To prevent attacks before they occur, the underlying causes of ISIS’s success must be addressed
Paris. San Bernardino. Brussels. Nice. Istanbul. Rouen. The pace of terrorist attacks linked to ISIS has accelerated over the past two years. Indeed, the independent organisation IntelCenter estimates that since June 8 there has been an attack directed or inspired by ISIS every 84 hours, not counting those in active war zones.
In both Europe and the United States, citizens are distraught by their governments’ inability to effectively combat terrorism. Just days after a man drove a lorry through a crowded celebration of Bastille Day in Nice, killing 84 people, French prime minister Manuel Valls was booed as he observed a minute’s silence there. At the recent national convention of the Republican Party in the United States, candidate Donald Trump painted a grim picture of a nation threatened by terrorism and in need of a strong hand to impose law and order.
Western nations face difficult choices in crafting a counter-terrorism strategy adequate to the threat posed by ISIS. Most fundamentally, however, they face the question of whether they can effectively thwart radical Islamic terrorism while at the same time fostering the inclusion of Muslims and maintaining their commitment to individual liberties and the rule of law.
The increasing popularity of Trump in the United States and far right parties throughout Europe suggests that many people have concluded that the answer is “no”. Both Catholic ethics and smart counter-terrorism thinking, however, suggests that security and inclusion go hand in hand.
In the years after the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda established the paradigm for how terrorist organisations operate: a network of cells composed of trained and battle-hardened radicals, meticulously planning their attacks, often directed by the organisation’s top leaders. As a result, counter-terrorism efforts have focused on breaking up these networks through intelligence gathering, police work and blocking their financing.
In recent years, however, ISIS has revolutionised terrorist strategy. Making adept use of the internet and social media, ISIS radicalises disaffected youth and encourages them to carry out seemingly random acts of violence of their own devising. With a couple of exceptions, most recent attacks have been carried out by individuals or small groups acting on their own, with little or no training.
Although not formally part of terrorist networks, these perpetrators are hardly “lone wolves”. In almost all of these cases, the attackers have been exposed to radical Islamic ideology through websites and online videos, and in some cases have been in contact with members of terrorist groups like ISIS through Facebook, Twitter or various chat apps. Social media acts as a new kind of terrorist network, in which ideas, tactics and propaganda videos are shared worldwide.
Indeed, part of ISIS’s prominence can be attributed to its success in harnessing the power of social media. It runs its own websites, online video channels, professional-quality online magazine and Twitter accounts, all geared toward recruiting fighters for its war in Syria and Iraq and sympathisers willing to carry out acts of violence abroad.
The decentralised nature of this new brand of terrorism, however, makes more traditional forms of counter-terrorism less effective in combating it, even if still necessary. How can officials identify a health inspector, security guard or lorry driver radicalised through Twitter?
There are certainly ways that traditional counter-terrorism techniques could be improved to match this threat. Law enforcement agencies should be empowered and trained to more effectively monitor social media. In Europe, counter-terrorism agencies must be able to share information and cooperate more effectively than they do currently.
As important as they are, however, these measures cannot address the root causes of the current wave of ISIS-inspired terrorism. Some of the loudest voices in the debate have proposed that Islam itself is the problem. For example, in the United States, Trump has called for a ban on Muslim foreign nationals entering the country. In European nations, fears of terrorism have led many to oppose the admittance of refugees from Syria, despite the fact that these refugees are themselves fleeing ISIS violence in their homeland.
Other proposals seem to threaten cherished civil liberties. Some in the United States have called for the surveillance of mosques, and in France ex-president Nicholas Sarkozy has called for the detention of suspected radicals without a trial.
The Catholic tradition’s insistence that the common good should be the focus of our political efforts, however, calls these approaches into question. Of course, security is essential to the common good, and governments are morally obligated to take reasonable measures to protect their citizens from terrorism. But as the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes makes clear, the common good encompasses the well-being of each and every individual, and all social groups must be included in its ambit (no. 26).
Therefore, a counter-terrorism policy that singles out individuals or groups based solely on their religion or ethnic background does not truly promote the common good. Catholic social teaching has also insisted that concern for the common good is not limited by national borders, but rather reaches out in solidarity to the vulnerable in situations of conflict or economic distress. This is why the Church consistently emphasises the rights of migrants and refugees. At the very least, then, an ethical counter-terrorism policy must consider both security and inclusiveness.
Pope Francis has given flesh to these concepts. For example, he has consistently called on Europe to welcome migrants from the Middle East and Africa. He has proposed that the alienation experienced by so many young European Muslims, the native born children of migrants, is not caused by their religion, but rather by the fact that European societies have kept their Muslim communities at a distance, failing to integrate them in a way that respects their distinct religious identity. Muslim communities are not the problem, but must be part of the solution.
Counter-terrorism experts confirm Francis’s insights, and indeed make the case that security and inclusion are mutually reinforcing. Young people inspired by ISIS almost never come from stable, religiously conservative households, but rather are experiencing an identity crisis stemming from unstable personal relationships and the tensions of being Muslim in a largely non-Muslim society. Many recruits are engaged in petty crime, violent activities and promiscuous sexual relationships before swearing allegiance to ISIS. The social media propaganda produced by ISIS gives them the meaning and camaraderie they lacked.
To prevent attacks before they occur, these underlying causes of ISIS’s success must be addressed. This means there must be expanded support for grassroots efforts to counteract extremism within Muslim communities.
US government agencies often label these efforts as “countering violent extremism” (CVE). This means providing resources and support to community organisations and local leaders who are working against extremism in Muslim communities and providing positive alternatives to young people who might be attracted to ISIS or similar movements. For example, in the United States, pilot programs have been established in Boston, Los Angeles, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area bringing together the federal and local governments with local organizations and community groups to cooperatively prevent violent extremism.
A key part of CVE involves using social media to counteract the message of ISIS and similar radical groups. Of course, law enforcement agencies, as well as social media corporations and even private hackers, have tirelessly worked to disable terrorist websites and social media accounts.
But an effective social media strategy also involves providing a counter-narrative to that peddled by ISIS, such as promoting interpretations of Islam that reject ISIS’s tactics and disseminating videos that expose the realities of ISIS’s violence. Like other CVE efforts, using social media to counter ISIS needs government support, but ultimately requires the participation of civil society groups.
And this is why calls for greater surveillance of Muslim communities or for banning admittance to Muslims will ultimately be counterproductive. ISIS feeds on Muslims’ feeling that they don’t belong in Western societies, and so policies that deepen that identity crisis will only foster more violent attacks.
Likewise, these policies will discourage the sort of cooperation and positive efforts needed to truly prevent radicalisation. Therefore, Catholics concerned with the threat of terrorist violence should resist the temptation to demonise Muslims, but rather do what they can to support efforts to create well-integrated Muslim communities empowered to speak out against violent extremism.
This article first appeared in the August 5 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here