Hardly a week goes by without news of a terrorist atrocity that has been averted or, worse, committed. In Arab countries such as Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Afghanistan, and Kuwait there are fundamentalist attacks on a regular basis. However, the bombings in London in 2005, the Charlie Hebdo attack and then the co-ordinated attacks in Paris in 2015, the Brussels bombings in 2016 up until the disappearance of Egypt Air flight MS804 show the real and present danger of a terrorist atrocity here in Europe. So far Denmark, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey have also seen fundamentalist violence.
As often as not, ISIS will claim responsibility. ISIS is a fundamentalist movement in the Middle East. However, they pose a threat to Europe because they are recruiting Muslims in Europe to their fundamentalist ideology, and then convincing, if not training, them to commit atrocities over here.
Why are they targeting us, and how can we protect European values and prevent more attacks from happening?
Islam and Fundamentalism
Terrorism associated with Islamic fundamentalism has been a growing threat since the emergence of al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Since then, other regional movements have become more prominent. The Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Shabaab in East Africa and most recently ISIS, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, in the Middle East are all engaged in civil wars, seeking to oust established Governments and to control territory. ISIS has conquered and is holding large areas of Syria and Iraq, which they call their ‘Caliphate’. It has an economy based on oil, artefacts from ancient sites, heroin trafficking and crop distribution and imposes incredibly high taxes on its "citizens". It has also been speculated that some of the Gulf States have secretly been donating to ISIS.
All these Groups have adopted a radical religious faith, based on Islam, and are trying to create an Islamic State based on their fundamentalist interpretation and Sharia Law. In the final analysis they would extend this state to the world in its entirety. They cannot accept contradictions or diversity of views, but it is important to emphasise that their vision is not shared by the vast majority of Muslims.
For most Muslims, Islam is a peaceful religion, and they view terrorism as a crime. During a recent knife attack on the London Underground, a passer-by was heard to shout out, "You ain't no Muslim, bruv" and this sentiment has been hailed by the British Muslim community as hitting the nail on the head. Similarly, former grand mufti Mustafa Ceric in Bosnia and Herzegovina has publicly condemned these atrocities since 2014.
So how is ISIS gathering supporters and recruiting young people in Europe, the USA, Australia etc?
The Guide to Radicalisation
It is evident that only a small minority of the Muslim population is vulnerable to radicalisation. Unfortunately, ISIS only needs to recruit a small number of people to implement their plots.
"The low-hanging fruit for ISIS in its Internet recruiting are people who feel inadequate, disrespected, full of unfulfilled ambitions, angry at real or perceived injustices, and who are blaming other people or institutions for their woes."
The typical recruit would be a young person, not in education and without a job, who has few expectations. They may feel a sense of isolation due to living in a foreign country and culture, and they may have already had brushes with the Law. For all these reasons, they may feel the need to find sense of both belonging and purpose. The fundamentalist are offering them both: the chance to join a band of like-minded ‘brothers’ and the chance to fight for their beliefs. It is for this reason why so many Muslims in prisons find themselves radicalised.
"Which do you think is more likely to attract the attention of an 18-year-old boy dreaming of adventure and glory: a badass video with CGI flames and explosions, or a two-hour lecture on the Koran from a gray-haired old man?"
First generation migrants are less open to these enticements because they know that the life they have made for themselves in their host countries is better than they could have hoped for in their country of origin. The enticements tend to appeal to second and third generation immigrants who do not feel a part of the culture in their country of residence and who fear losing their own culture and identity, and, in particular, to a minority who come to resent the host country and to blame it for their own lack of success.
This resentment can be focused into a sense of religious persecution. Then, when ISIS calls on Muslims to defend the ‘Caliphate’ they are offering Muslims the chance to defend their faith, and also an opportunity for salvation. In some teachings, if a Muslim does not pledge his or herself to a Caliph, they "die in ignorance of their faith", thereby being neither condemned nor saved after death.
Enter the Internet
The internet greatly increases the ways in which radical ideas and ideologies can spread and the opportunities to form extremist groups. In the past, ideas spread through written and spoken words. Before the French revolution, philosophers were exiled in an attempt to prevent them from inciting the crowd. More recently, books like Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao’s little red book have been used to spread revolutionary ideas.
The internet overcomes the physical limitations on the spreading of ideologies by word of mouth. Rather than people having to gather in meeting rooms to discuss the issues face to face, they can now join online chat rooms. There are three characteristics of this discourse that make it very different from what has gone before.
First, the internet grants the speaker anonymity. It is not possible to be sure of the identity of your interlocutor, and therefore hard to be sure of their motives or the veracity of their statements. As explored in the article On Russian Trolls and Hybrid Warfare, the internet and social media can easily be manipulated by groups presenting a false or distorted view of the world without contradiction.
Second, in the context of online chat rooms, the internet may not always prove to be a medium for debate or for testing ideas. Rather it sometimes gives opportunity for people to present a particular set of ideas and to attract people who share those ideas to join a group. In this way, online communities form around a particular set of ideas which they neither need nor want to question.
Finally, the internet has no geographical bounds, and these communities can be formed by likeminded people from all over the world.
It is an ideal medium for the radicalisation of disaffected youth. Instead of a disillusioned youth with a book and a few misfit friends, we have a disillusioned youth and literally hundreds of like-minded people. Even if they never meet, within this community they are no longer ‘wrong’ nor are they in the minority. They are accepted by this immense group, made up of both real and fake accounts, which plays to their insecurities, making them willing to join the cause.
ISIS is making full use of the Internet and social media to recruit its army. It engages with potential recruits through regular posts on Facebook and Twitter. It offers the enticement of ‘acceptance’ and the opportunity to ‘belong’ to something. Over a period of months, some of the targeted youths will develop an emotional tie, a sense of belonging within a tribe. This in turn may give them a sense of importance and purpose, and their defences will break down until they are ready to obey and carry out every command.
What is the EU doing about it?
In November 2015, the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home affairs set a plan in motion in an attempt to curb the rampant fuelling of extremism in Europe. They did this by defining the term "foreign fighter" as being in line with criminals in order to be allowed to set proceedings in motion against them.
This would mean limiting the internet reach that ISIS and other extremist groups have on our social media networks. To ban them completely would be impossible as it is difficult enough to figure out who is an extremist recruiter and who isn't on Facebook and Twitter, but we can certainly limit and delete their Facebook pages and bar their accounts. In this way, we can prevent school children being exposed and teachers can be on the lookout for any tell-tale signs, thereby weeding out any seeds of radicalisation.
This should not merely be an effort for schools and families to go through on their own. Nor is it something that Member States should have to struggle with individually. In December 2015, the European Union held the first EU Internet Forum, bringing together national Member State governments, Europol (the European Police Office) and technology companies with the precise aim of countering radicalisation online.
It has been agreed that Europol is to obtain greater powers to deal with the tackling of the terrorist threat online. New specialist units, monitored by an European Data Protection Supervisor and a Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group, will be set up that will be able to contact social network providers (Facebook, Twitter etc.) directly to ask that pages and accounts run by ISIS are shut down as fast as possible. This will be supplemented by data provided by the Member States in order to be truly efficient, which will be shown in an annual report back to the Member States.
In an interview, MEP Rachida Dati gave the EU and its Member States some very clear guidelines for limiting ISIS' reach within our society. She states that "... by pushing our own counter-arguments against those of online terrorists, prosecuting the internet giants to push them to delete illegal content, segregating radicalised inmates in prisons, engaging in dialogue with the various religious communities, preventing radicalisation through education and tackling terrorism-funding channels by guaranteeing greater transparency on external financial flows..." we can begin to overcome this highly pressurised situation.
This is all well and good, but we can’t guarantee that it will be fool-proof. In fact, all that can legally happen is the prevention of online radicalisation, not its abolition. That can only truly be a result of fully integrated individuals. As previously explained, these disillusioned youths who are ISIS “sitting ducks” are those who feel that they are being given no chances by society and feel isolated by those around them. The fight to prevent terrorism in which the EU and the Member States have their clearly defined roles, is just one side of the coin. The other is integration. Policies of integration, for which the Member States are wholely responsible, must be pursued if the root causes of radicalisation are to be eliminated.
In giving Europol this influence within our social media spheres, we hope to provide our Muslim citizens, their families and children the safety and security they need in order not to be driven apart by this excuse for war and to avoid breeding resentment among the youths of Europe.