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Islamic State can’t be destroyed with half-measures

If a modern-day Australian Rip Van Winkle were to awake from a two-decade slumber and turn on his television set or iPad, he would be stunned by the extent to which terrorism has come to dominate our lives. Interspersed among international new stories featuring the latest terrorist bombings, assassinations and suicide attacks in far-flung regions of the world, he could not fail to notice the deep anxiety Australians feel about the likelihood of similar attacks taking place on Australian soil, or the Turnbull government’s preoccupation with preventing such attacks.

Barely a day passes without a new government initiative, statement, exhortation or meeting aimed at future-proofing Australia against the kinds of terrorist attacks that have become a regular occurrence in once tranquil Europe. This week in Bali, it was the turn of Attorney-General George Brandis, who emphasised the importance of disrupting the flow of money to terrorist groups and countering the worrying trend of self-funded terrorism.

Yet a decade and a half after 9/11 ushered in a new age of transnational terrorism, Western governments are still struggling to come to terms with the terrorist challenge in all its perplexing diversity. European soul searching in the wake of the recent spate of terrorist outrages reveals deep public confusion and a polarisation of elite opinion about the nature of the threat, its causes and how best to devise effective responses.

As Islamic State slowly cedes territory in Iraq and Syria to an unlikely coalition of Western, Russian and Islamic opponents, do the latest terrorist attacks in Europe presage a co-ordinated, Islamic State-directed campaign designed to bring the war to the West? Or are they result of self-radicalised, disenfranchised and mentally unstable “lone wolves” inspired, rather than directed, by Islamic State? Are we in the West responsible, as Islamic State and critics on the Left would have us believe? And why is it taking so long to come to grips with a problem that initially seemed manageable but is now an existential threat to France and Belgium, and a major security challenge for many other countries, including Australia.

To take the last question first, there are two main reasons for the drawn-out, patchy and often confused counter-terrorist response. The first is the disconcerting rapidity with which terrorism continues to mutate, making it difficult for intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to develop a fit for purpose counter-terrorist strategy. Before the rise of al-Qa’ida, terrorist groups essentially operated as proxies for client states with explicit, but limited, political objectives usually confined to particular geographic regions. Al-Qa’ida broke the mould as the first genuinely transnational terrorist group with global reach and ambitions to match.

However, although it aspired to the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, al-Qa’ida’s appeal was largely confined to its Middle Eastern and Pakistani redoubts. The centralised way in which the leadership operated, particularly in al-Qa’ida’s early phase, made it easier to contain and attack than the franchised, decentralised model that later evolved.

Bursting out of the Syrian desert in mid-2014 to capture a third of Syria and Iraq in less than six months, Islamic State tore up the al-Qa’ida playbook and forced a radical reassessment of Western counter-terrorist strategy. Here was an organisation that acted more like a state than a terrorist group. Moreover, it was even more brutal and better resourced than al-Qa’ida and zealously committed to a war to the death against anyone who opposed its perverse brand of Islamism, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

A second reason was the mistaken characterisation of Islamic State as an evolved al-Qa’ida when in fact it operates more as a cult than a traditional terrorist group, a distinction that Tony Abbott frequently asserted, although without explaining its real significance. Recognising that Islamic State is fundamentally a cult allows a more accurate and nuanced picture of the organisation’s internal dynamics, structure, culture and goals. If we don’t understand what we are fighting, we have little chance of winning.

Florence Gaub, a senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies, argues that cults are more flexible, cohesive, agile and ultimately more challenging than other organisations. They “do not recruit and indoctrinate like other political entities”; they often make use of “established religious scriptures and beliefs to gain credibility and legitimacy”; their leadership “is not accountable to any authority”; and they “use their money to reward obedience or to enrich the leadership”.

This is a pretty good description of Islamic State, which likes to portray itself as the vanguard of a “pure” Islam when in fact it deviates from Islam in two important respects. Islamic State uses religion “to establish an exclusive, authoritarian, self-interested organisation with total control over its adherents”. And while Islam permits differences in interpretation and practice among its adherents, cults like Islamic State “treat their (typically self-appointed) leader, belief systems, ideology and practices as absolute truth, closed for debate”.

Gaub makes several other observations about Islamic State’s cult-like character which should be mandatory reading for Western counter-terrorism agencies, because she provides clues as to how the organisation can be weakened and defeated.

The way Islamic State recruits and indoctrinates its members is almost identical to cults elsewhere. Cults are less concerned with spreading a spiritual message than with control of the group, an observation borne out by the pervasive control that Islamic State imposes over all aspects of its members’ lives, from the trivial to the important. Leadership directives cover, often in turgid and obsessive detail, everything from the length of men’s beards to the circumstances under which fighters can have sex with captured women. Loosening its leaders’ control over their followers by undermining their authority is the key to reducing Islamic State’s social cohesion and effectiveness.

Far from being an egalitarian organisation, Islamic State is a ­hierarchy that apportions spoils according to position. The gap between the organisation’s unifying rhetoric and preferential practices can be exploited to create dissension among its ranks, for example by publicly exposing the vastly different treatment local recruits receive compared with the relatively privileged foreign fighters and senior leaders.

Like all cults, Islamic State uses difficult to detect, and combat, psychological recruitment techniques to target receptive individuals, eroding, then severing, their family bonds and positioning the organisation to replace them as the only relevant social network. Violence is used to deter resistance, intimidate adversaries and create a shared group experience. So psychological responses are necessary in the form of incentives for defection, protection from Islamic State violence and amnesties for intelligence co-operation.

Battlefield success is central to Islamic State’s narrative, legitimacy and capacity to recruit, which is why the leadership sometimes seeks high-profile victories, often at disproportionate cost or in defiance of tactical logic. During intense fighting last June, hundreds of fighters were sacrificed in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to wrest back control of the Syrian border town of Kobane from Kurdish forces.

Denying Islamic State battlefield success in Syria, Iraq and Libya is a necessary first step towards stifling its recruiting ability. This is borne out by recent data showing that the number of foreign and local fighters peaked in 2015 at about 33,000 and has since fallen precipitately in tandem with battlefield reverses by around a third. Islamic State will lose the ability to fight and proselytise as a proto-state if the number of fighters drops much further and its remaining strongholds in Mosul (Iraq), Raqqa (Syria) and Sirte (Libya) fall, which is almost certain in the next 12 months.

This will not end the terrorist threat as many fighters will blend back into the largely Sunni populations from where they came. Some will flee to join established terrorist networks in Europe and wherever there are porous borders and sympathetic host communities. But battlefield defeat will destroy the aura of invincibility that has been Islamic State’s most potent recruiting tool.

Derailing the Islamic State train must include dispelling the false notion that the West is largely responsible for its rise because of a failure to reduce poverty, inequality and the other alleged roots causes of terrorism; a reluctance to integrate Muslims into our societies; entrenched Islamophobia; and exploitative, anti-Muslim Western foreign policies.

None of these arguments has much basis in fact or logic. Since 1945, the West has presided over the greatest era of development and growth the world has seen, freeing hundreds of millions from abject poverty and servitude. Terrorism is clearly not inversely proportional to income and educa­tional levels. If it were, one would expect terrorist leaders and their followers predominantly to come from the dispossessed, not the educated elites.

On the contrary, Osama bin Laden’s father was a billionaire; his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an eye surgeon; and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, graduated with a doctorate from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Many of Islamic State’s senior cadre were once high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein’s officer corps, and the middle classes are well represented among the 27,000 foreign recruits who have fought for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since 2011. No rising of the poor, downtrodden masses here.

If entrenched Islamophobia is the cause, the blame-the-West crowd needs to explain the non-religious or nominally Christian backgrounds of many foreign Islamic State recruits or the generally welcoming attitude of host countries to Muslim immigration before the excesses of al-Qa’ida and Islamic State generated an anti-Muslim backlash.

Western foreign policy may have been misguided and, on occasions, injurious to the interests of some Muslims. But no more so than the actions of their own leaders, and certainly less than those of the terrorist groups spawned by the Muslim world’s conflicts and enduring confessional disputes, notably those between the Sunni and Shia versions of Islam.

If there is any validity to the argument that it’s the West’s fault, ironically it’s for a diametrically opposite reason. The terrorist problem has been exacerbated by a too accommodating and irresolute West, which initially misread the threat and then shied away from taking the necessary hard-headed, whole-of-government measures to curtail and defeat Islamic State.

The shocked, disbelief of Europeans following the multiple terrorist attacks in France and Belgium over the past 18 months is as much an indictment of government unpreparedness to anticipate the emerging threat as the accompanying failures of intelligence, policing, anti-terror legislation and judicial supervision of suspected terrorists.

In retrospect, it is clear that Belgian authorities had turned a blind eye to the jihadist network that had been allowed to flourish under their very eyes in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek. In France, major police cuts and the compartmentalisation of intelligence have made it easier for jihadists to operate and attack soft targets. Prisons have become terrorist incubators and lax judicial/penal supervision permits terrorist suspects too much freedom of movement and communication.

Adel Kermiche, the teenage jihadist who slit the throat of the octogenarian Catholic priest Jacques Hamel in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, had been taken intio custody but released with an electronic tracking bracelet. Unfathomably, the bracelet was apparently deactivated for a few hours each morning despite a state of emergency, allowing Kermiche to go to the church and kill Hamel.

Relatively untouched by terrorism until last month’s violent attacks, Germans now appear to be regretting Angela Merkel’s well-intentioned but poorly conceived decision to open Germany’s borders to 1.2 million asylum-seekers with little appreciation for the social and financial costs, or the opening it would provide for Islamic State to exploit.

Supporters lauded the move and poured scorn on intelligence warnings that Islamic State would use the influx of asylum-seekers as a cover to broaden and deepen its European network. But that is exactly what appears to have happened. In three of the four terrorist incidents that shattered German complacency, including an axe attack on a train that left four injured and Germany’s first suicide bombing in the Bavarian town of Ansbach, the perpetrators were asylum-seekers. This should not have come as a surprise since Islamic State leaders made clear in 2014 that they would take their war against infidels into the very heart of Europe.

Those inclined to blame the West contend that many incidents portrayed as acts of terrorism are, in fact, committed by mentally unstable misfits who have no affiliation to Islamic State. At worst, they are lone wolves who may have been inspired by terrorist propaganda but are essentially self-radicalised, the clear inference being that the threat from Islamic State has been exaggerated for political and ideological reasons.

However, the factors responsible for mental illness do not necessarily lead to radicalisation and the vast majority of terrorists are not mentally ill, by any reasonable definition. The lone wolves argument is more persuasive and has its adherents in the intelligence and law-enforcement community, but it needs qualification. Lone-wolf attacks in which individuals self-radicalise without any external support or influence are rare. Increasingly, authorities are finding these people are less lonely than first thought, with significant links to Islamic State.

Nafees Hamid, a psychologist who has studied the jihadist phenomenon, found that only 10 per cent of jihadis were radicalised online. Most had interaction with like-minded people. Other studies have found that loners typically talked about their plans with friends or family. And although the spectre of multiplying lone-wolf attacks is disturbing because of their randomness, including in the choice of weapons, individuals genuinely acting alone are less of a long term threat than a hardened, well-resourced terrorist group such as Islamic State.

What we have learned from the past 15 years of steadily worsening terrorist assaults on the liberal international order is that the West — Australia included — is going to have to toughen up and take a more holistic and uncompromising approach to counter-terrorism.

This means controlling our borders and immigration; disrupting the capacity of terrorists to recruit our people; imposing harsher penalties on those convicted of terrorism including their supporters; preventing those engaged in terrorist-related activities from collecting welfare benefits; investing more in intelligence, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism; stopping our prisons from becoming terrorist incubators; reaching out to our Muslim communities; targeting terrorist financing; and destroying Islamic State’s war fighting capacity.

When dealing with a resolute and fanatically committed foe, half-measures and soft approaches only encourage greater violence and extremism, as Europeans are finding out.

Alan Dupont is chief executive of the Cognoscenti Group and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.

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