Given all the rhetoric during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that portrayed the so-called Islamic State as the mortal enemy of our time and Islam a “cancer”, it may come as a bit of a surprise that the U.S. State Department doesn’t quite agree with that assessment.
Every year since 2005, the American equivalent of Global Affairs Canada has published its Country Reports on Terrorism, a compendium of all things terror-related that it is required to put out by law. Its 2015 report was understandably gloomy. ISIS had locked down territory in Iraq and Syria while collecting affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa. The 2016 version by comparison is remarkably, and unexpectedly, upbeat.
The report confirmed what terrorism researchers have been saying for some time: terrorism-related incidents have been dropping steadily in most parts of the world for the last two years. The U.S. has seen a steady rise over that same period but many of those are attributed to a spike in the activities of various extremists, including “white”, “anti-white”, “anti-police”, and “anti-Muslim”, according to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland.
The situation may feel very different after a string of ISIS-inspired attacks in France and Belgium that dominated headlines for weeks, but the numbers don’t lie: terrorism is on the decline worldwide, with the most significant drops measured in countries traditionally considered home turf for terrorists. Pakistan, for instance, saw a drop from more than 220 attacks in January 2014 to less than 50 in December last year.
There are still some worrying details in the data points. Attacks on western targets linked to ISIS have not diminished, though they haven’t gone up significantly either. This year’s five attacks is less than the total for the same time last year, despite a senior ISIS commander warning in November that it would now be turning its attention to “the land of the unbeliever.”
That hasn’t happened, at least not yet, in part because ISIS appears relatively inept at organizing attacks beyond its territorial bases in Syria and Iraq. Its attempts to disguise followers as refugees has largely failed, the State Department report suggests. So has its propaganda campaign, once considered its most potent recruiting tool.
According to the report, combined efforts between governments and social media companies have reduced ISIS’s presence on the internet by 75 per cent from August 2015 to August 2016. Its Twitter presence has plummeted by 45 per cent while its active media outlets have fallen to 17 at the beginning of 2017 from more than 40 in 2015. ISIS now relies on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Whatsapp to egg on angry criminals into carrying out lone wolf attacks with knives and trucks, a clear sign of its organizational weakness.
The concern over what comes next in the jihadist universe, after the fall of Mosul and the impending collapse of ISIS’s self-declared capital, Raqqa, remains a potent uncertainty. Thousands of foreign fighters from Europe have returned home from Syria and Iraq, the State Department notes, but only a “small number…relied on operational training, connections, and experience gained in Iraq or Syria to plot terrorist attacks or carry out an attack once returning home.” The vast majority, the report adds, “sought to reintegrate into society.”
Increased security measures and de-radicalization programs, meanwhile, have shown mixed results. Experts warn that invasive security measures that make Muslims feel even more marginalized will not reduce the terrorism threat, nor will de-radicalization programs, like the U.K.’s Prevent, that treat ultra-orthodoxy as a precursor to violent extremism.
On the other hand, it appears western governments are learning.
“Attacks may be decreasing, but that is an outcome of good policing and good community engagement,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a research fellow at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society at the University of Waterloo. “I think governments have gotten much better at disrupting plots before they get off the ground. We are more likely to see these low-casualty attacks,” he adds, citing the attack by a man with a hammer in front of Notre Dame in Paris last month. “These inspired attacks could become more deadly if law enforcement gets too complacent. A decrease in attacks is not an argument for getting lazy about things. It’s an argument for continuing to do what works.”
A more worrying unknown in the mix is al-Qaeda. As the State Department report points out, the granddaddy of transnational terrorism has proven more adept than its wayward offspring at shifting strategies and tactics to meet the demands of a fluid environment. While ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya and West Africa fall, al-Qaeda’s partners continue to thrive, in part because they have shed themselves of the burden of holding geographical space.
Terrorism experts now worry about a nexus between ISIS and al-Qaeda, combining the latter’s transnational expertise with ISIS’s brutality. But whatever they cook up, it appears the west has gained the upper hand. There is light at the end of this dark tunnel.
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