Dealing with the terror epidemic

Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Orlando, Nice, Kabul… The horrifying list of successive terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or those pledging loyalty to it is getting longer. So serialised is the recurrence of these deadly assaults with mass casualties that it conveys the impression of a wave of global terrorism with no geographical limits or rules.

Whether or not terrorism is today growing abnormally on a worldwide scale can be left to statisticians to compare with earlier eras. But there is no doubt that the whole planet is on edge, in anticipation of the next big atrocity. Our collective consciousness has been numbed by a non-stop torrent of news about one chilling strike after the other by ISIS and its self-professed adherents. A pervasive sense of insecurity and fear has become mainstream. An apocalyptic feeling that no one and no place is safe can be seen universally.

Does this climate of panic mean that ISIS is succeeding by thrusting us into a dark global disorder where human life is cheap and disposable? Is terrorist mayhem the new normal to which we just have to get used to?

Assessing whether or not a terror group is winning or losing is a subjective task. Whenever there is a major terrorist attack, governments assert that fundamentalists are "getting desperate" and "acting cowardly" because the brave national armed forces are routing them in their bastions.

For example, every time there is a suicide bombing by ISIS in Baghdad, the Iraqi state claims that the fanatics are fast losing territory and hence taking out their frustrations by spilling the blood of innocent civilians. As per this logic, since the terrorists cannot hold their ground against the regular national and international military coalitions of states ranged against them, they hit back on soft targets like religious minorities and ordinary civilians.

Thoughts of ISIS losing its entire territorial base crisscrossing Iraq, Syria and parts of Libya, and abandoning its "caliphate", have already crossed the minds of its leadership. ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani asked followers in a recent sermon: "Would we be defeated and the infidels be victorious if they were to take Mosul, Sirte or Raqqa, or even take all the cities?" He then replied defiantly: "Certainly not!"

Yet, analysts studying ISIS' rhetoric have observed that this once supremely self-assured movement of ruthless killers is preparing to forfeit its caliphate to the multiple coalitions led by the United States, Russia and Iran. In light of territorial erosion and military reversals in its core terrain of the Middle East, escalating terrorist operations in urban centres of Western and non-Western countries are a way for ISIS to remain relevant and attractive. They are also deemed necessary to prevent a reduction in the flow of recruits, who had earlier flocked to Syria and Iraq owing to the prestige of a caliphate governed under so-called pure Islamic principles.

For ISIS to remain the locus of international Islamist aspirations, its terrorist power has to compensate for the decline of its insurgency power. Instead of toppling whole governments and governing vast tracts of land, ISIS is shifting gears to wreak "revenge" on enemy civilians with a hellish fury, wherever it gets a chance. The plan is to inspire radicalised young Islamists to kill so relentlessly in the streets, shopping malls and public transport systems of almost all countries that their "infidel" or "apostate" governments would be forced to terminate military campaigns against ISIS in its Syrian and Iraqi heartlands.

In this critical make-or-break juncture for ISIS, states across the world have a straightforward, albeit hard-to-implement, proposition, namely, improving their domestic law enforcement, counter-terrorism and governance capabilities to reduce, if not prevent, more ISIS attacks.

If the frequency and deadliness of ISIS terrorist incidents decline, the perception of an ISIS wave sweeping the world can be halted. ISIS thrives on confidence and bravado. Provided governments can revise and reform security and intelligence systems, cooperate better with their neighbours in respective regions and apply a brake on ISIS' ability to make news-making headlines at will, the myth of an invincible and unstoppable terrorist machine will be busted.

All extremist groups wax and wane. There has never been an outfit which has kept on ascending. The fate of Al-Qaeda -currently weakened but not vanquished - is a sign that the ISIS phenomenon can also eventually become a less lethal and more manageable threat. But for states and societies to reach that level of comfort, they need to sustain a campaign to combat the ideological virus that both Al-Qaeda and ISIS have planted.

A purely law-and-order obsessed security approach rarely works. Since ISIS is empowering self-radicalised, lone-wolf assailants and cells in various countries, what is warranted is a heavy investment in youth deradicalisation strategies that involve multi-faith, multi-ethnic understanding and intermixing in local communities. The long-run solution to ISIS is to cut the appeal of its ideology. We can win the war against extremism in the end only via socially unifying ideational counter measures.

•The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'Dealing with the terror epidemic'. Print Edition | Subscribe