What We Are Missing in the Debate on Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino

December 22, 2015
What We Are Missing in the Debate on Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino
Amaryllis Georges
Amaryllis Georges Terrorism & Human Rights Researcher
Cecilia Farfán
Cecilia Farfán Senior Researcher in Transnational Crime & International Organizations at TRENDS Research & Advisory

The attacks in Beirut and Paris that took place approximately over a month ago along with the recent shooting in San Bernardino have raised important questions regarding the available and effective measures for countering violent extremism at home and abroad. In the wake of the attacks in Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino analysts generally debated three issues: 1) the inevitable yet unfortunate backlash it would create against refugees by right-wing groups demanding tighter border controls and restrictive immigration policies. 2) the debate whether the attacks signalled strength or desperation by Daesh and 3) whether these type of violence would serve as a recruitment mechanism ultimately increasing the number of foreign terrorist fighters travelling to Syria to join the group in view of defections and waning numbers.

Despite the extensive coverage of the attacks, in particular the ones in Paris, there are five areas that analysts and policy-makers have yet to incorporate into the discussion of countering violent extremism:

  1. Normalization of violence carries important policy implications
  2. Groups, even those who use terrorist tactics, are not unitary actors
  3. Membership categories of violent groups warrant different responses by states
  4. Violence perpetrated by citizens is a symptom of marginalization
  5. There is no blueprint for a global strategy for countering violent extremism (CVE)

Normalization of violence

The attacks in Beirut occurred one day before the attacks in Paris. Even when considering that Paris had almost three-times the number of victims than Beirut, the difference in media coverage between the two remains astounding. While monuments around the world lit up in French colors, Lebanese bloggers lamented the absence of outrage for similar events in their country.

This empathy gap reveals how violence is normalized in certain contexts and not others. Beyond issues on media coverage, there are real policy implications when violence is tolerated in certain locations but not others. The more ‘normal’ violence is perceived to be and the greater the expectation of it occurring, the less likely governments will take urgent steps in addressing the causes for the onslaught. In other words, if suicide attacks are perceived as a common feature in particular areas, then there is no reason to act swiftly and project resolve because the populations of these places have incorporated, albeit warily, the possibility of violence into their lives.

In addition, while the normalization of violence may decrease the strategic and symbolic value targets, tolerating different levels and types of violence depending on the location still creates opportunities for groups that employ terrorist tactics to broadcast their message even if the impact is not as significant as in places where violence has not been normalized. Therefore, while terrorist tactics may have no borders, the normalization of violence creates artificial divides for CVE efforts between those populations who deserve a quick response and those who have to accept violence as an everyday possibility.

Groups Are Not Unitary Actors

After the attacks several analysts and media outlets focused on discussing whether the attacks, in particular in Pa ris, signalled desperation or strength by Daesh. For example, Scott Englund highlighted that while this might be an over-reach by Daesh it is also true that the group has resources and conventional capabilities that would allow it to continue fighting. In contrast, other analysts have pointed out how the attacks demonstrate the effectiveness of the anti-ISIS Coalition in degrading the group’s capabilities. Aside from this debate, a point often lost in the discussion is that groups, even those that use terrorist tactics, are not unitary actors. That is, similar to covert organizations preferences among individuals vary, in particular among the leadership and lower levels. Consequently, there is no reason to believe groups always agree on strategic and tactical grounds. In fact, evidence points to the contrary.

According to Omar Bin Laden, son of Osama, after the 1998 coordinated bombings against U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Osama Bin Laden had a tense conversation with the then head of the Taliban Mullah Omar. The attacks put pressure on the Taliban to expel Osama from Afghanistan who had previously been expelled from Sudan. According to Omar, during the meeting despite Osama’s knowledge of Pashto, Mullah Omar did not speak directly to Osama but used a translator to interpret his message into Arabic. In this meeting Mullah Omar expressed his disapproval of Bin Laden’s actions, not on ideological grounds, but from the unwanted external attention and pressure they generated on the Taliban that was already scrutinized for severe human rights violations. In Omar’s portrayal of the encounter Mullah Omar stated “The time has come for you and your fighters to leave Afghanistan”. Therefore, despite the strategic links between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, attacking U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi strained the relationship between Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar who disagreed on the benefits and costs of such actions.

Despite the benefit of hindsight on Al-Qaeda’s activities, this example illustrates why there is strong reason to consider the possibility of disagreement within the leadership of Daesh on the location and types of attacks. As explained, both legal and illegal groups are heterogeneous actors with divergent preferences. Therefore, if the attacks were known to Daesh leadership the perceived costs and benefits of the attacks might have also been calculated differently by ranking members. For example, given that territory is crucial for Daesh for generating income and ‘caliphate’ aspirations, some members could have expressed concerns over conducting attacks in European soil due to the backlash it would generate and the potential loss of resources and territory through airstrikes. By the same token, other members could have highlighted the importance of allowing attacks in European soil precisely to provoke a violent reaction that would reinforce their message and attract foreign terrorist fighters to their cause complementing their social media strategy.

Knowing that there are disagreements within a violent group has important policy implications for stabilization and reconstruction efforts. Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan not only show that states must have exit strategies but they also face the critical task of aiding in the development of indigenous capabilities for the government and its security forces. Because eliminating every single member of Daesh is not a realistic goal, knowing who are the moderates—even within an extremist group—is a necessary step for the subsequent process after the conflict ends.

What Constitutes Membership?

Hours after the attacks in Paris, the media presented Belgian citizen Abdelhamid Abaaoud as the mastermind behind the attacks who would die five days later during a special operation in Saint-Denis. Contrary to most media reports, analysts within the intelligence community considered Abaaoud an ‘operational commander’ rather than a ‘mastermind’. The distinction is important because it raises important questions as to what constitutes membership within Daesh and as a result how experts and policy-makers interpret violent acts perpetrated against civilians.

Similar to the previous point on the heterogeneity of groups, Clint Watts argues that “jihadi plots and their perpetrators might best be examined through the spectrum of three overlapping categories: directed, networked, and inspired”. In this classification, directed individuals are those who may conduct attacks with less frequency but are highly capable and most dangerous. Networked individuals may be those who at one point trained with extremist groups but returned home or moved to other locations. In this category, violence perpetrated against civilians may not involve formalized command and control from an organization but rather plots will depend on the availability of weapons and the security environment in which they operate. In turn, inspired individuals have the lowest capabilities although they still pose threats. These individuals have not undergone formal training and indoctrination but rather are a “function of fame seeking in a highly individualistic social media age”.

Rather than just being an academic exercise, these categories are important because varying degrees of affiliation require different responses by states. For example, if the San Bernardino shooters had been directed members, it is likely they would have selected a different type of target—one with more strategic importance. Furthermore, if they had successfully conducted a directed attack in U.S. territory, their actions would point at important intelligence failures including not intercepting communications among plot members and preventing funds from reaching the attackers. In contrast, because one of the perpetrators appeared to have pledged allegiance to Daesh over Facebook after launching the attack, the acts cannot be classified as conducted by a sophisticated organization that has significant reach beyond its main area of control but rather individuals who sympathize with an extremist message and who could arguably not be stopped.

Violence as a Symptom of Marginalization

The recent terror attacks illustrate the need to curtail extremism by directing efforts at combating its allure amongst marginalized youth. Because the attacks inflicted damage on soft civilian targets, it is likely they were chosen with an element of revenge by fringe elements of society who, among other issues, wanted to express their disappointment and anger against a system that although grants them citizenship does not integrate them.

Consequently, rather than using religion as an explanation for violence, the attacks are a symptom of how governments and some groups within civil society have provided fertile ground for violence by understanding terrorism as a product of Islam. When such simplistic views are prevalent, there are incentives for individuals within Muslim populations, who may already experience socioeconomic disparities and prejudice over public displays of faith, to seek ways in which to mend perceived grievances.

Crucially, governments and groups within civil society must mend the post-9/11 shadow cast over Muslims. Rather than adopting simplistic explanations for terrorist acts, societies that experience this type of violence must ask what are the reasons behind radicalization; although as the next point explains this is not a straightforward process.

No Global Blueprint for CVE Efforts

Even though joint efforts among different states are a good way to signal resolve against groups that use terrorist tactics, combating radicalization requires a different approach. Because there is no standard model for how radicalization happens, there cannot be a universal response to countering violent extremism. In general, theories and definitions on radicalization are multifaceted and complex. While a universal model would be convenient, it is impractical, unlikely, and counterproductive when attempting to map out how a nonviolent individual turns to violent extremism against his or her fellow citizens.

Similar to the discussion on membership categories, distinctions between radicals and violent radicals are also useful for academics and practitioners. Whereas radical refers to individuals maintaining radical ideas, violent radicals ascribes to those who hold radical thoughts but also support violence. For the most part, most radicalization models tend to conclude on similar causes, including: ideological with respect to religious beliefs and therefore non-negotiable regarding what is appropriate, economic and social dissatisfaction and exclusion as well as alienation and discrimination brought about by sentiments of racial and religious inferiority, and anger at foreign policy and political grievances triggered, for example, by the US invasion of Iraq.

 It is because of these debates over definitions and theories, as well as the myriad of potential causes of radicalization, that PVE and CVE efforts would be better served by taking into account the context for which they are intended and being flexible in order to incorporate relevant country-specific circumstances. The need for tailoring CVE efforts is crucial given the varying numbers of foreign fighters amongst different countries, the fluctuating levels of Muslim-felt alienation and marginalization across borderlines, as well as difference in education levels and economic integration.

Therefore, because there cannot be a global CVE how-to-guide, governments would benefit by broadening their efforts to include non-government actors. Recent empirical findings show that although governments need to be involved in CVE efforts, audiences are generally impervious to messages against extremism that come from official sources. Therefore, overcoming legitimacy problems requires including stakeholders who are valued community members and therefore can reach at-risk individuals.

Enriching the Debate

In sum, understanding the attacks in Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino requires more than a timeline and a description of those involved. If we want to understand how to evaluate and improve government and civil society responses then it is necessary to acknowledge that the normalization of violence carries real implications for the populations that experience violence on a regular basis. Furthermore, even when it is tempting to think of the attacks as the product of highly sophisticated organizations, at their core not all individuals have an equal level of affiliation with the group and disagreements are to be expected among members. Knowing who the moderates are—even within groups who employ terrorist tactics—is crucial for reconstruction and stabilization efforts. For the long-term, governments and civil society should shy away from simplistic explanations that link terrorism with a particular religious group. In contrast, understanding the causes for radicalization at the individual level will better inform context-specific approaches for successful PVE and CVE.