Higher levels of Islamic expertise are needed in counter-terrorism

By Annicée van Engeland, Senior Lecturer in International Security, Centre for International Security & Resilience, Cranfield University

There was a murmur of agreement around the room when a Ministry of Defence expert, who’d come in to the University to discuss the UK’s counter-terrorism planning, outlined the basic challenge involved: “we just don’t know what they’ll do next”.

This is the problem with the UK’s current thinking, at the time of Parliament’s current Counter-terrorism inquiry. We do know what’s next, there’s strong documentary evidence and any number of clues to aims and behaviour in Islamic scriptures and Shari’a law. While we’re developing more extensive and sophisticated intelligence measures, prevention and mitigation of Islamist extremism is always going to be blunted and mis-directed by a lack of attention to Islam itself, by seeing Islamic extremism as homogenous.

Terrorism has grown and continues to grow and mutate via versions of a religious vision, and this understanding has to be central to any response. We know how Shari’a has been used to justify a permanent state of conflict, the lowering of humanitarian standards, the creation of an Islamic State and the legitimisation of the use of force.

Much of this thinking originated in interpretations originally used in the Middle Ages to justify assertions of power and violence against any opposition – resurrected by al Qaeda. Extremists Al-Zawihiri and Ben laden interpreted Quran verse 9:5, also called the verse of the Sword, to justify the killings of civilians and bad Muslims. Al Zawahiri used neo-classicist and classicist scholars to create al Qaeda’s understanding of jihad, using Qutbism. In this way al Qaeda opened the path for ISIS to justify the killings of homosexuals and Boko Haram to justify sexual slavery using Islamic scriptures. New and changing interpretations evolve in line with regional agendas, and are then taken on and used by other groups.

The UK should keep monitoring the MENA region as it remains the birth place for new interpretations of Islam on how to go to war, as well as how to behave at war. At the same time, intelligence services need to avoid treating Islamic extremism as somehow monolithic. It’s constantly mutating within other local conditions in other parts of the world, feeding on all kinds of fragility and disruption, to create new interpretations and groups. These grow into stronger groups which then have the potential to attack the West.

More than strategy, this detailed level of understanding is important on practical levels. The French recently had a mishap in Mali, for example, using a drone to gather information about a Boko Haram sub-section. The lack of expert interpretation in the light of Shari’a law in relation to the likely use and treatment of prisoners of war led to an attack on Boko Haram members in locations where Malian regular army officers were being held.

Higher levels of Islamic expertise are needed in counter-terrorism. The expertise also needs to be highly credible and in position to gather widespread support across the different Islamic communities. The main element of de-radicalisation is persuasion and, therefore, a comprehensive understanding of scriptures and rhetoric is crucial in order to enhance the persuasiveness and effectiveness of counterterrorist measures. Most state de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes from Indonesia, to Singapore, to Saudi Arabia, to the UK include in some shape or form in depth analysis and exploration of the tenets of Islam in order to eliminate any misinterpretations.

This isn’t easy. There continues to be a perception that governments see the Muslim population overall as a potential threat to national security – and in this climate, any Muslim groups or individuals seen to be working with the Government loses respect and attracts criticism. It’s also been useful for terrorists able to point to hardline, inappropriate and disproportionate counterterrorism measures.

So there needs to be subtlety, depth and detail but also a broader view internationally. Even though many countries in the MENA region are predominantly Muslim, the region represents only about 20 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. The majority of the Muslims globally (around 62 per cent) live in the Asia-Pacific region: Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Groups are also finding new ‘safe havens’ and new energy from places where they can use the inexperience of local authorities – as well as opportunities to become part of existing criminal networks – to develop their own customised ‘brand’ of extremism. ISIS is now established in Trinidad and Tobago, with their nationals fighting in Iraq and Syria.

The group could develop at an alarming rate if it were to infiltrate the regional criminal trafficking (people, drugs, weapons). Not only is there an increased threat to tourists, but also from the creation of extremist links into members of the large Caribbean community living in the UK. Even in stable countries with a conservative society and low levels of migrant movement like Japan, ISIS is believed to be building cells started up by people who entered the country as students.

We know from Islamic scriptures, clearly, that global growth is a priority for Islamic extremism. Digital networks are making that easier, as is globalisation in general, greater movement of people and the international networks of criminal activities. We also know that a priority is the creation of a new ‘Caliphate’, an extended territory under the rule of an Islamic steward.

The reality is that extremist groups have the potential to embed themselves and grow in any nation, particularly wherever there is fragility and conflict. With this in mind, the West needs to look again at where support his provided, where political weakness is left to continue. Iran is the most pressing example currently. Disaffected Kurdish groups are allowing ISIS into the country with the aim of providing new impetus and a re-birth of activity in Iraq and linking influence and activities across Iran to Syria and Afghanistan and a strong regional power base. Iran’s republic needs protection to prevent it from weakening and becoming more exposed to the threat of unrest, civil war and a new extremist Caliphate.

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