arabic-speaking Twitter-verse. Specific techniques used were community detection algorithms to detect links between Twitter users that could signify the presence of interactive communities, along with social network analysis and lexical analysis to draw out key themes from among the chatter.

Research goals were to learn how to differentiate between ISIS opponents and supporters; to understand who they are and what they are saying; and to understand the connections between them while identifying the influencers.

Lexical analysis uncovered four major groups, or ‘meta-communities’ among the Arabic-speaking ISIS conversation on Twitter. These were Shia, Sunni, Syrian Mujahideen, and ISIS Supporters. They are characterised by certain distinct patterns in their tweets. Shia tend to condemn ISIS and hold positive views of Christians/the West/the international coalition fighting ISIS. This is unsurprising considering the long-standing hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims and the fact that ISIS is a Sunni group.

The Syrian Mujahideen group is anti-Assad, holds mixed views of ISIS, and negative views of the coalition. ISIS supporters talk positively in bombastic overblown language about ISIS and the caliphate. They insult Shia, the Assad regime, and the West. Notably, their approach to social media strategy is by far the most sophisticated of the lot. And finally, the Sunni group is heavily divided along nationalistic lines, which includes most countries of the Arab world.

Key findings of interest

1. Unique audiences, essential nuance

Telling the difference in large datasets between ISIS supporters and opponents was key for this study. RAND researchers chose an easy way; Twitter users who tweeted the Arabic word for ‘Islamic State’ (الدولة ا س مية ) were considered to be supporters, while those who used the acronym ‘DAESH’ (داعش ) were opponents. This dividing line isn’t foolproof but, based on what’s known about the significance of these two Arabic terms, it seems a valid way to approach the task. Research discovered that although opponents outnumbered supporters six to one, the supporters were far more active, producing 50 % more tweets daily.

This could point to a couple of things. Firstly the outnumbering suggests that the majority of the Arab world (or at least the Twitter sphere) is anti-ISIS; while the volume of pro-ISIS tweets could suggest passionate support for the group, or on the other hand could point to the presence of armies of pro-ISIS bots or perhaps the use of astro-turfing. The latter two could be an interesting case for new research, especially in the present climate where the curtain has been lifted on use of social media bots, astro-turfing armies and persona management software.

2. Jordanian pilot, Turkish soldiers

The researchers also plotted Twitter activity levels for all four groups, between July 2014 (when ISIS emerged and announced itself to the world), to May 2015. Notable findings were firstly that both the anti-ISIS groups (Shia and Sunni States) showed similar activity patterns, suggesting that both were responding to the same ISIS-related events. All four groups experienced a large spike in activity in early February 2015, when ISIS released a video showing Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive.

After this event, the ISIS supporters activity decreased sharply, while the Syrian Mujahideen’s grew to almost match the Shia and Sunni States groups. Possible explanations (assuming the ISIS supporters are not bots) could include outrage at the murder of a fellow Muslim, and/or outrage at the way he was killed, burning, which is forbidden in the Qur’an. It would be interesting to compare the Twitter response to al-Kasasbeh’s murder with the response to another ISIS burning video, released last week, where two Turkish soldiers were killed.

This comparison could reveal further insights about the nature of the original 2015 spike; or reveal changing attitudes towards Turkey, which has started fighting against ISIS in recent months and has most likely become hated among the group’s supporters as a result.

3. Social media mavens

The ISIS supporters Twitter community analysed in the study showed particular features that made it distinct from the other groups. The supporters group members were more active than the other three groups (despite smaller numbers overall). They tweeted a lot of pro-ISIS terms and phrases, predictably. But most notable about this group was their fluency and command of advanced social media strategy, as shown by their use of certain terms on Twitter. In the study, the supporters group used disproportionately high levels of terms such as spread, link, breaking news, media office, and pictorial evidence.

In general, ISIS has always been exceptionally conversant with social media marketing tools and techniques, in fact far superior to the efforts of many national governments. I would be very interested to see a study that uncovers who exactly is responsible for the ISIS propaganda, what their backgrounds are, and how they were recruited and trained (if indeed they weren’t already expert in this area).

4. CVE insights from Twitter data

Finally, the report offers insights for policy-makers and for those engaged in online CVE efforts across the Arab world. The most important of these is a reiteration of the need for counter-messaging that’s not just tailored, but that shows deep levels of insight into the mindsets of its target audiences. Research like this can help reveal useful themes and connections to build upon.

Also, the ongoing efforts by Twitter to ban pro-ISIS accounts has undoubtedly driven many of them to other channels, most notoriously Telegram. Analysing activity on new channels would be of great use in revealing any shifts in ISIS supporters focus or mindset. Much in the landscape has changed since this report was released, and continues to do so at a rapid rate.

After Berlin, can Germany resist hate?

“Hate is a lack of imagination.”
Graham Greene

Twelve people were killed and dozens injured this week in Berlin, when a man drove a truck into a busy Christmas market. The attacker targeted shoppers and bystanders, ploughing his hijacked vehicle into the crowds in much the same way as the Bastille Day attack in Nice. Isis was quick to claim that it inspired the attack.

German authorities believe the attacker is a Tunisian national in his early 20s, according to identity documents found in the truck’s cabin, where the Polish driver was also found shot dead. Police are currently conducting a series of raids as they try to find the attacker.

Although this latest event in Berlin is as bloody and tragic as any other, it is beginning to lose some of its shock value in a year filled with carnage. It’s just another instalment in a series of attacks on European cities that have targeted Brussels, Istanbul (multiple times), Paris, and Nice this year. In response we find the usual banalities. Politicians tweet ‘thoughts and prayers’, analysts weigh in on TV and in op-eds, while the world expresses sentiments on social media ranging from grief and solidarity to ‘we told you so’, among a range of negative remarks aimed at Islam. Most of these responses ring hollow; they’ve been said so many times already. But the anti-Islam ones are more serious than most, as for Western societies they herald yet another step down a frightening rabbit hole.

The anti-Islam, anti-refugee view, once the preserve of those at the far-right margins, is now making its way into everyday discourse. Ordinary people can’t help but be shocked at the plight of innocent victims like those visiting the market that fateful day. Far-right discourse plays on their shock and encourages their fear to take hold and manifest itself in growing fear and suspicion of the ‘other’, particularly refugees and Muslim immigrants.

But with the frequency of attacks in 2016 in particular, one could argue that ‘propaganda of the deed’ could be losing some of its potency. The West knows that it’s under threat but seems to lack the ability to counter the origins of the problem. Defeating Isis in Syria and Iraq hasn’t helped, as this latest attack in Germany shows.

The troubled worldview of disaffected, frustrated young Muslims in the West can’t very well be addressed with military action in Iraq or Syria. In fact, this only serves to stoke the flames of radicalisation and lead more people to take up arms in support of Syria’s plight. The difference is, they may choose to attack at home where it’s easier to do so.

So if Isis inspired this latest attack what is it hoping to achieve? For starters this could be a reminder that it’s still here and still a credible threat. Despite recent territorial losses in Syria and Iraq the group knows that its influence extends far beyond those battlefields. Understanding its audience as well as Isis does means that the group can still tap into their frustrations and fears, harnessing those to inspire attacks like this latest one in Berlin.

For Angela Merkel this is very bad news. Her pro-refugee policy back in summer 2015, despite its best intentions, meant that Germany perhaps bit off more than it could chew, without a clear plan in place to make sure the new arrivals were properly integrated. As thousands of desperate refugees headed for Germany, the people of overwhelmed towns and cities started to become resentful. As negative incidents emerged, such as the Paris shootings and the Cologne sexual assaults, so the tide of German public sentiment started turning against refugees, equating their very presence with a heightened risk of terrorism.

Events like these are prime opportunities for the far-right to promote their brand of hatred, fear and division. If they time their moves well, far-right parties can manipulate public opinion and use it to gain political leverage. They already did so successfully in Britain and the US, resulting in Brexit and Trump respectively. France, with the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen, is not far behind.

Merkel’s Germany has been described as the ‘liberal West’s last defender’ in Europe. Although this seems ironic given the country’s 20th century history, it’s a testament to how hard Germany has worked and how far it has come.

Germany has a few advantages that may help protect popular sentiment from far-right influence; firstly, a stronger economy than many of its EU neighbours; secondly, a media landscape that is more restrained and less hysterical than, for example, that of the UK. But Germany’s final, and most important, advantage is that it has already learned serious lessons from history. It has lived through the terrible reality of what widespread xenophobia can bring.

For this to now be undone and for fascism to return would be a travesty, not just for Germany, but for the world. It remains to be seen in the run-up to the next German elections whether the people will give in to the forces that wish to sow division, or instead form their own judgements and proceed with wisdom and clarity.

Update: Since this was published the Berlin market attacker, Anis Amri, was shot dead by Italian security forces in a shootout in Milan.

 

From mosques to swastikas: Images of terrorism

In November 2016 the far-right terrorist Thomas Mair was sentenced to life in prison for the politically-motivated murder of MP Jo Cox, which happened earlier in the year. It’s telling that many news outlets featuring headlines about the verdict chose to place quote marks around the word ‘terrorist’. Other terms that media outlets used to describe Mair included ‘deranged white supremacist’, ‘far-right fanatic’, and ‘neo-Nazi’.

While all of these terms are true enough and suitably negative, they also suggest that the media remains reluctant to label Mair as what he is: a terrorist. Only one article in the Guardian not only included the word in the headline (without quotes) but also in the opening sentence.

This may seem like a trivial problem of semantics. Surely terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ are good enough to describe Mair in light of his actions. But there’s more to it than that.

Perceptions are at the heart of the matter. The point is fairly obvious and it’s been made many times; if this white man had been Muslim he’d have been instantly called a terrorist (without a quote mark in sight). By putting the word in quote marks or using terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’, the media paints Mair’s actions as unusual and an anomaly.

It does not imply any ongoing link between white men and terrorism. That one is reserved for brown men with beards – and has been that way for the best part of two decades. Perceptions in the public mind of terrorism and Muslims are writ large and obvious, full of double standards. Islam’s image has become synonymous with terrorism.

Much of that image has been built and reinforced by the constant drip feed of media narratives that draw oft-hysterical links between terrorism, extremism and Muslims. The resulting Islamophobia has formed a grim backdrop to everyday life for numerous Muslim communities. Repercussions have been immense and damaging, ranging from everyday discrimination to acts of outright violence.

There’s also the added challenge of counter-terrorism measures such as Prevent, which focus disproportionately on Muslims, creating an atmosphere where innocent citizens feel singled out and victimised. On top of this, the much-publicised crimes of Daesh (ISIS) have further inflamed the situation over the last two years. Resentment, fear and distrust of Muslims is at an all-time high.

In recent months however, the so-called Islamic State has taken a back seat to the rise of a new group: the so-called ‘alt-right’, otherwise known as far-right extremists. The resulting media furore surrounding the Brexit vote and Trump’s election has thrown the spotlight onto far-right extremism. The far-right has always been around – it makes up 1 in 3 cases referred to Prevent – but until now hasn’t received such high levels of media coverage.

There isn’t much that’s positive about such hateful trends. But against this backdrop, with Daesh fading into memory, perhaps the image of Islam will regain some ground. Society must realise that violent extremism and terrorism are not just related to Islamic groups. Hate and dissatisfaction comes in many flavours and there’s a much broader spectrum out there than mainstream media coverage would suggest. For example, before Al Qaeda, many people associated “terrorism” with the IRA; white Catholics.

It’s time for the image of Islam to start reflecting reality; and for people to realise that terrorism and Islam are not synonymous. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, perhaps the rise of far-right extremism could help bring this perception shift into fruition.

History repeats itself

Lately, terrorism has started feeling like old news. We no longer see new beheading videos emerge online, nor do we hear reports of attacks in major Western cities. For the time being, Daesh has retreated backstage. A new actor has emerged, one who peddles fear just as effectively as any terrorist group ever did. Of course that’s Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States.

Trump’s rise to power was a shock for many. Yet there were others who predicted it; and many more who actively welcomed it. He campaigned on a platform of popular fears, goading his audiences to ever-deeper depths of hysteria as they talked of Muslim registers, Mexican walls and abortion bans. Now this cartoonish individual is sitting smugly at the top of the tree; crowned the world’s most powerful leader. In many ways his campaign was smarter than his rival Clinton’s, who thought her political pedigree would carry her to victory. But she was too complacent. Trump’s campaign strategists tested the mood of the nation and anticipated it perfectly. His win was no accident.

Now the world faces an uncertain future. The Trump administration is staffed with individuals who promote division, fear and hatred. The most alarming among them is surely Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News, an ultra-conservative online platform that promotes white nationalism, stands against immigration, is pro-gun, anti-abortion and heavily against anything that appears politically correct. Bannon is now chief strategist in the Trump administration.

Out of curiosity I opened up Breitbart News while writing this post. I felt slight trepidation at what I might find there, yet sought to understand more about the ‘other side’s’ point of view. It struck me how lively the comment sections were. An interview with Bannon attracted particularly high engagement, with the number on the ‘Show New Comments’ button flying up from zero to 31 in the time it took to type this paragraph. A quick scan of the comments told me that Breitbart readers see politics as war, ‘love the aggressiveness of Mr Bannon’, believe they were treated like ‘helpless peasants’ during the Obama days, and consider Washington D.C. as ‘the enemy’. Many also think that Hillary Clinton should be jailed, for crimes that include ‘treason’ and ‘importing illegals and rapefugees’.

It was a baying mob, aggressive and full of hate. Many commenters believed that events like Sandy Hook and 9/11 were fake, ‘false flags’ as they call them. But what struck me the most was the Breitbart readership’s resentment and outright hatred of the American establishment. Breitbart was founded in 2007, just before Obama took office. I don’t know much about its trajectory since then, but today it has clearly become a force to be reckoned with. So much so that Breitbart readers and their far-right counterparts around the world have begun to challenge the very foundations of liberal democracy.

Much of our current debacle revolves around the simple marketing advice of ‘knowing your audience’. Good marketers know their audience’s pain points, speak their language, and try to solve their concerns. Much of Trump’s rhetoric directly speaks to the type of concerns expressed in the Breitbart comments sections. With an audience as actively engaged as this it’s no wonder he was able to gain power so easily. It’s a perfect alignment between message and recipient. Now there’s a risk that Breitbart-esque views will start to become normalised. Expressing views that espouse hatred and mistrust of Muslims, for example, may become more acceptable than before. Trump’s remarks about setting up a compulsory registry to keep track of Muslims are nothing short of persecution, akin to the Jews in pre-war Germany.

Trump, Breitbart and their ilk have opened up a Pandora’s box in the West. As similar far-right groups rise up across the Western world, harassment of minorities is likely to become more prevalent. That makes the narrative of groups like Daesh far more resonant. Although terrorism has become less prominent in the news for a while now, it’s inevitable that it will soon return in some form or another, likely angrier and more dangerous than before. History will surely repeat itself. Promoting better understanding between all groups in society is the only way to stand a chance of counteracting this situation. That includes those who consider themselves liberals seeking to understand what drives alt-right perspectives, however repugnant that prospect may seem.

Is prevention better than cure?

A spirited debate this evening at King’s College London highlighted precisely why the issue of Prevent remains so important in today’s terrorism and CVE realms. It was discussed as part of a seminar exploring the role of education in countering terrorism; asking whether peace can be taught.

Firstly, Prevent, part of the British government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy. Prevent has a stated aim to ‘safeguard people and communities from the threat of terrorism’. Whether or not it actually succeeds is a matter of much contention among academia, policy-makers and grassroots actors in local communities. Many would argue that it actually worsens the very problem it aims to fight against.

Tonight’s panel was asymmetric in terms of the speakers and their stances on Prevent. Only one of them, Abu Ahmed, a representative of the Home Office, was there to speak on behalf of the policy, while the rest were champing at the bit to rip it apart. And rip it apart they did.

Ahmed argued that Prevent saves lives. But this rang hollow despite what initially should sound like highly commendable outcomes. As an audience member was quick to point out, everything said about Prevent approaches the extremism issue from a standpoint based on the effects. Very little is said about tackling the causes.

Although Prevent claims to tackle all kinds of extremism, there’s a disproportionate focus on Muslims. No-one in their right mind could deny this fact. Ahmed showed some slides featuring photos of young Brits who had become radicalised and committed crimes as a result. The photos showed almost all brown faces. It was telling when Ahmed pointed out the white far-right extremist in the bottom corner, saying ‘you probably haven’t heard of this one’. Yet this man attacked and burnt down three mosques. Why wasn’t this newsworthy? That’s a topic for a whole other debate…

Rob Faure-Walker, an East London teacher-turned-academic, drew on first-hand experience to illustrate his critique of Prevent. He recounted a time when, before Prevent was enforced, he had debated the issue of homosexuality with some Muslim students in the classroom. They were initially hostile to the idea of anyone being gay, and even went as far as to suggest ‘gays ought to be stoned’. But instead of squashing this aggressive viewpoint, Rob decided to open it up for debate.

For weeks the class debated vehemently about homosexuality. Rob didn’t get very far in shifting their views. Some months later, the bill for gay marriage was passed. Rather dreading the reactions from among his students, Rob braced himself for the worst. But he didn’t get it. The students had decided that ‘marriage between any two people who love each other must be a good thing’. They had picked up their previous less tolerant views by absorbing rigid dogmas. Via the medium of open debate they had been able to challenge these dogmas and had developed more critical views as a result. This can only be a good thing.

If Prevent had been in force at that time, any Muslim students who had raised negative views about stoning gays would surely have been reported to the authorities. Today, Prevent is dampening debate in schools because people (in particular Muslims) have become afraid to raise contentious viewpoints. But this is short-sighted. Without debate how can they have any hope of learning alternative perspectives? How can they learn to challenge dogmatic worldviews? Schools should help to create more critical citizens. Teachers should facilitate debate, not spy on students.

To situate Prevent within a wider context, the panel went on to examine the terms commonly used within it: radicalisation and extremism. Originally purely political terms, both have now become deeply associated with violence, even though this was not inherent in their original meaning. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to hold extreme radical views and to not be inclined towards violence. The two are not synonymous.

Living in societies where freedom of debate is stifled is unhealthy. We may believe the UK is nothing like Egypt, for example, where the secular rulers kept the Muslim Brotherhood repressed for decades, eventually leading to violent outbursts and the rise of terrorism. Nor do we believe the UK is like Syria, where the Assad government vehemently held back religious extremists for decades. Libya under Gaddafi was much the same. We only have to look at the state of these countries today to see what happens when sections of society are systematically repressed and targeted.

Prevent is risky because it spreads fear and ‘prevents’ constructive debate. Those who don’t believe that the Western democratic model is the only way the world could potentially be governed are unfairly targeted by Prevent. Conditions like these only serve to heighten a sense of victimisation and encourage the spread of extremist views and potential violence.

To conclude the session, Dr Rizwaan Sabir pointed out that there are a multitude of expensive PR strategies supporting the core themes of Prevent, but none of them really work. This is because the reality does not reflect the messages – and everyone knows it. Until the two add up, there will always be disconnect. Far-reaching social and political changes are needed, not just targeting the effects of flawed policies on certain sections of society. Actions always speak louder than mere words and people will see through the latter in the blink of an eye.

Book review: Old and New Terrorism

“The new terrorism cannot be understood without making sense of the dynamics caused by late modernity and globalisation”

– Dr Peter R. Neumann

In my quest to better understand terrorism I wanted to first gain more basic knowledge of its underpinnings. Not just the Islamic kind that we hear so much about these days, but all kinds of terrorism throughout the ages – from its birth during the French Revolution to its most modern incarnation in the form of Isis. I wanted to learn from a source that was credible yet readable, where the key points were not buried under layers of academic bluster. With this in mind I selected Old and New Terrorism by Peter Neumann to begin this journey.

War of the worlds

Neumann sets the scene by describing a colourful and compelling image of terrorists ‘whose aim was to liquidate all satanic forces and destroy all life on earth’. This HG Wells-esque quote, attributed to the pre-eminent terrorism historian Walter Laqueur, draws the reader right in with high hopes for an entertaining yet informative further read.

Although the ‘earthquake machines’ Laqueur warns of have fortunately not yet become reality, the point of the description is to illustrate that the nature of terrorism is changing. Laqueur was quick to pick up on this fact. In delineating the shifts, Neumann first outlines how many of the old guard from the 70s and 80s, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Irish Republic Army (IRA) abandoned violence during the 1990s. He contrasts this tactical shift with the rise of ‘new and more dangerous forms of terrorism’, beginning with the first World Trade Centre attack in 1993 and developing into the present-day threat of ‘lone wolf’ attacks on European capitals.

Old and New Terrorism explores how and why terrorism has changed. This is more than just a surface-level analysis; Neumann digs deep to uncover the global social and political shifts creating the conditions to foster terrorism in its modern-day form. He believes that understanding the nature of these changes is essential; that ‘the new terrorism cannot be understood without making sense of the dynamics caused by late modernity and globalisation’.

Going global

Globalisation is a core theme that runs consistently throughout the book, underpinning most of the arguments. In the first chapter, Neumann examines how terrorist groups operate, focusing on how their structures and modus operandi have adapted to globalisation. Of course, the internet features prominently along with the rise in cheap travel. Both developments allow the easy flow of people and information across borders, enabling potential terrorists to build global networks and immediately reach audiences that span entire continents.

Politics is another central focus of the book, in particular how the forces of globalisation and late modernity have influenced politics and shaped the terrorist agenda in response. Neumann points out that these developments have benefitted ‘an increasingly cosmopolitan elite’, yet also triggered a rise in political views that hinge on ‘particularist forms of ethnic and religious identity’, rejecting the liberal, secular and inclusive norms promoted by globalisation. The clash of different mindsets enabled by globalisation has dredged up further opportunities for terrorist groups to exploit. This is the context within which we must understand the rise of religiously inspired terrorism, especially the politicisation of religion.

Shock value

Continuing the theme of globalisation, Neumann investigates how the new 24/7 media cycle has created saturation and desensitisation; causing today’s terrorists to use even more shocking tactics to spread their message, and create the necessary psychological ‘shock’ effect upon their audience. Also, the need for brutal violence is made easier for those who wield it because their particularist ideology defines all members of different ethnic and religious groups as the ‘Other’, and consequently as ‘infidels’ or ‘subhumans’ whose harm can be justified within the terrorist paradigm. Neumann points out that this alarming lack of restraint combined with the need for ‘shock value’ creates an environment where the most extreme violence becomes possible.

Neumann concludes by arguing that governments and societies are ‘ill-prepared to face new terrorism due to a lack of international cooperation. He highlights the need to challenge terrorist messages in the virtual spaces where most of their supporters reside, i.e. on social media, in online forums and, increasingly, within the dark web. Neumann argues against imposing globalist ideologies such as liberal values and cosmopolitanism, as this runs the risk of creating further ‘ideological blowback’. He suggests instead that solutions lie in ‘softening the interpretations’ of various religious, ethnic and national identities, and ‘providing avenues through which they can be expressed non-violently’.

Age of anxiety

Old and New Terrorism offers a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter, situating the phenomenon of terrorism within a wider context of global politics and social trends. This is vital knowledge for anyone who still believes that religion is the sole driver behind terrorist acts. I found the chapter ‘From Marx to Mohammed? Religion and Terrorism’ particularly insightful in its discussion of the recent return of religiously inspired terrorism. Neumann explains that terrorist groups ‘always reflect broader ideological currents’ and that the recent rise in ‘backward’ terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Isis, is not a contradiction to globalisation and modernity, but instead an inherent feature of the processes that drive them.

He refers to the insecurity and anxiety perpetuated by late modernity and globalisation, that has ‘challenged people’s sense of control over their own destiny’ and led some to look backwards to simpler systems to make sense of their world. This, combined with massive social and economic change, has left some groups behind, in particular immigrants to Western societies, many dealing with their own cultural identity crises on top of a whole raft of economic and social challenges.

The book’s narrative flows with ease. Neumann explains his points  clearly and succinctly, leaving the reader with a host of new insights and the tools to think critically about potential new directions in the subject matter. This book provides a fairly well-rounded explanation of terrorism, but I’d have liked to read more about the digital world and how online propaganda is used by, and against, terrorist groups. But as Old and New Terrorism was published in 2009, shortly before the rise of Isis, perhaps this would be a subject for a subsequent book. I would recommend Old and New Terrorism to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the logical drivers behind this seemingly unpredictable modern phenomenon.

Mixed-up emotions

 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

– H.P. Lovecraft

Why do people, both as individuals and as groups, constantly act against their best interests, seemingly without logic?

A recent article by Alex Van Gestel caught my eye as it encapsulates many of my thoughts about the nature of emotion and its effect on political decisions. The emotion most frequently at play is of course fear. Van Gestel talks about emotion – specifically fear – as the driving force that swung the Brexit outcome in an unexpected direction.

In a high-stakes political campaign like Brexit, the winning side will be the one that harnesses the emotions of its target audience most effectively. Simply presenting an array of rational arguments, no matter how sensible they are, is not the way to do this. Rationality and emotion don’t mingle well – in fact they’re polar opposites.

In the case of Brexit, the Remain campaign, full of liberals, globalists and intelligentsia – the so-called elite – failed in its mission. It was outsmarted by the blatant emotional pandering of the Leave campaign. We might find it vile when Murdoch’s papers run headlines likening refugees to cockroaches, or when Nigel Farage uses a campaign poster depicting ‘hordes’ of brown men on their way to the UK border. These techniques are distasteful and unfair, but they’re also highly effective. The Leave side won because they sensed the spirit of the times and knew how it related to their target audience. All they had to do was channel emotions through carefully crafted messaging.

People often act against their best interests when emotion overrides reason. Think about all the irrational fears people have, such as fear of flying. All the flight safety statistics in the world won’t make an aviophobe feel comfortable on a plane. The fear emotion is too strong and well-primed.

Never forget that audiences “buy on feelings, not features,” as Van Gestel points out. When creating strategic campaigns for anything, from selling a product to instigating social change, the role of emotion should be kept at the core. To do this, we need to connect with our audience at a deep level to really get to know them and understand what they want. We need to know their fears, their dreams and their darkest desires.

This is where the Remain campaigners, among them some of the world’s best marketers, went wrong. They didn’t understand the concerns of the target audience. If the marketers had understood better, perhaps the Remain campaign could have responded more effectively to allay fears, instead of simply blinding the audience with logical arguments that fell on deaf ears.

The Leave campaign triggered people to vote against their economic interests. Places such as Cornwall, which receives a lot of support from the EU, voted overwhelmingly to leave it. An irrational fear of immigrants, stoked by the mainstream media, trumped people’s rational interests in their economic needs. Emotion cheated them from what was most beneficial.

To heighten the climate of fear still further, the brutal terrorist acts of Isis fed into an irrational reaction towards immigrants that drove the UK towards Brexit. Isis committed much-publicised atrocities in various cities around the world, from Istanbul and Baghdad (which people care about less), to those closer to home, Brussels and Paris, which deeply affected us in the UK.

At the root of this inconsistency is basic human emotion. Istanbul and Baghdad are far away and what happens there does not generally affect us. But bring the terror to our very doorstep and we start to get frightened. This is the perfect time for opportunistic political groups to seize the moment. Once fear is running high they can launch their campaigns for maximum effect. The message will resonate and people will respond, even if it is against all logic, rationality and common sense.

Fear creates a vicious cycle. As society becomes afraid of the ‘other’, it soon becomes more divided and suspicious. Those who don’t fit the mould become objects of fear. In the time of Isis it has meant that Muslims have borne most of the brunt of these fears. From innocent refugees to long-standing British Muslim citizens – the effect of rising Islamophobia has been felt deeply. The resulting hostility only serves to create further divisions. When people are afraid they are less likely to use logic.

Knowledge can quieten the madness of fear. Finding ways to cut through the fog of emotion and allow people to understand the true nature of a situation is key. One way to do this is by appealing to them on a grassroots, human, everyday level.

To explore this further, Fear Interrupted will soon begin publishing a series of interviews with people who are leading independent initiatives to dismantle fear and promote understanding.

Rise of nerves

 

I’d never really thought much about violent extremism before 2001, when images of the collapsing Twin Towers filled TV screens around the world. I was just a naive 18 year old asking my father if the world was ending.  He assured me it wasn’t, but I still remember how alarmed he looked.

The world didn’t end then, but it changed.

Although the events of 9/11 were undeniably tragic, it riles me somewhat when the media elevates this above all other similar incidents. In Turkey, in just twelve months, there have been at least fifteen terrorist attacks, culminating in the big one that really hit home for me. Ataturk Airport, June 28, 2016. 45 dead, 239 injured.

I was due to fly out of Turkey just days later. Of course, that was no reason to be afraid, but it does bring a stark reminder of one’s own mortality.

But the sense of fear in Istanbul started long before the airport attack. As an expat there in late 2014 I remember hearing fellow Brits talking about their fears of spending too long in crowded places, of taking public transport, or of hanging out in Taksim Square.

This rise of nerves coincided with the rise of ISIS; disturbingly close to home over the Syrian border. Turkey seemed immune to attack at that time, in fact some say the Turkish government actively supported ISIS, or turned a blind eye to its cross-border activities at the very least. With that in mind, some of us felt a little safer, assuming that ISIS would not bite the hand that fed it.

But things changed in July 2015, when an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish peace rally in the eastern city of Suruç, killing 33 people. Eyewitnesses reported a curious lack of security at the event, which is unusual for Turkey. From that point on, every month seemed to bring a new attack, and nowhere felt safe anymore.

In early 2016 the focus shifted to Istanbul. Every expat’s anxious nightmare came home to roost when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the tourist heartland, Sultanahmet. Then came another attack in March, this time targeting another popular tourist area, Istiklal Avenue.

The bomber struck on a Saturday morning, where thankfully the street was at its most empty. At peak times, mainly weekend evenings, nearly three million people might traverse that street. It often gets packed rigid; difficult to move in any direction. That used to be dynamic and exciting. In the wake of the bombing, it became terrifying. And these days, it’s not so packed anymore.

In July came the final message from ISIS to Turkey, in the form of the Ataturk airport bombing. It seemed the group had lost patience with Turkey. Something had shifted; no idea what. But now, a few months later, Turkish forces have joined the coalition working to rout ISIS out of Mosul once and for all.

What this defeat will mean for the terrorist group remains to be seen. Analysts offer up a wide range of theories, but simply using military force to defeat the group in Iraq will not defeat the ideology. In fact, it will probably support the compelling ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that ISIS promotes through all its online content.

A concept cannot be killed, it can only be neutralised. Changing hearts and minds through smarter and more thoughtful engagement at the grass roots is one way to start doing this. Of course the social and political challenges will remain. Only deep-seated policy change can shift these. That is unlikely to happen any time soon. But rising Islamophobia and the resulting discrimination and marginalisation must be tackled if we hope to create convincing counter-narratives to combat those of violence.