Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, one of the presenters said. He wasn’t referring to the buffet lunch, which was quite good, but rather the supposed demise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
At the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s World Summit on Counter- Terrorism at the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya, the general vibe on Tuesday was pessimism. Iran is rising and even though Islamic State is declining, the threats of terrorism facing Europe and the world are far from beaten. In fact, there is evidence they are worse than years ago.
The 17th annual International Conference from September 11-14 gathered an impressive group of international experts and Israeli politicians and former security giants under one roof. They are looking at a myriad of subjects such as terrorist threats to Israel, lone wolf terrorism, migration, cyber-terrorism and police responses.
On Tuesday, Piet de Klerk, the ambassador at large and special envoy for counterterrorism at the Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands, explained his country’s perspective on the current threats. “Our storm flags are up,” he said, a fitting metaphor for a country whose history has been tied to the sea.
The threat will not go away.
It was clear from de Klerk’s address, as well as that of Commissioner Luc Van Der Taelen of the Center Counter- Terrorism Unit of the Federal Police in Belgium, that Europe’s approach has changed in recent years. The problems facing EU countries include not only open borders but also the recognition that terrorism and particularly Islamist terrorism will continue to be a major threat.
De Klerk said, “No individual is born a terrorist” and that we need balanced tailor- made approaches that keep in mind the need to preserve an open society. He sought to reaffirm that Muslim majority countries are our allies and that it is not a question of Sunni or Shia Islam.
The words “radicalization” and “violent extremism” served as stand-ins for “Islamist terrorism,” which reveals the unwillingness to see religious extremism as a major cause of terrorism. De Klerk ended with more references to the sea. “We must weather the storm for the foreseeable future.”
The question his comments raised were whether this approach would have worked against groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. The fear of addressing Islamist extremism and particularly far-right conservative Islamist views as a source of radicalization, seems to reflect a fear that not offending Muslim minorities in Europe is more important than an open discussion in the open society they want to preserve.
How did Europe end up exporting so many fighters to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq? Dr. Magnus Ranstorp of the National Defense College in Sweden focused on the return of European fighters. This includes not only thousands of EU citizens who went to join ISIS in 2014-2016, but also women and children who joined them. He said there might be as many as 460 minors who could return and need to be reintegrated to European society. Addressing a study regarding his country, he said that as many as 24% of foreign fighters are women and most come from what he described as “segregated areas” in just four cities in Sweden.
Many Norwegian foreign fighters had immigrated to the Nordic country in their teens, and then left several years later to join ISIS or other groups. Ranstorp was very clear that these fighters return to a milieu that involves hate preachers and an intolerant environment.
Van Der Taelen concentrated on Belgian foreign fighters.
His statistics showed that 121 fighters had returned and 20% were women. He discussed how having the army on the streets was allowing police to do community policing and “focus on the transition of radicalization to violent extremism.” This macro level approach examines socioeconomic conditions and seeks to prevent terrorism. But is it having a desired affect and improving the environment that produced foreign fighters? The problem is that it’s unclear if these authorities and experts have recognized that Islamists from their countries should never have been allowed to journey to Syria and Iraq and commit crimes against humanity in the first place. It’s clear that addressing root causes is a major part of the anti-terrorism strategy, but it’s unclear if experts understand how far the problem has grown in terms of the everyday hatred by Islamists that eventually leads adherents to see killing “non-believers” as normal.
Although speakers stressed that most ISIS members are not well versed in religion and don’t know the difference between Shia and Sunni, it’s a bit hard to accept this claim, considering that in Iraq and Syria they had no problem executing Shia Muslims and trading in Yazidi slaves. It is a bit like saying the members of the Inquisition were not well versed in the Bible, even as they were busy torturing people. How many men and women born Shia or Ahmadi Muslims joined ISIS as foreign fighters? The panel on ISIS after its demise in Iraq and Syria, held in memory of ICT’s Dr. Reuven Paz, likewise presented a pessimistic view of the future. Dr. Colin Clarke of the Rand Corporation revealed that even in its death throes, ISIS was producing 30 unique media a day. Brian Fishman, who manages counterterrorism policy at Facebook, reminded listeners that ISIS had been defeated during the US-led surge in Iraq in 2006, only to reemerge. Prof.
Rohan Gunaratna, head of Singapore’s International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said that ISIS had allegiance from 100 groups across Asia and Africa and we should focus on its tentacles growing in the global South.
Again and again speakers presented a dark future that involves a possible growth in terrorism, not a reduction.
Although countries have become aware of how ISIS recruited and who joined, and technology has cracked down on ISIS on social media, the intolerance, extremism, grievances and all the other causes still remain. The broad approach being taken in Western states seems to be a fear that trying to confront religious extremism might antagonize Muslim minorities or Muslim countries that are allied in counterterrorism.
However, Prof. Fernando Reinares of the University Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, pointed out that after the recent Barcelona attack, it was important for Muslim communities to take sides against terrorism.
The problem is that if one cannot acknowledge the religious roots of extremism, even if the extremists have the wrong interpretation of it, one cannot confront it.
It’s like confronting the KKK without seeing race and racism as the prime motivating factor. It appears that the current trends in counterterrorism still wrestle with this fundamental question of how to tackle the religious motivations that lead to groups like ISIS, whether to pretend the perpetrators are not religious and are simply misguided, or whether the pool of intolerance around them is a key factor.
Overall, besides the buffet and the pretty location on the Mediterranean Sea, the summit was sobering. Sixteen years after September 11, terrorism is here to stay for our lifetime and we still lack answers on how to address it.