What’s in a name? The importance of counter-terrorism terminology

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The importance of terminology

Is it ISIS, ISIL, IS or Da’esh? Are they an apocalyptic death cult or an Islamist extremist group? And on what basis is Australia currently involved in the Middle East – the war on terror or to prevent genocide?

This is not semantics. The language and tone used by politicians, the media, and the wider community has and will impact upon the success of counter-terrorism policy, particularly in relation to the radicalisation process.

Radicalisation – victims or offenders?

If the political and media classes are to be believed, radicalisation is a simple and ever-shortening process. Vulnerable teens, permanently connected to social media, are targeted by ‘wicked’ ISIS ‘predators’ and in a matter of weeks, they are brainwashed ‘zombies’.

This terminology appears to serve two (contradictory) purposes. Firstly, it restores our faith in human nature. Those leaving for the Middle East or attempting attacks at home are vulnerable and weak-minded, incapable of having reached these conclusions independently. However, by creating the expectation that this could happen to any (Muslim) teenager connected to the internet, it also arouses and then focuses the suspicion of the non-Muslim population.

In my experience, there is no one-size-fits-all radicalisation experience. Nor is there a guarantee that exposure to, and agreement with, an Islamist ideology will result in the radicalised individual committing criminal or terrorist acts.

And within those that have responded to the ISIS call to arms, both motivation and background vary. The latter includes significant numbers of recent Muslim converts, and older, well-educated individuals, in white collar jobs. The latter group do not fit into this simplistic radicalisation model, and are likely to have what are (in their own heads at least) sensible and rational reasons for their decisions, often arrived at over a significant period of time.

There is also a disconnect between this terminology and the treatment of individuals who travel to Syria and Iraq. Vulnerable and exploited one minute, the next, they’ve renounced their citizenship rights and can expect a lengthy prison sentence. From victims to offenders in the time it takes to board a plane for Lebanon or Turkey.

ISIS – simplifying the problem

In the context of ISIS more broadly, terms such as ‘savages’, ‘zealots’, ‘stone age’ and ‘medieval’ (which in itself represents a startling rate of historical development) are commonplace.

It is beyond doubt that ISIS deserves the strongest possible condemnation. But while ISIS are responsible for murder, rape and pillage (and countless other atrocities), I don’t believe these terms accurately represent the extent to which ISIS channel their brutality to achieve strategic aims.

Further, there is a tendency to view them solely through a counter-terrorism, ‘threat to country x’ prism. This is a simplification of ISIS aims and the potential impact they and their ideology will have on the Middle East and Shia/Sunni relations. Recent events suggest that we underestimate ISIS at our peril.

Faced by a sophisticated and targeted media campaign, the West is portraying ISIS and their cause in overly simplistic terms, rather than choosing language that creates a counter-narrative for those susceptible to ISIS propaganda.

Islamic, Islamist or none of the above?

Where I do agree with the Government in terms of specifics but importantly not tone, is in making clear an association between groups such as ISIS and AQ, and Islam.

There are significant dangers in creating or reinforcing an association between Islam and ISIS, particularly in terms of community cohesion and racism or discrimination. But, I don’t see inconsistency in acknowledging that the ideology of ISIS or AQ does not represent the views of a large majority of Muslims, and that an interpretation of Sunni Islam (however distorted this may be) is central to their ideology.

Clearly, that does not mean that an entire religion and its adherents should be demonised. Nor should the sole responsibility for countering the ideology lie with the Muslim community, when many of the factors that pre-dispose individuals to the ideology – poverty/lack of opportunity, segregation, racism/discrimination, US-led interventions in the Middle East – are the result of decades of government action and inaction.

But this is a battle of ideas and ideology, not just a security threat. To challenge the legitimacy of the ISIS interpretation of Islam, we must recognise that the two are connected. Refusing to do so will only make it more difficult to counter their insidious ideology, particularly given their use of Islam to justify their actions.

Where next?

The challenge for politicians and journalists is that the soundbite-dominated, 24 hour news cycle doesn’t do nuance or shades of grey, hence (in part) the use of phrases such as death cult or ‘Team Australia’.

Achieving balance is undoubtedly difficult. How do you publicise the reality of life under ISIS rule without your condemnation becoming part of the Islamist narrative, another example of Western Islamophobia and hatred of the Islamic way of life?

It would help if the language used by Government was accurate and designed to inform, not inflame, and formed part of a coherent, long-term strategy, safe from election cycles. Creating anger and resentment amongst the non-Muslim population towards the ‘third column’ in their midst, and vice versa, will only make the problem worse.

One can only hope that the recent raft of CT and counter-radicalisation measures announced by the Abbott Government are designed to bring about a better-informed, less provocative strategy (such as that being developed in the US), not simply better polling numbers.

David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.

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One thought on “What’s in a name? The importance of counter-terrorism terminology

    victoriousbyterror said:
    July 1, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    Hi David,

    I recently came across your site and I like it. I have aspirations to get into counter-terrorism in the future. I have a few questions in regards to this article…

    How do we know that the interpreter of Sunni Islam interprets the religion in a way that is a distortion, rather than a proscription or legitimate understanding, of the faith (e.g. energizing from the base rather than cleaving from the mainstream)? If we, for example, give legitimacy to only ‘moderate Islam,’ in light of core Islamic texts calling for violence, are we not just shooting ourselves in the foot?

    How are we to be the interpreters of Allah’s Will? – If we interpret it moderately for our own societal benefit, are we not just using Islam in a similar way (for our political good instead of their political bad)? Isn’t a state-sanctioned interpretation of a religion going to polarize the extremists from the rest of society further?

    Al-Awlaki did a lecture on this very issue after a RAND article was published comparing moderates to extremists. In it he claims that moderation is to deviate from the path of Allah and gives religious citations, as well as life stories of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad. This, to me, emphasizes the problem: you can go one way or the other, the outlook of extremists always comes back to religious purity – religious understanding for the Will of Allah (e.g. promoting the Oneness of God, fighting sin, dispelling disbelief); not for the Will of the West (e.g. living side-by-side, promoting secularism, living in a democracy).

    I grew up in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in a Pakistani-Muslim neighbourhood. The problems with Islamic extremists (and later al-Qaeda affiliates) persisted prior to 9/11 and prior to the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The extremists I knew (and who liked to spit at me and call me a “white pig”) interpreted their religion from the core-outwards. They looked at the text, relating it to the greater world, and saw themselves as the doers and followers of the text. Are you giving credit to how attractive these positions are? For example, how attractive and virtuous the positions of defending Muslim lands is to a true believer?

    How exactly are we countering the legitimacy of Islamist violence around the world? Fluffy language, in my opinion, will further escalate the narrative of the far-right. They will use it as an example of a ‘weak’ government that needs to change. Since the Trump election I have learned that if you do not call things as they are, people will pull away from you – and your politics. Truth is absolute.

    I believe that we have to acknowledge that interpretation is not a straight line. Interpretation can involve violence. Violence can be a legitimate religious action. Then the question comes: how do we stem or limit that violence from the core-outwards?

    Like

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