Alan Lis: ISIS’s continuous presence in Iraq

The Islamic State (also known as the IS, ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh), despite triumphant announcements made by the Iraqi government and the US President Donald Trump, has not been truly defeated – neither in Iraq, nor in Syria. Since the victory over the IS was declared, Jihadists of this very organisation perpetrated numerous attacks in both those countries, in which many people lost their lives.

Reasons for ISIS coming into existence were multiple and complicated – it was a process that did not happen overnight. The IS emerged from Al Qaeda (AQ), which claim has been corroborated by many analysts of terrorism and international security. Similarly as in the case of fighting AQ, quite a substantial number of countries united their efforts in combating Daesh, though this struggle, unfortunately, turned to become an element of political clashes for influence in the Middle East between the US, Russia, as well as other powers including Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The fact is that despite depriving the IS of its physical Caliphate, international efforts remained short of actually defeating the organisation.

ISIS in Iraq – how it may use the country’s internal chaos to its advantage

The IS has regularly been proving that the victorious declaration of the Iraqi government in 2017 was nothing but premature. ISIS was never fully defeated and still presents a considerable threat to Iraq. It is said to have been gradually reconstructing its networks in some parts of this country, such as the Anbar province – where the city of Fallujah, which used to be one of the ISIS’s strongholds, is located – adhering to the tactics of low-level insurgency to spread fear, chaos, and violence. Indeed, the IS turned into a guerrilla movement waging over a few months a campaign of suicide attacks, ambushes, assassinations, and kidnappings, aimed at undermining the authorities in Baghdad in the eyes of average citizens and showing that they are unable to protect civilians and effectively govern. 

The latest round of anti-government protests indicates that Iraqis do not approve of their ruling elite. Amongst the main reasons for the protests to erupt were unemployment, poor level of public services, food insecurity and poverty of parts of the population, as well as widespread corruption that indeed weakens the Iraq’s political leadership legitimacy and alienates average citizens from the elite in Baghdad.

Corruption is an issue protested rather often in Iraq, with previous protests taking place, for instance, in 2015 and 2018. The death toll of this year’s protests, which turned violent, exceeds 100 with thousands injured. Reportedly, security forces used live ammunition against protesters and the government, led by Adil Abdul-Mahdi, introduced curfews and limited access to the internet in an attempt to control the situation. Some government officials admitted that the nature of the response to the protests was indeed too aggressive.

ISIS may use the de facto over-aggressive and deadly response on the Iraqi government’s part to its advantage and capitalize on yet again another wave of destabilization in Iraq, and further chaos that came in as a result. Repressive response further angers people and turns them even more against the Iraqi authorities, which creates a space for ISIS to swoop in and present itself as an alternative to the rule of corrupt politicians lacking the ability to effectively govern. Moreover, the government’s inability to protect civilians makes them vulnerable to seek such protection elsewhere. Terrified people, seeing no other choice, may even join the IS’s ranks just for the sake of ensuring safety for themselves and their families. That was the very reason some of ISIS’s members joined the organization when it was building the Caliphate a few years ago.

What is needed to prevent ISIS from re-establishing its position in Iraq?

There is a couple of things that come to mind, which ought to be done in order to prevent ISIS from re-building its position and regaining power in Iraq. First of all, the Iraqi government must take some steps to tackle corruption, unemployment and other things protested recently in order to calm the situation in the country. Corruption is a serious and deeply rooted problem in Iraq and will certainly take time to be solved, if that actually ever happens, but average Iraqis need to see that the government tries to act in this matter.

Dealing with corruption is important as it would show politicians’ willingness to reduce the sense of alienation between them and the masses. Average Iraqis must feel that those in power, aside from caring for their personal wealth or career, give a thought or two for the fate of their fellow citizens, in whose name they govern the country. Dealing with those problems would reduce peoples’ dissatisfaction and vulnerability to be recruited by ISIS. 

Furthermore, the government in Baghdad needs to understand that after years of military conflicts and internal insurgency that have devastated the country, average citizens want to finally live the way people in other countries do – without fearing for their safety and with uninterrupted access to healthcare and education. So far, the level of public services provided by Baghdad (public transportation, healthcare, education) proves to dissatisfy people. Politicians must try to increase the level of public services and comprehend that responding to protests with violence and limitation of peoples’ rights is an easy way for Jihadists to gain momentum again as protectors of the civilians. 

Building on that, average Iraqis must not be left without any other choice but to join ISIS to ensure safety for themselves and their families. The government needs to increase the presence of the military in regions particularly endangered by re-emerging ISIS and do more to protect men, women, and children in war-torn regions. Leaving them vulnerable for the attacks of the IS’s dispersed cells makes them simultaneously vulnerable for joining its ranks, as explained before.

Civilians from areas that were captured by ISIS shall feel that they are of equal importance to fellow citizens living in other parts of the country and that they are welcome to live in Iraq. In order to dismiss the Jihadists’ argument that the government does not care for people that used to live under its rule and that it labels them all as terrorists too, destroyed towns, cities, and villages need to be rebuilt.

Finally, deradicalization programs for captured ISIS fighters and their families, as well as a popular deradicalization program for those that lived under ISIS’s rule may be of great importance. Along with such, there ought to be a national program teaching tolerance and explaining why it is necessary, especially in a country where a number of distinct religious and ethnic groups live together. Though essential, considering the history of Iraq and the dynamics of internal conflict, the last claim seems to be somewhat utopian.

Alan Lis: Jihadists being released- the continuous issue of what to do with captured terrorists

Now that ISIS has been territorially defeated, some say that this is the end of this organisation, often regarded as the gravest terrorist threat of the current century. Although the Islamic State does not control any territory, the are problems caused by it, which still remain in place. To start with, there is the issue of its ideology. Territorial losses do not mean that the ideology that has driven ISIS’s fighters became any less appealing; quite contrary, it still attracts a good deal of new potential recruits who are, of course, less likely to travel to Syria and Iraq now, but nevertheless may pose a substantial danger in their countries of residence.

Another thing, already addressed some time ago, is the dilemma of what to do with captured ISIS’s fighters and their families, some of whom may still support ISIS. Although some countries repatriated a few women and children – what will be mentioned below – there are still thousands more in detention camps in Syria and Iraq. 

This piece, however, shall adhere to the issue of captured ISIS’s fighters, leaving the case of their families aside. The dilemma of what ought to be done with IS’s combatants demonstrates a problem that, by extension, applies to Jihadists of all kinds and affiliations, not only those imprisoned during the struggle against the Islamic State. In the United States, a considerable number of Jihadists caught during earlier stages of the War on Terror is being, or will soon be, released from prisons. The world media have recently put much focus on the example of the ‘American Taliban’, John Walker Lindh.

Lindh grew up in a rather wealthy family and converted to Islam in his teenage years. He had left the US for the Middle East in order to study Arabic, and after spending some time in Yemen he moved to Pakistan and joined Islamist militancy. He then was trained in terrorist camps, and even got to meet Osama bin Laden at some point. After September 11, he was fighting American forces in Afghanistan alongside Al Qaeda terrorists, until he was caught. The media quite rapidly nicknamed him as the ‘American Taliban’. Eventually, an American court sentenced Lindh to 20 years in prison. By the end of May, he was released from prison, still having three years to serve, due to his ‘good behaviour’ while in jail. His good behaviour does not mean, however, that when freed the ‘American Taliban’ would not pose a threat to his fellow citizens. Indeed, there are reports that Lindh still shows signs of commitment to and expressed support for the Islamic State. After his release, he will be obviously subjected to a restricted control, including his communication and travel. Nonetheless, even the toughest supervision regime may turn out not to be sufficient enough. 

The question of what ought to be done with captured Jihadists constitutes a strong dilemma for intelligence services, law enforcement, as well as politicians. There seems to be no ideal solution to this concern, as all of the possible ones are flawed to an extent. Capital punishment – which will be discussed below – does eliminate particular terrorists and thus the threat they pose, but may also serve the purpose of mobilizing and motivating new recruits to join Jihad and raises voices of protest amongst adherents of liberalism. Deradicalization programs, to which imprisoned terrorists are obliged, according to some reports, have not been of much success. Also, detaining Jihadists in places like Guantanamo Bay and then letting them go does not work either, as demonstrated in the report by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence1.

It was observed that quite a few of them re-engaged in terrorist activities upon their release. Notably, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS’s leader, was detained by the US-led coalition forces in 2004 and after several months let go. During his time in detention, radical views of his have embraced even more extreme nature. Indeed, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib prison, and other places the like may be said to have facilitated further radicalization. In fact, some academics and scholars came up with names quite adequately reflecting how faulty the detention system was and to what use it was to Jihadists, naming such facilities as ‘incubators for radicalization’2, ‘recruitment centres and training grounds’3, or ‘jihadi universities’4.

Very recently, seven French nationals who had been captured during the last period of fighting ISIS in Syria were sentenced to death by an Iraqi court. Subjecting them to the capital punishment does ‘take them off the streets’ and thus eliminate the threat that they pose, but, as mentioned above, it may well serve as a factor mobilizing new recruits to join Jihad and take revenge for those killed. French officials responded with mixed messages: while they still refuse to repatriate their citizens who fought in the ISIS’s ranks, they too are making official efforts to prevent the sentence from being carried out. France’s refusal to take its citizens back is understandable – it would be difficult to successfully try them in French courts – as are the official attempts to save those Jihadists from being hanged – after all France is a liberal democracy, which declared capital punishment illegal in 1981. Although Iraqi courts do not necessarily give any ISIS’s fighter a chance for a fully fair trial, they offer a minimum of justice, and what is certainly more important for France, as well as any other country whose nationals had been captured fighting in Syria and Iraq, they solve the problems for them. It is, therefore, unlikely for those states to make more meaningful attempts to alter the Iraqi courts’ decisions. 

The case of captured Jihadists is very problematic. Quite a good solution, but rather an utopian one, might be first to increase sentences for joining a terrorist organization and fighting in its ranks, maybe even sentencing all captured fighters without exception to life in prison without parole, because of the threat they are very likely to pose again upon their release. They ought to be imprisoned in closely guarded facilities with no prisoners of other kinds, so as to prevent them from having contact with non-jihadists whom they could try to gain for their cause. Furthermore, security in such a facility should be provided by multinational military units that ought to be composed of soldiers and guards strictly selected and subjected to background checks, as well as of impeccable moral attitude and psychological fitness – the latter being regularly checked. Security measures of such a prison should be of the highest possible level, and costs of such should be spread among prisoners’ countries of origin. Such a solution should, in theory, resolve the dilemma through removing Jihadists permanently from their societies, and should satisfy those opposing death penalty.

This is, however, only deliberation. In reality, Western states are hesitant to take responsibility for their nationals who were captured fighting in ISIS’s rank. They would rather leave it to the authorities of the country that the fighters are currently kept in, only occasionally raising their voice, just as French officials did- which was, nonetheless, rather calculated on not losing face in the public. It needs to be acknowledged, though, that France, along with the Netherlands and the US, have all repatriated a few of their non-militant nationals from Syria and Iraq (twelve orphans, two orphans, and two women and six children respectively). However, this obviously does not resolve the issue of overcrowded detention camps.

However, releasing Jihadists, of any affiliation really, from prisons will always remain a risk. It seems that the very minimum international community of states should do to contain the threat coming from captured terrorists is sentencing all of them to life in prison where they would be kept under strict control and in separation from other inmates, with no possibility under any circumstances and at any point to contact other prisoners.

1. Link to the summary of the report

2. Fawaz Gerges, ‘ISIS. A History’, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press 2016, p.84

3. Anrew Thompson and Jeremi Suri, ‘How America Helped ISIS. New York Times’, The New York Times, 1 October 2014

4. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ‘ISIS. Inside the Army of Terror, New York: Regan Arts 2015, p. 83

Alan Lis: The rise of right-wing terrorism

Although many associate terrorism with Islamic extremists, which – quite understandably – have attracted the lion’s share of media’s attention in recent decades, it needs to be remembered that they are not the only perpetrators of such. While the focus of media that has been put mostly on Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other groups of such type is justified for the fact that the current wave of terrorism, as terrorism expert David Rapoport claimed, is religious in its nature with Islam being the most important religion in it, right-wing terrorists cannot be forgotten and ought to be acknowledged as a serious threat.

Amongst the most common drivers of right-wing terrorism one undoubtedly can find the anti-immigration views of its perpetrators, as well as their belief in the supremacy of their race over the others, and hatred towards people of other religions. Especially the first one is commonly pursued by far-right nationalist political parties, which have risen to prominence in many countries over the last couple of years.

Right-wing populist rhetoric encompasses also creating a dimension of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, which degrades ‘them’ to have fewer rights and generally be of lesser ‘value’ from ‘us’. Inevitably, such extremism of views leads to an eruption of violence and results in deadly attacks. The spread of such radical thinking has become much easier than it used to be in the past due to the advances of social media and communication platforms that have enabled propagation of such on a far broader scale and with far greater speed.

Recent months and years have been exceptionally rich in violent terrorist attacks motivated by right-wing extreme ideology, to the point that some experts now openly recognize right-wing terrorism as more of a threat coming from terrorist attacks committed by Islamic radicals, particularly in the case of the United States. More significant recent examples include the mail bombing attempts of October 2018, where a perpetrator with far-right extreme views, known also for his support for right-wing conspiracy theories, sent pipe bombs to several individuals involved in a critique of President Donald Trump via the US post. Fortunately, none of the parcels’ receivers was harmed. Additionally, in the very same month, the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting took place and left eleven people killed.

However, not only the US has experienced right-wing terrorism in recent years. Example of Andreas Breivik and attacks he perpetrated in Oslo and on the Utøya island, Norway, constitute one of the most-or indeed the most – disastrous examples of right-wing terrorist attacks committed in Europe, and killed over 70 people. What is also tragic is that Breivik has been a source of inspiration for others who share his radical views. The perpetrator of the recent Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand, Australia – born Brenton Tarrant, claimed in his manifesto that Breivik and his actions had a significant influence on him. This attack came as a shock in the open to multiculturalism New Zealand. As it was live-streamed on Facebook, it may have served the purpose of inspiring new recruits to perpetrate similar attacks.

The attack carried out by Tarrant had yet another devastating consequences. The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, which targeted Christians, are said by many to have been carried out in retaliation for the Christchurch attack. The ties between the perpetrators and ISIS are being investigated, as Amaq – the ISIS’s news agency – claimed after the attacks that their perpetrators were Islamic State fighters. This relation between those two terrorist acts illustrates that Islamic and right-wing dimensions of terrorism are somewhat interlinked and mutually fuel each other – perpetrators of one commit violence and by that motivate the other side to carry out a lethal response, encouraging the circle of violence to continue.

President Trump, when asked back in March whether in his opinion white nationalism was a threat, had dismissed it, saying it was a terrible problem, but applying only to a small group of people. Unless leaders of the most powerful states in this world come to an agreement about the ways to tackle this peril and get on board with countering violence motivated by right-wing and nationalist ideologies, they will remain a strong appeal for many, and as such a deadly threat in many countries.

Furthermore, both the role of social media in spreading such and the easiness that characterize communication between right-wing radicals need to be dealt with. Right-wing terrorism will also require intelligence and security agencies to partly shift their attention from Jihadi perpetrators of terrorism to far-right extremists. As claimed by the New Zealand’s PM, Brenton Tarrant was not on the radar of either Australian or New Zealand intelligence agencies. In order to avoid, or at least reduce right-wing terrorist attacks, this would need to change. 

Alan Lis: Shamima Begun, or rather the case of Westerners in ISIS’s ranks

A couple of weeks ago citizens of the United Kingdom found yet another topic, like if Brexit was not enough, that divided them into two opposing camps: those that wanted to give Shamima Begum a second chance and accepted the idea of her coming back to the UK formed one camp, whereas the other one was created by opponents of her being anywhere near the British borders. The example of Shamima Begum is only a single illustration of a complicated problem that many countries have been facing these days, namely- what is ought to be done with men and women that willingly left their homelands in order to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

Shamima Begun, at this moment 19 years old, left her family and home in the United Kingdom for Syria at the age of 15. With two other girls, she flew to Turkey and joined the jihad in Syria crossing the border between the two countries. In her latest interview, Begum confirmed that one of her friends that had traveled with her to Syria died and that she had no information of the whereabouts of the other. Not long after joining the ranks of jihadists, Ms. Begum got married to a Dutch ISIS fighter, with whom she had three children. Sadly, all of them died. The youngest, only three weeks old, reportedly died of pneumonia in the first week of March 2019, not long after the world heard Shamima’s story mainly because of the two interviews that she gave.

The main motivation For Shamima to go back to the UK was her newborn, whom she said it would be impossible to raise in the refugee camp. Ms. Begum said she wanted to have her son live a better life than he would in Syria. This is of course understandable. However, what is significant and needs to be acknowledged, during the interview with Sky News she did not seem genuinely sorry for the victims of the Islamic state- dead men, raped women, orphaned children- and she still seems to support the strict Islamic Sharia law. Since the second interview, Ms. Begun has been said to have left the camp she was living in because of death threats she received from others that found shelter there.

Allegedly, Shamima Begum neither took part in combat nor was she trained to do so. She claims to be a wife of an ISIS fighter and thus to have been preoccupied with what housewives do all around the world- at least that is the story she decided to stick to. The truth is that it would be extremely difficult for security services to verify her words against her deeds and therefore no one can be sure what Begun was really up to.  Of similar opinion on this topic is a large part of the British society, amongst whom is the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who ordered stripping Ms Begum off her British citizenship, making an argument that she is eligible for the citizenship of Bangladesh, and therefore would not become a stateless person (had she been to become one,  according to the British law Mr. Javid would not have been able to give such order). However, the government of Bangladesh denied Mr. Javid’s argument and refused to take any action with regards to Ms. Begum, saying that it has nothing to do with this matter of the British government.

As far as the security of British people is concerned, allowing Ms. Begum to return to the UK would be putting them in danger. No one knows for sure what she has really been up to in Syria- she might have been, as she claims, only an ISIS’s fighter wife, not involved in perpetrating any sort of violence; but there is a chance that she lied during the interview and she had received some military training indeed, and that she might be involved in a plot against the UK now. Although if that is the truth it would be a very much short-sighted plan on the part of ISIS- if Ms. Begum indeed took part in a terrorist plot against the UK, this would certainly minimize chances of other ISIS followers to be allowed to return to their homelands, and thus somewhat reduce ISIS’s ability to strike against the US or European countries using Westerners in its ranks.

Her example illustrates well the situation of hundreds (if not more) foreign fighters who now that ISIS lost its last scraps of territory, face the uncertainty as to their future. There are voices that many of them, just like MS. Begum, want to go back to their home countries, however, one can justifiably question their will for a peaceful life upon their arrival. Indeed, news reports have it that a number of these fighters openly say that they do not regard the territorial collapse of ISIS as the end of their struggle, and they aim at continuing their fight. Neither the US, nor the UK, nor any of the European countries for that matter would welcome their citizens coming back from Syria or Iraq with open arms. Some of those countries openly claimed that they will not take them back. From the domestic security perspective, they seem to be right.

Shamima Begum, as any returning jihadist, is a goldmine when it comes to possessed information and knowledge and is thus invaluable for intelligence and secret services. The question is, however, whether she or other jihadists would be willing to share the information they possess. Their fate is, at this moment, unknown and the perspective of them returning to their home countries is uncertain, to say the least. When it comes to Ms. Begum and others like her, politicians, intelligence and secret services, and the average citizens face a political, security, and moral dilemma. One thing is certain- ISIS may have lost its territory indeed, however, as long as its followers remain hostile towards everybody else, no one can speak of a de facto end of this terrorist organization.