Friday 15 December 2017

Blind revenge will result in stoking the flames of war

Failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi who was put to death by Jordan
Failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi who was put to death by Jordan

Joana Cook

There are good grounds for believing that with the latest atrocity released on video by Isil, involving the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, that the terror group is becoming increasingly desperate.

In April 2013, the formation of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) was unveiled. In June 2014, an Islamic caliphate and the group Islamic State was announced. In January 2015, 20,000 foreigners were reported to have joined its ranks. But, recent air strikes and increasing pressure on the group have disrupted this proliferation. Given the bombardment, it is reasonable to ask: has the group become desperate?

One way of looking at this is by examining their goals. Terrorist movements generally have two objectives: short-term organisational aims, and long-term aims that require significant political change.

Focus on growing their fighter base has been a key goal of Isil in the short-term, particularly as it has sought to seize and hold territory. Long-term, it has been attempting to establish itself as a functioning state, extending this model across the world.

Thus, slick, professionally produced propaganda has been one of their strongest tools to achieve these goals, acting as a source of recruitment to the organisation and disseminating the group's vision.

To achieve these short-term objectives, Isil have focused on a number of areas, such as problems they perceive in the world that they must avenge and correct.

They emphasise injustices, victimisation, and have created an "us versus them" frame, attributing these to the West and other nations currently partnered with them. Not to be mistaken, certain grievances they emphasise have found some resonance with a wider audience.

Isil has also sustained a strong, continued wave of publicity. The 'Hollywood-isation' of their violence, propaganda and recruitment videos have ensured that they maintain attention on, and control of, their message. Furthermore, they have maintained a significant degree of disorder in the region, gaining and holding land, controlling the population, and striking fear into those who challenge them.

They have widened this scope for disorder, calling for acts of 'lone-wolf' violence and attacks around the world.

But they have also sought to provoke reaction and repression from external governments to further fuel their message. In their most recent video, they point to Western nations and their allies, in particular Jordan, Saudi Arabia and UAE, as committing crimes against Islam and Muslims. They have offered a reward for the death of other Jordanian pilots. They are trying to make external governments react. They have used nationally created laws and actions created to address foreign fighters to further fuel their narrative of government repression.

Isil has also continued to demonstrate what they perceive as strength and defiance in the face of these actions. The beheadings, mass execution of prisoners, and the murder of Muath al-Kasaesbeh, have displayed unimaginable brutality, while also trying to portray Isil as strong, in control and willing to continue to fight, even in the face of increasing pressures. Sustained global attention on the group and its messages, and swelling recruitment numbers have shown that in the short-term, they may be achieving their goals.

But there is a growing belief that Isil could be turning away from selling the idea of a 'state' which had been a long-term objective of the group.

Previous attention on demonstrating their governance abilities, such as provision of essential services and social order, is increasingly lost on those emphasising violence and conflict.

Their glorification of brutality is further detracting from any suggestion that they provide an attractive state system. Like many terrorist groups before them, they have limited vision for meaningful change. Their long-term goals and present actions are falling out of sync.

Relentless pressures on the group may make them more desperate and likely to carry out barbaric acts to keep attention on their message. As long as their messaging and reactions to their grievances find resonance with their audience, this cycle is likely to continue.

What may impact this is how the actions of those challenging Isil could provide additional fuel to this cycle. Jordan has threatened to execute six members of Isil currently held in custody in reaction to this latest act. Air strikes against Isil are continuing and civilian casualties incurred. The careless use of language, where 'them' may appear to conflate the larger peaceful Muslim population with this minuscule extremist strand, is increasingly problematic.

Governments around the world are obviously compelled to react against Isil. It is clear that how they react is certain to be used by the terrorists to justify their actions and draw support for their cause.

Knee-jerk reactions and policies focused on the group must be carefully considered. Increased attention on how short-term actions are perpetuating this cycle must be addressed.

While Isil may appear to be winning in the short-term, those challenging the group can ensure that their actions do not provide more fuel for the long-term.

As with terrorist groups throughout history, increasing violence has never won the day. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Joana Cook is a researcher at King's College London

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