In June, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Tunisian capital city of Tunis, a popular tourist destination. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the explosions. Last week, the militant group’s “Tunisia office” released a chilling video in which armed men called for more attacks in the country and pledged allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This represents a new strategy adopted by ISIS after the demise of its physical caliphate. Covert cells, increased propaganda, and recruitment all over the world are now its main weapons.
Perhaps it was symbolic that earlier this year, al-Baghdadi, who had not been seen in public since 2014, appeared in a new propaganda video. In it, he said that despite the loss of territory, “the jihad will continue until Judgment Day”, and described IS operations against Western countries as a “long battle.” Largely viewed as an attempt to boost morale among its militants and as a call to action from sympathizers, al-Baghdadi’s appearance is a further sign that ISIS has settled for transformation, rather than admitting to the possibility of defeat. A need for change is also driven by the Islamic State’s rivalry with al-Qaeda, which has not just survived the death of Bin Laden, but is now in resurgence and actively resurrecting its global network.
For years, al-Qaeda had been eclipsed by the Islamic State as the latter boasted of establishing a fully-fledged state, a goal that al-Qaeda has failed to attain. But now that ISIS has lost this advantage, it needs another boast to retain its followers and attract new ones. Today, the group seems to be concentrating on launching more spectacular acts with symbolic impacts.
While ISIS-directed attacks are less likely to occur in Western countries where security has been significantly tightened, ISIS-inspired assaults continue to be a real threat. Using sophisticated propaganda as an effective tool, jihadists address individuals residing in the target countries, something that makes homegrown terrorism a particularly worrying trend. As no society is immune to well thought-out jihadist propaganda, it is crucial for security forces to up their game to prevent violent extremism.
“Since being overwhelmed by an explosion of online jihadi propaganda that accompanied the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, tech companies have been wrestling to tackle terrorist abuse of their platforms,” said Milo Comerford, a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change who focuses on developing innovative policy responses to extremist propaganda. “Over the past five years, Silicon Valley firms have been working increasingly collaboratively to develop mechanisms to flag and remove content, deploying machine learning techniques to take processes to scale, and even preventing such material from ever being uploaded by sharing data on the digital signature of extremist propaganda”.
“Such efforts have had considerable success in diminishing the online presence of ‘official’ media outlets of groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. However, there is still a considerable way to go on dealing with ‘unofficial’ material, as well as non-violent content that might not depict or incite to violence but still perpetuates extremism,” the expert notes.
“However, content removal-focused approaches will only ever be playing catch up,” said Mr. Comerford. “The most effective means of dealing with jihadist propaganda in the long term is to take a more proactive preventative approach. A plethora of counter-narrative campaigns and education initiatives from both governments and civil society have sought to build resilience to extremist messaging among vulnerable communities, and reduce the potential impact of jihadist propaganda on individuals. Policy makers should prioritize evaluating the effectiveness of such approaches to help diminish the destructive power of extremist propaganda”.
War against ‘crusader’ nations
The vital question is how al-Baghdadi is going to follow up on his calls for “the war of attrition” and more attacks against “crusader” nations, which are at the heart of new threats of domestic terrorism.
Interestingly, the American RAND Corporation has revealed that while al-Qaeda recruits mostly educated immigrants of Middle Eastern descent, ISIS tends to focus on younger, less educated and, more importantly, U.S.-born citizens. “Recruits are more likely to be Caucasian/white or African American/black and to have been born in the United States,” the study says, going on to report that targets are “more likely to have converted to Islam as part of their radicalization process.”
That said, European countries face a more severe terror threat than the US due to a larger number of foreign fighters, more developed jihadist networks, and the geographic proximity to war zones. A report by GLOBSEC elaborates on the origins of European jihadists and concludes that most are actually homegrown. Experts have examined almost 200 cases and found out that more than half of jihadists were born in the EU, 11% of them are naturalized or first-generation immigrants, while only 17% are external terrorists, i.e non-EU nationals who had not previously been living in Europe.
Why is the countering of extremist propaganda so crucial? According to the FBI, due to online recruitment, foreign terrorist groups are no longer dependent on finding ways to get terrorist operatives into countries to carry out attacks. Using the online spread of propaganda and training materials, they lure individuals into extremist activities. Also very worrying is clear evidence of the success of ISIS in drawing people to embrace its jihadist ideology.
Not only does the Islamic State use sophisticated online platforms and social media campaigns to attract potential supporters, but it also employs effective psychological techniques to make its propaganda more impressive. As terrorism expert Robert Pape notes, ISIS steals Western ideas to recruit more supporters. The group even goes as far as borrowing the “heroic narrative” from Hollywood movies, telling its audience how an ordinary man or woman can become a superhero. Evidence of the new tactic’s success is now frighteningly clear.