Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
Counterterrorism is about undermining and neutralising terrorists.
A key tool in the counterterrorism arsenal is figuring out how violent extremists survive, adapt, and grow. This question is given special acuteness by the fact that terrorist groups can only rarely rely on success as a motivator; very few achieve their goals for political change. Indeed, one would be hard press to find an example of a contemporary terrorist group achieving its goal of political change.
A study by Khusrav Gaibulloev and Todd Sandler looked at 586 terrorist groups and concluded that the survival of terrorist groups depends on their goals, tactics, size, and base-country characteristics. A second important finding is that those groups inspired by religion are the most resilient. Notably, the study did not look at the role of social media and how these groups innovate to survive.
When looking at how violent extremists evolve and adapt—in other words, learn—researchers distinguish between different levels: micro (individual), meso (group), and macro (society). By doing so, we note the different learning processes. Such observations lead—or should—to the development of specific programs and policies to counter extremism at these various levels. For example, when the Islamic State (ISIS) was using social media to recruit and disseminate their propaganda of hate, states and the tech companies responded with algorithms and units that removed violent extremist content. There were also efforts to identify and determine whether a specific piece of content breached the terms of service.
On the meso and micro levels, states working against ISIS turned to experts in deradicalization, community engagement, and others to identify “at risk” individuals and groups. The focus was twofold, first determine what made these entities susceptible to extremist narratives; and second, design specific measures to address the grievances.
Nevertheless, as effective as some of these approaches, programs, and ideas have been, two areas of concern remain.
Firstly, transnational Salafi-jihadi groups are in a strategic pause, as they look for new ways to reframe their strategy and expand their influence. Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has had to reinvent Al-Qaeda several times. The strategic reframing has meant that Al-Qaeda Core (AQC) has moved away from the direct commissioning of violence. Instead, the group focuses on the dissemination of its guiding doctrine: Al-Qaedaism. A key element of Al-Qaedaism is that it marries local issues with transnational goals (glocalism). This strategic reframing has influenced the organisation, as local actors have more organisational leeway and operational freedom.
Secondly, it seems both far-Right extremists and Salafi-jihadi groups are increasingly restructuring their organisations to counter counterterrorism tactics that have worked in the past. One form this has taken is adopting a post-organisational mechanism, which refers to the blurring of boundaries between a group, a network, and a movement. Such a change provides extremists with fluidity in ideas, directions, targets, and tactics, whilst also making the ability to interdict, penetrate, and intervene more challenging as there is less structured traffic.
The post-caliphate ISIS has looked at what Al-Qaeda has done and has rethought its strategy. It has pivoted to an all-out insurgency, primarily in Syria and Iraq. The group seems to refrain from directly challenging Western militaries. This is something AQC has been doing for a while now. Through this newly formulated strategy, ISIS has “carved out space for itself and built the infrastructure necessary to launch attacks”.
There have also been organisational changes to ISIS. Since the demise of the territorial caliphate, the group has taken a post-organisational structure, seeking to encourage more lone-actor activities, something that it did during the time of the caliphate, but which was not a major goal as its focus was on encouraging in-migration to the nascent statelet. However, now that the focus is on survival, it is looking for new ideas, including experimenting with cryptocurrencies (something Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda itself have all done), and using different platforms to inspire and recruit. These strategic, tactical, and organisational changes are also noticeable within the extreme Right ecosystem.
Violent far-Right extremists pose similar challenges for counterterrorism practitioners. The diffuse nature of these entities makes ascertaining the current strategy of far-Right extremist groups difficult, as is detecting any reframing. One suspects that there is some form of strategic pause with the violent far-Right, too, in part because of increased attention, from the media and law-enforcement. The FBI’s willingness to refer to QAnon as potential domestic terrorism threat is indicative of the attention security services and law-enforcement are putting on these groups. Moreover, it is noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped these movements if not win outright support, at least gain some sympathy, due to growing antipathy towards mainstream politics, politicians, and traditional political parties. It is also possible that many of the extremists are simply sitting back, allowing conspiracies, disinformation, and mistrust to rise in the hope of gaining more support, understanding, and sympathy over the long term.
Such developments suggest two things. Firstly, some extremists may have chosen to suspend their use of violence as they see value in penetrating the political system and bringing forth the changes that they want. This is the case with QAnon, where supporters are joining the political system, intending to bringing about change from within. Alternatively, those that see the system as beyond repair, are perhaps using the time to seek out new members and new ways to challenge the existing status quo. This is why counterterrorism must evolve and adapt to the new violent extremist architecture, recognising the strategic reframing and the shift toward post-organisational mechanism.
There is a real danger that as we focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospects of a global recession, and increased geostrategic tensions, we pay insufficient attention to violent extremists as they are not making headline news. Such a development would be a terrible mistake, as terrorism remains a major threat, especially because of the democratisation of communication tools, which enables a single person to reach millions of people instantaneously. These innovations have been key to the survival of many violent extremist groups. Social media platforms and other tools allow violent extremists to not only continue to reach out to new audiences but to evolve, adjust, explore new tactics, tools, as well as change their organisation so as to make detection and interdiction harder. We therefore must focus more on understanding how violent extremists learn and adapt, as only through such action could we better dispute and contain these entities.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.