The terrorist attacks in Paris have resonated around the world. In addition to physical violence, Islamic State (IS) is pursuing a strategy of socially mediated terrorism. The symbolic responses of its opponents can be predicted and may inadvertently further its aims.
In the emotion of the moment, we need to act. We need to be cautious, however, of symbolic reactions that divide Muslims and non-Muslims. We need emblems that act against the xenophobia that is a recruiting tool for jihadists.
Reactions from the West should not erode the Muslim leadership that is essential to overturning “Islamic State”. Queen Rania of Jordan points out:
What the extremists want is to divide our world along fault lines of religion and culture, and so a lot of people in the West may have stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims. But really this fight is a fight between the civilised world and a bunch of crazy people who want to take us back to medieval times. Once we see it that way, we realise that this is about all of us coming together to defend our way of life.
Queen Rania’s statement characterises the Paris attacks as part of a wider conflict around cultural values. How are these values playing out symbolically across the globe?
Propaganda seeks predictable responses
IS’s socially mediated propaganda is sophisticated and planned. This supports an argument that the Paris attacks are the beginning of a global campaign. Symbolic materials characterise IS as invincible. However, other evidence may indicate that it is weak.
The spontaneous celebration on Twitter by IS supporters was predictable. Its representational coverage of the Paris attacks, however, suggests deep planning.
This planning is embedded in professionally designed images. A reworked image depicts the Eiffel Tower as a triumphal arch with the IS flag flying victoriously on top.
The tower is illuminated and points to the heavens and a God-given victory. The inclusion of a road running through the Eiffel Tower provides a sense of speed, change, even progress. In Arabic, the text states, “We are coming, France” and “The state of Khilafa”.
IS is using symbolic representations of the Paris attacks to garner new recruits.
A sophisticated pre-prepared image of an intrepid fighter walking away from a Paris engulfed in flames was quickly distributed. It is inscribed with the word “France under fire” in Arabic and French.
The five million young Muslims in France are particular targets. Among online recruitment materials are videos calling them to join other young French nationals who are with IS.
Support for the victims in Paris and for the democratic values of liberty, equality and fraternity are embedded in the blue, white and red lights movement. These lights shone in major cities in the US, Britain, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Taiwan and South America. The blue, white and red lights also were displayed in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Malaysia.
However, the light displays were seen in few countries with Muslim majorities overall. Such countries are in an invidious position. Display the lights and you may be characterized as a lackey of the West. Don’t display the lights and appear unsympathetic to the victims.
Support also is embedded in a parallel Facebook function that allows members to activate a tri-colour filter. Adapted from a rainbow filter used to support same-sex marriage, this filter attracts those with liberal sentiments.
The question of whether to use the French flag to show sympathy for the victims is invidious at a personal level. Many people find themselves exploited and condemned to poverty by neoliberal economic models. They are put in a difficult position. They feel sympathy for the victims. However, they are bitter about how they are being treated by “the West”, including France.
Perils of an ‘us and them’ mindset
As the blue, white and red activism plays out around the globe, there is a potential for this to transform into a symbolic manifestation of an “us and them” mentality. Such a division would support xenophobic forces, which steer recruits towards IS.
The global impact of the attacks can be related to the iconic status of Paris. The attacks hold a personal dimension for millions of people who have visited this city. They have a sense of “there but for the grace of God, go I”. This emotion echoes responses to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.
The Japanese and Italian cafes included in the attacks are symbolic targets for their countries. In March 2015, IS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnan stated that the group would attack “Paris, before Rome”. Rome is a target because of its symbolic role as the centre of Christianity. Japan is a target because of its role in coalition forces. It has already suffered the execution of Japanese hostages early in 2015.
In Japan, the cultural reaction has been relatively low key, as part of a strategy of minimising terrorist attention. The blue, white and red lights solidarity received minimal press coverage. There have been few reports of the Japanese restaurant that was one of the targets. In addition to factual coverage of the attacks, Japanese reports have concentrated on implications for security at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Are there any symbols indicating good news? The Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers could be a sign of weakness. It could have been “planted” there – why carry a passport on a suicide mission?
If so, its purpose is to increase European xenophobia and encourage the closing of borders to Syrian refugees. This suggests the mass exodus of Muslim refugees from Syria is hurting IS. The propaganda could be a sign of alarm in IS leadership ranks.
In our responses to the Paris attacks, the grief of the West should not be allowed to overshadow the opprobrium of Muslim countries. Muslims are best placed to challenge the Islamic identity of this self-declared state.
As Queen Rania states, the war against IS must be led by Muslims and Arabs. To ensure success, the international community needs to support, not lead, Muslim efforts.
While the average person was getting on with life in Paris before last Friday’s terror bombings and shootings, Twitter threads in Arabic from the Middle East were urging for attacks to be launched upon coalition forces in their home countries.
“Advance, advance – forward, forward” they said, regarding Paris.
Iraqi forces had warned coalition countries one day before the attack that IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had called for “[…] bombings or assassinations or hostage taking in the coming days”.
In addition, social media message “Telegrams” from The Islamic State Media Center’s Al-Hayat were telling that something more sinister may be afloat, or at least in the works.
Hiding in privacy
Telegram is an app, launched in 2013, that can be set up on almost any device and allows messages to be sent to users, with a strong focus on privacy.
An important tool that agencies use to tackle violent extremism is that of counter-narratives. The aim here is address and challenge propaganda and misinformation being disseminated by IS to potential recruits or IS sympathisers.
This is used as a form of disruption to the flow of information and recruitment process. But with Telegrams – since information moves in one direction – it makes it harder to counter jihad propaganda and lies.
Telegrams is used by IS to not just post propaganda, but to spread training manuals, advice on how to obtain and import weapons, how to make bombs and how to perform single jihadi attacks on individuals with household equipment.
It has posts on launching attacks at soft targets and the activation of lone-wolf style attacks, or give the green light for small terrorists pockets or cells within the community to conduct their onslaught.
Inciting acts of violence is a key element of IS’s radical religious ideology. It mandates that its people are following the “true” path of Allah and are helping to bring to pass a great apocalyptic battle between coalition forces and “Rome”, which to them is the will of Allah.
Social media advantage
Social media is prominent in recruitment strategies used by terrorist groups, in particular, IS.
Facebook is a key platform to gather young fans, supporters and recruits to incite them to acts of violence by the means of propaganda and the use of Islamic grievance.
When it comes to real-time orchestrating of terror events, IS is adopting encrypted messaging applications – including Kik, Surespot, Wickr and Telegram, as previously mentioned – that are very difficult to compromise or even hack.
What is advantageous for IS is that messages being sent have what is termed a “burn time” which means they will be deleted after a certain time and will not show up on a phone or other device.
This benefits recruiters as it means they can fly under the radar more readily which makes it more difficult for agencies to detect and prevent attacks.
Also, IS is using the PlayStation 4 network to recruit and plan attacks. Belgium’s deputy prime minister and minister of security and home affairs, Jan Jambon, said PlayStation4 was more difficult for authorities to monitor than WhatsApp and other applications.
After the Paris attacks
Not long after the attacks in Paris, IS released an audio and written statement claiming the attack as its own from command central. This was systematically and widely broadcast across social media platforms.
Contained in this statement were future warnings that “[…] this is just the beginning of attacks […]”. At the same time, a propaganda video entitled “What are you waiting for?” was circulated on Facebook, Twitter and Telegrams.
IS continues to use social media as part of its terror campaign. Its aim is to maintain the focus of its recruits and fighters within coalition countries. It also aims to further recruit home-grown jihadists to acts of violence while driving fear into the heartland of European and Western countries.
While privacy is something on everyone’s mind, encryption applications have gained much momentum to allow people to communicate without worrying about unwanted third party access.
Unfortunately, terrorists have also utilised these features as a means to go undetected in organising real-time operations and preparation for terrorist attacks.
Terrorists are ahead of the A-game and we don’t want to be playing continual catch-up. If terrorists are to continue using these applications to arrange acts of terrorism in a covert manner, then security agencies need to be able to balance the collection of information from technological advanced services with that of human intelligence.
Dealing with the threat of misuse of encrypted applications by IS and other terror organisations, would mean that law enforcement and agencies would require access to encrypted communications. While one could argue this may compromise data security and that it should also be assessed alongside internet vulnerabilities, this must be balanced against the current climate of security threat both domestically and internationally.
The dust had barely settled on the atrocious attacks in Paris when the spectre of terrorists hiding among the refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria was raised. The attacks have caused some to question Australia’s one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees.
NSW Nationals MP Andrew Fraser called on Australia to “close our borders” in the interests of national security. Other former political figures have been sounding the clarion call of the dire consequences of Australia accepting these refugees.
The idea that there are “hidden terrorists” among the refugee intake is being raised due to the likelihood that at least one of the Paris attackers had arrived in France via a refugee channel from Greece. So, is it possible that Australia is about to be infiltrated by Islamic State-inspired militants among the refugees we are offering sanctuary to?
History provides lessons
The crisis enveloping Europe in attending to and properly caring for millions of terrified refugees fleeing the Assad regime in Syria and Islamic State (IS) is phenomenally problematic. These problems have ruptured some relationships between European Union and non-EU nations.
This represents the largest mass movement of people in Europe since the second world war. There are other great similarities between these two calamitous movements of people. The UK, for instance, was initially hostile to accepting large numbers of Jewish refugees due to a belief that they would not assimilate.
With so many people fleeing so much persecution, it beggars belief that there are people who have attached themselves to groups seeking to escape this barbarity but whose objectives are the very antithesis of those seeking sanctuary. But this is what some early information in the Paris attacks’ aftermath seems to suggest has taken place.
In this regard, it is entirely possible that a small number of IS followers have infiltrated groups seeking refuge and solace. Those guilty of evil crimes and those with evil intent hiding among the innocent is regrettably not unknown in these situations. In the second world war’s aftermath, the “ratlines” – or escape routes – of Nazis and fascists included their immersion among the refugee populations.
This has also been the case with more recent conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere. Alleged war criminals have been found living in Australia.
A difficult task ahead
The task of identifying anyone from a war zone is very challenging – even more so when the particular countries people are fleeing have either rudimentary or no form of records of the essential details of their citizens.
This is why, following the September 11 attacks, a great deal of aid came from the US trying to introduce more robust identity-capturing measures globally.
This remains an unfinished project. In many areas where refugees continue to flee, there is not a comparable form of quick computerised identity checking as in Australia. Certain agencies here can access a computer with or without a warrant to look at your records. But this is not the case in countries where discovering someone’s identity is reduced to knowing the names of the individual’s parents and the specific village, town or area from which they hail.
These problems notwithstanding, the agencies tasked with undertaking such checks do so exhaustively. The checks can rely on everything from an allied country’s records to information from refugees themselves. The refugees have a passionate interest in ensuring their former persecutors are not among those persons provided sanctuary.
IS should not be equated with Islam – nor with the terrified Muslim refugees trying to escape the very acts that were perpetrated in Paris.