Daesh turns to soft targets; Western security stretched; Enlist defectors, says think tank; Seeking solutions to Syrian hotbed. By Hamish McDonald.

Terrorism experts say: Don’t fall for it

French President François Hollande, flanked by Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (left) and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, observes a minute’s silence with students at the Sorbonne on Monday.
French President François Hollande, flanked by Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (left) and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, observes a minute’s silence with students at the Sorbonne on Monday.

After the horrifying carnage in Paris, the overriding message from pundits who know about terrorism and the Middle East has been: don’t do what the terrorists are trying to make us do. That is, make bombing in Syria and Iraq less discriminate, put Western soldiers on the ground to “clean up” Daesh once and for all, crack down on Muslim minorities in our midst, reject refugees and close borders.

Of course there’s not been a shortage of politicians who’ve immediately urged us to do all or some of these things. In the United States and Canada, state governors and provincial premiers say they won’t accept any Syrian refugees. In Europe, right-wingers are urging restoration of national border controls and draconian internal policing of Muslims. Here we’ve had Tony Abbott urging insertion of Australian special forces into the fight in Syria and, along with a familiar claque, saying Immigration Minister Peter Dutton should be returned to cabinet’s national security committee.

Those in charge – Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull among them – are mostly resisting such calls, however. Western intervention will stay at aerial strikes, with small numbers of US special forces working with Kurdish fighters to direct these air and drone attacks on Daesh.

With Marine Le Pen of the National Front breathing down François Hollande’s neck ahead of elections next month in the 18 regions of France, a forerunner to the 2017 presidential election, the French president has likewise confined intervention in Syria to a hammering of the Daesh “capital” al-Raqqa from the air, presently from bases in the Gulf and to be continued from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Mediterranean.

The caliphate declared by Daesh is shrinking already. Kurdish fighters captured the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq on November 13, revealing the mass graves of massacred Yazidis. The US has struck at oil wells and oil tanker trucks in eastern Syria that have helped finance Daesh. With Russian support, Syria’s Assad government has extended its territorial hold in the east.

1 . Enemies no longer just at the gate

Unfortunately, this means the threat of terrorism elsewhere will rise. With its aims of extending territory and building a state structure being thwarted, Daesh is shifting to punishment of its external enemies, through the downing of the Russian passenger jet in Egypt (assuming it is responsible), the Beirut suicide bombing, and now the Paris attacks.

As US security analyst Clint Watts, former US army officer and FBI special agent, points out in the War on the Rocks website, Daesh is following the pattern of Somalia’s al-Shabaab which, once it started losing ground at home, moved into attacks on soft targets such as shopping malls and schools in Kenya.

“The lesson is this: if an extremist group that has seized territory starts to lose it, it will be highly incentivised to turn to terrorist operations that allow for maximising effects at a lower cost,” Watts said, adding: “To sustain its brand and supporting global fan base, the Islamic State needs to show success. If it cannot achieve battlefield victories and broadcast them on social media, then its affiliates and global network need to pick up the slack with terrorist attacks that capture the imagination of mass media.”

2 . Security stretched

Countering this threat will be extraordinarily demanding on security and intelligence services. Despite descriptions of the Paris attacks as showing great organisational capacity on the part of their fugitive “mastermind” from Brussels, they were pretty basic, nothing like the ingenuity of the September 11, 2001, hijackings.

It was an extraordinary security lapse that allowed some of the attackers to smuggle Kalashnikov assault rifles and suicide vests into the rock concert. Security did prevent this at the soccer stadium. The attacks at restaurants and bars were like drive-by shootings. Getting hold of AK-47s and military-type explosives seems to be all too easy in a Europe bordered by troubled states. Soft targets abound.

How to keep track of the angry and mentally disturbed individuals who might move from thought to action? French officials are saying it takes 25 security agents to maintain round-the-clock surveillance on one person. A French counterterrorism expert, Jean-Charles Brisard, says France has 3000 to 5000 people under surveillance and only 3000 people to do the job.

Even with the 5000 extra police and intelligence officers Hollande is now recruiting, and the 1900 that Britain’s David Cameron plans to add to MI5, and all the extra powers of interception and search and preventive control orders that governments are introducing, some of the known risks will get through. And that’s before you consider the self-recruiting lone wolves off the radar.

At least here in Australia we have the advantage of distance and wide seas on our borders to help screen outsiders, and unlike the US we don’t have wide availability of military-style assault weapons. But in his ABC 7.30 interview this week, ASIO chief Duncan Lewis was right to say there can be no guarantee of safety. He says some 400 cases are under watch. If each did take 25 staff for complete surveillance, that would overwhelm the 1700 ASIO and 6800 Australian Federal Police personnel.

3 . Time for balance

What to do against an insidious terrorist group adept in getting through to susceptible youths through the internet and social media, as well as direct contact in religious circles?

 Daesh has even set up a “24-hour jihadi help desk” to provide online advice on communications security, according to America’s NBC News.

Some sensible ideas come from US terrorism specialists Peter Bergen, Courtney Schuster and David Sterman in an online paper this week for New America, a Washington think tank. They’re not shrinking from hard power, supporting the present campaigns to weaken the territorial hold of Daesh and urging the US and its allies to stay on in Afghanistan. But they think Western governments should use those retreating from Daesh to best effect: enlist defectors to tell their stories about the reality of the Daesh utopia; support Muslim clerics preaching a counter-message; provide “off-ramps” for recruits to surrender to forms of probation rather than jail.

4 . Seeking solutions to Syrian hotbed

Then there’s the political solution in Syria. The Vienna meeting last Saturday between the US, Russia, and major European and Middle Eastern powers set a timetable, with negotiations to start in January between Assad’s regime and the Syrian opposition, leading to formation of an interim government within six months and elections 18 months later.

Well, good luck, Carruthers. Some idea of the complexity of the Syrian opposition comes from a statement put out by non-Daesh groups to condemn the Paris atrocities. There were 48 of them listed as signatories, not including the Free Syrian Army backed by the US and its allies. They said Daesh was a “puppet” of Assad.

But the alternatives make diplomacy worth a try. As Olivier Roy, the great French scholar of Islam, points out in a widely published commentary, if the West is reluctant to get into another quagmire, the regional powers surrounding Syria all have different priorities preventing them intervening.

Equally, Daesh has run up against the limits of its territorial expansion, and terrorism offers no way out. “Globalised terrorism is no more effective, strategically, than conducting aerial bombings without forces on the ground,” Roy writes. “Much like al-Qaeda, ISIS [another name for Daesh] has no support among the Muslim people living in Europe. It recruits only at the margins ... So the road ahead is long, unless ISIS suddenly collapses under the vanity of its own expansionist aspirations or tensions between its foreign recruits and local Arab populations. In any event, ISIS is its own worst enemy.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 21, 2015 as "Terrorism experts say: Don’t fall for it".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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