Taking the terror out of terrorism

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This was originally published in 3 parts between 17 and 19 January 2017 by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading foreign policy think tank.

The current terrorist problem is, by most metrics, larger than ever.

There have been four successful terrorist attacks in Australia since September 2014. Outside of Australia, terrorist attacks are occurring more frequently and killing greater numbers. While the large majority of these have taken place in just a handful of countries, in 2015 and 2016 there were multiple attacks in Europe; South and Southeast Asia; North, West and East Africa; and North America.

Yet the terrorist threat is more than just the attacks that actually transpire. The actions of counter-terrorism authorities have thwarted planned attacks and prevented other terrorist offences from taking place. As a result, arrests associated with disrupted attacks, attempted travel to terrorist hotspots and other terrorist offences have become a frequent occurrence.

Thousands of individuals are currently under investigation for potential terrorist activity. In Australia, ASIO estimates indicate that almost 200 Australians are actively supporting Islamic State, with a further 110 overseas fighting in the Middle East.

The escalation in terrorism-related activity means that counter-terrorism is both a higher priority for governments, and of greater concern to the general public. As a result, governments across the world are communicating more frequently about terrorism and counter-terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »


Jihadi rivalries: ISIS, Al-Qaeda and moving the Overton Window

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It seems only logical that for a group struggling for funding, to communicate, and to keep its leaders alive, the emergence of a bigger and more successful rival is bad news. And certainly, the conventional view is that the emergence (or re-emergence) of ISIS has been bad news for Al-Qaeda (AQ). But what if instead, the rise of ISIS benefits AQ in the long-term?

The Overton Window

The Overton window refers to the policies or opinions that are acceptable to the general public at a particular time. The window – which can be applied to everything from gay marriage to gun reform – shifts over time. And as it shifts, views previously outside the range of socially acceptable positions can become main-stream.

What does this have to do with AQ? Well in terrorist terms, ISIS appears to have shifted public expectations of how terrorist groups behave and the threat that they pose. As a consequence, AQ are no longer at the extreme end of the terrorist spectrum. Have they moved into the Overton window by sheer virtue of ‘not being ISIS’?
Read the rest of this entry »

Attribution is key to broader ISIS strategy

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This was originally published by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.

The suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait, shooting of Western tourists in Tunisia, and a beheading and attempt to blow up a chemical factory in France.

Three continents, three different attack methodologies and three different targets, but ultimately the same result. The death of innocent civilians in a brutal, horrific manner that dominates the news agenda. But aside from each attack being linked to ISIS and that they occurred (in all likelihood coincidentally) on the same day, the attacks appear to have had very little in common in terms of strategic aim.

In Kuwait, the attack marks the expansion of attempts by ISIS to undermine the domestic policies and sectarian unity of Sunni regimes across the Middle East.

Although Western tourists were ostensibly the target in Tunisia, the attack appears to be another attempt to degrade the ability of Tunisia’s secular government to maintain security, specifically for the valuable but vulnerable tourist economy.

And at this stage, the French attack appears to have been the latest in a series of ISIS-inspired, ‘crowd-sourced‘ attacks, unsophisticated in nature, easy to achieve and difficult to prevent.

But  the attacks do demonstrate the complexity of the threat posed by ISIS. read more

The Guardian and the death of Al-Qaida – reports greatly exaggerated

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An article in today’s Guardian – based on a series of interviews with AQ ‘spiritual leaders’ – concludes that the rise of ISIS has “pushed AQ to the margins” and that as a result, AQ lacks the resources to properly function as an organisation.

Interviews designed to influence, not inform

To examine the validity of this claim, it is worth asking why these interviews have taken place, and why now? Why have individuals variously described as “the intellectual godfather of AQ”, an “individual at the centre of terrorist activities associated with AQ” and “a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan” agreed to share opinions that on the face of it, appear to hinder AQ’s mission further.

It seems to me that while their insights, as with the recent interview with al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani, contain grains of truth, they are a conscious attempt by a beleaguered organisation to buy time with a hasty corporate re-branding. Given the recruitment and funding issues highlighted in the article, this is undoubtedly high risk. read more