In COVID’s shadow, global terrorism goes quiet. But we have seen this before, and should be wary



Alaa Al-Marjani/AAP

Greg Barton, Deakin University

Have we flattened the curve of global terrorism? In our COVID-19-obsessed news cycle stories about terrorism and terrorist attacks have largely disappeared. We now, though, understand a little more about how pandemics work.

And ironically, long before the current pandemic, the language of epidemiology proved helpful in understanding by analogy the way in which terrorism works as a phenomenon that depends on social contact and exchange, and expands rapidly in an opportunistic fashion when defences are lowered.

Terrorism goes quiet – but we’ve seen this before

In this pandemic year, it appears one piece of good news is that the curve of international terrorist attacks has indeed been flattened. Having lost its physical caliphate, Islamic State also appears to have lost its capacity, if not its willingness, to launch attacks around the world well beyond conflict zones.

We have seen this happen before. The September 11 attacks in 2001 were followed by a wave of attacks around the world. Bali in October 2002, Riyadh, Casablanca, Jakarta and Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in March 2004, followed by Khobar in May, then London in July 2005 and Bali in October, not to mention numerous other attacks in the Middle East and West Asia.

Since 2005, with the exception of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January 2015, al-Qaeda has been prevented from launching any major attacks in western capitals.

Candelit vigil for victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, spelling 'Je suis Charlie'.
The 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris left 12 people dead.
Ian Langsdon/AAP

The September 11 attacks precipitated enormous investment in police counterterrorism capacity around the world, particularly in intelligence. The result has been that al-Qaeda has struggled to put together large-scale coordinated attacks in Western capitals without being detected and stopped.

Then in 2013, Islamic State emerged. This brought a new wave of attacks from 2014 in cities around the world, outside of conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria.

This wave of IS international terror attacks now appears to have reached an end. The hopeful rhetoric of the collapse of the IS caliphate leading to an end of the global campaign of terror attacks appears to have been borne out. Although, as the sophisticated and coordinated suicide bombings in Colombo in Easter 2019 reminded us, further attacks by previously unknown cells cannot ever be ruled out.

While it’s tempting to conclude that the ending of the current wave of international terrorist attacks by IS is due largely to the ending of the physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and a concomitant collapse of capacity, the reality is more complex. Just as the wave of al-Qaeda attacks in the first half of the 2000s was curtailed primarily by massive investments in counterterrorism, so too it appears to be the case with IS international terror plots in the second half of this decade.




Read more:
Why we need to stay alert to the terror threat as the UK reopens


The 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka illustrate dramatically what happens when there is a failure of intelligence, whether due to capacity or, as appears to be the case in Sri Lanka, a lack of political will. The rise of IS in 2013-14 should not have caught us by surprise, but it did, and in 2014 and 2015 we were scrambling to get up to speed with the intelligence challenge.

Epidemiology of terror

The parallels with the epidemiology of viruses are striking. Reasoning by analogy is imperfect, but it can be a powerful way of prompting reflection. The importance of this cannot be underestimated as intelligence failures in counterterrorism, like poor political responses to pandemics, are in large part failures of imagination.

We don’t see what we don’t want to see, and we set ourselves up to become victims of our own wishful thinking. So, with two waves of international terrorist attacks over the past two decades largely brought under control, what can we say about the underlying threat of global terrorism?

Taliban prisoners looking through a small window.
When it comes to terrorism, we don’t see what we don’t want to see.
Rahmat Gul/AAP

There are four key lessons we need to learn.

First, we are ultimately seeking to counter the viral spread of ideas and narratives embodied in social networks and spread person-to-person through relationships, whether in person or online. Effective policing and intelligence built on strong community relations can dramatically limit the likelihood of terrorist networks successfully executing large-scale attacks. Effective intelligence can also go a long way to diminishing the frequency and intensity of lone-actor attacks. But this sort of intelligence is even more dependent on strong community relations, built on trust that emboldens people to speak out.

Second, terrorist movements, being opportunistic and parasitic, achieve potency in inverse relation to the level of good governance. In other words, as good governance breaks down, terrorist movements find opportunity to embed themselves. In failing states, the capacity of the state to protect its citizens, and the trust between citizen and authorities, provides ample opportunities for terrorist groups to exploit grievances and needs. This is the reason around 75% of all deaths due to terrorist activity in recent years have occurred in just five nations: Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria (followed by Somalia, Libya, and Yemen).

The third lesson is directly linked to state failure, and is that military methods dramatically overpromise and under-deliver when it comes to countering terrorism. In fact, more than that, the use of military force tends to generate more problems than it solves. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than what has been so wrongly framed as the Global War on Terror.

Afghan security officials standing guard on a road.
Military methods under-deliver when it comes to tackling terrorism.
Watan Yar/AAP

Beginning in October 2001 in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, the war on terror began with a barrage of attacks on al-Qaeda positions in Afghanistan. It was spurred by understandable anger, but it led to two decades of tremendously expensive military campaigns they have completely failed to deliver the hoped-for end in terrorism to justify the massive toll of violence and loss of life.

The military campaign in Afghanistan began, and has continued for almost 19 years, without any strategic endpoints being defined and indeed with no real strategy vision at all. After almost two decades of continuous conflict, any American administration would understandably want to end the military campaign and withdraw.

Obama talked of doing this but was unable to do so. Trump campaigned on it as one of the few consistent features of his foreign policy thinking. Hence the current negotiations to dramatically reduce American troop numbers, and in the process trigger a reduction in allied coalition troops while releasing thousands of detained militants in response to poorly defined and completely un-guaranteed promises of a reduction in violence by the Taliban.

This is America’s way of ending decades of stalemate in which it is has proven impossible to defeat the Taliban, which even now controls almost one half of Afghanistan. But even as the peace negotiations have been going on the violence has continued unabated. The only reason for withdrawing and allowing the Taliban to formally take a part in governing Afghanistan is fatigue.

Not just Afghanistan

If the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan were the main story, the situation would already be far more dire then we would care to accept. But the problem is not limited to Afghanistan and West Asia. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the “coalition of the willing” was justified largely on the grounds it was necessary to stop al-Qaeda from establishing a presence in Iraq. It achieved, of course, the exact opposite.

Al-Qaeda had little, if any, presence in Iraq prior to the invasion. But the ensuring collapse of not just the regime of Saddam Hussein but the dismantling of the Baath party and the Iraqi military, led largely by a Sunni minority in a Shia majority country, created perfect storm conditions for multiple Sunni insurgencies.

These in turn came to be dominated by the group that styled itself first as Al Qaeda in Iraq, then as the Islamic State in Iraq, and then as the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. This powerful insurgency was almost completely destroyed in the late 2000s when Sunni tribes were paid and equipped to fight the al-Qaeda insurgency.

Staute of Saddam Hussein being toppled in 2003.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was supposed to stop al-Qaeda.
Jerome Delay/AAP

The toxic sectarian politics of Iraq, followed by the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011, coinciding with the outbreak of civil war in Syria, saw the almost extinguished insurgency quickly rebuild. We only really began to pay attention when IS led a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, seized Mosul, and declared a caliphate in June 2014.

Defeating this quasi-state took years of extraordinarily costly military engagement. But even as IS was deprived of the last of its safe havens on the ground, analysts were warning it continued to have tens of thousands of insurgent militants in Syria and northern Iraq and was successfully returning to its earlier mode of insurgency.




Read more:
US retreat from Syria could see Islamic State roar back to life


As the Iraqi security forces have been forced to pull back in the face of a steadily building COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs the IS insurgent forces have continued to seize the spaces left open to them. Even without the pandemic, the insurgency was always going to steadily build strength, but the events of 2020 have provided it with fresh opportunities.

The fourth and final lesson we need to come to terms with is that we are dealing with a viral movement of ideas embodied in social networks. We are not dealing with a singular unchanging enemy but rather an amorphous, agile, threat able to constantly evolve and adapt itself to circumstances.

Al-Qaeda and IS share a common set of ideas built around Salafi-jihadi violent extremism. But this is not the only violent extremism we have to worry about.

In America today, as has been the case for more than a decade, the prime terrorist threat comes from far-right violent extremism rather than from Salafi-jihadi extremism. The same is not true in Australia, although ASIO and our police forces have been warning us far-right extremism represents an emerging secondary threat.

But the potent violence of an Australian far-right terrorist in the attack in Christchurch in March 2019 serves to remind us this form of violent extremism, feeding on toxic identity politics and hate, represents a growing threat in our southern hemisphere.




Read more:
ASIO chief’s assessment shows the need to do more, and better, to prevent terrorism


Fighting the terrorist pandemic

In this year in which we have been, understandably, so preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, another pandemic has been continuing unabated. It is true we have successfully dealt with two waves of global terrorist attacks over the past two decades, but we have not dealt successfully the underlying source of infections.

In fact, we have contributed, through military campaigns, to weakening the body politic of host countries in which groups like al-Qaeda, IS and other violent extremist groups have a parasitic presence.

We now need to face the inconvenient truth that toxic identity politics and the tribal dynamics of hate have infected western democracies. Limiting the scope for terrorist attacks is difficult. Eliminating the viral spread of hateful extremism is much harder, but ultimately even more important.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Australia can no longer avoid responsibility for its citizens held in Syria



Detention camps in Syria hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
Murtaja Lateef/EPA

Anthony Billingsley, UNSW

The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.

Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.

So far, the Australian public seems to have accepted the government’s line that it’s too dangerous to extract them from Syria. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison succinctly put it:

I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.

An increasingly untenable position

The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.

Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.

However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.

The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.




Read more:
Western states must repatriate IS fighters and their families before more break free from Syrian camps


Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.

The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.

The situation increases the possibility that young people in the camps will be radicalised.

Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.

Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.

In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.

Al-Hawl camp in northern Syria where eight Australian IS fighters and some 60 women and children are believed to be held.
Tessa Fox/AAP

Barriers to bringing detainees back

While Australia has not joined the Dutch in outright rejecting the US offer, the Morrison government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea.

Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.

And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,

While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.

Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.

The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.




Read more:
Why is it so difficult to prosecute returning fighters?


There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.

Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.

But instead of looking at these options, Australia has endeavoured to keep out returning fighters and their families. Laws have been passed to strip some of their citizenship, running counter to several international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.

There are few other options

Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.

For example, France sent some suspects there only for them to be summarily sentenced to be hanged.




Read more:
Preventing foreign fighters from returning home could be dangerous to national security


Equally unacceptable would be to allow the Australian prisoners to fall into the hands of the Syrian regime.

In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.

In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.The Conversation

Anthony Billingsley, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Baghdadi’s death is a huge blow to Islamic State, but history suggests it won’t guarantee a safer world



Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable, but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led.
AAP/EPA/ al Furqan ISIS media wing handout

Greg Barton, Deakin University

“A very bad man” has been killed and “the world is now a much safer place”. The sentiment behind US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is difficult to argue with. Baghdadi was certainly a very bad man. And under his decade-long leadership of the Islamic State (IS) movement, many thousands of people in the Middle East and around the world suffered terrible brutality or death.

Common sense would suggest the world is indeed now a much safer place with Baghdadi’s passing. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee this will prove to be true in practice.

The 18 year-long so-called Global War on Terror in the wake of the September 11 attacks – the international military campaign to fight al-Qaeda, and then IS – has been almost entirely reactive and tactical.

It has lacked any consistent strategic purpose, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines or anywhere else.

The strongest military coalitions the world has ever seen have fought the largest and most powerful terror networks that have ever existed. And this has led, directly and indirectly, to hundreds of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and remarkably little progress overall.




Read more:
US retreat from Syria could see Islamic State roar back to life


The special forces raids targeting Baghdadi, in Idlib, and his deputy, IS spokesperson Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, in Aleppo, were undoubtedly significant achievements representing tactical victories of great consequence.

IS has been dealt an enormous blow. But just how long its impact will last is not clear. The lessons of the past two decades make it clear this will certainly not have been a fatal blow.

The IS insurgency, both on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and around the world, was rebuilding strength before these strikes and will not be stopped in its tracks by losing its two most senior public leaders.

Baghdadi as IS leader

Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led. He oversaw the rebuilding of IS from its previous low point a decade ago. He played a key role in expanding into Syria, replenishing the leadership ranks, leading a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and declaring a caliphate. In the eyes of his support base, his credibility as an Islamic scholar and religious leader will not easily be matched.

He was not a particularly charismatic leader and was certainly, as a brutal, fundamentalist loner, not truly inspirational. But he played his role effectively, backed up by the largely unseen ranks of former Iraqi intelligence officers and military commanders who form the core of the IS leadership.

He was, in his time, the caliph the caliphate needed. In that sense, we will not see his like again.

Incredibly, 15 years after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq, and almost ten years after Baghdadi took charge of the Islamic State in Iraq, there is so much about the leadership of IS we don’t understand.

What is clear is the insurgent movement benefited enormously from so-called “de-Baathification” – the ridding of Arab nationalist ideology – in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. The sacking of thousands of mostly Sunni senior military leaders and technocrats proved to be a windfall for the emerging insurgency.

IS has always been a hybrid movement. Publicly, it presents as a fundamentalist religious movement driven by religious conviction. Behind the scenes, however, experienced Baathist intelligence officers manipulated religious imagery to construct a police state, using religious terror to inspire, intimidate and control.

This is not to say Zarqawi and Baghdadi were unimportant as leaders. On the contrary, they were effective in mobilising religious sentiment first in the Middle East and then across the world. In the process, more than 40,000 people travelled to join the ranks of IS, inspired by the utopian ideal of religious revolution. Baghdadi was especially effective in playing his role as religious leader and caliph.

An optimistic take on Baghdadi’s denouement is that IS will be set back for many months, and perhaps even years. It will struggle to regain the momentum it had under his leadership.

Realistically, the extent to which this opportunity can be capitalised upon turns very much upon the extent to which the emerging leaders within the movement can be tracked down and dealt with before they have a chance to establish themselves.

What might happen now?

It would appear IS had identified the uncontested spaces of north-western Syria in Idlib and Aleppo, outside of the control of the Assad regime in Damascus, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northeast Syria, and beyond the reach of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as territory in which its leadership could relocate and rebuild.

Continuing the optimistic take, there is the slim hope that the success of Sunday’s raids in which the partnership between US special forces and the SDF was so critical will lead to Trump being persuaded to reverse his decision to part ways with the SDF and pull out their special forces partners on the ground, together with accompanying air support.




Read more:
The ‘ceasefire’ in Syria is ending – here’s what’s likely to happen now


The fact Baghdadi and Muhajir were both found within five kilometres of the Turkish border suggests Turkish control of northern Syria is, to say the least, wholly unequal to the task of dealing with emerging IS leaders.

A reset to the pattern of partnership established over the past five years with the largely Kurdish SDF forces in north-eastern Syria could prove critically important in cutting down new IS leaders as they emerge. It’s believed the locations in northern Syria of the handful of leaders most likely to step into the void left by Baghdadi’s passing are well-known.

But even in the best-case scenario, all that can be realistically hoped for is slowing the rebuilding of the IS insurgency, buying time to rebuild political and social stability in northern Syria and northern Iraq.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

US retreat from Syria could see Islamic State roar back to life


Greg Barton, Deakin University

“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.

US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.

In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.

This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.

Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.




Read more:
As Turkish troops move in to Syria, the risks are great – including for Turkey itself


In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.

And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.

From violent beginnings

In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.

But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.

The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.




Read more:
Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria opens way for dangerous Middle East power play


To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.

Trump’s betrayal could open up ISIS recruitment

Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.

What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.

Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.

This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.

But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.

Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.

IS hardliners in overcrowded camps

IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.

IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.

But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.

As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.




Read more:
Western states must repatriate IS fighters and their families before more break free from Syrian camps


Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.

In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.

The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.

Liberated ISIS fighters

The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.

From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.

Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.




Read more:
Western states must repatriate IS fighters and their families before more break free from Syrian camps


The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.

It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria opens way for dangerous Middle East power play



Turkish and US troops on patrol in northern Syria. President Donald Trump has announced he plans to withdraw US troops from the region, paving the way for great destabilisation.
AAP/EPA/Sedat Suna

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

US President Donald Trump’s precipitate announcement he was withdrawing American forces from northeast Syria to enable Turkey to assert its authority along the border risks wider regional bloodshed – and further destabilisation of one of the world’s most volatile corners.

If implemented against a furious pushback from his own side of politics, the Trump decision threatens a region-wide conflagration. These are the stakes.

Trump has given contradictory signals before on the same issue. It remains to be seen whether he gives ground again after what appears to have been a hasty, certainly ill-considered, decision following a phone conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now under enormous stress from his own side, Trump is resorting to bombast. He tweeted:

Leading the charge against the Trump decision is his close ally, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He has threatened to introduce a Senate resolution opposing the administration’s decision, describing the move as a “stain on America’s honour”.

Like plucking a thread from a finely woven Turkish rug, the administration’s announcement effectively to abandon a Kurdish militia could lead to a complete unravelling of that part of the Middle East in which various forces have collided since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011.




Read more:
Iran and US refusing to budge as tit-for-tat ship seizures in Middle East raise the temperature


America’s Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia arm (known as the YPG), would be at the mercy of a Turkish thrust across the Syrian border into territory the Kurds now control.

Turkey has made no secret of its intention to create what it is calling “safe zones” up to 30 kilometres inside the border in northeast Syria. This would enable it to relocate tens of thousands of Syrian refugees among the 3.6 million on Turkish soil.

In the face of such a Turkish move, the YPG would be hard put to hold sway against both Turkey’s military and Islamic State fighters seeking to take advantage of militia weakness in the absence of US support on the ground and in the air.

The ABC reports that something like 70,000 members of Islamic State or their supporters are being held in camps in SDF-controlled territory. Around 60 people of Australian origin, including children, are in this situation.

Thousands of IS militants are being held in prison camps in SDF-controlled territory. These fighters have already sought to stage mass breakouts from prison facilities.

Turkey views the YPG militia as cross-border allies of Kurdish separatists – and it regards the Kurdish separatists as terrorists.

The situation along the Turkish-Syria border is, by any standards, an explosive mix.

At the same time, Syrian forces of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, would inevitably be poised to take advantage of chaos and regain territory lost in the civil war. This is a highly destabilising scenario.

In other words, Trump’s announcement could hardly portend a more worrisome outcome in a part of the world riven by years of conflict.

The US announcement also sends a disturbing signal to the wider Middle East that the Trump administration is intent on pulling back from its commitments in an unstable region.

Confidence in American steadfastness is already precarious due to Trump’s repeated statement that America wants to remove itself from “endless” wars in the Middle East.

In a Twitter message early this week that amplified a White House announcement, Trump said it was time for the US to withdraw from “these ridiculous Endless Wars”.

Trump also attacked European allies over their failure to take back their nationals among IS fighters held in SDF-run detention centres in northeast Syria. Some 10,000 prisoners are being detained.

This is a situation ripe for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The latter is seeking to reassert itself in a region it regards as its own sphere of influence. Moscow’s support for Damascus is part of this regional power play.




Read more:
Twenty-five years after the Oslo Accords, the prospect of peace in the Middle East remains bleak


These are telling moments. Signs of an apparent American lack of commitment might well encourage Iran and Russia, as well as Islamic militants such as IS and al-Qaeda. These groups have been biding their time.

None of America’s regional friends, including Gulf states and Israel, will draw any comfort at all from the Trump decision – if implemented – to head for the exit.

By any standards, this is a mess of Trump’s own making.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Preventing foreign fighters from returning home could be dangerous to national security



Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is pushing to have new security laws passed by parliament as quickly as possible.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Greg Barton, Deakin University

A key element in the success of countering terrorism in Australia has been a series of new and amended pieces of legislation – at least 75 – developed to respond to an evolving threat.

This includes legislation produced in October 2014 (Section 119.2 and 119.3 of the Criminal Code) that declared areas of Iraq and Syria, including the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State (IS) caliphate, illegal for Australian citizens to enter. Anyone who has lived in this territory and seeks to return to Australia will have to prove they were not assisting IS or face prosecution and a possible punishment of up to 25 years in prison.

Innovative pieces of legislation like the proposed Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEO) bill introduced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton are difficult to argue with. Existing national security laws already place Australia in a much stronger position than any other Western nation when it comes to managing the prosecution and detention of returning IS fighters.

Nevertheless, there is a limit to what legislation itself can do. Moreover, for every possible advantage, there are also possible disadvantages that need to be weighed up.

There is not a whole lot more the new TEO bill can be reasonably expected to achieve. And as the weight of legislation increases, there are reasonable questions to be asked about checks and balances and proportionate implementation.

In other words, the devil is very much in the detail.

Questions that need answering

Three questions need to be asked:

  • First, what is the actual need for this bill? And what is the likelihood the proposed legislation can meet this need?

  • Second, what are the potential downsides that might come with enacting this legislation?

  • Third, in the light of the first two questions, what then should be done?

There is no question, that with at least 80 individuals who have fought with IS now in a position to possibly return, any legislative tool that can help manage this risk is worth considering.

Specifically, there is clearly a benefit to being able to delay somebody’s return by at least two years, and through a process of extensions perhaps many more years. There is also an advantage, when they do return, of being able to legally impose conditions on who they meet with and where they go.




Read more:
There’s no clear need for Peter Dutton’s new bill excluding citizens from Australia


The government has pointed out that around 40 Australians have already returned from Syria and Iraq under suspicion of being involved with terrorist groups. To have been able to delay and then manage the return of these 40 fighters clearly would have been very useful.

But what has not been explained by the government is that these 40 individuals came back to Australia more than six years ago, and only a couple have so far been successfully prosecuted.

If the need was so urgent, why wasn’t a temporary exclusion order introduced in late 2014 when we first began to process a raft of counter-terrorism bills and amendments? Or in 2015 when the UK introduced similar legislation?

First line of defence

There is, in fact, no immediate crisis, and undue haste in passing further security legislation should be avoided because it is very dangerous to national security.

If TEOs are applied excessively, and without sufficient discrimination, a number of risks arise. Individuals currently detained in overcrowded detention centres in Syria or Iraq might be released if their repatriation to Australia is delayed by years.

Or, they could be broken out of detention by IS insurgents, who remain deadly and numerous. This happened on dozens of occasions when IS needed to replenish its ranks.

Allowing our citizens to be somebody else’s problem, out of sight and out of mind, does not actually make the security risk to Australians go away. Leaving them offshore leaves open the very real possibility that they will eventually slip away into the terrorist underground or rejoin the IS insurgency.




Read more:
How Indonesia is dealing with the new threat posed by returning Islamic State fighters


Should they do so, they immediately become a risk through their ability to influence others online and via social media.

It is likely that TEOs will be also applied to women and children we really should be repatriating. This would pass the buck to others to look after and secure these women and children, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are already overstretched and unable to deal with the burden of indefinitely detaining those who have fled the decaying IS caliphate.

There is also a real risk this legislation, much like other bills that allow Dutton to strip somebody of their citizenship on the grounds they potentially have access to alternative citizenship, could undermine confidence and trust within key communities in Australia.

As then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said after the murder of Sydney police accountant Curtis Cheng by a 15-year-old recruited by IS supporters in 2015, our first line of defence in fighting groups like Islamic State is the Muslim community.

Intelligence is key to countering terrorism and working with communities and families to encourage people to speak up when they see something of concern. To the extent that trust and confidence are eroded, national security will be directly diminished.

Amendments that could help

So what should be done?

Speaking last week at his farewell dinner, outgoing Labor Senator Doug Cameron spelled out the larger issues that need to be addressed.

Our existing oversight is inferior and, in my view, almost non-existent. This is unacceptable and we should ensure our inferior parliamentary oversight of security agencies is changed and oversight is enhanced.

Cameron is not the only one to express concerns. This bill was first introduced into the 45th Parliament. The Liberal-dominated Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) produced an extensive review and a detailed report on the bill.




Read more:
Why is it so difficult to prosecute returning fighters?


Labor Senator Kristina Keneally, a member of the PJCIS, has since complained that the government had

rejected four of the PJCIS recommendations in whole, rejected six in part and ignored one.

This, despite the fact that these recommendations came as a result of the considered reasoning of senior figures from both the Liberals and Labor.

One of the key amendments recommenced by the PJCIS is that the minister of home affairs should only be empowered to order a temporary exclusion order if he or she

reasonably suspects the person is, or has been, involved in terrorism-related activities outside Australia

And that a TEO should only be made

if it would substantially assist in preventing the provision of support for, or the facilitation of, a terrorist act.

The principle of being able to impose TEOs certainly bears consideration. While this is no “silver bullet”, there is a case for passing the bill after including the amendments thoughtfully proposed by the PJCIS.

Without a better system of oversight, we risk undermining community trust and confidence by setting in place policy that leads to dire consequences and diminishes our national security.

Now is not the time to make haste at the expense of national security, as well as the very values that define us as Australians.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka terror attack. Here’s what that means


Greg Barton, Deakin University

In the wake of any tragedy, it should be enough to grieve and stand in solidarity with those who mourn. With a massive toll – about 250 dead, according to revised government figures – it feels disrespectful to the people of Sri Lanka to be dissecting what went wrong even as the dead are being buried.

But the reality is that most, if not all, of these lives need not have been taken. We owe it to them and their loved ones to make sense of what happened and work towards doing all that can be done to ensure it does not happen again.

The Easter attacks represent one of the most lethal and serious terrorist operations since the September 11 attacks in the US, outside of attacks within active conflict zones. And this in a now peaceful country, which for all its history of civil war and ethno-nationalist terrorism in decades past has never had a problem with jihadi radical Islamist terrorism.

A return to deadlier, more coordinated strikes

The long-anticipated claim of responsibility for the attacks was made by the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday night. This could help explain how one local cell based around a single extended family circle of hateful extremists not previously known for terrorism could execute such a massive attack. It was larger even than IS’s previous truck-bomb attacks in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The attacks follow a familiar, if now rarely seen, IS operandi of coordinated suicide bombings. The targeting of Catholic churches, which made little sense initially in the context of the domestic social issues at the heart of the country’s recent civil war, fit an all-too-familiar pattern of IS attacks on Christians, along with fellow Muslims.




Read more:
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?


The fact that 40 or more Sri Lankans travelled to Syria to fight with IS could help explain how the terror network was able to build vital personal links in the very small community of Sri Lankan Islamist extremists so it could subcontract its attack plans to them. At this point, the precise involvement of returnees from Syria and foreign IS supporters in the bombings remains under investigation.

The Easter weekend attacks more resemble the al-Qaeda attacks of the 2000s than they do recent attacks of IS. Like the 2000 attack of the USS Cole in Yemen, the September attacks in New York and Washington, the 2002 bombings in Bali, the 2003 truck bombs in Istanbul, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London, the Sri Lanka bombings involved multiple attackers acting in concert. With the exception of September 11, all of these also involved improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The Sri Lanka bombings exceeded all but the September 11 attacks in sophistication and deadliness, despite the fact the perpetrators were previously known only for acts of hateful vandalism.

Over the past decade, al-Qaeda has been unable to carry out significant attacks outside of conflict zones. It has also become increasingly focused on “reputation management” and has tended to avoid indiscriminate mass killings, all the whilst growing its global network of affiliates.




Read more:
Out of the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq: the rise and rise of Islamic State


The emergence of IS saw the tempo and scale of terrorist attacks transformed. Most attacks took place in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, southern Philippines).

A number of significant attacks were conducted well beyond the battlefield. There were at least four such attacks in 2014, 16 in 2015, 22 in 2016, 18 in 2017, and 10 in 2018. The vast majority of these attacks were conducted by lone actors.

Why was it that, outside of conflict zones, not just al-Qaeda but even IS at the height of its powers focused largely on lone-actor attacks?

It is probably not for want of trying. The reason is that most larger, more ambitious plots were tripped-up by intelligence intercepts. This is especially the case in stable democracies, including our neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia.

Why Sri Lanka?

The other big question is how one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever was able to be executed in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka was a soft target. Having successfully defeated the Tamil Tiger rebel group a decade ago through military might, Sri Lanka has become complacent. It has not seen a pressing need to develop police and non-military intelligence capacity to counter terrorism.




Read more:
War is over, but not Sri Lanka’s climate of violence and threats


At the same time, it has struggled with good governance and political stability. Just six months ago, it faced a major constitutional crisis when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his deputy, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and attempted to replace him with the former prime minister and president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The attempt failed, but in the stand-off that ensued, Wickremesinghe, and ministers loyal to him, were excluded from intelligence briefings. In particular, they say that they were left unaware of the multiple warnings issued by the Indian intelligence service, RAW, to the authorities in Colombo about the extremist figures who played a key role in the Easter attacks.

Thus, despite several discoveries earlier this year of large amounts of explosives stored in remote rural locations on the island, and multiple warnings from the Indians, including final alerts just hours before Sunday’s attacks, the government and security community were left distracted and caught off-guard.

Between “fighting the last war” and fighting each other, they deluded themselves that there was no imminent terrorist threat.

What other countries are vulnerable?

If the massive attacks in Sri Lanka over Easter serve to remind us that IS is very far from being a spent force, the question is where this energetic and well-resourced network will strike next.

For all that it achieved in Sri Lanka, IS is unlikely to be able to build an enduring presence there. So long as the Sri Lankan government and people emerge from this trauma with renewed commitment to unity – and with elections at the end of the year, this is far from certain – the “perfect storm” conditions exploited by IS are unlikely to be repeated.

So where else is IS likely to find opportunity? India and Bangladesh continue to present opportunities, as does much of Central Asia. In our region, it is Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines that we should be most worried about.

Malaysia has emerged stronger and more stable from its swing-back to democracy but continues to be worryingly in denial about the extent to which it is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, downplaying the very good work done over many years by the Special Branch of the Royal National Malaysian Police.




Read more:
Defeated in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is rebuilding in countries like Indonesia


Thailand and the Philippines remain less politically stable, and rather more brittle than they care too acknowledge. And both tend to delude themselves into thinking that the problems of their southern extremes will never manifest in a terror attack in Bangkok or Manila, respectively.

The people of Sri Lanka have paid far too high price for the lessons of the Easter weekend attacks to be ignored or forgotten.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.