Extremism must be a problem shared
Nearly 100 people are dead and many more injured after three terrorist attacks that unfolded within hours of each other on June 26. Among the victims were Shi’a worshippers at the Imam Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait, tourists at a beach resort in Tunisia and employees at a gas plant in Lyon, France.
The attacks coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started on June 18, and the anniversary of the establishment of Islamic State’s caliphate, which was proclaimed on June 29 2014 – the first day of Ramadan that year.
While there is no evidence that the attacks were closely coordinated, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for those in Kuwait and Tunisia. The third, in France, appeared to have been inspired by the fundamentalist group, not least because an IS flag was found near the body of the man who died.
They exemplify the two categories of terrorism connected to IS and al-Qaeda – the increasingly rival, main international terrorist franchises of our age.
One is the so-called “lone-wolf” attack, carried out predominantly in Western countries. There is a recent history of such attacks in France, including the killings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. But lone-wolf attacks have also occurred elsewhere – the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the shooting at an exhibition in Garland, Texas in 2015, the murder of Lee Rigby in the UK in 2013, and the hostage crisis at a Sydney cafe in 2014 also fall into this category.
The other type are attacks carried out by so-called affiliated groups or local branches. These predominantly take place across the Middle East and North Africa. They are variably aimed at Western targets, Shi’a communities, or local governments. Examples include the attack on an Algerian gas field in 2013, the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Kenya in 2013, and the bombing of an African Union military base in Somalia by al-Shabaab on the same day as the killings in Tunisia, France and Kuwait.
As the terror unfolded across Africa, Asia, and Europe, Islamic State forces re-entered Kobane at the Syrian-Turkish border, massacring more than 100 civilians before being forced to retreat by Syrian Kurdish fighters a day later.
A US-led coalition carries out airstrikes on an almost daily basis in the area and an unlikely alliance of Iraqi government troops, Iran-backed Shi’a militias, Kurdish Peshmerga, and a range of insurgent groups and government loyalists in Syria are fighting the extremists on the ground. Neither, though, has managed to push Islamic State back territorially or significantly degraded its capabilities.
Al-Qaeda continues to operate mostly through affiliate groups, such as al-Shabaab, AQAP, AQIM, al-Nusrah and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. But it has generally seen its claim to leadership in the global jihad weakened. This is both as a result of counter-terrorism measures, including, drone strikes and because of the rising appeal of IS.
This appeal, in part facilitated by a sophisticated social media campaign, has enabled Islamic State to attract followers from abroad and locally. It has created its own branches outside areas it controls, which have carried out attacks, for example in Yemen and Libya. But it has also proved adept at inspiring lone-wolf attacks.
One global problem
While it is important to note differences, and rivalries, between al-Qaeda and Islamic State, it is equally important to consider the cumulative nature of the threat that their activities pose locally, regionally and globally.
Terrorist attacks increased by 35% between 2013 and 2014, and fatalities by 81%. By far the largest number of these attacks and fatalities were caused by Islamic State and two al-Qaeda affiliates, the Taliban and al-Shabaab. The fourth most deadly terror group was Nigeria-based Boko Haram, and the only non-Islamist terror group in the top-five were India’s Maoists.
While there was an increase in activity by the Taliban and al-Shabaab, the surge by Islamic State was of a different magnitude: its total attacks rose from 429 in 2013 to 1,083 in 2014, resulting fatalities increased from 1,752 to 6,286.
One obvious conclusion from all this is that current strategies to counter the threat from Islamist terror groups are simply not working.
These outrages may have been striking in the sense that they occurred simultaneously across Tunisia, Kuwait, France, Somalia, and Syria, but they are, more worryingly, part of a broader trend.
We are witnessing more attacks that occur across more countries and kill more people (and, importantly, more Muslims than non-Muslims). In that sense, the terrorism espoused by the likes of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram and grounded in their extremist interpretation of Islam is a truly global problem that requires a global response. It is pointless for world leaders to issue shared statements of condemnation while continuing to pursue otherwise nationally-centred responses to the problem.
27 June 2015